Quotes from Thomas E. Woods Jr.

The following quotes are from the recommended book How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr. (Kindle Edition. Regnery Publishing, 2005).

Compared with other civilizations, it may be asserted that Western civilization has enjoyed certain competitive advantages. The chief of those advantages has been our Catholic faith. Far from acting as a brake on progress, our faith has been a guide and source of inspiration toward the heights of cultural advancement. Our Catholic faith leads us initially to God, Who, of course, is beyond our comprehension. At the same time, our Catholic faith requires an affirmation about human reason and Being. What a curious religion, that invites its believers to believe in their own reason! This is the religion that preserved classical writings during the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. This is the religion that inspired Charlemagne to dream of creating a new Athens. This is the religion that, during the Carolingian Renaissance, fostered the pursuit of philosophical and scientific investigation. (Cardinal Antonio Canizares; Kindle Location 144)

The point is that in our present cultural milieu it is easy to forget–or not to learn in the first place–just how much our civilization owes to the Catholic Church. To be sure, most people recognize the influence of the Church in music, art, and architecture. The purpose of this book, however, is to demonstrate that the Church’s influence on Western civilization goes well beyond these areas. (p. 2)

Given the strong identification of the barbarian peoples with their kings, it was generally enough to convert the monarch, and the people would eventually follow. This was not always an easy or smooth process; in the centuries to come, Catholic priests from among the Franks would say Mass but also continue to offer sacrifice to the old nature gods. For that reason, it was not enough simply to convert the barbarians; the Church had to continue to guide them, both to guarantee that the conversion had truly taken hold and to ensure that the faith would begin to transform their government and way of life. (p. 13)

Teaching the Germanic people grammatically correct Latin–a difficult skill to acquire during the unsettled sixth and seventh centuries–was an essential element of the Carolingian Renaissance. Knowledge of Latin made possible both the study of the Latin Church fathers and the classical world of ancient Rome. In fact, the oldest surviving copies of most ancient Roman literature date back to the ninth century, when Carolingian scholars rescued them from oblivion. (p. 17)

Fredegise, Alcuin’s successor as abbot at Saint Martin’s, played a definitive part in the development and introduction of Carolingian minuscule. Now Western Europe had a script that could be read and written with relative ease. The introduction of lowercase letters, spaces between words, and other measures intended to increase readability quickened both reading and writing. Two recent scholars describe its “unsurpassed grace and lucidity, which must have had a tremendous effect on the survival of classical literature by casting it in a form that all could read with both ease and pleasure.” “It would be no exaggeration,” writes Philippe Wolff, “to link this development with that of printing itself as the two decisive steps in the growth of a civilization based on the written word.” Carolingian minuscule–developed by the monks of the Catholic Church–was crucial to building the literacy of Western civilization. (p. 18)

This preservation both of the West’s classical heritage and of the accomplishments of the Carolingian Renaissance was no simple matter. Invading hordes had sacked many a monastery and set fire to libraries whose volumes were far more precious to the intellectual community of the time than modern readers, accustomed to an inexpensive and abundant supply of books, can readily appreciate. As Dawson rightly notes, it was the monks who kept the light of learning from being extinguished. (p. 22)

Although they [monks] cleared forests that stood in the way of human habitation and use, they were also careful to plant trees and conserve forests when possible. (p. 30)

Wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, industries, or production methods with which the people had not been previously familiar. Here they would introduce the rearing of cattle and horses, there the brewing of beer or the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden, the corn trade owed its existence to the monks; in Parma, it was cheese making; in Ireland, salmon fisheries–and, in a great many places, the finest vineyards. Monks stored up the waters from springs in order to distribute them in times of drought. In fact, it was the monks of the monasteries of Saint Laurent and Saint Martin who, spying the waters of springs that were distributing themselves uselessly over the meadows of Saint Gervais and Belleville, directed them to Paris. In Lombardy, the peasants learned irrigation from the monks, which contributed mightily to making that area so well known throughout Europe for its fertility and riches. The monks were also the first to work toward improving cattle breeds, rather than leaving the process to chance. (p. 31)

The monks were also important architects of medieval technology. The Cistercians, a reform-minded Benedictine order established at Citeaux in 1098, are especially well known for their technological sophistication. Thanks to the great network of communication that existed between the various monasteries, technological information was able to spread rapidly. Thus we find very similar water-powered systems at monasteries that were at great distances from each other, even thousands of miles away. “These monasteries,” a scholar writes, “were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world, before that time.” (p. 33)

The monks “had the potential to move to blast furnaces that produced nothing but cast iron. They were poised to do it on a large scale, but by breaking up the virtual monopoly, Henry VIII effectively broke up that potential.”

