The Scandal of the Scandals: The Secret History of Christianity by Manfred Lutz (Ignatius Press), with its arresting cover image of a robed figure gesticulating from a pulpit, made me at first wonder if it was unearthing new scandals in the Church’s long history not yet discovered by her enemies. In fact, this lively volume, written by a psychiatrist and theologian, who was director of a hospital in Cologne for over 20 years, is a work of vigorous apologetics, ably supported by wide reading. The author, who writes in his preface that it is “about history, about the incredibly exciting, true history of the greatest religion of all time”, does not shirk from blaming the Church for her many human defects throughout the last 2000 years, but he also brings balance to the charges made against her and points out innumerable instances of “fake news”, still unthinkingly believed as fact.

Lutz explains that the message of the Gospels, such as “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you” and St Paul’s “Love bears all things” has often been sullied in practice. Taking as his guiding principle Christ’s injunction that the tares (weeds) should be left to grow with the wheat, he argues that the Church, uniquely for the times, preached tolerance for her enemies. Yet she also had to confront human problems, such as how to separate the Church from the state when, after Constantine, the state was supposedly a Christian one, and how to translate that “no state could be built on total pacificism”, which led to St Augustine and the teaching of a “just war”.

The Church always insisted that baptisms had to be voluntary, not compulsory and that pagans – and later heretics – should be censured, argued with and persuaded, but not put to death. Yet both happened during the first millennia, despite the teaching. Charlemagne emerges as a fascinating figure: “His sex life bore a striking resemblance to Mick Jagger’s”; he constantly waged war against the Saxon tribes, with forcible conversions; yet “it is really thanks to Charlemagne’s empire that Europe – despite all the wars – still kept one common foundation: Christianity.”

Lutz writes that during the first thousand years of Christianity “there were neither crusades, nor inquisitions, nor witch hunts. There were no pogroms either, or lasting schisms with the Eastern Church.” Such a (relatively) benign record was not to last. Lutz puts the Crusades into historical perspective, citing English historians Steven Runciman and Jonathan Riley-Smith among his sources. At the time of the First Crusade of 1096, Pope Urban II had pleaded with the western knights, fired up with recapturing Jerusalem from the Muslims, to wage a just war in a “noble endeavour”. In practice it became a “chaotic mass movement” and “platoon of marauders.” “Not a word from the New Testament was found to justify the Crusades” Lutz observes.

Moving on to the question of how to deal with heretics, the old Christian principle “of condemning heretical opinions without personally prosecuting heretics” held good for a time – until confronted with the Cathars, described by the author as “a grim, life-hating sect” who wielded immense power over a large area of southern France. Lutz agrees that the Church’s call to a crusade against the Cathars was “a serious mistake” – while also seeing it in the context of the times: a powerful dualist heresy that could threaten the fragile unity of Christian Europe so it had, finally, to be suppressed.

The book includes an examination of the “wickedness” of Alexander VI, the Spanish Borgia pope: worldly certainly, but also a brilliant Church diplomat whose legacy has been unfairly tarnished by the slanders of his Italian enemies. There is sympathy for Luther and a recognition that the Church mishandled his justified attack on abuses. “Through misunderstandings, political intrigues and tragic events, the indulgence controversy became the departure point for the schism in Western Christendom”- the Reformation. Lutz effectively despatches the “scandal” of Galileo, describing it as “the greatest media hoax of all time. The myth remains unbusted to this day” and includes a trenchant comment by Arthur Koestler on the many stories surrounding this supposed martyr to science. He also provides the true statistics of the European witch hunts of the seventeenth century.

Lutz’ work is informative, provocative and challenging – for Catholics as well as to those outside the Church who, usually in ignorance, fasten on her glaring failings in the light of Christ’s teaching. “An agitator for war has never been able seriously to reference the New Testament” he reflects. He concludes with Pope John Paul II’s historic confession of guilt for the Church’s behaviour at Mass on March 12, 2000.

In writing of the “scandals” in Church history, the author also points out that he has not related the other side of salvation history: the history of the saints, of spiritual beginnings “and…the history of Christian beauty in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages…in the frescoes of Michelangelo …and in Johan Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion.” What he has done is provide within 250 pages the tools for countering the many slanders against the Church, as well as giving readers an appreciation of how flawed, sinful Christians throughout the centuries have striven to live up to – and often failed – the eternal truth and beauty of the institution founded by Christ.

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