Received Rot

by James Como (November 2016)


Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History
Templeton Press, 2016. 
268pp.  $27.95.



“Ignorance is termed vincible if it can be dispelled by the use of ‘moral diligence’. . .  When ignorance is deliberately aimed at and fostered, it is said to be affected, not because it is pretended, but rather because it is sought for by the agent so that he may not have to relinquish his purpose. Ignorance which practically no effort is made to dispel is termed crass or supine.” That is an old Catholic definition (my emphasis) now wandering the earth as “received wisdom.” 

In truth not all received wisdom reflects ignorance or bigotry of one sort or another (often the purpose not to be relinquished), and some really is wise. For example, in Peru it is known that people from the jungle are almost preposterously clean, both in their person and in their surroundings – a belief that I dismissed as a stereotype, until I came to know several such people. On the other hand, Willie Mays’ catch in Game One of the 1954 World Series is not the greatest catch in the history of homo sapiens, or even the twentieth greatest, no matter what your grandpappy told you. These days that particular ignorance is “vincible,” rather than “invincible,” because there is data that contradicts it, amply available to those who care to search. That is why vincible ignorance is “crass or supine” – or downright repugnant.


It is the sort of ignorance to which Rodney Stark gives no quarter, for after his book no one has any reason (quite different from motivation) to hold close any hand-me-down anti-Catholic mythologies, any more than an anti-Semite may wave about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Preceding seven-hundred and twenty-seven notes and ten pages of bibliography are an Introduction, ten chapters and a postscript. The title of the Introduction is “Confronting Distinguished Bigots.” Then come the ten anti-Catholic beliefs, Stark’s targets: 1/ Sins of Anti-Semitism, 2/ The Suppressed Gospels, 3/ Persecuting the Tolerant Pagans, 4/ Imposing the Dark Ages, 5/ Crusading for Land, Loot, an Converts, 6/ Monsters of the Inquisition, 7/ Scientific Heresies, 8/ Blessed be Slavery, 9/ Holy Authoritarianism, and 10/ Protestant Modernity. Each chapter opens with a detailed expression of the belief that the rest of the chapter will refute, and near the middle of each chapter is a box with the names and credentials of eminent scholars on whom Stark has relied for his refutation. (The names and works, but not the abbreviated resumes, also appear in the bibliography.) 

A lifelong teacher of argument, as well as an old debater and debate coach, I am always on guard against fallacies, two in particular: the strawman and special pleading (a loaded argument that makes no mention of contrary evidence). So I began with questions: Are the targets legitimate in the first place? What are the facts? What is the context of those facts? What is the source of our knowledge for both facts and context? What is the damage done by the facts to the intended target? Moreover, as a cradle and practicing Catholic, having personally heard each of the ten myths, more than once, from fellow academics no less, I knew I was pre-disposed to credulity, so my antennae were tuned higher than usual: some propositions are too important to be supported by tenuous or pock-marked logic. My conclusion: Stark knows how to make a case (actually ten cases of considerable cumulative force), and in this instance it is a devastating one; more than prima facie it is dispositive, and he makes it with a lean and temperate style.


In his Introduction, Stark reports his own early Protestant anti-Catholic beliefs, including that Columbus sailed to prove the earth was a globe. He proceeds to identify the source of that nonsense: Washington Irving, three hundred years after the fact (years before and during which no one had supposed the earth to be flat). And then the kicker: as recently as 2009 in Austrian and German textbooks “the falsehood about Columbus and the flat earth was still being taught.” He then rehearses sixteenth-century British and Dutch anti-Catholic propaganda and the origins of the Black Legend. (Spain is bad, very bad. And unspeakably cruel, as well as Catholic, of course: un-Reformed, that is.)   

Thereafter he moves on to Enlightenment writers, with an emphasis on Gibbon, and indicts contemporaries such as John Cornwell, James Carroll and Karen Armstong, bitter apostates (my word, not Stark’s: all make appearances further on). After listing the ten charges against the church, he asks, “if these are notorious falsehoods, why do they persist?” He answers, “they are so mutually reinforcing and deeply embedded in our common culture that it seems impossible for them not to be true” – than which a more apt understanding of a source of vincible ignorance could not be found. Stark sends us on our way by reminding us that he is not a Roman Catholic: “I did not write this book in defense of the Church. I wrote it in defense of history.”


