Book Review reviews/StarkCover.jpgBlack Legend Debunked


Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016), 280 pp., $27.95, Hardcover.


Reviewed by John Beaumont


Your reviewer was attracted by the powerful, “no holds barred” title of this book. Testimony and witness are keys to evangelization, and the idea of someone bearing false witness is something that should galvanize the Catholic Church into a firm response, something that we have seen little of in the years since Vatican II. The prevailing approach has been so often one of not offending anyone even though truth is one and unchanging. Well, Rodney Stark proposes “debunking several centuries of anti-Catholic history.” What is more, he describes himself as “an American Protestant” who has grown into an agnostic. So, a bit of a surprise, then, but one that can be very useful in the sense that he can hardly be accused of being biased. So, let us see how Stark gets on. He sets out ten targets to which he proposes a response, but before tackling each of them in detail, he has a fascinating introductory chapter entitled “Confronting Distinguished Bigots.” This starts with what is probably the classic example of historical misunderstandings involving the Catholic Church. In America it is set in the context of Columbus Day. Stark recalls his Protestant upbringing:

Didn’t [Catholics] see the irony in the fact that although Columbus was a Catholic, his voyage of discovery was accomplished against unyielding opposition from Roman Catholic prelates who cited biblical proof that the earth was flat and that any attempt to reach Asia by sailing West would result in the ships falling off the edge of the world?

Yes, it’s the old myth regarding the Church as consisting of a bunch of flat earthers. Then there were the movies, plays and songs, all telling the story of Columbus proving the world to be round. You know how it goes, well according to Ira Gershwin’s lyrics: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round.” Well, no, they didn’t laugh at all actually, because, as Stark shows, “By the fifteenth century (and for many centuries before) every educated European, including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round.” The prevailing mood at the time was not amusement, but genuine worry and concern. This was because the problem people perceived to be there for Columbus was that this round world, acknowledged by all, was a heck of a lot bigger in its circumference than he thought it was and therefore his life, in addition that of his men, was being put at real risk of death by what he intended to do. That was why these supposedly ignorant clerics, who in fact knew much more on this than Columbus did, opposed his voyage. After all, nobody knew at the time that the Western hemisphere existed. If it hadn’t, then all of his men would have died of thirst and starvation.

In reality, and this is the actual truth, this anti-Catholic story did not exist until over three hundred years after Columbus’ voyage. It appeared, as pointed out by Stark, in a flawed biography of the great explorer written by Washington Irving and published in 1828.

Of course, anti-Catholicism did not start in the nineteenth century. The Reformation had already proved a major source of falsehood, notably against Spain as the major Catholic power. The principal error related to what became known as the Black Legend and that ever fertile source of prejudice, the Spanish Inquisition. Later on the Protestants were joined by anti-religious writers, especially during the period misleadingly referred to as the Enlightenment. Notable here is, of course, Edward Gibbon, who ironically at one point in his life actually converted and joined the Catholic Church. But that did not last long. The number of what Stark calls “distinguished bigots” is a long one, consisting both of lapsed Catholics like Karen Armstrong, John Cornwell and James Carroll, and the so-called “new atheism” today, much of the writings of which is targeted at the Catholic Church and consists very often merely of old matters re-cycled for today. The names of Steven Hawking and Richard Dawkins in Britain and Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens in America come most obviously to mind, Hitchens being of course originally another British product.

The aim of this review is not, for reasons of space, to consider in detail all of these topics, but to concentrate on those that relate most clearly to the issues being dealt with frequently in the pages of Culture Wars and particularly in the writings of its editor. This focus relates firstly and primarily to the question of anti-Semitism and the whole matter of the relationship between the Church and the Jews. But, it also relates to another theme of Dr. Jones’ writings, that is the question of capitalism and the relationship between labor and usury, examined in great detail in Barren Metal, though space precludes a full examination of this. However, before looking at these matters it is important to say a few words on two more general points, also dealt with by Rodney Stark, and then to make some comment on the book’s approach to other specific topics.


First of all then, to deal with the two general points, all Catholics writing or speaking on the topics dealt with in this book must be utterly objective in their analysis of them and must recognize that God in his Church works in many respects through fallible human beings. Individual Catholics have done very bad things all the way through the history of the Church. As Stark puts it, there must be no “whitewashing” of Church history. Stark himself makes the point that he has “written at some length on such matters as corrupt clergy, brutal attacks on ‘heretics’, and on more recent misdeeds and shortcomings of the Church, such as covering up for pedophile priests and the misguided advocacy of liberation theology.” But there has to be a matter of balance here.

[N]o matter how much importance one places on these negative aspects of Church history, it does not justify the extreme exaggerations, false accusations, and patent frauds addressed in the chapters that follow

In fact, it is noteworthy that when Stark states the various attacks on the Catholic Church, he states them in their strongest form, which brings added credibility to their subsequent refutation. Secondly, if Stark is correct when he says that these various falsehoods are patent, obvious, and notorious, why do they persist, as they do, and are repeated in every generation? Stark’s partial answer is that “they are so mutually reinforcing and deeply embedded in our common culture that it seems impossible for them not to be true.” The prejudices in society are so deep set that nothing seems to remove them. And most of the experts tend to write for each other and not for the general public. In a time when one cannot assume anything with respect to people’s knowledge of even the basic facts of Western civilization, there is a great need for a straightforward analysis of these central myths. Rodney Stark seeks to provide such a guide for our times. In addition, as a non-Catholic, he states that he wrote it not in defense of the Church, but in defense of history.


Now for the specific topics: leaving aside for the moment the Jewish question and that of capitalism and the modern world. The topics most often raised against the Church seem to remain pretty stable. Stark deals with the following accusations: suppression of alternative gospels; persecution of paganism; opposition to reason between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance/Enlightenment; the Crusades; the Spanish Inquisition; opposition to science and persecution of scientists, notably Galileo; failure to oppose slavery; support of dictators, and opposition to liberal government. Each of the following chapters deals with one of the matters above.

When it comes to newly discovered gospels, we seem to have been inundated with them in recent years. Yet long ago they were dealt with by St. Irenaeus in his Against Heresies. They were a very strange lot and no great loss. Well, now, in some cases, we have the actual copies of these books and not just the versions dealt with by the Fathers of the Church. But, not a lot has changed. Stark goes into great detail on the writings of several modern commentators of these so-called gospels. He is under no doubts as to his finally destination after this research, identifying these books as characteristic of Gnosticism:

Which brings us to the greatest distortion of them all: to present these as Christian gospels. Any honest reading of the primary Gnostic gospels reveals that, despite some Christian content, these are fundamentally pagan scriptures and thus are precisely the bizarre heresies that the early church fathers said they were.

Stark goes into great detail concerning the content of these Gnostic books and brings out how utterly unlike the Christian scriptures they are.

The lost gospels were not excluded from the Bible because the early church fathers were malicious dogmatists, but because they were fully aware that the Gnostic scriptures were not Christian.

Another common allegation against the Church, expressed most notably by Edward Gibbon, is that the key to the fact that the Christians quickly became the majority after the reign of Constantine is the brutal persecution of the ever tolerant pagans by the Church. Well, the truth is that there has been something of a revolution in historical thought regarding this matter. There was very much less in the nature of repression than previously thought. There was much assimilation of certain pagan practices and paganism simply died away in the face of a much healthier and vibrant social and communal situation under Christianity.

Two general factors were involved: social and doctrinal. Socially, Christianity generated an intense congregational life - people belonged to a Christian congregation, while they merely frequented pagan temples. High levels of commitment and social relations not only were directly rewarding, additionally they empowered Christian groups to provide substantial “social services.” Doctrinally, in contrast to paganism’s limited, unreliable, and often immoral gods, Christianity presented an image of God as moral, concerned, dependable, and omnipotent. Christianity also provided a clear method for the forgiveness of sins and offered the prospect of an attractive eternal life.

Stark next tackles the allegation that the Church conquered the Roman Empire and most of Europe, but then imposed a thousand years (A.D. 300 to A.D. 1300) of ignorance known as the Dark Ages. Major proponents of this view were Petrarch, Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, and Bertrand Russell, but it is still put forward today. The contrast is then made between these so-called Dark Ages and the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Stark brings out the myth of the Dark Ages. He emphasizes, to begin with the advance of the practical, the rise of technology:

[T]he most important factor in the myth of the Dark Ages was the inability of intellectuals to value or even to notice the nuts and bolts of real life. Hence, revolutions in agriculture, weaponry and warfare, nonhuman power, transportation, manufacturing, and commerce went unappreciated. So too did remarkable moral progress. For example, at the fall of Rome there was slavery everywhere in Europe, by the time of the Renaissance it was long gone.

