WHAT THE CATHOLIC PRIESTHOOD HAS DONE FOR CIVILIZATION
Passing entirely over the supernatural blessings derived by mankind from the prayers of the priesthood, the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, and the administration of the sacraments, we shall confine ourselves to the secular civilization, which, through the Catholic priesthood, has spread to all nations and brought into full bloom religion, morality, science, art, and industry. If religion in general is the mother of all culture, Christianity must be acknowledged as the source, measure, and nursery of all true civilization. The Church, the oldest and most successful teacher of mankind, has in each century done pioneer service in all departments of culture. Through her organs, the priests and especially the members of the religious orders, she carried the light of Faith to all lands, banished the darkness of paganism, and with the Gospel brought the blessings of Christian morality and education. What would have become of the countries about the Mediterranean during the epoch of the migration of the nations (from 375) if the popes, bishops, and clergy had not tamed the German hordes, converted them from Arianism to Catholicism, and out of barbarism evolved order? What Ireland owes to St. Patrick, England owes to St. Augustine, who, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, brought not only the Gospel, but also a higher morality and culture. While the light of Christianity thus burned brightly in Ireland and Britain, part of Germany was still shrouded in the darkness of paganism. Bands of missionaries from the Island of Saints now brought to the continent the message of salvation and established new centres of culture. Charlemagne’s great work of uniting all the German tribes into an empire was only the glorious fruit of the seed sown by St. Boniface of Certon (d. 755) on German soil and watered with the blood of martyrs. The Church of the Middle Ages, having now attained to power, continued through her priests to propagate the Gospel in pagan lands. It was missionaries who first brought to Europe news of the existence of China. In 1246 three Franciscans, commissioned by the pope, appeared in audience before the emperor of the Mongols; in 1306 the first Christian church was built in Peking. From the Volga to the Desert of Gobi, the Franciscans and Dominicans covered the land with their missionary stations. In the sixteenth century the zeal of the older orders was rivalled by the Jesuits, among whom St. Francis Xavier must be accorded a place of honour; their achievements in the Reductions of Paraguay are as incontestable as their great services in the United States. As for the French colonies in America, the American historian Bancroft declares that no notable city was founded, no river explored, no cape circumnavigated, without a Jesuit showing the way. Even if Buckle’s one-sided statement were true, viz. that culture is not the result of religion, but vice versa, we could point to the work of Catholic missionaries, who are striving to lift the savages in pagan lands to a higher state of morality and civilization, and thence to transform them into decent Christians.
In the wake of religion follows her inseparable companion, morality; the combination of the two forms is the indispensable preliminary condition for the continuation and vitality of all higher civilization. The decadence of culture has always been heralded by a reign of unbelief and immorality, the fall of the Roman Empire and the French Revolution furnishing conspicuous examples. What the Church accomplished in the course of the centuries for the raising of the standard of morality, in the widest sense, by the inculcation of the Decalogue, that pillar of human society, by promulgating the commandment of love of God and one’s neighbour, by preaching purity in single, married, and family life, by waging war upon superstition and evil customs, by the practice of the three counsels of voluntary poverty, obedience, and perfect purity, by holding out the “imitation of Christ” as the ideal of Christian perfection, the records of twenty centuries plainly declare. The history of the Church is at once the history of her charitable activity exercised through the priesthood. There have indeed been waves of degeneracy and immorality sweeping at times even to the papal throne, and resulting in the general corruption of the people, and in apostasy from the Church. The heroic struggle of Gregory VII (d. 1085) against the simony and incontinence of the clergy stands forth as a fact which restored to the stale-grown salt of the earth its earlier strength and flavour.
