Hysterical Anti-Catholic History

God’s Jury continues a long and not-so-illustrious tradition of misrepresenting history and attacking the Catholic Church.

Anthony Burgess once was reported to have said of himself, “Just because I don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean I am not a Catholic!” While Cullen Murphy, in his latest book, self-presents as someone we might still call a “cultural Catholic” (on page 9: “as a Catholic growing up with many Jesuit friends”; and on page 24: “I began to explore the Inquisition as one who happens to be both a Catholic and an American”; and on page 78: “as a boy growing up in the 1950s and 1960s…I remember references in Catholic liturgy”), possibly his natural intellectual home is with the religiously hostile New Atheists, who include Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger, though Murphy does not himself say this.

In passing, let us recall that the premier Old Atheist, more informed and articulate than all of the new ones put together, was Anthony Flew (1923‒2010). At last he rejected atheism after a lengthy academic career and much fame. Flew never took interest in Roman law or its offspring, the Inquisitions. His obituary called him “a welcome counterblast to recent antireligious best-sellers.” Among those best-sellers, must we add Murphy’s latest offering, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World?

Murphy never claims to be an historian. His edited informal conversations with noted historians (Eamon Duffy, Henry Kamen, Edward Peters, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Peter Godman, Francisco Bethencourt) are nonetheless impressive. But what is curious is the omission of other serious and relevant historians, including Knights Templar and Joan of Arc-specialist Régine Pernoud, Helen Rawlings, ‘historian-prophet’ Christopher Dawson, Paul F. Grendler, and the distinguished Paul Johnson. They do not merit an entry in the general bibliography.

On page 253, Murphy thanks certain historians for their guidance—Francisco Bethencourt, David Kertzer, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Edward Peters, and John Tedeschi. (We prudently wonder how much of the book was composed by Murphy himself and how much was redacted or ghost-written by research associates, European style?)

His subject is treated midway in the perplexing landscape between erudite banter and entertainment, with at least one fine exception. The disagreement between Benzion Netanyahu and Henry Kamen over the social causes of the Spanish Inquisition is fittingly presented in “A Clash of Explanations” (pages 94-102). The conclusion of Henry Kamen is that Spanish society was already “curdled” before the Inquisition emerged. Curdled (page 101)!? Without this section and with numerous asides and spurious remarks (and a needlessly ugly dust jacket), Murphy may just remind us of Dan Brown, whose 2003 The Da Vinci Code uses religious themes and historical references to develop a conspiratorial and fictional plot. Brown is mentioned neither in the bibliography nor in the index nor in the acknowledgements, but The Da Vinci Code is referred to by name on page 29.

In 2003 both Mark Massa and Philip Jenkins published works on anti-Catholicism subtitled “The Last Acceptable Prejudice.” Francis J. Beckwith speaks of the “New Anti-Catholicism.” Acute anti-Catholicism was on display when rapper Nicki Minaj arrived at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, held at the Staples Center on February 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, on the arm of a man dressed as the pope. Or again with The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, an off-Broadway play performed recently at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, North Carolina that recounts the adventures of “Adam and Steve.” These are high-class blasphemy compared to the low-class blasphemy of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s “Hunky Jesus Competition” in San Francisco in 2008. Many say California is the cultural climate indicator for the way the rest of the nation will eventually go.

Some Jews complain that other Jews are anti-Semitic; likewise in our confirmed age of apostasy some “Catholics” may be anti-Catholic. Mr. Murphy would never ridicule homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, the handicapped, Communists, socialists, or women the way he does the Catholic Church, which, in this book, was never right and always in the wrong. Perhaps only an apostate can do as well in promoting this perspective as Murphy has done. Experiencing the Church “from the inside” is an advantage, as we know from Murphy’s American “spiritual kinsmen,” James Carroll and Garry Wills, whom he at times cites.

Murphy might profit from the following anecdote. There was a conversation not long after Vatican II between Henri de Lubac and Hans Küng on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Küng was complaining about the Church when de Lubac interrupted him to say, “But she is our Mother.” During the informal conversations recounted between Küng and Murphy, we hoped in vain to learn whether de Lubac’s remark to Küng had made a difference (page 182-183). It never crossed Murphy’s mind to imitate the docility of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (page 173).

