Rodney Stark challenges anti-Catholic historical tropes in latest release

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Any person, moderately informed on a topic of current interest, will have experienced the Brandolini law, which can be paraphrased as: the amount of energy necessary to refute a false claim is an order of magnitude bigger than what it took to produce it. And if that individual happened to be Catholic, he would also know that Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice among nearly every high, middle, or low-brow segment of Western society. Most of us have neither the time nor the energy required by Brandolini’s law to counteract the pervasiveness of anti-Catholic statements. Whether borne out of laziness, insecurity or contempt, most of us in these situations simply turn the other cheek. However, at times it takes a non-Catholic to remind us that to accept a prejudice is not just a betrayal of an institution — it is also a betrayal of truth.

As a PhD in History from UC Berkeley and a self-styled “independent Christian,” Rodney Stark is an unlikely candidate to be a Catholic historian. While both the over-zealous Catholic and the skeptical critic might grant him the ironic title of Defender of the Faith, Stark would be quick to remind them that he is not a defender of the faith, but of the truth. It is that commitment to the truth and to the integrity of his discipline that motivated Stark to author his latest book, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton Press, 2016).

Stark does not shy away from the over-wrought or the overly-contrived historical speculations about the Catholic Church. He chronologically devotes organized chapters to refute various and sundry anti-Catholic “myths,” as he deems them. These include the persecution of pagans by the early Christians, the Church’s attitudes towards slavery, and even the defamatory moniker of Pius XII as “Hitler’s pope.”

Stark’s use of the term “myth” is interesting. A myth is a widely-held (presumably false) belief or narrative that explains an observed natural or social phenomenon, such as popular anti-Catholic sentiment. The epistemological movement of a myth works backwards from an observation taken as truth and, from it, one infers the source. A historian works in the opposite direction, seeking the truth from the sources that have led to the observable social phenomena.

It takes a non-Catholic to remind us that to accept a prejudice is not just a betrayal of an institution — it is also a betrayal of truth.

Both the myth and the historian offer narratives, and Stark’s work demonstrates that historians are, at times, not above perpetuating the status quo or engaging in mythologizing themselves. His choice of words reinforces the key discrepancy that truly irks him, namely, that many of his anti-Catholic peers fall between the rigors of true scholarship and the lack of scholarly discipline. Hence, the tension between the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of the social context in which it is produced. As a result, Stark’s critiques are methodological, not ideological.

Courtesy of Templeton Press

Courtesy of Templeton Press

To refute 2,000 years of bad history is by no means a small objective. It is surprising, then, that a book with this aim clocks in a meager 272 pages. In fact, the brevity of Bearing False Witness reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Stark’s work. I had anticipated following the author on a deeply engaging caper through the annals of history, being led from the sources of one dusty archive to the next, while tracing the roots of various myths.

Stark’s work demonstrates that historians are, at times, not above perpetuating the status quo or engaging in mythologizing themselves.

The mundane reality is that any genuine work on such a vast topic would require the compounded scholarship of several Brandolinian orders of magnitude — a move that would quickly render it an ungainly tract to most lay readers. But Stark himself points out that the myths he selected have already been carefully refuted by a multitude of well-regarded historians.

Seeking a middle way, Stark creates a simple formula for his work. He provides a summary of the narrative and false findings on a particular anti-Catholic trope, followed by starkly matter-of-fact refutational statements, punctuated by finger-wagging reprimands of shoddy scholarship, and bullet-pointed reference tables to relevant historians. These are rounded off with a wealth of footnotes to support his conclusions.

The construction of actual counter-arguments is mostly omitted. Stark is not, after all, an apologist. This fact might explain why one senses a hint of detachment between the author and his target audience of non-academic Catholics. It is not that Stark is incapable of riveting prose or the brass tacks of academic research — quite the contrary. Stark shines particularly well in his first chapter, where he is at his most autobiographical and least expository. There is an almost Chestertonian quality in the irony and perceptiveness with which he confronts the failings of his fellow historians.

What Stark offers is a ready manual; a reference book to consult when one encounters a dubious thesis or headline. As such, this book will be of particular interest to students, as a secret weapon of sorts to those who wish to refute the off-hand, biased remarks of an instructor. It will also appeal to anyone with a genuine regard for historical truth, who wishes to know the facts behind anti-Catholic myths.

Catherine Hillcrest is a doctoral student in archaeology.