What Civilization Owes to the Church

HOW THE CATHOLIC CHURCH BUILT WESTERN CIVILIZATION. By Dr. Thomas Woods, Jr. (Regnery Publishing, Inc., One Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001), 256 pp., HB $29.95.

If modern studies credit the Catholic Church with anything positive, it is usually limited to faint praise in the realm of music and the arts. Dr. Thomas Woods, however, offers an alternative view in his unambiguously titled best-seller, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. As he puts it, Catholicism laid the foundations for every major institution we now take for granted—Western law, the university system, empirical science, hospitals and charitable organizations—to name a few. He laments that “relatively little of this information is found in the Western civilization textbooks the average student reads in high school and college.” This book fills in the gap.

Dr. Woods begins by detailing the invaluable salvage work undertaken by the Church, particularly the monasteries, in the wake of Rome’s political and social collapse. Out of the ruins emerged Europe’s new educational system, Catholic from its inception. It would preserve and extend our knowledge beyond that of any previous society.

Undoubtedly the most provocative and detailed section is the one on “The Church and Science.” The reason for this is clear. If there is any point on which the Church is harassed, to the point of monotony, it is its alleged suppression of scientific advancement. Central to any such discussion is the infamous “Galileo Case,” which is described in detail. Yet, for all the coverage it receives, it is “practically the only example that comes to mind” of supposed clerical obscurantism. What goes unmentioned is that beginning in the Middle Ages, the Church was supporting research and even building observatories in the towers of well-sited churches. These facilities were made available to astronomers like Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. Nor did the controversy over Galileo stifle scientific inquiry. “The fact is, Catholic scientists were essentially permitted to carry on their research unhindered as long as they treated the motion of the earth as a hypothesis,” as indeed it was at the time.

Dr. Woods states, “It is a relatively simple matter to show that many great scientists, like Louis Pasteur, have been Catholic. Much more revealing, however, is the surprising number of Catholic churchmen, priests in particular, whose scientific work has been so extensive and significant.” At the forefront were the Jesuits, who led the way in many fields and “so dominated the field of seismology that it became known as ‘the Jesuit science.’” One of the Jesuit-scientists highlighted by the author is Father Roger Boscovich (1711-1787) who won praise throughout Europe for his advances in astronomy, natural science and the beginnings of atomic theory.

There is, of course, more to civilization than the hard sciences, and the author ventures some thought-provoking discussions of the Church’s involvement in the social realm. Thus the idea of natural rights, “for a long time assumed to have emerged fully formed from the liberal thinkers” of the Enlightenment, was actually derived from “Catholic canonists, popes, university professors and philosophers.” Dr. Woods quotes a recent secular scholar as saying that “Western concepts of law are in their origins… intimately bound up with distinctively Western theological and liturgical concepts of atonement….”

In the realm of economics, Dr. Woods offers a history of the free market—referring to the writings of Late Scholastics and the Spanish Thomists—which is bound to challenge long-held perceptions about the Church’s role in the development of modern trade and finance. Likewise, his chapter on international law, and the vigorous debates on the subject amongst sixteenth century Spanish theologians, reveals that Catholic ethical studies were neither reactionary nor unimaginative. They were far in advance of non-Christian societies, for whom any notion of equality of peoples or nations was unthinkable.

Catholicism excelled not only intellectually but morally. “Western standards of morality have been decisively shaped by the Catholic Church…. The 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 poor, weak, or sickly were typically treated with contempt by non-Catholics and sometimes abandoned altogether. That, as we have seen, is what made Catholic charity so significant, and something new in the Western world.”

For those who are slow to recognize this fact, the importance of the Church “has sometimes become clearer as its influence has waned.” Dr. Woods closes his splendid catalog of Catholic accomplishments with a short but sobering chapter on the inglorious triumphs of the present age which, in rejecting faith, has succumbed to ugliness, irrationality, obscenity and hatred on a vast scale. This is because “post-Christian” man embraces an “intellectual and cultural milieu at variance with the Catholic belief in an orderly universe that was endowed with ultimate meaning.”

Dr. Woods’ positive portrayal of the Church is controversial insofar as it flouts contemporary intellectual inertia and secular chauvinism. The facts are presented without apology. Nevertheless, the book is judiciously written and will appeal to those outside the Church who are genuinely broadminded. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization offers important original research (including unassailable non-Catholic sources) in a concise and intelligent manner. At the same time, even the most zealous of the faithful will find much that will inform, challenge and delight.

Matthew Anger
Chester, Va

Book Reviews About Book Reviews

Expert and interested readers can review our Books Received page to see what is available and for instructions on how to review for HPR.