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How the Catholic Church shaped the history of law

Pope Gregory VII

The reforms of Pope Gregory VII gave impetus to forming the laws of European states.

“Law” conjures up a number of images and emotions, many of them negative:

“It’s against the law.”

“There are too many laws.”

“Pretty soon it’s going to be illegal to think for yourself.”

But it’s just as true that the law is there to protect those who live under it. It’s much better to be in a society living under the rule of law than the rule of force, or the rule of the jungle.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, writing in the Catholic Herald, wants to remind the world that many of the goods that we enjoy in life have been protected and promoted by the Church down through the centuries. In “What the Church has given the world,” Fr. Pinsent points out that the Church had a lot to do with the development of modern law and many legal concepts we often take for granted today.

“The reforms of Pope Gregory VII (d. 1085) gave impetus to forming the laws of the Church and states of Europe,” Pinsent writes. “The subsequent application of philosophy to law, together with the great works of monks like the 12th-century Gratian, produced the first complete, systematic bodies of law, in which all parts are viewed as interacting to form a whole.”

This revolution also led to the founding of law schools, starting in Bologna (1088), he continues. From those, the legal profession emerged, and concepts such as “corporate personality,” the legal basis of a wide range of bodies today such as universities, corporations and trust funds:

Legal principles such as “good faith,” reciprocity of rights, equality before the law, international law, trial by jury, habeas corpus and the obligation to prove an offense beyond a reasonable doubt are all fruits of Catholic civilization and jurisprudence.

Prior to this, it might be added, there was a rich legal tradition going back to the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Israelites.

As Wikipedia puts it, the Old Testament “takes the form of moral imperatives as recommendations for a good society.”

A good society, after all, is what we’d all like. And law helps to ensure that.


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