There is a reason Western Civilization used to be called “Christendom”. Not only did the Catholic Church give the West the university system and its invaluable contributions to science, but it also passed on unique concepts of law, art, and charity that we take for granted today.
If a stalker threatens you, you have a legal system in place to protect your rights and punish the criminal. But in a different culture the crime might have been written off to fate, or perhaps you and your stalker would battle to the death, or in some societies even today an honor killing would be the answer. I have often wondered how the Founding Fathers of the United States were brilliant enough to create the freest, most successful nation of laws on earth. Where did they get their unique ideas of justice and rights? There is much debate as to how religious the Founding Fathers were, but since 35 out of 55 of them were lawyers, they were certainly influenced by the common law of England, and that law in turn was based on the Cannon Law of the Catholic Church.
About a thousand years ago Church and State were intermingled; secular rulers called Church councils and appointed bishops. Cannon Law, written during the reign of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), was the Church’s attempt to separate Church and State. Cannon Law borrowed from the Old and New Testaments, Aristotle, Justinian, the Church Fathers, St. Augustine, Church councils, the Scholastic Method, and Natural Law Theory. It was the configuration and the content of Cannon law, with its professional judges and lawyers, courts, and systematic body of law, that was borrowed by civil authority in England.
Cannon law formed the basis for what we know today as property law, contract law, criminal law, inheritance law, family law, and constitutional law (Stephen Langton, a Catholic priest and canon lawyer, was the primary author of the Magna Carta, the basis of English constitutional law). It was Cannon Law that abolished trial by ordeal and established trial by jury requiring evidence and witnesses. It required consent for a marriage to be binding, recognized wills and estates, outlawed usury, differentiated between a misdemeanor and felony, and acknowledged that intent can mitigate a crime. The Church codified civilized laws based on reason, justice, and mercy as opposed to blood feuds or mob vengeance that were exercised at the time. (This is a good book on the origins of Western Law in detail.)
Fr. Francisco Vitoria (1492-1546) is the father of what we currently know as international law. When Spanish conquistadors abused the rights of American Indians in the New World, Fr. Vitoria proposed that, by the very fact that they were human beings, the Indians had a right to property and their princes ruled legitimately. In his 1532 treatise “Readings on the Indians and on the Law of War” Fr. Vitoria proclaimed, based on Scripture and reason, that all men are equally free and have a right to life, culture, and prosperity. Sound familiar? The unique ideas of the “equality of man” and “inviolable human rights” were not born during the Enlightenment, but hundreds of years before with Fr. Vitoria at the Catholic University of Salamanca.
It was the “divine right of kings” that our Founding Fathers were trying to escape when they came to the New World. Before the Protestant Reformation the authority of a king was respected, but he did not have god-like authority like in ancient Egypt or 20th century Japan. The Catholic Church dictated that coronation was not a sacrament and that the king was a layman and subject to natural law. St. Thomas Aquinas, a doctor of the Church, said that the king could be overthrown, or even killed, if he became a despot. But when the Protestant Reformation came along, the spiritual authority of the Pope was rejected, leaving only with the supreme temporal power of the king.
The Library of Congress has a copy of the book Patriarcha that belonged to Thomas Jefferson; the margins are full of his notes. It was written by a Protestant defending the “divine right of kings” and attacking the ideas of St. Robert Bellarmine. Bellarmine envisioned a government based on a combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy that answers to the people. St. Bellarmine and St. Thomas Aquinas both described the principles contained in the Declaration of Independence long before the American Revolution:
|Declaration of Independence (1776)||Aquinas (1225-1274)||Bellarmine (1542-1621)|
|“All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”||“Nature made all men equal in liberty, though not in their natural perfections.”||“All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind.”|
|“To secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”||“To ordain anything for the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people”||“It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Men must be governed by someone lest they be willing to perish.”|
|“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”||“Therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people”||“It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is, indeed, from God, but vested in a particular ruler by the counsel and election of men”|
|“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government…”||“If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice, or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power”||“The people never transfers its powers to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power”|
The principles reflected in the Declaration of Independence were not born during the Enlightenment, but centuries earlier in the Catholic Church. When President Kennedy said he wouldn’t let his faith affect his presidency, I don’t think he realized that, not only did his faith not contradict the Constitution, his faith undergirds it.
The idea of the “equality of man” is so familiar to us that we think it is common sense but the Native Americans didn’t believe it. They, like many other tribal societies, referred to neighboring tribes as “Sons of She-dogs” or some other equally degrading title. The idea of universal, inalienable, and equal rights under the law was proposed by the ancient Greeks, but the Catholic Church perfected the idea by rejecting practices like human sacrifice, slavery, infanticide, and polygamy. Non- Christian cultures in the Roman Empire, Europe, Central America, and Africa have found these practices to be just fine.
Our country was founded on idea of rights endowed by the Creator. The First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to free speech; God does. If life, for example, isn’t a gift of God, then it is a gift of the State and they, as the highest authority, can use utilitarian principles to decide that your life is no longer useful to society and you need to be euthanized. When a despot wants power, the first authority he has to usurp is God – no creator means the government defines your rights. An ex-atheist says it better than I.
Christopher Hitchens once said that he didn’t need the 10 Commandments to know that he shouldn’t murder his neighbor. He was agreeing with the Catholic Church on the existence of the natural law, the law written in every human heart that is binding on all men whether written down or not. It was the Catholic Church’s principles of the natural law, the equal dignity of every human being, and the right to self-government that inspired the freest society on earth.
When someone is asked to name a great work of art, the Mona Lisa or the Statue of David comes to mind. It was the philosophy and patronage of the Catholic Church that gave the world Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Bernini, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and Caravaggio.
The Church sponsored the development of the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles architecture based on the belief that if we mimic nature, we will be imitating the Architect of the universe. The Gothic cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame were designed based on the Golden Ratio, what Luca Pacioli called the “divine proportion”. Dentists and plastic surgeons even today take a cue from the Church and use the Golden Ratio to create beautiful features on people. Since God is the father of mathematics, the Church respected Euclidian geometry and used the idea of linear perspective in their art and architecture. Could atheism have come to such conclusions?
Great works of art are not inevitable. Islam discourages images in its art. 16th century Protestants destroyed many treasures of western art based on their philosophy (iconoclasm). Even today the art world is suffering from history’s worst case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. When someone tells you that a signed urinal is the greatest work of art of our century, you’re not just being lied to, you’re being insulted. Picasso said himself that he was pulling a scam (I remember reading Salvador Dali saying the same thing, but darned if I can find the quote.) The Catholic Church believes in the objective reality of goodness, truth, and beauty and based on those values art today can move in fresh, new, uplifting directions. Reject these values and art has nowhere to go but nonsensical and ugly.
According to Businessweek Magazine, as of 2002, the Catholic Church supplies the U.S. with:
- 6,900 elementary school and 1,200 high schools serving 2.6 million students
- 230 colleges and universities serving 670,000 students
- 637 non-profit hospitals accounting for 17% of all hospital admissions,
- 1,400 charitable agencies providing food, shelter, and care for the needy
According to Forbes, the Catholic Church is by far the most giving charitable organization in America. Catholic Charities, Food for the Poor, Catholic Relief Services, St. Jude’s, and America’s Second Harvest alone add up to more than the #1 charity on the list, but there are many more. Catholic charity is ideologically unique. Even an atheist like Voltaire, who was rabidly anti-Catholic, expressed admiration for Catholic charity and admitted no one does it better.
When the Catholic Church influenced Western culture it gave the world not just good art, but the best art, not just good schools but the best schools, the best science, architecture, charity, and law…all the best things that we appreciate as civilization today. From the notes in your sheet music, to the hospital where your children were born, to the calendar you follow, your life is enriched by the ingenuity of the Church. If you think humanity would be better off without the Catholic Church, if you could go back in time and destroy it, you would be sawing the branch you are sitting on. Your life is far more indebted to the church than you realize. Civilization and the freedom it provides are the natural byproducts of Christianity; the Church’s goal was not to make “Christendom” but Christians. Socialists failed to create their utopia. We succeeded without (directly) trying.