Catholicism's Forgotten Contribution to the World

March 01, 2020 0 comments

By Elishama |

Father Gregor Mendel (19th century) through his work cross-breeding pea plants discovered the fundamental laws of inheritance and is considered the father of genetics.
“Jesus said to His disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:13-16).

Salt preserves food and accentuates flavour. We are called to preserve whatever good we find in the culture around us but also to accentuate or perfect it with the Gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.

Light reveals what is hidden by the dark. Christians bring God’s spiritual and moral truths to a world where they are often obscured by error and sin.

A City built on a Hill: The Church is visible, like a city of a hill, meant to be easily found by all. Catholics are meant to be a visible sign of God’s presence and power in the world. We are here to make a difference.

Catholics are loath to brag about their historical accomplishments. But in a world so ready to highlight our failures – both real and perceived – I think it is important that once in a while we brag about some of the great things that the Catholic Church has given to the world.

Now the most important thing we give to the world is the revelation of God that tells a lost and searching humanity who God really is, why He created us, and His plan and destiny for us. In other words, the very meaning and purpose of life itself. And, of course, the salvation offered humanity in and through Jesus Christ.

But this is not what I am going to talk about today. In this homily I am going to highlight some of the humanitarian benefits Christianity has given to the world. And I am only going to mention a few.

Let’s begin with the Dignity of Work

The greatest philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero) held intellectual pursuits in high esteem but manual labour as odious. Cicero said “All trades of working men are to be considered contemptible, and that there is nothing lofty about the workshop.” In civilizations around the world the rich and noble classes often treated manual labour as beneath their dignity.

The Bible taught that even in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, Adam had to “till and keep” the garden. Judaism respected the work of farmers, craftsmen and labourers. Jesus was the son of a carpenter and likely practiced the trade Himself before beginning His public ministry.

The Church taught that work was not only a duty but an honour. In Roman society men and women of high birth began embracing monastic life in which they would spend their days in prayer and manual labour (often in fields like farmers).

How about the Treatment of the Poor?

Before Christianity there were exceptional cases of ancient philosophers and Oriental ascetics who preached and practiced personal poverty, but the upper classes generally despised the poor and their condition, considering their plight with indifference if not contempt. The poor person was forgotten and left to fend for himself.

But Jesus was born in a stable to parents of modest means. He said He was sent “to preach the gospel to the poor.” Christ declared that God’s judgement would be based on how we treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, etc.

We read in Acts how the apostles chose deacons to “serve at the tables” of the poor and widows. St Paul collected alms for the poor.

Throughout the centuries Catholics founded institutions to care for the widowed and orphaned, the homeless and destitute.

In Ottawa one can think of the St Vincent de Paul Society or the Shepherds of Good Hope. They follow in a 2000-year old Catholic tradition.

Everybody believes in Education, right?

In ancient times formal education was a privilege of the few. Private schools and tutors existed for the children of the rich and powerful.

The Jews, however, established synagogues in towns at which boys from all backgrounds were taught to read the Scriptures. The early Church established cathedral and monastic schools to teach young people how to read, write, and other basic forms of learning. This often-included girls as well as boys. Later, whole Religious Orders were established for the purpose of educating the young of both sexes, rich and poor alike.

The modern university itself developed in the Middle Ages and matured with the support of the Catholic Church. Nothing like it had ever existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The University of Ottawa was founded by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Do you think Health Care a basic right?

Well, in olden days, if you were sick you were left largely to the care of your family or kin. But if you were rich you could hire a private physician to look after your ill family member. For there was no public health care system for the general population.

But from its very beginnings the Church saw one of its ministries as to the sick. After all, Jesus healed the blind, the sick and the lame. By the 4th century, the newly Christianized Romans began running homes for the sick and needy.

By the 8th century specialized Christian hospices and hospitals existed: some served the sick, the needy, others travellers, lepers, the mentally ill, orphans, etc.

Eventually Religious Orders were established specifically for the care of the poor and the sick. Wherever missionaries went to evangelize they also brought whatever medical care they could provide as part of their ministry.

Even today, in Africa, the Catholic Church provides more than a quarter of all the medical care. Catholics make up only 1.3 percent of India's population and yet the Church is second only to the Indian government in the number of health care services it provides. The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of health care services in the world.

In Ottawa the General Hospital (the city’s first hospital), the St Vincent Hospital, and the Montfort Hospital were all founded and originally staffed by members of female religious orders; the Sisters of Charity of Bytown and the Daughters of Wisdom respectively.

The very idea of universal health care, something we now take for granted, was a Catholic concept in its origins.

Do you believe in the Dignity of the Person?

Many ancient philosophers and religions were fatalistic about life – believing we had little control over our destiny, that it was in the hands of Fate.

They also held that people were fated to their station in life; that some people were made by nature inferior or to be treated as inferior. This attitude condoned slavery.

