The Catholic Church: Impacting History

Professor Thomas Woods
Professor of History, State University of New York
Thursday, May 26, 2005; 11:00 AM

The worldwide response to the passing of Pope John Paul II highlighted the continuing prominence of the Catholic Church in modern society, despite its less powerful role in contemporary history than in earlier periods. Author Thomas Woods examines the ways in which the highly influential church affected economics, literature, education and a variety of aspects of society throughout centuries of history. Woods argues that the Catholic Church has had a monumental impact on the development of Western civilization as a whole. What role will the Catholic Church play in the coming century? How has it maintained its influence over such a long period of time, despite the forces of war, revolution and change?

Thomas Woods, author of "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization," was online to discuss the book.

Read more about the book here.

A transcript follows.


Thomas Woods: Thanks to everyone for being here. I'm pleased that with relatively light publicity thus far, "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization" seems to be doing rather well. I enjoyed writing it, and I hope readers profit from it. Now on to the questions.


Manitowoc, Wis.: There is a popular misconception that the Catholic Church actively discouraged science from being studied or pursued. Please address this misconception. Thank you.

Thomas Woods: It turns out that modern historians of science, say for the past 50 years or so, have revisited this question and begun to challenge the conventional wisdom. You won't read "the Church discourages science" any longer. Scholars now see the matter as much more complex -- and interesting.

I make two main points in my science chapter: 1) That certain Catholic theological ideas lent themselves to the development of science; and 2) That Catholic priests, particularly the Jesuits, were unknown pioneers in science. How many people know 35 craters on the moon are names for Jesuit scientists? Or that the Jesuits brought Western science to India, China, etc.? Or that the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely-falling body was a Jesuit? And so on.


East Lansing, Mich.: I have not read your book, but the title is very presumptuous, let alone provocative. (Did you intend for it to be that way?) Many of us who are not Catholic feel that had Catholicism and the Vatican not had a stranglehold on most of European society for two millennia, the world would be better off today. I do not doubt that many thinkers and contributors to Western Civilization were Catholic and some came from e.g., monasteries and the clergy. However, the tenets of the Catholic Church for most of its existence was not toward the encouragement of independent and scholarly thinking. One only need look at the way Jesus is treated by the church to understand this: primary emphasis on his birth and crucifixion/resurrection, with less emphasis on his life and moral teachings.

When there is one dominant organization in society, those who succeed will almost always come with the blessing of that organization. However, one cannot forget the stifling and silencing of others that such an organization can impose and the carnage it can wreck, whether it is the Crusades, the Inquisition, the excommunication of thinkers such as Galileo, and the at best silence of the Vatican and its pope (Pius XII) during the Holocaust. How many people who could have contributed to Western Civilization never did due to such events?

Thomas Woods: Well, naturally I disagree with the premise behind your question. Again I suggest that modern scholarship disagrees with you. Thus David Lindberg, Edward Grant, and other historians of science say just the opposite: it was the atmosphere of scholarly exchange and the emphasis on reason that developed in the medieval university -- with the blessing and encouragement of the Church -- that made possible the kind of intellectual milieu in which the Scientific Revolution could arise. I think we all have certain misconceptions from our K-12 education -- indeed even our college education -- that thinks the Church is responsible only for the Inquisition and Galileo. This is really neither reasonable nor fair.

As for the Holocaust, why did Jews --at the time--praise Pope Pius XII, and why is all the bitterness and nastiness toward him coming the further away in time we get from the event? A courageous rabbi is publishing a book this summer from Regnery called "The Myth of Hitler's Pope." I suggest your read it.


Crofton, Md.: Please describe the development Church's views toward capitalism. Did the Church and its leading thinkers support Adam Smith and the industrial revolution? How does the Church's position relate to global free trade today?

Thomas Woods: What's interesting about this question is that here we have yet another area in which modern scholars are taking another look at the record and finding the Church to have pioneered. Joseph Schumpeter, one of the 20th century's great economists, says the 16th-century Scholastics were the founders of modern scientific economics. Economics didn't all emerge from Adam Smith's brain in the 18th century.

Alejandro Chafuen shows in his great book Faith and Liberty just how sympathetic to the free market these 16th-century Catholic theologians were. I take up this point in my own defense of the market -- a book of mine called "The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy."


