Dr. Rodney Stark has written nearly 40 books on a wide range of topics, including a number of recent books on the history of Christianity, monotheism, Christianity in China, and the roots of modernity. This included the above book, Bearing False Witness, (Templeton Press, 2016), a bestseller on Amazon.com, addresses ten prevalent myths about the history of the Catholic Church history. After beginning as a newspaper reporter and spending time in the Army, Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He later was Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington; he has been at Baylor University since 2004. Stark is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and he has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Raised as a Lutheran, he has identified himself as an agnostic but has, more recently, called himself an “independent Christian”.
-by Casey Chalk
“Ten years ago I was an AP European History teacher at a school in rural central Virginia. At the time I was a very sincere Reformed Protestant, and although I wanted to maintain academic objectivity in the classroom, I was still quite eager to teach the unit on the Protestant Reformation. We began with the status of the Catholic Church at the turn of the 16th century and its luxuriant and this-worldly Renaissance popes. One of the readings I distributed to my students was that of Johann Burchard’s account of the “Banquet of Chestnuts,” a particularly lurid account of papal sexual excesses supposedly involving former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. As I expected, the students were stunned to hear of churchmen involved in such devilish activities. Of course, they agreed, a religious reformation would be necessary to clean up this muck.
Except this account is found in only one source, was rejected as fallacious by many contemporary writers, and, as one Vatican researcher has noted, does not fit with what we know of the character of Alexander VI.1 And yet the reading — and other similar implicitly anti-Catholic information — appeared in a school textbook that has been assigned to thousands of American students. Indeed, misinformation regarding the history of the Catholic Church abounds across both popular and scholarly literature and media. This long-standing bias in opposition to Catholicism is what Baylor historian Rodney Stark seeks to illuminate in his work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. This post will first evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Stark’s project, and then discuss a few of the anti-Catholic historical myths discussed by Stark.
Readers will likely find the author’s background of particular interest: Dr. Stark is codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and honorary professor of Peking University in Beijing. A practicing Lutheran, he is also the author of the best-selling The Rise of Christianity. That a respected Lutheran historian would invest the energy to write what amounts to an apologetic against fraudulent anti-Catholic historical accounts — in the defense of history, he asserts — provides added justification to take this study seriously2 Stark explains:
“…In the course of writing several other books on medieval history as well as on early Christianity, I kept encountering serious distortions rooted in obvious anti-Catholicism — the authors often explicitly addressed their hatred of the Church.3”
Moreover, Stark frequently observed that these distortions, and often the “most malignant contributions to anti-Catholic history,” were attributable to “alienated Catholics,” including “seminary dropouts, former priests, or ex-nuns.”4 Those defecting from a particular group are usually treated with some degree of suspicion; yet in the case of anti-Catholic invective made by lapsed Catholics, it is “widely regarded as thereby of special reliability!”5 Moreover, this misinformation persists in spite of extensive historical research invalidating it. This paradigm exists, Stark argues, because these falsehoods are “mutually reinforcing” and so deeply intrinsic to the West’s common culture.
Indeed, our culture is so littered with references to erroneous slurs against the Catholic Church, having so powerfully entered our common lexicon, it would be difficult to evict them. Take the Spanish Inquisition, a topic Stark spends an entire chapter evaluating. That phrase, whatever its actual connection to a historical event, is commonly cited as a case of Catholic bigotry and particularly demonstrative of anti-Semitism. 6 The Crusades are likewise popularly viewed as an example of religious intolerance and European colonialism.7 Or consider the “Protestant Work Ethic,” that phrase coined by Max Weber to explain the rise of wealthy, capitalist societies in Northern Europe and the United States — and often contrasted with those “lazy” Southern European Catholic countries.8 All of these, and many more, Stark takes to task in this heavily-researched, well-documented examination of anti-Catholic bigotry underlying much of modern Western conceptions of history. Indeed, the book relies on hundreds of primary and secondary sources, with Stark’s most valued sources included in a text box found in every chapter highlighting those historians he views as most authoritative in studying the historical record, so that interested readers can examine the evidence for themselves.
Yet even with these strengths, Stark’s enterprise fails to answer a question fundamental to his own objectives: what, ultimately, determines our knowledge of the past? Are primary sources or the subsequent evaluations of historians and scholars more important? For example, early in the book, Stark notes:
“Sometimes I have done basic research needed to overturn one of these spurious anti-Catholic claims, and in those cases I document my findings so fully that anyone can check them. But, in most instances, I am simply reporting the prevailing view among qualified experts.”
