The Protestant Debunking of Anti-Catholic History

To be deep in history,” stated John Henry Newman in the Introduction to his now famous 1845 book “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” “is to cease to be a Protestant.”

That now well-known sentence summed up Newman’s opening argument against a central problem with classical Protestantism: it has a distinctly ahistorical nature to it, as if 1,800 years (in Newman’s day) of history could and should be mostly ignored. “This is shown,” mused Newman, “in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone.” Newman himself had been raised in the more evangelical wing of the Anglican Communion; in some ways its beliefs and assumptions correspond to what many fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant Americans hold to today.

However, it’s important to point out that Protestants, overall, have been taking Church history far more seriously in recent decades. A good example — one of many — is Dr. Rodney Stark, a self-described “independent Christian” who was raised Lutheran (and once professed to be “agnostic”) and is professor of social sciences at Baylor University, a Baptist school. Stark is the author of several books on the rise and growth of early Christianity. His most recent book has the provocative title “Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History” (Templeton Press, 2016).

Stark acknowledges that the overt, nasty anti-Catholicism so prevalent in 19th-century America is mostly gone, but also points out that “a quiet kind of anti-Catholicism remains widespread precisely because any sensible person would resent any organization that was guilty of even some of the charges” examined in his book. One of the strengths of Stark’s book is the rooting out of sources, showing how so many of the myths and falsehoods about Catholicism came from post-Reformation propaganda — much of it produced in England and Northern European countries, and embraced by the first Americans — that was then taken up by “anti-religious writers, especially during the so-called Enlightenment. Because authors such as the famed historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94) focused on the Roman Catholic Church, his intensely anti-religious perspective was either tolerated or overlooked.” Gibbons and others, Stark writes, were “distinguished bigots” — anti-Catholic writers who portray the Church as the committed enemy of Jews, science, reason, women, technology, democracy, tolerance and freedom.

Why are such historically challenged falsehoods so persistent? Stark believes it is, in part, because “they are so mutually reinforcing and deeply embedded in our common culture.” That common culture is, of course, quite spurious and shallow; it’s not as if the dominant culture exhibits much interest in historical accuracy, never mind rigorous analysis of the various streams of philosophical, theological and political thought that have shaped the Western world. Part and parcel of this problem is the broad brushed claim, uttered in a variety of banal forms, that religion is repressive, rigid, fearful and violent. Well, what religion, exactly? And what proof exists for such a sentiment? Another problem, linked to the first, is that while scholars have debunked numerous anti-Catholic myths, their work has rarely gone beyond the small confines of certain academic circles. And even well-educated scholars in one field can be quite clueless about another field of study.

As Newman noted nearly 200 years ago, history “is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules.” While Stark is not a Catholic, his understanding of history is, by virtue of his honest recognition of what should no longer be accepted as established “fact.”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Oregon.