Commentary: History shows contributions of Catholic Church to Western civilization

By Thomas E. Woods

The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 28 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Tables and chairs line the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in preparation for a conclave, Saturday, April 16, 2005.

Associated Press

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TOPEKA, Kan. — About the least fashionable thing one can do these days is utter a kind word about the Catholic Church. The idea that the church has been an obstacle to human progress has been elevated to the level of something everybody thinks he knows. But to the contrary, it is to the Catholic Church more than to any other institution that we owe so many of the treasures of Western civilization. Knowingly or not, scholars operated for two centuries under an Enlightenment prejudice that assumes all progress to come from religious skeptics, and that whatever the church touches is backward, superstitious, even barbaric.

Since the mid-20th century, this unscholarly prejudice has thankfully begun to melt away, and professors of a variety of religious backgrounds, or none at all, increasingly acknowledge the church's contributions.

Nowhere has the revision of what we thought we knew been more dramatic than in the study of the history of science. We all remember what we learned in fourth grade: While scientists were bravely trying to uncover truths about the universe and improve our quality of life, stupid churchmen who hated reason and simply wanted the faithful to shut up and obey placed a ceaseless stream of obstacles in their path.

That was where the conventional wisdom stood just over a century ago, with the publication of Andrew Dickson White's book, "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom," in 1896. And that's where most Americans (and Europeans, for that matter) believe it still stands.

But there is scarcely a historian of science in America who would endorse this comic-book version of events today. To the contrary, modern historians of science freely acknowledge the church's contributions — both theoretical and material — to the Scientific Revolution. It was the church's worldview that insisted the universe was orderly and operated according to certain fixed laws. Only buoyed with that confidence would it have made sense to bother investigating the physical world in the first place, or even to develop the scientific method (which can work only in an orderly world). It's likewise a little tricky to claim the church has been an implacable foe of the sciences when so many priests were accomplished scientists.

The first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body was Father Giambattista Riccioli. The man who has been called the father of Egyptology was Father Athanasius Kircher. Father Roger Boscovich, who has been described as "the greatest genius that Yugoslavia ever produced," has often been called the father of modern atomic theory. In the sciences it was the Jesuits in particular who distinguished themselves; some 35 craters on the moon, in fact, are named after Jesuit scientists and mathematicians.

By the 18th century, writes historian Jonathan Wright, the Jesuits "had contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes, and microscopes, to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics, and electricity. They observed, in some cases before anyone else, the colored bands on Jupiter's surface, the Andromeda nebula, and Saturn's rings. They theorized about the circulation of the blood (independently of Harvey), the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon affected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light."

Their achievements likewise included "star maps of the southern hemisphere, symbolic logic, flood-control measures on the Po and Adige rivers, introducing plus and minus signs into Italian mathematics."

These were the great opponents of human progress?

Seismology, the study of earthquakes, has been so dominated by Jesuits that it has become known as "the Jesuit science." It was a Jesuit, Father J.B. Macelwane, who wrote the first seismology textbook in America in 1936. To this day, the American Geophysical Union, which Macelwane once headed, gives an annual medal named after this brilliant priest to a promising young geophysicist.

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