One improves in the spiritual life when not quarrelling with one’s mother. Murphy’s seething tone is almost unbearable, and it represents much more than a quarrel. He is devoid of feeling for a medieval European society (or apparently any society) ripped and bitten by pernicious sects at various intervals, sects so vile that at least one of them (the Albigensians, or Cathars) wanted to abolish marriage. He rejects confidentiality, either professional or personal, and he expects the clergy of whatever rank to expose their thoughts and deliberations in a way that would satisfy the curiosity of ecclesiastical enemies. This is an assumption that infects the book—the author complains on every page about secret procedures of the Church down through time in general or the Inquisitions in particular. For Murphy, matters of conscience should be open to leering eyes.

This is really a book which denounces Church authority at every turn. For Murphy, the exercise of ecclesiastical authority is to blame for everything. When Hans Küng’s missio canonica is discussed on page 110, there is no mention of why Cardinal Šeper was obliged to remove the missio from Küng. Never are two sides treated equally and with fairness, even when we know that “ideas rule the world.”

Philosophically, Murphy has no evident concern for the “common good.” Paul Johnson in his History of Christianity and Ronald Knox in his Enthusiasm give us details about gnostic sects and other dangerous groups, some from the Reformation era, but Murphy would depict them simply as points of view in a world of many competing points of view. In other words, the Church was wrong to put the label “poison” on any bottle whatsoever, contents notwithstanding.

Murphy is a relativist. For him there is no absolute truth, certainly no religious truth worth living for or worth dying for. He is implicitly unwilling to make the distinction between the innocent and the guilty when it comes to error, since error has the same privileges as truth. All offenders should be exonerated in a world devoid of truth. Our author is a naïve scion of the Enlightenment. Here we are talking philosophy, not practice. Obviously human failing is of a different order. The Inquisitions may have been the instruments of faltering hands in a Fallen World, but the philosophy was not the same as that of Auschwitz, nor the Gulag. Somewhere Karl Barth was supposed to have quipped words to this effect: “If there is no such thing as heresy, then there is no such thing as the truth.”

Our author further recalls for us the analogy of an Italian-American son of immigrants in 1942. He is in the army and meets other personnel from around the United States. He is ashamed of his parents, who speak broken English, grow grapes in their backyard, wear quaint old-worldish clothes, and attend saccharine Our Lady of Perpetual Help devotions in their parish in the Bronx. Little does our soldier know that his own children will grow up and re-evaluate their grandparents, even going to Italy to discover what kind of cultural soil produced such sources of spiritual inspiration for their own youthful generation. The embarrassment of one generation becomes the pride of the next. Perhaps Mr. Murphy should have a discussion with Mr. Michael Coren, Mr. H. W. Crocker III, or Mr. Thomas E. Woods, Jr. on the subject of Catholicism’s role in the formation of Western civilization, a role in which inquisitions played a miniscule part. Murphy might investigate “comparative institutions” to see how many people the British monarchy or the French monarchy tortured in comparison with the Inquisitions. Murphy is overly preoccupied with applauding Carlo Ginzburg’s call for an orgy of shame on the part of contemporary Catholics (page 231).

A minor observation: Murphy spends a volume of words lavishly describing the countryside—especially the French countryside—and Roman buildings, particularly the building that houses the Holy Office Archives. Spare us these tedious excursions, please. Do we really need to hear about the transponders in the National Archives of the United States (page 201)? Here is an amusingly pertinent line from page 216: “Bits of duct tape lie among the droppings of banana rats.” It certainly encourages some readers to adopt the “entertainment theory” about God’s Jury.

Similarly, too much time is spent on describing a few minor players in the discussion. The low-level curialist who supervises the Holy Office Archives may be a nice fellow, but we simply do not need to hear every detail about his automobile, or his personal habits, or his verbal asides. It matters only to those wishing to be entertained by authors who write provoked and goaded by the fodder of the news.

There are some micro-corrections for the record. Had Murphy relied upon Régine Pernoud, he might have profitably avoided the less-precise usage for the word “crusade” that we find in many references to the medieval period and the Cathars (page 31). Perhaps “campaign” is better and less confusing.

On page 110 Murphy states that the Holy Office Archives were first opened to competent scholars in 1998. My personal experience is that I used them in 1994, and already there were German and Italian scholars at work when I arrived. I also had dealings with the archivist, Msgr. Alejandro Cifres, whom I thank in the acknowledgments section inside the front cover of my obscure dissertation in anti-Jansenist studies.

