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Role of the Catholic Church in civilization

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Canyon of the Little Christians

The first recorded baptisms in Alta California were performed in "The Canyon of the Little Christians".[1]

The role of the Catholic Church in civilization has been intricately intertwined with the history and formation of Western society. For many of the past 2000 years of Church history, the Church has been a major source of schooling, of scientific and economic advancements, and of social services in many countries throughout the world.

The cultural influence of the Catholic Church has been vast, particularly upon western society.[2] It played a role in ending practices such as human sacrifice, slavery, infanticide and polygamy.[3][4][5][6][7] Historians note that Catholic missionaries, popes and religious were among the leaders in campaigns against slavery, an institution that has existed in almost every culture.[8][9][10] Christianity affected the status of women by condemning infanticide (female infanticide was more common), divorce, incest, polygamy and marital infidelity of both men and women.[3][4][11] Some critics say the Church and teachings by St. Paul, the Fathers of the Church and Scholastic theologians perpetuated a notion that female inferiority was divinely ordained.[12] However, official Church teaching[13] considers women and men to be equal, different, and complementary.

Marriage and family life

Social structures at the dawn of Christianity in the Roman Empire held that women were inferior to men intellectually and physically and were "naturally dependent".[4] Athenian women were legally classified as children regardless of age and were the "legal property of some man at all stages in her life."[11] Women in the Roman Empire had limited legal rights and could not enter professions. Female infanticide and abortion were practiced by all classes.[11] In family life, men, not women, could have "lovers, prostitutes and concubines" and it was not rare for pagan women to be married before the age of puberty and then forced to consummate the marriage with her often much older husband. Husbands, not wives, could divorce at any time simply by telling the wife to leave.[4]

Although some Christian ideals were adopted by the Roman Empire, there is little evidence to link most of these laws to Church influence.[14] After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion, however, the link between Christian teachings and Roman family laws became more clear.[15] Early Church Fathers advocated against polygamy, abortion, infanticide, child abuse, homosexuality, transvestism, and incest.[16]

By the late 11th century, beginning with the efforts of Pope Gregory VII, the Church successfully established itself as "an autonomous legal and political ... [entity] within Western Christendom".[17] For the next several hundred years, the Church held great influence over Western society;[17] church laws were the single "universal law ... common to jurisdictions and peoples throughout Europe", giving the Church "preeminent authority".[18] With its own court system, the Church retained jurisdiction over many aspects of ordinary life, including education, inheritance, oral promises, oaths, moral crimes, and marriage.[19] As one of the more powerful institutions of the Middle Ages, Church attitudes were reflected in many secular laws of the time.[20]

Church teaching heavily influenced the legal concept of marriage.[21] During the Gregorian Reform, the Church developed and codified a view of marriage as a sacrament.[17] In a departure from societal norms, Church law required the consent of both parties before a marriage could be performed[16] and established a minimum age for marriage.[22] The elevation of marriage to a sacrament also made the union a binding contract, with dissolutions overseen by Church authorities.[23][24] Although the Church abandoned tradition to allow women the same rights as men to dissolve a marriage,[16][25] in practice, when an accusation of infidelity was made, men were granted dissolutions more frequently than women.[26]

The teachings of the Church were also used to "establish[...] the status of women under the law".[27] According to historian Shulamith Shahar, "[s]ome historians hold that the Church played a considerable part in fostering the inferior status of women in medieval society in general" by providing a "moral justification" for male superiority and by accepting practices such as wife-beating.[28] Despite these laws, some women, particularly abbesses, gained powers that were never available to women in previous Roman or Germanic societies.[29]

Although these teachings emboldened secular authorities to give women fewer rights than men, they also helped form the concept of chivalry.[30] Chivalry was influenced by a new Church attitude towards Mary, the mother of Jesus.[31] This "ambivalence about women's very nature" was shared by most major religions in the Western world.[32]