But there is much more than this that can be said, and so surprising is the following omission that one can truly see an agenda behind the attacks leveled against this period of Christian development.

[W]hat is truly difficult to explain is how the creators of the Dark Ages myth could have overlooked what would seem to have been their chief interest: high culture. Nevertheless, they missed or dismissed the enormous progress that took place in music, art, literature, education, and science.

Stark proceeds to give a detailed list of the innovations and progress made in this supposedly sterile period of time. How could anyone have missed in particular the period of the High Middle Ages, many of the great buildings of which are still in front of our noses, unless they had some subversive plan in mind?

But, there are other myths here, this time real ones, namely the myth of the Renaissance and the myth of Secular Enlightenment. The former claims that freedom from the Church was needed in order to allow the “rebirth” of classical knowledge. This is untrue. As Stark puts it, “this legacy of classical culture was fully restored long before the Renaissance.” The key to this was the translation of Greek literature into Latin and this was done earlier by monastic scholars. The whole issue of the Renaissance is one that has been worked on by expert researchers in recent years and a notable article setting out the correct approach can be found in an excellent article, “The Renaissance Myth” by James Franklin, in the November 1982 issue of Quadrant. With regard to the Enlightenment, Stark shows that the secular attacks on religion in the name of science (which were similar to modern day attacks by such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins) failed to see that the rise of science was inseparable from Christian theology, something dealt with in detail later in the book.

On the question of the allegation that during the Crusades “an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom directed by the pope, brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam,” Stark first describes the fawning approach to Islam in the wake of 9/11, notably in speeches by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and then sets out the traditional charges, the source of which may be said to be “the usual suspects,” namely Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, and Gibbon.

The answer to this is quite straightforward:

In recent years these claims have been utterly refuted by a group of distinguished historians. They propose that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations – by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam.

Stark proceeds to give a very lengthy, detailed and compelling account in which he brilliantly bring together the various strands in the overall story of the Crusades. It could not be done better.

On the question of the Spanish Inquisition, Stark explains that the allegation was that “this hideous Catholic institution tortured and murdered huge numbers of innocent people.” The major text in this context, of course, is the book by Reginaldus Montanus, A Discovery and Plaine Declaration of Sundry Subtill Practices of the Holy Inquisition of Spain, written originally in Latin, published in 1567, then translated into English, French, Dutch, and German, and widely circulated. Stark’s reply to this supposed source is very simple. He refers to the book as “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.’”

It is vital to appreciate that the supposedly powerful witness, Montanus, was exactly the opposite, and in fact “was the pen name used by a renegade Spanish monk who became a Lutheran who fled to the Netherlands where he wrote his book.”

The crucial point to be made today is that we are now in a new and remarkable era of detailed research on the Spanish Inquisition. This has resulted from historians’ gaining access to the complete archives of the Spanish Inquisition and a mass of other documentary evidence.

Astonishing as it may seem, 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.

And the number of deaths carried out by the civil authorities (the Inquisition never conducted an actual execution)?

All told during the entire period 1480 through 1700, only about then deaths per year were meted out by the  Inquisition all across Spain, a small fraction of the many thousands of Lutherans, Lollards, and Catholics (in addition to two of his wives) that Henry VIII is credited with having boiled, burned, beheaded, or hanged. Then, during the subsequent century (1530 to 1630), the English averaged 750 hangings a year, many of them for minor thefts. In contrast, the few who were sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition usually were repeat offenders who would not repent.

At a time when all the courts of Europe used torture, the Inquisition did so far less than other courts. And as far as another related phenomenon, that of witch hunts, is concerned, the position is, as Stark states, that “the Spanish Inquisition sent nearly no witches to the stake, and those who were had been convicted for the third or fourth time. Even more important, the Inquisition used its power and influence to suppress witch-hunting by local mobs or secular authorities.

