The Dark Ages, The Crusades, the Inquisition, Galileo, the mistrial of St. Joan of Arc, sales of indulgences during the Renaissance, Catholics massacring Protestants, the treatment of the natives in Spain’s former colonies, popes with pro-Nazi sympathies during World War II – many cite these and many more examples in an attempt to portray the Church as a villain. How should we Catholics respond?
Undeniably, there are historical events involving the Church of which Catholics cannot be proud. These events undermine many people’s faith and present evangelization efforts. We might find ourselves asking, “How can I continue loving and serving the Church amidst the allegations of the numerous wrongs she supposedly committed throughout history?” Upon reflecting on this question, I came up with the following:
Read, read, read
Often, people have the impression that the history they learned in school is a settled, straightforward tale with clear-cut bad guys and good guys. They then form their opinions of the Church based on this kind of “history.”
The reality is history is complex. There is often more than one side to a historical event. Human error, frailty of memory, bias, or even downright malicious intention to deceive may have intervened in the narration and recording of history before it reached us. Finally, history is a dynamic discipline – discoveries are constantly made debunking previous versions of events as scholars unearth more sources and scrutinize findings of previous scholars.
Furthermore, the past is often not understood on its own terms as we view it from the prism of modern mentalities. Diane Moczar, the author of Seven Lies About Catholic History, writes:
“It is important to realize how, though human nature remains the same, societal mentalities can change. The manner in which people of a given century see an issue will differ from that of people of a later or earlier time. This does not imply moral relativism, but simply an acknowledgment that historical circumstances affect perspective. A fifteenth-century Englishman and a modern historian might agree that the trial of Joan of Arc was a farce and her execution a crime – but the Englishman might also be glad that such a thorn in the side of the English army was out of the way, while the modern writer would see only the tragedy of the act. Understanding how people thought in the past makes their actions more comprehensible to later generations.”
Reading more about history will alert us to nuances that are crucial for a holistic, balanced understanding of the past. Reading will help us make educated evaluations of whether the Crusades were wars of conquest or self-defense, whether the wars between Catholics and Protestants were exercises in religious bigotry or about loyalty to the king versus loyalty to the pope, whether the Galileo case was about the Church suppressing science or Galileo imposing the scientific method on biblical interpretation, and so on.
Reading also exposes us to the Church’s side of history. While we learn, for example, about the abuses committed by the Spanish conquistadores in former Spanish colonies, we will also learn about the Spanish Catholic priests and theologians who fought for the rights of the natives, thus developing the beginnings of international human rights law.
As a result, we understand the Church better, and can help others understand the Church better when these topics are brought up in a conversation.
Pray and Atone
But what if the evidence against the Church just cannot be explained away?
As Catholics, we know that the sins and errors of the Church’s members do not negate her divine origin. In fact, one argument in favor of the Church’s supernatural origin is the fact that she continues to exist and produce fruits of holiness in spite of her sinful members and leaders throughout the ages.
However, it takes faith to see things this way, and faith is a gift from God. We must therefore pray for the gift of faith for ourselves and for others.
We also must pray for our brothers and sisters in the Church, especially for Church leaders, and atone for whatever sins we perceive were committed. One lesson we can learn from the errors of the Church’s members throughout history is how weak and frail all human beings are, and how much in need of support from others. The erring pope, bishop, priest, religious, or layperson is a brother or sister in need of charity, and most likely, we ourselves would commit the same errors if it were not for the prayers of others.
We also must pray for the victims of such erring Church members and leaders. A single prayer for their healing will do much more for them than the most vocal Church-bashing.
Witness with Our Lives
The countless saints the Church has produced more than make up for the shortcomings of her sinful members. While the Church has had cruel, lustful, and avaricious popes, priests, and religious, she also produced a multitude of saints who, in imitation of Christ, have shown compassion for the poor, defended the oppressed, displayed inspiring examples of virtue, and contributed to the development of civilization.
The best way we can counteract the errors and horrors committed by Church members and leaders throughout history is to strive to be saints ourselves. Hopefully, the flesh-and-blood Catholics they meet who are striving to be saints who will make a more lasting impression on others than the grotesque Catholic historical figures they read about.
We Catholics need not be afraid of our Church’s past. While there are shadows, there are also lights. Horrible mistakes and crimes have been committed throughout history, but God, Who is God of history, will never leave His Church and will always draw good out of evil. Best of all, we ordinary Catholics can help heal history’s wounds by drowning out evil in an abundance of good.