The Church initially accepted slavery as part of the social fabric of society during the Roman Empire and early antiquity, campaigning primarily for humane treatment of slaves but also admonishing slaves to behave appropriately towards their masters.[33][34] During the early medieval period, this attitude changed to one which opposed enslavement of Christians but still tolerated enslavement of non-Christians. By the end of the Medieval period, enslavement of Christians had been converted to serfdom within Europe, although slavery existed in European colonies in other parts of the world. Several popes issued papal bulls condeming mistreatment of enslaved Native Americans; these were largely ignored. In his 1839 bull In Supremo Apostolatus, Pope Gregory XVI condemned all forms of slavery; nevertheless some American bishops continued to support slavery for several decades.[33]

Latin America

Codex Magliabechiano (141 cropped)

Aztecs were practicing human sacrifice, which ended with the spread of Christianity to the region by Catholic missionaries.[35]

It was women, primarily Amerindian Christian converts who became the primary supporters of the Latin American Church.[6] While the Spanish military was known for its ill-treatment of Amerindian men and women, Catholic missionaries are credited with championing all efforts to initiate protective laws for the Indians and fought against their enslavement. This began within 20 years of the discovery of the New World by Europeans in 1492 - in December 1511, Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar, openly rebuked the Spanish rulers of Hispaniola for their "cruelty and tyranny" in dealing with the American natives.[36][37] King Ferdinand enacted the Laws of Burgos and Valladolid in response. The issue resulted in a crisis of conscience in 16th-century Spain.[37][38] Further abuses against the Amerindians committed by Spanish authorities were denounced by Catholic missionaries such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria which led to debate on the nature of human rights[37] and the birth of modern international law.[39][40] Enforcement of these laws was lax, and some historians blame the Church for not doing enough to liberate the Indians; others point to the Church as the only voice raised on behalf of indigenous peoples.[41]

Slavery and human sacrifice were both part of Latin American culture before the Europeans arrived. Indian slavery was first abolished by Pope Paul III in the 1537 bull Sublimis Deus which confirmed that "their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans" and they should neither be robbed nor turned into slaves.[42][43][44]

An unintentional catastrophe was wrought upon the Amerindians by contact with Europeans. Old World diseases like smallpox, measles, malaria and many others spread through Indian populations. "In most of the New World 90 percent or more of the native population was destroyed by wave after wave of previously unknown afflictions. Explorers and colonists did not enter an empty land but rather an emptied one".[45]


Slavery and the slave trade were part of African societies and states which supplied the Arab world with slaves before the arrival of the Europeans.[46][47] Several decades prior to discovery of the New World, in response to serious military threat to Europe posed by Muslims of the Ottoman Empire, Pope Nicholas V had granted Portugal the right to subdue Muslims, pagans and other unbelievers in the papal bull Dum Diversas (1452).[48] Six years after African slavery was first outlawed by the first major entity to do so, (Great Britain in 1833), Pope Gregory XVI followed in a challenge to Spanish and Portuguese policy, by condemning slavery and the slave trade in the 1839 papal bull In Supremo Apostolatus, and approved the ordination of native clergy in the face of government racism.[10] The United States would eventually outlaw African slavery in 1865.

By the close of the 19th century, European powers had managed to gain control of most of the African interior.[49] The new rulers introduced cash-based economies which created an enormous demand for literacy and a western education—a demand which for most Africans could only be satisfied by Christian missionaries.[49] Catholic missionaries followed colonial governments into Africa, and built schools, hospitals, monasteries and churches.[49]


Map of Medieval Universities

Map of mediaeval universities established by Catholic students, faculty, monarchs, or priests