A not-so-micro-observation, concerning accusations against Pius XII that begin on page 5: “It was under twenty-four-hour papal surveillance, watched over by a marble bust of Pius XII, a stern and enigmatic pontiff and now a candidate for sainthood, despite his troubling record in the face of the Holocaust.” Again, on page 229: “To be sure, they closed the door at the papacy of Eugenio Pacelli—Pius XII—whose silence during World War II, as evidence mounted of German genocide, has drawn both abiding scorn and uneasy apologetics.” Does this suggest that Murphy has not read Gary L. Krupp’s 2010 Pope Pius XII and World War II, The Documented Truth: A Compilation of International Evidence Revealing the Wartime Acts of the Vatican? The Pave the Way Foundation is not the only important defender of Pius XII, either—just the most recent and the most Jewish perhaps since Eugenio Zolli (1881-1956) or Pinchas Lapide (1922‒1997). For Murphy so late in the day to engage in Pius-bashing is unhistorical and venomous.

Our author does not explain why there were so many Jews in Rome in the first place. Refugees from the Spanish Inquisition? More exactly refugees from the construction of the new unified Spain, accepted and resettled by pontifical Rome!

Although he does not include the case of Peter the Hermit (c. 1050‒1115) possibly stirring up anti-Semitism at the time of the First Crusade, the Jews and the Inquisitions come in for special scrutiny in this book, especially the Spanish conversos. Even so, Jewish scholars, divided among themselves, are likely to produce interpretations in contrast to Murphy’s. David Kertzer’s work on the Edgardo Mortara case indicates that the exception proves the rule. The Jews were relatively well treated in the Pontifical States and their law prevailed in the Jewish Quarters as an exception to general law in a theocracy. Edgardo was almost pampered after 1858, when his family fell afoul of legalistic canons that, because of a transfer of “theological jurisdiction” over a citizen in the Papal States, seemed beyond even the pope’s reach. Pius IX took special interest in the case. That legalistic magistrates said of Edgardo, “He is ours!” is not surprising in a world anxious about the fate of unbaptized babies and where the indelible mark of the sacrament is understood as a “branding.”

This jurisdictional situation over the baptized would save Jews during World War II in some parts of Europe, when even the claim of their false baptismal documents was accepted by civil authorities as proof of non-Jewishness! Such a reversal, such a twist. While in the Mortara case the solution may have been defective, it was far from common to find baptized Jewish children snatched from their parents in order to be brought up by Catholics in Italy. Such evokes thoughts of the silly talk of the ill-informed. (For more on the legal system, see James F. Hitchcock’s article “Inquisition.”)

Curiously, Murphy does not dredge up another 19th-century bogey so dear to the descendants of the Enlightenment—the alleged banning of vaccinations in the Papal States during the time of Leo XII. This would have involved many hundreds of children, and it would have been an illustration of the Church’s war on science. A missed opportunity?

Occurring in different centuries, the Galileo affair and the Edgardo Mortara case both have to do with an Augustinian sacramental theology accepted in the West over the ages. In the one instance, it concerned the Eucharist, and in the other, baptism. The Church has no jurisdiction over science, but she does have jurisdiction over and a divine mandate to protect her own dogmatics. Mr. Murphy should explain the theology involved to help the reader. Instead, he attacks. Consult Karen Liebreich, Fallen Order: Intrigue, Heresy, and Scandal in the Rome of Galileo and Caravaggio (New York: Grove Press, 2004) pages 9 and 155. Liebreich, perhaps no more sympathetic than Murphy to much of this history, at least introduces transubstantiation in the complex cases of Bruno and Galileo.

On page 3 of Murphy’s book we read: “The members of the papal curia are famously tone-deaf when it comes to public relations—these are men who in recent years have invited a Holocaust-denying bishop to return to the Church, have tried to persuade Africans that the use of condoms will make the AIDS crisis worse, and have told the indigenous peoples of Latin America that their religious beliefs are ‘a step backward’.” There is not enough space in any review to answer everything, but the snarky reference to AIDS begs for a reply.

None other than a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, an AIDS specialist, defended the Pope on the matter of condoms. See Edward C. Green, “Condoms, HIV-AIDS and Africa: The Pope Was Right” (March 29, 2009).

Throughout his book, Murphy refuses to acknowledge that there are, at the very least, two sides to every story. For him, the Catholic Church is always wrong, or at least when it comes to the Enlightenment themes of the Cathars, the Spanish Inquisition, Galileo, the European Jews, and, by extension, any contemporary dissenters from the Magisterium. Jean Daniélou once said that we do not lack authority in the Church, but we lack the exercise of authority in the Church. He was speaking of the immediate post-Vatican II decomposition. Murphy is against any exercise of valid authority, seemingly regarding it by definition as merely religious arrogance.

