The Black Legend

Sherwin Nuland, reviewing a book about dissection in the latest TNR, writes:

A few weeks before reading Katharine Park's intriguing volume on the early history of anatomical dissection, I found myself at a luncheon where alumni of a large Ivy League university had gathered in the interest of educational sodality and fund-raising, a variety of rite commonly favored by organizations of aging graduates and their alma maters. Perhaps to prepare the mood for the postprandial speaker--a visiting art historian about to discuss the works of Leonardo da Vinci--one of the group's officers was holding forth at my table on a thesis so consistent with common preconceptions about the intellectual backwardness of the Catholic Church that it always finds a receptive audience. With a forcefulness honed by decades as a trial lawyer, he was regaling his attentive listeners with accusations of the obstinacy with which the church opposed human dissection during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This, he pointed out … had necessitated all kinds of clandestine and gruesome activities on the part of those whose aim was to study the human body, whether for scientific purposes or because they were artists of the caliber of Leonardo, Titian, and Raphael. Not only was medical knowledge thus stunted in its advancement … but such opposition necessitated the well-known horrors of grave-robbing in order to obtain cadavers for study, an unnatural activity that marred the image of the profession of healing until late in the nineteenth century.

Of course, Nuland points out, this is all hogwash:

Were Benedict XVI present to act as advocate for his long-ago predecessors, he would have entered a plea of not guilty on their behalf. And the pope would certainly have won the ensuing debate, because the overwhelming weight of evidence supports his long-dead clients. Stated simply, the persuasive lawyer was dead wrong. Whatever difficulties may have been faced by Galileo and several other prominent scientists of that and later eras, the anatomists and the artists had few such obstructionist forces to contend with, at least from the Catholic hierarchy of the time. The truth of the matter differs markedly from what might have been thought by the old alums listening with such knowing accord to the disquisition being presented to them.

Not only did the church not stand in the way of dissection, but it frequently provided an atmosphere and means to facilitate it ...

Conservatives tend to make a big deal about the occasional irruption of straightforward anti-Catholicism, from Amanda Marcotte to Tony Auth. But that kind of anti-Catholic bigotry, the kind of day-to-day stuff that gets Bill Donohue all riled up, is often the sincerest form of flattery: When you’re as big and old and imposing as the Church of Rome, of course a lot of people are going to hate you, and when the Marcottes of the world stop spewing venom in the Church’s direction it’ll be a sign that Catholicism is on the way out.

Nuland’s anecdote, by contrast, gets at something that should actually bother Catholics, and something worth struggling against: Namely, the fact that our culture’s entire self-understanding – the story it tells itself about its own past, about where it’s been and where it’s going – is steeped even now in an Anglo-Protestant interpretation of history, and shot through with anti-Catholic assumptions and prejudices. Most Americans don’t think that John Roberts and Sam Alito are secretly loyal to Rome, for instance, but everybody knows that the Middle Ages were dark and brutal and barbarous, everybody knows that Protestantism freed the Western mind from bondage and that the Protestant work ethic built the modern world, everybody knows that the Church has always been an inveterate foe of scientific inquiry (Galileo! Galileo!), and so on and so forth. And that everybody includes an awful lot of American Catholics, the unwitting heirs of a Whiggish interpretation of the past that downplays, denigrates and dismisses their own religious patrimony.