A REMNANT BOOK REVIEW: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Tom Woods - Written by Vincent Chiarello
Reviewed for The Remnant Newspaper by Vincent Chiarello
"Western civilization owes far more to the Catholic Church than most people - Catholics included - often realize. The Church, in fact, built Western civilization" -Thomas E. Woods
There are few in this audience who have not heard or read that the Church of Rome has been responsible for the many of the current evils of this world. Everything from being charged with aiding in the genocide of native people, to fostering the institution of slavery, are accusations that have been leveled against the Catholic Church. Several years ago, the professoriate and student body of Georgetown University, the first Catholic university in America, debated "What, if anything, is owed to the descendants of slaves who were sold to help ensure the college’s survival?" As a result of intense student and professorial pressure, in 2016 the university's administrators agreed to remove the names of the Jesuits Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and Rev. William McSherry, the college presidents involved in the 1832 sale, from two campus buildings. However, that action did not change the aggressive push by the American Left to continue to indict the founders of Western Civilization, the Church among them. Nothing ever does.
More than a decade before the Georgetown incident, Thomas E. Wood, Jr., sought to remind his readers that although the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome were also participants in the birth of the West, they were not as important as the Church. "The point is that in our present cultural milieu it is easy to forget - or not learn in the first place - just how much our civilization owes the Catholic Church." It is, therefore, his purpose in writing this book to remind those who have forgotten, or never learned, what Woods calls, "the indispensable Church." To begin at the beginning.
Many, if not most, of a certain age - mine - will remember that in our history class, we were taught that "the Dark Ages" was the term that identified the period after the fall of Rome, where "cultural and intellectual retrogression" were dominant in the lives of most people. That condition, however, was not the fault of the Church: "The basic cause of cultural retrogression was not Christianity but barbarism; not religion, but war," wrote the historian Will Durant, an agnostic. From the ruin of nations because of constant warfare came "the light of a new star," where the Church and its priests would begin their task of conversion, coupled with the role of serving as guides "...both to guarantee that the conversion had truly taken hold and to ensure that the faith would begin to transform their government and way of life." It was at this juncture that the Church made a momentous decision: to turn away from the last vestiges of the Roman Emperor in (then) Constantinople and align itself with the "still semi-barbarian Franks," whose conversion would ultimately bring about the reign of Charles the Great, aka as Charlemagne, "who would become the father of Europe."
Woods is convinced, and his work seeks to convince others, that the Church was the essential part of the growth of science, despite the current misguided belief that the opposite was true.
Despite the efforts of the invading and plundering Vikings, and, later, Muslims, "the spirit of learning always remained alive in the monasteries, enoughto make its full rebirth possible in more settled times." Even after the decline of the Carolingian Empire, monks were actively involved in the recovery of learning, for despite the lawlessness and uncertainty that existed, the monastery was an institution which possessed extraordinary recuperative power. "Ninety-nine out of a hundred monasteries could be burnt, and the monks killed or driven out, and yet the whole tradition could be reconstituted from the one survivor and the desolate sites could be repeopled by fresh supplies of monks who would take up the broken tradition..." But one must ask, how did that tradition continue for centuries, for, according to Woods, "The monks played a critical role in the development of Western civilization." And none would have a greater impact on the monastic way of life and its commitment to expand the culture of the nation than St. Benedict of Norcia. "The monk's intention had not been to perform great tasks for European civilization, yet as time went on, they came to appreciate the task for which the times seem to have called them." Then this: It would be difficult to find any group anywhere in the world whose contributions were as varied, as significant, and as indispensable as those of the Catholic monks of the West during a time of general turmoil and despair." And there is more...
The Cistercians, a "reform-minded Benedictine Order," were, in their time, known for their technical sophistication. By the 12th century, they had developed. "... waterpower to run machinery for crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth and tanning." Added to their mechanical competence was their ability in the almost unknown field of metallurgy. What may come as a surprise - it did to me - was, "...from the mid-13th to the 17th century, Cistercians were the leading iron producers in the Champagne region of France."
In England, too, the Benedictines displayed a competence in technology that was unrivaled. The Abbot of the Benedictine monastery at St. Albans, who is also known as one of the founders of Western trigonometry, designed an astronomical clock which could accurately predict lunar eclipses, and whose accuracy would not be improved for another two centuries. However, to the modern mind the word "monk" is, most often, associated with the copying of the written word. Often done in punishing cold, the work was wearying and the monk unknown. It is noted that one monastic copyist, seeking some sympathy and recognition from the reader, wrote: "Good reader who may use this work, do not, I pray you, forget him who copied it..." Books were produced in numbers unthinkable earlier: by the 12th century, there were 742 (no typo) Cistercian monasteries in Europe!
In addition to copying the Classics, as well as those of the Church Fathers, the monks of Europe performed another major and impressive work: they copied, and thereby preserved, the Bible. Woods cites and notes the monks, "...often embellished the Gospels with beautiful artistic decoration, as in the famous Lindau (German) and Lindisfarne (English) Gospels, works of art as well as faith." There is another point that must be understood in the monastic preservation of the Bible: "Without their devotion to this crucial task and the numerous copies they produced, it is not clear how the Bible would have survived the onslaught of the barbarians." There can be, then, no question that "Western civilization's admiration for the written word and for the classics comes to us from the Catholic Church that preserved both through the barbarian invasions."
