There is no other institution or movement that has greatly transformed and changed the world than that of Christianity and specifically the Catholic Church. This is most definitely true in regards to the living out of the Christian faith by many Catholics throughout the centuries. Whether it was through their countercultural ways of living such as extraordinary acts of charity which stood in contrast to the ancient pagan world, or whether it was through intellectual achievements such as in the use of both faith and reason, ad in the development of education and the university. Here are seven specific ways in which Christianity changed the world.
Dignity of human life
Christianity and specifically the Catholic Church did a very great deal for the cause of human dignity and especially that of the overall dignity and sacredness of human life. In this section I will list several examples of how Christianity and the Catholic Church contributed to this regard.
The first major contribution that Christianity helped in terms of the sacredness of human life was in terms of putting an end to pagan infanticide. Infanticide (child murder) is the killing of an infant before or after birth. In English it has been used for the deprivation of life from the moment of conception (abortion) to the killing of infants from the ages of two to three years old.
Economic reasons more than anything had led to the killing of infants before or after birth and had contributed to extort a great influence even up to the modern world. There are many ways in which infanticide was practiced in the ancient world all the way up to the Early Church. This including abortion and often included killing of mostly females but also many male children suited deformed or even simply “unworthy” because of a particular bodily defect of some sort. These children were often killed or thrown and abandoned in public dumps. The Church and the Early Christians were essentially the first to be completely opposed to these practices. It was not uncommon for individual Christians and missionary groups to perform heroic acts of charity by scrolling the streets at night and early at dawn in which they gathered all the abandoned children which literally amounted upon thousands and thousands, and they would take and raise them as their own. These children would be raised by the Christians and would be brought up in the Christian faith and would receive the sacraments.
Legislation against infanticide and these practices were also taken by these Early Catholics. It is stated that “immediately after the Emperor Constantine’s conversion he enacted two laws (about A.D 320) directed against child murder which are still found in the Theodosian Code.”1
Another main example in which Christianity contributed to the area of human dignity and the sacredness of human life was by the Catholic teaching that all humans are equal in dignity and that this dignity and human value comes from being created in the image and likeness of God. Great questions about human value and dignity have circulated ever since the ancient world, to the time of the Early Church and even all the way to our modern age. For example the Roman Empire during the time of Christ based citizenship and to some extent human value on economic status. It was the amount of money that you had that defined citizenship and local political influence. The Catholic Church on the other hand stated that all humans are equal in dignity and value in as much as they are all created by the same loving and almighty God. “Even before I formed you in the womb I knew you, even before I formed you in the womb I consecrated you.” (Jer 1:5)
A great example of this difference between the ancient world and specifically that of the Roman view on citizenship and human dignity, in contrast with the Catholic view can be seen in a description by Christopher Dawson.
Roman Society: Under Roman rule citizenship was directly based on economic status: that is to say, a man’s position in his own city and in the Empire at large was determined by his property assessment under the census.2
Catholic Society: In the new religious society, rich and poor, bond and free, Roman citizen and foreigner all met on an absolutely equal footing. Not only were these earthly distinctions overlooked, they were almost inverted, and it was the poor who were privileged and the rich who were humbled. This world was for the rich, but the new world- the only world that mattered- was above all the inheritance of the poor.3
It was once again on the reality of being created by the same loving God, but also furthermore by the sharing in that same faith in Christ and through the sacrament of baptism which made all men the adopted children of God, which added value to human dignity.
Not only did the Catholic Church put an end to infanticide and thus bring forth a new understanding of the complete sacredness of human life which has been mentioned, but this also brought forth a new type of charity which reached its perfection in Christianity.
