What Catholicism gave to the World
“Over and above spiritual goods, however, there are many goods of the natural order over which the Church has no direct mission, although they flow as a natural consequence from her divine mission.
The light of Catholic revelation is of such a nature that it diffuses itself with the greatest brilliance on every science.
The force of the evangelical counsels is so powerful that it strengthens and firmly establishes the precepts of the natural law.
The fruitfulness of the doctrine and morality taught by Jesus Christ is so limitless that providentially it sustains and promotes the material welfare of the individual, the family, and society.
The Church, even in preaching Jesus Christ crucified, “stumbling block and foolishness to the world,” has become the foremost leader and protector of civilization.
She brought it wherever her apostles preached. She preserved and protected the good elements of the ancient pagan civilizations, disentangling from barbarism and educating for a new civilization the peoples who flocked to her maternal bosom.
She endowed every civilization, gradually, but with a certain and always progressive step, with that excellent mark which is today universally preserved.
The civilization of the world…The more completely Christian it is, the more true, more lasting and more productive of genuine fruit it is.
On the other hand, the further it draws away from the Christian ideal, the more seriously the social order is endangered.
By the very nature of things, the Church has consequently become the guardian and protector of Christian society. That fact was universally recognized and admitted in other periods of history.
In truth, it formed a solid foundation for civil legislation. On that very fact rested the relations between Church and State; the public recognition of the authority of the Church in those matters which touched upon conscience in any manner, the subordination of all the laws of the State to the Divine laws of the Gospel; the harmony of the two powers in securing the temporal welfare of the people in such a way that their eternal welfare did not suffer.
What prosperity and well-being, what peace and harmony, what respectful subjection to authority and what excellent government would be obtained and maintained in the world if one could see in practice the perfect ideal of Christian civilization.
Granting, however, the continual battle of the flesh against the spirit, darkness against light, Satan against God, such cannot be hoped for, at least in all its fullness.
Hence, raids are continually being made on the peaceful conquests of the Church.
The sadness and pain these cause is accentuated by the fact that society tends more and more to be governed by principles opposed to that very Christian ideal, and is even in danger of completely falling away from God.” ( Pope St. Pius X, Il Il Fermo Proposito, June 11, 1905)
As Pope Leo XIII stated:
“There was once a time when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel.
Then it was that the power and divine virtue of Christian wisdom had diffused itself throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people, permeating all ranks and relations of civil society.
Then, too, the religion instituted by Jesus Christ, established firmly in befitting dignity, flourished everywhere, by the favour of princes and the legitimate protection of magistrates; and Church and State were happily united in concord and friendly interchange of good offices.
The State, constituted in this wise, bore fruits important beyond all expectation, whose remembrance is still, and always will be, in renown, witnessed to as they are by countless proofs which can never be blotted out or ever obscured by any craft of any enemies.
Christian Europe has subdued barbarous nations, and changed them from a savage to a civilized condition, from superstition to true worship.
It victoriously rolled back the tide of Mohammedan conquest; retained the headship of civilization; stood forth in the front rank as the leader and teacher of all, in every branch of national culture; bestowed on the world the gift of true and many-sided liberty; and most wisely founded very numerous institutions for the solace of human suffering.
And if we inquire how it was able to bring about so altered a condition of things, the answer is-beyond all question, in large measure, through religion, under whose auspices so many great undertakings were set on foot, through whose aid they were brought to completion.” (Pope Leo XIII, the Encyclical Immortale Dei, n. 21
An Instance of the Church’s Cultural Revolution: the New Dignity of Womanhood
An instance of cultural change springing from the truths of the Catholic Faith is the transformation of the status of women in Western Civilization: the difference in their status before and after the arrival of the Catholic Church is like that between night and day.
As the twentieth century writer Flannery O Connor remarked: “The Church would just as soon canonize a woman as a man, and I suppose has done more than any other force in history to free women.”
Some of the changes introduced or advanced by the Church include the following:
- Equality of the sexes: Roman and Greek society held women to be naturally inferior to men and legislated accordingly: Athenian women for instance were always throughout life the legal property of some male; Roman women had only limited legal rights. Catholicism revolutionized the ancient world’s understanding of woman by proclaiming the unheard of truth that woman is equal to man in nature and dignity: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28)
- The Catholic Faith has always proposed to both men and women as the most perfect human person not a man but the Blessed Virgin Mary( Jesus Christ has a human nature but is a divine person). This helped to create a medieval culture of chivalry towards womanhood that on many points women today can only envy.
