Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

"How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization" ( Book Review )
Catholic Education .Org ^ | 2005 | Thomas E. Woods

Posted on 12/21/2008 6:19:03 AM PST by GonzoII

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization


From the role of the monks to art and architecture, from the university to Western law, from science to charitable work, from international law to economics, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization delves into just how indebted we are as a civilization to the Catholic Church, whether we realize it or not.

By far the book’s longest chapter is "The Church and Science." We have all heard a great deal about the Church’s alleged hostility toward science. What most people fail to realize is that historians of science have spent the past half-century drastically revising this conventional wisdom, arguing that the Church’s role in the development of Western science was far more salutary than previously thought. I am speaking not about Catholic apologists but about serious and important scholars of the history of science such as J.L. Heilbron, A.C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, and Thomas Goldstein.

It is all very well to point out that important scientists, like Louis Pasteur, have been Catholic. More revealing is how many priests have distinguished themselves in the sciences. It turns out, for instance, that the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body was Fr. Giambattista Riccioli. The man who has been called the father of Egyptology was Fr. Athanasius Kircher (also called "master of a hundred arts" for the breadth of his knowledge). Fr. 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 eighteenth century, 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 effected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light. 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 — all were typical Jesuit achievements, and scientists as influential as Fermat, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton were not alone in counting Jesuits among their most prized correspondents [Jonathan Wright, The Jesuits, 2004, p. 189].

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


How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization


The Indispensable Church
A Light in the Darkness
How the Monks Saved Civilization
The Church and the University
The Church and Science
The Origins of International Law
The Church and Economics
How Catholic Charity Changed the World
The Church and Western Law
The Church and Western Morality

The Jesuits were also the first to introduce Western science into such far-off places as China and India. In seventeenth-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 nineteenth 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. In Central and South America the Jesuits worked primarily in meteorology and seismology, essentially laying the foundations of those disciplines there. The scientific development of these countries, ranging from Ecuador to Lebanon to the Philippines, is indebted to Jesuit efforts.

The Galileo case is often cited as evidence of Catholic hostility toward science, and How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization accordingly takes a closer look at the Galileo matter. 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. Cassini, incidentally, was a student of Fr. Riccioli and Fr. Francesco Grimaldi, the great astronomer who also discovered the diffraction of light, and even gave the phenomenon its name.

I’ve tried to fill the book with little-known facts like these.

To say that the Church played a positive role in the development of science has now become absolutely mainstream, even if this new consensus has not yet managed to trickle down to the general public. In fact, Stanley Jaki, over the course of an extraordinary scholarly career, has developed a compelling argument that in fact it was important aspects of the Christian worldview that accounted for why it was in the West that science enjoyed the success it did as a self-sustaining enterprise. Non-Christian cultures did not possess the same philosophical tools, and in fact were burdened by conceptual frameworks that hindered the development of science. Jaki extends this thesis to seven great cultures: Arabic, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, and Maya. In these cultures, Jaki explains, science suffered a "stillbirth." My book gives ample attention to Jaki’s work.


Economic thought is another area 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). "[I]t is they," he wrote, "who come nearer than does any other group to having been the ‘founders’ of scientific economics." 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. is no surprise that the Church should have done so much to foster 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."

The Church also played an indispensable role in another essential development in Western civilization: the creation of the university. 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. And it is no surprise that the Church should have done so much to foster 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."

The popes and other churchmen ranked the universities among the great jewels of Christian civilization. It was typical to hear the University of Paris described as the "new Athens" — a designation that calls to mind the ambitions of the great Alcuin from the Carolingian period of several centuries earlier, who sought through his own educational efforts to establish a new Athens in the kingdom of the Franks. Pope Innocent IV (1243–54) described the universities as "rivers of science which water and make fertile the soil of the universal Church," and Pope Alexander IV (1254–61) called them "lanterns shining in the house of God." And the popes deserved no small share of the credit for the growth and success of the university system. "Thanks to the repeated intervention of the papacy," writes historian Henri Daniel-Rops, "higher education was enabled to extend its boundaries; the Church, in fact, was the matrix that produced the university, the nest whence it took flight."

As a matter of fact, among the most important medieval contributions to modern science was the essentially free inquiry of the university system, where scholars could debate and discuss propositions, and in which the utility of human reason was taken for granted. Contrary to the grossly inaccurate picture of the Middle Ages that passes for common knowledge today, medieval intellectual life made indispensable contributions to Western civilization. In The Beginnings of Western Science (1992), David Lindberg writes:

[I]t must be emphatically stated that within this educational system the medieval master had a great deal of freedom. The stereotype of the Middle Ages pictures the professor as spineless and subservient, a slavish follower of Aristotle and the Church fathers (exactly how one could be a slavish follower of both, the stereotype does not explain), fearful of departing one iota from the demands of authority. There were broad theological limits, of course, but within those limits the medieval master had remarkable freedom of thought and expression; there was almost no doctrine, philosophical or theological, that was not submitted to minute scrutiny and criticism by scholars in the medieval university.

"[S]cholars of the later Middle Ages," concludes Lindberg, "created a broad intellectual tradition, in the absence of which subsequent progress in natural philosophy would have been inconceivable."