The lowest hanging fruit (but not all that low) are those on the persecution of pagans [3] and Protestant modernity (10), though even here the plucking is both thorough and modulated.  Two chapters, on slavery (8) and authoritarianism (9), lack the intensity of the earlier chapters because the accusations have been less salient, but they are no strawmen. With respect to the first, Gibbon taught that the rapid expansion of Christianity after the conversion of Constantine was owing to the “intolerant zeal” exercised by Christians against “the mild spirit of antiquity.”  But pagan attacks on Christians were not fewer that the opposite – actually, few in both directions, and paganism did not suddenly disappear. In the early sixth century (when the Academy of Athens closed in 529) “even in most Christian Edessa . . . organized communities of pagans were still sacrificing to Zeus-Hadad.” Moreover, as late as 639 “pagans still so outnumbered Christians in [Carrhae]” that when Muslim forces threatened the city “all members of the delegation sent to negotiate with the Arabs were pagans.”

As a cradle Protestant who every Sunday heard of the deadening strictures of Catholicism and the intellectual liberation of Luther, Stark later bought into Max Weber’s notion of the Protestant work ethic and its invention of capitalism – until Trevor-Roper and, especially, Fernand Braudel debunked it. The latter wrote that, after taking over the northern countries, the Protestants “invented nothing, either in technology or business management.” After his discussions of the rise of “religious capitalism,” the virtues of work and frugality, opposition to interest and profits, (including an excursion into Aquinas’ confusing discussion of interest – along with his portrait of the wealth and ubiquity of monasteries, a strong example of counter-evidence), and the rise of diversification, management theory and a cash economy – theraafter Stark concludes chapter ten with a brief discussion of the Counter-Reformation and the reforms of the Council of Trent: unlike those Protestant pastors about whose ignorance Luther had complained, “in most places the church was staffed by literate men well-versed in theology and whose vocations had been shaped and tested in a formal, institutional setting. Thus the Church did confront the modern world.”

In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas wrote, “one man is not by nature ordained to use another as an end,” and that became the guiding principle of the Church’s opposition to slavery, notwithstanding the practice of the utterly corrupt Innocent VIII (again, inconvenient evidence adduced by Stark). Popes Eugene IV, Pius II, Sixtus IV and Paul III reinforced the firm opposition, latter going so far as to attribute the practice to Satan, and on April 22, 1639, at the request of the Jesuits of Paraguay, Pope Urban VIII issued a bull reaffirming that opposition: those reducing others to slavery were subject to excommunication. That is the heart of chapter eight (Blessed Be Slavery); the meat – including a discussion of slave codes and the relationship of Jesuits to New World Indians – is far too rich for description here, except for this: the Jesuit Republic of Paraguay, founded in 1609, was divided into reducciones that included paved streets, impressive buildings and orchestras.

In chapter nine (Holy Authoritarianism) Stark takes on such luminaries as Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey, Talcott Parsons, and Sidney Hook (Catholicism is “the oldest and greatest totalitarian movement in history”) by demonstrating the Church’s opposition to totalitarian regimes as well as the price it has paid for doing so. Yet he begins with a description of many Christians coming hungrily to their new found favored status (“in fact Constantine did it substantial harm”), so that a multitude of unfit aristocrats flooded into the priesthood. The result was two churches, that of Power and a second of Piety. From then on, though, Stark charts a changing Church, especially in light of rhetorical and physical savaging by, respectfully, the Philosophes and the French Revolutionaries: the Church tried to accommodate both, even when Robespierre sent sixteen Carmelite nuns to the guillotine who, after death, were stripped naked and thrown into a common grave. 

But there could be no accommodation with the Republicans of the Spanish Civil war, especially when they were complicit with the violently anti-Church Soviet Union. Of course, dispositive here was the following: “scholars now agree that beginning slightly prior to Franco’s intervention . . . Republicans murdered 13 bishops, 4172 diocesan priests and seminarians, 2364 monks and friars, and 283 nuns – a total of 6832. And, as in Russia, the deaths often involved bizarre brutality,” including burial alive and live butchering. It seems the official statement issued by the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1911 was – remains? – dogma: “Socialism is the natural enemy of religion. . . . Socialism both as a philosophy and as a form of society, is the antithesis of religion.”


Denser, though not the densest, chapters are those dealing with the Gnostic gospels (2), the Dark Ages (4), and scientific heresies (7). It seems the exclusion of Lost Gospels shows the fraudulence of the men who established orthodoxy and of orthodoxy itself, or so we learn from Stark’s history of their discovery. Agents such as the Jesus Seminar, Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong have promoted this position, even (for example) to the point of calling The Gospel of Thomas the Fifth Gospel. As it happens Stark tells us more about that gospel than does Pagels, who wrote a book on it. She omits the sayings of Thomas, but Stark does not, for example that Jews worship an evil god who are thereby accursed, or that the total corruption of the world makes necessary extreme asceticism, including celibacy. 

