Catholics: Make This Book a Bestseller

Email Print

The Hidden History of the Church

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization By Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Regnery Publishing, Inc. 2005

Even in Catholic school we were taught to be a bit ashamed of Church history. It was impossible not to be. Language itself conspired against us. Most everything we had come to value in modern society, we were certain, had come to us since the Enlightenment, a period that we reasoned must have come after an earlier, obviously darker time. And indeed that much was sure, for as we understood it, that thousand years of history previous was known as the Dark Ages. Further investigation did not seem necessary.

Tom Woods’ latest book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization exposes this hackneyed clich for the historical nonsense that it is. It offers the reader a concise and thorough look at the realities of the medieval and Catholic origins of much that we consider to be the glory of European civilization. As Woods illustrates with countless examples, no understanding of the origins of Western civilization is ultimately possible without an understanding of the history of the Catholic Church and its legacy that many have now forgotten — a legacy of science, philosophy, art, and law.

Conditioned early to see the history of the Catholic Church as a long, sad story of intolerance and intellectual paralysis, the history of pretty much everything between Ancient Rome and George Washington has long appeared irrelevant to the American mind. Unfortunately, such grand ignorance of our European heritage obscures the great strides made by Western men and women from the sixth century to the sixteenth.

Drawing upon a wide array of modern research, Woods examines the increasingly broad consensus among historians that the image of the human race languishing in superstition and ignorance for a thousand years before Europe was suddenly and inexplicably thrust into the modern era is not only untrue, but contemptuously so. Nevertheless, popular representations of the medieval Church almost always feature an institution guided by irrationalism and hysterics, only to be reformed by later "enlightened" non-believers. They can get away with this, of course, because the public doesn’t know any better. It is indeed a shame that so little is known about the Catholic origins of modern science, or the role of the Scholastic philosophers in virtually every key element of sound economics, international law, and the universality of individual rights.

Woods begins with a look at the institutions of the Church that played such a key role in preserving and expanding human knowledge and achievement: the monasteries and the universities. For centuries after the fall of Rome, the engines of human intellectual advancement in Europe were the monasteries. Made into a Europe-wide system of communities by Saint Benedict and his monks as early as the 6th century, the monasteries (and convents) quickly became virtually the only places in Europe where men and women engaged in scholarly inquiry, preserved the knowledge of ages past, and encouraged economic expansion through constant development of agricultural and industrial techniques.

The monks built furnaces to extract iron from ore. They drained swamps, pioneered changes in the production of wine, and raised bees for honey. All of this occurred at a time when such practical arts were virtually unknown to laypeople. Inside the monasteries, of course, the monks labored in their scriptoriums copying manuscripts, preserving the works of men from earlier ages like Horace, Seneca, and Virgil. Latin was the international language of learning, and monks from all across Europe collaborated in their scholarly pursuits.

In many ways, the monasteries functioned as the prototypes of universities, and it is no mere coincidence that as universities began to take root across Europe during the High Middle Ages, they were staffed by monks and chartered by popes. "Nothing like [the university] had existed in ancient Greece or Rome, Woods tells us, "The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees…comes to us directly from the medieval world." Woods quotes historian Lowrie Daly who concludes that the university was "the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge." It is indeed curious then that such an institution would be born in an age allegedly so committed to the repression of knowledge and free inquiry.

Perhaps Woods’ most compelling research is his work on the history of science in the Church. Exhaustive in his treatment of the essential Catholic contributions in everything from physics to seismology to paleontology, he addresses the question of why science as we know it developed in medieval Europe and nowhere else. The answer lies in the natural order inherent in the Catholic worldview.

The God of the Church and the Middle Ages was an orderly God. As Thomas Aquinas concluded in the thirteenth century, God could have created any kind of universe he desired, but the universe he did create is an orderly and predictable universe, and that is the universe that Aquinas enjoins us to study. Since God "ordered all things by measure, number, and weight" it is virtuous for man to use his divine gift of rationality to attempt to understand God’s universe. For the medieval Catholic mind, the universe tends toward order and rationality, and understanding that order brings one closer to understanding God Himself.