Of course, Murphy rants against Pius IX for the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and Pius X for the anti-Modernist oath (1910) so he can sing the praises of Modernism or modernity, as the case may be (pages 171-172) But then he conveniently leaves out the 1950 Humani Generis controversy in the reign of Pius XII. Liberal historians such as Thomas Bokenkotter agree with Murphy, but not one of them is cited. Bokenkotter is not in the general bibliography. Perhaps Murphy felt he had enough anti-Catholic ammunition without this support.

Faithful to his Irish heritage, Mr. Murphy is not without humor. On page 201 we read that he thinks the destruction of the archives of Carcassone was funny, or at least a friend of his thought it was funny, and so the anecdote was repeated for our entertainment. It gets funnier. On pages 202 and 226 we learn that in the National Archives “people sometimes get trapped when the shelving closes.” Laugh Out Loud.

In sum, what is Murphy’s methodological failure? One can compare institutions with others of the same era, such as the Spanish Inquisition and, for example, the French monarchy and the English monarchy. If the Jews were expelled from Spain and the Huguenots were exiled from France, so were the Anabaptists expelled from Lutheran Germany. We can compare those events, let us say, horizontally. But vertically, or in a linear time-line, one cannot in academic history perform facile tricks such as comparing the NKVD or the Stasi or the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the Spanish Inquisition. It is tendentious. In another work, Murphy asks, “Are we Romans?” Perhaps that has the same methodological flaw. We just cannot ask, “Are we God’s jury?” or, “Are we Inquisitors?”

Walter Isaacson wrote in the New York Times on May 13, 2007, “In his provocative and lively Are We Rome? Cullen Murphy provides these requisite caveats as he engages in a serious effort to draw lessons from a comparison of America’s situation today with that of imperial Rome. Founded, according to tradition, as a farming village in 753 B.C., Rome enjoyed 12 centuries of rise and fall before the barbarians began overwhelming the gates in the fifth century. During that time it became a prosperous and sometimes virtuous republic and then a dissolute and corrupt empire that was destined to be mined for contemporary lessons by historians beginning with Edward Gibbon, whose first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was fittingly published in the British empire in 1776.”

Indeed, are we Rome? Perhaps we should look into Vaclav Smil’s 2010 Why America Is Not a New Rome to get the other side of it. There are always at least two sides.

Since she is not listed in the Murphy bibliography, and if you, as the gracious reader, want an undistorted and sober summary of the state of the research on the Inquisition, see Helen Rawlings’ “The Balance of History” (pages 151156) in her 2006 The Spanish Inquisition.

Or if you prefer erudite gossip and entertainment shaped into a conspiracy-fiction narrative, then read Cullen Murphy’s God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, and you will not be disappointed. The author denies the conspiracy theory of history (pages 20-21) while reconstructing an exotic version of his own invention. We cannot intuit his intended audience nor the real genre of this work, so perhaps neither historians nor entertainers—called pundits in the popular literary world—will be happy with God’s Jury. Is Murphy just a younger Malachi Martin or a James J. Kavanaugh, the latter of whom in 1967 brought us A Modern Priest Looks at his Outdated Church? No! Murphy was never a priest.

As to the argument of the Inquisition-model morphing and re-morphing itself into our times, from pre-Christian days to the present, the reasonable response to this hypothesis is by French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who is cited by Murphy as giving a “think what you wish” shrug (page 59). Shrug instead of buying this book—unless you intend to wade into the quagmire of anti-Catholicism.

God’s Jury is a device to permit any contemporary dissenters, not just liberal theologians, to remain in good standing with the Church. In that event, the author should defend their ideas outright and not use history as a parable. Murphy defends Hans Küng and the usual European suspects. He defends some Americans as well, occasionally a non-liberal, but strangely he omits the famous cases of Barbara Ferrara and Patricia Hussey (“the abortion nuns”), Roger Haight, Donald J. McGuire, the Belgian Jacques Dupuis, and the Mexican Marcial Maciel. Cullen Murphy does not tell us why they are left out, since they incurred canonical penalties in one form or another. Perhaps there was a word limit from the publisher.


God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

by Cullen Murphy

Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

310 pages, including Index

ISBN 978-0-618-09156-0


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About Brian Van Hove, S.J. 0 Articles
Brian Van Hove, S.J., now retired, was for many years the chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.