BOOKS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
, April 14, 2007
What they won't teach you in schoolsHOW THE CATHOLIC CHURCH BUILT WESTERN CIVILIZATION
by Thomas E. Woods, Jr,
(Washington DC: Regnery)
Hardcover: 280 pages.
Rec. price: $54.95.For much of the 20th century, Western historians have pondered and theorised on why Christian Europe steadily emerged to become economically, militarily and scientifically the world leader, despite its many internecine - even genocidal - wars.
Some argued its feudal order - akin, interestingly, to Japan's traditional land-tenure system - possibly explained this, since feudalism was based on contractual arrangements which are so pivotal to all forms of economic and other human endeavour, including global trade which post-medieval Europe pioneered.
Others highlighted factors such as the European peninsula's location, and even climate, as being conducive to agricultural and other production.Europe
Still others sought answers in Europe's Hellenic and Roman pasts, especially the role that law contributed, while others saw the answer in the emergence of the division between church and state ("Give unto Caesar …").
Earlier crass simplifiers such as Karl Marx grasped at the notion of economic determinism, claiming all material progress that had occurred so far (until 1848, that is) would continue and on an ever larger and grander scale until an earthly utopia inevitably emerged.
Although this latter influential idea is preposterous, it is strangely significant since it recognised that Christian Europe had the potential to provide ongoing abundance for all, something other cultures could seldom claim.
Thomas E Woods, in his work, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization
, has, however, done the politically incorrect thing by highlighting many of the ongoing building blocks contributed by the Church to the emergence of the dynamic European order.
"Western civilization does not derive entirely from Catholicism, of course," writes Woods. "One can scarcely deny the importance of ancient Greece and Rome or of the various Germanic tribes that succeeded the Roman Empire in the West as a formative influence on our civilization.
"The Church repudiated none of these traditions, and in fact absorbed and learned from the best of them."
Woods says these other influences are regularly recognised by scholars but adds that the significant "Catholic contribution has gone relatively unnoticed". He thus sets about redressing this longstanding imbalance.
Central to his case is the role of learning - knowledge, farsighted insights, scientific imagination and contemplation and intellectualism - so doggedly embraced by literally tens of thousands of now mostly forgotten ecclesiastical scholars, many of whom were also practitioners or appliers of new ideas and new practices.
For this reason he devotes an entire chapter to the role of monks in the saving of civilisation and another to the crucial role played by universities - a Church invention.
"The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history," he says. "Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome.
"The institution that we recognise today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world.
"The Church developed the university system because, according to historian Lowrie Dale, it was 'the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge'."
There was nothing inevitable about Europe's emergence to pre-eminence. Quite the contrary.
If men like Benedict of Nursia (c.480-543 AD) - "the most important architect of Western monasticism" - had not existed, then a crucial gap would have retarded Europe's development.
"Monks did more than simply preserve literacy," Woods writes.
Even the religiously unsympathetic scholar, Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilisation
, says: "They [the monks] studied the songs of heathen poets and the writings of historians and philosophers. Monasteries and monastic schools blossomed forth, and each settlement became a centre of religious life as well as of eduction."
Another writer, a sympathetic one, Alexander Flick, says: "They [monks] not only established the schools, and were the schoolmasters in them, but also laid the foundations of the universities.
"They were the thinkers and philosophers of the day and shaped the political and religious thought. To them, both collectively and individually, was due the continuity of thought and civilization of the ancient world with the later Middle Ages and with the modern period."
Monasteries, as well as being religious houses and centres of learning, were also catalysts for the adoption and refinement of new and progressive agricultural techniques as well as being centres of manufacture and innovation.
Even champagne and Bénédictine liqueur were invented by monks - something today's millions of delighted consumers are unlikely to know.
Woods' chapter, "How Catholic charity changed the world", is equally eye-opening.
"In the early 4th century, famine and disease struck the army of Roman emperor, Constantine," Woods writes.
"Pachomius, a pagan soldier in that army, watched in amazement as many of his fellow Romans brought food to the afflicted men and, without discrimination, bestowed help on those in need. Curious, Pachomius inquired about these people and found out that they were Christians."
The great virtue of charity, so central to Christianity, is thus the basis of the modern world's health, palliative care and charitable sectors, as well as of the application and spread of medicines - not just in the West but in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It's virtually impossible to imagine the world without such ameliorative services.
Yet their origins have been largely overlooked despite the fact that, central to the Church's commitment, has been Christ's "new commandment" - "Love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know you are my disciples (John 12:34-35; cf. James 4:11)."
By the 4th century, Church-sponsored hospitals existed in most major European cities. From the 11th century, the militant order, the Knights of St John (the Hospitallers), further expanded care for the infirm.
Woods assesses the impact of broad learning and Christian charity on law, morality and economic thought.
With its emphasis on personal morality and public and civic mindedness, Christianity succeeded in creating and maintaining over centuries the basis for the emergence of individual aptitudes and attitudes as well as customs and mores that were conducive to self-generating material progress.Life and property
Institutions that protected life and property were able to be created and to flourish.
"The very idea of natural rights, for a long time assumed to have emerged fully formed from liberal thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, in fact derives from Catholic canonists, popes, university professors and philosophers," Woods says.
He also reminds us that such easily-ignored values as the high premium placed on life itself should not be overlooked. He says: "Catholics spoke out against, and eventually abolished, the practice of infanticide which had been considered morally acceptable even in Greece and Rome."
Nor should the Church's consistent opposition to promiscuity, and its simultaneous promotion of monogamy and marital fidelity, be overlooked.
"Adultery, according to the Church, was not confined to a wife's infidelity to her husband, as the ancient world so often had it, but also extended to a husband's unfaithfulness to his wife," he says.
Unlike the experience in most other cultures, women found protection in the teachings of the Church - a truly unique phenomenon.
Woods says: "These principles account in part for why women formed so much of the Christian population of the early centuries of the Church.
"So numerous were female Christians that the Romans used to dismiss Christianity as a religion for women."
It is primarily because so many other cultures or civilisations were conscious that they lacked so many of Western civilisation's traits and attributes that they sometimes came to be selective borrowers.