Ebook also available at:

Bearing False Witness

Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History

Rodney Stark

As we all know and as many of our well established textbooks have argued for decades, the Inquisition was one of the most frightening and bloody chapters in Western history, Pope Pius XII was anti-Semitic and rightfully called “Hitler’s Pope,” the Dark Ages were a stunting of the progress of knowledge to be redeemed only by the secular spirit of the Enlightenment, and the religious Crusades were an early example of the rapacious Western thirst for riches and power. But what if these long held beliefs were all wrong?

In this stunning, powerful, and ultimately persuasive book, Rodney Stark, one of the most highly regarded sociologists of religion and bestselling author of The Rise of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco 1997) argues that some of our most firmly held ideas about history, ideas that paint the Catholic Church in the least positive light are, in fact, fiction. Why have we held these wrongheaded ideas so strongly and for so long? And if our beliefs are wrong, what, in fact, is the truth?

In each chapter, Stark takes on a well-established anti-Catholic myth, gives a fascinating history of how each myth became the conventional wisdom, and presents a startling picture of the real truth. For example,

  • Instead of the Spanish Inquisition being an anomaly of torture and murder of innocent people persecuted for “imaginary” crimes such as witchcraft and blasphemy, Stark argues that not only did the Spanish Inquisition spill very little blood, but it was a major force in support of moderation and justice.
  • Instead of Pope Pius XII being apathetic or even helpful to the Nazi movement, such as to merit the title, “Hitler’s Pope,” Stark shows that the campaign to link Pope Pius XII to Hitler was initiated by the Soviet Union, presumably in hopes of neutralizing the Vatican in post-World War II affairs. Pope Pius XII was widely praised for his vigorous and devoted efforts to saving Jewish lives during the war.
  • Instead of the Dark Ages being understood as a millennium of ignorance and backwardness inspired by the Catholic Church’s power, Stark argues that the whole notion of the “Dark Ages” was an act of pride perpetuated by anti-religious intellectuals who were determined to claim that theirs was the era of “Enlightenment.”

In the end, readers will not only have a more accurate history of the Catholic Church, they will come to understand why it became unfairly maligned for so long. Bearing False Witness is a compelling and sobering account of how egotism and ideology often work together to give us a false truth.   

Introduction: Confronting Distinguished Bigots / 1

1. Sins of Anti-Semitism / 9

2. The Suppressed Gospels / 37

3. Persecuting the Tolerant Pagans / 53

4. Imposing the Dark Ages 73

5. Crusading for Land, Loot, and Converts / 93

6. Monsters of the Inquisition / 117

7. Scientific Heresies / 135

8. Blessed Be Slavery / 169

9. Holy Authoritarianism / 187

10. Protestant Modernity / 209

Postscript / 231

Notes / 233

Bibliography / 243

Captions and credits / 257

Index / 259

“Rodney Stark gives the last acceptable prejudice a sound thrashing and clears up a lot of confused history along the way. Give this fine book to anyone you know who’s been subjected to ‘social studies.’”

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

“Growing up Catholic in the United States is to hear a constant stream of stuff that, one’s experience shows, is just not true. Still I have always trusted that some unbiased non-Catholic scholar would one day look at the evidence (even its simple logic) again. Little did I imagine that this expected dispassionate historian would be so deeply informed, lucid, thorough, and blunt. Rodney Stark has done justice to neglected historical truth, and I am deeply grateful for his steady toughmindedness. His aim was to honor the truth, so now it remains for historians to look again, face his challenges, and come refreshed to their own verdicts.” 

Michael Novak, winner of the Templeton Prize (1994), author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

“A majestically argued, gorgeously written, and essential book by one of the truly indispensable minds of our time. Bearing False Witness is one more gift to history from Rodney Stark. It should in turn be given to and read by students and professors everywhere, whatever their beliefs.” 

Mary Eberstadt, author of How the West Really Lost God and It’s Dangerous to Believe

“An elegantly written and lucid overview of the myths and fables produced by what has been described as ‘America’s oldest prejudice.’ Directors of adult educa­tion groups should run out and buy this book.”