Woods contrasts this view of nature with the views held by a variety of other civilizations. For the ancient Babylonians, for example, an orderly universe was hardly something to be taken for granted: "Babylonian cosmogony was supremely unsuited to the development of science, and in fact positively discouraged it. The Babylonians perceived the natural order as so fundamentally uncertain that only an annual ceremony of expiation could hope to prevent total cosmic disorder." Even the Muslims, who are famous for certain scientific advances during the Middle Ages, progressed in spite of, rather than because of, their theology: for the Muslim scholar, "[a]pparent natural laws were nothing more than mere habits, so to speak, of Allah, and might be discontinued at any time." For the Churchmen of the medieval universities, however, the order of the natural world was the reliable product of an orderly God. Eventually, observation and empirical inquiry, as encouraged by Catholic scholars like Roger Bacon and Roger Boscovich (in a revolt against Aristotle, by the way), would become the foundation of modern science.

Yet, even with the universities and the pioneering of the scientific method, the Church continues to bear the mark of being somehow against the pursuit of knowledge. This myth owes much to the fact that most anyone can recite the tale of how Galileo looked through his telescope, observed something that offended the Catholic bishops, and was promptly silenced for his curiosity. Some even hold Galileo up as some kind of martyr to science. The true story of Galileo, of course, is much less dramatic.

As Woods recounts in dramatic detail, Galileo was only one of a large community of clergy and laypersons who had been seeking to further explore and explain the Copernican system of a heliocentric universe. Galileo’s observations were routinely confirmed by Jesuit astronomers who possessed their own telescopes, and Roman clergy held activities in honor of his scientific achievements. Galileo only ran into trouble when he insisted on teaching his theories as established facts in spite of the fact that Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy still better explained a number of phenomena better than Galileo’s own theories. Convinced (rightly) by a number of scientists that Galileo had yet to make his case using established methods, the Holy See censured Galileo.

Unlike in the Protestant world where Galileo was savaged for teaching a theory that was allegedly unbiblical, Galileo was free to research and write anything he pleased provided he admitted that his theories had yet to establish practical superiority over the theories of Ptolemy. It was hardly the witch hunt contemporary junior high school teachers would have us believe, yet the image of the Catholic Church as an enemy of science has endured. It should be noted here that Woods provides the most enlightening short description of the Galileo affair that this reviewer has yet encountered.

But this book should not be taken as only a defense of the Church’s contributions to the physical sciences. As one might expect, the intellectuals of the middle ages were not merely content with understanding the inanimate world. The actions of men were to be governed and understood through rational means also.

Unfortunately, though, there is not space here to further examine Woods’ vivid illustrations of the invention of modern international law by Spanish Dominicans or how those same Spanish Dominicans, known as the late Scholastics, would establish many of the foundations of modern economics, paving the ways for the French Physiocrats and also for the Economists of the Austrian School like Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek.

We find within the Church the first political theorists demanding that all human beings, both Christian and non-Christian be recognized as possessors of rights to self-government and basic natural rights. It is within the Church where we find the greatest oppositions to the increasingly destructive wars of the modern world, and it is in the Church where we find the first discourses on private property as the extension of the sacred self-ownership possessed by all men.

Woods enlightens with histories of all these intellectual and practical movements in European history with descriptions both sweeping and detailed. He moves through centuries of history introducing the reader to great minds we may never have heard of, but in whose intellectual debt we clearly find ourselves. Exhaustively researched and footnoted, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization is a virtual compendium of recent research and theory on the indispensable role of the Church in European history. This is a book that should be in the home of every Catholic and anyone interested in defending and understanding the undeniably great contributions of Western Christendom and European civilization.

From the Benedictines of the sixth century, to the Dominicans of the sixteenth, Woods presents the history of the Church’s contributions to human knowledge in such a way that we might understand the minds of the men and women of the Middle Ages who were proud to be Catholic, who were in awe of their God, and were devoted to understanding and glorifying the abundant universe he had created. From French Gothic cathedrals to the melodies of Palestrina, to the empirical experiments of Bacon, it soon becomes clear that Catholic Europe did not just lay the foundation for a great civilization, it was a great civilization in itself.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] is a former lobbyist, an occasional college instructor, and a regular columnist for

Email Print