Some Protestants believe that the Catholic Church is not just spiritually dangerous—it’s also a threat to the liberty (and even the lives!) of those who challenge its authority. Fringe fundamentalists like Jack Chick have peddled all kinds of lurid conspiracies, one of my favorites being that “the name of every Protestant church member in the world” is kept in a “big computer” in the Vatican for future persecutions. And even though most Protestants won’t go that far down the rabbit hole, many are quick to share claims of historical atrocities committed by Catholics.
“Appeals to atrocity” might be good at raising people’s blood pressure, but they aren’t good at raising the level of discourse between Catholics and Protestants. That’s because they suffer from logical and factual flaws—the same flaws we see when we examine similar atheistic appeals to atrocity made against Christianity and religion in general.
In online discourse, you often hear people say things like, “Religion is the cause of most wars.” Richard Dawkins references “the immense power of religion, and especially the religious upbringing of children, to divide people and foster historic enmities and hereditary vendettas” (257). Other critics say that just Christianity has uniquely contributed to historical violence. The late atheist Christopher Hitchens claimed that violence was so essential to Christianity that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to non-violence meant he wasn’t really a Christian (176).
Indeed, we don’t have to go far into history to find accounts of Protestants killing Catholics. This was fairly common in England after the Reformation in episodes like the execution of eighteen priests at the “massacre of Michelade” or the Carthusian monks who were drawn and quartered because they refused to recognize Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church. Protestants have also used violence against other Protestants—for example, the sixteenth-century Anabaptists who said most believers do not possess valid baptisms. The Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon published a pamphlet about the Anabaptists, signed by Luther, concluding that, in some cases, “the stubborn sectaries must be put to death” (222-223).*
There are other evils committed by Protestants, too—like Luther’s anti-Semitism and Southern Baptist involvement in the slave trade. Such examples are why atheists would say that Protestants can’t avoid appeals to atrocity by pinning the blame on Catholics. They have to explain their own shameful historical episodes, and in doing so, they leave themselves open to those same defenses being used against anti-Catholic appeals to atrocity.
Now let’s examine the flaws in appeals to atrocity. First, there is a logical flaw in these kinds of arguments. Even if it were true that Catholicism, Christianity, or religion in general uniquely contributed to violence, that wouldn’t prove that those belief systems were false.
Consider the common yet false claim that religion has been the cause of most wars. The comedian George Carlin once quipped that “more people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason.” But The Encyclopedia of Wars classifies only about 120 out of over 2,000 armed conflicts (or about 7 percent) as “religious wars” (vol. 3, 1484-1485). It turns out that most conflicts in human history involve disputes over resources rather than dogma and are fueled by nationalist pride rather than religious zeal.
Let’s focus on one of those primary causes of war: disputed claims of ownership regarding resources like land. Fighting to reclaim certain lands assumes the truth of the belief that land can be owned. Now, some people might believe that it is never legitimate to have things like borders or sovereign states, but that controversial claim wouldn’t be proven just because large groups of people have frequently fought over land rights. In other words, fighting over a thing doesn’t make that thing illegitimate.
Similarly, many jealous spouses throughout history have killed adulterers because of their passionate belief that marriage is a sexually exclusive relationship. Such acts of violence, however, don’t prove that their belief in monogamy is bad or wrong. Those murderers’ belief in monogamy could be exactly right, even though their actions done in the name of that belief were wrong.
The same is true for religion. That people have, over history, viewed religious beliefs as something important enough to fight over does not prove that those beliefs, or religious beliefs in general, are false or bad.
Then there is the factual problem with these claims. Appeals to atrocity often rely on exaggerated body counts and shoddy historical inferences that claim that one group or idea was uniquely responsible for violence. For instance, the claim that Catholics (and/or Christians, depending on whom you ask) killed 50-68 million people during the Inquisition is laughable, given that 25 million Europeans died during the fourteenth-century bubonic plague (or “the Black Death”), a devasting number that constituted one-third of Europe’s population. The Inquisition’s activities were well recorded, and reputable scholars give much lower numbers. Historian Edward Peters says, “The best estimate is that around 3,000 death sentences were carried out in Spain by Inquisitorial verdict between 1550 and 1800, a far smaller number than that in contemporary secular courts” (87). Even thoughtful Protestants like Greg Koukl can recognize when an appeal to atrocity against Catholicism defies common sense—“let’s just say this seems highly unlikely” (182).
Vilifying Catholicism because of the violence its representatives inflicted upon heretics in the post-Reformation period is not at all different from the atheistic tactic of vilifying the Jewish/Christian God because the Bible records his followers executing heretics. Moses, for instance, ordered anyone who worshiped the golden calf to be put to death (Exod. 32:27-29). Steve Wells, author of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, says, “When the people complain to Moses, he tells them they aren’t complaining about him, but about God, making them apostates and heretics, and therefore deserve severe punishment. Religious leaders have used this tactic ever since.”
In their critique of religion, atheists like to bring up episodes of Catholic and Protestant intolerance, including the time when John Calvin executed the Spanish theologian Michael Servetus because he denied the Trinity.
So if it’s true that the Bible can be the word of God even if people used it to justify evil practices that would no longer be acceptable today, then the Catholic Church can be the custodian of God’s revelation even if it provided some people with the rationale to engage in practices that are no longer acceptable today. The Catechism says this about the use of violence in Church history:
In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors (2298).
When comparing competing worldviews, we should reject the ghoulish standard of simply asking, “Who killed the most people?” We should also condemn the reduction of a complex worldview to stereotypes that make for easy “gotcha moments” like the amoral atheist, the violent Muslim, the money-grubbing televangelist, and the pedophilic priest. We should instead critically examine the content of the worldviews behind these stereotypes to see if violence is an unfortunate deviation from those beliefs or a natural product of them.
* This quote is often incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther.