The importance of something is sometimes most strongly felt when its influence decreases. The Catholic Church may not have disappeared, but its imprint on Western society is a fraction of what it used to be. For far too many secular Westerners nowadays, religion is either not important or a silly (or dangerous) superstition.
It is one thing when people understand the beliefs of the Catholic Church and its role throughout history, and nevertheless decide to reject it. It is another thing entirely when the Church is rejected for unsound reasons.
Bishop Robert Barron recently reflected on the results of a Pew survey on why young people continue to leave Christianity. He was impressed with neither the reasons people gave for leaving, nor the fact that Catholic leaders are currently incapable of addressing their objections.
Barron grouped the reasons people gave for leaving Christianity into three broad categories. First, many “evidently felt that modern science somehow undermines the claims of the faith.” Second, some said that Christians believe in God because it makes them feel better; hence, the Marxist crack that religion is the “opiate of the masses”. Third, many believe that religion is the greatest source of conflict in the world.
Barron finds all of these reasons wanting. For example, he believes that those who think that science undermines faith don’t understand the nature of God:
[T]he sciences, ordered by their nature and method to an analysis of empirically verifiable objects and states of affairs within the universe, cannot even in principle address questions regarding God, who is not a being in the world, but rather the reason why the finite realm exists at all. There simply cannot be “scientific” evidence or argument that tells one way or the other in regard to God.
With regard to those who believe religion is merely a feel-good measure, Barron not only finds the claim patronizing, but open to claims of hypocrisy:
I think it is eminently credible to say that atheism amounts to a wish-fulfilling fantasy, precisely in the measure that it allows for complete freedom and self-determination: if there is no God, no ultimate moral criterion, I can do and be whatever I want. In a word, the psychologizing cuts just as effectively in the opposite direction. Hence, the two charges more or less cancel one another out—and this should compel us to return to real argument at the objective level.
Barron saves his best arguments for the last set of rejections, which relate to Christianity supposedly being the primary cause of violence. He identifies the source of that argument to certain Enlightenment writers who wanted to discredit Christianity:
Voltaire, Diderot, Spinoza, and many others in the 17th and 18th centuries wanted to undermine religion, and they could find no better way to achieve this end than to score Christianity as the source of violence. Through numberless channels this view has seeped into the general consciousness, but it simply does not stand up to serious scrutiny. In their exhaustive survey of the wars of human history (The Encyclopedia of Wars), Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod demonstrate that less than 7% of wars could be credibly blamed on religion, and even the most casual reflection bears this out.
Barron then looks back at the twentieth century and observes the obvious:
In point of fact, the bloodiest wars in history, those of the twentieth century, which produced over 100 million dead, had practically nothing to do with religion. Indeed, a very persuasive case could be made that ideological secularism and modern nationalism are the sources of greatest bloodshed. And yet the prejudice, first fostered by the philosophes of the Enlightenment, oddly endures.
However, such poor arguments do not live in a vacuum. One reason they have thrived is because they have encountered so little resistance. When evaluating why young people are not aware of arguments that support Christianity, Barron pins the blame squarely on the Catholic intellectual elite:
For the past fifty years or so, Christian thinkers have largely abandoned the art of apologetics and have failed (here I offer a j’accuse to many in the Catholic universities) to resource the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition in order to hold off critics of the faith. I don’t blame the avatars of secularism for actively attempting to debunk Christianity; that’s their job, after all. But I do blame teachers, catechists, evangelists, and academics within the Christian churches for not doing enough to keep our young people engaged. These studies consistently demonstrate that unless we believers seriously pick up our game intellectually, we’re going to keep losing our kids.
Natural questions that arise from Bishop Barron’s reflections include how does one close the gap between young people’s understanding about Christianity and what it really believes? What is this rich intellectual tradition he is alluding to? What it is about Catholicism that should make it compelling for young people to explore, and ultimately adopt?
A wonderful way to begin exploring these questions would be to read Thomas Woods’ excellent book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. While it is a history book, it is fully informed by the intellectual tradition to which Bishop Barron refers. Professor Woods makes a compelling case that the “Catholic Church did not merely contribute to Western civilization – the Church built that civilization.”
Professor Woods begins by discussing the role the Church played in rebuilding Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Church worked with the “batchwork of barbarian kingdoms” that arose after Rome’s fall, not only to help them maintain their conversion to Christianity, but also to transform their government and way of life. It took centuries to accomplish this. However, by the time Charlemagne took power, the Church not only felt confident that it could rebuild civilized life in Europe, but that this civilization would exceed the greatness of ancient Greece or Rome because it had the Catholic faith, and Greece and Rome did not.
It was this faith that helped the Church withstand the second wave of barbarian invasions of Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries. Through this period of extreme turmoil, monasteries not only maintained the Church’s liturgical practices, they also preserved the West’s classical heritage. In fact, the Church’s commitment to learning led to the development of the university system, which did not exist in ancient Greece or Rome.
It was through the university system that the study of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetc, music, and geometry), and topics such as civil and canon law, natural law, and theology were encouraged and developed. As Professor Woods explains:
As the universities took shape in the twelfth century, they were the happy beneficiaries of the fruits of what some scholars called the renaissance of the twelfth century. Massive translation efforts brought forth many of the great works of the ancient world that had been lost to Western scholarship for too many centuries, including the geometry of Euclid; the logic, metaphysics, natural philosophy, and ethics of Aristotle; and the medical work of Galen. Legal studies began to flourish as well, particularly at Bologna, when the Digest, the key component of the sixth-century emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis … was rediscovered.
It is no wonder, therefore, that from this rich intellectual environment came the Scholastic tradition. While Woods acknowledges that it is difficult to define Scholasticism, he argues that the school of through was generally:
committed to the use of reason as an indispensible tool in theological and philosophical study, and to dialectic – the juxtaposition of opposing positions, followed by a resolution of the matter at hand by recourse to both reason and authority – as the method of pursuing issues of intellectual interest.
From this school of thought came such rigorous thinkers as Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Peter Abelard. While Woods illustrates their thinking through useful examples, what is important to recognize is that through the university system, scholars debated and discussed propositions through the use of reason. This environment contributed significantly to the development of modern science.
Professor Woods helpfully dedicates the largest chapter of his book on the role the Church played in the development of modern science, a theme young people who are concerned about the supposed conflict between faith and science should seriously consider. He refers to the important work of Father Stanley Jaki, who sees scientific inquiry as a natural consequence of Christian ideas that consider God and his creation as rational and orderly, and therefore subject to observation. While non-Christian cultures certainly contributed to scientific knowledge, their worldviews did not encourage the formal and sustained scientific inquiry that Christendom experienced during the Middle Ages. The rest of the chapter addresses the fruits of the interaction between the Church and modern science.
Woods’ book also delves into a variety of other topics, such as how the Church contributed to art, economic thought, and charity.
By the end of the book, a reasonable reader can draw at least three conclusions. First, the Church provided the foundation for Western civilization since the fall of the Roman Empire. Second, Christian theology employed reason, along with authority, to evaluate the nature of God. Finally, Christianity was compatible with and encouraged the exploration of natural phenomena. That does not necessarily make the Christian claims about the nature of God and His creation true; however, it is clear that Christianity in general, and the Church in particular, encourages humanity to flourish, rather than impede human creativity and foster conflict. Professor Woods has performed a valuable service in reminding us of how Western civilization came to be. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to obtain a better understanding about the foundations of Western culture.