If you ever get the suspicion that many pundits don't know what the heck they're talking about, I can assure you, as a former newspaperman myself, that you're absolutely right. And this is especially the case when it comes to ritualistic uses of words like "the Middle Ages," "the crusades," and "the Inquisition," all of which are mere standbys for "the bad old days before we tamed, reformed, and fenced in the musty and pernicious Catholic Church."
Take for instance, Chuck Colson, who in a recent column about the "epidemic of anti-Christian books" that have "erupted" on the New York Times bestsellers list, made the usual demurral: "This is not to say that over the centuries Christians haven't tried to impose their values at times, which in the Middle Ages produced bloody crusades and inquisitions."
Oh, those dastardly Middle Ages! Oh, those bloody-thirsty crusaders and scheming inquisitors! Oh, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! (Or at least those Catholics should mea culpa: Protestants can claim they were on sabbatical from the first century until the middle of the sixteenth century.)
But any reasonably educated Catholic, at least, should know that the Middle Ages was one of the most creative and regenerative periods in the history of the human race — and you don't have to read Catholic historians to discover this. Good secular historians will do — including chaps who are writing today, like Professor Rodney Stark, whose book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success is not a bad place to start. And there are plenty of other good books available too, pointing up the fact that it was the Age of Faith that established the university, modern science, capitalism, ideas of universal human rights, and triumphs of art and literature that led to the efflorescence of the Renaissance.
As for the crusades, it seems a trifle, well, trifling, to dismiss them as Christians "imposing their values at times" when they were launched into the teeth of Islamic aggression that over the course of four centuries had overrun the Christian dominions of the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy, and was besieging the remnants of Byzantium. The crusaders' initial task was to defend Byzantium and protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land; it later became the defense of the Crusader Kingdom of Outremer. If this amounts to "imposing their values at times" one can only thank God for it, as one might thank God that the British imposed their values to stop widow-burning in India, or that the Allies imposed their values to liberate France in 1944.
As for the inquisitions, these were various, from those organized by the Church to those operated by the crown (the Spanish Inquisition). But it is so well-established by now, for anyone who cares to know, that the inquisition of popular imagination is a myth, that the various inquisitions were more lenient and fair in their judicial procedures than their secular counterparts, and that the inquisitions were, in fact, occasionally a judicial alternative to war (in putting down heretical movements), that to invoke the horror of the inquisition is merely to reveal that one's historical memory is stocked more with bogeymen than with fact.
Oh how the soul would rejoice for the smashing of these clichés about nasty crusaders and inquisitors, and their replacement with "Of course, over the centuries Christians have tried to impose their values at times, as in Elizabethan England, when Catholic priests were hunted down and executed, or in Calvin's Geneva, Christianity's first and only police state."
Alas, even Catholics often fail when it comes to applying Christian history to contemporary debates. Take, for example, Mark Shea, of this parish, who in a recent piece in The National Catholic Register wrote that Catholics who "try to figure out just exactly how much you can waterboard or inflict pain or otherwise frighten and torment prisoners before it's exactly, legally, technically, precisely, you know, torture," are talking sophistical, anti-Christian rubbish.
Oh well, then, so much for the Church, which, in its own judicial deliberations during the medieval inquisitions did precisely this, and did it for prisoners occasionally less markedly dangerous than the al-Qaeda terrorists we confront today.
Cardinal Newman believed that for an idea to have value it had to be real. But when commentators don't engage with the reality of the past, they're no sure guides to the reality of the present.