Anonymous: On balance, has the influence of the Catholic Church on society been positive or negative?

Thomas Woods: Overwhelmingly positive. That's the point of my book. When you look at the distinctive features of Western civilization, we are deeply indebted to the Church for a great many of them. Thus, for instance, even W.E.H. Lecky, one of the Church's great 19th-century opponents, admitted that the ancient world had nothing even approaching the Church's institutionalized care for widows, orphans, and the sick. The whole ethos of Catholic charity was leagues above that of the ancient world. The Church's insistence on the sacredness of human life meant that she had to work against gladiatorial contests, which trivialized human life, and against the practice of infanticide.

As for those who indict the Church for Spanish conquests in the New World, I recommend my chapter on international law. The origins of international law -- the idea that states are morally answerable to absolute standards -- developed precisely because priest-theologians in Spanish universities were so appalled by their countrymen's behavior. This is something new under the sun: the idea that there exists an absolute moral standard that applies to  my own people as well as to others, and by which I may render a negative moral judgment on my own people. Attila the Hun never did that.


Philadelphia, Pa.: One of my favorite Groucho Marx stories happened when a priest went up to Groucho and said "I want to thank you for all the happiness you've brought into this world" and Groucho replied "and I want to thank you for all the happiness you've taken out of this world." The Catholic Church has long have an image problem. What do you believe the Catholic Church could do to improve how it is received?

Thomas Woods: A great question. Part of the problem is that much of the criticism of the Church -- involving the Inquisition, Galileo, and the like -- while not entirely without merit, is based on historical work that is frankly outdated. The most recent work on these subjects -- Kamen's book on the Inquisition, for instance -- scales them down substantially. That doesn't make them glorious and wonderful, but it does help us to put things in perspective. My students know all about the Inquisition, which in the entirety of its existence claimed about as many lives as Stalin did on a good afternoon, but they know nothing of the Ukrainian terror-famine, in which an atheistic regime starved 5 million people to death in 1932-33.

Likewise, everyone thinks the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance and stupidity. No medieval scholar thinks so. But it takes a long, long time sometimes for the conclusions of scholars to reach the general public. In the meantime, the Church's image suffers.

One way she can improve that image is through education, of course, and my book is a contribution to that project. Another way is to deal much more swiftly and decisively against frankly evil people in the Church. This timidity about the use of ecclesiastical discipline has got to stop. But finally, she can keep doing her good works: we'll never know all the stories of conversions that occurred in AIDS care centers when the person caring for these dying people was so often a nun, smiling at them and comforting them. There's nothing evil about that.


Albany, N.Y.: I have to speak in defense of Pope John Paul II on the matter of priests abusing children.

This is a horrible problem, and I wish he had done much more to address it. However, his view was that it was a distinctly American problem due to rampant hedonism in our society.

It is hard to dispute this theory. No other country or area in the world seems to have this problem. France, Spain, Portugal and Italy are Catholic; Germany is half Catholic; Mexico and South America are Catholic. We don't hear of any problems in any of those areas.

I am not sure if he felt that the child abuse issue was one that American bishops, archbishops and cardinals needed to address. Do you? In view of his theory as to the cause of the problem, it would make sense, and it would explain a lot.

Thomas Woods: Still, though, think of what a morale boost it would have been for the Church in America if the offenders had been summarily removed. That's the concern I have -- wouldn't it have been nice to have the decisiveness of, say, a Council of Trent or a Pius X on a matter as grave as this? Interestingly, in the Pope's last book he wondered aloud whether he had been too lax in his use of discipline.


Cabin John, Md.: Mr. Woods,

I skimmed through sections of your book at the bookstore and, though not enough to pass true judgment, the reading left me with a few impressions I'd like to get your reaction to.

Though there is a great deal to which I could agree regarding the role of the Church in the preservation of society (i.e.,: preventing general anarchy), I am afraid that such a trumpeting of the church as the vanguard of Western Civilization could very easily be misinterpreted in the same manner that the role of Islam in the Middle Ages is making political Islam popular today. By that I mean to say that the roles of certain institutions historically do not necessarily justify the roles of the same institutions in other eras.

I fear that many reactionaries will take your book as a manifesto for Abrahamic reactionary government.