The most wretched and oppressed classes of humanity are the slaves, the poor, and the sick. Nothing is in such harsh contrast to the ideas of human personality and of Christian freedom as the slavery found in pagan lands. The efforts of the Church were at first directed towards depriving slavery of its most repulsive feature by emphasizing the equality and freedom of all children of God (cf. I Cor., vii, 21 sqq.; Philem., 16 sqq.), then towards ameliorating as far as possible the condition of slaves, and finally towards effecting the abolition of this unworthy bondage. The slowness of the movement for the abolition of slavery, which owed its final triumph over the African slave-traders to a crusade of Cardinal Lavigerie (d. 1892), is explained by the necessary consideration of the economic rights of the owners and the personal welfare of the slaves themselves, since a bold “proclamation of the rights of man” would simply have thrown millions of helpless slaves breadless into the streets. Emancipation carried with it the obligation of caring for the bodily needs of the freedmen, and, whenever the experiment was made, it was the clergy who undertook this burden. Special congregations, such as the Trinitarians and the Mercedarians, devoted themselves exculsively to the liberation and ransom of prisoners and slaves in pagan, and especially in Mohammedan lands. It was Christian compassion for the weakly and languishing Indians which suggested to the Spanish monk, Las Casas, the unfortunate idea of importing the strong negroes from Africa to work in the American mines. That his idea would develop into the scandalous traffic in the black race, which the history of the three succeeding centuries reveals, the noble monk never suspected (see SLAVERY).
As to the relief of the poor and sick, a single priest, St. Vincent de Paul (d. 1660), achieved more in all the branches of this work than many cities and states combined. The services of the clergy in general in the exercise of charity cannot here be touched upon (see CHARITY AND CHARITIES). It may however be noted that the famous School of Salerno, the first and most renowned, and for many centuries the only medical faculty in Europe, was founded by the Benedictines, who here laboured partly as practitioners of medicine, and partly to furnish a supply of skilled physicians for all Europe. Of recent pioneers in the domain of charity and social work may be mentioned the Irish “Apostle of Temperance”, Father Theobald Matthew and the German “Father of Journeymen” (Gesellenvater), Kolping.
Intimately related with the morally good is the idea of the true and the beautiful, the object of science and art. At all times the Catholic clergy have shown themselves patrons of science and the arts, partly by their own achievements in these fields and partly by their encouragement and support of the work of others. That theology as a science should have found its home among the clergy was but to be expected. However, the whole range of education lay so exclusively in the hands of the priesthood during the Middle Ages, that the ecclesiastical distinction of clericus (cleric) and laicus (layman) developed into the social distinction of educated and ignorant. But for the monks and clerics the ancient classical literature would have been lost. A medieval proverb ran: “A monastery without a library is a castle without an armory.” Hume, the philosopher and historian, says: “It is rare that the annals of so uncultivated a people as were the English as well as the other European nations, after the decline of Roman learning, have been transmitted to posterity so complete and with so little mixture of falsehood and fable. This advantage we owe entirely to the clergy of the Church of Rome, who, founding their authority on their superior knowledge, preserved the precious literature of antiquity from a total extinction” (Hume, “Hist. of England”, ch. xxiii, Richard III). Among English historians Gildas the Wise, Venerable Bede, and Lingard form an illustrious triumvirate. The idea of scientific progress, first used by Vincent of Lerins with reference to theology and later transferred to the other sciences, is of purely Catholic origin. The modern maxim, “Education for all”, is a saying first uttered by Innocent III. Before the foundation of the first universities, which also owed their existence to the popes, renowned cathedral schools and other scientific institutions laboured for the extension of secular knowldge. The father of German public education is Rhabanus Maurus. Of old centres of civilization we may mention among those of the first rank Canterbury, the Island of Iona, Malmesbury, and York in Great Britain; Paris, Orléans, Corbie, Cluny, Chartres, Toul, and Bec in France; Fulda, Reichenau, St. Gall, and Corvey in Germany. The attendance at these universities conducted by clergymen during the Middle Ages awakens one’s astonishment: in 1340 the University of Oxford had no less than 30,000 students, and in 1538, when the German universities were almost deserted, about 20,000 students, according to Luther, flocked to Paris.
