Monday, September 07, 2015

Book Review: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr., Ph.D.

Woods, Thomas E. Jr. Ph.D.  How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.  Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc.  2005.   280 pp

"Philip Jenkins, a distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, has called anti-Catholicism the one remaining acceptable prejudice in America.  His assessment is difficult to dispute. ... My own students, to the extent that they know anything at all about the Church, are typically familiar only with alleged Church "corruption," of which they heard ceaseless tales of varying credibility from their high school teachers.  The story of Catholicism, as far as they know, is one of ignorance, repression, and stagnation."  So Thomas E. Woods, himself a historian, economist, professor and noted author, begins his book on ‘How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization'. (page 1)
In contrast to these biases, Woods proceeds to demonstrate that in the areas of science, economics, education, art, philosophy, law and charity it is the Catholic Church that has been their most important source in the Western world.
Scientific Achievements
In the area of Science, Woods makes the claim that those who worship creation itself cannot investigate it in a scientific way.  This idea was put forth by Stanley Jaki, a Catholic priest who has doctorates in physics and theology, in his book, The Saviour of Science (2000).  For example, someone who worships a tree cannot look into what elements make up the tree, what causes it to grow etc.   The Jewish Scriptures, on the other hand, show creation to be rational and orderly and a reflection of God's wisdom, goodness and beauty. God has ordered all things by measure, number and weight (Wisdom 11:21).   Creation, not treated as something ‘divine' itself, can then be investigated. Jaki does not deny that other cultures made contributions to science but says that "sustained scientific inquiry" (quoted by Woods, p. 77) and the scientific method emerged from Catholic thought.
Woods dismantles the ‘Galileo case' as it has been misrepresented to the public demonstrating that science, itself, was not what the Church found problematic.  In fact, Jesuits were involved in the study of astronomy at that time and still are.  The misrepresentations are widespread: one of my former students in Grade 5 Catechism class had learned somewhere that Galileo was tortured to death by the Catholic Church.  He was surprised to hear from me that Galileo had only been put under house arrest, had all his needs cared for and died a natural death at the age of 77.
Triumphs in Education
Woods shows how Education is another area in which the Catholic Church has made a significant contribution.  The great universities of Europe began as Cathedral schools or gatherings of Masters and students under the patrimony of the Church.  It was during the Middle Ages that the universities of Bologna, Paris and Oxford were instituted and the papacy played an important role in their establishment. For example, Pope Innocent IV granted the privilege of awarding degrees to Oxford in 1254.
Charity and Hospitals
Woods also shows how charitable acts, although not unknown in early Greek and Roman cultures, were unique in Christianity.  He shows this by quotations from writers such as the Stoic philosophers, Seneca and others.  Even though the Stoics taught that man should do good to his fellow-man without expecting anything in return, they also taught that they were to remain indifferent to everything and everyone.
A problem in some of the teaching of some world religions is that illness and other misfortunes are the results of the individual's sin (in this life or in a previous one) and any help given to the individual interferes with his future reincarnations. If this is true, people reasoned, it is better not to give charity.
Others religions believe that individuals have no free-will and God is the only cause of everything.  He does not act with ‘reason' and no matter what happens, it is ‘God's will'.  Even that which we would ordinarily call ‘evil' is caused by God.  With this kind of ‘unreasonable' God, science and education do not advance but stagnate. Although Islam at first made some contributions in Mathematics and Medicine, the philosophy of 'whatever happens is the will of Allah' has more recently stifled research and scientific  progress in Islamic countries.
In Alexandria, in the third century, pagans were said to ‘thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from dearest friends', whereas Christians ‘visited the sick without thought of their own peril ... drawing upon themselves their neighbours' diseases' (page 175).  He demonstrates how hospitals were established in the major cities by the fourth century.  Fabiola, a Christian matron, established the first large, public hospital in Rome and St. Basil the Great established a hospital in Caesarea.  Also mentioned are the military Orders, established during the Crusades, such as the Knights of St. John.
International Law
It has become popular in recent years to show Christopher Columbus, and the Spanish who came with him, as invaders of  peaceful places who forced the native people to accept Christianity all the while mistreating them.  Although these stories may be exaggerated, Woods points out that reports of the mistreatment of peoples in the New World caused a ‘crisis of conscience' amongst Spanish theologians and philosophers at that time.  This, he says, is unusual in history and wonders if Attila the Hun had any moral qualms about his conquests.  Or did the human sacrifices of the Aztecs themselves cause any ‘philosophical reflection' on their part?  Woods says that the outcries of such Spaniards as Dominican friar, Antonio de Montesinos, and Father Francisco de Vitoria were the beginnings of international law.  In fact, Father de Vitoria is called the ‘father of international law' because of his contribtions but how many of us have ever heard of him?  Another Spaniard, a bishop, Bartolome de Las Casas, suggested that the natives "... be attracted gently, in accordance with Christ's doctrine" and said that Aristotle's views on slavery as being natural to some should be rejected because "... we have in our favour Christ's mandate: love your neighbour as yourself."  (quoted on page 143).
Legal Tradition of the Western World
Regarding Law, Woods shows that Rome introduced systemized law in their Empire and the so-called ‘barbarians' had laws of their own that dealt with ownership, dowries, rights and crime.  The laws of these ‘barbarians' sometimes based guilt and innocence on superstition, such as the ‘floating or sinking test' to prove the guilt of a crime.  It was Canon or Church Law that many of our best and fairest laws today have as their basis.  For example, the Church stated that marriage could take place only with the consent of both parties.  This is significant since people in earlier centuries did not consider that women should have a voice in important matters, even those that affected them greatly.  Some pre-Christian cultures approved of arranged marriages between infants and the will of the individuals was not considered, only that of their parents.  Many cultures today do not take into consideration the consent of women.  The Church will still annul a marriage if one or both parties of the couple did not give their free consent to the marriage.
These are just a few examples of how Woods defends his thesis that the Catholic Church built Western civilization.  He cites numerous examples in economy, law, agriculture and in science (which is often the thought to be at odds with the Church) where Catholic philosophers, monks, priests, and Bishops as well as the laity,  have made important contributions to modern Western society. For those who think that he has not given enough credibility to other cultures (for example, the inventions of the Chinese and the mathematics of the Arabs), remember, that Woods has used ‘Western Civilization' in the title.
The book is easy and interesting to read and is not just a gathering of facts.  Woods tell the stories of the people who shaped our modern society, many of whom most of us have never heard.  He manages to do this with honesty, truth and good writing.  I have to admit it is my favourite non-fiction book and I recommend it with enthusiasm.