In the ancient world it was unheard of to do charitable acts or what are known as good deeds for the mere sake of helping thy neighbor. Almost in every ancient society and culture there were self-seeking motives for doing these charitable or good acts. These included for example seeking social and political advancement or simply seeking some sort of repayment from the person in the future. The Stoics on the other hand seemed at face value to have a better understanding of charity and the task of doing good unto others in the community as a social duty. However stoicism taught that the wise men was someone who was completely detached from any emotion. Seneca a Roman stoic philosopher stated:
The sage will console those who weep, but without weeping with them; he will succor the shipwrecked, give hospitality to the proscribed, and alms to the poor… restore the son to the mother’s tears, save the captive from the arena, and even bury the criminal; but in all his mind and his countenance will be alike untroubled. He will feel not pity. He will succor, he will do good, for he is born to assist his fellows, to labor for the good of mankind, and to offer each one his part… His countenance and his soul will betray no emotion as he looks upon the withered legs, the tattered rags, the bend and emaciated frame of the beggar. But he will help those who are worthy, and like the gods, his leaning will be towards the wretched… It is only diseased eyes that grow moist in beholding tears in other eyes.4
Christian Charity on the other hand brought a perfect charity seeking only the good of others including even those deemed as enemies. This was all done primarily out of love for God and neighbor and this new perfect charity was situated around the commandment of Christ who said “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (John 13: 34-35)
The Church and its opposition to Slavery
Based on this Catholic belief in human dignity and the sacredness of human life it was only natural that Christianity and the Catholic Church and especially that of the papacy be opposed to both the practice as well as the institution of slavery. Obviously this opposition to slavery should be noted to mean the specific practice of chattel slavery as was practiced by many in the ancient world, as well as in the age of Exploration and the Atlantic slave trade, in contrast to the actual “just” forms of servitude which are known as indentured servitude, as well as slavery based as a just form of punishment or because of war.
Nevertheless it was Christianity and specifically the popes who were the largest force against the common practice of chattel slavery as was practiced in the United States and elsewhere. When the Catholic Church found about the enslavement of natives in the Age of Exploration, the pope whom at the time was Pope Eugen IV, was quick to act. He wrote a papal bull by the name of Sicut Dudum on January 13, 1435 in which he condemned the enslavement of the Guanchos and other peoples of the Canary Islands. Not only did Pope Eugene show the Church’s stance against this practice of slavery, but he threatened excommunication on anyone who should continue in the practice of enslavement or who would not give back the freedom of the already enslaved natives.
A greater example of papal actions against slavery was however based on the actions and papal bulls of Pope Paul III. Just about a hundred years after Eugene IV’s Sicut Dudum, Pope Paul III issued Sublimus Dei, Pastorale Officium, and Altitudo Divini Consilii. These papal bulls by Pope Paul III explained that chattel slavery was a new and unjust form of slavery in all situations, influenced both the Laws of 1542 and the fair treatment of the natives in Mexico, showed that the natives of the New World were not subhuman as various individuals erroneously believed, and lastly further applied an excommunication to those who would engage in this slavery.
There are many other examples of prominent ecclesial officials and specifically that of the popes against slavery. For an even more in depth view of papal actions against slavery you are advised to read The Popes against Slavery
Sex Marriage and the Family
Christianity also had a great impact on the nature of sex, marriage, and the family. Not only did Christianity change the cosmological and metaphysical, as well as social nature of these things but one can easily conclude that the value of these things were raised. This is true based on the Christian teachings which holds these things to be sacred in the eyes of God. This is most definitely true when it comes to marriage (a natural as well as a divinely established institution) and sex.
Christianity had started a cultural revolution in these things and one could easily say that Christians were completely countercultural when it came to these aspects. For example Christians would not practice artificial birth control or even abortion (these were already around and practiced in the ancient world). This is because of the sacred nature of life which is profoundly a Christian teaching. Similarly when it came to marriage, Christians also did not divorce or even have sex before marriage (fornication) because of the same sacredness of marriage and sex, an idea that is also profoundly Christian.
Furthermore it could easily be stated that Saint Paul’s teachings on sexual morality actually uplifted the sacredness of sex and furthermore of true feminine dignity. In the ancient world including the Roman Empire, sexual perversity and disorientation were rampant. Sexuality and women were treated as objects. Saint Paul’s teachings actually worked a sort of Cultural Revolution by changing the nature of the conjugal act (sex). Women were no longer treated as objects and sex was no longer used in a distorted way, but there was now a profound sense of love that was present, by a total self-giving of both husband and wife.
Similarly Christianity highly elevated marriage. This is because of the Christian teaching regarding the unity of man and woman, and that this marriage bond was sacred and indissoluble. This understanding of marriage was to be seen as the marriage of Christ and his bride the Church.