Mark Massa SJ, dean, School of Theology and Ministry, Boston College

“If ever there was a book that was going to stir up controversy among historians, scholars of religion, sociologists, and politicians, then Bearing False Witness is it. In it, Rodney Stark rebuts, with his usual mastery of sources and mature judgment, the widespread ‘black legends’ about Catholic violence, bigotry, intolerance, and rejec­tion of modern science. Regardless of whether one agrees with all of his arguments, this book will be a most useful resource for educators and scholars alike, and due to its engaging and lucid style it is a must have for every history lover.” 

Ulrich L. Lehner, author of The Catholic Enlightenment

National Review–July 25, 2016

“Stark has written a wise and rollicking work of intellectual history that should be read by Catholics, non-Catholics, and, really, anyone who wants to comment on the Catholic Church’s proper place in some 2,000 years of history.

“It all makes for a snappy and instructive read, because the professor actually writes in English, not academic jargon. He never minces words. He’ll tell you what’s historical hogwash and why, and who promoted anti-Catholic history — and who is promoting it today.

Bearing False Witness deserves a wide audience. It’s full of spunk and verve, wisdom and scholarship.”

Ann Corkery

CHOICE—Vol. 54, No. 2

“Those trapped by convention will bristle at Stark’s book, but those who attempt to deconstruct their own stance will find here much that resonates. Written in a lively style, Stark’s book will appeal to those interested in the history of Western civilization, Christianity, and culture.”

C. H. Lippy, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

PJ Media—May 22, 2016

“Roman Catholics have gotten a bad reputation: they’re responsible for the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Inquisition. They’re anti-science, anti-Semites, and anti-freedom. Each of these accusations is an oversimplification that perverts history.”

“According to a new, groundbreaking book by sociologist and historian Rodney Stark, the truth is far more friendly to the Catholic Church, and those who say otherwise are overlooking important developments in the study of history. In Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, Stark rebuts 10 historical myths that reflect badly on the Catholic church.”

Tyler O’Neil

First Things—May 27, 2016

Bearing False Witness by Rodney Stark is a generous book—though more importantly, a judicious one. Stark is a Protestant who grew up believing many anti-Catholic myths, including that old canard from Washington Irving that Columbus’s voyage had been discouraged by the Church because of her belief that the world was flat. Stark dismantles this quaint piece of ahistorical folklore in his Introduction, then sets his sights on the whole panoply of ‘Black Legends’ maliciously promulgated throughout history to justify bigotry towards Catholics, first by rival denominations (English and Dutch Protestants invented the lurid, baseless cartoon we picture when we hear ‘Spanish Inquisition’) and then by secular forces (I learned here that it was Soviet propagandists who started the lie that Pius XII was ‘Hitler’s Pope’)… . the book is an across-the-aisle attempt to right some wrongs of Christian historiography”

Alexi Sargeant

National Catholic Register—May 24, 2016

“Stark writes as a historian, not an apologist; but the truth is not only good history, but also the best defense of the Church.”

Gerald J. Russello

Intermountain Catholic–January 13, 2016

In this engaging book, Rodney Stark, distinguished professor of history and the social sciences at Baylor University, argues that some of the most firmly held ideas about history that paint the Catholic Church in the most negative light are, in fact, mostly fiction. In each chapter, Stark takes on a well-established anti-Catholic myth, and gives a fascinating history of how each myth developed and became the conventional wisdom, and he presents a startling picture of the real truth. Stark is not only an outstanding social historian – but significantly – is not a Catholic.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

LifeSite News–December 22, 2016

“Accessible… . Remarkable… . Nobody tells it with his panache.” 

Crossmap Blog–December 19, 2016

“Whether you are Catholic or Protestant (or neither), this book is a fascinating and enlightening (and disturbing) read.”

Sam Storms

Supremacy and Survival (blog)–October 24, 2016

“In each chapter, Stark takes on a well-established anti-Catholic myth, gives a fascinating history of how each myth became the conventional wisdom, and presents a startling picture of the real truth.”

Called to Communion–October 31, 2016

“Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened… Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.”

Casey Chalk

Times of Malta (timesofmalta.com)–October 23, 2016

“In Bearing False Witness, Stark crushes anti-Catholic myths one by one with clarity and well-researched scholarship.”

