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How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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 Drawing upon claims originally made by non-Christian Romans in the late fourth century, Gibbon argued that the Roman Catholic Church had interrupted the true progress of the West as inherited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. 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, a professional historian and frequent contributor to Latin Mass magazine, 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. Woods is a fine writer, a clear thinker, and an excellent researcher. At times, he can be quite moving in his words and ideas, and his book flows from beginning to end.

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.

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. Our society does everything in its power to ensure that you wind up on the latter path. Be your own person. 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.”

This is a fine and worthwhile book. More important, it is a gift with which to defend the Church from the assault of the secular historians and the fundamentalists. Indeed, Woods’s book is itself an act of renewal.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in Crisis Magazine and is republished here by gracious permission.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Amazing! I spent six years doing research on the underground churches and what became of them. I remember having nightmares after reading what the Catholics had done to the Waldensians. And then there was the Office of the Holy Inquisition. Perhaps as many as 500 5×8 notecards were taken on that terrible organization which after torture and extracted confessions turned the victim over to the state to be burned at the stake. The father of a friend of mine who lived in another country was subjected to the kindly and exquisite tortures of an Iron Maiden, an invention of that institution which continues its existence under another name. The history of the popes and of other church leaders is known well enough that one does not have to hate the Catholic Church. I know I do not hate them. There are good Catholics at many levels in the Church, but the institution is a danger, a threat, or so it would seem, to the Western Civilization that developed in Western Europe after the Reformation, especially as it came to fruition in the English colonies in the New World. The documents of the past, the documents of the Church itself, bear witness to that reality.

  2. Having read Woods’ book some years back, I agree it is a needed corrective. The Enlightenment did a great deal of good, but some of its presumptions were dotty at best.
    Yet, as Dr. Willingham notes, Mother Church is not without sin, and some day will have to recognize in fighting error, it slid into Error itself.
    Today being Good Friday, repentance is a good ruminate.

  3. Lest any should think that all I am interested in is criticism, let me say that I pray every day for a Third Great Awakening, a practice begun in 1973. I think we have reason to ask for and to expect that God will visit the earth and reach every soul on the planet. Hopefully, this will begin in this generation and continue for a thousand generations and reach quadrillions of planets in the next 20,000-900,000 years to fulfill the promises of a seed that would be as innumerable as the stars of Heaven and the sand by the seashores. And I do not necessarily think in terms of my own denomination, Southern Baptist, who also have their dark side in slavery which was contrary to their beliefs and practices of the New Testament teachings and precepts. In any case, I think in terms of people being persuaded to the truth by the truth with the help of the Spirit of God. Seems that there was an attendance of the Holy Spirit in the times of the Awakenings, tines when the power of the Spirit was manifested and people gave up their sinful ways and practices and began attending church on their own.

  4. So, Western Civilization develops after the Reformation. Yikes, I thought we had gotten beyond that silly nonsense. I have always thought it quite amusing that the Church has been defended quite often by classical liberals, but Woods’s book is worth reading. I don’t think I would learn as much from the 500 5×8 notecards mentioned above. All foolish claims and bigotry aside, whether one likes Western Civilization or not, it simply would not exist without the Catholic Church. Period.

  5. I am well acquainted with the facts of how the Roman Catholic Church is said to have preserved knowledge during the Dark Ages, and I could, possibly, add to your knowledge as the number of notecards was actually 3000, written on both sides, about 6000 pages of written notes taken over a 6 year period. Some of the renaissance is due, however, in part to the fleeing of Greek Scholars to the West after the Fall of Constantinople. The Celtic Church also raises some questions about Rome’s ascendancy and claims. It was interesting to note the contacts between them and the churches of the Middle East by sea, by passing Rome until the latter moved in with a series of power plays. You might also want to know about the Waldensians, of whom the Inquisitor, Renarius Saccho, declared in the 12 the century that they had a church in Constantinople and in Philadelphia (guess which). In the 14th or 15th century they sent a committee to check on the church in India!!! O yes, and the last commander of the last Roman Garrison in England was a Novatian, the son of the Bishop of the Novatian church in Constantinope. The son after his returned to Constantinople became the successor to his father, There is a lot of history that isn’t quite what we think.

  6. Whatever credit we wish to give to the Catholic Church for Western Civilization, and isn’t it odd that we are giving the Church, rather than God, credit for what the Church did, the question we must eventually ask is: Are we bragging or complaining?

    The authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church brought about the persecution of scientists, the inquisition, wars, empire and the presumptuous enslavement and even genocide of some indigenous people from the Western Hemisphere such as Haiti, Cuba, and Latin America. Even today the Church’s effects on the West is both good and bad but Western Civ tribalism filters out what is distasteful.

    It is this disingenuous, rose-colored glasses look at those one most associates with that causes people to leave the Church. And part of what is required to stop the hemorrhaging of people is just taking an honest look at the past and the faults our ancestors had with a resolve to correct them. But those steeped in authoritarianism wearing the sheep’s clothes of tradition have problems accepting challenges.

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