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Pope Pius XII
Steve Weatherbe

Opinion

Refuting anti-Catholic falsehoods: Three scholars are willing deep-dive into history to defend the Church

Steve Weatherbe

December 22, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — As more people and organizations come “out” in defense of sexual deviance, they also bare their animosity for Christianity in general and the Catholic Church (and conservative Protestantism, it must be said) in particular. In doing so, everyone from President Obama through leading sex therapists like David Snarsh and comedians like Jon Stewart right down to the woman next to me in the Rialto Hotel bar now feel free to throw out patent falsehoods totally divorced from the historical record.

Obama thinks the Crusades were an act of brutal aggression against peace-loving Muslims, Snarsh thinks the Church tried to stop Columbus because his trip would disprove their teaching that the world was flat, Stewart thinks those wars fought in the name of Christ killed more people than ”all other wars in history” — a trope he borrowed from fellow comedian/junk historian George Carlin.

Celebrity planetarium operator Neil DeGrasse Tyson is sure that every discovery of modern science was resisted by the resistance of the Catholic Church and Protestant Fundamentalists, though he can only ever mention two — heliocentrism and evolution. The woman next to me at the Rialto believes the Church in the Middle Ages ordered Down Syndrome children put to death because they were the devil’s spawn. (But she had no idea the Catholic Church is the only contemporary institution that defends Down children from the abortion holocaust.)

These mostly old lies have been joined by a powerful new one: the myth of Pope Pius XII’s complicity with Hitler’s extermination of Europe’s Jews. The last claim in particular, which originated as a classic piece of Soviet disinformation in the 1960s, has sparked an ongoing debate kept alive by anti-Catholic polemicists, including embittered ex-seminarians or ex-priests with personal axes to grind, such as John Cornwell (Hitler’s Pope) and James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword, a more general account of alleged Catholic anti-semitism).

Now come three very different but all welcome defenses of the Catholic Church. Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of anti-Catholic History; Peter Bartley’s Catholics Confront Hitler; The Catholic Church and the Nazis; and Mark Reibling’s Church of Spies: the Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler. The last of the three uncovered enough intrigue to be turned into a docu-drama that aired recently on the National Geographic channel.

Stark’s is the most accessible as he needs to apply a breezy touch in order to cover 500 years of lies. Bartley adds revelations from recently opened archives to provide a very readable survey of the ways the Church worked against the Nazis’ evil extermination plans across Europe.

Reibling’s work is the most argumentative, original, and focused. He has taken the wartime escapades of a Bavarian Catholic named Josef Muller to answer a mystery close to the heart of the debate over Pope Pius XII. Why, after speaking out against Nazi racism and in explicit defense of Jews in his famous encyclical Summi Pontificatus in late 1939 while also pledging to continue “to speak the truth,” did he more or less do the opposite and never mentioned the Jews publicly for the rest of the war?

And why didn’t he? Was it cowardice, as some allege, fearing arrest and execution by the Nazis, who certainly considered it and may actually have ordered it at one point. Or was it concern for the lives of Catholics in Occupied Europe or in Germany, where little stood between Hitler and his homicidal inclinations? Or was it because of the hope that Hitler would defeat the Soviet Union, whom Pius judged at least as great a threat to humankind?

Reibling’s thesis is that on the very day he published his encyclical he joined the German officers’ plot to assassinate Hitler, with Muller serving as the go-between. An affable man with a wide network of friends, a private plane, and legitimate reasons to fly it to Italy, Muller was already working for the Vatican before the war began. He soon became the courier between dissidents in the German officer corps and the Pope, securing the latter’s secret services to broker an armistice with the Allies if the naval and army dissenters could pull off the assassination.  