Klaus Vella Bardon

Patheos: "Steel Magnificat"—June 14, 2016

“Stark provides a valuable resource for general audiences that is also a useful addition to the bookshelf of anyone working in history, Christian theology, religious studies and related fields. Undergraduates in these fields should make sure to read it.”
“It is an excellent tool for forming a better popular view of the Church’s varied role in Western history.”

Michael Pezzulo

Wanderer Online Daily–June 18, 2016

“This book is a timely and necessary corrective to the pervasive anti-Catholic mindset amongst many academics and popular writers. It is unashamedly politically incorrect, and Rodney Stark’s robust style is a pleasure to read. But, more important, he sets the record straight about the evil effects of centuries of anti-Catholic historical writing.”

Donal Anthony Foley

New Boston Post–June 2, 2016

“To refute 2,000 years of bad history is by no means a small objective. It is surprising, then, that a book with this aim clocks in a meager 272 pages.”

“The construction of actual counter-arguments is mostly omitted. Stark is not, after all, an apologist. This fact might explain why one senses a hint of detachment between the author and his target audience of non-academic Catholics. It is not that Stark is incapable of riveting prose or the brass tacks of academic research—quite the contrary. Stark shines particularly well in his first chapter, where he is at his most autobiographical and least expository. There is an almost Chestertonian quality in the irony and perceptiveness with which he confronts the failings of his fellow historians.

“What Stark offers is a ready manual; a reference book to consult when one encounters a dubious thesis or headline. As such, this book will be of particular interest to students, as a secret weapon of sorts to those who wish to refute the off-hand, biased remarks of an instructor. It will also appeal to anyone with a genuine regard for historical truth, who wishes to know the facts behind anti-Catholic myths.”

Catherine Hillcrest

The Catholic Herald–June 2, 2016

“[I]n Bearing False Witness, Rodney Stark takes aim at one ‘myth’ after another about Catholicism… . Stark’s style is brusque and clear. He is like a man carefully setting up skittles before firing down bowling balls of fact and argument to send them scattering (though in a couple of cases he is, in reality, rebalancing rather than overturning the debate). 

Bearing False Witness is stirring, compelling, often convincing stuff.”

Patheos: Book Club—May 18, 2016

“The fallout from these anti-Catholic myths has been extensive and damaging. Stark sets the record straight.”

Kathleen A. Mulhern

FrontPage Magazine–May 24, 2016

“Even if you are not Catholic, to understand today’s culture wars, you must understand Catholic history. [T]his book has my highest endorsement for everyone from Catholics to atheists who appreciate brave truth-telling on important topics.”

Danusha Goska, author of Save Send Delete

American Society for the Defense of Tradition Family and Property–January 18, 2017

“This is a great book to have in your library, not just for your own information – but also to lend to that anti-Catholic friend… There is much in it that all-knowing friends should know.”

Edwin Benson

Mission Studies 34, 2 (2017)

​“The present reviewer especially enjoyed Stark’s research on the personal piety of 52 leading scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, taking into account their nationality, religious affiliation, and class origin. Here, Stark once again proves that he is at his best when employing sociological methods in his analysis. Furthermore, it is of immense help that the book provides the biographical statements on some of the leading authorities in the research on topics such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or Late Antiquity as well as a reliable bibliography.”

Pavol Bargár, Charles University, Prague, The Czech Republic

Faith Magazine–Volume 51, No. 3 (May/June 2017)

“On the whole, Bearing False Witness is a valuable read if you, or someone you know, has been lumbered with an anti-Catholic perspective of history. Each myth is successfully and convincingly debunked.”

Jane Critten

Church Times–6/16/2017

"Stark, an American sociologist as well as popular historian, guides the reader through some of the most controversial accusations that the Catholic Church has faced: its treatment of Jews, its hostility to learning during the so-called Dark Ages, its part in the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition. With each chapter comes a useful list of historians who have explored the issue in more detail and are Stark’s key sources. . . . This is a story of a Church more sinned against than sinning. But Stark’s most significant conclusion is that papal authority has never been as strong as both its detractors and its most devoted adherents believe." 

Catherine Pepinster, former editor of the Tablet and UK Development Officer of the Anglican Centre in Rome

National Catholic Register–July 14, 2017

“Many Catholic apologists respond to the unjust maligning of their church, but Stark’s book is unique insofar as it was written by a non-Catholic who wanted to respond to prevalent fake history.” 

John Clark