This approach is evident in his very first chapter on supposed Catholic anti-Semitism. Here Stark notes that such esteemed scholars as Rosemary Ruether, Jules Isaac, and Robert T. Osborn have all charged the Church with responsibility for originating anti-Semitism. However, he then goes on to cite scholars such as Peter Schäfer (whom he notes has “impeccable credentials”), Israeli scholar Nachum T. Gidal, and Leon Poliakov (“one of the most respected contemporary historians of anti-Semitism”), whose combined research Stark cites to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the former historians’ anti-Semitic accusations. To his credit, Stark provides extensive examples of the latter academics’ research that make a strong case for the refutation of claims of an alleged intrinsic anti-Semitism in Catholic belief and practice. Furthermore, Stark does routinely note that some scholars are to be trusted and others distrusted because one set of academics rely on better evidence, or their evaluations make better sense of that data. Yet if we wind up evaluating the evidence rather than the scholars’ opinions, it seems largely irrelevant if the scholars are respected or not.
Presumably, Stark is citing historians and their credentials to prove to readers that his arguments have the backing of serious professional historians with less of an explicit bias than say, amateur, patently pro-Catholic writers. Nevertheless, respected scholars can be wrong, and amateur scholars can be right, or vice versa. Either way, evidence, not academic pedigree, needs to be the ultimate criteria upon which historical analysis rests. Indeed, the “prevailing view among qualified experts” may be false, as Stark himself demonstrates wherever he notes that earlier consensus among historians was biased and inaccurate. Moreover, if we rely on the majority opinion of scholars as the determinant for historical truth, Stark’s foundational argument that anti-Catholic historical narratives are untrue may be “disproved” by a future generation of scholars that picks them up once again.
All the same, as noted above, Stark rarely leaves the reader with only a “trust the experts” exhortation, instead consistently allowing the raw historical data to speak for itself, which in many cases does indeed validate the current historical consensus. Indeed, it is fair to presume that Stark believes primary sources to be the bedrock of the historical method, and that his citing of the expertise of secondary sources is only to support, and not ground his arguments.
False Suppositions of the Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition is one of the perennial favorites of anti-Catholic rhetoric. As Stark notes, the usual narrative goes something like this: for several centuries beginning in the late 1400s, the Spanish monarchy, in collusion with Church authorities, engaged in a dramatic witch-hunt of investigations, tortures, and executions to rid the country of all manner of dissidents — Jews and Muslims pretending to be Christians, but also “Protestants, witches, homosexuals, and other doctrinal and moral offenders.”9 Those leading the Inquisition supposedly engaged in “weekly mass burnings all across Spain.”10 A number of contemporary and later historical accounts — including those by Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky — have enumerated the seemingly inexhaustible horrors dispensed on the Church’s many enemies, putting the number killed at the hands of the Inquisition at anywhere from 31,000 to 3 million! Stark evaluates these narratives and death counts:
“The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition is mostly a pack of lies, invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by the malicious or misled historians eager to sustain “an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots”…. [However], the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast with the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”11
These more recent historians have discovered these revelations by examining the complete archives of Aragon and Castille’s Inquisitions, which together amount to the totality of the Spanish Inquisition. I will discuss several of the most common accusations levelled against the Catholic Inquisition, including its supposedly egregiously violent character, its alleged brutal use of torture, and its persecution of witches and Jews. When stacked against the historical evidence, and when evaluated in its historical context, what emerges is not a Catholic Church operating as the sine qua non of late Medieval and early Modern repression and violence, but a “consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”12
Let’s first examine the amount of violence conducted with the blessing of the Inquisition. During the 220-year period that marks the entire length of the Inquisition, Stark claims that about 2,200 people were executed,which amounts to about ten deaths per year.13 This number, drawn from the historical records of Aragon and Castile, is significantly lower than the numbers given by many contemporary authorities, including Microsoft’s Encarta, the Encyclopedia of Religious Freedom, or historians Simon Whitechapel and Sam Hunt, all of whom put the number at tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions! These popular accounts of the Inquisition give the impression that the Inquisition was the preeminent exemplar of religious persecution in this historical period. However, to take but one historically contemporaneous example, English king Henry VIII had many more thousands of religious dissidents executed during his reign. This comparison is not in any way to excuse the Inquisition for its complicity in these executions, but to refute any assertions that the Inquisition was either historically unique in its activities, or even the worst offender.14 This is because in the broader historical context of the Medieval and early Modern period, pertinacious heresy was viewed as a threat not just to religious unity, but to public order more broadly, which is why Catholic and Protestant rulers alike were eager to stamp out religious dissidents.
In common parlance, the term “Inquisition” is often associated with torture. One 19th century Protestant account of the Inquisition claimed that not even Satan could contrive a “more horrible” means of “torture and “blood” than those employed by Spanish inquisitors15 It is indeed a historical fact that the Inquisition applied torture to suspected dissidents. Yet according to Stark, in an era when torture was a ubiquitous form of punishment across the known world, the Church was a uniquely moderating force on its application. According to the dictates of Church law, torture was limited to a single session lasting no more than fifteen minutes, no danger to life or limb could be conducted, and no blood exacted.