Mentioned earlier was that Georgetown University was the oldest Catholic university in the U.S., opening in 1789 as Georgetown College. However, that was long after the establishment of the first Catholic colleges/universities in Europe. Despite the reputation for classical learning in ancient Greece and Rome, nothing like a college or university had existed. "The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history." Unknown to many is that the papacy was often instrumental in the founding of these new centers of learning: for example, by granting it a charter, Pope Innocent IV was central to the founding of Oxford University in England in 1254.
Included in the grant to begin Oxford was the recognition that the university could not award degrees without the approval of the pope. Papal chartered university degrees were respected throughout Christendom; those of the monarch, only in the kingdom where they were issued. Oxford was far from unique in that circumstance: by the time of Luther's revolt in 1517, 81 universities had been established, 33 of whom were holders of papal charters, 15 royal charters, and 20 had both. Only 13 had none.
Another unprecedented aspect of papal chartered universities was, in certain cases - such as Oxford, Bologna and Paris - a master's degree entitled the bearer to teach anywhere in the world. (Latin: ius ubique docendi) This privilege conferred by popes played a major role in the dissemination of knowledge and the advance of an international scholarly community. It was during the early stages of the university system that "...the popes were the most consistent protectors and the authority to which students and faculty alike had recourse."
In the West, if there is one indictment of the Church that seems to be consistently repeated over centuries, it is that the Church was the enemy of science. How many times has the story of the Galileo affair been presented as prima facie evidence of the Church's hostility to science? Interestingly, Cardinal Newman, a convert, found it revealing that the Galileo affair is the only example ever given to attempt to prove the charge. Woods seeks to present evidence gathered from different sources that Galileo was his own worst enemy: Galileo was convinced he had the truth, but objectively he had no scientific proof at that time to win the allegiance of open-minded men. It is a complete injustice to contend, as some historians do, that no one would listen to his arguments. As Cardinal Bellarmine wrote at the time: "I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me." Throughout, Galileo had been told by Church authorities he could not teach the Copernican theory as scientifically verified, but "...he remained free to treat it as a hypothesis. Galileo agreed." Years later, Galileo visited Rome where he was received with great enthusiasm, including by Pope Urban VIII, who wrote that Galileo's "...fame shines in the sky and is spread over the whole world." Hardly evidence of a scientific inquisition.
Still, Galileo would not - could not - accept that the Copernican system was a non-proven theory, and in 1632, published Dialogue of the Great World Systems, where he discarded the warning of the churchmen and declared Copernicus's system an established truth. The following year, he was declared a suspected heretic and ordered to cease and desist publishing. Woods: "It was this unwise censure of Galileo that has tainted the Church's reputation." It is this event that for centuries established the myth that the Church is hostile to science. But was it?
Woods cites the work of Fr. Stanley Jaki, a Hungarian born Benedictine historian of science, and winner of the 1987 Templeton Prize, the annual award granted to a living person, "whose exemplary achievements include harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it." In his writing, the Padre notes that the idea of a rational, orderly, universe had eluded entire civilizations, and it was "not coincidental that the birth of science as a self-perpetuating field of intellectual endeavor should have occurred in a Catholic milieu." Among other great civilizations, the idea of science was "stillborn," for they lacked a belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with consistent physical laws. In these civilizations, aside from being "stillborn," the idea of constant natural laws were alien to their belief system. Christianity, to the contrary, centered the divine strictly in Christ and the Holy Trinity, which allowed them the see the universe as orderly and predictable.
Woods will go another step with the thought of Fr. Jaki: the fact that earlier civilizations had developed technical innovations, "...the earlier technical innovations of the Greco-Roman times, of Islam, of Imperial China, let alone those achieved in prehistoric times, do not constitute science and are better described as lore, skills...or simply knowledge." But not science. Fr. Jaki put it simply: "Science is not Western, but Christian."
No appraisal of the role of the Church in science would be complete without an investigation into the role it played in the construction of amazing cathedrals. One notable example is the Cathedral at Chartres which, for centuries and to this day, has seen an endless line of admiring observers. The Cathedral at Chartres is the culmination of the work of its "cathedral school," begun in the late 10th century under the imprimatur of the future Pope Sylvester II. The school's influence was astounding: "Practically every one of the period who made a substantial contribution to the development of science was at one time or another associated with or influence by Chartres." Among the most prominent in his influence in the development of science and the arts was the school's chancellor, Thierry of Chartres.
Thierry sought to explain God's work by teaching that the disciplines of the quadrivium - arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy - along with the trivium - grammar, rhetoric, and logic - were manifestations of God's handiwork. Woods quotes a modern scholar who wrote that these disciplines revealed to man "... his place in the universe and taught him to appreciate the beauty of the created world." In responding to critics who questioned Thierry's interpretation for omitting the supernatural in his explanation, he responded by stating that all things "...have Him as the Creator, because they are all subject to change and can perish."
The importance of the Chartres School cannot be underestimated. Citing a modern historian of science, "...a handful of men were consciously striving to launch the evolution of Western science and undertook every major step that was needed to achieve that end." Then this: "Thierry will probably be recognized as one of the true founders of Western science." Woods continues the theme of Church influence in science by citing the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, sought the harmonization of Church teaching with that of "the Philosopher," better known as Aristotle. It was Aquinas seeking to synthesize the writings of Aristotle, who sought to demonstrate the complementary role of faith and reason, a unity that could not be contradicted.
Woods is convinced, and his work seeks to convince others, that the Church was the essential part of the growth of science, despite the current misguided belief that the opposite was true. But he goes even beyond that claim. Woods: "Catholic theological ideas provided the basis for scientific progress in the first place. Medieval thinkers laid down some of the first principles of modern science...The appearance of modern science in the Catholic environment was no coincidence after all."