December 3rd 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Anti-discrimination law validates Safe Schools

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs on the way out, but her weapon (18C) must go too

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump White House

EDITORIAL Trump portends the start of a new political era

EUTHANASIA Late-night reprieve in SA Parliament

EAST ASIAN AFFAIRS Taiwan and Japan look extinction in the face

SEXUAL POLITICS Victorian Liberals pledge to scrap Safe Schools

LAW AND SOCIETY No-fault divorce a tragedy of nuclear proportions

PARENTING Experts envisage lustrous future for infant graduates

POLITICAL HISTORY Folly with a touch of good sense: Colonel Sibthorp

ECONOMICS Trump as a symptom of the end of neoliberalism

MUSIC Vale Leonard: did we ever really understand you?

CINEMA Fantastical and beastly: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

BOOK REVIEW A Life well spent

BOOK REVIEW Catholic revisals

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS How the left whitewashed Fidel Castro

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BOOK REVIEW
Catholic revisals




News Weekly, December 3, 2016

BEARING FALSE WITNESS: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History

by Rodney Stark

Templeton Press, PA
Hardcover: 272 pages
Price: AUD$55.90

 

Reviewed by Peter Kelleher

 

Rodney Stark is a sociologist by training and is that rare thing: a person who seeks the truth in earnest and is swayed by the truth when it is found. He is a past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and is now a professor at Baylor University, a Baptist college in Waco, Texas.

This highly readable book, in its tone of indignation and astonishment, is reminiscent of William Cobbett’s bold contribution to truth telling amid sectarian distortions and lies, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, written between 1824 and 1826 as a series of letters. Stark’s book, also like Cobbett’s, resonates as an attempt by a non-Catholic observer to set the record straight on “Catholic history” as it is taken to be within even the best educated sectors of the English-speaking world (which is predominantly Protestant), not to mention among a great many Catholics themselves.

The topics are mostly familiar – the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Galileo affair, the attack on Pope Pius XII as a Nazi sympathiser, and others – and it is refreshing that Stark not only exonerates the Church where he can (where he can’t he certainly does not tread lightly) but finds often enough that the contrary view is where the truth can be found.

The title of the book, Bearing False Witness, is a particular challenge to the Protestants among us, as the words will resound to them as a reference to the Commandments; men and women of goodwill are thus encouraged to examine the depth of their commitment to the “standard history” as it may have come to them through every medium of communication since childhood.

American Catholic writer Michael Novak, in his review of Stark’s book, makes this comment in this regard: “Growing up Catholic in the United States is to hear a constant stream of stuff that, one’s experience shows, is just not true.”

Similarly, in his introduction to the book, Stark refers to the fact that he was mystified as a youth at why the Catholics in the U.S. made such a fuss about Columbus Day, a public holiday in the U.S., even so far as having a society called the Knights of Columbus. Did these silly Catholics not know that the Church authorities had warned Christopher Columbus not to make his westward voyage in search of a shorter way to India because they believed that the world was flat.

Stark writes: “Everybody knew that about the Catholics and Columbus. We not only learned it in school, the story of Columbus proving the world to be round also was told in movies, Broadway plays, even in popular songs.”

Even some of us Australians may remember Ira Gershwin’s lyric: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round. They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.” (They All Laughed)

Stark follows the same method in each chapter. He reports the “accepted history” that “everyone knows” and then shows just how false each of the accepted views is. But he does not do this on his own. A major and important contention of the book is that the latest historical research is solidly behind each of the revisions he makes. So he provides a long and thorough bibliography for any reader who may wish to pursue the views to their origins.

On the Crusades, Stark points the reader in the direction of Thomas Madden and Jonathan Riley-Smith; he directs us to Robert Lopez and Jean Gimpel to dispel the fog of the Dark Ages, which have rapidly dissipated under the gaze of modern scholarship.

On the scurrilous charges that Pope Pius XII did nothing to help the Jews during World War II, Stark puts us in the hands of Rabbi David Dalin; and on the Catholic Church’s supposed ineradicable anti-Semitism in general, we are sent to Leon Poliakov, a French-Russian Jewish historian.

But disengaging people from their deeply held beliefs is a thankless task. More so when it is considered that, sociologically, the audiences on both sides of the sectarian divide have altered somewhat with the years. The Catholic-Protestant divide is not seen to be as unbridgeable as it was when the canards Stark explodes were in the making; and the average modern secularist is unconvinced by any pleading on behalf of Catholics for he sees rather that the black marks devised for Catholic visages will blacken the faces of any and all Christians.

Nonetheless, as Stark himself has demonstrated (he used to describe himself as “personally incapable of religious faith”, though he now calls himself a Christian), there are men and women of goodwill out there of no particular religious persuasion who will be swayed by the arguments and the facts.

They may be few, but that has always been the case, and those few will be glad that Rodney Stark has provided the wherewithal to help them break free from the “oldest prejudice”.


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