Church History: a Trail of Atrocities?

The Crusades are commonly cited as a crime of the Church. While these conflicts did involve the all-too-common horrors of medieval warfare, they were launched in response to resurgent Islamic expansionism, targeted land was often still largely Christian, and Islamic chroniclers noted the Kingdom of Jerusalem's fair and just treatment of Muslim subjects.

Any discussion about Catholicism inevitably involves history - have you ever tried talking about a community that's nearly two millennia old without mentioning those two millennia? Naturally, such discussions frequently include many accusations against the Catholic Church. It would be next to impossible to list all these accusations, but there are many that come up frequently:

  • The Church caused the Dark Ages and held civilization back a thousand years!

  • The Church launched the Crusades, a genocidal campaign of religious hate!

  • The Church burned anyone who questioned her teachings, probably millions!

  • The Church persecuted women by instigating widespread witch hunts!

  • The Church promoted genocidal conquest in the New World and beyond!

  • The Church instigated endless religious warfare and devastation!

  • The Church persecuted scientists for undermining Catholicism!

  • The Church promoted exploitative and abusive hierarchies like feudalism!

  • The Church promoted and enabled mass slavery, especially on a racial basis!

  • The Church gave supreme and unchecked power to degenerates like the Medicis!

The full list goes on and on, and one could even include the wildest allegations, like that the Church was behind the rise of Islam or a Jesuit conspiracy to take over the world.

We should first note that the actual historical basis for these claims is not exactly solid. They range from misunderstandings and exaggerations to outright fabrications and even to complete opposites of what actually happened - although clergy and laity alike have done evil in the name of Catholicism and the Church, the rap sheet of the average anti-Catholic blog has little to do with real history.

Execution for heresy was actually an extraordinary event, reserved for persistent preachers who were undermining the spiritual foundations of social order - thus, it was a civil crime prosecuted by the State to keep the peace. The Church mostly got involved to verify charges and frequently saved wrongfully-accused people by certifying their orthodoxy.

How exactly that's the case varies from point to point, and there'll be a podcast episode diving into many of them. But for the sake of argument, let's assume these accusations are 100% true - even the stuff about Mohammad being a papal conspirator and Jesuits angling for global hegemony. Suppose the Church has a record of crimes against humanity worse than any totalitarian regime.

To borrow from a meme, I plead 'who cares?'

Okay, that's not quite right. We should care. As Christians, we must fight evil wherever it presents itself, but especially when it clothes itself in the Gospel and claims to serve God by betraying everything Jesus Christ taught us. After all, didn't he warn us about the hypocrisy and outright abusiveness of religious authorities and self-righteous men?

Yes, he did. Strongly and frequently, with very stern warnings about the judgment that would fall upon them and any who followed their example. An entire chapter of Matthew (23) is devoted to an especially aggressive indictment of the Scribes and Pharisees. There, Jesus delivers seven "woe to you" statements followed by this (literally) damning pronouncement: "You serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell?"

Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church condemned belief in witchcraft as pagan. Witch mania only took hold as the Reformation weakened the Church's grip on northern Europe, and most witch hunts occurred in areas gripped or contested by Protestantism. The contemporary investigation by the Spanish Inquisition ruled it all nonsense.

So we should care... just not in the context of finding the true faith, the belief God wills for mankind.

In logic, there's a common fallacy called "ad hominem," from the Latin for 'to the man,' in which a proposition is rejected because of the person making it. A man with a bad reputation said something, therefore it is false. That this is generally a fallacy is easily demonstrated: suppose such a wretched man said something obviously true, like that the sky is blue and 2+2=4. Would you reject those statements just because the man teaching them is disreputable?

For most Catholic beliefs, this is the problem historical indictments have. Whether the Crusades were an attempt at malicious European colonization of a peaceful Islamic world is a question worth asking (and answering 'no'), but it has nothing to do with whether the Lord's Supper is supposed to be a literal, sacrificial, and priestly partaking of the Lamb who was slain for our sins. Perhaps the Church burned millions of women at the stake for witchcraft (nope), but that proves nothing about whether people in paradise are truly alive and can pray for us.

The Church only got involved in the Galileo affair because her massive patronage of science made her the natural arbiter of a dispute between two scientific models. Galileo would be tried and confined on suspicion of heresy, but top theologians at the time noted things would have been very different had he acted like a real scientist and proved his theories.

There are, however, a few places where such accusations might be relevant. See, an ad hominem isn't a fallacy when the person is the question. If a politician tells me the growth of inflation is slowing, his personal character or activities have nothing to do with the economic claim. But if he claims that he is not a crook, it's absolutely important if I know that he is, in fact, a crook. (This is an entirely fictional thought experiment, for the record.)

Thus, a clever opponent of Catholicism will make this point: the Catholic Church doesn't merely propose a set of doctrines; she also claims to be the very Church of Christ, carrying forward the authority of the Apostles to interpret the Scriptures and bind the faithful to doctrine and discipline by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the character and activities of the Catholic Church should be relevant to determining whether Catholicism is true - and, they say, her sins prove her to be a fraud.

