Agnostic Researcher Shames Vatican Coronavirus Response

News: World News
by Jules Gomes  •  •  March 6, 2020   

Christianity grew as pagans fled but believers were willing to die

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ROME ( - A Catholic historian is trumpeting the findings of an agnostic sociologist to shame bishops into opening churches slammed shut by the coronavirus hysteria.

Andrea Riccardi, professor of contemporary history at La Terza University, is a distinguished Italian Catholic. He's won the same award as Winston Churchill — the Charlemagne Prize. He's written an outstanding biography of Pope St. John Paul II. He's served as Minister for International Cooperation and Integration Policies in the Mario Monti government. Internationally, he is best known for founding the Community of Sant'Egidio.

Riccardi's pièce de résistance on Christian suffering is his book The Century of Martyrdom: Christians in the 20th Century — translated and published in 10 languages.

St. Sebastian interceding for the plague-stricken

Rodney Stark, in constrast, is an agnostic. The distinguished professor of social sciences at Baylor University is indubitably the most vocal academic champion of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.

"I am not a Roman Catholic, and I did not write this book in defense of the Church. I wrote it in defense of history," writes Stark in the preface to his book Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. His goal in writing the book is "confronting distinguished bigots" who spread false propaganda seeking to defame the Catholic Church.

Stark is best known for his groundbreaking research in The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, even receiving rave reviews in Newsweek. He's carried out extensive sociological research trying to understand the phenomenal growth of early Christianity.

Early Christianity Boomed

The sociologist estimates that there were no more than 1,000 Christians in all in the year 40 AD. He quotes Origen who says that in the middle of the third century, Christians made up 'just a few' of the population. Yet, by the beginning of the fourth century, Christians were so numerous, that the Roman emperor Constantine found it politically expedient to embrace the Church, writes Stark.

Far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy.

"How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?" he asks. Stark estimates that from the middle of the third century, Christianity was growing at the phenomenal rate of 40% per decade. By the year 350 AD, there were 33 million Christians in the Roman Empire, out of a total population of 60 million.

Epidemics Revealed the Heart of Christianity

One of the factors for this exponential growth, Stark proposes, is the response of Christians to devastating epidemics that ravaged the Roman Empire.

Prof. Rodney Stark, agnostic defender of Catholicism

When on one day, 5,000 people died in Rome alone, and when the pagan priests and doctors and authorities fled the cities, discarding even their dearest, it was Christians who heroically cared for the sick and the dying knowing they could be infected and die from the disease.

Priests, deacons and laypeople died in their efforts to save their pagan sick neighbors. In 362 AD, the Roman emperor Julian complained that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their "moral character, even if pretended," and by their "benevolence towards strangers and care for the graves of the dead."

Stark slams his fellow historians of Rome and early Christianity for completely omitting this critical factor in their writings. "The words 'epidemic,' 'plague' and 'disease' do not even appear in the index of the most respected recent works on the rise of Christianity," he laments, even though Cyprian, Dionysius, Eusebius and other Church fathers thought the epidemics were crucial contributors to Church growth.

The academic posits three reasons to explain why epidemics drove the surprising numbers of middle-class people to Christianity.

First, according to Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, while paganism and Hellenistic philosophies could neither explain nor offer solace to those afflicted by the plagues, "Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future."

Writing in 251 A.D., Cyprian claimed that only non-Christians had anything to fear from the plague, adding: "The just are called to refreshment; the unjust are carried off to torture. Protection is more quickly given to the faithful; punishment to the faithless."

The words 'epidemic,' 'plague' and 'disease' do not even appear in the index of the most respected recent works on the rise of Christianity.

Second, according to Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, Christian virtues of love and charity were translated into social service and community solidarity. This enabled Christians to cope better with epidemics resulting in substantially higher rates of survival. Their higher survival rate would also seem like a "miracle" to pagans — driving even more to convert.

Vatican Radio event has seating at a one-meter distance

Third, Stark applies "control theories of conformity" to suggest that Christianity offered the social support networks which the epidemics had devastated among pagans. Also, pagans were freed from the familiar bonds which previously might have restrained them from embracing the Catholic Church.

Meaning and Joy Amid Sudden Death

The Christian testimony before pagans was that they found life meaningful and even joyful amid sudden and surprising death. "Far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy," preached Bp. Dionysius to his Alexandrian congregations, noting that his flock greeted the epidemic as merely "schooling and testing."

He gave tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of Christians, many of whom lost their lives caring for others:

Heedless of danger, they took care of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead ... The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner — a number of presbyters, deacons and laymen winning high commendation — so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

The heathen, however, behaved in the very opposite manner and at the first onset of the disease "pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating unburied corpses as dirt," records Dionysius.

And what did the famous classical physician Galen, who lived through the first epidemic during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, do? He fled from Rome and sheltered in a country estate in Asia Minor until the plague had receded.

Present-Day Parallel

Historian Riccardi says he's left embittered by what the bishops are doing in response to the coronavirus crisis — closing churches, suspending Masses and refusing Communion on the tongue.

The latest episcopal proposal — the brainchild of the Italian government — might amuse Riccardi: if the faithful are allowed to gather for Mass, they must sit at a safe distance of one meter from one another.

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