The Church is distinctive among institutions in the history of mankind: it is human and yet divine; perfect, yet in need of reform; holy, yet made up of sinners; infallible, yet led by fallen, fallible humans.
While many seem to disregard the study of history as a wasteful pastime, events in Catholic Church history are often used to attack us. Based on ignorance, prejudice, or confusion, people know, or think they know, something about our Church’s past that is scandalous, cruel, or just bad. They use this misinformation or some distorted view of an event to attack the Church’s credibility on current moral issues, as if to say an institution that can perpetrate such misdeeds in the past can’t tell me what to do with my body (artificial birth control, abortion, fornication, etc.); it can’t tell me what’s right and what’s wrong.
Catholics should be prepared with at least a brief reply to commonly cited events and issues in the Church’s two millennia past. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, we need to be Catholics “who know so much of history that (we) can defend it.” We might not be able to change someone’s mind when she asks us about why the Church was so mean to Galileo, but at least we can demonstrate that we know our history. If she’s not willing to listen to a dissertation-length explanation, a few points might help her understand better. The fact that we know may impress her, open the door to more friendly conversation, and grant an opportunity to witness the reason for our joy in being Catholic. This article offers some guidelines and hints for answering these historical questions.
One advantage any Catholic starts with when discussing our history is the position of the Catholic Church as a historic, unique institution. Our Founder entered human history at a definite place and time, established his Church upon St. Peter and the Apostles, and promised to protect and guide it until the end of time, when he returns. With the Father, he sent the Holy Spirit to inspire it; yet he left imperfect humans to lead it as his representatives on earth. St. Peter had denied him thrice before his death on the cross; all but St. John had abandoned him during his Passion. Upon them, he founded the Church and gave them authority.
So the Church is distinctive among institutions in the history of mankind: it is human and yet divine; perfect, yet in need of reform; holy, yet made up of sinners; infallible, yet led by fallen, fallible humans. That’s a hard concept to express to someone outside the Church—sometimes it’s hard for us inside the Church to remember it.
One aspect of Church history that demonstrates the truth of this concept is simply that the Church has survived all that the people in it have done and said the past two thousand plus years. No organization could last unless it had Divine assistance remaining with it always, based on the pattern of conflict, corruption, and persecution Catholics have inflicted and endured. At crucial moments in Church history, God has always inspired some man or woman to lead a reform movement, to rouse the weak and slothful to action and fervor, to repulse the attacker, and even by suffering and dying, end the persecution.
Here are just a couple of examples of what I mean: think of the Catholic Reformation saints of the 16th and 17th centuries. When Christendom had been divided by the Protestant Reformation, and the Church was suffering a crisis of authority from the after-effects of the period of popes and anti-popes, the French takeover of the papacy, and some bad Renaissance popes, along come a group of reformers, missionaries, founders, and educators. St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Philip Neri, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and many more revived the Church, reformed their religious orders, established new ones, and took the Gospel around the world. Bishops and cardinals—like St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. Francis de Sales—reformed the seminaries, visited their parishes, battled abuses, and wrote books of spiritual direction and Catholic apologetics. Don’t forget the popes who called the Council of Trent and implemented its reforms: Paul IV, St. Pius V, Gregory XIII, and Sixtus V, for example. After the Church seemed to be in such grave danger, it emerged more unified and dedicated to its mission to proclaim the Good News.
Remember the English martyrs of the 16th century recusant era: men and women like St. Edmund Campion, St. Robert Southwell, St. Margaret Ward, and St. Anne Line. Their willingness to suffer excruciating torture and endure (in the case of “traitorous” priests, the barbaric execution of being drawn, hanged, and quartered) inspired generations of Catholics to remain true, in spite of fines and harassment. Even those who opposed the Catholic Church were impressed by their fortitude, marveled at their endurance, and regretted their deaths. Queen Elizabeth I and her government found that after they executed priests and the laity who assisted them, more priests and more laity, who refused to conform, rose up after them. The blood of the English martyrs, for many years, was the seed of the Catholic Church in England when it was driven underground and persecuted.
There are many other examples of this pattern of crisis and revival in the Church. We have just witnessed it in the efforts of Blessed Pope John Paul II, who celebrated the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity after contributing to the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. He also inspired young people with World Youth Day, encouraged a new generation of “John Paul II” priests, and directed the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the revised Code of Canon Law. He wrote many encyclicals, and other papal documents, firmly setting out Church teaching on the Gospel of Life, the relationship between Faith and Reason, the moral law, etc.
But there are still those hard cases to deal with—they seem to come up in the mainstream media, on cable television stations like the “History Channel,” and in the context of current events. The Crusades are a good example. Thomas Madden reflected on the reputation of the Crusades in the June/July 2009 article in First Things, “Inventing the Crusades.” He quotes former U.S. President Bill Clinton saying that Muslims hate the West because the Crusaders invaded their land, and committed great atrocities, and we paid for that legacy of hatred on September 11, 2001. Madden states that academic historians know the truth about the Crusades; they were fought because the Muslims had invaded the Holy Land—but popular history and half-truths prevail.
The next time Ridley Scott’s movie, The Kingdom of Heaven, is on cable, a Catholic can defend against those half-truths by pointing out, as Madden does, that few, if any, Crusaders got rich off their journeys to the Holy Land. They went there because they sought the forgiveness of their sins through reparation, and the Plenary Indulgence offered by the pope, and they sacrificed and suffered greatly. As Madden concludes his essay, he recommends The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, a book by Jonathan Riley-Smith, published by Columbia University Press. Europe defended the Holy Land during the Middles Ages, and continued the Crusades against Muslim invasions of Eastern Europe in the 17th century, culminating in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Vienna on September 11 and 12, 1683. The feast of the Holy Name of Mary commemorates that event.
The Monty Python cohort may have said, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” but Catholics can expect it to be brought up regularly. This exaggerated version emphasizes all the depths of the Black Legend of Spain: the tyranny of the popes and the Catholic Church, torture, and the multitude of victims writhing in agony, burned alive during the auto-da-fe. The quick facts to present in response to an attack on the Church concerning the Spanish Inquisition are these:
- The government wanted the Spanish Inquisition, not the Church; the State was in charge.
- Successive popes, like Pope Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII complained to Spain about the conduct of the Inquisition.
- The Church never tortured anyone—Spanish officials may have, but no Inquisitorial friar or monk ever tortured someone accused of heresy.
- The Church did not burn anyone to death; in fact, of the approximately 2,000 condemned to death by the State, very few were actually executed—they were usually burned in effigy, having fled the country.
- Those condemned were not burned alive at the stake during the auto-da-fe.
Those are the facts to present, but the deeper issue is that in medieval and early modern (Renaissance and Reformation) eras in Europe, heresy was a serious matter for the State. Queen Elizabeth I in England wanted all her subjects to be members of the Church of England, and King Philip II of Spain wanted all his subjects to be Catholics. To them, it was a measure of unity and loyalty in their realms. We look back and think, how could the government be so concerned about what doctrine their subjects believed, what religion they practiced? Governments today around the world are just as concerned about the religious practice of their citizens. Even the United States, which has enshrined religious liberty in our Bill of Rights, is facing a crisis of religious freedom and the rights of conscience.
Next, the Galileo incident comes up, which claims that the Catholic Church has always been against Science and Reason (and that’s why we’re opposed to embryonic stem cell research and in vitro fertilization). The Galileo case is complex, and yet, it is usually presented with the scientist as the victim of cruelty and oppression. Sometimes your questioner may even think that Galileo was put to death (which may mean he confuses him with Giordano Bruno, but that’s another story). The best line of defense is to present a few facts:
- Galileo had been supported in his scientific efforts by the Church for a long time.
- Galileo’s work was evaluated by Jesuit astronomers who were working according to the scientific method.