Had it not been for a greedy king’s suppression of the English monasteries, therefore, the monks appear to have been on the verge of ushering in the industrial era and its related explosion in wealth, population, and life expectancy figures. That development would instead have to wait two and a half more centuries. (pp. 37-38)

The fact is, the Church cherished, preserved, studied, and taught the works of the ancients, which would otherwise have been lost. (p. 41)

The monastic contribution to Western civilization, as we have seen, is immense. Among other things, the monks taught metallurgy, introduced new crops, copied ancient texts, preserved literacy, pioneered in technology, invented champagne, improved the European landscape, provided for wanderers of every stripe, and looked after the lost and shipwrecked. Who else in the history of Western civilization can boast such a record? (p. 46)

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 distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. The Church developed the university system because, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.” (p. 47)

When the university system was still young, therefore, the popes were its most consistent protectors and the authority to which students and faculty alike regularly had recourse. The Church granted charters, protected the university’s rights, sided with scholars against obnoxious interference by overbearing authorities, built an international academic community with the ius ubique docendi privilege, and (as we shall see) permitted and fostered the kind of robust and largely unfettered scholarly debate and discussion that we associate with the university. In the universities and elsewhere, no other institution did more to promote the dissemination of knowledge than the Catholic Church. (p. 51)

Contrary to the general impression that theological presuppositions colored all of their investigations, medieval scholars by and large respected the autonomy of what was referred to as natural philosophy (a branch of study that concerned itself with the functioning of the physical world and particularly with change and motion in that world). Seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena, they kept their studies separate from theology. Natural philosophers in the arts faculties, writes Edward Grant in God and Reason in the Middle Ages, “were expected to refrain from introducing theology and matters of faith into natural philosophy.” (p. 56)

Had the Middle Ages really been a time when all questions were to be resolved by mere appeals to authority, this commitment to the study of formal logic would make no sense. Rather, the commitment to the discipline of logic reveals a civilization that aimed to understand and to persuade. To that end, educated men wanted students to be able to detect logical fallacies and to be able to form logically sound arguments. (pp. 57-58)

Father Clavius, one of the great mathematicians of his day, had headed the commission that yielded the Gregorian calendar (which went into effect in 1582), which resolved the inaccuracies that had plagued the old Julian calendar. His calculations regarding the length of the solar year and the number of days necessary to keep the calendar in line with the solar year–ninety-seven leap days every four hundred years, he explained–were so precise that scholars to this day remain stumped as to how he did it. (p. 70)

This point may appear so obvious as to be of little interest. But the idea of a rational, orderly universe–enormously fruitful and indeed indispensable for the progress of science–has eluded entire civilizations. (p. 76)

Such stillbirths can be accounted for by each of these cultures’ conceptions of the universe and their lack of belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with consistent physical laws. To the contrary, they conceived of the universe as a huge organism dominated by a pantheon of deities and destined to go through endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. This made the development of science impossible. The animism that characterized ancient cultures, which conceived of the divine as immanent in created things, hindered the growth of science by making the idea of constant natural laws foreign. Created things had minds and wills of their own–an idea that all but precluded the possibility of thinking of them as behaving according to regular, fixed patterns. (pp. 76-77)

This point finds surprising support in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the nineteenth century’s greatest critics of Christianity. “Strictly speaking,” argued Nietzsche, “there is no such thing as science ‘without any presuppositions’. . . a philosophy, a ‘faith,’ must always be there first, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist. . . . It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science.” (p. 81)

It is a relatively simple matter to show that many great scientists, like Louis Pasteur, have been Catholic. Much more revealing, however, is the surprising number of Catholic churchmen, priests in particular, whose scientific work has been so extensive and significant. Here were men who in most cases had taken holy orders and had committed themselves to the highest and most significant spiritual commitment the Church affords. Their insatiable curiosity about the universe God created and their commitment to scientific research reveals, far more than could any merely theoretical discussion, that the relationship between Church and science is naturally one of friendship rather than of antagonism and suspicion. (p. 94)