When it comes to the allegation that the Church opposed science and persecuted scientists, some of the things charged are breathtaking to say the least. Stark cites the case of the supposed prohibition in 1829 by Pope Leo XII of vaccination for smallpox on the grounds that “smallpox is a judgment from God.” Of course Pope Leo never said anything of the sort. The real truth is that the Church had actively promoted vaccination from the very start.

The best analyses of the relationship between the Church and scientific progress is that given by the late Fr. Stanley Jaki in his many books and articles, and so it is perhaps unnecessary to go into detail concerning Stark’s chapter on this topic. Space is also against us, but Stark’s book does give an accurate and detailed account of the main ideas and the main figures historically about whom we need to know more in order to come to a correct view of this whole issue. The following quotation gives a summary of the conclusions to which he comes:

[T]he great scientific achievements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not made despite the Church; they were the culmination of normal scientific progress that took place through the centuries in the universities founded, controlled, and staffed by the Church. Indeed, the leading figures in the “scientific revolution” were unusually devout and about half of them were Catholics, many of them clergy. As for Galileo, he never spent a day in prison, and he didn’t really get in trouble for his science (the Spanish Inquisition never banned his books), but for arrogant duplicity.

Stark goes on to explain in detail the Galileo case. He brings out that the key aspect to the understanding of this was that of a personality clash. In addition, he shows that Galileo’s purported proofs of his theory were erroneous (it was long after Galileo that science mustered really convincing proofs). The one absolutely vital point on this whole topic of science and Christianity does not come from the case of Galileo, but from the fact that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science. Stark cites the opinion of Alfred North Whitehead, an at first surprising ally in the sense that he was co-author with the very anti-religious Bertrand Russell of the important Principia Mathematica. Whitehead explained that science developed in Europe because of the widespread “faith in the possibility of science derivative from medieval theology.”

The next allegation deals with the received wisdom that the Catholic Church accepted slavery, and did not repudiate it until very late. This is easily refuted by Stark. As he expresses it,

The Church opposed and eliminated slavery in Europe more than a thousand years ago. Then when European colonists began to reestablish slavery in the new world, the popes vigorously opposed it.

Stark reviews in detail the papal opposition to slavery, but has to conclude that “unfortunately the popes lacked the power to impose their will.” However, the Church was able to mitigate the worst features of slavery by formulating and enforcing codes of behavior relating to the treatment of slaves. The traditional view adopted by secular writers is certainly a caricature of the truth. Stark deals next with the question of authoritarianism and the charge that the Church has been the implacable enemy of all forms of liberal politics. Stark draws a contrast between the Church of power and the Church of piety and shows how, in the context of such historical events as the French Revolution and the Spanish Civil War, the sinfulness of humanity was tempered by prayer and Christian virtue. The discussion is interesting, but space precludes examination of it here. Readers will be intrigued by the account and are likely to agree with Stark’s conclusion that the allegation that the Church opposes freedom and democracy is untrue and that her opposition tends to be directed against tyrants and those who attempt to destroy the Church.


The longest chapter in the book is concerned with the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews. Stark begins with an autobiographical account of his own journey in respect of this question. It is quite striking since he explains that he started out by writing a book that claimed that “For centuries persecution of the Jews was justified in the name of God.” He explains how he began to study anti-Semitism through public opinion surveys as the result of a grant from the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. This led to a book, Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (1966), co-written with Charles Y. Glock, in which he asserted that there was a significant link between belief and prejudice. In consequence of this, Stark was asked to prepare for the bishops at the Second Vatican Council a brief summary of his findings. This process was described later by Cardinal Bea as playing a significant role in producing the Council’s statement on the Jews, Nostra Aetate. Stark does acknowledge that with the benefit of hindsight he realizes that there was really nothing new in that document. He goes on to say that after several years he “became aware of the extent to which the Catholic Church has stood as a consistent barrier against anti-Semitic violence.” He frankly admits that his detailed work in this area forced him to reconsider the entire link between Christianity and Anti-Semitism.

Stark reviews the issues very comprehensively, beginning with the charges by contemporary scholars (“contemporary” here meaning they were writing at the same time as Stark was doing his own work) that the Church originated Anti-Semitism. Here we meet a few of the usual suspects, e.g., the feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether and the Jew Jules Isaacs, noted for his maneuverings at the Council. Stark starts by rebutting the argument that the pre-Christian pagans were mild in their anti-Semitism, while the Christians laid it down hard. Stark shows this idea to be false. The Jews were written against in very severe terms in much Roman literature and were on several occasions expelled from Rome and even at times from all Italy.