Historian of science Edward Grant concurs with this judgment:

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.

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 "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."

Here, then, are just a few of the topics to be found in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. I’ve been asked quite a few times in recent weeks what my next project will be. For now, it’ll be getting some rest.

"How the Monks Saved Civilization", chapter three from
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization,
is available online here.



Thomas E. Woods, Jr. "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization." (May 2, 2005).

Reprinted by permission of Thomas E. Woods, Jr.


Thomas E. Woods, Jr. holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. His books include the New York Times (and LRC) bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era, and the just-released How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

Copyright © 2005

TOPICS: Catholic; History; Religion & Culture
KEYWORDS: bookreview; books; catholic; catholicchurch; catholichistory; europe; history; literature; science; thomasewoods; westerncivilization
Navigation: use the links below to view more comments.
first 1-2021-4041-6061-8081-83 next last
"like Louis Pasteur"

Thanks for that long-lasting cheese, Louis!

1 posted on 12/21/2008 6:19:04 AM PST by GonzoII
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: Mrs. Don-o; Salvation; NYer


2 posted on 12/21/2008 6:19:47 AM PST by GonzoII ("That they may be one...Father")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: GonzoII

When confronted by irifutable and non - nonconformational fact, the church had to accessise to science, this has been done for at least the last 2 or 3 hundredd years, back in the old days the Church put on house arrest Galilieo, one guy. No The Catholic church is no favorite of mine, but I think they learned thier lesson.
But No, I reject the authors claim, The church was used as a litmus test, And that test rejected a whole heaping amount of knowledge, lots of western Civ from the Greeks and others went Bye Bye thanks to the Catholic church, They did have an agenda, it was based upon doctrine, later it would be challanged, many times, in the end nowadays the Catholics want you to know they’re hip. I don’t buy it at all.
I got nothing against catholic persons except the church has done away with more goofy rules in the last 40 to 400 years than you can shake a stick at. I mean really, dose God care what I eat? and when? Stupid, no wonder thay flow with the wind. I say stick to the word, but what do I know?

3 posted on 12/21/2008 6:48:24 AM PST by ChetNavVet (Build It, and they won't come!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: ChetNavVet
And it's clear from your writing style that you have developed those opinions over years of serious academic study.

I'm guessing - Ph.D?

4 posted on 12/21/2008 6:53:39 AM PST by Fido969 ("The hardest thing in the world to understand is income tax." - Albert Einstein)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: ChetNavVet
"the word"

Mt:17:21: But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.

Lk:2:37: And she was a widow until fourscore and four years: who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day. (DRV)

5 posted on 12/21/2008 7:00:22 AM PST by GonzoII ("That they may be one...Father")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: GonzoII

The catholic church did not build the USA. That’s more important, I think. Not to single out the catholic church by any means.

6 posted on 12/21/2008 7:00:23 AM PST by equaviator ("There's a (datum) plane on the horizon coming in...see it?")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Fido969

Um.. no...
I just think that the Catholic religion has had its battles with science, and in the end, had to swallow thier own pride, more than once. These are well known facts, refute the fact that one of our greatest scientists was not on house arrest and I’ll shut up.

And yes, I have a GED, with 0 colledge credits, my opinions are based upon the fact that my retard father was a part of that religion, and that idiot knows nothing, I digress, dude, be catholic, fine by me, whatever, it’s cool, I was only talkin about the old church days. And I am sorry if I offend.

7 posted on 12/21/2008 7:11:45 AM PST by ChetNavVet (Build It, and they won't come!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: ChetNavVet; All

Well for a time, the Catholic Church held back progress during the dark ages in Western Europe..

8 posted on 12/21/2008 7:24:10 AM PST by KevinDavis (Thomas Jefferson: A little rebellion now and then is a good thing)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 7 | View Replies]

To: ChetNavVet
"No serious Catholic would contend that churchmen were right in every decision they made. While Catholics believe that the Church will maintain the faith in its integrity until the end of time, that spiritual guarantee in no way implies that every action of the popes and the episcopate is beyond reproach. To the contrary, Catholics distinguish between the holiness of the Church as an institution guided by the Holy Spirit and the inevitable sinful nature of men, including the men who serve the church.(How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.) Thomas E. Woods Jr.

In other words: The Catholic Church is a hospital for sinners.

9 posted on 12/21/2008 7:37:42 AM PST by GonzoII ("That they may be one...Father")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 7 | View Replies]

To: GonzoII
I read this book and can recommend it. It's been several months. When I read it, I could see that it was well researched and carefully argued.

I wondered about the reference to Catholicism as opposed to Christianity. Some of this can be explained by the fact that the early history of Christianity preceded the Catholic/Protestant split. Much of the history he recounts is part of a heritage that is common to both Catholics and Protestants. It may be that after the split, Catholics maintained a more hierarchical order and perhaps more universities and hospitals, and was perhaps easier to document and track. The author is also Catholic.

I think it is an excellent book. It wouldn't have been difficult for him to have presented it as “How Christianity Built Western Civilization,” and I wish he had done so. Still, no one should feel snubbed. I think we can all learn form this book.

