Catholic League reacts to a Hell’s Bible book review

From our friends at The Catholic League:


There was a book review in yesterday’s New York Times by Bill Keller, executive editor of the newspaper, of Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich. Catholic League president Bill Donohue comments on it today:

It’s hard to say who is dumber—Bill Keller or John Julius Norwich. But to say that Pope Urban VIII imprisoned Galileo and banned all his works is without doubt the voice of a moron: Urban VIII lauded Galileo’s work and showered him with gifts and medals. Furthermore, Galileo was never imprisoned; he was put under house arrest in an apartment in a Vatican palace, with a servant.

Similarly, to say that Pope Pius XII was an enabler of fascism is libelous: no one in the world did more to save Jews and undermine Hitler than Pius XII. That is why the Israelis planted 800,000 trees in his honor, one for every Jew he saved.

Keller is right to say that Norwich is “no scholar,” and he is doubly right to say that he is “selective about where he lingers.” Where he lingers is in the mythical world. Any author who wants to be taken seriously does not offer an entire chapter about some alleged historical figure whom the author reluctantly admits never lived. But that is just what he did by offering up fairy tales about “Pope Joan.”

Naturally, Keller says the bishops blamed “the libertine culture” for the “scourge of pedophile priests.” But the “blame Woodstock” explanation originated with the New York Times, not the bishops, and the scourge he mentions is homosexuality, not pedophilia. So he is twice wrong.

It is not surprising that the book ends by begging the Catholic Church to accept homosexuality and women priests. That is what these people live for. But since neither Keller nor Norwich is Catholic, why should they care? They care because the Church does not entertain their trendy ideas about sexuality, and it never will.

Contact Bill Keller:

Contact our director of communications about Donohue’s remarks:
Jeff Field
Phone: 212-371-3191

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Clerical Sexual Abuse, Our Catholic Identity, The Drill, The Last Acceptable Prejudice, Throwing a Nutty and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. isnowhere says:

    Galileo is “low hanging fruit” for those wishing to paint the Church is a anti-science sort of light. For whatever reason the false details that are commonly regurgitated are widely accepted… even by some Catholics. Does anyone have some insight on where the false details originated?

  2. Maltese says:

    Donohue is one scrappy fellow; love it! I can’t regurgitate it here, but Thomas E. Woods Jr. gives a nice exposition as to how our entire scientific methodology owes its conception to the Catholic faith in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, he also provides plenty of Catholic Scientists, especially Jesuits, who contributed to science. Modern Astronomy, for instance, would be bereft but for them.

  3. traditionalorganist says:

    While I agree with Donohue’s remarks, I think his style is very abrasive. He comes across quite negatively because he throws personal attacks at the writers of these articles. Yes, it feels good to mock those who mock us, but I wonder if it’s the best way to go. Is it really effective? Does it actually portray the Church in a good light, radiating Christian Charity and Joy?

  4. AnAmericanMother says:

    Well, sweetness and light go only so far.
    If somebody is actually mistaken, you can approach them gently and administer a little fraternal and charitable correction.
    The problem with that approach is that these individuals know they are wrong, they have been corrected many times, and they do not care. They are not interested in the truth, but only in attacking the Church by any means necessary, including scurrilous personal attacks on all and sundry.
    Donohue is taking it to them in the only possible way.

  5. Joe Magarac says:

    I am trying to think of all the times that someone convinced me of something by calling me “dumb” and a “moron.” Zero.

    Now I am trying to think of all of the times that someone has offended me and made me an enemy by calling me “dumb” and a “moron.” Pretty much every time.

    Finally, I am trying to think of all of the times that someone made themselves look dumb and moronic by calling someone else “dumb” and a “moron.” Again, pretty much every time.

    Bill Donohue’s approach does nothing whatsoever to advance the interests of the Catholic Church in America.

  6. Joe Magarac: I am eager to see your examination of the material in question.

  7. benedetta says:

    True enough no one likes being called “dumb” (or other things) but then what is the solution when it comes to deliberate disinformation broadcast or published widely as if historical fact? I don’t see much evidence that these entities, as AnAmericanMother rightly points out, either care about accuracy or precision for one thing, as an intellectual matter, or about the effects of playing fast and loose, mischaracterization or sometimes, outright attack, or finally about the virtue of tolerance through respect and discussion. If there was concern for these then there would be clarification at the outset, there would be a concern to prevent characterizing a religious group through falsehood.

    I don’t know much at all about the Catholic League however I think that something such as this is not aimed at “converting” to the faith (and of course people of good will really are respectful of people’s choices, so long as people who aren’t interested in belief do not stereotype or promote things as accurate or neglect to tell “both sides” of the story).

    I see what the Catholic League does as more in the way of anti-discrimination activism and monitoring stereotypes about Catholicism perpetuated in the culture. Unfortunately there does appear to be a need for this in America no matter how far we think we have come, how sophisticated, successful, evolved.

    And in the places where people do tend to come around with interest in what the faith is really about, they will be free to pursue that if there is awareness of what types of views and misconceptions people are laboring under, through no fault of their own. The process of evangelization is actually helped through awareness, not through hiding and denial.

  8. HyacinthClare says:

    Benedetta, I’m sure you are a reasonable, honorable person, not inclined to lie blatantly in order to advance an anti-Catholic agenda. We have been “beaten up” so much about Galileo and Pius XII and every-priest-a predator that many Catholics go around apologizing for existing. Bill Donohue is my big brother (not really!) He could take me apart if he wanted to, but nobody else better whack on his little sister. I completely agree that he’s not aimed at “winning” or “converting” anybody. He’s making ME feel like somebody tough stands between me and the lying bullies. I’m grateful for him every day.

  9. Joe Magarac says:

    Fr. Z –

    I have read Keller’s review of Norwich’s book, but I haven’t read the book. Keller’s review starts off by saying that the book is not a history and is more of a beach read. Keller then mentions that Norwich’s descriptions of “Pope Joan” are mythical and that no such Pope ever existed. Keller then goes on to evaluate the book as a beach read and not as a history; he says it’s good for what it is.

    Donohue objects by saying that Norwich’s history is false. And I am sure that it is. But I don’t see how that is a fair rebuttal of Keller; Keller stated up front that he wasn’t reviewing Norwich’s historical claims.

    I really think that Donohue’s press releases and other documents give new life to events and controversies that would otherwise die of neglect. I would never have read Keller’s review if Donohue (through you) hadn’t called my attention to it. If people like Keller and Norwich are trying to create controversy, then rebuttals like Donohue’s are giving them exactly what they want.

    Nor do I think words like “dumb” and “moron” are fit for use in a public press release by someone who claims to represent the Catholic Church (if not officially). Christ took the high road. I think Bill Donohue should, too.

  10. MichaelJ says:

    Joe Magarac,

    You seem to think that Bill Donohue’s intent is (or should be)to change Bill Keller’s or John Julius Norwich’s mind. I doubt he sees it this way, but you’d have to ask him.
    Instead, I suspect that Bill Donohue doubt’s if any approach to these individuals will have any likely effect. So, he sees his purpose as letting others (i.e. the general public) know of , frankly, dumb and moronic ideas being floated about as legitimate opinion.

  11. AnAmericanMother says:

    If the general public made any distinction between history and fiction — and if the authors were honestly intended and just trying to write a “beach read” to entertain the general public and make a little money — we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
    Keller and Norwich both know perfectly well that the description as a “beach read” will be ignored and the slanders about Pope Joan will be remembered as “fact” even though superficially presented as “fiction” (just enough to give plausible deniability when they are called on it.) And they like that. No amount of polite correction will have any effect whatsoever.
    You may remember what happened when a certain piece of “fiction” hit the best seller list and was proclaimed by all and sundry as gospel truth even though it had a weaselly disclaimer? Surely you recollect all that fuss about The DaVinci Code?
    Donohue is doing a public service by hitting this slander and scandal as quickly and as hard as possible.

  12. benedetta says:

    Joe Magarac, The NYTimes is not an individual, breathing organism but a corporate entity and we don’t really have much scriptural basis for determining what would Jesus say to big media business. Others here could speculate better than I could. All professionals need to answer to ethical standards. And if a corporate organization demonstrates by actions (over a certain period of time) that it is not interested in publication of “both sides” or the “full story” then the public and consumers need to be aware that what they preach is not necessarily gospel, not always with factual basis, for numerous reasons but primarily because it unfairly stimatizes on the basis of religion and stereotypes are destructive and harmful, not just for freedom of religion but on other terms as well, it is so obvious it hardly seems that it needs saying.

    Do you really think people want to have to be in the position of pleading with the big nytimes to please just accord the basic respect that persons in a pluralistic culture may expect from one another? No, no one wants to pick a fight with big media. It is like Hyacinth Clare says above, this is on behalf of people who would be treated unjustly, as themselves somehow “dumb” and worse, for being affiliated with the religious profession of their choice.

