Friday, August 14, 2009

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

Thomas Woods’s How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization is the good news (and only the good news) about the Catholic contribution to Western civilisation.

Which is enormous, as Woods has no problem demonstrating. The Catholic Church dominated the intellectual activity of Latin Christendom from Late Antiquity to the Reformation. It maintained huge scholarly, scientific, educational and charitable efforts during and after that time. It was a remarkable, trans-jurisdictional institution with no real equivalent in any other civilisation. Of course it was central to the construction of Western civilisation. Indeed, I would argue strongly that the squabbling alliance between (usually Germanic) warlord and Catholic Church is precisely how Western civilisation was born, after the collapse of Classical civilisation.

And Woods does very useful service lucidly detailing the extent of the contribution as there has been—as he quite rightly points out—a fairly longstanding pattern of disparaging the Catholic contribution. A pattern that was originally Protestant-inspired, more recently secular.
He starts with a notorious hard case—Gallileo. As he points out, Gallileo is the case everyone “knows” of an obscurantist Church blocking the path of science. In fact, the Gallileo case stands out because it is the only significant case of the Church taking action against a prominent scientist. Gallileo was an obstinate curmudgeon who got into trouble by going beyond the evidence people had at the time, despite many friendly warnings (from the Pope down), and wandering into theologian territory. If he had pushed the heliocentric theory as a hypothesis, he would have been completely safe. Instead, he argued that it was obviously true (even though he could not answer various objections, such as why we observe no parallax motion by the stars) and that Scripture would just have to be reinterpreted to fit. (Which was not so much bad theology—it was quite in line with various authorities from St Augustine on—as premature.) So he got smacked.

A single case which is more than balanced, as Woods can easily show, by the enormous contributions to science, not merely by Catholics but by Catholic churchmen. The Jesuits, for example, included many avid, successful and pioneering astronomers.

Woods further argues, using the work of Jaki and others, that Christianity (and particularly Catholicism) was far more science-positive than the base ideas of any other civilisation. That many Churchmen, starting in the medieval period, developed many of the key ideas upon which Western science was built. That the Catholic notion of a rational, ordered Universe is basic to the scientific conception of the universe (and not a feature of the world-view of other civilisations). A case Woods puts lucidly and informatively.

But the sheer range of the Catholic contribution is striking. Monks preserving works from the past; the church creating the university; encouraging art and architecture (the medieval Cathedrals really are an amazing achievement); creating international law; laying the basis of economics (he has particular fun pointing out that Catholics developed and maintained a subjective theory of value while Protestants wandered down the cul-de-sac of the labour theory of value with all its errors); the development of charity (a very Christian idea); the influence of canon law; the development of Western morality.

And there is much of fascinating and revealing detail. Woods is surely quite right to point, for example, to the Christian impetus behind the abolition of gladiatorial combat. As he is correct to suggest Catholicism rose above the arid anti-emotionalism of Stoicism (p.172). (Except, of course, with sex: the influence of the Stoic antipathy to emotion and anything deemed to undermine rationality is particularly obvious in St Augustine on sex.) Catholic theology was much more open to the rights of non-Christians than folk generally realise.

Woods persistently writes with a strong positive gloss for Catholicism. Thus, early Christianity is Catholic. Even the 1277 Condemnations get a positive gloss—they encouraged innovative thinking (p.91). Apart from a passing reference to its number of victims being greatly exaggerated, we hear nothing of the Inquisition, or the burning of heretics. Historians of the common law might be surprised by his claim that canon law is the basis of all Western law (p.201). His positive gloss extends to the flight of fancy that Henry VIII’s suppression of the monastery aborted a nascent industrial revolution due to stopping monastic experiments in iron smelting (pp36ff).

Woods might have profitably asked why the case of Gallileo had such resonance. Which is surely because there was an Inquisition; the Church did burn heretics, and their books; there was an Index of Forbidden Books. It is easy to acquit the Church of the charge of being hostile to science. On the contrary, Catholicism was, fairly inarguably, the stand-out science-friendly religion. (In a way Orthodoxy clearly wasn’t while Creationism is a Protestant disease.) But it is equally easy to show the Church was hostile to intellectual freedom. Where the freedom to be Catholic is not at issue, the Catholic Church has frequently been an enemy to liberty. Indeed, there is clear evidence that priestly control over printing drove scientific publishing from Catholic to Protestant Europe: it was not theology but priestly power which made Protestant Europe more of a haven for scientific and other intellectual enquiry.

But the freedom to be Catholic does incorporate a lot of freedoms. Marrying the (opposite sex) person of your choice, for example. Woods makes some very sound points about the ways in which Catholic theology, particularly its opposition to infanticide and its morality of family life, were liberating for women—compared to what had previously been the case.

To understand what makes a civilisation distinctive, one has to have a good knowledge of other civilisations. (It is reassuring that he quotes Needham on Chinese science.)

To understand what something, even as pervasive as the Catholic Church, contributed to Western civilisation, you have to have a good knowledge of other participants and thus potential contributors. The latter in particular is where Woods falls down. It is unfortunate that, for example, he has a rather simple view of Machiavelli, writing as if The Prince simply represents his views and that he was not also the author of the Discourses.

More excessively, Woods claims that Western civilisation was essentially created by the Catholic Church. Did Germanic warlords have nothing to do with it?

It also makes one wonder how come we can recognise familiar patterns in the Persian Wars, five centuries before Christ? Did the activities of all those secular rulers make no contribution? How about Western civilisation’s persistent nature as one of competing jurisdictions? A geography of peninsulas and mountains: hard to unify, easy for trade and ideas to move around? Being a temperate zone farming civilisation? The striking similarities between samurai Japan and knightly Europe? The fact that he makes no real attempt to explore the different outcomes between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is particularly revealing, as their theological differences are relatively minor.

Then there is the retreat of Catholicism. Where does the Reformation come from? Did it have no influence? Where does the Enlightenment come from? Does it have no influence? Or is it all bad? Downhill all the way?

Which is what Woods is forced to argue—that the diminution of the role of the Catholic Church within Western civilisation has been a process of decline, the burden of his last chapter. He cites the usual suspects—art, literature, sexual licence. Even if one accepts that there has been cultural decline in those areas, the notion that it would have all been OK if the Catholic Church had retained its status is surely risible. The growth of knowledge has been so vast and so (in historical terms) rapid, some disorientation was surely inevitable. The growth of technology in some ways even more so—what does painting do once you have photography, films, cameras, etc is simply not a question with an obvious answer.

And there are a vast number of indicators outside those realms that surely suggest that it is not a story of decline at all. It is notable, for example, that anti-slavery agitation gets no mention, despite being profoundly Christian-inspired. Unsurprising, it being terribly Protestant and all. To take another obvious example, Western civilisation did not stop burning people alive because it became more Christian and Catholic, but because it became less so. Do we really want to say Catholic morality is the last word on the status of women? And so on.

It is particularly awkward that the achievements of science that Woods is so impressed with have been accelerating as the role of the Church has declined. As has Western civilisation's general intellectual dominance over other civilisations. Woods wants to argue that part of the Catholic Church’s basic contribution was to increase the ambit for non-religious thought and action and then give that thought and action a strictly subordinate role. Spot the little contradiction there.

But even one-sided books can be useful correctives. There is genuinely a pattern of disparaging, or being simply ignorant of, Catholic contributions to Western civilisation. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization is an easy-to-read compendium of such contributions. As long as you remember that it is only the good news.


  1. The "error" link (after "labour theory of value") has "ttp" where it should have "http".