- Galileo, while correct about his heliocentric theory of the universe, had no scientific proof to support it.
You might even say that it was Galileo who trespassed in theological matters more than the Church trying to sneak theology into science. He started to sneak his science into the interpretation of the Holy Bible. He got into most of his trouble because he mocked the pope personally and impugned his intelligence. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, and other church officials, worked carefully and slowly on this matter: there was no rush to condemn him, but a long period of tension. Galileo was finally placed under house arrest. He continued corresponding with his illegitimate daughter, who was a nun in a nearby convent, and he had to pray the Seven Penitential Psalms from the Old Testament every day—not the most onerous punishment in the world.
In the modern era, of course, the great historical attack against the Catholic Church comes from the supposed silence and inaction of Pope Pius XII, standing by while Jews were tortured and murdered during the Nazi Holocaust. The supreme irony about this historical canard is that after World War II, Pope Pius XII was hailed by survivors of the Holocaust and the first leaders of Israel, like Golda Meir, as a great “righteous Gentile.” He was lauded for his efforts to protect the Jewish people in Italy (in Rome especially), and throughout the period leading up to and during the war, his consistent call for peace. Yet, because of a play, a work of dramatic fiction presented in the early 1960s, Pope Pius XII posthumously became the target of attack because he supposedly did not denounce the Nazi regime, at least not in the terms that some now wanted him to use then. The title of the play is “The Deputy,” by Rolf Hochhuth. Once it appeared on the stage, the pope’s reputation changed dramatically. He became known as “Hitler’s Pope” (from the title of John Cornwell’s 1999 book).
Here are a few facts to present against the view that the Catholic Church or Pope Pius XII was silent in the face of Nazi atrocities:
- Pope Pius XII spoke out clearly against the entire Nazi campaign of invasion of sovereign lands, like Czechoslovakia and Poland.
- He spoke out against the extermination of Jews directly in his Christmas message of December 1942, and The New York Times praised him for it.
- Pope Pius XII took many actions to defend Jews:
- He issued false documents, including baptismal documents, so that Jewish refugees could emigrate;
- He worked with other governments to obtain visas (but not the United States of America or Great Britain, which would not allow immigration of Jewish refugees);
- He opened Castel Gandolfo, as well as convents and monasteries throughout Rome and Vatican City, for Jewish Italians to take refuge.
And then there is the deeper issue of the danger that Jews, as well as Catholic and Protestant converts from Judaism, would face if he had directly and pointedly attacked Nazi policies toward their “race.” The International Red Cross knew at the time, just as Pope Pius XII did, that such statements would lead to reprisals. The bishop in Holland learned this by experience. Hitler’s agents warned the Archbishop of Utrecht not to speak out against the deportation of Dutch Jews, and when he did, the Nazis rounded up Catholic converts from Judaism, sending them to the death camps. These included the Carmelite nun, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (previously known as Edith Stein) who died at Auschwitz.
Finally, since this attack is aimed at the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, it’s important to remember the pope is infallible only when teaching on matters of faith and morals. The Church has never taught that the pope is impeccable, unable to err in practical matters and actions.
As these four examples demonstrate, it is possible to be prepared with a few salient responses to historical attacks on the Church. If you don’t immediately have any answer about the particular historical example you’re confronted with, just ask for some time to research and answer it later. There are certainly many online Catholic apologetic resources you can investigate. Also, if the other person is willing and really seems interested in hearing more when you’ve responded, you can follow up with more information: suggestions of books to read, documentaries to watch, deeper questions and discussions, etc.
Although there are some pitfalls here, too, you might be able to talk about some of the achievements of the Church, and of Catholics over the centuries. As Thomas E. Woods, Jr., aptly demonstrates in his book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2005), and in an EWTN miniseries based on the book, “The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization,” there are some great achievements. The Church founded the first universities, served as the great patron of painters, sculptors, architects, composers, scientists, philosophers, theologians, and poets, and made contributions in other areas.
