May 2024 Print

Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History

Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History

By Rodney Stark, reviewed by Brendan D. King

The Old Testament tells us in great detail how King Ezechias of Juda led both the Hebrew and Philistine peoples in an uprising with Egyptian backing against the rule of King Sennacherib of Assyria. As confirmed by the discoveries of archaeologists around Jerusalem, Ezechias prepared the Holy City for what was expected to be a protracted siege by stopping up the wells outside the walls and having a tunnel hewed out of solid rock to provide the defenders of the city with a ready supply of water. Despite Ezechias’ payment of a heavy tribute, the Assyrian siege ultimately began anyway. As described in an immortal poem by Lord Byron, plans for the complete destruction of Jerusalem had to be abandoned completely after the Angel of Death passed through the enemy encampment and launched a devastating epidemic among Sennacherib’s army.

During the early 19th century, however, archaeologists digging in what was still Ottoman-ruled Iraq discovered a series of clay cylinders, which are now termed in the ruins of the former Assyrian capital of Nineveh. These Akkadian-language annals of his reign not only played an instrumental role in the deciphering of the Assyrian cuneiform writing system but also provided Sennacherib’s own account of Ezechias’ uprising and the siege of Jerusalem.

According to Sennacherib, “But as for [Ezechias] the Judean, who would not submit to my yoke, his forty-six strong-walled cities and countless smaller towns in their vicinity I besieged and captured… Two hundred thousand and one hundred fifty people, young and old, male and female; horses, mules, asses, camels, herds (of oxen), flocks (of sheep and goats) without number I took out of their midst and reckoned as booty. I imprisoned [Ezechias] like a caged bird inside of Jerusalem, his royal city.”1

While Sennacherib then boasts of the enormous tribute that Ezechias ultimately had to pay, he grudgingly confirms the Biblical account by revealing that Jerusalem was not one of the forty-six cities that were stormed and taken. Meanwhile, Sennacherib tried to save face by conveniently leaving out the devastating epidemic that had struck down so much of his army. As his account of these events demonstrates, Pseudohistory, which is commonly defined as the rewriting of the past in order to advance an agenda in the present, is nothing new.

While growing up in a Protestant family, historian Rodney Stark used to watch in shocked amazement as the Catholics of his community celebrated Columbus Day. To Stark, “everyone knew” that Columbus had humiliated the ignorant Catholic clergy of his era by proving that the world is round rather than flat. Therefore, it made absolutely no sense to the young Rodney Stark that American Catholics would actually celebrate such a man.

It was only as Stark grew older that he became aware that the persistent legend of Christopher Columbus vs. the Flat Earth Society had always been a lie. The clergy opposed Columbus because they knew that the earth was both round and far larger than the Admiral had believed. Moreover, there is no mention of any belief that the world is flat in the first biography of Columbus composed by the Admiral’s son or for centuries after his first voyage. The beloved myth first appeared in Washington Irving’s 1828 “biography” of Columbus and, tragically, shows no signs of disappearing.

This is because Irving’s myth has very deep roots in the equally persistent Post-Reformation Black Legend; the systematic effort to demonize Catholic Spain by propagandists working for the Protestant governments of England and the Dutch Republic. What is worse, the Black Legend is only the tip of the iceberg, as many other enemies of the Catholic Faith have sought over the past two thousand years to destroy the Church’s future by rewriting its past.

These “distinguished bigots,” as Rodney Stark now aptly terms them, have included Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Enlightenment nihilists, Fascists, Marxists, ultra-nationalists, and, particularly since the 1960s, legions of perpetually enraged seminary dropouts, apostate priests, and rigidly Liberal ex-nuns. As if all this were not enough, it is not uncommon to hear fellow Traditional Catholics parroting these myths, demanding that all members of the Traditional Movement own them and embrace them with pride, and refusing to believe that they are pseudohistory created by the Church’s enemies.

With all this in mind, it adds enormously to the value of Rodney Stark’s book-length expose of exactly who created these cherished myths. He himself is not a Catholic, but as a professional historian, he despises pseudohistory and seeks both to reveal and to defend historical truth. In the process, no cherished myth is left untouched.

The allegation that the Gnostic Gospels are the real Gospels is easily demolished and so is the myth that the early Church launched a brutal genocide against “tolerant pagans.” The myth of the Pre-Vatican II Church as being irredeemably anti-Semitic is compared to well-documented Medieval sources, including those by Jewish chroniclers, which demonstrate how the German Bishops used their private armies to defend Jewish communities against those, particularly during the First Crusade, who wished to massacre them.

With regards to the modern allegation that Catholic anti-Semitism culminated in Pope Pius XII being “Hitler’s pope,” Stark cites multiple sources, including past issues of the “New York Times” and even Nazi anti-Catholic propaganda and coded radio communications, that completely contradict it.

Stark then concludes, “It is true that for centuries the Catholic Church condoned an ugly array of anti-Semitic beliefs and participated in various forms of discrimination against Jews (as did the Protestants when they arrived upon the scene). This unpleasant fact gives plausibility to the charges that the Church also was deeply implicated in the pogroms that began in Medieval times and culminated in the Holocaust. However, much that is plausible is not true, and in this instance, it is not. The Roman Catholic Church has a long and honorable record of stout opposition to attacks upon Jews. And Pope Pius XII fully lived up to that tradition.”2

The origins of the myth that the Crusades were an early example of European colonialism is traced by Stark back to the 19th-century Government of the Ottoman Empire. This myth looks even sleazier when one considers that the Ottoman Government’s systematic genocide against Christian Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks during and after World War I make the Crusades, even at their absolute worst, look in comparison kind of like a kids’ game.

Rodney Stark’s summary of why it is wrong to accuse Catholics of always backing authoritarian governments particularly deserves to be mentioned.

After demonstrating that the Catholic Church opposed the First French Republic, the Soviet Union, and the Second Spanish Republic as an understandable response to religious persecution by all three, Stark wrote, “It simply isn’t true that the Church opposes freedom and democracy. Rather, it tends to oppose tyrants, especially those who attempt to destroy the Church.”3

This carries us right to the very reason why this reviewer has long believed that the fair and balanced study of history is so vitally important for those of us who have taken on the rebuilding of the future of Catholic civilization. Even though there are those who believe otherwise, we cannot build the future upon a foundation of lies about the past, because the study of history in and of itself demonstrates why doing so is both self-destructive and unsustainable.

This is what makes Rodney Stark’s work of setting the record straight so valuable. We cannot afford for history to be falsified even for what might seem in the moment to be laudable reasons. For if we choose to live by lies, the very concept of being set free by the truth loses all meaning.


1 Cyrus H. Gordon (1982), “Forgotten Scripts: Their Origins, Discovery, and Decipherment,” Basic Books. Pages 188-189.

2 Rodney Stark (2016), “Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of anti-Catholic History,” Templeton Press. Pages 34-35.

3 Ibid., Page 207.

TITLE IMAGE: Allegory of Vanity, Antonio de Pereda (1632 - 1636).