Faith and Reason
During the Medieval Ages specifically around the 13th century there was a type of heretical movement known as Latin Averroism which claimed that faith and reason were at odds with each other. Averroism claimed a sort of double truth. It claimed that what was true in religion and theology could be at the same time false in philosophy and practicality. This belief similarly taught that what was scientifically true could at the same time be false in theology. This belief in essence showed that faith and reason were incompatible with each other and furthermore separate and distinct from each other.
However Saint Thomas Aquinas showed that faith and reason were in fact compatible with each other. For what was theologically true had to be true in terms of sound reason. He showed that both theological truth and reason go together. He showed that when reason seemed to contradict a certain aspect of revealed truth (theology) then that meant that it was unsound reason. Similarly when a certain theological view seemed to contradict sound reason then it simply showed that that particular theological belief was not valid. This belief revolutionized science for that same reason. Just as true reason could not possibly contradict a true aspect of revealed faith, true science or reason could not do likewise.
There are two great scientific examples in which this new profound Christian understanding of the compatibility of faith and reason revolutionized the scientific world. This is in terms of a rejection of animism, as well as a rejection of an eternal universe.
There was a popular scientific consensus prior to Christianity that the universe was “eternal”. This 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 the predominant belief in medieval Europe; a predominant Catholic place.
Thomas E. Woods states that “Such stillbirths can be accounted for by each of these 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.”5 The animism that characterized ancient cultures, which conceived of the divine as immanent in created things, hindered the growth of science.
Fr. Stanley Jaki further explains that it was the Christian belief in the Incarnation, which helped disproved an “eternal” and animist universe. “The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation militates strongly against such thinking. Christ is the monogenes, or “only begotten,” Son of God. Within the Greco-Roman worldview, on the other hand, “the universe was the ‘monogenes’ or ‘only begotten’ emanation from a divine principle not really different from the universe itself.”6
Western Law and Legal Traditions
Another great societal and intellectual development that came to us through Christianity was in the development of both western law and modern legal traditions that go back as far as Medieval Europe. It is true for example that the Romans already had a code of law and a complex and efficient one at that. It is however the nature of law and legal traditions that was altogether different and developed by the 12th and 13th centuries through the medieval scholastics.
Some of the developments that came about during this period was in regards to bringing a truly unified system of law which really has its origins in medieval Canon Law. Another development was in terms of a new concept of natural and universal laws that applied to all men for the sake of being created in the image and likeness of God. A last great development in law and legal traditions which came about through the medieval scholastics was in viewing all of laws and legal traditions in terms of a universal view of justice and of Divine recompense.
The development of a unified Canon Law could really be said to be Europe’s first system of law even before English Common Law. It was specifically the work by Gratian, a monk called A Concordance of Discordant Cannons written around 1140 which gave us a unified system of law. Berman states:
It was the first comprehensive and systematic legal treatise in the history of the West, and perhaps in the history of mankind- if by ‘comprehensive’ is meant the attempt to embrace virtually the entire law of a given polity, and if by ‘systematic’ is meant the express effort to present that law as a single body, in which all the parts are viewed as interacting to form a whole.”7
This unified Canon Law which Gratian developed was based on criteria which consisted of reason and conscience, and replaced trials by ordeals. People could now have a better chance of representing themselves in courts, as well as of being innocent until proven guilty. Similarly it replaced primitive cultural traditions which existed in various regional environments such as Germanic folklore which was not universal by any means.
Similarly as mentioned above, a new development of law and legal traditions consisted on a view of justice and Divine recompense that was held to be universal. Much of this view was derived from the philosophical and theological masterpiece of Saint Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. In a nutshell this book was Saint Anselm’s explanation of why God became man. Saint Anselm reasoned that God’s intent for creating humans was based on his Divine love, and that based on this Divine love God created humans with the end purpose of bringing them to everlasting paradise to spend eternity with God. However when man sinned against God (original sin), man had obstructed the Divine plans of God.
Saint Anselm argued that because of the gravity of sin, man ought to be punished for his sins against God. However no punishment was so severe that it would make up as a means of divine recompense. Furthermore the only sufficient punishment would involve man forfeiting his eternal blessedness which would only further obstruct the Divine plan of God. Because of this reality it was only fitting that Jesus Christ (God made man) come down and offer his life as Divine recompense and compensation.