The Pope, in Reibling’s telling, kept silent so that he could fulfill this hopeful role to bring the war swiftly to an end, and Hitler to a deserving death. This thesis is the weakest part of a meticulous detailing of plots and plotters and a harrowing  account of Muller’s undercover work. This brought him close to death alongside dozens of less lucky senior officers such as the German spy chief Admiral Canaris and Protestant Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer told him, as the two of them sat in the back of an army truck taking them from one death camp to another that the Gestapo had extorted a confession from him by threatening to harm his family. Maybe Muller survived because never confessed to anything.

Church of Spies is a book for those fascinated with the inner workings of the Nazi regime and the German resistance. Reading it is necessarily tinged with the sad knowledge that the numerous murder plots would all fail and most of the plotters would die painful deaths. Muller, however, survived to become a key political figure in post-war West Germany. Many plotters were also devout Christians whose faith, we can pray, sustained them to the end, which was not the end.

Pope Pius XII's so-call 'silence'

Bartley’s book looks at the Church in the Second World War from a wider angle, wading into the debate about Pius XII’s “silence,” then stepping back to relate how the German bishops spoke out often against the Nazi program of extermination of Jews, Gypsies, dissidents, Slavs, and the mentally and physically handicapped. The book tells how the Church in Italy and the rest of Europe from west to east hid Jews and others marked for death in monasteries, churches, and convents. The German bishops were particularly outspoken in criticizing the Nazis. Three-quarters of France’s Jews, for example, survived the war because of the Church and brave individuals.

As for the Pope, he did speak out, Bartley insists, in his Christmas message of 1942 most notably. Though he did not mention the Jews, his denunciation of crimes committed by (also unnamed) totalitarian regimes in the name of racism was clearly seen by those struggling under the Nazi boot, those in the free world, and by the Nazis themselves as an attack on the latter. As the Jewish American physicist Albert Einstein declared, “Only the Catholic Church protested against the Hitlerian onslaught on liberty.”

These works rely on the Church’s fastidious recordkeeping. The hostile critics who allege Pope Pius’ silence and inaction in the face of the Holocaust depend, on the other hand, on the absence of documents and so their calumnies will slink away as scholars unearth more telltale paperwork.

This is also what has happened with the past 500 years of lies that Dr. Stark takes on with his remarkable book. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, suffered literally from very bad press. Among the first works churned out by the early printing presses of Protestant Holland and England were hundreds of false accounts of the Inquisition murdering tens of thousands of Jews, Moors and Protestants. Bad historians since then have inflated the death count to more than 100,000 — all burned at the stake, many after horrible torture. This, says Stark, is “mostly a pack of lies.”

Stark works his way carefully through the debris path of these mis-histories revealing how modern scholarship has examined the 44,674 cases recorded by the Spanish Inquisition between 1540 and 1700. Over its entire 300-year history, the Spanish Inquisition turned over only 2,300 people to the civil authorities for execution. In contrast, Stark writes, “During the subsequent century (1530 to 1630), the English averaged 750 hangings a year, many of them for minor thefts.” The Inquisition recommended death only for repeat offenders who obstinately refused to recant their heresies.

As for the notorious torture chambers, Stark writes that torture was used in “only about 2 percent” of the cases because inquisitors were skeptical of confessions thus extracted. Meanwhile, its prisons were so much more comfortable than civil prisons that criminals blasphemed to engineer transfers.

What about witches? The whole witchcraft thing has been grotesquely exaggerated, says Stark, with made-up figures in the hundreds of thousands. “During the century 1540–1640, when the witch hunts were at their peak in most of Europe, the Inquisition of Aragon (one of the two Inquisitions functioning in Spain) executed only 12 people for ‘superstition and witchcraft.’”  

As for Spain’s Jews, tens of thousands were expelled by the Spanish Crown while many others converted, some insincerely. In three centuries, the Inquisition examined 942 of these under suspicion of remaining faithful to Judaism, turning over only 16 to the Crown for execution in all that time.

Summarizes Stark, “In contrast with the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”

Repeating the mistruths

In all his revisionist histories, Stark likes to quote various contemporaries such as U.S. presidents, Hollywood stars, and academics both out of their field and out of their depth who thoughtlessly repeat the falsehoods.

