Monday, August 19, 2013

Tablet Thoughts: Evil Catholic History?


One of the common attacks against Christianity and Catholicism in particular is to point to the savagery of history. The question asked is, "If Catholicism is God's Church, Why did they do [X]?"

[X] being supporting slavery or torture or some other kind of behavior which leaves us appalled in the 21st century.

The problem with these accusations is they tend to presume that Catholicism itself was the cause of the barbarism and to move towards an enlightened society is to move against Catholicism.

But the fact that these were societal practices that Catholics of a region happened to follow, it does not mean that Catholicism taught it as a doctrine to be practiced. Nor does it mean it was exclusive to Catholicism.

When Catholics object to attacks on past history, it is not because we deny they happened or want to whitewash them. Rather we object to the attempts to tie them exclusively to Catholicism and to distort the facts inventing motives we deny and increasing what happened by orders of magnitude.

The Whig Theory of History

Part of the problem is there is a certain view of history that holds that history is a story of progress. Things are constantly improving over time. People become more free over time. They become more civilized over time. Movements may arise to move people backwards, and they must be opposed.

Under such a view, Protestantism is an improvement over Catholicism. The Enlightenment is an improvement over Protestantism and so on.  Moreover, the Renaissance was superior to the Middle Ages and the Modern Era superior to the Renaissance (and vastly superior to the Middle Ages).

It's a flawed view of history which assumes that if social conditions a hundred years ago were worse than today, a thousand years ago, they must have been even worse still.

The view also presumes that because a society advances in technology, it must be advanced socially and morally. But just because government is becoming more centralized and law enforcement is getting better technology, crime is easier contain, that doesn't mean the society is better or safer.

A Catholic View of History

A more Catholic approach to history would recognize that every society is made up of human beings -- each one of them a child of God and each one of them a sinner. Each such society is flawed and practices certain vicious customs that go against the will of God -- even if the society has Christian roots.

What follows from this observation is that with two societies, a hundred years apart, it does not follow that the newer society must be superior to the older.

Instead each society has its own vices and injustices. Medieval society might have been wrong to view heresy as a capital crime, but remember, it was 20th century society that featured governments willing and able to commit mass genocide. It recognizes that at times barbarism replaces civilized society and that barbarism can have effects that far outlast the government that implements them (such as trials by ordeal existing in Europe long after pagan Germanic tribes fell out of power).

Also, this view can recognize that societies can embrace new evils which the older societies rejected. Ultimately this view rejects the notion of Progress as always moving forward... it recognizes societies can slip backwards and become worse, even as technology improves.

An Example of the Difference

For example, let's consider the 13th and 19th centuries. Under the Whig view of history, we would assume the 19th century was superior to the 13th, having overcome certain behaviour we find offensive today.

But, there was a major difference between the West of the 19th century and the West of the 13th century -- in the 13th century, slavery was almost unknown,  while it was a major factor in the 19th century (it was largely accepted in 1800 as normal). If slavery is an evil, it follows that a society that embraces it is worse than one which does not.

Surprised? But it's true. Slavery faded out of existence as Europe moved from a pagan society to a Christian one. When it existed, it was as penal labor as punishment for a crime.

Indeed, when slavery began to appear again when the Portuguese began taking captives in the Canary Islands for slaves. In 1435, Pope Eugene IV, in the document Sicum Dudut, condemned slavery and the slave trade, ordering the excommunication of those who did not free the slaves they took.

Church Teaching and Society's Practice is not Always the Same

The reader might object at this point, "But slavery didn't end!" Yes, you are right, sadly. People did ignore Church teaching on the subject...

...just as they ignore the Church today on subjects like abortion. It would be just as ridiculous to say that Christianity was the cause of the practice of abortion because of the number of Christians who practice it as  as it would be to say Christianity was the cause of slavery in the West because of thr numbers of Christians who practiced it.

That is: we can find Papal documents condemning slavery and abortion,  but we can't find the documents permitting them. So it isn't reasonable to accuse the Church of being pro-slavery, is it?

Sinful Catholics vs. Catholic Teaching

What's important to remember is that while the Church can insist people follow Church Teaching, they can't actually make them live by it. Some may be overt in their disobedience. Others may live hypocritically. Some may struggle to do right and fall short. Others may contemptuously ignore what they disagree with.

These sinners can be the average member of the laity or may be someone in authority. What's more, they are everyone in the Church except Jesus Christ (who is God) and His mother (preserved by a special grace).

So when it comes to condemning the Church herself, it is only reasonable if evil is done because the Church commanded it on matters of faith as a whole.  NOT because a member of the Church (even a Pope) behaved wrongly.

Now I know (I've encountered it personally) some object that this a No True Scotsman fallacy, claiming we deny that any inconvenient facts of history are "truly Catholic." But the point is, there is a difference between the teachings of faith and morals taught by the Church and the law enforcement of the Middle Ages. The former is protected from error. The latter is not. So a short sighted Pope, a corrupt Pope or a Pope who was not a good administrator could then govern the Papal States in a way that causes us to cringe today. Or even a good Pope of a different time could make an error of judgment in governing the Papal States that did not involve the teaching authority of the Church.

And if  this can happen with a Pope, how much less can we indict the whole Church on account of a bishop or priest (they lack universal authority) who does wrong.

Torture and Burning and High Body Counts

An anti-Catholic once made a rhetorical appeal to me, asking if I could think of anything worse than being burnt at the stake. My reply was, "Yes, being hung, drawn and quartered. " An English punishment often applied to Catholic priests and not actually abolished until 1870 (though they lessened some of the barbarism beginning in the 18th century).

Anti-Catholics like to bring up torture and burning at the stake. For them, it's the ultimate example of how evil we are. Basically, if we somehow got back in power, we'd be bringing back forced conversions (even though the Church does condemn those). Many assume we introduced these things to Europe.

Now I don't plan on doing a tu quoque argument or try to argue that it was acceptable in the past. While it is true that past society did practice these things and were accustomed to think of them as normal, that belief didn't make them right.

But we do need to realize that these things were not caused by Christianity. They came from Germanic tribes when they conquered areas of the decaying Roman empire. They stayed around far longer than the societies that introduced them did.

I'm not trying to pass the blame on to the pagans either. Rather I am pointing out again that every society acquires vicious customs which the locals come to think of as normal but is in fact wrong.  Abortion today is widely accepted, but still evil and barbaric.

That's why the internet wars on body counts are useless. The arguments assume one society or ideology has a monopoly on barbarism and cause the cruelty. But actually, what we're seeing is they have the common denominator of being human societies which embraced evil and expedience. Not because they were Catholic or Protestant societies.

Did men of religion accept them as normal when they should not have? Yes, even men with authority did. But that was a corruption of their religious obligations and not an example of religion corrupting men.


The important thing to remember in all of this is to distinguish between what Christ commands and what sinful people do. We need to distinguish between what the Church teaches us to do and how some individuals failed to follow.

At every Mass, the Church (and every individual at Mass) prays:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault

As Catholics, we recognize that we are all sinners in need of salvation. But let's be sure we distinguish between the Church as the bride of Christ carrying out the Great Commission and the sinners within the Church causing scandal.

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