Historians of science, including non-Catholics such as J.L. Heilbron,[50] A.C. Crombie, David Lindberg,[51] Edward Grant, Thomas Goldstein,[52] and Ted Davis, have argued that the Church had a significant, positive influence on the development of civilization. They hold that, not only did monks save and cultivate the remnants of ancient civilization during the barbarian invasions, but that the Church promoted learning and science through its sponsorship of many universities which, under its leadership, grew rapidly in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church's "model theologian," not only argued that reason is in harmony with faith, he even recognized that reason can contribute to understanding revelation, and so encouraged intellectual development. [53] The Church's priest-scientists, many of whom were Jesuits, were the leading lights in astronomy, genetics, geomagnetism, meteorology, seismology, and solar physics, becoming the "fathers" of these sciences. It is important to remark names of important churchmen such as the Augustinian abbot Gregor Mendel (pioneer in the study of genetics), Roger Bacon (a Franciscan friar who was one of the early advocates of the scientific method), and Belgian priest Georges Lemaître (the first to propose the Big Bang theory). Even more numerous are Catholic laity involved in science: Henri Becquerel who discovered radioactivity; Galvani, Volta, Ampere, Marconi, pioneers in electricity and telecommunications; Lavoisier, "father of modern chemistry"; Vesalius, founder of modern human anatomy; Cauchy one of the mathematicians who laid the rigorous foundations of calculus.

This position is the reverse of the view, held by some enlightenment philosophers, that the Church's doctrines were superstitious and hindered the progress of civilization. It is also used by communist states in its education and propaganda for giving a negative view of Catholicism to its citizens

In the most famous example cited by these enlightenment philosophers critics, Galileo Galilei, in 1633, was denounced for his insistence on teaching a heliocentric universe, previously proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus, who was probably a priest[54]. After numerous years of investigations, consultations with the Popes, promises kept and then broken by Galileo, and finally a trial by the Tribunal of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.[55] Pope John Paul II, on 31 October 1992, publicly expressed regret for the actions of those Catholics who badly treated Galileo in that trial.[56][57] Cardinal John Henry Newman, in the nineteenth century, stated that those who attack the Church can only point to the Galileo case, which to many historians does not prove the Church's opposition to science since many of the churchmen at that time were encouraged by the Church to continue their research.[58]

Recently, the Church has been both criticized and applauded for its teaching that embryonic stem cell research is a form of experimentation on human beings, and results in the killing of a human person. Criticism has been on the grounds that this doctrine hinders scientific research. The Church argues that advances in medicine can come without the destruction of humans (in an embryonic state of life); for example, in the use of adult or umbilical stem cells in place of embryonic stem cells.

Art, literature, and music

Several historians credit the Catholic Church for the brilliance and magnificence of Western art. They refer to the Church's consistent opposition to Byzantine iconoclasm, a movement against visual representations of the divine, its insistence on building structures befitting worship, Augustine's repeated reference to Wisdom 11:20 (God "ordered all things by measure and number and weight") which led to the geometric constructions of Gothic architecture, the scholastics' coherent intellectual systems called the Summa Theologiae which influenced the intellectually consistent writings of Dante, its creation and sacramental theology which has developed a Catholic imagination influencing writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien[59] and William Shakespeare,[60] and of course, the patronage of the Renaissance popes for the great works of Catholic artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Borromini and Leonardo da Vinci. In addition, we must take into account the enormous body of religious music composed for the Catholic Church, a body which is profoundly tied to the emergence and development of the European tradition of classical music, and indeed, all music that has been influenced by it.

Economic development

Francisco de Vitoria, a disciple of Thomas Aquinas and a Catholic thinker who studied the issue regarding the human rights of colonized natives, is recognized by the United Nations as a father of international law, and now also by historians of economics and democracy as a leading light for the West's democracy and rapid economic development.[61]

Physician in hospital sickroom printed 1682

Historian of hospitals, Guenter Risse, says that the Church spearheaded the development of a hospital system geared towards the marginalized.