Thus President Obama’s fatuous statement at a National Prayer Breakfast, delivered with his customary master-of-the-universe insouciance, defended recent Muslim brutality by reminding his Christian audience “that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Respected academic Daniel Boorstin declared the Dark Ages occurred because “the leaders of Orthodox Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge.”

On the contrary, declares Stark, “Serious historians have known for decades this is a complete fraud — “an indestructible fossil of self-congratulatory Renaissance humanism.” Enlightenment promoters did this to put their own age and themselves in the best light and to portray the years between themselves and the classical Romans and Greeks as a period of barbarism, wilful ignorance and technological stagnation.

According to the myth, the scientists and philosophers of the Enlightenment based their mental explorations on the classical era, whose knowledge had been suppressed or lost by the stupid, barbarian Christians.

But the Romans weren’t all that wonderful, counters Stark. The Roman Empire was a kleptocracy, sustained by the highly organized gang of robbers known as the Roman Army, which marched home from wars with weaker neighbors bearing booty and thousands of  slaves to do Rome’s farming and manufacturing.

But slavery, argues Stark, not only ruined enterprise and innovation (why invent labor-saving devices when labor was so cheap), but slaves didn’t work as hard as freemen. Once the empire fell, the common people were freer and better nourished but fewer in number and less governed. They invented windmills and over-shot waterwheels, horse collars, crop rotation, stirrups, cannons, guns, chimneys, eyeglasses, polyphony followed by modern musical notation, the university, and so on. Many technological ideas were spread by the very same monasteries or diocesan administrations later to be condemned in the Enlightenment melodrama as villains.

What is clear is that so much important technological progress occurred during these so-called Dark Ages, writes Stark, “that Classical Greece and Rome had been left far behind. In fact, even though they did not possess cannons, the Crusader knights who marched off to the Holy Land  in 1097 would have made short work of the Roman legions.”

To demolish the myth of Catholic suppression of science in its early days in the 15th and 16th centuries, he shows that science’s early days were deep in the Middle Ages. Since the Scientific Revolution is often dates from Copernicus’s 15th century development of the heliocentric universe, Stark shows how a succession of thinkers – Robert Grosseteste, who developed an early version of the scientific method in the 12th century and refuted Artistotle's theory of the rainbow, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and Nicole D’Oresme — were all clergy.

To further debunk the false conflict between church and science, Stark turns social scientist and develops a method to determine who were the best scientists of the age and then another method to rate them by religiosity. This produces a nifty table to show that 60 percent of the best scientists were demonstrably pious, another 38 percent were ordinary churchgoers, and only 2 percent were skeptics. Then he debunks the second part of the myth that the best scientists were all Protestants. He calculates a 50-50 split, though the English as a nationality had more than their share.

Stark also explains that the key Christian contributions to what he calls the rise of the West — the belief in a God of reason and laws who created a universe whose physical principles could be discovered by the scientific method, observation, and logic.

As for the Crusades, he takes us through the latest research indicating they were not a war of imperialism (but, rather defensive), not bent on converting peaceful Muslims by the sword (but keeping Muslim bandits, and bandit governments, from interfering with Christian pilgrims), not rapacious looters (but costly affairs that transferred the wealth of Western Europe to the Holy Land).

Most of Stark's book is old ground, but nobody retells it with his panache. Here is his summary of his chapter on the Crusades:

"The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The Crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. The Crusades are not a blot on the history of the Catholic Church. No apologies are required."

It’s hard not see this latest work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anrti-Catholic History, as the climax of his career, for it builds on so many earlier works such God’s Battalions, How the West Won, The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.

But this is Rodney Stark we’re talking about here: You know he’s not about to rest on his laurels. Maybe next he’ll defend fundamentalist Protestantism (which truthfully never gets enough credit for its contributions to the world) and (may I modestly propose) the oft-maligned foreign missionaries who now stand unjustly but routinely accused of cultural genocide.

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