Book Review: How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

There are many history books but not many good ones. This is most definitely true when it comes to history books about the Catholic Church. Rather Professor Woods does a great job in this scholarly book. He starts his first chapter stating specifically that the only things that most people know about the Catholic Church is nothing else than falsehoods. This includes their understanding of the Church as a means of oppression and ignorance, which is the idea that many of these people grew up with. This is most definitely true with the popular title that is given to the Medieval Ages “The Dark Ages”. Not too long ago I wrote on this subject which you can read here.

Let us begin by clearing the misconception of the so called “Dark Ages” which as stated is often attributed to anything related to the Catholic Church and specifically the Medieval Ages. The first thing is that many of the critics of medieval history have never studied anything related to this time period, and if they did it was only brief. The particular phrase the Dark Ages was a phrase that was coined by Catholics living in the Renaissance era. We call them the Dark Ages firstly because of people like Petrarch and other Renaissance era Catholics who considered it to be a darkening of art, architecture, poetry, rhetoric, and literature. Being Catholics they did not believe the theology, philosophy, or academics such as education was darkened. It was about art and architecture. It was dark “Gothic” in nature. A single glance at Romanesque architecture can prove the affirmative.

Professor Woods clears a lot of these misconceptions and helps bring about historical truthfulness. Perhaps it is his chapters on The Church and The University System (Chapter 4) and The Church and Science (Chapter 5) which contain the deepest content. This is not a mere coincidence. It is because these two areas are the most misunderstood and which the Church often gets bashed for more than other areas. Thus it just makes sense for professor Woods to spend most of his time in writing these two chapters.

In his chapter on the Church and The University System Thomas E Woods describes the credit we owe to the Church, as well as the crown during the Medieval Ages for the university system. He states in the fourth chapter the various similarities between the Medieval University and the Modern one.

“A medieval university possessed a core of required texts, on which the professors would lecture while adding their own insights. A university was also characterized by well-defined programs lasting more or less fixed number of years, as well as by the granting of degrees”1

Professor Woods gives a description of various of these required readings which a Medieval university commonly had. This list ranges from Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Latin writers such as Cicero, Vigil, and various others. There was an extensive learning of the sciences, metaphysics, philosophy, medicine, and various other studies.

Professor Woods also talks about the Pope’s role in the establishment and promotion of the various universities founded during the Medieval Ages.

It should be noted that one of the main contributors to the development of the university and education in general during the Medieval Times was the pope himself. Aside from the Church’s intellectual role in fostering the universities, the papacy played a central role in establishing and encouraging them. Naturally the granting of a charter to a University was one indication of this papal role. Eighty one universities had been established by the time of the Reformation.”2

One great contribution that the Church made in regards to science which professor Woods notes is that prior to the start of Christianity, and definitely from the time of the Middle Ages, there was a popular scientific consensus that the universe was “eternal”. That was the belief that the universe had no beginning and no end. This belief was common throughout most if not all the pagan civilizations. This is true of the Babylonians, Aztecs, and even Romans and Greeks. If you keep up with modern science you will realize that this belief is completely wrong. Even atheists denounce this claim, stating that the universe is not eternal, but rather created to what is referred to as the Big Bang. This belief in a created universe however roots itself in Christianity’s belief in a created universe by God, which was a predominant belief in medieval Europe; a predominant Catholic place.

Tom Woods states that “Such stillbirths can be accounted for by each of these pagan cultures’ conceptions of the universe and their lack of belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with consistent physical laws. To the contrary, they conceived of the universe as a huge organism dominated by a pantheon of deities and destined to go through endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. This made the development of science impossible. The animism that characterized ancient cultures, which conceived of the divine as immanent in created things, hindered the growth of science3.

Professor Woods gives other various contributions that the Church made to Western Civilization. This includes the contributions that were made to International Law starting with the Missionaries in the New World where Native Americans were being badly mistreated by various of the Spanish colonials. It was trough priests such as Friar Antonio Montesinos, and Fr Francisco de Vitoria. “Vitoria laid the groundwork for modern international law theory, and for that reason is sometimes called “the father of international law”, a man who proposed for the first time international law in modern terms…Vitoria defended the doctrine that all men are equally free; on the basis of natural liberty, they proclaimed their right to life, to culture, and to property and used Scripture and Reason to do so”4.

There are various other contributions which Professor Woods states in this well researched scholarly book, amongst some being the idea of free-markets, charitable institutions, and various others. It is my hope that various people will come to read and enjoy, as well as learn from this book.

This book can be bought in Amazon

Further Reading:

The Not So “Dark” Ages




1)Thomas E Woods (How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization chapter 4: The Church and the University pg. 48)
2) ibid
3 ibid (Chapter 5: The Church and Science pgs. 76-77)
4:ibid (Chapter 7)

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