Pernicious lies exposed for what they are

Five Anti-Catholic Myths: Slavery, Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo, Holocaust

by Gerard M. Verschuuren

(Angelico Press, £11.50; ISBN-13: 978-1621381280)

Donal Foley

In this book, Gerard M. Verschuuren shows how it has come about that anti-Catholic myths concerning particular topics have managed to become so deeply embedded in the psyche of the post-Christian West.

Verschuuren, a Flemish-born scientist, now resident in the USA, a former Jesuit and a practicing Catholic, is interested in the relationship between science and religion. His latest book begins by stating that we are dealing with myths “fabricated by people with a strong bias against the Catholic Church”, by way of largely fictional distortions of the facts, resulting from post-Reformation propaganda, Enlightenment prejudices and thought emanating from later varieties of materialism and secularism.

His first topic is slavery. He argues against the myth that somehow the Church or Christian teaching was responsible for keeping this in existence. As the author points out, slavery was endemic in the ancient world and the Old Testament recognised this, but its teaching attempted to make the practice more humane. The Bible did not condone slavery, but merely tolerated it.


Slavery was also very much present in the Roman empire of New Testament times. But the early Christians did not condemn slavery since it is probable that Roman society would have collapsed into chaos without it, in the same way that our society would collapse if all the oil, machinery and electrical power were suddenly to disappear.

Having said that, gradually, over the centuries, the Church began to promote the idea that slavery was intrinsically wrong, and the Popes did what they could to alleviate the worst aspects of slavery, such that now we have reached the position where it is categorically condemned by the Church.

Regarding the Crusades, Verschuuren argues against the position that they were a series of aggressive military expeditions organised by the Christian powers of Western Europe against the Muslim occupiers of the Holy Land. He makes the important point that it was the Muslims who had been acting as the aggressors against Christians since the 7th Century, including forays deep into Europe.

In fact, the Crusaders saw themselves as entering on a penitential pilgrimage rather than a military campaign, and they only attacked those areas which had been occupied by the Muslims, and not their home territory: thus the Crusades could ultimately be described as defensive wars.

When, in 1095, Pope Urban II called the First Crusade, he stressed three important reasons in favour of it, namely, the molestation of pilgrims to the Holy Land, the desecration of Christian holy places, and the plight of Eastern Christians. And as the author points out, the primary motive of the Crusaders was actually religious, since they had taken a vow.

Unfortunately, during subsequent Crusades, the high ideal that motivated the First Crusade degenerated, as military and political aspirations took over. This reached a low point in the Sack of Constantinople, in 1204, an act which solidified the schism between East and West.

The third topic dealt with by Verschuuren is that of the Catholic Inquisition, which covered a number of rather diverse institutions, including the Medieval, Spanish and Roman Inquisitions.

The main function of the inquisition was to combat heresy and the primary investigators were Dominicans who were specially trained for the role. The Spanish Inquisition has become the most infamous of these institutions. Its vilification was part of the “black legend” created about Spain in the aftermath of the Reformation.

The Spanish Inquisition was not under papal control and its jurisdiction covered all Spanish territories, including those in the New World.

The numbers of those who were executed or punished under the Spanish Inquisition have been greatly exaggerated. There were abuses, particularly under Torquemada, although generally speaking, the punishments meted out by the Spanish Inquisition were less severe than those handed out by secular courts.

As the author notes: “The simple fact is that the inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not so innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.”

Verschuuren then deals with the Galileo affair. The crux of this dispute was over whether the heliocentric model, with the sun at the centre of the universe, as espoused by Galileo, or the geocentric model, with the Earth at the centre, was true. The fact is that helio-centrism could not be proved in Galileo’s day and he was wrong in believing that the sun was the fixed centre of not just the solar system, but also the universe.

Galileo was an awkward character. It was this and his insistence on arguing on theological grounds – where he had no competence – rather than on his scientific ideas, which caused his condemnation. He refused to accept that his theory was only a hypothesis, rather than a proven truth.

Thus, Galileo was condemned not for his scientific theories, but for saying that his theories were facts, despite a lack of definite evidence. In fact, Thomas Huxley, the Victorian biologist who was described as “Darwin’s bulldog,” and who was certainly no friend of Catholicism, after examining the case said, “The Church had the best of it.”

The final topic dealt with by the author is the Holocaust, and here he addresses two myths: first, that the Church actually supported the Holocaust and that Nazism was rooted in Catholicism and second, that the Church, and in particular Pope Pius XII, did virtually nothing to prevent the Holocaust.

Regarding the first point, Verschuuren points out that Nazism was a “fervently anti-Catholic ideology,” despite the fact that some Nazis, including Hitler, were born Catholics. Initially, the Nazis acted with moderation towards the Church, but despite this few Catholics voted for them in the 1933 elections which brought Hitler to power.

Once he was in power, though, they acted with severity towards the Church, using clever propaganda and more violent methods in a programme of persecution, suppression and oppression. The ultimate aim was to stamp out the Church, as evidenced by the thousands of priests who died in concentration camps such as Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen and Buchenwald. The roots of National Socialism belief were in Teutonic paganism, with its mixture of gods, rites, rituals and symbols.

It’s true that German Church leaders could have done more to combat Nazism, but it took time for them to fully realise the awful nature of Hitler and National Socialism, and then a great deal of courage to do anything about it.


As regards the actions of Pope Pius XII, he did not speak out more forcefully about the actions of Hitler and his followers because he knew that would only make matters worse. Pope Pius has been described as ‘Hitler’s Pope’, but the irony is that during the war and in its immediate aftermath he was seen as one of the few people who did anything significant to save Jewish lives.

At the time of his death in 1958, and beyond, he still enjoyed worldwide acclaim, and this only changed with the immensely successful play by Rolf Hochhuth, The Deputy, (1963), which portrayed the Pope as a cold-hearted cynic in what was actually a Communist propaganda coup.

Gradually, though, through more recent research, that calumny is being countered, and Pope Pius XII’s true greatness is being realised.

Gerard M. Verschuuren’s book is an excellent guide to these controversial topics and a very useful corrective to what many see as some of the most dangerous anti-Catholic myths of our times.