The Church: Teacher of Civilization

In the third century of our era, Rome was facing a terrible decline towards its inevitable twilight. Would that civilization finally disappear?

I hope the two characters in the discussion I witnessed the other day will not mind if I describe it as I heard it.

In the corner of a waiting room, a priest in a cassock sat silently reading. Two seats away, slouched in his chair, was a young university student with the air of an intellectual, despite his lax demeanour. Musing over the contrast between the two was a welcome distraction… but one that was soon interrupted. A discussion started by the young man soon broke out between the two antagonists. The volume gradually increased until it overcame my discretion. I started to listen.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” the student reiterated, brandishing a pointed finger. “The Church is and always was the great obstacle to science and progress. Would you like proof?”

“I’d appreciate it if you could give me at least one,” the priest calmly replied.

“I will give you two! What do you have to say about the misunderstood Copernicus or the burning at the stake of Galileo? Is it true or not,” the youth continued more heatedly, “that the Church prevented them from developing their innovative theories?”

“What do I have to say about these cases? That Copernicus was a Dominican priest greatly favoured by Pope Paul IV, and that the burning of Galileo is as false as is true the astronomer’s friendship with Urban VIII and so many other cardinals and ecclesiastics!”

“And in that dark period that was the Middle Ages,” the student started again, “who ruled but the Church? Who but the Church prevented people from becoming literate? It was only thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press, which spread across Europe like wildfire, that culture was saved.

“It is incredible,” remarked the clergyman, “that the texts printed on Gutenberg’s presses spread so quickly across a continent of illiterates, is it not? Almost as miraculous as the development of painting in the land of the blind…”

This rejoinder caught his opponent off guard. When he recovered, he rebutted:

“Miracle or not, the fact is that Greco-Latin culture only collapsed with the rise of the Church, and that men became enslaved to that tyrant, and worst of all…”

The hand-to-hand combat continued. But to the reader’s relief, I will set down only the conclusions that the “dialogue” brought to fruition in my mind.

A new civilization is born

In the first century AD, the Imperium Romanum covered three million square kilometres and was home to sixty million inhabitants – undeniably one of the most prosperous and powerful ancient civilizations. Its government subdued peoples, had a vast and powerful army marching in its favour, and it masterfully compiled much of the knowledge from Antiquity – particularly that of Greek culture.

But after two golden centuries, moral, economic and social crises devastated the empire and, in the third century of our era, Rome faced a terrible decadence that led to its twilight. In the meantime, barbarian peoples raged against the She-wolf’s weakened borders.

After suffering several sackings, the Urbe finally succumbed under Odoacer on September 4, 476. Undoubtedly, the whole of Greco-Roman civilization was doomed to perish. Nevertheless, it did not disappear…

The Church as a principle of unity

While Rome collapsed, a new social order appeared on the horizon. Treading the same roads travelled by the Roman legionaries, preachers now proclaimed the Gospel; the circumscriptions of the empire – parishes and dioceses – became the seats of the Church; in short order, the Catholic Faith spread across vast regions of Europe and climbed the social ladder, making itself present even within the aristocracy of the peoples that were being formed.

Now, with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe was reduced to a mosaic of barbarian federations, whose principle of unity became the Catholic Church, which continued to expand on every side, conquering and forming entire nations. And it is thanks to its penetration that the good aspects of this civilization, including culture, arts and letters, were preserved for posterity. Indeed, “the fall of the empire made the Church the sole representative and guardian of Roman culture and Christian education.”1

The growth of the monastic orders in Europe brought about intense progress in different areas of technology and intellectual knowledge
St. Jerome in the “scriptorium” – Lázaro Galdiano Museum, Madrid.

At this historical juncture, the Catholic Church not only provided a proper religious and moral education to peoples with tribal customs, but also raised them to a life in keeping with human dignity. Bishops and monks strove to teach the barbarians to cultivate fields and build cities. They also introduced them to the good things of classical culture, so that Latin grammar followed the Gospels to the forests of the North and the remote islands of the Atlantic Ocean.2

Europe: a monastic continent

One of the most important elements for the preservation, progress and expansion of the Western intellectual heritage at this time was the foundation of the monasteries – tracing back to the hermits of the 3rd century AD – which acquired all their vitality and strength through the work of St. Benedict, patriarch of Europe.

