“We Were the Ones Who Created Europe”: The Catholic Church and Western Civilization

In the course of writing what became the cover story on Pope John Paul II for The American Conservative, I came across some provocative remarks delivered by the Holy Father in his native Poland in 1991.

This is the House that Rome Built

He had known all along that overthrowing Communism was a necessary but not sufficient condition for restoring the kind of decent and dignified life that befits human beings, and the moral state of Poland in the aftermath of Solidarity’s triumph only confirmed him in this view. “Giving in to desire, to sex, to consumption: that is the Europeanism that some supporters of our entry into Europe think we should accept,” John Paul told the faithful. “But we mustn’t become part of that Europe. We were the ones who created Europe….”

We were the ones who created Europe.

That stunning remark doubtless ruffled some feathers. Yet never were truer words said. In recent weeks Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of “the decisive contribution of Christianity” in the creation of European civilization. At a time when the media and other opponents of the Church are gleefully exploiting her present discomfiture, this is a truth all Catholics, and indeed all of Western civilization, would do well to revisit.

That’s why I wrote my new book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. From the role of the monks (they did much more than just copy manuscripts) to art and architecture, from the university to Western law, from science to charitable work, from international law to economics, the book delves into just how indebted we are as a civilization to the Catholic Church, whether we realize it or not.

For example, Catholic charity was something new under the sun. To be sure, the ancient world had its share of liberality toward the poor, but most ancient giving was self-interested rather than purely gratuitous. The buildings that the wealthy financed featured their own names in prominent display. Donors gave what they did either in order to put the recipients in their debt or in order to call attention to themselves and their great liberality. That those in need were to be served with a cheerful heart and provided for without thought of reward or reciprocity was certainly not the governing principle. And there was nothing in the ancient world that corresponded to the Church’s insistence on the sacredness of human life — which is why it was churchmen who played a decisive role in abolishing such terrible offenses as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

According to W.E.H. Lecky, who was frequently a harsh critic of the Church, there can be “no question that neither in practice nor in theory, neither in the institutions that were founded nor in the place that was assigned to it in the scale of duties, did charity in antiquity occupy a position at all comparable to that which it has obtained by Christianity.”

A Scientific Mind

We have all heard about the Church’s alleged hostility toward science. What most people fail to realize is that historians of science have spent the past half-century drastically revising this conventional wisdom, arguing that the Church’s role in the development of Western science was far more salutary than previously thought. I am speaking not about Catholic apologists, but about serious and important scholars of the history of science such as J.L. Heilbron, A.C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, and Thomas Goldstein. It is now being said that certain aspects of the Christian worldview help to account for why the West was uniquely successful in developing science as a fruitful, self-sustaining enterprise.

Beyond those theoretical points is a staggering array of suggestive — if totally forgotten — facts. How many people realize that the father of geology was a Catholic priest, Fr. Nicholas Steno? Or that the father of Egyptology was Fr. Athanasius Kircher? Or that Fr. Giambattista Riccioli was the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body? Or that to this day 35 craters on the moon are named after Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians? Or that beginning in the seventeenth century the Jesuits took Western science all over the world, even to such far-off places as India and China? Or that the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, which was constructed to be one of the most precise solar observatories in the world, was used by Catholic astronomer Giovanni Cassini to confirm Johannes Kepler’s suggestion that planetary orbits were elliptical rather than circular? Hundreds of little-known facts like these are just waiting to be rediscovered.

The university, which developed and matured at the height of Catholic Europe, was a new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the familiar distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. And it is no surprise that the Church should have done so much to foster the nascent university system since, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.” Another historian contends that the universities’ “most consistent and greatest protector was the Pope of Rome. He it was who granted, increased, and protected their privileged status in a world of often conflicting jurisdictions.”

The tradition of intellectual debate and scholarly exchange to which the university system gave birth would prove enormously influential in the life of the West. Consider these observations by Edward Grant, a modern historian of science:

What made it possible for Western civilization to develop science and the social sciences in a way that no other civilization had ever done before? The answer, I am convinced, lies in a pervasive and deep-seated spirit of inquiry that was a natural consequence of the emphasis on reason that began in the Middle Ages. With the exception of revealed truths, reason was enthroned in medieval universities as the ultimate arbiter for most intellectual arguments and controversies. It was quite natural for scholars immersed in a university environment to employ reason to probe into subject areas that had not been explored before, as well as to discuss possibilities that had not previously been seriously entertained.

The creation of the university, the commitment to reason and rational argument, and the overall spirit of inquiry that characterized medieval intellectual life amounted to what Grant called, “a gift from the Latin Middle Ages to the modern world…though it is a gift that may never be acknowledged. Perhaps it will always retain the status it has had for the past four centuries as the best-kept secret of Western civilization.”

In the Name of the Law

Western law is also indebted to the Church. When the fledgling nations of western Europe began cobbling together coherent legal systems in the twelfth century, what did they use as a model? The Church’s canon law, Europe’s first modern legal system.

In a world in which custom rather than statutory law ruled so much of both the ecclesiastical and secular domains, Gratian and other canonists developed criteria, based on reason and conscience, for determining the validity of given customs, and held up the idea of a pre-political natural law to which any legitimate custom had to confirm. Scholars of Church law showed the barbarized West how to take a patchwork of custom, statutory law, and countless other sources, and produce from them a coherent legal order whose structure was internally consistent and in which previously existing contradictions were synthesized or otherwise resolved.

Twelfth-century European jurists, in the process of assembling modern legal systems for the emerging states of Western Europe, were thus indebted to canon law as a model of what they themselves were trying to accomplish. Equally important was the content of canon law, whose scope was so sweeping that it ended up contributing to the development of Western law in such areas as marriage, property, and inheritance. Legal scholar Harold Berman cites “the introduction of rational trial procedures to replace magical mechanical modes of proof by ordeals of fire and water, by battles of champions, and by ritual oaths [all of which had played a central role in Germanic folklaw]; the insistence upon consent as the foundation of marriage and upon wrongful intent as the basis or crime; [and] the development of equity to protect the poor and helpless against the rich and powerful.”

Where did the idea of international law come from? Again from the heart of the Church, this time with the work of sixteenth-century theologians working in Spanish universities. In particular it was Father Francisco de Vitoria who, along with the Dutch Protestant Hugo Grotius, can claim the title of “father of international law.” When he observed the behavior of his country in the New World, he became convinced that impartial moral rules governing the interaction of states must be developed. According to international law expert James Brown Scott, Vitoria “furnished the world of his day with its first masterpiece on the law of nations in peace as well as in war.”

This brief overview is but the tip of the iceberg, but there can be no question that the Church possesses in great abundance the moral and material resources for creating a great civilization. It now falls to her in this time of darkness to employ those tools to save it.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and is the author, most recently, of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Regnery, 2005). Get a sample chapter here.

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