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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

The Jesuits were also the first to introduce Western science into such far-off places as China and India. In 17th-century China in particular, Jesuits introduced a substantial body of scientific knowledge and a vast array of mental tools for understanding the physical universe, including the Euclidean geometry that made planetary motion comprehensible.

Jesuits made important contributions to the scientific knowledge and infrastructure of other less developed nations not only in Asia but also in Africa and Central and South America. Beginning in the 19th century, these continents saw the opening of Jesuit observatories that studied such fields as astronomy, geomagnetism, meteorology, seismology and solar physics. Such observatories provided these places with accurate time keeping, weather forecasts (particularly important in the cases of hurricanes and typhoons), earthquake risk assessments and cartography.

The early church also institutionalized the care of widows, orphans, the sick and the poor in ways unseen in classical Greece or Rome. Even her harshest critics, from the fourth-century emperor Julian the Apostate all the way to Martin Luther and Voltaire, conceded the church's enormous contributions to the relief of human misery.

The spirit of Catholic charity — that we help those in need not out of any expectation of reciprocity, but as a pure gift, and that we even help those who might not like us — finds no analogue in classical Greece and Rome, but it is this idea of charity that we continue to embrace today.

The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations and degrees, as well as the familiar distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, come to us directly from the medieval world.

By the time of the Reformation, no secular government had chartered more universities than the church. Edward Grant, who has written on medieval science for Cambridge University Press, points out that intellectual life was robust and debate was vigorous at these universities — the very opposite of the popular presumption.

It is no surprise that the church should have done so much to foster and protect the nascent university system, since the church, according to historian Lowrie Daly, "was the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge."

Until the mid-20th century, the history of economic thought started, more or less, with the 18th century and Adam Smith. But beginning with Joseph Schumpeter, the great economist and historian of his field, scholars have begun to point instead to the 16th-century Catholic theologians at Spain's University of Salamanca as the originators of modern economics.

And the list goes on.

I can already hear the complaint: What about these awful things the church did that I heard about in school? For one thing, isn't it a little odd that we never heard any of the material I've presented here in school? Doesn't that seem a trifle unfair?

But although an episode like the medieval Inquisition has been dramatically scaled back in scope and cruelty by recent scholarship — the University of California at Berkeley, not exactly a bastion of traditional Catholicism, published a book substantially revising popular view — it is not my subject here. My aim is to point out, as I do in my book "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization," how indebted we are, without realizing it, to an institution popular culture teaches us to despise.

Thomas E. Woods Jr. (www.TomWoods.com), who has a doctorate in history from Columbia University, is the author of 11 books. Read a free chapter of "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization" at CatholicChurchBook.com. Readers may send him email at woodsmises.org. He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

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