Book review (2): How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

Book review (2): How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization
21/02/2020 Karel Beckman

Review of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr (2005)  ****

In brief

This highly original book marshals an impressive body of evidence to show that the Catholic Church laid the foundations for modern western civilization in almost every way. A real eye-opener. It does not contain any criticism of the Church, however, or of Catholicism. That’s a pity, it undermines the credibility of the book.


Ten years ago I would never have thought I would have much positive to say about Catholicism, the faith of my youth. When I thought of Catholicism, I thought of inquisition, superstition, irrationality, not to mention child abuse. My mother, who had grown up in the 1930s and 1940s in the Netherlands, remembered the meddling of the priests who would urge married women to have as many children as possible, and she told me how her parents did not attend the wedding of her sister who had had the audacity to marry a Protestant man. The Church also forced pregnant unmarried women to give birth in secret and leave their babies in Catholic orphanages. How could I, growing up in the enlightened 1960s and 70s, not despite the Church and everything it stood for?

My idea of history reflected my feelings about the Church. Dark Ages and Middle Ages: rampant superstition, repression, downright idiocy. With the Renaissance (the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman thinking) came rationality and science; with the Enlightenment came freedom.

Thomas Woods, however, tells a different story about the Church, and about the Middle Ages – much more positive and inspiring. He describes Catholicism as the religion of reason, science, great art and literature, Catholic scholars and monks as the founding fathers of human rights, modern law, international law, charity, hospitals, modern agriculture and economics.

The most surprising part in the book for me was the Church’s role in the promotion of science. Who does not know the story of Galileo? That has always seemed to me definite proof of the Church’s enmity towards science. But things out turn to be not so simple. Woods describes how the Catholic Church gave financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries. Many of the most famous astronomers were Catholic priests and churches and cathedrals were actually used as observatories!

That was by no means all. The Jesuits, writes Woods, contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, to scientific fields such as magnetism, optics and electricity. They discovered the circulation of the blood, the wave-like nature of light. They were active in mathematics, experimental physics. Father Nicolas Zucchi invented the reflecting telescope.

The Jesuits conducted experiments to test Kepler’s hypotheses, in particular his theory of elliptical orbits. Protestants viciously attacked the Copernican system. Catholics did not until the case of Galileo. According to Woods, Galileo was allowed to promulgate his idea that the earth revolved around the sun as a theory, but not as a truth. He was always received with great enthusiasm in Rome.

The Church’s support of science had deep roots in the Middle Ages, notes Woods. Monks not only preserved knowledge by copying manuscripts. The Church also founded universities, granted them charters, protected the university’s rights, sided with scholars against authorities, and built an international academic community. Catholic scholars practised legal reasoning, debating, and argumentation. They wrote books of logic. Aristotle was compulsory reading for them.

Woods writes that our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne and almost any classical text that survived until the 8th century has survived until today. In the 9th and 10th centuries Europe fell victim to waves of devastating attacks – from Vikings, Magyars and Muslims. According to Woods, “the unfailing vision and determination of Catholic bishops, monks, priests, scholars, and civil administrators saved Europe from a second collapse.”

Monks were also technical advisers. The Middle Ages introduced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilization had previously known, notes Woods. Think of mining of salt, lead, iron, alum, gypsum, metallurgy, quarrying marble, cutler’s shops, glassworks. These were all developed by monks. Monks also drained swamps, practiced flood control and started agricultural practices.

Catholic contributions to art and architecture are of course better known. The splendour of the Gothic cathedrals proves that the Middle Ages were not as dark as they have been portrayed, argues Woods. In 1515 Leo X’s “court” in Rome was the centre of art and intellect for the whole of Europe. History has never seen such an outpouring of brilliant art as then in Rome, Woods points out.

He notes that the distinction between Middle Ages and Renaissance is artificial. The Renaissance is more the fulfilment of the Middle Ages than a break. Medieval thinkers had a profound respect for classical antiquity. Besides, the bulk of Renaissance art was religious in nature and the Renaissance was in many ways a time of irrationalism, when alchemy and astrology flourished. The persecution of witches became widespread only in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Church has also made unique contributions to morality and law. Woods points out that the Church’s insistence on the uniqueness and value of each person, by virtue of the immortal soul, was nowhere to be found in the ancient world. Indeed, the Greeks and Romans typically treated poor, weak or sickly people with contempt.

Saint Benedict of Nursia, who could be described as the Father of Europe, established 12 small communities near Rome, then founded Monte Cassino, in the sixth century, where he composed the famous Rule of Saint Benedict, based on moderation, structure and order. Benedict taught that “… we are all one in Christ … God is no respecter of persons”, and he allowed serfs to enter monasteries.

A very impressive story is that of the 16th Century Spanish Dominican friar Francisco de Vitoria, known as the father of international law. Faced with Spanish mistreatment of the natives of the New World, Vitoria and other Spanish Catholic philosophers and theologians began to speculate about human rights. They went as far as taking up the cause of the American natives. One of them, Antonio de Montesinos presented his case to the King in Madrid. The King thereupon called a group of theologians and jurists together who drew up laws recognizing rights of the natives.

De Vitoria laid the groundwork for modern international law, by arguing that “all men are equally free on the basis of natural liberty”, and have a “right to life, to culture and to property”. (139) This was around 1545, more than two centuries before the American founding fathers spoke in similar terms.

De Vitoria argued that the right to appropriate the things of nature for one’s own use (i.e. the institution of private property) “belonged to all men regardless of their paganism or whatever barbarian vices they might possess.” Vitoria said the American natives possessed reason, “the special quality” in man. For this reason, he argued, “the Indians of the New World … were … equal to the Spaniards in matters of natural rights.” De Vitoria drew upon the ideas of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who taught that belief must be voluntary and cannot be forced or coerced.

Throughout its history, the Church did a lot to promote peace, writes Woods. The first “peace movement” arose in the 11th Century, inspired by Catholic thinking. The first rule of canon law was that men must live in peace with all men. The second was that when a just war has taken place it must not be waged so as to ruin the people who have been vanquished. The Church also originated the notion of charity, established the first hospitals throughout Europe, and sanctified marriage. Under the protection of the Church, women were able to run their own schools, convents, hospitals, colleges.

Catholic scholars were also the founders of the rule of the law as we know it in the West, developing and elaborating on Roman law. They developed contract law, property law, marriage law, and many other legal notions and institutions.

The Church even made great contributions to economics. For example, Father Nicolas Oresme (1325-1382) already described the effects of inflation and argued that government debasement of the monetary unit serves no good purpose, something that our modern economists and Central Banks have still not figured out. He noted that inflation interferes with commerce, increases the overall price level and enriches the government at the expense of the people. The idea that the Church forbade interest is a myth. The Church only prohibited usury, i.e. “excessive” interest.

None of this changes the fact that the Church in its long history also committed countless crimes and abuses, which are not mentioned at all by Woods, unfortunately. Nevertheless, his book gives us a much more balanced picture of the history and achievements of the Catholic Church and explains many of the unique and precious features of Western civilization.


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