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How the Church Helped Build the West

Book Highlights Catholic Contribution

NEW YORK, JUNE 5, 2005 (Zenit) - No institution has done more to shape the West than the Church. This is the thesis of a just-published book, "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization" (Regnery Publishing), by Thomas E. Woods Jr.

The Catholic Church, Woods notes, has come in for a bad press in the past few years. And many people are only aware of the darker parts of Church history. This book sets out to change that, by succinctly dealing in a series of thematic chapters with a number of areas where the Church played a crucial role.

Western civilization, Woods is careful to add, does not derive exclusively from Catholicism. Nevertheless, it is easy to forget just how much the Church contributed in such areas as art, music, architecture, science and law.

A strongly negative view still persists regarding the Middle Ages, even though Woods affirms that just about all historians have now rejected the old prejudice of this period as the "Dark Ages." While there was indeed a period of decline in the sixth and seventh centuries, this was due to barbarian invasions and constant wars. The destruction would have been worse if it had not been for the Church's efforts at maintaining some kind of order.

Modern civilization owes a particular debt to the work of countless monks during the Middle Ages, Woods points out. It was in the monasteries that the great Roman texts were copied and preserved for future generations. And even though over the centuries many monasteries were destroyed by successive waves of barbarians they would spring up again to continue their task.

The medieval monasteries were also vital in the development of agriculture. In particular, the many thousands of Benedictine establishments played a crucial role in clearing and developing land. They also introduced the local populations to important techniques, such as cattle rearing, cheese making, water management and raising bees. Cistercian monasteries also played a vital role, Woods adds, in areas such as the development of water power and metallurgy.

A time of learning

Far from being a period of ignorance the Middle Ages saw the birth of the university system. The Church was at the center of this advance, which took off in the second half of the 12th century in centers established in Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge. The papacy, Woods explains, also played a central role in establishing and encouraging the universities. By the time of the Reformation, 81 universities had received a papal charter.

Modern science also owes a large debt to the Catholic Church. Most people remember the Church's conflict with Galileo, which was not nearly so negative as popular myths would have it, Woods argues. The Church was at the center of scientific advances, with many clergymen combining their divine vocation with an interest in science.

In the 13th century, the Dominican St Albert the Great, for example, was considered one of the precursors of modern science. And Robert Grosseteste, chancellor of Oxford University and bishop of Lincoln, is described by Woods as being considered to have been one of the most knowledgeable men of the Middle Ages. He was, among other accomplishments, the first to write down a complete set of steps for performing a scientific experiment.

The Church's involvement with science would continue in later centuries. In the 17th century Father Nicolaus Steno of Denmark was credited with setting down most of the principles of modern geology. And in the 17th and 18th centuries the Jesuits made many important contributions to science, particularly in areas such as mathematics and astronomy.

Art and architecture also owe a great debt to the Catholic Church. When the iconoclasts, who were opposed to images of religious figures, sought the destruction of religious art in the eighth and ninth centuries, it was the Church that resisted this heresy.

In the following centuries Catholic patronage, through the construction of the great cathedrals and the commissioning of innumerable works of art, was at the center of European art and architecture. The popes, in particular, as patrons of many great artists were behind the production of many masterpieces.

International law

The discovery and conquest of the New World presented Catholic theologians with the task of developing what should be the legal and ethical principles governing the treatment of the native peoples in the new territories. One of the best-known of these thinkers was Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican who is credited with helping to lay the foundations of modern international law. He defended the principle that all men are equally free and have the same right to life, culture and property.

Vitoria, along with other figures ...

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