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Bearing False Witness by Rodney Stark  

23 June 2017

Catherine Pepinster sees points scored off historical sceptics


Bearing False Witness: Debunking centuries of anti-Catholic history

Rodney Stark

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UNTIL a visit to Louisiana a couple of years ago, I had always assumed that slaves were completely brutalised. But, on a tour of a New Orleans 19th-century home, I discovered that the lady of the house had worked closely alongside her slaves in the kitchen. Then I found out that slaves were forbidden to learn to read, and so their mistress had to read them the recipes. It might have not have been violent, but it was a deeply disturbing form of enslavement. Later, a friend told how the nuns at one of Louisiana’s most exclusive Roman Catholic convent schools, who had schooled the daughters of elite white families at that time, had also secretly taught the slave girls who accompanied them to read.

In reading Rodney Stark’s account of anti-Catholic history — a volume that debunks hundreds of years of prejudice, myth, and false allegations — I could set these stories in context. I now know that RC Louisiana’s treatment of slaves was rather different from the rest of North America’s; for it came under France’s Code Noir, influenced by papal teaching that insisted that Africans and Indians should be afforded the same dignity as anyone else.

Stark, an American sociologist as well as popular historian, guides the reader through some of the most controversial accusations that the Catholic Church has faced: its treatment of Jews, its hostility to learning during the so-called Dark Ages, its part in the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition. With each chapter comes a useful list of historians who have explored the issue in more detail and are Stark’s key sources.

Protestants, as well as Voltaire and other Enlightenment intellectuals, are identified as the accusers-in-chief, claiming that the Roman Church suppressed truth and destroyed lives. The Crusades? Voltaire and others say they were caused by Catholic bigotry and cruelty; contemporary historians say that they were a response to Christians’ being robbed and enslaved by Muslims. The Dark Ages? Again, Voltaire and co., and also Bertrand Russell, say it was a time of barbarism and the stifling of learning thanks to the Catholic Church. Not so, says Stark, citing more historians: it was the age of building great cathedrals, developing universities, and beautiful prose.

As an apologist, Stark seems on shakier ground over his defence of church treatment of Jews and of Galileo. After all, Pope John Paul II saw fit to apologise for the grievous harm that the Church did to them.

This is a story of a Church more sinned against than sinning. But Stark’s most significant conclusion is that papal authority has never been as strong as both its detractors and its most devoted adherents believe. Popes might denounce slavery and torture, but some powerful Roman Catholic monarchs ignored their teaching and carried out atrocities.

The story today is rather different. The RC Church still has its detractors, but in this ecumenical age, they tend to be ardent secularists rather than other Christians. The heirs of Voltaire, one might say.


Catherine Pepinster, a former editor of The Tablet, is UK Development Officer of the Anglican Centre in Rome, and the author of a forthcoming book on the British and the papacy.

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