Thomas E. Woods Jr. has written a challenging and indeed almost defiant book.
A professional historian with degrees from Harvard and Columbia, he systematically explains to a reading public that has largely lost its historical memory How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Regnery Publishing, Washington 2005). In this new volume, Woods follows up on his recent best seller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (2004), also available from Regnery.
To a degree, he traces the footsteps of best-selling author Thomas Cahill, who has written a series of books over the years on topics such as How the Irish Saved Western Civilization (New York, Doubleday, 1995, see review on my website FrMccloskey.com). However, Cahill writes from a heterodox Christian perspective more dependent on Scripture “scholars” than on historical fact or Church teaching.
Woods' approach is both religiously orthodox and more trustworthy historically, as signaled by the excellent bibliography and ample scholarly footnotes that establish scholarly credentials.
When a noted Stanford historian such as Paul Legutko praises publicly such a book, you know that you are not reading a biased reactionary polemic.
During the Great Jubilee year, John Paul II issued a famous “apology” or act of contrition on behalf of the entire Catholic Church for the serious sins committed by its members over its almost 2,000 years of history.
In doing so, he wished the Church to enter the new millennium with the slate wiped clean, allowing it to speak to and dialogue freely with the great world religions, cultures and nations from a position not only of longevity but also of moral and religious authority, having acknowledged in specific ways the crimes, sometimes horrendous, committed by its human elements throughout history.
Interestingly enough, these apologies were barely acknowledged, and reciprocal apologies for sins committed against the Church and its members have not been forthcoming.
From a Catholic point of view, the Church presents two aspects: One representing its divine nature as the spotless body of Christ, and one focusing on the vulnerabilities of the Church's human members wounded by sin, which does not preclude it from dispensing God's mercy through the sacraments, however saddened it may be by the sins of its members.
The Pope's apology applied to the Church understood in this second sense.
That millennial apology is a perfect set-up for Woods' splendid account of the many ways in which the Catholic faith created what we call Western Civilization.
Reaching bookstores almost simultaneously with the end of John Paul's magnificent pontificate, Woods' book establishes with sober confidence that the great majority of the institutions that define the West and that are increasingly exported throughout the world are the product of Catholicism and believing Catholics.
Today, there are increasing signs that the Europe described by Woods — which grew out of barbaric tribes largely evangelized by English and Irish monks, was maintained by Benedictine monasteries in the first millennium, blossomed into what we know as “Christendom” in the first half of the second millennium, and entered into a gradual 500-year descent following the great crack-up of European Christian unity beginning in 1517 — now appears headed for extinction due to demographic suicide, Islamic immigration, and mass apostasy from Christ and his Church.
In all likelihood, the Church's role in the coming generations will be to develop this culture outside of Europe, most prominently in Africa and Asia, the site of current rapid growth.
Woods acknowledges, “In our media and popular culture, little is off-limits when it comes to parodying the Church. Students, to the extent that they know anything at all about the Catholic Church, are typically familiar only with alleged instances of Church “corruption,” cited repeatedly in tales of varying credibility from their high school teachers. The story of Catholicism, as far as they know it, is one of ignorance, repression, and stagnation.”
But Woods notes, “Western civilization stands indebted to the Church for the university system, charitable work, international law, the sciences, and, important legal principles. … Western civilization owes far more to the Catholic Church than most people — Catholic included — often realize. … The Church, in fact, built Western civilization.”
Woods breaks the history of the Church and Western civilization into chapters that treat the Church from its beginning through the so-called Dark Ages up to the present day. He demonstrates that Western institutions, though often originating in Athens and Jerusalem, were developed into a Catholic culture in a process that accelerated from the early Middle Ages right up to the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
At that point, the progenitors of these distinct rebellions against the Church began using Western institutions for their own particular purposes, growing out of but foreign to their Catholic origins.
Our world is fascinated and driven by technological progress, so readers are likely to find especially interesting Woods' explanation of how modern science gained its original impetus from Catholic theology. Woods writes:
“The Catholic Church's alleged hostility toward science may be her greatest debit in the popular mind. The one-sided version of the Galileo affair with which most people are familiar is very largely to blame for the widespread belief that the Church has obstructed the advance of scientific inquiry. But even had the Galileo incident been every bit as bad as people think it was, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the celebrated 19th-century convert from Anglicanism, found it revealing that this is practically the only example that ever comes to mind.”
Woods convincingly argues that modern experimental science started in the late Middle Ages due to the Christian belief that God created the world ex nihil (from nothing) and that there is an “order” in the universe that can gradually known by men.
The chapter on “The Church and Economics” should also draw special attention due to the increasingly hedonistic and market-driven nature of our culture. Woods' expertise in this area shows in his recent book The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (Lanham, Md.; Lexington Books, 2005).
In this chapter, Woods points out that noted economic historian Joseph Schumpeter not only acknowledges the contributions of the late Scholastics to modern economics, but says “it is they who come nearer than any other group o having been ‘founders’ of scientific economics.”
Another great 20th-century economist, Murray Rothbard, devoted a lengthy section of a critically acclaimed history of economic thought to the insights of the late Scholastics, whom he described as brilliant social thinkers and economic analysts. He made a compelling case that the insight of these men reached their culmination in the Austrian School of Economics, an important school of economic thought that developed in the late 19th century and continues today. A distinguished member of the school won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.
Some commentators have seen a connection between the Austrian school's emphases on the subjective in judging economic value and John Paul II's use of personalist philosophy in his magisterial teaching.
However, the roots of the Catholic contribution to market economics go even farther back. Jean Buridan (1300-1358), for example, who served as rector of the University of Paris, made important contributions to the modern theory of money.
Instead of viewing money as an artificial product of state intervention, Burden showed how money emerged freely and spontaneously on the market, first as a useful commodity and then as a medium of exchange. In other words, money emerged not by government decree but out of the process of voluntary exchange, which people discover to be dramatically simplified by the adoption of a useful and widely desired commodity.
Of course, realizing that modern economics owes much of its basic understanding to Catholic thought can encourage society to pay greater attention to the papal teachings on social justice, ranging over the course of a century from Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum to John Paul II's Centesimus Annus.
This perspective is particularly important given our increasingly rapid transition to a global economy. Woods proceeds to examine the work of the late Scholastics (writing in the 15th and 16th centuries) on inflation, the foreign exchange market, the value of money, just price interest rates, etc. Their thinking on economics was insightful and strikingly modern, especially since they were writing long before the 18th century appearance of the Scottish Enlightenment and Adam Smith
Thomas Woods' new book could well take its place in any standard high school or university course on Western civilization — that is, any course taught by someone willing to honestly acknowledge that the modern world and its institutions did not appear spontaneously through some type of “punctuated evolution,” a la the late Stephen Jay Gould, but owe their existence to men and women deeply influenced by Catholic doctrine and moral teachings, as revealed through Scripture and Tradition.
This rediscovery can be of enormous importance, as we may well be seeing the disappearance of the West as a geographical entity.
The rapid growth of the Church today — and its seeming center of dynamism in the South and East — brings new challenges of inculturation and new opportunities to transmit its thought and institutions.
Read together with Triumph (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2001), Harry Crocker's recent history of the Church, Woods' book will fascinate, delight and instruct in a manner worthy of the 20th-century Catholic historian and polemicist Hilaire Belloc, showing us how to look backwards to transform the future.
Father C.J. McCloskey III is a Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. (FrMccloskey.com)