Joseph Schumpeter, an economist of the twentieth century, referring to the Scholastics, wrote, "it is they who come nearer than does any other group to having been the ‘founders’ of scientific economics."[62] Other economists and historians, such as Raymond de Roover, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, and Alejandro Chafuen, have also made similar statements. Historian Paul Legutko of Stanford University said the Catholic Church is "at the center of the development of the values, ideas, science, laws, and institutions which constitute what we call Western civilization."[63]

Social justice, care-giving, and the hospital system

The Catholic Church has contributed to society through its social doctrine which has guided leaders to promote social justice and by setting up the hospital system in Medieval Europe, a system which was different from the merely reciprocal hospitality of the Greeks and family-based obligations of the Romans. These hospitals were established to cater to "particular social groups marginalized by poverty, sickness, and age," according to historian of hospitals, Guenter Risse.[64]


Missionary activity for the Catholic Church has always incorporated education of evangelized peoples as part of its social ministry. History shows that in evangelized lands, the first people to operate schools were Roman Catholics. In some countries, the Church is the main provider of education or significantly supplements government forms of education. Presently, the Church operates the world's largest non-governmental school system.[65]


The number of Catholic institutions as of 2000[66]
Institutions #
Parishes and missions 408,637
Primary and secondary schools 125,016
Universities 1,046
Hospitals 5,853
Orphanages 8,695
Homes for the elderly and handicapped 13,933
Dispensaries, leprosaries, nurseries and other institutions 74,936

In 530, Saint Benedict wrote his monastic Rule, which became a blueprint for the organization of monasteries throughout Europe.[67] The new monasteries preserved classical craft and artistic skills while maintaining intellectual culture within their schools, scriptoria and libraries. As well as providing a focus for spiritual life, they functioned as agricultural, economic and production centers, particularly in remote regions, becoming major conduits of civilization.[68]

The Cluniac reform of monasteries that had begun in 910 sparked widespread monastic growth and renewal.[69] Monasteries introduced new technologies and crops, fostered the creation and preservation of literature and promoted economic growth. Monasteries, convents and cathedrals still operated virtually all schools and libraries.[70][71]

In 13th century, mendicant orders were founded by Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzmán which brought consecrated religious life into urban settings.[72] These orders also played a large role in the development of cathedral schools into universities, the direct ancestors of the modern Western institutions.[73] Notable scholastic theologians such as the Dominican Thomas Aquinas worked at these universities, his Summa Theologica was a key intellectual achievement in its synthesis of Aristotelian thought and Christianity.[74]

Latin America

Education in Latin American began under the direction of missionaries who were sponsored by the Spanish crown. Royal policy stipulated that the Amerindians had to accept missionaries but they did not have to convert. Indians who agreed to listen to the missionaries were not subjected to work for encomenderos some of whom were notorious for brutal conditions.[75]


By the close of the 19th century, European powers had managed to gain control of most of the African interior.[49] The new rulers introduced cash-based economies which created an enormous demand for literacy and a western education—a demand which for most Africans could only be satisfied by Christian missionaries.[49] Catholic missionaries followed colonial governments into Africa, and built schools, hospitals, monasteries and churches.[49]

With a high number of adult baptisms, the Church is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else.[76] It also operates a greater number of Catholic schools per parish here (3:1) than in other areas of the world.[77]


In India, over 25,000 schools and colleges are operated by the Church.[78] In 2008-9, Hindu extremists attacked Catholic priests, nuns and layworkers alleging that the Church was bribing lower caste Hindus to convert to Christianity.[78] Some Christians say the Caste system causes those in the lower castes to willingly convert.[78]