But this is where a true and valid ad hominem gets tricky. You have to be sure that what you're attacking about a person or organization is the actual point in contention. If the Catholic Church authoritatively claimed that her clergy and laity would be perfect, free of sin, or even just that they would refrain from massive crimes that would reverberate throughout human history, our indictments would be damning: they would prove that the Church is a crock.

The Church, however, makes no such claims. We've never claimed that everything we do is perfect. We've never claimed that clergy (even the Pope) are sinless, that anything done in the name of the Faith is automatically good, or that our people wouldn't go rogue and commit great evils. Nowhere does the Catholic Church authoritatively bind the faithful to believe that the accusations laid against her are things the true Church of Christ could never do.

The Church's precise complicity in colonial atrocities is debated, but the Church's biggest influence was insisting that indigenous Americans were human beings with rights, dignity, and a call to salvation. Prohibitions against massacres or enslavement were frequently ignored, alas, but far more natives survived in territories colonized by Catholics.

But that leaves one possible opening: perhaps the Catholic Church doesn't teach that these things are incompatible with being the true Church of Christ, but is the Church wrong in denying a connection? After all, if someone makes a claim of authority, an attack on anything that undergirds that authority (acknowledged by the claimant or not) can be a valid ad hominem. So, can true religious authority be paired with sinfulness? Can the true Church of Christ be home to such evils?

As usual, the Scriptures and the Lord Jesus have the answer for us. The Savior condemns religious authorities who are hypocritical and abusive, warning them of the harsh judgment their actions will bring... but he affirms their authority. In fact, he often premises harsh judgment on the real authority they hold.

Let's return to Matthew 23. Our Lord delivers a severe takedown of the Pharisaic rabbis, but he starts with a caution for his audience: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do." The interpretative authorities of Second Temple Judaism, the scribes and the rabbis, are hypocrites who invite judgment, yet Jesus explicitly affirms that they still have authority and bids his listeners to heed it.

The so-called 'Dark Ages' were the result of Roman political order collapsing. During that time, the Church was active in restoring political order, promoting peace as a Christian norm, regulating warfare, and establishing the rights of common people. Most notably, Catholic monasteries played a central role in preserving ancient learning and literature.

Consider Luke 12. Jesus gives a parable concerning staying awake, lest he return when we are not ready for his judgment. Peter responds by asking about its application to the Twelve, which Jesus answers with another parable: a servant was placed over the master's household as steward to distribute food and is judged or rewarded all the more. Why? Because he possessed real authority. This steward of the master's house (hint: pastors of God's Church) would not lose his authority because of his misdeeds - he would instead by punished severely because of it.

But why should this be? How can authority within the Christian community, the Church, be held despite one's wickedness? The reason is deceptively simple: the authority of any man in the Church does not come from that man. No person can acquire the right to bind and loose by merit of their excellent virtue, their scholarship, their intelligence, wisdom, or insight - only God can give that authority.

Look again to Matthew 23, verse 2. Why do the Pharisees and the scribes have authority over the Jewish people? It's clearly not because they're just such wonderful and wise men who truly understand the Law and its "weightier matters" of mercy and judgment and faith. It's because they "sit in Moses' seat:" they are the heirs to Moses, the lawgiver, who was entrusted with the Law by its true giver, God almighty. Since that time, authority had been passed down from generation to generation (historical note: via the imposition of hands!), and Jesus recognized it as legitimate.

Thus, what should we say when we see the bishops and pastors of the Catholic Church, who are the historical heirs to the Apostles and together wield the authority to bind and loose given by Christ, complicit or actively engaged in horrific things? Like Jesus, we should say "woe to you!" And like Jesus, we must recognize the authority which God established.

Although some heretics used Scripture to promote slavery, the Church spent many centuries fighting it. Medieval Christians were forbidden to own other Christians, and Papal decrees forbade enslaving North Africans and Native Americans. During the American Civil War, the Pius IX wrote to Jefferson Davis advocating for emancipation of slaves.

Is this a shocking proposition? Perhaps, if you accept the wildest claims about Church history. But even then, why did Christ come into the world? To establish a magic formula by which all his followers would be perfect? The Gospel calls us to be perfect as our Father is perfect, but is premised on our failure to do this, on the bent and crooked natures which lead us into evil. Even if, as Catholics believe, God guides his Church and guards it from teaching error, we should expect such a community to produce evils alongside the great good it brings - and the Catholic Church has brought great good in her history.

The fact of the matter which all Christians have to confront is that a community of sinners dependent on the grace and mercy of God will have its stains - they prove nothing but the premise of the Gospel. If we are to confront the question of the Catholic Church, or any other community claiming to possess the truth, we must instead ask ourselves who, in spite of everything, sits in the chair of the Apostles and has preserved the common faith from the beginning.

From this angle, you will find that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ, regardless of how many historical indictments are true - or complete garbage, as you'll likely hear soon on the podcast.

Author's Disclaimer: the captions to images are very simplified summaries of complex historical issues. They are meant as introductions to what people get wrong about the Church's role in human history, not as a total vindications of every deed of every Catholic involved in any aspect of the events depicted. Much of what isn't in the captions - good and bad - will be discussed on the podcast.