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P-HI11-2115805How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization—Thomas Woods, Regnery History; Reprint edition (September 18, 2012).

While the dismissal or even outright hatred of the Catholic Church among scholars began long before the eighteenth century, Edward Gibbon may have made the most potent and lasting attack on the Church in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which was published in 1776. Drawing upon claims originally made by non-Christian Romans in the late fourth century, Gibbon argued that the Roman Catholic Church had interrupted the true progress of the West as inherited from the Greeks and the Romans. The Christians did nothing short of destroying the classical tradition, Gibbons claimed, throwing the western world into a thousand years of darkness and superstition. A fallen away convert to Catholicism, Gibbon almost perfectly embodied the so-called Enlightenment, and his reiteration of the arguments St. Augustine challenged in his magisterial City of God have especially titillated historians. One only has to look to such diverse works as Francis Parkman’s nineteenth-century masterpiece, France and England in North America, or the recent work by Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages, to find deep-seated prejudice against the Church. This suspicion has lingered among scholars long after the vast majority have forgotten the significance of the classical period. Perhaps not surprisingly, such secular historians have an unwitting ally in highly popular Protestant high school and home-school curricula published by the fundamentalist Bob Jones University Press. The story for both the secularist and the Fundamentalists remains the same: from St. Augustine to the posting of Luthor’s 95 theses, the western world experienced a seemingly relentless age of superstition and oppression.

The world, perhaps more than ever, needs books such as the one Thomas Woods has graciously written. Clearly modeled after such popular histories as Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, Woods’s book begins and ends correctly noting that very few in our modern world understand the role of the Church in history or in the present. As noted above, among scholars, historians may be the worst. Consequently, their ignorance has, in large part, led to the world we have inherited, a secularized, materialist world that embraces and precipitates the degradation of the human person—whether in the abortion clinics, in the classrooms, or in our homes for the elderly.

To correct these ignorant and malicious misunderstandings, Woods offers his thesis rather bluntly: “The Church, in fact, built Western civilization.” Rather than presenting a narrative of the Church’s history, Woods opts for a topical approach, but he does so focusing on the history of the Church prior to the Enlightenment and the writings of Gibbon. He covers the Church’s vital role in the conversion of the barbarians; the importance of monasticism as a preserver of western civilization; the Carolingian Renaissance; the development of the university; the emergence of the Scientific Revolution; the glorious art and architecture of the medieval period; the rise of international law in the Catholic disputes over the nature of the soul after encountering American Indians; pre-classical economics; charity; and morality. Along the way, one learns lots of interesting facts and trivia. In the High Middle Ages, for example, every Cistercian monastery “had a model factory, often as large the church and only several feet away, and waterpower drove the machinery of the various industries located on its floor” (35). On the following page, the reader discovers that shortly after the year 1000, a monk flew a glider, which he had presumably built, more than 600 feet.  Well beyond this fascinating minutia, though, Woods presents in an inspired fashion how the universality of Catholicism itself has given the whole of humanity the concept of inalienable rights, the natural law, and the dignity of the human person.

As much as a Catholic might want to embrace Woods’s thesis that the Church built Western Civilization, he must pause at such a statement. While partially correct, it is ultimately as blunt and as wrong as the thesis that Gibbon presented in 1776. Rather than having built or having destroyed western civilization, the Church sanctified what it found and gave the West new life. As St. Augustine explained in The City of God, the Church took the best of what it found—from the Jews, Greeks, and the Romans, and later from the Germans—and gave this inheritance a new and vital essence, the Light of the Logos through the sacraments of the Church. Each mass, each martyr, and each saint has offered and will continue to offer a renewal of the West. Indeed, the Incarnation—and the consequent death and resurrection—is the most important moment in the history of this world, an irruption by Eternity into Time itself. This, of course, is why we bow during the recitation of the creed as we speak of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Each mass, each martyr, and each saint is a reflection of the power of the Logos. With the life and death of Christ, the West, for all intents and purposes, was “born again.” The power of the Logos, of course, is not limited to the West. “It is the mission of the Church to transform human life like a leaven, and to transform all forms of life, i.e. all cultures,” the greatest Catholic historian of the twentieth century, Christopher Dawson, understood. Further, he argued, the West had served for at least 1,500 years as “the vehicle for the world diffusion of the Church and the Christian faith.”