Societies around the world killed unwanted babies or those born with defects (Romans left them in the fields to be eaten by animals; Hawaiian Polynesians put them on the beach to be carried out by the tide).

The Bible taught that all people had a common ancestor and were created in the “image and likeness of God.” Christ and the early Church taught that all people were the object of God’s love and salvation.

St Paul in effect declared that all people were to be treated with equal dignity when he said that “there is neither male nor female, rich nor poor, slave or free, Jew nor Gentile, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28)

St Thomas Aquinas deduced that slavery was a sin. When modern chattel slavery began to reappear in the West in the 15th century the first and only leader to condemn it was the Pope. In 1435, Pope Eugenius IV called for the release of any inhabitants of the Azores who had been enslaved and the restoration of their property. As slavery began to spread Pope Paul III made three major pronouncements against it in 1537. But few were listening.

Today the Church is the leading defender of the rights and dignity of human life “from the first moment of conception to natural death” against legalized abortion and the euthanasia movements. But few again are listening.

What about the Rise of Modern Science?

Here is one that is going to surprise you. After all, have we not all heard of the notorious trial of Galileo before the Inquisition? Has there not always been a conflict between science and religion? Well, actually no.

The Galileo case is an anomaly that is too involved for me to address here. Historian of science William Ashworth (University of Missouri-Kansas City) remarks that “most people learn about Galileo, and his problem with the Church, and don’t learn about many other scientists, and so they assume that this is a typical case, and there have been lots of Galileo affairs. The truth is, there haven't.”

So what of the conflict myth? Well, it was largely the creation of two 19th century anti-Catholic authors, John William Draper in his book, the History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), and Andrew Dickson White and his more influential two-volume A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Both books are now discredited but their thesis is still popular among certain atheists and believed by much of the public.

The truth is quite contrary. In 2009 Harvard University Press published a collection of scholarly essays under the title Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. In one of these essays Lawrence Principe (Professor of the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at Johns Hopkins University), goes so far as to credit the Catholic Church – now get this – with being “probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history” (“Myth 11: That Catholics Did Not Contribute to the Scientific Revolution,” p. 102).

Professor John Heilbron, of the University of California-Berkeley, stated that in the area of astronomy (Galileo’s field): “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries – from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment – than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.”

Jordanus, An International Catalogue of Medieval Scientific Manuscripts has been made available online by the Institute for the History of Science at the University of Munich and by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The catalogue is named for Jordanus de Nemore, a 13th century European mathematician. The website states that “there are an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 mediaeval western ‘scientific’ manuscripts scattered throughout the world.”

At the inception of the modern Scientific Revolution the first scientific societies (to encourage the discussion and dissemination of scientific knowledge) were organized in Catholic Italy, with possibly the earliest being the Accademia dei Lincei, founded in papal Rome in 1603.

Did you know that by 1700 Jesuit priests held a majority of the chairs of mathematics in European universities? Or that some 35 craters on the moon are named after Jesuit scientists and mathematicians? In its early years the science of Seismology, the study of earthquakes, was so dominated by the Order that it was known as “the Jesuit science.”

Nicolaus Copernicus (16th century) was a Canon in the Cathedral of Frauenberg, and is considered the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology.

The mathematical writings of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa were essential for Leibniz’s discovery of calculus. Cardinal Nicholas also imagined elliptical orbits, an infinite universe, and the possibility of life on other planets…a Catholic priest…in the 15th century.

Father Nicholas Steno (17th century) was an early geologist and is considered the father of stratigraphy. He was among the earliest to identify fossils as coming from living organisms and was the first to propose that the fossils and rock layers of the earth gave a chronicle of the earth's history.

Father Gregor Mendel (19th century) through his work cross-breeding pea plants discovered the fundamental laws of inheritance and is considered the father of genetics.

Father Julius Nieuwland (20th century) was a professor of botany and chemistry who successfully polymerized acetylene into divinylacetylene. Researchers at Du Pont used his basic research to achieve the development of neoprene, the first synthetic rubber.

Father Georges Lemaître (20th century) was a Belgian physicist and mathematician derived what is now known as “Hubble's law” and made the first estimation of what is now called “the Hubble constant” before Edwin Hubble! Lemaître was the first to propose that the recession of nearby galaxies can be explained by an expanding universe. And he formulated what is now called the Big Bang Theory.

Enough! I can go on but will stop here.

The Catholic Church has had a profound and I would argue largely positive influence on Western Civilization and the world; from promoting the dignity of all human beings, to promoting the care of the poor and needy, to encouraging education and health care, to advancing scientific knowledge, to personal transformation in Christ. Unfortunately for many today, this truth has been largely hidden. It is time that we begin to rediscover it ourselves, appreciate our heritage, and be proud of it.

Category: , ,
We provide commentary on the cultural decline of the Western world, from a conservative perspective.