The Catholic engine of western progress

George Weigel

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.

Right?

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: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.