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  2. Orlandis, preface
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bokenkotter, p. 56.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Noble, p. 230.
  5. Noble, p. 445.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Stearns, p. 65-66.
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  9. Noll, p. 137–140.
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  13. Kreeft, p. 61.
  14. Nathan (2002), p. 187.
  15. Nathan (2002), p. 91.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Witte (1997), p. 20.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Witte (1997), p. 23.
  18. Witte (1997), p. 30.
  19. Witte (1997), p. 31.
  20. Power, p 1.
  21. Power (1995), pp. 1–2.
  22. Shahar (2003), p. 33.
  23. Witte (1997), p. 29.
  24. Witte (1997), p. 36.
  25. Witte (1997), p. 25.
  26. Shahar (2003), p. 18.
  27. Power (1995), pp. 1-2.
  28. Shahar (2003), p. 88. "The ecclesiastical conception of the inferior status of women, deriving from Creation, her role in Original Sin and her subjugation to man, provided both direct and indirect justification for her inferior standing in the family and in society in medieval civilization. It was not the Church which induced husbands to beat their wives, but it not only accepted this custom after the event, if it was not carried to excess, but, by proclaiming the superiority of man, also supplied its moral justification."
  29. Shahar (2003), p. 12.
  30. Power (1995), p. 2.
  31. Shahar (2003), p. 25.
  32. Bitel (2002), p. 102.
  33. 33.0 33.1 Stark, Rodney (2003-07-01). "The Truth About the Catholic Church and Slavery". Christianity Today.
  34. Nathan (2002), pp. 171–173.
  35. Noble, p. 446
  36. Woods, p. 135.
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 Koschorke, p. 287.
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  39. Woods, p. 137.
  40. Chadwick, Owen, p. 327.
  41. Dussel, p. 45, 52, 53 quote: "The missionary Church opposed this state of affairs from the beginning, and nearly everything positive that was done for the benefit of the indigenous peoples resulted from the call and clamor of the missionaries. The fact remained, however, that widespread injustice was extremely difficult to uproot ... Even more important than Bartolome de Las Casas was the Bishop of Nicaragua, Antonio de Valdeviso, who ultimately suffered martyrdom for his defense of the Indian."
  42. Chadwick, Owen, The Reformation, p. 190
  43. Johansen, p. 110, quote: "In the Papal bull Sublimis deus (1537), Pope Paul III declared that Indians were to be regarded as fully human, and that their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans. This edict also outlawed slavery of Indians in any form ..."
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  45. Noble, p. 454.
  46. Ferro, p. 221.
  47. Historical survey > Slave-owning societies, Encyclopædia Britannica
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  52. Goldstein, Thomas (April 1995). Dawn of Modern Science: From the Ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80637-1. 
  53. Pope John Paul II (September 1998). "Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), IV". Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  54. Catholic Encyclopedia
  55. Galileo was found "suspect of heresy" - not guilty of heresy, as is frequently misreported.
  56. Choupin, Valeur des Decisions Doctrinales du Saint Siege
  57. An abstract of the acts of the process against Galileo is available at the Vatican Secret Archives, which reproduces part of it on its website.
  58. "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization". Catholic Education Resource Center. May 2005. 
  59. Boffetti, Jason (November 2001). "Tolkien's Catholic Imagination". Crisis Magazine. Morley Publishing Group. 
  60. Voss, Paul J. (July 2002). "Assurances of faith: How Catholic Was Shakespeare? How Catholic Are His Plays?". Crisis Magazine. Morley Publishing Group. 
  61. de Torre, Fr. Joseph M. (1997). "A Philosophical and Historical Analysis of Modern Democracy, Equality, and Freedom Under the Influence of Christianity". Catholic Education Resource Center. 
  62. Schumpeter, Joseph (1954). History of Economic Analysis. London: Allen & Unwin. 
  63. "Review of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods, Jr.". National Review Book Service. Retrieved 2006-09-16. 
  64. Risse, Guenter B (April 1999). Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals. Oxford University Press. pp. 59. ISBN 0-19-505523-3. 
  65. Gardner, p. 148
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  67. Woods, p. 27.
  68. Le Goff, p. 120.
  69. Duffy, p. 88–89.
  70. Woods, p. 40–44.
  71. Le Goff, p. 80–82.
  72. Le Goff, p. 87.
  73. Woods, p. 44–48.
  74. Bokenkotter, p. 158–159.
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  76. Froehle, p. 46.
  77. Froehle, p. 48.
  78. 78.0 78.1 78.2


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