Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Catholic Gift of Western Civilization

I have always felt drawn to the middle ages. As a schoolboy I learned about a classical age, a Renaissance, and a vast dark millennium in between; but all along I suspected that life between the fifth century and the fifteenth must have had some interest—even if only for all those knights and plagues and crusades and stuff. Maybe it was the “darkness” itself that appealed to my young mind.

Now that I am a Catholic, of course, I recognize what filled that thousand year “void.” It was Catholic culture knitting Western civilization back together again after the fall of Rome, then standing fast against a new barbarian invasion storming Europe via the Iberian peninsula and Asia Minor. (That would be Islam.)

As I plan my pilgrimage to Montreal and study the medieval origins of Christian pilgrimage, I find myself plunged finally into the study of medieval Catholic Europe. Like McDonald’s, I’m lovin’ it.

A Catholic friend gave me the 100-page booklet Lumen: The Catholic Gift to Civilisation. The spelling of that last word is the tip-off: it’s a British publication by the Catholic Truth Society, authored by two priests, Marcus Holden and Andrew Pinsent. It might have been titled better: The Catholic Gift of Western Civilisation. 

For that is its clear message.

In their introduction, the authors cite a recent BBC survey which found that 87 percent of respondents “rejected the notion that the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” They add, “Whatever the many plausible reasons for this outcome, it suggests that there is little awareness of the contributions of the faith to civilization.”

They proceed to make the case—in twenty-five tight four-page chapters—that Catholicism has brought “extraordinary enlightenment” to the world—not only in the middle ages but through the Renaissance and into the modern era. The four sections, following the structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are titled: Light for the Mind, Light from the Sacraments, Light for the Moral Life, and Light from Prayer.

To whet your appetite, take this short quiz. The first two chapters of Lumen highlight Catholic contributions to science:

(1) Which of the following scientists was Catholic?
(2) Which of them was a priest or religious?

Roger Bacon (d. 1292), whose Opus Maius initiated the study of optics in the Latin world
Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1494), the first to discover the benefits of concave lenses
Nicolaus Copernicus (d. 1543), who first proposed that the solar system is heliocentric (sun- rather than earth-centered)
Ruder Boskovic (d. 1787), who laid foundations of modern field theory
Angelo Secchi (d. 1878), who invented instruments for analyzing the spectra of the sun and other stars, thus helping to found astrophysics
Gregor Mendel (d. 1884), who founded the science of genetics by studying the inherited characteristics of pea plants
Georges Lemaître (d. 1966), who invented the Big Bang theory, later named famously by Fred Hoyle

Answers: (1) All of the above scientists were Catholic. (2) All were priests or religious.

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