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Don’t Know Much about Catholic History?

Will Rogers once said that the problem with this country isn’t so much what people don’t know; it’s what people think they know that just ain’t so.

When it comes to Catholic Church history, though, both problems are equally serious—not just the myths about the Church that everyone believes but also the extraordinary chapters of its history that no one knows. It’s not exactly impressed upon modern students that Western civilization is indebted to the Catholic Church for the university system, charitable institutions, international law, important advances in the sciences, important legal principles, and much else. The true history of the Catholic Church remains a well-kept secret.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, it’s only natural that theologians, philosophers, and Scripture scholars are on the front lines, because it is in those fields that the truth of the Catholic faith can be established most directly. Historians have certainly not been absent from apologetics, as history can shed important light on the Church’s claims. History can tell us what can be learned from early Church practice about papal primacy, for example, or prayer to the saints, or auricular confession—and this information is of great significance in debates and discussions of the Catholic faith.

Important as this function is, though, historians have a much broader role to play in defense of the Catholic faith.

But isn’t it the role of the historian to be strictly impartial rather than to serve as the cheering section for one particular group? Certainly, the historian must be dedicated first and foremost to the cause of truth, and the Catholic historian should never suppress unpleasant facts to serve a partisan purpose. What I am suggesting is that we need Catholic historians to record episodes in Church history that have been neglected altogether. In that way, the historian can devote himself to both historical truth and to the welfare of the Catholic Church.

Best Defense: Good Offense

In general, Catholic historians have devoted most of their efforts to overturning myths: Galileo, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the like. Such work has an important place, to be sure. But good spiritual directors tell us that avoiding sin is not enough; we must immerse ourselves in what is good. Likewise, overturning myths, important as it is, is not enough. We need to show the whole truth: not merely that the Church has not been as bad as people have thought but that it has been far greater and more glorious than just about everyone, Catholics included, seems to realize.

It was with this in mind that I wrote How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. From the role of the monks—who did much more than just copy manuscripts—to art and architecture, from the university to Western law, from charitable work to the sciences, from international law to economics, Europe is deeply indebted to the Catholic Church. That’s why Pope John Paul II told the Poles in 1991, “We [Catholics] were the ones who created Europe.”

Impressive as they are, these historical realities don’t prove that the Catholic Church is the true Church instituted by God. But that doesn’t make them useless for apologetics. They can help overcome negative impressions that people—many of whom honestly do not know any better—have formed about the Catholic Church. At one time or another, most of us have had to respond to friends and antagonists alike who are convinced—after all, it’s what they were taught in school—that the Church is an enemy of “progress” and civilization. (Of course, if you define “progress” as pornography and abortion-on-demand, then the Church indeed has stood in the way.) My goal is to make that task a whole lot easier and, perhaps, soften some of the hardened souls we routinely encounter.

“Fathers” of Science

For example, historians of science have spent the past half-century overturning the tired myth that the Church was nothing but an obstacle in the advance of science. These are serious and important scholars of the history of science, such as J. L. Heilbron, A. C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, and Thomas Goldstein. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a major historian of science who still holds the conventional wisdom that students continue to be taught as part of their K-12 education. It is now being said that certain.aspects of the Christian worldview help to account for why the West was uniquely successful in developing science as a fruitful, self-sustaining enterprise.

Beyond these theoretical points is a staggering array of suggestive—if totally forgotten—facts:

  • The father of geology was Fr. Nicholas Steno.
  • The father of Egyptology was Fr. Athanasius Kircher.
  • The man frequently cited as the father of atomic theory was Fr. Roger Boscovich.
  • Fr. Giambattista Riccioli was the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body.
  • The man who discovered the diffraction of light and even gave the phenomenon its name was Fr. Francesco Maria Grimaldi.
  • Fathers Riccioli and Grimaldi also drew up a very accurate selenograph (a diagram depicting the features of the moon) that currently adorns the entrance to the National Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Galileo case is often cited as evidence of Catholic hostility toward science, and I consequently examined the matter closely in my book. For now, just one little-known fact: Catholic cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, and Rome were constructed to function as solar observatories. No more precise instruments for observing the sun’s apparent motion could be found anywhere in the world. When Johannes Kepler posited that planetary orbits were elliptical rather than circular, Catholic astronomer Giovanni Cassini verified Kepler’s position through observations he made in the Basilica of San Petronio in the heart of the Papal States.

This is not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true history of the Church and science. There is a staggering amount of untold history here, which is why the chapter on science is the longest in my book. Telling this untold story is just one of many areas in which Catholic historians can contribute to apologetics. Believe it or not, no systematic study of Jesuit science exists, despite the Jesuits’ enormous contributions. We Catholic historians have a lot to complain about, but a lack of research projects isn’t one of them!

Reason Enthroned

Still, though, there are those who will say that the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance and obscurantism, fostered by the Church. To this claim we can reply by noting, among other things, that the university system—prized so highly today by Westerners and non-Westerners alike—is itself a product of medieval Europe. The university, which developed and matured at the height of Catholic Europe, was a 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—comes to us directly from the medieval world. And it is no surprise that the Church should have done so much to foster the nascent university system since it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge” (Lowrie J. Daly, The Medieval University, 1200–1400, Sheed and Ward, 4). Another historian contends that the universities’ “most consistent and greatest protector was the pope of Rome. He it was who granted, increased, and protected their privileged status in a world of often conflicting jurisdictions” (Daly, 202).