The monasteries of barbarian times were overflowing with vocations. Communities of two hundred monks were common, and some even numbered a thousand souls! Before long, Europe was populated with religious houses. At its height, the Benedictine Order, for example, numbered 37 thousand abbeys.

The monastic ideal presented itself as a means of sanctification for a considerable portion of society, and souls called to this way of life emerged from all social classes. Even kings sought to adopt the monastic lifestyle: the Anglo-Saxon monarch Centwine, to cite one example, shed his crown in order to don the religious habit in a monastery that he himself had founded.3

At the foundations of a civilization

Seeking seclusion from the bustling urban centres, monks often went to inhospitable places. In these regions, where they cultivated the land to ensure their subsistence, they did not just work for their own interests: driven by Christian charity, they also taught the science of agriculture to surrounding populations. Thus, many monasteries became veritable “agricultural universities” where they were located.4 A striking example of this civilizing action is England, which had a fifth of its territory cultivated by monks.5

The monks also provided Europe with methods for raising livestock, beekeeping, beer fermentation and wine production, as well as the development of specific crafts in certain locations, such as cheese-making in Parma and salmon farming in Ireland.6

However, the progress brought about by the work of monks was not limited to the field of physical subsistence. Rather, it was even more relevant in the intellectual field.

“Church” and “teaching” become correlated concepts

The monk’s life was generally summarized as prayer, work and study. The Rule of St. Benedict, for example, allotted approximately 1,265 hours of study per year for each monk. These requirements fostered a vast enrichment in the intellectual formation of the monks, who began to provide the only formal education of the time.

This educational practice was already a tradition in the Catholic Church, and we see it reported in chronicles from the first centuries of Christianity. St. John Chrysostom, in the 4th century, recounts that the people of Antioch sent their children to be educated by monks; and St. Benedict himself instructed the sons of Roman nobles.7

In the 8th century, Theodulf, Bishop of Orleans, issued the following decree: “Let priests maintain schools in the villages and in the countryside; if any of the faithful wish to entrust their children to them to learn letters, let them not fail to receive and instruct them, but teach them with perfect charity. For this reason they should not demand a salary or receive any reward, except, by way of exception, when the parents voluntarily want to offer it out of esteem or recognition.”8

During the Middle Ages, this accessible form of education progressed even further, largely due to the beneficial influence of Emperor Charlemagne, who ordered the erection of schools next to abbeys, monasteries and cathedrals, whose teachers were to be chosen from among monks and priests. Three centuries later, the Third Lateran Council, held in 1179, ordered that in all cathedral churches there should be a teacher, charged with instructing free of charge. In this way, Church and teaching became such correlated concepts that, in several languages, the terms cleric and clerk are often confused: clerc in French, clerk in English, klerk in Flemish…

The faithful entrusted their sons to monks for their education in letters, and it became customary for schools to be built next to abbeys
Grammar school of Norwich, Scotland, built in the 11th century by the Bishop of that city, beside the cathedral. At left, medieval allegory of grammar, by Gentile da Fabriano – Hall of Liberal Arts and Planets in Trinci Palace, Foligno (Italy)

Furthermore, it is well known that the Latin classics and all patristic literature have reached our day thanks to the work of the monastic scribes: “A single monastery,” says one historian, “did more for literature than the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge combined.”9

The Holy Church also at the root of universities

On the subject of education in the medieval period, it remains to say a word about the university, one of the masterpieces of the Catholic Church.

Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, forty-four university centres with a foundation charter are recorded in Europe. Of these, thirty-one were wholly or partially created by the Church. If we extend the analysis for another two centuries, we see the Catholic Church’s immense civilizing work, which provided the European continent with ninety-seven institution of higher learning10 and founded several universities in the New World.

