Originally a writing assignment at Catholic Distance University
The Catholic Church played a prominent role in the intellectual and artful flowering of the Middle Ages, so much so that the Church has been referred to as “the builder of Western civilization.”1 Not only did she expand upon church-building in order to erect inordinate and grand Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, but her people were responsible for some of the most memorable poems, stories, and artwork in the Western world. The Church also built universities throughout Christendom, great buildings of higher learning that Pope Innocent IV called, “"rivers of science which water and make fertile the soil of the universal Church.”2
Our modern concept of the university came into existence through the Catholic Church. Although we’re unsure of when the first universities started, they were firmly established throughout Europe by the thirteenth century.3 Great strides in education and science were made thanks to open and lively debate in universities “where scholars could debate and discuss propositions, and in which the utility of human reason was taken for granted.”4 For graduates of certain universities (such as Bologna, Oxford, and Paris), a master’s degree guaranteed the right to teach anywhere in the world.5 Critics of Catholic-run universities will be surprised to learn that the papacy worked tirelessly to ensure their independence in determining courses and studies. Thanks to the work of the Church, universities allowed students to study “not only many of the standard liberal arts disciplines but also civil and canon law, natural philosophy, medicine, and theology.”6
Artists, architects, and writers were greatly influenced by their Catholic faith. Dante’s famous trio of poems The Divine Comedy described a man’s exploration of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven and is regarded as the pinnacle of Medieval Italian writing. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales chronicled a religious pilgrimage through Medieval England. Both The Divine Comedy and Canterbury Tales highlight the transition of religious writing into the vernacular and show that many writers in the Middle Ages wrote in order to evangelize the people and glorify God, all the while evolving poetry and fiction to great new levels. Grand cathedrals sprung up around the cities of Europe, being built higher and larger than ever before thanks to advances in architectural ingenuity. Their windows, massive stained-glass images of Biblical scenes, brought the faith to the illiterate people of Europe. Statues, paintings, and murals were religious in nature and were patronized by the Church, allowing artists to offer their talents to the propagation of the faith and the beauty of the cities and parish churches around the world.
While Christianity in general - and the Catholic Church in particular - are often criticized for being behind-the-times by the modern secular world, the Church was actually at the forefront in science, architecture, and the arts. “The creation of the university, the commitment to reason and rational argument, and the overall spirit of inquiry that characterized medieval intellectual life amounted to a gift from the Latin Middle Ages to the modern world.”7 Artwork, heavily influenced by the Catholic faith of the artists, remains an attraction in museums, churches, and cathedrals around the world. Thanks to the Church’s universality, its reach throughout Christendom, and its financial support the arts and the university system are just two ways in which the Church of the Middle Ages influenced and nurtured the world’s faithful, which it continues to do even to this day.
1. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization,” (5 May 2005, accessed 21 July 2013); available from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0101.html
3. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “The Catholic Church and the Creation of the University,” (16 May, 2005, accessed 21 July 2013); available from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/education/ed0321.htm
4. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization,” (5 May 2005, accessed 21 July 2013); available from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0101.html
5. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “The Catholic Church and the Creation of the University,” (16 May, 2005, accessed 21 July 2013); available from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/education/ed0321.htm
7. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization,” (5 May 2005, accessed 21 July 2013); available from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0101.html
Woods, T. (2005). How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Retrieved from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0101.html
Woods, T. (2005). The Catholic Church and the Creation of the University. Retrieved from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/education/ed0321.htm