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'What has the Catholic Church ever done for the world? Quite a lot, actually'

A lecturer in Theology sketches the Roman Catholic Church’s influence on legal, political, social and philanthropic movements through the ages.

Dr Thomas Finegan Lecturer in Theology

HAS THE CATHOLIC Church given the world anything besides clerical sex abuse and its cover-up? The question is important for those who seek God and wonder whether the Church is somehow a path towards communion with Him here and in the world to come.

The Church, properly understood, is the community of believers in Christ. All of them are tasked with proposing and living the Gospel; some of them are tasked with service rooted in Christ’s instructions to the apostles. It has never taught that its members are sinless: Christ came to call sinners to repent and believe in the Gospel, and two of the 12 apostles betrayed him (Peter, the first Pope, repented; Judas did not).

Still, the Church affirms that God radiates his eternal life to us through the sacraments. If this is true, then surely the Church will have made life-giving contributions to the world at large.

In fact, it has – though we hardly ever hear about them.

The ancient Romans were perplexed by charity

Charity is giving to those outside of one’s social circles, a giving motivated by love. It first arrived as a significant social phenomenon with the emergence of the Church. The ancient Romans were perplexed at how the Christian community would give to the poor, tend to prisoners, and take care of orphans and widows. Through social action, programmes, and donations the Church remains easily the largest charitable organisation in the world (and one with an authentic voluntary dimension).

Hospitals are organised institutions dedicated to the healing of all and not just those within a particular social circle. As a sustained social phenomenon they began via Church initiative in the 4th century (an initiative later extended by the likes of the Knights Hospitallers in the high middle ages). Even before this the ancient world could not understand why the Church was so ready to heal and comfort the lowly, sick and diseased. Church efforts in healthcare continue globally today, especially in many of the world’s poorest regions.

Universities are formal institutions dedicated to higher learning. They too were pioneered by the Church, beginning in 11th and 12th centuries. Modern science emerged from these institutions. It was very often funded by Church patronage, and was largely developed by either religious (e.g. Jesuits) or lay Church persons who saw their scientific work as an effort to better understand the mind of God. Before all this the learning and teaching of monks saved Europe from cultural and educational collapse after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Barbarian tribes.

The revolutionary ideas of the fundamental equality of all human beings and the sanctity of life are rooted in the book of Genesis, but their widespread social acceptance was effected by the Church. Under Church influence infanticide (usually directed against baby girls), a father’s power of life and death over his family, gladiatorial “shows”, and the disfigurement of criminals were ended before the collapse of the Roman Empire, while slavery was eradicated from Western society centuries before the Renaissance.

The promotion of women’s rights

Women in particular were (and still are) attracted to the Church, and its enemies derided it as a “woman’s religion”. The Church’s teaching in relation to marriage, adultery, polygamy, male responsibility, and the dignity of wives, girls, widows, celibates and orphans massively improved the standing of women in society, while virtually nowhere else in the ancient world could communities of women self-govern as they did within the Church.

In relation to disability, the Church was one of the few prominent opponents of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, a movement that had enormous support from liberal, secular intellectuals.

The first integrated legal system in the world appeared with the Church’s canon law of the 12th century. Its development introduced to the world the idea of human rights; formalised and insisted upon due process; decreed consent as necessary for marriage; required criminal intent as a component of criminal responsibility; and popularised the ideas of equity and justice as central to law and authority. Canon law’s affirmation of property rights and the logic of contract laid crucial foundations for market economics which has helped raise livings standards generation on generation.

International law originated with Church theology and advocacy in the 16th century and its first contribution was to insist on the natural rights of native populations in the “new world”.

Human dignity

In the 20th century the Church provided one of the few forces of resistance within societies overtaken by the atheistic regimes of Russian Communism and German National Socialism. Both attempted to destroy the Church, creating tens of thousands of martyrs in the process. It was the Church that popularised the idea of “human dignity” as a response to these murderous totalitarianisms.

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This summary sketch indicates that the world has been transformed in remarkably good ways by the community of believers that is the Church. We should not take for granted how radical and counter-cultural these transformations have been. While they don’t mitigate despicable evils perpetrated by its members, a serious assessment of the Church can’t ignore them.

Dr Thomas Finegan is a lecturer in Theology at Mary Immaculate College.

About the author:

Dr Thomas Finegan  / Lecturer in Theology

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