An interesting read: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Thomas E Woods, Jr

My professed love for the written notwithstanding, I read, I must concede, far too infrequently. Six or seven books rest on my end table now, all with bookmarks revealing the disappointing amount of time I’ve dedicated to theam over the period in which I’ve claimed to be reading them. Amongst these is Thomas L Woods, Jr’s How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

A few years ago, by which time the journal had slipped wholly into the grasps of neoconservative capitalists with, in my humble estimation, little-to-no conception of what to be conservative really means, my father briefly subscribed to the National Review. Though he terminated his membership after one year (or perhaps earlier, opting not actually to subscribe after the free trial), from time to time he received mail from groups to whom NR had sold its lists. Amongst these items I found an offer to join a conservative book club rather affordably. Most of the books had no appeal (I could handle never crossing the words of Miss Coulter again, and I outgrew my interest in Bill O’Reilly some years ago.); however, the club offered Freakonomics, which amazed me; The Conservative Mind, appropriate praise for which a passing comment will not suffice; and 1776, still on my bookshelf, collecting dust. Needing two more books to meet my initial requirement, I selected Dr Woods’s book and one other.

Finding my present academic circumstances to be failing wholly to stimulate me intellectually of late, and wishing to gain further appreciation for the Faith, I, somewhat begrudgingly, pulled the work from the shelf.

I must give credit when due: The work appears to have been exhaustively researched, and insofar as it recalls lessons from my Western Civilization course, seems to be generally accurate; Woods’s elucidation of the many facets of the Church’s multifarious contributions to Western society, including many often left untouched, rather impresses me. Having written on the subject for an undergrad course, and painfully cognizant of the falsehoods still proclaimed by many, I quite enjoyed his exposition on the Galileo Affair.

Just as I owe to the author appropriate credit, I owe to the readers my criticisms. Bear in mind that I have surpassed only the mid-point of the work by a few pages, so my concerns, just as my praise, are limited in scope.

Discussing the recovery of the works of Aristotle and other important thinkers of antiquity, Woods addresses the efforts too insularly; I grant that the book focuses on the Catholic Church, but only passing mention of Averroes (and a note about the Latin Averroists) and the complete absence of any commentary on Avicenna fails to acknowledge the debt that the European Catholics owed to the Islamic scholars. (Upon mentioning academic advancement in the Muslim world Woods — again, denying these two men their due — cannot refrain from noting that Islamic religious leaders discouraged — forbade, even — such intellectual endeavors.) Throughout the text, Woods finds repeatedly implying that modern “Enlightened” individuals deny the Church any credit in building the West as we now know it to be necessary. (Pperhaps I should say “knew it”; between the process of Islamicization in secular Europe and the Protestant domination of the United States, the West of the Church is less patent, if extant, than in the past.) Quite undeniable, truth underlies the point that Woods belabors; nonetheless, the extent to which Wood seems to imply this is the case, paired with the frequency of his making it, leads to a very quickly hackneyed device.

Most frustrating about the work, at least thus far, is the eighth chapter, “The Church and Economics”. Part of the paleolibertarian camp, Woods possess a supreme fondness for free-market capitalism, and believes firmly that it not only can be reconciled with, but is inherently compatible with, the Church’s teachings. This is quite evident in the book. Moreover, it provides an explanation for the emphasis, not at all undeserved, that Woods places on the Late Scholastics’ advances in economic theory (which pre-date Adam Smith). Having no first-hand knowledge of the writings of Molina, et alia, I can only speculate; however, in light of numerous encyclicals on economic issues, I tend to believe that they might not appreciate the extent to which Woods (and those he cites, e.g., Rothbard) carry out their subjective value theories.

Therein lies another problem that I find: Woods, who, I believe, has commented on the improper nature of papal encyclicals pertaining to economic matters (because popes generally are not trained economists), fails to mention a single one of these, to wit, Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, or Centesiums Annus. He offers not even, in true Scholastic form, an attempt to disprove the Distributist perspective, another aspect of Catholic Economic Thought whereof he simply makes no mention (likely, again, because, not being trained economists, Chesterton, Belloc, McNabb, OP, et alia, surely could not have offered any meaningful, sensible opinions here. Writing praisingly of St Thomas Aquinas in this chapter (as well, as he ought to have, elsewhere), Woods neglects to mention that the Distributist looks to the Angelic Doctor just as do the Catholic Whigs. Ultimately, Woods fails to explicate that a free-market economy and capitalism are not mutually inclusive, and that a market system more adept to preventing consolidation while still sensitive to private property rights and the concerns of the poor, exists and can be implemented. I realize that his aim is to reveal the impact that Churchmen had on economic theory in a feigned neutral way; however, his bias remains sufficiently clear to warrant the dialogue he omits.

Though never particularly awkward, the writing of the book, hardly coruscating, sometimes disappoints in its simplicity (though this needn’t necessarily be seen wholly as a criticism!). Despite this, it has thus far, in general, been worth the while. I recommend it to those who seek to brush up easily on important roles that their Church has played in the creation of civilization, as well as to those mired still in serious doubts about the great work that the Holy Mother Church has done. I suggest, though, keeping an open mind, considering some of the criticisms that I have offered, when doing so.

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One Response

  1. Nice review. Overall, I enjoyed the book, but have similar criticisms as yours.

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