The intense media interest in what is going on in the Vatican during the lead-up to the selection of a new pope provides a useful reminder of just how important the Church is in today’s world.
Despite the critics who malign the Church as being opposed to science, reason and progress, and those who portray it as an oppressive medieval relic, it seems that after all it is still an institution that many people consider relevant.
This was also the view expressed in a recent book by well-known author Mike Aquilina, titled “Yours Is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our World,” (Servant Books).
Popular culture would have us believe that the Church is some kind of universal enemy, he commented, but he made the claim that: “Everything about our modern world we think is good is there because of the Church.”
Modern civilization is often thought of as having begun with the Renaissance, he observed. But where did all this learning come from? It was the monasteries that copied the writings of the Greeks and Romans and thus preserved this heritage for future generations. The Church saved civilization, Aquilina asserted.
When it comes to science he pointed out that it has its roots in the Catholic Church: whether it was astronomy and Copernicus, an ordained canon, or a Catholic bishop, Nicholas Steno, who laid the foundation for geology, or a Catholic such as Antoine Lavoisier, a founder of modern chemistry, or the mathematician Blaise Pascal.
With Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas the treasures of Greek philosophy were recovered and they made possible the establishment of rational science. There were many scientific discoveries in other cultures, but Aquilina pointed out, only in the Christian West did science continue to develop.
Helping the poor
The charitable activity of Christians and the Church is another immense contribution to society, Aquilina continued. In the early centuries Christians established hospitals, poorhouses and soup kitchens. The Christians did far more than the Roman Empire or the pagans to help the poor, Aquilina observed.
Later, with the fall of the Roman Empire, in spite of the decay of many public institutions, the Christians continued to ensure the poor were looked after. “For most of Western history, in fact, the Church has been the main source of help for the poor,” he added.
The Church has also been a major influence in both music and art, Aquilina continued. It is enough to walk into any of the great cathedrals to realize the importance of art in the Church. One of the greatest Renaissance works is the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo, which is where the cardinals will soon gather to elect the next pope.
Turning to the treatment of women, while many criticize the Church for not allowing female priests, Aquilina observed that the Catholic Church helped bring about major changes in the way in which women were treated.
In pagan times female babies were often left to die after birth and women were treated as the property of their husbands, without the slightest rights. Christians, instead, heard from St. Paul that “there is neither male nor female,” (Gal. 3:28).
Christians often failed to live up to this principle, but they did treat their women very differently from the pagans.
Today, the Church continues to speak out against the exploitation of women and insists that they be treated as subjects and not objects.
The Catholic Church has made vital contributions to human rights and peace in the world, Aquilina asserted. The development of the guidelines for a Just War put restrictions on when war could be conducted. While wars still go on, the Catholic ideals of love and justice provide a valuable counterweight to conflict.
The Church has also made a substantial contribution to the concept of human dignity, insisting that all human beings are equally important, Aquilina pointed out. The Church played a crucial role in defending the indigenous population in the Americas.
“In the dark days of slavery and oppression, millions of Americans turned to the Church as their protector,” Aquilina explained.
Many years later a Polish Pope, John Paul II, inspired the people of Eastern Europe to stand up for themselves and achieve freedom.
Aquilina doesn’t limit himself to contemplating the past achievements of the Church. The Catholic Church is still growing, he commented, with many converts in Africa and Asia.
When it comes to science and technology the Church still has an important role to play. Science, he observed, can tell us what we can do, but we need the Church to inform us of what we ought to do.
“Like the living body that it is, the Catholic Church will continue to grow and learn,” he concluded.
His book helps put into a larger perspective the events we are watching in these days.