As Woods, and many other authors, have certainly pointed out, the Catholic Church has been the great dispenser of charity in the world throughout history. It has founded hospitals, schools, hospices, and orphanages; not to mention great organizations of charity run by the laity, as well as religious orders to serve, feed, care for, and educate the poor worldwide. Catholic intellectuals and professors have made great contributions to international law and human rights standards, economics, and codes of law, morality, and social justice. It may be hard not to sound triumphalistic, but you can temper your enthusiasm by admitting that the Church sometimes has failed in efforts to conquer injustice, or protect the innocent. Certainly, individual Catholics have committed injustices in the two-thousand-plus-year history of the Church.
The strange flipside of these achievements, however, is that someone might say that the Vatican, and the churches around the world, should sell priceless artwork, using the money to eliminate poverty. That adjective “priceless” points out one of the flaws of that argument: who could afford to pay what it’s worth? But, even if other museums, and private collectors, could pay what that vast treasure of beauty is worth, would it really be enough to take care of all the poor? What happens when that money has been distributed, and the problem of poverty has still not been solved?
As nearly every guidebook comments about each great European capital with a Catholic heritage, the cathedrals and churches are a great free refuge and resource for the weary tourist. They offer shelter from heat and rain, a place to rest, and a feast for the eyes to see great artwork by Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Rubens, Tintoretto, and many others, especially that great and prolific artist, “Anonymous.” What about justice to the benefactors who gave artwork to the Church for the purpose of praising God in beautiful churches? Is it fair to their memory? Once the artwork is in private hands, for example, who will have access to it? The poor? Not likely.
Also, once the skeptic hears that the Church founded the university system in Europe, he might comment that the Church does not practice or uphold academic freedom. This is a harder point to address because it requires the listener to learn that the correct meaning of freedom is to know the truth, and to do the good. His view of freedom may be closer to license: freedom to do, say, and think whatever he wants. A true university would not teach error; it has no right to teach error. A university teaching error in science, history, or some professional or practical field, like accounting or dental hygiene, would not fulfill its mission. For Catholic colleges and universities, as Pope John Paul II explained in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the local bishop has the responsibility to make sure that the truths of the Catholic faith are taught according the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. If a Catholic college or university teaches error about Catholic doctrine or morality, it cannot fulfill its mission. Besides, that argument does nothing to deny the fact that the Catholic Church established the first great European universities.
Whatever the challenge to the Church’s history we might face, the quest to be Catholics “who know so much of history that (we) can defend it” is exciting and inspiring. Blessed John Henry Newman found it to be true. While studying the history of the development of Christian doctrine, he became a Catholic before he finished his book, The Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, in which he proclaimed “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Each era of our history, in every country and on every continent (and this article represents a Eurocentric view, admittedly), is filled with so many examples of human effort, achievement, failure, and recovery. Heroes and villains, saints and sinners, all provide us with examples to emulate or avoid. Great projects, reform movements, dilemmas, and conflicts move us to examine the situations and goals of our own time and place. More than a tool for apologetics and evangelization, Church history is also a subject for thoughtful exploration and meditation.
- An overview in print: Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church by H.W. Crocker (Three Rivers Press, 2003)
- An overview on video: “The Catholic Church Through the Ages” by Father Charles Connor; miniseries DVDs available from EWTN, the Global Catholic Network
- More on Galileo and the Church: Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible by Richard J. Blackwell (University of Notre Dame Press: 1992)
- More on Inquisition in Spain: The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision by Stanley Kamen (Yale University Press, 1999)
- Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust: Righteous Gentiles: How Pius XII and the Catholic Church Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis by Ronald J. Rychlak (Spence Publishing Company, 2005)
- When someone starts talking about the “Dark Ages”: Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths by Regine Pernoud (Ignatius Press, 2000)
- When someone starts saying the Church was cruel to women in the “Dark Ages”: Women in the Days of the Cathedrals by Regine Pernoud (Ignatius Press, 1998)