Telling the Truth About the Church

Book Pick: Rodney Stark’s new book, Bearing False Witness


Bearing False Witness

Debunking Centuries of
Anti-Catholic History

By Rodney Stark

Templeton Press, 2016

 272 pages, $27.95

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The basis for U.S. church-state jurisprudence has its roots in anti-Catholic prejudice. 

How we got here is a theme of Rodney Stark’s new book, Bearing False Witness, which traces and debunks a number of falsehoods about the Church that have made deep roots in our culture. As Stark, a historian who is not Catholic and teaches at Baylor University, a Baptist institution, recounts, his historical research uncovered one lie after another about the Church.

And sometimes these lies yet persist in the culture long after professional historians no longer believe they are true.

Stark wrote that he began to realize that “the issue of distinguished anti-Catholic history is too important and its consequences too pervasive to ignore.”

If one does not accurately understand the Church, one will not understand Western, or indeed much of world, culture. Stark’s chapter on religion and science is alone worth the book, since the Church has done so much to foster real scientific advancement; indeed, some have argued that it is Christian belief in an objective order supported by natural law that makes science even possible.

Stark divides the book into 10 chapters, which cover subjects such as anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the Inquisition and the supposed “suppression” of lost scriptures.

Stark does not ignore the sometimes-ugly episodes of Church history, but he is interested in clearly setting out the lies about the Church that remain current, even if false.

Thus, in response to the announcement of another “lost gospel” that supposedly shows Jesus acting in ways contrary to Church teaching, Stark, after thorough review, states simply that “these gospels were not so much suppressed as they were discarded as obvious forgeries and nonsense.”

The idea of a Church crushing dissent with the aid of civil authorities surfaces with the Inquisition and again during the French Revolution, and again, the facts are otherwise. Stark probably claims a little too strongly that the Church favored the revolution — in fact, the Church did support significant reforms, but not overturning the monarchy; but he is exactly right that the war against the Church was started by the revolutionaries who could not abide by the nuance of the Church’s teaching: that there are two spheres of authority, one spiritual and one temporal. That same government hostility to religious faith is echoed in the Obama administration’s attack on the Church today. 

These lies all serve a similar purpose, of course: to denigrate the Church’s teaching authority and moral standing, and thus remain useful to those who want to see the Church as “backward” or needlessly punitive.

Stark writes as an historian, not an apologist; but the truth is not only good history, but also the best defense of the Church.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (