How often do you hear anti-Catholic bigots say things like this: The Church is opposed to science, and persecuted Galileo for teaching that the earth revolves around the sun. The Catholic Church is responsible for more wars than anything else in history. Martin Luther and John Calvin were holy men who struggled heroically to free the true Christian faith from the superstitions of Rome. The Church forbade the translation of Scripture into vernacular languages.
When you hear someone make statements such as these, how do you respond? Where do you go for historical information – and how do you determine that what you’re reading is, in fact, accurate?
“There are a lot of resources for theological topics, but when you look for history, there’s really not anything geared toward historical apologetics,” says Catholic History Professor Steve Weidenkopf. “I wanted to write a book that’s easily accessible to the average Catholic, who gets these questions from family and friends or hears them on TV. I want them to be able to refute the myths!”
In fact, Weidenkopf refutes 55 anti-Catholic myths, including the ones above, in his new book, “The Real Story of Catholic History: Answering Twenty Centuries of Anti-Catholic Myths,” available at http://bit.ly/CounteringCatholicMyths. (Hear him talk about his book on this episode of “EWTN Live,” http://bit.ly/2LOZmpU, and in a future episode of “EWTN Bookmark.”)
Weidenkopf groups the myths under the headings of the Early Church, the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Renaissance and the Reformation, the modern world, the papacy, missionary activity, and “a mixed bag.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Weidenkopf shared snippets from three widespread myths he was especially happy to debunk – and then discussed how the average person can discern if what he is reading is credible. Let’s start with the three myths:
- MYTH #1: Christopher Columbus was an agent of Western imperialism, cultural destruction, and genocide.
Although Weidenkopf teaches church history, even he was surprised at what he unearthed when he researched Columbus, who he said “gets a very bad rap in the modern world. He’s seen as a poster child for what Europeans did wrong with the indigenous people.”
Without going into the entire story here, we can say that, on the first of his four voyages to the New World, Columbus met a peaceful tribe of Native Americans. However, on his second voyage, Weidenkopf discovered that the Caribs – a tribe of cannibals who “practiced sodomy and castrated boys from neighboring tribes” – had captured and enslaved the peaceful tribe.
Weidenkopf says he negotiated with the Caribs and actually paid for the captives’ release, which demonstrates that Columbus was very concerned about the Native Americans he met and was about a lot more than making money. In fact, Weidenkopf says Columbus’ main concern was “to bring the light of Christ to these people.” Yes, he was interested in finding gold, but not for the reason most people believe.
“He wanted to raise enough money to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims,” says Weidenkopf. “You never hear about that. He believed if Jerusalem was back in Christian hands, it would usher in the Second Coming more quickly. He was very focused on his faith!”
- MYTH #2: Marie Antoinette was a selfish and decadent Catholic queen who callously told her starving subjects to “eat cake.”
Weidenkopf calls this piece of propaganda is a “travesty of justice” and says “the outrageous lies about her [must be] erased from memory.” As a teenager, it’s true that the young queen was focused on herself and her hedonistic parties, but Weidenkopf says that changed as she matured. Many people hated her simply because she was Austrian and not French.
However, it wasn’t until the great financial crisis in France, caused by its aid to the U.S. in achieving independence, that the revolutionaries decided to solve their country’s problems by taking over the Church’s land, wealth, and power. Their “let them eat cake” and other propaganda “against this devoted Catholic, wife, mother, and queen,” helped topple the monarchy. However, Weidenkopf says that, contrary to popular belief, Marie established soup kitchens in parishes to feed her people and was very concerned about their welfare.
- MYTH #3: Jesus was not a real person. He is a mythical figure created by Christians.
This is a favorite bromide of modern day atheists, and the most serious of all the myths. What’s interesting is how easily Weidenkopf refutes the nonbelievers’ claims. When atheists say “there are no non-Christian contemporary sources about Jesus,” Weidnenkopf counters by finding some. In fact, he counters all of their claims in a similar manner, something that would be time consuming and difficult for the average person – which is why he wrote his book.
However, in addition to his research, Weidenkopf uses logic to make several points that Catholics can take to heart: In the “what’s in it for them?” argument, he notes: “The Roman authorities periodically engaged in outright violent persecutions of the early Christians. What would inventing the story of Jesus have brought them but a painful death?”
He also notes that those who try to prove Jesus did not exist don’t do so because they “dislike the person of Jesus – who would reject someone who preached love, forgiveness, and mercy and demanded his followers do the same?” He says those who reject Jesus do so because they hate the Church. “If critics can prove Jesus never existed, then the church is exposed as a fraud, and its moral authority can therefore be rejected.”
So how does the average person separate fact from fiction? Here are Weidenkopf’s recommendations:
- Good historians will tell readers where they got their material – so readers can and should look it up. Weidenkopf says readers shouldn’t just take what they read in a textbook or from a secondary source, or the secular media. “Always go to the primary source!”
- Look for subject matter experts. Weidenkopf notes that many academics – at least those who are specialists in a subject matter area — know that stories such as the above are myths. Unfortunately, he says, some university professors are not specialists in the courses they teach and may not have access to the newest research.
- Look for historians who give their perspective upfront. “That doesn’t mean their perspective negatively influences their work, but it is a perspective they bring. In the Crusades, one of the major questions is: Why did they go? A Catholic historian can look at this and say that going as a penitential exercise makes sense. ‘I’m going as a result of my sins.’ A non-Catholic historian who doesn’t understand penance, confession, etc. may wonder if that could be true.
Says Weidenkopf: “Find a good Catholic historian and look at their sources. [For example], look at Thomas Madden’s book on the Crusades. [Madden was the consultant on EWTN’s recent documentary on the Crusades.] If you like his book, you can [look at his sources] and read more.”
- Find a school that teaches history from an authentic perspective. Look at their curricula and try to discern their orientation.
Why have so many anti-Catholic myths persisted for so long? Weidenkopf says there are two groups of people: those who do not like the Church and those who believe anti-Catholic myths because of “unwillful ignorance.”
Of the latter group, he says: “They’ve been taught this stuff. They’ve heard it on TV, at college, or on the History channel, and they repeat it. People believe what they hear, or what they heard in 30 seconds.
“When having a discussion, it’s important for a Catholic to discern whether they are talking to an enemy of the church or someone who is just repeating what they’re heard. [The latter might be] open to you presenting the real story. You might have to be more direct with the enemy and a little more understanding with the ignorant.
“My hope with the book is that Catholics will recognize that when you hear [stories] that don’t sound right, most likely, they’re not. Take the time to investigate further.”