The Church has understood that specific cultures are merely vehicles for the Church through most of her history. One only has to look to the words of the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem, St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians or in his speech in Athens, or St. Augustine’s admonition to focus on the essence of a belief or faith rather than on the accidents of a culture. Following these teachings of the early Church, Gregory the Great best summed up the stance of the Faith in his famous letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury:

For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Therefore select from each of the Churches whatever things are devout, religious, and right; and when you have bound them, as it were, into a sheaf, let the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.

The time of the West as the vehicle of the Incarnation may or may not have passed us by in the year 2005, but this is a different question.

Still, Woods understands this power of renewal, and it remains a constant theme in his book. In his finest chapter, “The Church and Western Morality,” he writes:

You can aspire to be one of these men—a builder of civilization, a great genius, a servant of God and men, or a heroic missionary—or you can be a self-absorbed nobody fixated on gratifying your appetites . . . . Rise above the herd, declare your independence from a culture that thinks so little of you, and proclaim that you intend to live not as a beast but as a man (214-15).

To this, any Catholic in the post-modern world must answer “amen.”

[originally appeared as “Renewing the West,” CRISIS 23 (September 2005): 47-48.]

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7 replies to this post
  1. Brad,
    May I add a couple of things? I quibble, perhaps, but Carlton J. H. Hayes is probably as great a historian as Dawson. His work on nationalism is as yet not fully appreciated, and his masterpiece, "A Generation of Materialism," was hated by all progressives when it came out in 1941, that momentous year.
    Hayes also wrote a little book in 1954, "Christianity and Western Civilization," which is much less pretentious than Woods's effort, but insists that the Church has been central to individual liberty, limited government, and the charity without which we would still be barbaric germans. Hayes had an appreciation for the middle ages that has caught on only by a few Catholics and one Protestant, M. Stanton Evans.

  2. With all the books that I am inspired by TIC to order, I need to have my paycheck routed directly to Amazon! Apropos of Dr Birzer's fine review, I am trolling through a translation of Aesop, in which the translators note in the preface that the collection is virtually devoid of acts of charity or kindness; everyone is out for himself. This is typical for the period, they say, and it improves only after the arrival of Christianity. It is an eye-opener. It makes it easy to understand how Gibbon (sorry, but I still adore his ringing prose) could rubbish the Church while so much of his thought and reactions would have been formed by the Church: he might have railed against his own corpuscles! Same for Richard Dawkins, et. al., (and presuming that the Church will outlast Dawkins as it did Gibbon) I take some amusement in that irony. Thanks to Docs Birzer & Willson for two fine posts.

    Stephen Masty

  3. Thanks, John and Steve. John, while I know more about Hayes than I do Pogo, I still need to read much more Hayes. Certainly, he's a fascinating figure. It would be great to have you post something on him.

  4. Several years ago, while recovering from an illness, I occupied myself with a study of Irish men of letters. I researched a list of about 15 writers, such as Joyce, GBShaw, Synge, Goldsmith, etc. Upon checking I found that the list consisted of atheists, Protestants, and agnostics. There were no Catholics on the list, and yet Ireland is 90% Catholic.

  5. If you want a treatise on how The Church affected Western Civilization, read SAINTS THAT MOVED THE WORLD, by Rene Fulop Muller. Anthony, Augustine, Francis, Ignatius, Theresa of Avila. We’re talking real, spiritual influence, not externals. The excesses and corruption of the The Church were and are there, but the overall influence of these aspects is often overstated by the enemies of the Church.

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