Moreover, torture was rarely used, as inquisitors were skeptical of its efficacy and validity. Such restrictions did not exist in historically contemporary secular courts. Furthermore, the Inquisition performed torture at a comparatively infrequent rate when compared to those same secular courts: Thomas Madden, a prominent Medieval historian at St. Louis University, estimates that torture occurred in only about 2 percent of cases brought before the Inquisition. Moreover, Inquisition prisons were far more humane than their secular counterparts, as is evidenced by reports that criminals in Spain were known to purposefully blaspheme that they might be transferred to Inquisition-run prisons.16 Again, any comparison to secular practices of torture or imprisonment is not to excuse the Church for encouraging (or allowing) torture, but to demonstrate that the common perception of Church officials eagerly bent on exacting pain from suspected religious dissidents does not square with the historical data.
Moving on to witchcraft: was the Spanish Inquisition also a misogynist program implemented to target so-called witches, demonstrating the ignorance and malevolence of Catholic religious leaders? Hardly. The Inquisition endorsed barely any of the sixty-thousand witches executions estimated to have been performed across Europe during this time period. The Spanish Catholics were, once again, a moderating force against these pogroms, who based their judgments not on the ridiculous caricatures displayed in the familiar Monty Python skit, but on hard evidence. The Catholic authorities oftentimes intervened to prevent mobs and local authorities from lynching suspected witches. Even when the Inquisition did investigate alleged witches, the primary goal of the Inquisition was to achieve repentance on the part of religious dissenters, not brutalize or “make an example” of them, which explains why the few who were executed on such charges had typically already been convicted several times.17
Finally, what of the allegations that Catholic Spain forcibly converted the Iberian Peninsula’s Jewish population? For starters, Stark notes that for more than a millennia, there were more Jews in Spain than the rest of medieval Europe combined. This would hardly have been possible if the Jews were under constant persecution by the Catholic majority. Indeed, historians have found that whenever Jewish communities have harmonious relations with the majority religious community, they often convert in large numbers. This is exactly what we see in Catholic Spain. Beginning in the fourteenth century, tens of thousands of Jews were voluntarily baptized — conversions so sincere that within a few generations many of the prominent Catholics in Spain, to include senior hierarchy, were from converso families. However, the significant number of Jewish converts led to strife between “old” and “new” Christians, with many Spanish Jews accusing conversos of being “crypto-Jews.” The Spanish Inquisition sought — once again — to arrest such passions, but failed to prevent the kingdom’s ultimate expulsion of all Jews in 1492.18
As we examine the history of the Inquisition (vice its caricatures), what materializes is a Catholic Church that is largely unrecognizable from its common depictions in popular, contemporary media (or even most textbooks!). Indeed, in many cases Church authorities in the Iberian Peninsula were those most vocal in their attempts to restrain mob impulses and violence against religious dissidents.
Catholic Church v. Science, Redux Part…I’ve Lost Track
Another common complaint against the Church is its supposed long history of antagonism towards scientific learning and exploration. Be it papal injunctions against vaccinations, the Church’s hostility toward scientific theories deemed contrary to Catholic teaching, or recent Catholic disquiet about transhumanism, many critics view the Church as fundamentally opposed to scientific inquiry and progress. Yet such an accusation bears little resemblance to the historical record. Indeed, as Stark observes, most prominent leaders in the so-called “Scientific Revolution” were men of peculiar religious devotion, and a significant number were Catholic laymen or clergy.