10 posted on 12/21/2008 7:38:15 AM PST by ChessExpert (The Dow was at 12,400 when Democrats took control of Congress. What is it today?)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: ChetNavVet
What might have these "goofy rules" been?
And your claim of bearing no malice to the Catholic Church is not very convincing.
11 posted on 12/21/2008 7:39:57 AM PST by jla (Sarah!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: GonzoII; informavoracious; larose; RJR_fan; Prospero; Conservative Vermont Vet; ...

Freep-mail me to get on or off my pro-life and Catholic List:

Add me / Remove me

Please ping me to note-worthy Pro-Life or Catholic threads, or other threads of interest.

Obama Says A Baby Is A Punishment

Obama: “If they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.”

12 posted on 12/21/2008 7:43:40 AM PST by narses (
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: GonzoII
Post 9 - Excellent retort on your part. I maintain that the Church is infallible, yet it's members, clerical and laical alike, being human are not.

And thanks for this thread. Will order copy of book tomorrow.

13 posted on 12/21/2008 7:47:34 AM PST by jla (Sarah!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: KevinDavis

I have nothing against Catholics, but back in the day the Church was quite oppressive, There were lots of goofy things they used to do, much to thier credit the Church has tried to be more mainstream, I reject the latest of thier notions as well, but then again, I’m not a Catholic. And lots of people that used to be Catholic, think that things are going too goofy for even them, So Vatican suffers, from the goofyness of the past to the goofyness of the present, I’m smart, I don’t give a penny to anybody. This way nobody bothers me. There are thosands of folk affiliated with the Catholic church that do go work, I respect thier sacrifies, but to the higher ups, I must say they have gone off track, What ever happened to the word?

14 posted on 12/21/2008 7:51:06 AM PST by ChetNavVet (Build It, and they won't come!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: jla


And You’re welcome.

15 posted on 12/21/2008 7:51:37 AM PST by GonzoII ("That they may be one...Father")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 13 | View Replies]

To: ChessExpert
“I wondered about the reference to Catholicism as opposed to Christianity.”

Well, I think I would put it like this; as the saying goes, first things first, the Catholic Church is historically the first Christian religion, so we could say (I don't want to sound arrogant here) the Protestant religion benefited in a sense from the Catholic one, for example by the preservation of the Scriptures by the monks etc.

16 posted on 12/21/2008 8:08:42 AM PST by GonzoII ("That they may be one...Father")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

To: ChetNavVet
And that test rejected a whole heaping amount of knowledge, lots of western Civ from the Greeks and others went Bye Bye thanks to the Catholic church,

This is false. Who do you think was copying Aristotle, Vergil, Livy, all that? Very very few actual texts survive from antiquity--most of what we have is medieval recopies by monks. The record of the monasteries in preserving the literature of antiquity from the barbarian onslaughts is well known.

Second of all, if the Church "had an agenda" that made it miss some scientific discoveries, then what kind of agenda did Fred Hoyle and all the atheists have who believed in the erroneous "steady state" theory in the mid-1900s? They criticized FATHER Georges Lemaitre and others for the Big Bang theory--which they said smacked too much of Genesis. I have yet to see them called on the carpet for that. But it's true--their a priori atheism interfered with their science.

17 posted on 12/21/2008 8:21:36 AM PST by Claud
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: ChetNavVet

I had the pleasure of reading this book a few years ago. You raise an interesting point about Galileo. If you gave the book a shot, you’d learn the part of the story you apparently never heard.

18 posted on 12/21/2008 8:24:19 AM PST by RIRed
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: KevinDavis
"Well for a time, the Catholic Church held back progress during the dark ages in Western Europe.."

"The term 'Dark Ages' was once applied to the entire millennium separating the period of late antiquity from the Renaissance. Nowadays, there is widespread acknowledgment of the accomplishments of the High Middle Ages. As David Knowles points out, scholars have begun more and more to push the 'Dark Ages' back still further, excluding the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries from that dubious distinction.

Still, there can be little doubt that the sixth and seventh centeries were marked by cultural and intellectual retrogression, in terms of education, literary output, and similar indicators. Was that the Church's fault? Historian Will Durant--an agnostic--defended the Church against this charge decades ago, placing blame for the decline not on the Church, which did everything could to reverse it, but on the barbarian invasions of late antiquity. 'The basic cause of cultural retrogression,' Durant explained, 'was not Christianity but barbarism; not religion but war. The human inundations ruined or impoverished cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, and made impossible the life of the scholar or the scientist. Perhaps the destruction would have been worse had not the Church maintained some measure of order in a crumbling civilization."(How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization; Ch.II ) Thomas E, Woods Jr.

19 posted on 12/21/2008 8:33:49 AM PST by GonzoII ("That they may be one...Father")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: GonzoII
Related threads:
American Government and Christianity - America's Christian Roots
In Praise of a Puritan America
20 posted on 12/21/2008 8:34:38 AM PST by Alex Murphy ( "Every country has the government it deserves" - Joseph Marie de Maistre)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

Navigation: use the links below to view more comments.
first 1-2021-4041-6061-8081-83 next last

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson