Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 28, 2005
Church shed luminous light on Dark Ages
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Regnery Publishing, Washington, 2005. 225 pages.
Review by DEAN SARNECKI
Special to the WCR
I am beginning to see that as a student I was misled. Not sure if it was due to ignorance or a deliberate intent to malign the Catholic Church but no matter, the result was the same.
The Catholic Church, my Church and spiritual community, I was taught, hampered, destroyed and held back science, education, law, literature, economics and a host of other important societal influences in order to control and manipulate a backward and superstitious public.
In fact, even the period in history was named to represent the evil control and negative effect the Church had in this period: The Dark Ages. From the fall of the "enlightened" Roman Empire to the Renaissance period, the Dark Ages were characterized by spiritual superstition, scientific stagnation and educational control by the Church.
However, over the past few decades, historians and scientists have been coming to the defence of the Roman Catholic Church. They have taken on the task of re-educating people to the notion that the Catholic Church has been, if anything, the greatest single institution to build the Western civilization. But while this idea has been acknowledged in academia, it has been slow to be heard and accepted in society as a whole.
I first came upon the positive role of the Church in history in reading Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. While other authors have touched on this theme, I have now come across a resource that is attempting to spread the message of a positive view of the medieval Church to the average person.
Thomas Woods' How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization provides a far reaching demonstration of how the Church stood alone for many years as a beacon of light in the so-called Dark Ages. It was the Church and those who led it who recognized the need to grow and understand God's creation and this continually pushed the boundaries of science, art, architecture, education, charity and international law.
Woods begins by exploring the how and why of the myth of a superstitious and backwards church during the dark ages. Using Philip Jenkins thesis from The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice as a starting place, Woods looks into modern scholarship to determine why the message of an enlightened Church and institution is slow to spread among the average person.
He also describes the early medieval period from fall of Rome and describes the true reason for little understanding and learning prior to the Carolingian Renaissance, specifically the barbarian invasions and constant wars that occurred prior to eighth century in western Europe.
Woods than takes the reader through a series of examples, quoting a wide variety of resources to demonstrate the role of the Church in almost all areas of civilization. From monasticism to modern morality, Woods traces the teaching and role played by Catholicism throughout history.
As a science teacher by training, I was particularly interested in the chapter dealing with science and the Church. The majority of scientific thought in the late Middle Ages was largely found in Catholic countries and spurned forward by the need for Catholic theologians to know the world and God.
There appears to be in the mind of people an hostility toward science by the Catholic Church, most clearly found in the Galileo affair. Many people take this incident and use it to make blanket statements about the Catholic Church and science. Woods points out that John Henry Newman, an Anglican convert to Catholicism, found it revealing that when this subject was raised, it is practically the only example that ever comes to mind.
According to Woods the Jesuit tradition has produced many great scientists, especially in astronomy and archeology and the development of schools such as the Cathedral school at Chartres and the University of Paris led to today's modern scientific method and understanding of the world.
Charity, morality, economics, international law, the idea that all men are created equal, and many other things we take for granted all have foundations in Catholic thought, says Woods. Based on his evidence, I tend to believe him.
Was the Church perfect? No, but reading Woods' book, I learned just how great a role it had in literally building western civilization.
(Dean Sarnecki has taught high school science, social studies and religious education in Sherwood Park.)