How the Catholic Church built Western civilisation

How the Catholic Church built Western civilisation

Thomas E. Woods Jr

In his new book, 'How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization', Thomas E. Woods Jr has assembled a multitude of areas of everyday life where the Church has played a key role, one widely overlooked or rejected in secular circles today.

Professor Woods' book (specially imported and in hardcover) is available through AD Books for $54.95.

The following is part of the conclusion to the book published with the author's permission.

The Catholic Church did not merely contribute to Western civilisation - the Church built that civilisation. The Church borrowed from the ancient world, to be sure, but she typically did so in a way that transformed the classical tradition for the better. There was hardly a human enterprise of the Early Middle Ages to which the monasteries did not contribute.

The Scientific Revolution took root in a Western Europe whose theological and philosophical foundations, Catholic at their very core, proved fertile soil for the development of the scientific enterprise. The mature idea of international law emerged from the Late Scholastics, as did concepts central to the emergence of economics as a distinct discipline.

These latter two contributions emerged from the European universities, a creation of the High Middle Ages that occurred under the auspices of the Church. Unlike the academies of ancient Greece, each of which tended to be dominated by a single school of thought, the universities of medieval Europe were places of intense intellectual debate and exchange.

David Lindberg explains: "[I]t must be emphatically stated that within this educational system the medieval master had a great deal of freedom. The stereotype of the Middle Ages pictures the professor as spineless and subservient, a slavish follower of Aristotle and the church fathers (exactly how one could be a slavish follower of both, the stereotype does not explain), fearful of departing one iota from the demands of authority. There were broad theological limits, of course, but within those limits the medieval master had remarkable freedom of thought and expression; there was almost no doctrine, philosophical or theological, that was not submitted to minute scrutiny and criticism by scholars in the medieval university."

The Catholic Scholastics' eagerness to search for the truth, to study and employ a great diversity of sources, and treat objections to their positions with precision and care, endowed the medieval intellectual tradition - and by extension the universities in which that tradition developed and matured - with a vitality of which the West may rightly boast.

All of these areas: economic thought, international law, science, university life, charity, religious ideas, art, morality - these are the very foundations of a civilisation, and in the West every single one of them emerged from the heart of the Catholic Church.


Paradoxically, the importance of the Church to Western civilisation has sometimes become clearer as its influence has waned. During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the Church's privileged position and the respect it was traditionally accorded were both called into serious question, to an extent without precedent in the history of Catholicism.

The nineteenth century saw more attacks on Catholicism, particularly with the German Kulturkampf and the anticlericalism of the Italian nationalists. France secularised its school system in 1905. Although the Church flourished in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, attacks on the Church's liberty elsewhere in the West did untold damage.

The world of art provides perhaps the most dramatic and visible evidence of the consequences of the Church's partial eclipse in the modern world. Jude Dougherty, dean emeritus of the School of Philosophy at Catholic University, has spoken of a connection "between the impoverished anti-metaphysical philosophy of our day and its debilitating effect on the arts."

According to Dougherty, there is a link between a civilisation's art and its belief in and consciousness of the transcendent. "Without a metaphysical recognition of the transcendent, without the recognition of a divine intellect at once the source of nature's order and the fulfilment of human aspiration, reality is construed in purely materialistic terms. Man himself becomes the measure, unaccountable to an objective order. Life itself is empty and without purpose. That aridity finds its expression in the perverseness and sterility of modern art, from Bauhaus to Cubism to post-modernism."

Professor Dougherty's claim is more than plausible; it is positively compelling. When people believe that life has no purpose and is the result of random chance, guided by no greater force or principle, who can be surprised when that sense of meaninglessness is reflected in their art?

A sense of meaninglessness and disorder had been growing since the nineteenth century. In Joyful Wisdom, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "At last the horizon lies free before us, even granted that it is not bright; at least the sea, our sea, lies open before us. Perhaps there has never been so open a sea." That is to say, there is no order or meaning to the universe apart from what man himself, in the most supreme and unfettered act of will of all, chooses to bestow upon it.

Frederick Copleston, the great historian of philosophy, summed up the Nietzschean point of view: "The rejection of the idea that the world has been created by God for a purpose or that it is the self- manifestation of the absolute Idea or Spirit sets man free to give to life the meaning which he wills to give it. And it has no other meaning."

Meanwhile, modernism in literature was busy challenging the pillars of order within the written word - such aspects as giving stories and novels a beginning, middle, and end. They featured bizarre plots in which the main character was forced to contend with a chaotic and irrational universe he was unable to comprehend. Thus Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis begins: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect."

We need hardly point out the degeneration of architecture, which is evident today even among buildings purporting to be Catholic churches.

The point is not necessarily to contend that these works are utterly without merit, but rather to suggest that they reflect an intellectual and cultural milieu at variance with the Catholic belief in an orderly universe that was endowed with ultimate meaning.

Fateful step

By the mid-twentieth century, the time had come to take the final, fateful step: to declare, as did Jean- Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and his school of existentialist thought, that the universe was utterly absurd and life itself completely meaningless. How, then, ought one to live life? By courageously facing the void, frankly acknowledging that all is without meaning and that there are no such things as absolute values. And, of course, by constructing one's own values and living by them (shades of Nietzsche, to be sure).

The visual arts were certain to be affected by such a philosophical milieu. The medieval artist, aware that his role was to communicate something greater than himself, did not typically sign his work. He wished to call attention not to himself but to the subject of his work. A newer conception of the artist, which began to emerge during the Renaissance, reached its full maturity in nineteenth-century Romanticism. A reaction against the cold scientism of the Enlightenment,

Romanticism emphasised feeling, emotion, and spontaneity. Thus the artist's own feelings, struggles, emotions, and idiosyncrasies were to be given expression in his art; art itself became a form of self- expression. The focus of the artist's work began to shift toward depicting his interior disposition. The invention of photography in the late nineteenth century gave added impetus to this trend, since by making the precise reproduction of the natural world an easy task it freed the artist to engage in self-expression.

With the passage of time, this Romantic self-preoccupation degenerated into the simple narcissism and nihilism of modern art. In 1917, French artist Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world when he signed a urinal and placed it on display as a work of art. That a poll of five hundred art experts in 2004 yielded Duchamp's Fountain as the single most influential work of modern art speaks for itself.

Duchamp was a formative influence on London-based artist Tracey Emin. Emin's My Bed, which was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize, consisted of an unmade bed complete with bottles of vodka, used prophylactics, and bloodied undergarments. While on display at the Tate Gallery in 1999, the bed was vandalised by two nude men who proceeded to jump on it and drink the vodka. The world of modern art being what it is, everyone at the gallery applauded, assuming that the vandalism was part of the show. Emin is now employed as a professor at the European Graduate School.

These examples symbolise the departure from the Church that many Westerners have undertaken in recent years. The Church, which calls on her children to be generous in the transmission of life, finds even this most fundamental message falling on deaf ears in Western Europe, which is not having enough children even to reproduce itself.

So far has Europe abandoned the faith that built her that the European Union could not bring itself even to acknowledge the continent's Christian heritage in its constitution. Many of the great cathedrals that once testified to the religious convictions of a people have in our own day become like museum pieces, interesting curiosities to an unbelieving world.

The self-imposed historical amnesia of the West today cannot undo the past or the Church's central role in building Western civilisation. "I am not a Catholic," wrote French philosopher Simone Weil, "but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of the centuries has nourished all of our European civilisation, as something that one cannot renounce without becoming degraded."

That is a lesson that Western civilisation, cut off more and more from its Catholic foundations, is in the process of learning the hard way.

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