Stark turns to New Testament passages containing hostile references to the Jews, such as Matthew 27:24-26, Matthew 23:37, and John 5:16-18, but goes on to show how often such passages were interpreted out of context. For example, one “should not focus entirely on the New Testament but also should compare its statements about the Jews with Old Testament polemics against other Jews who failed to meet a particular prophet’s standard of proper faith.” One must remember also that we are not talking here about angry comments of a Christian majority. At the time in question the Christians were a “tiny, persecuted minority.”

Of course, what we have become more and more used to, in an age where the Church downplays her position for fear of being thought intolerant, is an array of allegations of Christian persecution of Jews, but very little, if anything, about Jewish persecution of Christians. Well, Stark redresses the balance.

The evidence of Jewish persecution of Christians is scattered and obviously very incomplete, but there are compelling reasons to believe that persecution was common and that it continued for several centuries.

After all, Christianity was seen as an abomination to the Jew. Christians were seen as committing crimes. In relation to punishing such crimes, St. Paul himself tells us in Acts that before his conversion he delivered up Christians for punishment. Deacon Stephen was stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin, and St. James was executed by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

Stark looks next at the Talmud, that collection of writings by learned rabbis that began in the first century. Stark deals with the once held scholarly belief that there were no authentic references to Jesus in the Talmud and brings out the definitive scholarly refutation of this contained in the research by Peter Schafer, the Director of Judaic Studies at Princeton. In his book Jesus in the Talmud (2007), which deals with both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, Schafer brings out the many utterly distasteful remarks about Jesus in the Talmud. Stark summarizes the general Talmudic approach as follows:

They are counternarratives that parody the New Testament stories, most notably the story of Jesus’ life and death. They ridicule Jesus’ birth from a virgin Most remarkably, they counter the New Testament passion story with its message of Jews’ guilt and shame as Christ killers. Instead, they reverse it completely: Yes, they maintain, we accept responsibility for it, but there is no reason to feel ashamed because we rightfully executed a blasphemer and idolater. Jesus deserved death, and got what he deserved. Accordingly, they subvert the Christian idea of Jesus’ resurrection by having him punished forever in hell and making it clear that this fate awaits his followers as well, who believe in this impostor.

Stark then proceeds to set out the more specific points made by Schafer:

Although she was married to Joseph, Mary conceived during an adulterous interlude with a Roman soldier named Pandera (the name perhaps being a play on the word parthenos or virgin). According to Jewish law, both should have been stoned to death.

Jesus was a mamzer (a bastard) and would have thereby been excluded from any participation in Jewish religious life - In some interpretations of the Law, mamzers were themselves to be stoned.

Jesus engaged in sexual promiscuity with Mary Magdalene among others.

Jesus was convicted of sorcery.

Jesus was not crucified, but instead was stoned by Jews who then hanged his body upon a tree.

Jesus is spending eternity in hell, boiling in excrement.

Stark now moves on to the question of the Church’s attitude to anti-Semitic attacks. On this he is able to use his own considerable data. This was assembled in respect of every fatal anti-Semitic attack by groups of western European Christians between the years 500 and 1600. He found that between the years 500 and 1096 there was only one such event, when in 554 a mob killed several Jews and forced a number of others to accept Christian baptism at Clermont in southern Gaul (now France). The fact that there were no other such incidents shows that the Church condemned this act and ruled that Jews should be left alone. The Church confirmed this position time and again down the centuries. Stark’s inability to find any other attacks during this very long period of time is confirmed by several notable Jewish historians and so this long period of tranquility confirms, as Stark puts it, “that for more than five centuries, hostile New Testament statements had no violent consequences.” It is interesting to note that Stark’s conclusions here have been confirmed by several distinguished Jewish scholars.

The period of toleration ended in the 11th century. Stark asserts the reason for the change to be that “the conflict with Islam that boiled over into the Crusades changed perceptions of religious threats.” There is probably much truth in this, but let us stay with the main issue here, the question of anti-Semitic attacks. These now increased as did heresy hunting, but although the Catholic clergy initiated the violent repression of heresies, they did not initiate the anti-Semitic outbursts.

