Root Root Root for the Home Team

A return to Called to Communion led me to a review of Rodney Stark’s book, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. Surprise, surprise, Casey Chalk finds the book valuable (even if his encouragement leans more heavily on faith than reason):

I have examined only two of the ten topics Stark addresses in this review of the historical data regarding a number of contentious issues pertaining to Catholic history. Readers will likely find all the chapters worthy of attention, including those on anti-Semitism (think “Hitler’s Pope”), the Dark Ages (did the Church seek to limit intellectual development?), slavery (how complicit was the Church in New World chattel slavery?), and Protestant Modernity (Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis mentioned above). Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened (the answer, in Stark’s review of the history of historians, is overt anti-Catholic bigotry). Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.

Have historians engaged in excess? Sure. But pointing that out does not right the wrongs committed by the Roman Catholic Church or its followers. As Eric Smith pointed out in his blog post/review, apologists like Chalk still have some ‘splainin’ to do:

Stark’s argument in many of them can be summarized as “it wasn’t as bad as you think.” Chapter 4: The dark ages weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 5: The Crusades weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 6: The Inquisition wasn’t as bad as you think. Chapter 7: The church’s anti-science views weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 8: Slavery wasn’t as bad as you think. Even when Stark has good points to make (“dark ages” is a misleading and unhelpful category, the Inquisition wasn’t insatiably bloodthirsty always and everywhere, and the church opposed slavery at many points), the reader finds himself disagreeing with Stark, because of the questionable assumptions and poor evidence he brings to the table. He starts most chapters by building a straw man. He presents what he imagines is commonly held knowledge, and then proceeds to poke holes in the poor scarecrow. This is a compelling literary device, since it draws the reader into Stark’s indignation. “Everyone believes that the Catholic church loves slavery!” (I’m paraphrasing). “But it turns out that the Catholic church doesn’t love slavery! This is satisfying as an organizational structure, but it leaves out and excuses many instances in which the church was complicit, was turning the other way, was not keeping its hands clean. It obscures the actions of a few rogue individuals, which Stark almost always concedes while claiming that they didn’t stand for “official” church policy. This structure makes Stark read like an apologist for colonialism, slavery, violence, and ignorance–things I doubt he would claim for himself. And ultimately this book makes Stark read like an apologist for conservatism broadly construed, since somehow, the true enemy almost always seems to turn out to be liberals. (And Voltaire…Stark hates Voltaire). Examples of questionable claims could be multiplied from later chapters–Protestantism is most properly characterized by Max Weber’s work on capitalism, witches who were actually practicing magic probably had it coming, and the church was an innocent victim of the French Revolution–but this review is already too long.

All of which goes to the frequent claim made on behalf of Roman Catholicism by the apologists. It’s the oldest, most historic, church that Jesus founded. History is good! But when historical inquiry reveals aspects of church life less wholesome, then it’s the bias of historians. Is that anti-intellectual, anti-Enlightenment, anti-Protestant, anti-anti-Catholic? Whichever anti it is, it’s just as much a bias as anti-Catholicism is made out to be.

One way around the problem of church errors is to chalk them up to the limits of time and place. Did Roman Catholic officials treat Jews well in the thirteenth century? Not really, but who did? Given the possibilities of human imagination available at the time, to expect 13th-century Roman Catholics to think like moderns is anachronistic. They were creatures of their context and hard pressed to do any better.

But there’s the rub for the proponents of papal audacity. Isn’t the teaching of the magisterium about papal authority as much the creation of historical circumstance — the need for the Bishop of Rome to assert autonomy against European kings, or the collusion of European princes with the Bishop of Rome to outmaneuver a political rival — as the Fourth Lateran Council’s directives about Jews?

All the help of Aristotle’s logic or Aquinas’s scholasticism will not free Bryan and the Jasons from that riddle.

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