The idea came to me during these last day of the long weekend we’ve just been enjoying, thanks to the celebration of the feast of Thomas Aquinas, a great philosopher and saint, which all Spanish universities—ecclesiastical or otherwise—honor by proclaiming it to be a no-class day. The reason for this traditional practice is based on the fact that this great medieval thinker has meant so much to the genesis and development of the university establishment (which properly has its roots in the Christian Middle Ages, though some say that Plato founded the first university, or at least something like it).
Anyway, the fact is these days Catholic bashing is becoming quite the thing, also in predominantly Catholic Philippines. The blows come used to come from some pretty radical Christian fundamentalists, the Iglesia de Cristo (who are not strictly Christians by the way; modern-day Arrians, they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, which is a fundamental Christian doctrine) people who call themselves free-thinkers and those who feel the particular calling to go against any established institution, ecclesiastical or otherwise. But lately more people have stepped into the circle: people who have an axe to grind against the Church because of her solid stance against the RH bill, no converted into a law. The long exodus of this bill into being approved as a law in Philippines has resulted—among other things—in a fearsome, violent and dirty word-war, in which both sides (Church on one hand and the advocates of the bill and hangers-on in the other) are both to blame.
In the midst of the battle, characterized at times by hits below the belt, one of the choice weapons hurled against the Church were what we might properly call black legends. Understood within the word-war between Church and her opponents in the arena of public debate, these legends are basically taken from certain moments of bi-millenary Catholic history, accusations of the Church’s failure to be faithful to her mission to simply be Christian. These may include the horrors of the Inquisition and the unjust trial of Galileo.
“The Black Legend, in a strict sense, refers to a style of historical writing or propaganda that demonizes the Conquistadores and in particular the Spanish Empire in a politically motivated attempt to incite animosity against Spain”; this definition was taken from what has become the most common reference source after the dictionary these days: Wikipedia (do people still consult the dictionary these days? Just wondering). Within the historical context in which these leyendas negras were born, Spain was a world power, and a catholic one at that. Perpetrators of black legends were generally the protestant nations of Europe. These legends were spawned in the hope of discrediting Spain, and hitting it where it mattered most: it’s identity as a catholic nation (not much of it now it isn’t).
Because of the largely catholic content that it contains, the black legend has extended itself to include other topics that do not properly refer to the Spanish empire, but are nevertheless Catholic. They range from the early persecutions of Christians in the second to the fourth centuries, the role of Constantine in shaping Christian role, down to the Inquisition to the Galileo case; the latest black legend to have been spread is about the famous silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust in World War II.
Nowadays, these are topics that still serve to discredit the Church. They are good missiles that are hurled now and then in the sphere of public debate to undermine the credibility of the Church’s voice and the legitimacy of her presence in the square of public opinion. But like all weapons, they are fatal. Weapons are already dangerous enough in the hands of trained men; in the hands of ignorant fools, weapons are made even more so, because they can also turn on their own handler (at least that’s one ignorant fool less for the world). The same is true with black legends.
Whenever people let by phrases in their arguments like “the dark Middle Ages” or “it’s the Inquisition all over again” or “like what the Church did with Galileo”, I begin to suspect how much they know about those things in the first place. One such example is the statement of Philippine senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who in 2011 said that Galileo was tortured by the Church for his beliefs. I could hear crickets chirping in the background.
Anyway, returning to the idea that I had, which I was raving about at the start, why not get straight to the facts? It’s not about exonerating churchmen from whatever wrong they might have done throughout the centuries (I’m sure there’s more than a bagful of that), but I believe it’s unfair to tag the Church with mistakes that she hadn’t committed in the first place.
Historical misconception and black legends are born not only because of ill will, but also due to oversimplification, as Fr. Gil Cañete, one of Palo’s most brilliant thinkers, had pointed out recently. A budding historian, I think it’s just right and just that I contribute to the education of others by studying these questions myself.
As such, I’ve been thinking of providing some points which may hope to clarify some of the things that public opinion may have left in the dark. What role did Constantine have in the Church after it went out of the catacombs? Was the Church really living in the catacombs during its infant stage? Is it really possible to talk about a medieval renaissance? Was the Inquisition really that cruel? What was at the bottom of the Galileo affair, and what part did the Church really have in it? These are merely some of the questions that I hope to answer in the following days and weeks, aided primarily by José Carlos Martín de la Hoz, renowned historian, who precisely wrote a book entitled Historia y leyendas de la Iglesia.