NEW YORK, JUNE 4, 2005 (Zenit.org).- No institution has done more to shape the West than the Church. This is the thesis of a just-published book, “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” (Regnery Publishing), by Thomas E. Woods Jr.
The Catholic Church, Woods notes, has come in for a bad press in the past few years. And many people are only aware of the darker parts of Church history. This book sets out to change that, by succinctly dealing in a series of thematic chapters with a number of areas where the Church played a crucial role.
Western civilization, Woods is careful to add, does not derive exclusively from Catholicism. Nevertheless, it is easy to forget just how much the Church contributed in such areas as art, music, architecture, science and law.
A strongly negative view still persists regarding the Middle Ages, even though Woods affirms that just about all historians have now rejected the old prejudice of this period as the “Dark Ages.” While there was indeed a period of decline in the sixth and seventh centuries, this was due to barbarian invasions and constant wars. The destruction would have been worse if it had not been for the Church’s efforts at maintaining some kind of order.
Modern civilization owes a particular debt to the work of countless monks during the Middle Ages, Woods points out. It was in the monasteries that the great Roman texts were copied and preserved for future generations. And even though over the centuries many monasteries were destroyed by successive waves of barbarians they would spring up again to continue their task.
The medieval monasteries were also vital in the development of agriculture. In particular, the many thousands of Benedictine establishments played a crucial role in clearing and developing land. They also introduced the local populations to important techniques, such as cattle rearing, cheese making, water management and raising bees. Cistercian monasteries also played a vital role, Woods adds, in areas such as the development of water power and metallurgy.
A time of learning
Far from being a period of ignorance the Middle Ages saw the birth of the university system. The Church was at the center of this advance, which took off in the second half of the 12th century in centers established in Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge. The papacy, Woods explains, also played a central role in establishing and encouraging the universities. By the time of the Reformation, 81 universities had received a papal charter.
Modern science also owes a large debt to the Catholic Church. Most people remember the Church’s conflict with Galileo, which was not nearly so negative as popular myths would have it, Woods argues. The Church was at the center of scientific advances, with many clergymen combining their divine vocation with an interest in science.
In the 13th century, the Dominican St Albert the Great, for example, was considered one of the precursors of modern science. And Robert Grosseteste, chancellor of Oxford University and bishop of Lincoln, is described by Woods as being considered to have been one of the most knowledgeable men of the Middle Ages. He was, among other accomplishments, the first to write down a complete set of steps for performing a scientific experiment.
The Church’s involvement with science would continue in later centuries. In the 17th century Father Nicolaus Steno of Denmark was credited with setting down most of the principles of modern geology. And in the 17th and 18th centuries the Jesuits made many important contributions to science, particularly in areas such as mathematics and astronomy.
Art and architecture also owe a great debt to the Catholic Church. When the iconoclasts, who were opposed to images of religious figures, sought the destruction of religious art in the eighth and ninth centuries, it was the Church that resisted this heresy.
In the following centuries Catholic patronage, through the construction of the great cathedrals and the commissioning of innumerable works of art, was at the center of European art and architecture. The popes, in particular, as patrons of many great artists were behind the production of many masterpieces.
The discovery and conquest of the New World presented Catholic theologians with the task of developing what should be the legal and ethical principles governing the treatment of the native peoples in the new territories. One of the best-known of these thinkers was Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican who is credited with helping to lay the foundations of modern international law. He defended the principle that all men are equally free and have the same right to life, culture and property.
Vitoria, along with other figures such as fellow Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas, played an important role in defending the native populations against those who sought to treat them as a subhuman class, thus legitimizing slavery and other kinds of ill treatment. Injustices were committed in spite of these efforts, notes Woods, but the Spanish theologians made important contributions to concepts such as natural rights and the just war.
Many other aspects of Western legal systems also owe their origin to the Church, explains Woods. The legal code developed by the Church for its own use, canon law, was the first systematic body of law developed in medieval Europe and formed the basis for subsequent secular legal systems.
Church influence was vital in ensuring, for example, that a valid marriage required the free consent of both the man and the woman. And the Church’s defense of human life meant that the Greek and Roman practice of infanticide was discontinued. Other barbaric practices such as trial by battle or blood feuds were eventually discouraged due to the Church’s influence. Canon lawyers also introduced principles such as reducing legal liability due to mitigating circumstances.
Catholic charity is another field examined by Woods. From the first centuries the Church sought to alleviate the suffering caused by famines and diseases. Inspired by the Gospel the faithful were encouraged to donate money to the Church to be used to help those in need.
In the early Church, hospices were organized to care for pilgrims, ransomed slaves and the poor. Other groups, such as widows and orphans, also benefited from institutions set up by the Church. The establishment of hospitals on a large scale also stems from initiatives organized by the Catholic Church from the fourth century onward. And, during the Middle Ages, monasteries became the providers of medical care in many areas.
The extent of this aid was such that many who were otherwise hostile to Catholics, from pagans to Protestant reformers and Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, all paid tribute to the Church’s charitable work.
Woods also notes that when King Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries in England and confiscated their properties the subsequent loss of charitable aid led to civil uprisings in some parts. And the nationalization of Church property during the French Revolution meant that more than a half-century afterward, in 1847, France had 47% fewer hospitals than in 1789.
Woods concludes by affirming “So ingrained are the concepts that Catholicism introduced into the world that very often even movements opposing it are nevertheless imbued with Christian ideals.” The Catholic Church, he continues, “did not merely contribute to Western civilization — the Church built that civilization.” Contemporary civilization has cut itself off from this foundation more and more, Woods notes, in many cases with negative consequences.