This paper will provide a reflection on several chapters of Woods and Thomas’ How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilisation. It will focus on what I consider to be the most important parts of the chapters and, in doing so, will demonstrate that parts that have effected me most profoundly. Having done this, I will then proceed to give an overall evaluation the authors’ work and any possible limitation it may be seen to possess.
The authors being with two essential claims that I found affected me deeply. The first of these is that the Catholic Church was responsible for laying the historical foundations of almost all of the major institutions and practices which we now associate with Western Civilisation and the second is that his contribution is frequently unacknowledged, especially in a time of widespread atheism and public disdain for religion.
The chapters begin proper with a study of the effect that the Church, alongside the Roman Empire, had on the development of civilisation alongside what is termed the ‘barbarian’ people; i.e. those people who were not literate and who lived in social organisations that we do not recognise as being civilised. In this sense, the authors provide a clear outline of the effect that the church had and demonstrate the introduction of widespread literacy alongside an attempt at a public morality that was lacking from much of the world as it was known. I found this deeply moving and I also found that it changed my perspective on what had previously been thought as a period of history in which church expansion was essentially self-motivated and did not appeal to a larger moral universal outside of its own self and community.
This civilising function is again something that I found moving when it was mentioned directly in relation to the practices of Christian monks whom the authors claim were largely responsible for many of the most important innovations in book making and cultural development that we know today. Indeed, the authors go as far as to the argue that it was precisely the practices associated with such monks that generated the capacity for cultural transmission as it is known. They focus directly on the educative function that such monks have, drawing to both the way in which monasteries could be considered agricultural colleges, alongside the sense in which monks who travelled were able to bring with them production techniques that greatly improved the lives of those around them and, in doing so, allowed the monks themselves to seen as both missionaries and also as proto-typical scientists. This is something that I had rarely considered before, and that I found to be especially important considering the now widely spread, but largely dogmatic belief, that religion is founded on ignorance rather than sober enquiry and generosity of spirit.
This focus was, for me, the most important part of the writing and I feel that it has allowed me to develop a more nuanced understanding of the way in which the history of Catholicism should be seen to intertwined with the history of the Catholic church. What I found troubling, however, was the lack of any mention of the violence that church also instigated. Although the authors make a point of claiming that the church was largely responsible for legal practices as we know them, they do not move from here to a consideration of the damage that some of these practices caused. To conclude, therefore, I would say that I found Woods and Thomas’ work exciting and enlightening, but, on one particular point, dangerously lacking in balance. This is not to negate to positive aspects of the work, but simply to put them in a wider context.