The Catholic engine of western progress

The standard account of the history of the West from, say, 400-1500 would run something like this:

The breakdown of the Roman Empire sent western Europe into the centuries-long civilizational morass of the “Dark Ages.” The West only began to recover its intellectual elan during the Enlightenment, and it was during that period, when scientists and political theorists unshackled themselves from the repressive bonds of Catholic faith, that “modernity” began to take shape. Democracy and the free market are primarily Enlightenment projects, although Protestantism had something to do with the rise of capitalism. Catholicism, on the other hand, had to be throttled if democracy, the free economy, and science were to thrive.


Wrong, according to Baylor University scholar Rodney Stark in his new book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House) — a splendid exercise in intellectual bomb-throwing that combines rigorous scholarship with readability.

According to Professor Stark, the West became history’s most successful civilization because of the unique theology that undergirded western culture. Christian theology was both rational and progressive; it held that knowledge of God and of God’s purposes could deepen and develop over time, to the point where new doctrines could evolve. Unlike Islam, which froze doctrine in an unchangeable sacred text, Christianity affirmed the “development of doctrine,” and that had a profound cultural impact — it helped create a civilization that was future-oriented, that believed in material as well as intellectual and spiritual progress, and that thought itself obliged to apply human reason to nature so that the world might become a garden of God (as the Benedictines had it).

Stark also shows how this distinctively Christian understanding of theology as a rational and progressive enterprise was “absolutely essential…for the rise of science,” even as it planted in our culture an understanding of the dignity of the human person and the value of work. Christian ideas were thus crucial, Stark insists, to the medieval evolution of “responsive states” that nurtured a considerable measure of individual freedom, and to the development of capitalism, which is the application of reason to economic life and commerce. Thus medieval monks, not dour Dutch Calvinists, were the world’s first successful practitioners of market-driven economics.

Despotism — ancient, medieval, or modern — is the great enemy of social and economic progress. And it was Christianity, not the Enlightenment, that vaccinated the West against totalitarianism, by emphasizing that, while Caesar had his claims, there were limits to those claims — the limits imposed by the superior claims of God. There was nothing like this in Islam; we live (and die) with the results of that difference today.

Professor Stark’s arguments are buttressed by his relentless demolition of the notion that “invention” stopped with the fall of Rome and didn’t start again until the Enlightenment. Really? The so-called “Dark Ages” created the first economies that didn’t rely on human muscles, by inventing water-mills, perfecting dams, producing paper mechanically, which no other civilization had managed. Other inventions of the “Dark Ages”? How about windmills, the horse-collar, horseshoes, the heavy plow, fish farming, three-cycle crop rotation, cloth manufacturing, chimneys, eyeglasses, and clocks? Don’t forget the round-bottomed ship, the sternpost rudder, and the compass. Or, on the cultural front, the university, modern languages, polyphony, and Gothic architecture, with its flying buttresses and stained glass.

As for science, Stark describes Copernicus, not as an isolated scientist estranged from the Church, but as “one of the best-educated men of his generation, having trained at the universities of Cracow, Bologna (possibly the best university in Europe), Padua, and Ferrara.” His heliocentric model of the solar system marked an evolution, not a revolution, for Copernicus stood on the shoulders of Christian scholars; contrary to the regnant mythology, the Polish astronomer was not a forerunner of Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and other contemporary scientists who love playing the village atheist, imagining it an interesting role.

The Victory of Reason is a bracing antidote to the secularist smog that chokes education today. Give it to any college student you know — after reading it yourself.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.