    And just because you might not pick it up that does not mean that others do not read and digest and take it as fact. Plenty of Catholics pick up something such as this and take it for fact. As well as searching and struggling individuals who have never heard anything but the old canards and some new ones as well to go with that who might consider what the faith has to offer but would be deterred after being beaten down relentlessly by stereotypes and caricature.

    It seems that you would prioritize evangelizing the authors by shrugging it off rather than evangelizing the unwitting consumers of their works by helping to clarify the facts.

    If something is worthy of being reviewed by the nytimes, so goes the prevailing attitude, it must be marketable and if it is marketable then someone in business feels that people will be receptive to this message enough to make a purchase…that in and of itself is problematic and something that is best confronted where it is rather than pretend it does not matter or affect people’s lives.

    The problem is with the assumptions the nytimes is making (and this book publication seems to be investing in). So as happens with all anti-discrimination organization which monitors media use of stereotypes and caricature, what will happen is when there is an awareness Catholics will follow up. And then of course one gets back a form letter that says “Thank you for your email…As you know…” Now that is the high road you speak of. Whether it is acknowledged and respected on its terms for what it is and whether practices are thus changed in future is an open question in any given case. Historically the arc seems to show that the corporate entity has heard the polite requests and takes another path anyway. But precisely when that happens it is better to persist and witness than to silently accept stereotypical labels and all that goes along with that when it happens culturally. Most anti-discrimination groups in disseminating to raise awareness do satirize the stereotypes or those wielding them. There is something to that, I think and again it has to do with looking after those who would be victimized by it. I think that is the point. It is not really possible to have a polite, respectful dialogue with stereotype and falsehood.

  13. Mundabor says:

    The issue is not converting Keller or Norwich; it is about other people knowing what kid of morons they are. Being morons, neither Keller nor Norwich will likely be converted, anyway.

    If we want to advance Catholicism, we must start calling things by their proper name. Ridicule doesn’t do any good to the NYT’s sales, and it would be time they got that kind of message, too.

    I am always a bit taken aback when I read that to be a catholic would be to go around saying to anyone “look, look at my joy!”.

    Besides, to instruct the ignorant is a work of mercy; to admonish the sinner is another one; and to counsel the doubtful is a third.

    Sometimes it takes a bit of chilli. Nothing wrong with that. Ridicule is a powerful weapon.


  14. Fr. Basil says:

    Why do I get the feeling that John Julius Norwich is a nom de plume? (Think: Dame Julian of Norwich._

    I do promise to look a bit further.

  15. Phil_NL says:

    I have read the book (in it’s earlier british edition, but I’m pretty sure that one is identical safe the title; ), as well as almost all of Lord Norwich other books. I’ll call this as I see it.

    Norwich his trademark is to take history – preferably a part which caught his affection, such as Venice, Byzantium or the Normans in Sicily – and write it down in such a way it becomes a page-turner. He has the wit to very succesful at this game, and undoubtedly has earned a decent living out of it for the last decades. In fact, I can highly recommend his earlier work, especially on Venice.

    However, Norwich has several faults, and while they are minor in their effects on his other books, they ruined his book on the Papacy. He’s quite content to rely on a limited number of sources, including authors who do have a massive axe to grind. Not only one or two of the ‘nazi-pope historians’ serve as his basis, also …. Fr. Kung. So it comes as little surprise that Norwich goes overboard when dealing with 20th century Popes.
    Add to this Norwich editorializing, which makes clear his own preferences, and the disaster becomes even bigger, since Norwich is a british agnostic (formerly Anglican, no doubt) and a liberal on ethical issues.
    Last but not least, he’s no scholar (no fiction writer either, btw), but a storyteller, so juicy stories get prominence, holiness hardly any attention. For medieval political history – his normal trade – that’s hardly a problem, as those rulers/states he wrote on earlier had not even much of a pretense of taking moral issues into acocunt. But Norwich applied his tried and tested formula to an area where it simply won’t fit. Religion is the essence of the Papacy – a no-brainer – but Norwich didn’t get that or simply can’t process it.

    Thus, so as far as the book’s concerned, it’s not a succes, to say the least. I don’t think it’s set up as a diatribe against the Church, nor even has an agenda beyond selling copies (easily, as Norwich recycles his own earlier work too). We have to face that many a medieval pope simply wasn’t much credit to the Church – by the current or historical standards. It’s just a poor book for overly focussing on the sins; and that’s bad enough already, certainly on this topic.

    Now for the NYT article: in fact that one is also true to form, in the sense that once again the liberal filter is at work: having no grasp of religion at all, and in their own minds even less need for Catholicism, the juicy stories are given pride of place. Maybe Keller had an agenda, maybe he was just being his normal self, an NYT liberal.