These were led by laymen, and it was churchmen who stood up against them and usually managed to prevent further attacks.

Stark recounts here in some detail the marauding behavior of that minor Rhineland count, Emich of Leisengen. We also hear of the account of the sterling work of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was even praised by Jewish chroniclers. Stark reviews the protection given by the Church in so many regions, excepting notably the Rhineland, where even papal authority failed.

Stark moves on to deal with the relations between the Jews and Islam. He rebuts an often seen myth that the Jews were in some sort of heaven in Muslim Spain, often contrasted with the notion of a brutal anti-Semitism on the part of Christendom. Stark brings much evidence to show that this idea is preposterous, concluding as follows:

[E]ven during the “tranquil” period both Jews and Christians were always placed under severe restrictions and were highly stigmatized in Muslim societies.

We live in times when Muhammad is often portrayed in very flattering terms. It is interesting, then, that Stark also notes that the first Muslim massacre of Jews occurred in Medina when Muhammad had all the local adult Jewish males (about seven hundred of them) beheaded after forcing them to dig their own graves. Finally in this chapter Stark turns to the issue most often raised these days relating to the Church and the Jews, namely the allegation that Pope Pius XII collaborated with Hitler at the time of the Holocaust. Stark points out that the original disinformation came in fact from the Soviet authorities. At this time, at the end of World War Two and just afterwards, many Jewish individuals and organizations were full of praise for Pius XII.

As they noted, Hitler had bitterly attacked the Catholic Church, had closed all the Catholic schools, and had arrested thousands of priests and nuns and sent them to Dachau and other death camps.

Praise by Jews for Pius XII’s work continued on right up until his death in 1958 and came from many eminent people, notably Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, Moshe Sharett, her first foreign minister and second prime minister, and Golda Meir, a future prime minister of Israel. All changed, however, with Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, and the various later adaptations of it, both in the theater and on film. In rebuttal Stark cites the very eminent British historian Eamon Duffy, who after an examination of all the relevant documents, “decisively established the falsehood of Hochhuth’s specific allegations” (see Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (1997)). Several notable Jews agreed with him, for example Joseph L. Lichten of the Anti-Defamation League and the Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide. There is much other evidence to the same effect. Despite all of this, in recent years several more books re-iterating the same old story have been published, for example the notorious Hitler’s Pope (1999) by John Cornwell with its misstatements and distortions, and James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword (2001). It is interesting to note that the former was a dropout from a seminary who describes himself now as a lapsed Catholic, and the latter is a novelist and an ex-priest. When it comes to Cornwell’s book, one hardly knows where to start. There is the notorious cover picture, which is stated as being of Pius XII visiting Nazi headquarters, but is in reality one of the then Eugenio Pacelli, then nuncio, leaving a reception for the President of the Weimar Republic in 1927. Pacelli never met Hitler and left Germany in 1929, well before Hitler came to power. In addition, Cornwell claimed to have examined incriminating documents in the Vatican, claims which were later shown to be untrue. Much of Carroll’s book is utterly inaccurate and full of irrelevant personal details. The parts dealing with Pius XII are mainly a rehash of Hitler’s Pope. Several other authors have joined this bandwagon. Notable ones are Garry Wills, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Michael Phayer, and David Kertzer. All of the literature is driven either by a desire to promote a liberal version of Catholicism or by rank anti-Catholic prejudice and unscholarly writing by non-Catholics. It is important to note that one of the best books on this topic is The Myth of Hitler’s Pope (2005), written by David G. Dalin, who is himself Jewish and of course also a rabbi. In relation to so-called Catholic writers, Dalin gets to the heart of what is going on here:

The Holocaust is simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditional Catholics in their attempt to bash the papacy and thereby to smash traditional Catholic teaching [T]hese polemics of lapsed or angry liberal Catholics exploit the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to foster their own political agenda.