Stark closely summarizes some half-dozen gospels along with their theologies, including The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, on which Karen King (Harvard) wrote a two-hundred page book that includes the five pages of the gospel – not noticing that it contradicts not only the orthodox four gospels but the other Gnostic ones as well. Of course Mary is exalted to a position of high leadership – was the most important apostle, in fact – and reveals that Judas was not the betrayer of Christ. Then, in 2012, King revealed the discovery of a tiny fragment with the words “Jesus said to them, my wife.” The press salivated to the tinkle, until the fragment was revealed as a forgery. Stark’s lesson here is two-fold: 1/ the Early Fathers did not suppress the Gnostic gospels as much as examined, and then dismissed, them (in fact, Gnostics were allowed to practice their rituals even as they did the same for pagan gods). 2/ The credulity of anti-Catholic bigots leads them into zealous, convoluted, and ultimately embarrassing fraudulence.

That Europe fell into the Dark Ages (4) “was a hoax perpetrated by very anti-religious intellectuals such as Voltaire and Gibbon,” whose age was, of course, Enlightened. Stark, in great detail, describes progress in technology (wind farms, dams, stirrups, plant breeding and many more inventions), morality (e.g. priests urging that slaves be freed), and in music, art, literature, science and education: his examples are impressive, singly and cumulatively, as is his debunking of the Renaissance. It was the Enlightened Thomas Paine who coined the phrase “the age of reason,” the title of a pamphlet that was mostly invective. But it was Gilbert de Tounai who wrote in the thirteenth century, “Never will we find truth if we content ourselves with what is already known. . . . those things that have been written before us are not laws but guides.  The truth . . . is not yet totally possessed.” Said Fra Giordano of Florence in 1306, “we shall never see an end to finding them [referring to the arts].” 

An understanding of the need to search rationally is why the Church promoted science, including experimentation, very far from heresy, religious or scientific (7). For example, the church promoted vaccination from the start. After all, it was rational theology that led to systematic and empirical natural philosophy, led to the founding of the first universities, and paved the way for a scientific revolution. Mighty claims, to be sure, but not beyond belief after reading Stark’s discussions of the predecessors of Copernicus (a religious man) such Robert Grosseteste, the towering genius Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon (whom the pope ordered to write for him), William of Ockham (Stark takes us far beyond his famous razor), and the astonishing Nicole d”Oresme, who nearly two centuries before Copernicus showed that the earth turns on it axis and overcame objections to that same idea (which had been around for some centuries). Stark documents the preponderance of seriously religious men among great scientists, puts Galileo into the proper historical context, and along the way quoting Alfred North Whitehead: “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpungeable belief . . . that there was a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted in the European mind? . . . It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God . . . . the search into nature could only result in the vindication of faith in rationality.”


The densest chapters, because these attacks are frequent, intense and most embedded, are those on the Crusades (5), the Inquisition (6), and anti-Semitism (1). Paradoxically, these attacks are the ones Stark finds easiest to challenge, because there is so much evidence against them. These are the ones that make you know that he is the man you want in your intellectual foxhole.

The Crusades established kingdoms in the Near East that, in fact, were not colonies but self-sustaining entities; moreover, the Crusaders traveled on their own dime, often as penance, or for the glory of God, or as a religious duty. Withal, the movement was a counter-attack, Islam having conquered most of the Iberian peninsula (finally being stopped at Tours) as well as Christian North Africa and Southern Italy. In 846 they sacked Rome, and in 1009 destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. When the Seljuk Turks came to rule Anatolia the game, so to speak, was on, and Alexius Comnenus wrote to the Count of Flanders from Byzantium begging for help: the horrors he described made the situation desperate. Stark is direct in his account of the massacre of Jews along the way, especially by the Rhinelander Emich of Leisinger (who was stopped by a Hungarian bishop). And, indeed, there was a massacre when Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders. He is also direct in providing perspective: the supposed chivalrous Saladin (who could show mercy) was only slightly less bloodthirsty than Baibars, Sultan of Egypt, who, upon entering Antioch, and in spite of his promises, was responsible for the single greatest massacre of the entire crusading era: women and children were not spared.  So much for a recent presidential declaration of symmetry and T-shirts reading “I apologize” in Arabic.

