Recently, Bishop Robert Barron had his Word on Fire team scour the streets of Rome, asking young people what they thought were the best and worst things the Catholic Church has ever done. Answers to the first question ranged from personal guidance and building churches, to the advancement of art and their work with the poor.
It was in the second question that the video began to turn bleak, if not chilling. Without fail, every person interviewed named the sexual abuse cases of the last decades as worst thing the Catholic Church has ever done, with the Crusades as a close second. One woman pondered, “I don’t know if its killing people or raping children … How do you choose?”
In just four minutes, this video –- which was produced during the recent bishop’s synod on Catholic youth — reveals the biggest evangelical hurdle the Church must face moving forward. The recent exposure of cover-ups and abuse is the topic most present in the minds of Catholic youth and will most likely influence their views of the Church for many years to come.
Only slightly less troubling is how most of the people interviewed had to strain themselves to come up with something great the Church has ever done or how its spiritual works have influenced the secular world. This demonstrates that young Catholics have no understanding of their Catholic history. Without knowing where we have come from, how can we help steer where the Church must go? How do we develop a cultural and spiritual identity?
Our 2,000 years of greatness may feel easy to overlook because we feel far-removed from the Church’s most influential periods in the West. The more one studies history, however, the more it becomes clear that the world would be far less advanced today in the fields of science, art, global society, communication, travel, and education if not for the work of the Catholic Church.
Astronomy and scientific theory
It is a popular misconception that the worlds of science and religion are mutually exclusive, and that “Christians hate science” but the Catholic Church was instrumental in many scientific advancements. At the request of Pope Clement IV, The Opus Maius (1267) by the Franciscan Roger Bacon instituted the tradition of optics.
The first vision-enhancing spectacles were an Italian invention, the lenses of which were later developed into telescopes and microscopes. Through diligent study of the stars and constellations, the Catholic Church developed the Gregorian Calendar, which is used worldwide today.
Catholics played a big part in scientific theory as well. It is recognized that the theory of the Big Bang was the proposition of a Catholic priest, Fr Georges Lemaître, in the 20th century. The Catholic Herald points out that while the theory of evolution is attributed to Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (d. 1829), a French Catholic, developed the theory first.
Modern Western music is a direct result of 1,200 years of Catholic development. In order to better glorify God, many genres of music were created: Gregorian chant, sacred choirs, hymns, oratorios. As these styles grew in popularity, the church developed a means of writing music so that her liturgical and devotional musical literature could travel and be performed throughout Christendom. This musical language is still used today in ways, admittedly, the Church might never have imagined.
It may seem like a stretch to consider that distortion-based progressive rock would find its roots in sacred music, but had musical writing and orchestration never been developed, we might never have seen the invention of modern instrumentation. From the development of bowed string instruments came those that were plucked and eventually came the lute and from there the guitar.
The Catholic Church may not have inspired modern musical styles, but they created the system of music that evolved to become the vast variety of genres we know today.
Education and the written word
For over a thousand years of Western society, Catholics were the primary educators and bookmakers. Before the printing press of the Renaissance, books were a time consuming to write and bind and were primarily the works of monastic scribes. Once the printing press was invented, the first book to be mass-produced was the Bible.
In the same timeframe, the Church began opening up universities, which spread knowledge and helped usher in the Renaissance and eventually the Age of Enlightenment. Today it is estimated that Catholic schools educate more than 50 million students worldwide. Catholic educators, from Don Bosco to Elizabeth Ann Seton and many others brought an egalitarian view of education to the fore, opening up elementary opportunities for the children of the poor and the marginalized, and encouraging educational advancement through the establishment of Catholic schools of higher learning.
Philosophy and the maintenance of society
Jesus himself told us to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. The last two thousand years have seen numerous Catholic scholars write on philosophical principles, including St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, Blessed Duns Scotus, Suárez, and Blaise Pascal.
These writings explore and defend the dignity of all men and women, free will, the role of virtues in happiness, the nature of good and evil, natural laws, and the principals of non-contradiction. As with science, there is no separation of thought between faith and reason; well-reasoned laws (and well argued legislation) are essential to the creation of a just society.
The empowerment of women
The modern feminist movement would be loath to admit it, but the Catholic Church has honored and encouraged powerful women of faith since its earliest days. The Virgin Mary is revered with the utmost respect, as are Mary Magdalen and the early Mothers of the Church.
St. Hildegard of Bingen, a Doctor of the Church, was a polymath and autodidact whose brilliance was arguably as broad as Da Vinci’s. Another Doctor, Saint Catherine of Siena, was a lay woman who managed to not only serve her local community but who also had the ear of European royalty and the pope himself. The examples of Catholic women who imagined great things, and then did them – schools, social services, hospitals and even military strategies – could fill volumes.
These five examples merely scratch the surface of the influence of the Catholic Church, both in sacred and secular terms. There are many other ways in which the Church has had great influence on Western civilization. We invite you to add your examples of what great things the Church has done in the comments section.
I’m staying Catholic for the same reasons I became Catholic