    Conclusion: yes, the book is poor, and the review dwells on it’s poorer aspects. On the other hand, I’m reluctant to call malice here, on either part. Rather than a conscious attempt to harm the Church, I see a book and reviewer who are simply incapable of looking at religion in any other way than instrumental. That doesn’t excuse poor quality, of course, nor the injustice done to several recent Popes.
    It does make one wonder though if it will serve any purpose in agressively attacking Keller and Norwich, war is best waged on enemies who are purposely attacking – and the Church has plenty of those. Simply not buying the book and pointing out the errors and injustices in a mild and matter-of-fact way might be more productive here.

  16. Phil_NL says:

    PS: As for Bill Donohue’s response, which I didn’t mention directly: I think that content-wise, he’s on spot-on (I doubt though if Norwich cares about being taken seriously, but that’s another issue). It’s the style that I question the wisdom of, as well as the tendency of AnAmericanMother to see this book as a deliberate attempt to harm the Church. (as for the NYT, you never know)

  17. teomatteo says:

    The book title: “The Popes, a history”
    With an entire chapter on a nonexistent person?
    That seems pretty moronic to me.

  18. AnAmericanMother says:

    I’ll grant you that Norwich’s main intention may not be to harm the Church. But persistent, blatant indifference to the truth is almost as bad. A gossip spreading nasty stories for fun (or profit) is doing the same thing as a slanderer deliberately spreading them to hurt someone. The motivation may be somewhat different, but the damage is done.
    As far as the Old Grey Lady goes, I stand by my position. The NYT and its writers are anti-Catholic and will do everything they can to damage the Church at every opportunity. They don’t like us, they don’t want to like us, and you can’t make them like us by any means. So you have to stand up to them with vigor.

  19. Phil_NL says:

    @An AmericanMother
    I think that even blatant indifference would be overcharging it. The book is not fiction – it’s no DaVince code – and the ‘pope joan’ chapter is clearly, throughout the text, marked as treatment of a myth. Nor is it a myth of Norwich’s making, as that canard is centuries old, and with some indications that the Church itself might have been unsure of its truth or falsehood along the way. (we’re talking deep Dark Ages here). Norwich relishes in the story, that’s for sure, but he doesn’t present it as truth but as myth, with means that you can hardly call it gossip or slander.
    The real issue I have with the book, and where he does indeed do some damage, is the treatment of various 20th century Popes. There Norwich simply choose to follow the lead of couple of old morons, and infuse his own liberal mindset into the story. The latter is probably too set to ever change, but the former could and should be challenged in the public domain by making the case for the various popes. Something that, in my opinion, works best with rather small amounts of vitriol.

    As for the NYT: I have little doubt that anti-Catholic bias is endemic there. I do wonder if this is the best example though. Either way, they thrive on publicity as well, so I’m reluctant to give it to them. They tend to do pretty well making asses out of themselves on their own most of the time.

  20. Grabski says:

    Joe Magarac Let me get this straight. The NYT can’t review one of its best sellers (Anne Coulter’s latest), but recommends as a ‘beach read’ a book that they say is actually fiction?

    What makes it a beach read, then? That it megaphones myths and calumnies about the Church? That it keeps the lies about Pius XII alive? That’s the merit of a book they admit isn’t true?

    You’ve got low standards, friend

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    Since you have read the book, and even know the author (I’m not familiar with either one), I’ll defer to your knowledge.
    But consider this – the tale of Little Sir Hugh of Lincoln is probably even older. Would you give a writer who relished in that old canard a pass?

  22. Phil_NL says:

    Frankly, I didn’t know that canard, had to look it up on wikipedia. Based on that, I must say that, with its accusations of ritual murder, it’s a wholly different story, and much more damaging. Incomparable even, given European history.

    And for the record: I’m not going Norwich a pass on this one for bad writing. That he definately did, both in his choice of elements to describe as well as his massive editorializing later on. I’m only giving him a pass on deliberate anti-catholic bias since I have reasonable doubt on the intentional part; even when it comes to his very poor choice of sources for the 20th century (Kung, brrr). It would have been far better would he have not written this book this way, but I continue to have trouble fitting it in the culture wars, so to say.

  23. benedetta says:

    I think it is quite common, even predictable, that many who trumpet something originating in anti-Catholicism haven’t an actual thought out intent to destroy the faith in the minds and hearts of unwitting searchers or believers. But then that is why stereotypes are insidious and beyond reason itself. At the same time many who advance certain things do mean harm or destruction, and some say even that they love Jesus while at the same time feel free to teach things which effectively destroy believers’ joy and future.

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