The Jesuits were also the first to introduce Western science into such far-off places as China and India. (p. 101)

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. (p. 102)

The Jesuits’ contributions to seismology (the study of earthquakes) have been so substantial that the field itself has sometimes been called “the Jesuit science.” (p. 109)

The fact remains, as J. L. Heilbron of the University of California– Berkeley points out, that “[t]he Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.” (p. 113)

In areas unrelated to art, though, the Renaissance period actually constituted a time of retrogression. The study of English and continental literatures would hardly miss the removal of the fifteenth century. At the same time, the scientific life of Europe all but came to a standstill. With the exception of the Copernican theory of the universe, the history of Western science between 1350 and 1600 is one of relative stagnation. Western philosophy, which had flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, has comparatively little to show for itself during the same period.

One could even say that the Renaissance was in many regards a time of irrationalism. It was during the Renaissance that alchemy reached its height, for example. Astrology grew ever more influential. Persecutions of witches, erroneously associated with the Middle Ages, became widespread only during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (p. 126)

Vitoria borrowed two important principles from Saint Thomas Aquinas: 1) the divine law, which proceeds from grace, does not annul human law, which proceeds from natural reason; and 2) those things that are natural to man are neither to be taken from nor given to him on account of sin. Surely no Catholic would argue that it is a less serious crime to murder a non-baptized person than a baptized one. This is what Vitoria meant: The treatment to which all human beings are entitled–e.g., not to be killed, expropriated, etc.–derives from their status as men rather than as members of the faithful in the state of grace. Father Domingo de Soto, Vitoria’s colleague at the University of Salamanca, stated the matter plainly: “Those who are in the grace of God are not a whit better off than the sinner or the pagan in what concerns natural rights.” (p. 141)

In sum, Spanish theologians of the sixteenth century held the behavior of their own civilization up to critical scrutiny and found it wanting. They proposed that in matters of natural right the other peoples of the world were their equals, and that the commonwealths of pagan peoples were entitled to the same treatment that the nations of Christian Europe accorded to one another. That Catholic priests gave Western civilization the philosophical tools with which to approach non-Western peoples in a spirit of equality is quite an extraordinary thing. If we consider the Age of Discovery in the light of sound historical judgment, we must conclude that the Spaniards’ ability to look objectively at these foreign peoples and recognize their common humanity was no small accomplishment, particularly when measured against the parochialism that has so often colored one people’s conception of another.

Such impartiality could not have been expected to develop out of American Indian cultures. “The Indians of the same region or language group did not even have a common name for themselves,” explains Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison. “Each tribe called itself something like ‘We, the People,’ and referred to its neighbors by a word that meant ‘the Barbarians,’ ‘Sons of She-Dog,’ or something equally insulting.” That a counterexample like the Iroquois Confederation comes so readily to mind is an indication of its exceptional character. The conception of an international order of states large and small, of varying levels of civilization and refinement, operating on a principle of equality, could not have found fertile soil amid such narrow chauvinism. The Catholic conception of the fundamental unity of the human race, on the other hand, informed the deliberations of the great sixteenth-century Spanish theologians who insisted on universal principles that must govern the interaction of states. If we criticize Spanish excesses in the New World, therefore, it is thanks to the moral tools provided by the Catholic theologians of Spain itself that we are able to do so. (pp. 151-152)

It would take many large volumes to record the complete history of Catholic charitable work carried on by individuals, parishes, dioceses, monasteries, missionaries, friars, nuns, and lay organizations. Suffice it to say that Catholic charity has had no peer in the amount and variety of good work it has done and the human suffering and misery it has alleviated. Let us go still further: the Catholic Church invented charity as we know it in the West. (p. 172)

It is open to debate whether institutions resembling hospitals in the modern sense can be said to have existed in ancient Greece and Rome. Many historians have doubted it, while others have pointed out an unusual exception here and there. Yet even these exceptions involved the care of sick or wounded soldiers rather than of the general population. With regard to the establishment of institutions staffed by physicians who made diagnoses and prescribed remedies, and where nursing provisions were also available, the Church appears to have pioneered. (p. 178)