The tradition of intellectual debate and scholarly exchange to which the university system gave birth proved enormously influential in the life of the West. Edward Grant, a modern historian of science, suggests how:

What made it possible for Western civilization to develop science and the social sciences in a way that no other civilization had ever done before? The answer, I am convinced, lies in a pervasive and deep-seated spirit of inquiry that was a natural consequence of the emphasis on reason that began in the Middle Ages. With the exception of revealed truths, reason was enthroned in medieval universities as the ultimate arbiter for most intellectual arguments and controversies. It was quite natural for scholars immersed in a university environment to employ reason to probe into subject areas that had not been explored before, as well as to discuss possibilities that had not previously been seriously entertained (Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 356).

The creation of the university, the commitment to reason and rational argument, and the overall spirit of inquiry that characterized medieval intellectual life amounted to what Grant called “a gift from the Latin Middle Ages to the modern world . . . though it is a gift that may never be acknowledged. Perhaps it will always retain the status it has had for the past four centuries as the best-kept secret of Western civilization” (Grant, 364).

Economics is another field in which more and more scholars have begun to acknowledge the previously overlooked role of Catholic thinkers. Joseph Schumpeter, one of the great economists of the twentieth century, paid tribute to the overlooked contributions of the late Scholastics—mainly sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish theologians—in his magisterial History of Economic Analysis (1954). “It is they,” he wrote, “who come nearer than does any other group to having been the ‘founders’ of scientific economics” (97). In devoting scholarly attention to this unfortunately neglected chapter in the history of economic thought, Schumpeter would be joined by other accomplished scholars over the course of the twentieth century, including Professors Raymond de Roover, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, and Alejandro Chafuen.

Charity, the Height of Folly

Catholic charity, another central contribution of the Church to the West, impressed even the anticlerical Voltaire, who spoke movingly in the eighteenth century of the spirit that animated young Catholic women to enter the religious life and devote themselves to hospital work and the service of the sick. Yet the spirit of Catholic charity did not derive from ancient Greek and Roman example but from a Catholic conception of God: Although he is satisfied by ritual sacrifice (e.g., the sacrifice of the Mass), he is also concerned about men’s interaction with one another and is pleased by generosity and good human behavior. Catholic charity was both qualitatively more noble and quantitatively far more extensive and abundant than that of the ancient world.

Thus, during the centuries of Christian persecution we have numerous outbreaks of plague during which, to the astonishment of their contemporaries, Christians could be found aiding the very people who had persecuted them. Here, truly, was something new under the sun: The idea of lending sacrificial assistance to your enemies in the spirit of a common humanity would have been considered the height of folly in the ancient world, the Stoic tradition notwithstanding.

Coherency and Justice in Law

Western law is also indebted to the Church, in more ways than I can describe here. But consider this: When the fledgling nations of Western Europe began cobbling together coherent legal systems in the twelfth century, what did they use as a model? The Church’s canon law, Europe’s first modern legal system.

This is the thesis of Harold Berman, one of the twentieth century’s great scholars of the history of law, whose book Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition has received well-nigh universal praise. In a world in which custom rather than statutory law ruled much of both the ecclesiastical and secular domains, Johannes Gratian and other canonists developed criteria, based on reason and conscience, for determining the validity of given customs, and they held up the idea of a pre-political natural law to which any legitimate custom had to conform. Scholars of Church law showed the barbarized West how to take a patchwork of custom, statutory law, and countless other sources and produce from them a coherent legal order whose structure was internally consistent and in which previously existing contradictions were synthesized or otherwise resolved.

Twelfth-century European jurists, in the process of assembling modern legal systems for the emerging states of Western Europe, were thus indebted to canon law as a model of what they themselves were trying to accomplish. The Scholastic method that formed so important a component of medieval intellectual life proved an indispensable ingredient in the work of Western legal thinkers. Equally important was the content of canon law, which had a scope so sweeping that it ended up contributing to the development of Western law in such areas as marriage, property, and inheritance. Berman cites:

the introduction of rational trial procedures to replace magical mechanical modes of proof by ordeals of fire and water, by battles of champions, and by ritual oaths [all of which had played a central role in Germanic folklaw]; [and] the insistence upon consent as the foundation of marriage and upon wrongful intent as the basis or crime (Berman, Faith and Order: The Reconciliation of Law and Religion, Scholars Press, 44).

When it comes to international law, again we must credit the Church. In particular it was Fr. Francisco de Vitoria who, along with the Dutch Protestant Hugo Grotius, can claim the title of “father of international law.” When he observed the behavior of his country in the New World, he became convinced that impartial moral rules governing the interaction of states must be developed. According to international law expert James Brown Scott, Vitoria “furnished the world of his day with its first masterpiece on the law of nations in peace as well as in war” (The Spanish Origin of International Law, Georgetown University, 65). How international law should be enforced was another question—Vitoria would have been a skeptic of the United Nations—but the important thing was the Catholic insistence that states were not morally autonomous but were instead bound by certain absolute moral rules.

Much more could be said, of course, but the point is made. How much of the history covered in just this short essay does the average American—even the average Catholic—know? The question hardly requires an answer. And if we don’t record and call attention to this history, no one will.

Again, none of this history proves the Church’s claims about herself, but it does lend some support to those claims. For if the Church really is what it claims to be, then we should expect these wonderful temporal fruits to flow from it. “Seek first his kingdom,” said our Lord, “and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt. 6:33). There, in short, is the history of the Catholic Church.

Here, then, is a crucial and yet simple task of the Catholic historian engaged in apologetics: to tell, finally, these untold stories.

I appeared on a Catholic radio program shortly after the release of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. The host noted playfully that he, too, had hoped someday to write such a book—that is, until mine came along. My reply? The more the merrier! We need many such books, and there is no shortage of material to include in them.

What are we waiting for?


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