For starters, it is worth addressing the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” perception of Medieval intellectualism, which even one current US presidential candidate has publicly cited. Those who reference this particular scholastic question frequently do so to demonstrate a supposed Medieval Catholic obsession with irrelevant minutiae, rather than philosophic or scientific questions that would benefit humanity. This paradigm, so the story goes, is what Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent Scientific Revolution sought to overthrow. Yet the scholastics were the ones who founded many of Europe’s most famous universities, and conceptualized and instructed the very experimental method that led to what we know today as Western empirical science. Certainly much of the scholastic’s interest lay in theology, yet even here many scholars, including the respected R.W. Southern, have proposed that it was scholastics’ very religious belief in a rational, human nature and an intelligible universe that created the foundation for the scientific discipline. This is in contrast to the Islamic world, where natural philosophy was viewed with deep suspicion and never gained ground with leading Muslim religious thinkers of the time. The universities established by the scholastic movement were thoroughly Medieval institutions (some already in place by the early twelfth century), yet, contra the typical narrative, they “esteemed innovation,” appropriated empirical methods, and employed some of the earliest examples of human dissection.19
The Scientific Revolution then is not so much a rejection of the Medieval enterprise, but in many ways its fulfillment. Stark’s survey of a number of early influences on the scientific method demonstrates the deep unity between piety and scientific innovation: Robert Grosseteste, Albert Magnus, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Nicole d’Oresme, Nicholas of Cusa, and Nicolaus Copernicus were all men of varying degrees of religious faith. Copernicus is often presented as a prime example of a true “free thinker” suffering under the burden of Church antipathy towards science, who represents the beginning of that supposedly necessary break with the dark, religiously-dominant Medieval way of thinking. Yet, as Stark notes, “everything in Copernicus’s famous book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, is wrong, other than the placement of the sun in the center.” Rather, Copernicus contributed an important, yet small step towards modern scientific knowledge that built upon the work of many Catholic scientists who preceded him.20
The story of Galileo has likewise been dramatized and propagandized far out of proportion.21 Stark argues: “what got Galileo in trouble with the Church were not his scientific convictions nearly as much as his arrogant duplicity.” An abbreviated version of this sordid tale can be summed up as follows: Galileo’s troubles resulted not so much from his free-thinking scientific rigor, but from purposefully antagonizing Pope Urban VIII, a man with whom he had previously developed a strong relationship. The pope, under increased pressure from Protestant Reformers and their charge that the Catholic Church was not faithful to Scripture, asked Galileo to include a prefatory statement in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems noting the limitations of science as an intellectual discipline. Galileo’s treatise instead openly mocked the pope. The grand irony is that much of Galileo’s research was incorrect, a reality commensurate with his reputation for claiming “false credit for inventions made by others… and to have conducted empirical research he probably did not really perform.” Even in the ruckus that followed this controversy, the pope sought to protect Galileo from extensive punishment.22 So much for Copernicus and Galileo.
Finally, and perhaps most innovatively, Stark performs a mathematical evaluation of the most well-known figures in the Scientific Revolution (52 people in all) and their diverse levels of piety. The numbers speak for themselves: 25% of these individuals were members of the clergy, including nine Catholics. Sixty percent were explicitly devout in their Protestant or Catholic beliefs; another 38% conventionally devout (meaning no evidence of skepticism, but no obvious signs of piety). Half of the individuals were Catholic, the other half Protestant. Only one of the 52 surveyed can be legitimately identified as a skeptic: the Englishman Edmund Halley, who was denied a professorship of Oxford because of his “atheism.”23 Stark, who is not alone in recognizing the ubiquitous faith of these foundational scientific thinkers, ultimately argues that science developed uniquely in medieval Europe precisely because such an enterprise was deemed “possible and desirable.” He cites English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, who assessed that “faith in the possibility of science…[is] derivative from medieval theology.”24
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.”
2. Stark, Rodney. Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016), 7.
3. Stark, 5.
4. Stark, 3.
5. Stark, 4.
6. See the 23 August Washington Post opinion “So you’re a Jew and you’re starting college? Prepare for anti-Zionism.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/08/23/so-youre-a-jew-and-youre-starting-college-prepare-for-anti-zionism/
7. See the 1 August New York Times opinion “How Religion Can Lead to Violence.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/how-religion-can-lead-to-violence.html?_r=0
8. See the 29 August 2013 opinion in Slate, “Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real?” http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/08/29/is_the_protestant_work_ethic_real_a_new_study_claims_it_can_be_measured.html
9. Stark, 117.
10. Stark, 121.
11. Stark, 119.
12. Stark, 119.
13. Other recent historical estimates have offered similar numbers, including Garcia Carcel, who puts the number at approximately 3,000.
14. Stark, 121-122.
15. Stark, 122.
16. Stark, 122-123.
17. Stark, 123-126.
18. Stark, 128-133. The expulsion of the Jews in order to further the program of a united Spain may have been more a factor of the emergence of the modern notion of sovereignty than about Catholicism. Moreover, the Spanish Inquisition was different from other inquisitions (contemporary and previous) in that the Spanish Crown managed to bring it under unprecedented direct control of the crown. The infamous Tomas de Torquemada, for example, was placed as head over the combined Castille-Aragon inquisition directly by Ferdinand in 1483. Pope Sixtus IV had protested the previous year at the inquisition’s lack of due process in Aragon. This direct, temporal control indicates that the Spanish inquisition was just as much an instrument of the nation-state as it was of the Church. See C. C. Pecknold, Christianity & Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade, 2010), 75; and Edward Peters, Inquisition (University of California, 1988), 85-86.
19. Stark, 141-144.
20. Stark, 151. David Hart makes a similar, more detailed judgment on Copernicus in his book Atheist Delusions.
21. See, for examples, these articles from the Washington Post and The New York Times: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/sept98/galileo.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/world/after-350-years-vatican-says-galileo-was-right-it-moves.html.
22. Stark, 163-165.
23. Stark, 153-157.
24. Stark, 159.
Love & unity, Jn 17:21