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Book Review: When a Non-Catholic Defends the Church

Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History
Rodney Stark
Templeton Press
280 pages
$19.57 hardcover, $11.17 paperback, $9.09 e-book

All of us are most likely familiar with the many “crimes” that the Catholic Church has committed throughout history. Whether it be the villainous Crusades launched against the Muslims in a misguided holy war or the Church’s ignorant assault against noble science and reason, we hear these assertions time and time again in books, news outlets, and mainstream entertainment to the point where most have accepted them to be undeniably true. Yet in reality, many of these claims have either been exaggerated or are false entirely, as Baylor University professor Rodney Stark presents in his book Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History.

Dr. Stark received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. He is co-director for the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor and the bestselling author of The Rise of Christianity. In Bearing False Witness, he takes down the most prominent attacks on Catholicism with historical knowledge, statistics, and brilliant commentary. Bearing False Witness not only debunks many of the false narratives created about the Church, but also provides faithful Catholics with an unbiased and factually correct arsenal of knowledge they can use when defending their beliefs from a host of modern adversaries. It is perhaps most fascinating that Dr. Stark is not a Catholic. He was raised Lutheran and classifies himself today as an “Independent Christian.”

Bearing False Witness consists of ten chapters. Each chapter is dedicated to a certain myth that has been created about the Catholic Church, how it originated, and why it is false. These include the anti-Semitism of Pope Pius XII, the staggering death toll caused by the Spanish Inquisition, and the persecution of pagan groups by ancient Christian authorities. Each chapter begins with the established lie about the Church and where it came from, followed by an in-depth and precise analysis that breaks down the myth and exposes the reasons for it being misleading and not historical. Dr. Stark proves each assertion false by examining multiple aspects of the lie, then comprehensively debunks them, all while providing the reader with a thorough and lively background.

Dr. Stark cites heavily from various resources. He provides tables that contain the authors, scholars, and other distinguished commentators whose studies and resources he relied on. Like Dr. Stark, many of these are not Catholic, either. By relying on their work, he avoids classification as a Catholic apologist while managing to refute anti-Catholic myth-making.

Statistics are also quite prominent. For example, in the chapter regarding the Catholic Church’s support of the African slave trade, Stark provides a table that contains the percentage of free blacks in Deep South cities to compare the prominence of slavery in Protestant areas versus Catholic ones. This addition assures readers of the author’s reliable sources and gives a place to start for potential further research.

The book has its limitations, but this may simply be a function of its ambitious timelines — covering as it does myths from pre-Christian Rome to the present, with each claim getting only one chapter. Each myth could justify an entire book. But as an introductory compendium done myth by myth, Bearing False Witness provides an excellent starting point. Indeed, Dr. Stark has written individual books for some of the ideas presented in Bearing False Witness. His book Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and Some Misfortunes challenges the idea of the many benefits of the Protestant Revolution, a concept discussed in chapter 10 of Bearing False Witness.

Dr. Stark’s God’s Battalions: The Case For the Crusades is a particularly topical example. This single-topic book expands what Bearing False Witness does in just a chapter. But what a chapter, and what a book. That the Crusades were unprovoked aggressions remains a popular way (in some circles) to explain “Muslim anger” of the kind that brings a disproportionate many of them to acts of terror against Western civilization. But the Crusades were not unilateral attacks. By the time the First Crusade launched in 1096, well armed Muslim invading forces had for centuries been overwhelming many previously Christian lands. In fact, the whole of North Africa and the Near East went from being entirely Christian to almost entirely Muslim. Particularly, the First Crusade was launched to at least reclaim the Holy Land and resist further invasions and encroachments into the Christian West.

All this to say that while there is some overlap between Dr. Stark’s chapter treatments and his full-book treatments of topics, this is probably unavoidable.

Dr. Stark’s insights and analyses were invaluable to my education and my personal growth in faith, especially as a student at a Catholic high school. Many of these claims are taught in religion and history classes, causing the Church to appear “bigoted” or “anti-science.” Not only do many non-Catholics use these claims to bash Catholicism on a routine basis, but even many Catholics accept them, forcing themselves to bow to the pressure of those who would gladly see the Church and the papacy diminished, if not wiped entirely from the Earth. Dr. Stark re-affirms the faith of older Catholics while also preventing doubt and confusion within younger members of the Faith (like me).

Dr. Stark makes it clear that he wrote this book not to defend Catholicism’s past, but rather “in defense of history” (7). He explains in the postscript that had Bearing False Witness been written by a Catholic, most would have viewed the book to be nothing more than “a work of special pleading” and dishonestly biased (231). Dr. Stark promotes instead a reliable defense of the Faith that at the same time is also a defense of true history.

Bearing False Witness is a must-have for all devout Catholics in all walks of life. It allows for the faithful to become more confident in their beliefs and for non-Catholics to be presented with the truthful narrative often denied to them by mainstream sources. Anyone serious about learning history, including Catholic history, seeks truth, and it is truth that provides the most effective battlements against those who would undermine the Holy Church by propagating myths about its history.

Lies lurk everywhere. Fight back.

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