Even those writers who make some concessions tend to take them back almost immediately. Susan Zuccotti in her Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (2000) concedes that 85% of Jews under threat from the Nazis in Italy survived, most as a result of being hidden in Catholic buildings. She then goes on to allege that Pope Pius XII gave no encouragement to this. The reality is very different. There is much testimony about the positive approach of the pope and about his personal involvement, such as his opening up of Castel Gandolfo to the Jews and his turning his private apartments into an obstetric ward. Stark also shows how Pius XII spoke out against Hitler and racism during the thirties even before he became pope. He continued to do so throughout the war, to the extent that the New York Times editorialized as follows at Christmas in 1941:

The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas In calling for a “real new order” based on liberty, justice, and love, the pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism.

As if one needed more evidence, one need only appeal to the many Jewish voices that spoke out in favor of Pius XII; and recall that there is much evidence of Hitler’s utter hatred of the pope. In 1943 Hitler wet so far as to attempt to have the pope kidnapped.

Stark’s firm conclusion is that “the Roman Catholic Church has a long and honorable record of stout opposition to attacks upon Jews” and that “Pope Pius XII fully lived up to that tradition.”

Stark does a good job in bringing to light the truth in respect of this whole issue of the Church and the Jews, but there is one weakness in his analysis. He very much underplays the extent to which the Jews down the centuries have attacked the Catholic Church. He says very little about the revolutionary aspect of Jewish history. The question of the revolutionary Jew must be examined closely if one is to bring to bear a sound view of the ramifications of history. And of course this is exactly what Dr. E. Michael Jones does so effectively in his outstanding volume The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and Its Impact on World History (2008). Dr. Jones’ book is the definitive text and is unlikely to be replaced. It is very detailed, however, and in our fast moving world, it is useful to have to hand a summary of the most important issues relating to this topic. These are now provided in two shorter books, setting out more concisely the key factors. These are The Catholic Church and the Jews (2016) and The Jews and Moral Subversion (2016). Both are highly recommended by this reviewer.


Stark introduces this under the heading of “Protestant Modernity” and starts by explaining how he himself was raised on the supposed glories of Lutheranism through which the great reformer had “set us free to think for ourselves and to seek knowledge, thereby bringing about the modern world.” In other words, a tie was supposedly established between the Reformation and religious freedom. This was later supplemented by the gospel of Max Weber “that Protestantism gave birth to a unique work ethic that spawned capitalism and thus it is that modernity is a direct result of the Reformation.”

Dealing first with Weber, his thesis was that the capitalist economy of the West was dominated by Protestants because that was the only religion that “provided a moral vision that led people to restrain their material consumption while vigorously seeking wealth.” Stark’s answer is straightforward:

Catholic areas of Western Europe did not lag in their industrial development. And even more obvious at the time Weber wrote was that fully developed capitalism had appeared in Europe many centuries before the Reformation!

On the question of capitalism, Stark is generally accurate, but there is a problem. In the interest of showing that Catholics are up to date Capitalists, he oversimplifies the debate and makes untenable assertions like the following:

Thus, while the “sin of usury” remained on the books, so to speak, “usury” had become essentially an empty term Capitalism was fully and finally freed from all fetters of faith This theological revolution was the result of direct experience with worldly imperatives.

In reality the battle over usury never stopped. Pope Benedict XIV reiterated the traditional teaching that all interest on a loan was usury in his encyclical Vix Pervenit in 1745. The battle continues to our day and the reader is advised to examine the definitive account contained in E. Michael Jones’ Barren Metal referred to earlier.

Regarding the point about freedom and the Reformation, Stark shows clearly that what people were to believe and how they were to worship were firmly fixed and had to be enforced against much resistance and apathy. Stark concentrates on the experience of Lutheranism, his own background. The same could be said about England, as is shown in Eamon Duffy’s magisterial The Stripping of the Altars (1992). To talk about the Reformation in terms of theology is in fact to miss the point. The Reformation (and this is most obviously the case in England) was first and foremost a looting operation which later acquired theological justification. R. H. Tawney who set out to find the theological turning point between Catholic and Protestant principle, simply could not find it and was forced to conclude in his memorable phrase that “the upstart aristocracy had their teeth in the carcass [of Church property] and weren’t going to be whipped off by a sermon.” Because powerful financial interests are behind promoting this version of the Black Legend, it will most probably be the last to fall. But Rodney Stark has done a good job in preparing the way.

John Beaumont is the author of The Mississippi Flows Into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Converts to the Catholic Church.

This review appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Culture Wars.

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