So impressive has Catholic charitable work been that even the Church’s own enemies have grudgingly acknowledged it. The pagan writer Lucian (130–200) observed in astonishment, “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren!” Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who made a futile, if energetic, attempt in the 360s to return the empire to its earlier paganism, conceded that the Christians outshone the pagans in their devotion to charitable work. “Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor,” he wrote, “the hated Galileans [that is, the Christians] devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.” Martin Luther, as inveterate an enemy of the Catholic Church as ever lived, was forced to admit: “Under the papacy the people were at least charitable, and force was not required to obtain alms. Today, under the reign of the Gospel [by which he meant Protestantism], in place of giving they rob each other, and it might be said that no one thinks he has anything till he gets possession of the property of his neighbor.” (p. 182)

Just as the sixteenth-century attack on the monasteries by the Crown debilitated the network of charity that those institutions had supported, the French Revolution’s eighteenth-century attack on the Church likewise struck at the source of so much good work. In November 1789, the revolutionary French government nationalized (that is, confiscated) Church property. The archbishop of Aix en Provence warned that such an act of theft threatened educational and welfare provisions for the French people. He was right, of course. In 1847, France had 47 percent fewer hospitals than in the year of the confiscation, and in 1799 the 50,000 students enrolled in universities ten years earlier had dwindled to a mere 12,000. (p. 187)

Many of the most important principles of the Western moral tradition derive from the distinctly Catholic idea of the sacredness of human life. The insistence on the uniqueness and value of each person, by virtue of the immortal soul, was nowhere to be found in the ancient world. Indeed, the poor, weak, or sickly were typically treated with contempt by non-Catholics and sometimes even abandoned altogether. That, as we have seen, is what made Catholic charity so significant, and something new in the Western world.

Catholics spoke out against, and eventually abolished, the practice of infanticide, which had been considered morally acceptable even in ancient Greece and Rome. Plato, for example, had said that a poor man whose sickness made him unable to work any longer should be left to die. Seneca wrote: “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.” Deformed male children and many healthy female children (inconvenient in patriarchal societies) were simply abandoned. As a result, the male population of the ancient Roman world outnumbered the female population by some 30 percent. The Church could never accept such behavior.

We see the Church’s commitment to the sacred nature of human life in the Western condemnation of suicide, a practice that had its defenders in the ancient world. Aristotle had criticized the practice of suicide, but others among the ancients, particularly the Stoics, favored suicide as an acceptable method of escaping physical pain or emotional frustration. A number of well-known Stoics themselves committed suicide. What better proof of one’s detachment from the world than control of the moment of departure? (pp. 205-206)

The Church taught that intimate relations were to be confined to husband and wife. Even Edward Gibbon, who blamed Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, was compelled to admit: “The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians.” The second-century Greek physician Galen, so struck by the rectitude of Christian sexual behavior, described them as “so far advanced in self-discipline and . . . intense desire to attain moral excellence that they are in no way inferior to true philosophers.”

Adultery, according to the Church, was not confined to a wife’s infidelity to her husband, as the ancient world so often had it, but also extended to a husband’s unfaithfulness to his wife. The Church’s influence in this area was of great historical significance, which is why Edward Westermarck, an accomplished historian of the institution of marriage, credited Christian influence with the equalization of the sin of adultery.

These principles account in part for why women formed so much of the Christian population of the early centuries of the Church. So numerous were female Christians that the Romans used to dismiss Christianity as a religion for women. Part of the attraction that the faith held for women was that the Church sanctified marriage, elevating it to the level of a sacrament, and prohibited divorce (which really meant that men could not leave their wives with nothing to go marry another woman). Women also attained substantially more autonomy thanks to Catholicism. “Women found protection in the teachings of the Church,” writes philosopher Robert Phillips, “and were permitted to form communities of religious who would be self-governing–something unheard of in any culture of the ancient world. . . . Look at the catalogue of saints filled up with women. Where in the world were women able to run their own schools, convents, colleges, hospitals and orphanages, outside of Catholicism?” (pp. 214-215)

The self-imposed historical amnesia of the West today cannot undo the past or the Church’s central role in building Western civilization. “I am not a Catholic,” wrote French philosopher Simone Weil, “but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of the centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without becoming degraded.” That is a lesson that Western civilization, cut off more and more from its Catholic foundations, is in the process of learning the hard way. (pp. 226-228)


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