Thomas Woods: I appreciate your comment. The book seeks to show 1) important areas in which the Church contributed of which people are likely unaware; and 2) that although we are often given the impression that freethinkers -- those with no particular religion -- are uniquely responsible for science, rational debate, economic thought, etc., we cannot overlook the Church's role here, either. That's all.


Arlington, Va.: What are the religion's current views on the arts? In modern times there have been several highly publicized 'anti-Catholic' artists. Does the Church see any value/lessons in this type of art?

Thomas Woods: Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to artists toward the end of his pontificate that you might look at. In a nutshell, the church is fully aware of the role and importance of the arts -- the Counter Reformation certainly showed that. I think what is happening is this. During the Renaissance but much more clearly with Romanticism, there began a tendency for the artist to emphasize his expression of himself, even more than the thing he was reproducing. Self-expression for the Romantics was the heart of the arts. To a degree this is all well and good, but it can easily degenerate into outright narcissism. You now have a world of modern art that is simply impossible to parody. The idea that as an artist I am going to produce something beautiful -- something greater than and outside of myself -- for your contemplation is laughed at now.

Notre Dame is one place, at least in architecture, where this kind of narcissism/nihilism is being addressed. But the Church in some cases has her own people to blame: who's responsible for all these hideous modern churches, that have all the warmth of an insane asylum?


Washington, D.C.: At what point along the timeline does society under the Catholic Church switch from muddling-through progress to real advancement and how is the church directly responsible?

It's always been my understanding that the world's current good progress began when wealthy Italians started the Renaissance, and that the Renaissance grew out of a concentration of wealth into fewer hands due to the Bubonic Plague. This viewpoint assumes progress comes from high concentrations of wealth and from high body counts, which causes me to suspect that it's just a myth designed to explain the deaths of average people and deny their contribution too. Feel free to explode the myth.

Thomas Woods: I can't give a precise moment but I can give some suggestive thoughts. It was largely under the influence of the Church in the early to high Middle Ages that trials by ordeal (common in Germanic folk law) began to be replaced by rational procedures and rules of evidence; the Church's canon law was the model here. Before the twelfth century was out you have some of the great universities forming -- Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna. This is an entirely new development in the world. (Yes, there were schools, but not with all the features of the university.)

Lindberg, in "The Beginnings of Western Science", notes that contrary to what people think, professors in these universities had an enormous range of intellectual freedom. This was protected by the Church; it was the popes who, in a world of conflicting jurisdictions, consistently intervened on behalf of the university and its rights.

Just a few thoughts -- my mind is racing to get to all these questions!


Sterling, Va.: I don't understand how what Catholics do to help those in need can be called charity when the impetus behind it is guilt and fear at not getting into heaven. Isn't this this opposite of charity since it is really an action that is done to benefit the doer?

Thomas Woods: The Church has always recognized a hierarchy of reasons for which people do good. Some people do good simply out of fear of hell. For some, that's the only motivation that can reach them, but the Church considers this by far the lowest rationale. For others it's the desire for heaven. But for those with the best spiritual formation, and those the Church recommends to the world, it is a pure love for God that motivates them.

Plus, in real life it is not so easy to separate out the precise motivations people have at any one time. Surely Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity hope to go to heaven, but can that really be the full explanation for what they're doing? They could go to heaven working in an air-conditioned office, too. Look into their eyes and see if you see faces who merely seek a reward. Tell me if you don't see something much deeper and more profound.


Alexandria, Va.: I am an American Roman Catholic who disagrees with many of the Church's specific social stances, and I realize that homosexuality and birth control impact my life in very different ways than they do to someone in sub-Saharan Africa.

With such booming populations of Catholics in places like Africa and South America, with different social environments than the U.S., does the church even need the U.S. anymore? Are we going to see an incident like we saw with the Episcopalians where American Cardinals are asked not to participate in larger Church affairs?

Thomas Woods: A very interesting question. I think the Church in the United States has, unfortunately, suffered from some fairly abysmal leadership these past several decades. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz got into some trouble several years ago when he said essentially that -- the American episcopate is sorely lacking. But His Excellency was surely on to something. This poor leadership, in some cases even cowardice, has contributed to the state of the Church in America today.