The claims against the Inquisition includes ten of thousands of death, horrifying torture and, of course, the burning of great numbers of witches, all of which turn out to be false: not the 100,000, or 125,000 killed or the 31,000 burned at the stake. Of 44, 674 cases, 826 were executed (in some two hundred years): 1.8% of those brought to trial. Furthermore, torture was used much less frequently than by royal courts and were strictly limited; in fact, state “criminals in Spain purposely [blasphemed] so as to be transferred to the Inquisition’s prison.”  Withal, only 2% were tortured. Moreover, witch hunts reached their height during the Enlightenment, with he encouragement of both Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle (among others). The original estimate of 40,000 witches burned turns out to be closer to a thousand – over three centuries. Stark goes on to discuss differing populations (Marranos, Moriscos, Luteranos), sexuality, and book burning. His historical data (e.g. only 3.6% of cases were of alleged Marranos, faux-converts secretly practicing Judaism) is daunting, as is his historical context: It was in tenth-century northern Spain that Hebrew poetry and other writing flowered, and as the Spanish drove the Muslims south, Jews migrated north. And, yes, we are told, book were burned, but very few scientific books, and the Inquisition never put Galileo on its forbidden list.

Finally (for us, for Stark it comes first) is the sin of anti-Semitism. When a graduate student at Berkely, Stark was recruited to work on a research project on anti-Semitism at the Survey Research Center. His report, according to Cardinal Bea, played a “significant role” in producing the Council’s statement on Jews: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still what happened in His passion cannot be charged against . . . Jews without distinction. . . . the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews . . . decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time by anyone.” Though individual, as well as groups, of Christians have violated that spirit, the policy of the Church has always been consistent with it and has stopped those violations when it was able to do so: Stark’s systematic study of anti-Semitism from 500 through 1600 led to his settled belief that a few priests were involved in anti-Semitic outbursts, that they had no official standing, and that “clergy often defended local Jews from attack, sometimes risking their own lives to do so.”

Stark easily dismisses the charge that Christians originated anti-Semitism, citing Seneca, Cicero and Tacitus to make his point and noting that Jews were expelled from Rome in 139 BC. His biblical scholarship is as strong as his historical scholarship, pointing out the many Old Testament rants against Jews by, for example, Jeremiah. Moreover, as late as the first century, when 7 million Jews outnumbered 200,000 Christians, persecution of the latter by the former was common and “continued for several centuries. . . . it was not the Romans, but the surrounding Jewish populations who were the most serious source of danger to Christians.”  Stark adds that Jews saw Christians (not unreasonably) as abominably heretical and blasphemous, “terrible offenses that required violent responses.” Stark cites Peter Shafer (Director of Judaic Studies at Princeton), who reports in his 2007 work Jesus in the Talmud the genuine foulness of statements about Jesus there. Then, after describing centuries of uneventful co-existence, Stark frankly describes outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence, especially those by Emich, Volkmar and Gottschalk, the latter overcome by opposition from the local bishop. All were condemned by the pope. When the attackers reached Hungary they were wiped out by Hungarian knights. It was Bernard of Clairvaux who seems to have put a stop to it all, at least according to Ephraim of Bonn, a Jewish chronicler: “The Lord heard our sigh. . . . He sent after the vile priest a decent priest, a great man. . . . who said to them . . . anyone who attacks a Jew and tries to kill him is as though he attacks Jesus himself.”

Stark offers very much more than we can rehearse here, including a telling discussion of the relationship of Jews with Muslims (for example, Jewish dhimmitude), of the great Maimonides posing for most of his life as a Muslim (and citing Richard Fletcher: “Moorish Spain was not a tolerant and enlightened society even in its most cultivated epoch”), and of the absence of any medieval pope ever undertaking any campaign to convert Jews. He quotes Steven T. Katz, director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University, who identifies “Thou shalt Not Annihilate the Jew” as the “Eleventh Christian Commandment . . . because the ultimate luminescent irony . . . is that Christian dogmatics entailed protecting Jews and Judaism from extinction.” As for “Hitler’s pope”? Here so much work has been done to debunk that slander that the fruit does seem to be low-hanging – not that its rot is not still received as wisdom.


In his Postscript Stark correctly notes that “it probably is important that this book was not written by a Catholic or by anyone associated with a Catholic University. . . . As it happens this book was written by someone affiliated with Baylor.” He continues, “not so long ago Baylor was a hotbed of militant anti-Catholicism. [Famously anti-Catholic books] were not purchased as examples of hate literature [but] were thought to be appropriate reading for undergraduates.”  Rather, “a quiet kind of anti-Catholicism remains widespread” (though no longer at Baylor, but certainly in our political discourse). He and I must know the same sort of people, and maybe the ignorance has become invincible. After all, it’s the nature of received rot to worm its way in. Withal, the scope and detail of Stark’s knowledge, acute dialectical skill, and uncompromising integrity make him a formidable advocate. Those questions I’ve posed at the beginning are answered affirmatively and fully. If you choose to debate him you will learn very much more than you thought you knew, and you do so at your own peril.



James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: essays on conversation, rhetoric and the transmission of culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015).


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