It was also the Church that stepped forward to offer educational opportunities to the less favoured: it made university scholarships available to students from less affluent families – at the University of Paris, for example, there was a time when there were six hundred and ten scholarships offered by the clergy – and it provided board and lodging for students without financial resources who demonstrated their aptitude for the university course. In Leuven, there are as many as forty colleges for this purpose.11

The Church and science

The list of clerics who have made valuable contributions to the development of the natural, human and exact sciences is one of the best proofs of the Church’s presence in the most varied fields of knowledge. To mention just a few: Fr. Nicholas Steno is considered the father of geology; the priest Athanasius Kircher, the father of Egyptology; the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a body in free fall was a priest, Fr. Giambattista Riccioli; Fr. Roger Boscovich is credited with the discovery of modern atomic theory; the Jesuits mastered the study of earthquakes and for this reason seismology was called a “Jesuit science”…12

Astronomy also long benefited from the Church’s studies and support. In this sense, the science historian John Lewis Heilbron states that: “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries – from the recovery of ancient learning in the course of the Middle Ages into the Enlightenment – than any other and probably all other institutions.13 Finally, a curiosity: thirty-five lunar craters are named after Jesuit scientists and mathematicians…

Back to the waiting room

The debate is coming to an end.

The university student, discomfited to find that he is on that account a fruit of the Church, now listens more than he speaks. He never imagined that a wait in a doctor’s office could turn into a debate, let alone a lecture. And that he would be the student.

Between the 12th and 16th centuries, the Catholic Church was responsible for founding 97 institutions of higher learning on the European continent
The University of Glasgow, Scotland, founded by Pope Nicholas V in the 15th century. At right, “Henry of Germany with his students”, by Laurentius de Voltolina – Museum of Prints and Drawings, Berlin

Taking advantage of his opponent’s silence, the priest provides a quote from what he had just read before the confrontation:

“The main mission of the Church is to sanctify souls. For this reason, she cannot fail to be concerned ‘with the needs of people’s daily lives, not only as regards sustenance and living conditions, but also as regards prosperity and civilization in its various aspects.’14 This has always been the Church’s wise formula, my friend: to civilize by evangelizing and to evangelize by civilizing.

The opponent still has one more card to play:

“If in the past this Church of yours formed today’s culture, know that now it is the free world that is generating the future civilization!”

The simple play on words prompted a discreet smile from the priest.

“Young man,” the priest continued, “that is precisely the problem…”

A monotone voice then pronounced a Spanish name with an unmistakable Brazilian accent. It was that of the priest who, with his imperturbable calm, proceeded to his appointment, which was already running late.

I was then left alone with the “polemical” university student. He was pensive. Had he evaluated the unfortunate meaning of his last intervention? For a moment, I hoped so. But a few seconds later, the fellow was frantically sliding his thumbs across the screen of his smartphone, returning to the slouched posture that – out of fear or insecurity, I am not sure which – he had relinquished during the discussion.

“A world ‘free’ of the Church, generating the future civilization…” I thought, “Yes… that is precisely the problem!” ◊



1 DAWSON, Christopher. A crise da educação ocidental. São Paulo: É Realizações, 2020, p.33.

2 Cf. Idem, p.34.

3 Cf. DANIEL-ROPS, Henri. A Igreja dos tempos bárbaros. São Paulo: Quadrante, 1991, p.283.

4 Cf. FLICK, Alexander Clarence. The Rise of the Medieval Church. New York-London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909, p.223.

5 Cf. WOODS, Thomas E. Cómo la Iglesia construyó la civilización occidental. Madrid: Ciudadela, 2007, p.52.

6 Cf. Idem, p.54-55.

7 Cf. Idem, p.67.

8 FRANCA, Leonel. A Igreja, a reforma e a civilização. In: Obras Completas. 7.ed. Rio de Janeiro: Agir, 1958, v II, p.344.

9 Idem, p.343.

10 Cf. Idem, p.347-349.

11 Cf. Idem, p.350.

12 Cf. WOODS, op. cit., p.22.

13 HEILBRON, John Lewis. The Sun in the Church. Cathedrals as Solar Observatories. 2.ed. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1999, p.3.

14 ST. JOHN XXIII. Mater et magistra, n.3.



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