They all laughed at Columbus when he said the world was round,
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.
Professor Rodney Stark grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, in the 1930s and 1940s. He was, in his own words, “an American Protestant with intellectual pretensions”.
Every October 12 – Columbus Day – he would look on at “throngs of Knights of Columbus members, accompanied by priests, marching in celebration of the arrival of the ‘Great Navigator’ in the New World”. The young Stark found the spectacle absurd. He knew that Columbus had acted in the teeth of unyielding opposition from Roman Catholic prelates who cited biblical proof that the world was flat. Any attempt to reach Asia by sailing west would mean ships falling off the edge of the world, they said.
Years later he found out that the whole story was a lie. Stark recounts all of this – and explains the real story of the opposition to Columbus – in the introduction to his latest book Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (reviewed in the Catholic Herald on June 3).
So how did he get his first direct experience of Catholicism? “I was about 16 when I first attended a Catholic service. I went with a girl I was dating. I found nothing remarkable about it.” Stark was raised as a Lutheran and was used to “highly liturgical services. So I did not find Catholic ritual strange. We stood when Catholics knelt.” He adds: “I don’t know that this had any influence on my historical views.”
The historical view that Stark sets out in Bearing False Witness is that a line of “distinguished bigots”, stretching from Gibbon to the present day, have created a common culture in which widely held assumptions about the Catholic Church are based on “extreme exaggerations, false accusations and patent frauds”.
Stark insists that he is not a whitewasher and that he is “simply reporting the prevailing view among qualified experts”. He also reminds his readers that he is not a Catholic. Though never an atheist, he was for some time primarily a “cultural Christian” or, as he has described it elsewhere, “an admirer but not a believer”. And now? “I have not been an agnostic for years. I wrote myself to faith.”
The process of writing himself to faith includes books such as The Triumph of Christianity, which records “how the Jesus Movement became the world’s largest religion”; The Victory of Reason, explaining how Christianity led to freedom, capitalism and Western success; and God’s Battalions, an incisive defence of the Crusades.
As a fledgling historian in the 1960s, though, Stark was still wedded to notions of the baneful role of the Church in history. In his first year of graduate school at Berkeley, he was asked to prepare a brief of research he had been doing on anti-Semitism to be distributed to bishops attending the Second Vatican Council. According to Cardinal Augustin Bea, this summary was influential in the production of Nostra Aetate, the Council’s statement on the Jews.
Stark glowed with pride. But over the years, as he carried out more work on ancient and medieval history, he became aware of “the extent to which the Catholic Church had stood as a consistent barrier against anti-Semitic violence”. A long analysis of all known outbursts of anti-Semitic violence in both Europe and the Islamic world from 500 to 1600 forced him to reconsider the entire link between Christianity and anti-Semitism. This was to become the theme of the first chapter of Bearing False Witness.
Turning to the current state of the Catholic Church, Stark is typically unequivocal. Shame among Catholics about scandals involving paedophile priests is (in America at least) “limited to a few intellectuals. Otherwise there should have been substantial declines in membership or in Mass attendance. And that hasn’t happened. There has been no decline in membership or mass attendance in the United States.
“The commitment of ordinary Catholics seems unaffected. In Latin America, rates of mass attendance have doubled and redoubled during the past 25 years. Catholic membership in the nations of sub-Saharan Africa is very far above that even claimed by the Catholic Almanac and continues to grow rapidly.”
But what about Europe? “Europe is a lot more religious than it is said to be or even than it appears to be. I have written a lot about this, most recently in The Triumph of Faith.” Stark has suggested in other interviews that the lack of attendance at church in Europe is down to “ineffective churches rather than lack of faith, since religious belief remains high all across the continent”.
This is typically trenchant stuff from someone who has spent decades understanding the past and present of Christianity. So what then does Prof Stark see as the future for the Catholic Church? “Continued strength.”