- The Church never ceased to fight against the Roman practice of the infanticide of girls until she eliminated the atrocity completely.
- Women were far less likely to be forced to have an abortion -a frequent cause of their death – because of the Church’s unyielding condemnation of the crime.
- Catholicism abolished polygamy wherever it
- Christian women exercised greater freedom to choose their spouse because of the Church’s insistence in her Canon Law that marriage would only be valid if consent were freely given.
- Members of the female sex in ancient Rome were frequently married off as children and forced to consummate marriage with men who were at times far older. The Church curtailed child marriages: women from Christian families were three times less likely than women from pagan families to be married before thirteen years of age.
- The Church opened up ways outside of marriage for female fulfillment when she declared consecrated virginity to be another worthy vocation for womanhood.
- In ancient Rome men could easily divorce their wives but not vice versa. By stark contrast, the Church gave equal rights to women in pleas for annulment and by demanding that men respect marriage as a sacrament gave unheard of security to women; by her moral code men were also called to account for infidelity to their spouses – an unknown reality in the ancient world.
- In the Middle Ages the social importance, power and influence of women rose to unprecedented heights. Politically, between the 1000s and the 1200s, women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche de Castille either ruled entire nations or wielded powerful political influence. There were abbesses -such as Héloise at the Paraclete monastery in France – as powerful as feudal lords administering vast territories that made them equal in power to contemporary city mayors or state governors. There were even dual monasteries of men and women on different parts of the same property ruled over by women, as for instance at the abbey of Fontevrault.
- In ancient Rome women could not enter professions while during the Catholic Middle-Ages, career-wise, women exercised a wide variety. In a survey ordered by King Louis IXthere are references to a woman teacher, doctor, pharmacist, plasterer, dyer, copyist, salt merchant, a hairdresser, a miller and …..a crusader!
- In medieval education, women were educated as thoroughly as men thanks to the convents and from their ranks came stars like the talented musician Hildegarde of Bingen.
- In the Middle-Ages -at least in France – women had the right to vote.
- The Church elevated women as well as men to the highest rank in the church: canonized saints!
- In the medieval home, the woman ruled over both family and property alongside her husband and retained power over her possessions from before marriage.
- In medieval times, we even had one female army commander-in-chief ( and a highly successful one!): St. Joan of Arc
Were there shadows in the practical application of the Church’s doctrine on the dignity of womanhood? Certainly! Many were the times when men of those times failed to live up to the standards of the Church but then again they hold no monopoly on such shortcomings.
After all, the contemporary post-Western civilization continues to place in danger the dignity – and safety – of women by not only allowing but legalizing pornography to a degree that would be utterly repugnant to the ancient barbarians.
Alongside her founder, the Church can say to her accusers: “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” (Jn. 10:32). Should we Catholics not be utterly proud of the Church if she had conceived even one of these truths?
Certainly, I agree, many were the acts of treachery against these convictions, many the acts of hypocrisy but let us not forget the old saying that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue”: the ideals of Catholic Civilization dragged men out of the gutter time and time again giving them the intellectual inspiration,moral conviction and legal sanctions to continue striving to live up to those ideals.
Therefore how could we not affirm Catholic civilization to be superior?
How could we deny that a civilization that first formulated human rights and enshrined them legally in codes and charters is not the most worthy of man?
How could we not glory in a civilization that exalts the dignity of the individual man over the power of the state; that fought for the equality of man and woman; that demands for its citizens the right to life from conception to natural death; that lays the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity as the basis for government?
In the “Dictatorship of Relativism” in which we live, an axiom of thought is that not only all religions but all cultures are equal: to affirm otherwise is to be a cultural imperialist. Common sense – in rather scarce supply these days -rejects the cliché: does this mean that the culture of the Third Reich was on a par with the ancient civilizations of China and India?
Christian culture flooded history with goodness, beauty, truth and nobility.
Simone Weil once wrote, “I am not a Catholic, but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of the centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without becoming degraded.”
Gerhart Niemeyer, to name but one of countless other intellectuals who agreed with Simone Weil’s statement, said “Christianity has been the source and center of our culture, the ultimate truth that has shaped our past and is still shaping our present.”
Or as Goethe once remarked: “Europe was born on pilgrimage and its mother tongue is Christianity.”
“All roads”, wrote George Santayana, “still lead to Rome and unless you place yourself there you will never be in the heart of the world or see it in its right perspective”.