In a famous example of “fake news” dating to the first century A.D., Tacitus (Annals XV.44) wrote that Nero, to deflect blame for the fire of Rome, “fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.”
(Hubert Robert, “The Fire of Rome”, 1785)
In an age hostile to Catholicism, we need to know real history to give us the factual tools to defend her.
As the world grows weary of months and years of “fake news,” it’s worth pondering that Catholics have been suffering because of fake news for twenty centuries.
As we see in Luke 23:2, the fake news that Jesus was “perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar” led to His crucifixion.
But the unfounded accusations against Christ were a prelude to those levelled against the Church He founded and against the members of that Church. Later in the first century, Tacitus records that Nero—to deflect the rumor he had started the great fire in Rome—decided to blame the Christians instead. Acting as judge, jury, press agent, and prosecutor, Nero inflicted suffering, torture and death upon Christians en masse. For good measure, Nero trumped up the charges; as Tacitus writes: “a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of ‘hating the human race.’” (We would see this accusation of hate levelled against us again and again.) In the second century, fake news was circulated that Christians were practicing cannibalism, although no one could find a single instance of this occurring. In the third century, the fake news was that Christians were responsible for earthquakes and droughts. In the fifth century, fake news had it that Christians were responsible for the sack of Rome.
And this was just some of the fake news during Roman times.
When it comes to fake news, we Catholics have had an abundance of it levelled against us from the infancy of the church to this day. And while anti-Catholic fake news is bad, fake history is worse. We’ve seen a plethora of this, too. Yesterday’s fake news is today’s fake history.
In his book, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, historian Rodney Stark makes the argument that fake history against the Catholic Church abounds. Many Catholic apologists respond to the unjust maligning of their church, but Stark’s book is unique insofar as it was written by a non-Catholic who wanted to respond to prevalent fake history. As Stark writes: “Finally, I am not a Roman Catholic, and I did not write this book in defense of the Church. I wrote it in defense of history.” Bearing False Witness covers ten major areas in which the church has been—and continues to be—unfairly treated and unjustly accused by those who call themselves historians.
There is a saying that “history is written by the victors,” yet Stark’s book illustrates that history is often written by those with a clear anti-Catholic bias, such as Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and Bertrand Russell. To compound the problem, the modern “histories” that exhibit the most pronounced contempt toward Catholicism get the most press. As Stark puts it:
…in recent years some of the most malignant contributions to anti-Catholic history have been made by alienated Catholics, many of whom are seminary dropouts, former priests, or ex-nuns….Normally, attacks originating with defectors from a particular group are treated with some circumspection. But, attacks on the Church made by ‘lapsed’ Catholics are widely regarded as thereby of special reliability!
It makes sense that most historical accounts rely on contemporary eyewitnesses, who are to varying degrees deemed credible. Stark’s book illustrates, however, that contemporary historical accounts that offer exculpatory evidence in defense of the Church are often summarily rejected in favor of claims from “experts” whose chief qualification is a pronounced contempt for the Catholic Faith and its doctrines. If that does not lay the groundwork for fake history, what does?
Obviously, one need not be Catholic to be a competent historian; but one should be truthful enough to grant the Church a fair hearing. As Stark points out, such a hearing is too often denied.
It is incumbent upon us Catholics to read more true history in order to defend the Church. Specifically, we need to focus on ecclesiastical history, the history of the papacy, and the history of the development of doctrine. William Thomas Walsh and Warren Carroll come to mind as trustworthy and capable historians whose work can be trusted. In an age hostile to Catholicism, it is not enough to desire to defend the Church against those who propagate anti-Catholic fake news and fake history. We need to know real history to give us the factual tools to defend her as well.