Yet one can never say the Church doesn't need this or that place. She needs every place -- "Catholic," after all, means universal. But given the growing numbers of Catholics elsewhere in the world, she certainly needs to concern herself less (if she ever did at all) with opinion polls of American Catholics that seems to demand this or that accommodation to the modern world. Heck, can't we have one organization that's a little skeptical of the modern world?


Philadelphia, Pa.: Much is made these days of ecumenical efforts among churches, as there are obvious and open differences of faith and worship to be discussed and reviewed. Yet, within the Roman Catholic Church, there seem to be many differences of faith and worship. How will this impact the Catholic Church moving forward with its own mission, and regarding relations with other churches?

Thomas Woods: There have always been licit differences in worship and in traditions of spirituality within the Church -- the Dominicans differ from the Trappists, for instance, who differ from the Franciscans. There have even been multiple liturgical rites used. The Dominicans, for instance, used to have their own rite. There are over a dozen approved Eastern rites. So to some extent, this is all well and good.

The problem comes when differences arise that -- to borrow some Scholastic terminology -- are substantial rather than accidental. Right now the rite of Mass in use throughout the Roman Rite of the Church is yielding liturgies so radically at odds with one another -- liturgies done within the same rite, the same liturgical books -- as to throw the universal Church into confusion. Erroneous teachings are being spread. A self-centered style of worship is becoming fashionable. This is indeed a serious problem.

I am hopeful that the new Pope, who has written at great length and with much eloquence on the liturgy, will try to reverse this problem. He has said many times that he wants the traditional rite of Mass, before the changes of 1969-70, made much more widely available. That Mass produced great saints and served as a great unifier. It can do so again.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for being online to chat with us and dispel some common Catholic myths. I look forward to reading your book. I am currently converting to Catholicism and am frustrated when people have one-sided views of Catholics as evil-doers in history. Thanks.

Thomas Woods: Thank you. I myself am a convert. I found that the more I read, the more fascinated and impressed I became. No, the Church isn't perfect -- what institution staffed by human beings is? Yes, evil has at times been done in her name. But to stop there is to be gratuitously unfair.


Dagger John: I heard in college that Bishop John Hughes led the fight to get the Bible thrown out of New York Public Schools in the 1840's, supposedly because it was the Protestant King James version. True? If so, that's quite an accomplishment in the field of church/state separation.

Thomas Woods: You know, I don't know offhand if that's true. I probably should. It's interesting, though: we don't realize just what a staggering undertaking the Catholic school system was. Here's a largely immigrant population, barely getting their bearings over here, and they're now going to erect an entire school system.

Archbishop John Ireland wondered if it was sapping too much energy and was simply not possible. But the overwhelming consensus was that a specifically Catholic education was so important to the formation of good souls that no sacrifice -- within reason -- was too great.

The thing I remember most about Bishop Hughes is a statement he made in which he said he and his co-religionists were going to convert all of America, all the way up to Congress and the President, to Catholicism. There's some apostolic zeal for you.


Houston, Texas: I read all the time so I am very familiar with you. Well, at least some of your opinions.

I am a former Roman Catholic, a former atheist and now am a "born again" evangelical.

How should someone from the Protestant/Orthodox Christian divide view your claims? After all, soteriology is ultimately what separates us and "what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?"

Thomas Woods: Well, some Protestants/Orthodox will appreciate at least parts of the book, where I am discussing aspects of Christian life that are shared in common by us. But it depends on the kind of Protestant you are. When I was a Lutheran, I was given the impression that the thousand years from 500-1500 were really of little to no interest to us. I was once reading a book on Aquinas, and a Lutheran friend asked, "Why are you reading about a heretic?" And with a wave of his hand, he dismissed one of the great thinkers of Western Civilization.

That kind of Protestant will probably be irritated by much of the book. But if you have at least an abiding respect for two millennia of Christian thought and feel at least some kinship for such folks as Aquinas, you'll find much to appreciate in "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization."


Thomas Woods: Folks, I much appreciate your kind attention, and I apologize for being unable to get to all the questions -- I had no idea there'd be so many. My hands and brain have grown weary, but thanks so much again for your interest. Even those who disagree with me, I appreciate your spirit of courtesy and kindness.


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