The elementary schools also, wherever they existed, were conducted by priests. Charlemagne had already issued the capitulary “Presbyteri per villas et vicos scholas habeant et cum summa charitate parvulos doceant”, i.e. The priests shall have schools in the towns and hamlets and shall teach the children with the utmost devotion. The art of printing was received by the whole Church, from the lowest clergy to the pope, as a “holy art”. Almost the whole book production of the fifteenth century aimed at satisfying the taste of the clergy for reading, which thus furthered the development of the book trade. Erasmus complained: “The booksellers declare that before the outbreak of the Reform they disposed of 3000 volumes more quickly than they now sell 600” (see Döllinger, “Die Reformation, ihre innere Entwickelung u. ihre Wirkungen”, I, Ratisbon, 1851, p. 348. Early Humanism, strongly encouraged by Popes Nicholas V and Leo X, numbered among its enthusiastic supporters many Catholic clerics, such as Petrarch and Erasmus; the later Humanistic school, steeped in paganism, found among the Catholic priesthood, not encouragement, but to a great extent determined opposition. Spain’s greatest writers in the seventeenth century were priests: Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderon, etc. At Oxford in the thirteenth century, by their skill in the natural sciences the Franciscans acquired celebrity and the Bishop Grosseteste exercised great influence. The friar, Roger Bacon (d. 1249), was famous for his scientific knowledge, as were also Gerbert of Rheims, afterwards Pope Silvester II, Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully, and Vincent of Beauvais. Copernicus, canon of Thorn, is the founder of modern astronomy, in which even to the present day the Jesuits especially (e.g. Scheiner, Clavius, Secchi, Perry) have rendered important services. For the first geographical chart or map we are indebted to Fra Mauro of Venice (d. 1459). The Spanish Jesuit, Hervas y Panduro (d. 1809), is the father of comparative philology; the Carmelite, Paolino di san Bartolomeo, was the author of the first Sanskrit grammar (Rome, 1790). The foundation of historical criticism was laid by Cardinal Baronius (d. 1607), the monks of St. Maur, and the Bollandists. A study of the history of art would reveal a proportionately great number of the apostles of the beautiful in art among the Catholic clergy of all centuries. From the paintings in the catacombs to Fra Angelico and thence to the Beuron school we meet numerous priest, less indeed as practicing artists than as Mæcenases of art. The clergy have done much to justify what the celebrated sculptor Canova wrote to Napoleon I: “Art is under infinite obligations to religion, but to none so much as the Catholic religion.”
The basis on which higher culture finds its secure foundation is material or economic culture, which, in spite of modern technics and machinery, rests utimately on labour. Without the labourer’s energy, which consists in the power and the will to work, no culture whatever can prosper. But the Catholic priesthood more than any other professional body has praised in word and proved by deed the value and blessing of the labour required in agriculture, mining, and the handicrafts. The curse and disdain, which paganism poured on manual labour, were removed by Christianity. Even an Aristotle (Polit., III, iii) could anathematize manual labour as “philistine”, the humbler occupations as “unworthy of a free man”. To whom are we primarily indebted in Europe for the clearing away of the primitive forests, for schemes of drainage and irrigation, for the cultivation of new fruits and crops, for the building of roads and bridges, if not to the Catholic monks? In Eastern Europe the Basilians, in Western the Benedictines, and later the Cistercians and Trappists, laboured to bring the land under cultivation, and rendered vast districts free from fever and habitable. Mining and foundries also owe their development, and to some extent their origin, to the keen economic sense of the monasteries. To place the whole economic life of the nations on a scientific foundation, Catholic bishops and priests early laid the basis of the science of national economy–e.g. Duns Scotus (d. 1308), Nicholas Oresme, Bishop of Lisieux (d. 1382), St. Antoninus of Florence (d. 1459), and Gabriel Biel (d. 1495). The Church and clergy have therefore truly endeavoured to carry out in every sphere and in all centuries the programme which Leo XIII in his famous Encyclical “Immortale Dei” of 1 Nov., 1885, declared the ideal of the Catholic Church: “Imo inertiæ desidiæque inimica [Ecclesia] magnopere vult, ut hominum ingenia uberes ferant exercitatione et cultura fructus”. The “flight from the world”, with which they are so constantly reproached, or the “hostility to civilization”, which we hear so often echoed by the ignorant, have never prevented the Church or her clergy from fulfilling their calling as a civilizing agency of the first order, and thus refuting all slanders with the logic of facts. 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.