This theological and philosophical book had a large impact on the nature of law and legal traditions as being based on justice and recompense. “That exposition rested fundamentally on the idea that a violation of the law was an offense against justice and against the moral order itself that such a violation required a punishment if the moral order were to be repaired, and that the punishment should befit the nature and extent of the violation.”8
Education and the University
The Last main contribution which Christianity brought about was in terms of education and specifically higher education when it comes to the University. I will first begin this section by listing some specific developments in terms of education and literary developments which occurred during what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. I will then describe the creation and development of the University system in Medieval Europe which was specifically the result of various theologians, scholastics, and which was largely promoted by both the Pope and various monarchs.
The Carolingian Renaissance started under the direction and command of King Charlemagne who “strongly encouraged education and the arts, calling upon the bishops to organize schools around their cathedrals.” 9 Charlemagne specifically chose his tutor Alcuin of York to help lead the Carolingian renaissance. It is through this Carolingian Renaissance that various educational innovations and improvements were made. Through this Carolingian Renaissance the society of this time was greatly educated. First and foremost, Alcuin helped teach Latin to various individuals (which was not an easy task to do). This knowledge of Latin “made possible the study of the Latin Church fathers and the classical world of ancient Rome. In fact, the oldest surviving copies of most ancient Roman literature date back to the ninth century, when Carolingian scholars rescued them from oblivion.”10
Similarly it was specifically through the Carolingian Renaissance that we derived a new improvement in writing known as Carolingian miniscule. Carolingian Miniscule helped create the concept of upper and lower case lettering, as well as the concept of spaces between words. Before the Carolingian Miniscule reading a manuscript was very difficult, for the fact that there was only one-case lettering, and there was also no spaces between words.
Moving from the Carolingian Renaissance, one of the major early contributions of the Church and State in the beginning of the Middle Ages was in the start of the University System as we know it in the modern sense. We need to realize that the modern university originated during the medieval ages. That is not to say that prior to the university there weren’t any schools, nor any means of higher education. If you study the times of ancient Greece for example you will realize that there were in fact schools. Plato and Aristotle themselves started their own “academies” for example. Academies for most part were places for studying and developing philosophical and political thought. However it was not until the Medieval Ages around the eleventh century that the university system as we know it was founded. The first universities were founded around the countries of Italy, France, Spain, and England.
It was specifically the Church and the State themselves who helped encourage the building and establishing of universities. It was specifically the papacy for example that granted a charter to a university. It is stated that “Eighty-one universities had been established by the time of the Reformation.”11
Not only did the papacy have a big role in helping expand and encourage the university system, but furthermore it was also through the pope that universities were able to function in the first place. For example Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull called Parens Scientiarum. This document granted the University of Paris the right to self-government which allowed it to make its own rules regarding to courses and studies. “The Church granted charters, protected the university’s rights, sided with scholars against obnoxious interference by overbearing authorities, built an international academic community, and permitted and fostered the kind of robust and largely unfettered scholarly debate and discussion that we associate with the university.” 9
This are some of the many ways in which the Catholic Church changed the world in significant ways. There is no doubt that Christianity had affected the world in almost every single way for the better. There was no such thing as charity in the proper Christian sense that would have possibility existed in the ancient world. Nor would there have been a proper sense of human dignity, the sacredness of marriage, sex, life, and the family all of which came to us through Christian teachings and understandings.
- Walsh, James Joseph. “Infanticide.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 26 Jun. 2015
- Dawson, Christopher. “The Christian Empire.” The Formation of Christendom. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967. Pg. 127
- William Edward Hartpole Lecky, History of European Morals From Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1870) Pgs. 199-200
- Woods, Thomas E. “The Church and Science.” How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington, DC: Regnery Pub., 2005. Pgs. 76-77
- Stanley L. Jaki, “Medieval Creativity in Science and Technology,” in Patterns or Principles and Other Essays (Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995), pg. 80
- Harold J. Berman, Law and revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983) pg. 166
- Woods, op. cit., p. 196.
- Woods “How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization” pg. 16
- Woods “How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization” pg. 18
- “Universities,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. The universities that lacked charters had come into being spontaneously ex consuetudine
- Woods, op. cit., p. 51