The Church and Civilization: Part 1


Fr. W. Devivier, SJ
Edited by Bishop S.G. Messmer, DD, DCL
Bishop of Green Bay, Wisc.
Imprimatur, 1903


"THE Church, the immortal work of a merciful God, although by its nature," says the Holy Father, "it aims primarily at the salvation of souls and the eternal happiness of Heaven, confers, nevertheless, in the temporal order so many and such great benefits that it could not produce more or greater if it had been specially and chiefly instituted to procure the prosperity of this present life" (Encycl. on Christian States).

This chapter will be a commentary upon these words of Leo XIII. We shall show what the Church has done for civilization and the temporal happiness of nations; but we cannot give to this beautiful and vast subject the development it requires, for that would need a volume. We shall endeavor, however, to say sufficient to enable us to recognize in the benefits which the Church has conferred upon the world a new mark of her Divine origin: the tree is known by its fruits.

The object of civilization is the development, the perfection, the welfare of the whole man in all that relates to this present life. Man appears to us in the natural order in three distinct though inseparable states: we may consider him as an individual, as member of a family, as member of a public society. If his happiness is to be complete, the lawful needs of his soul and body must be satisfied; and in his family as well as in civil society he must find order, peace, joy, all that can lawfully conduce to the happiness of life. In other words, the welfare and progress must extend to the whole man and include in a just proportion and perfect balance his material, intellectual, and moral interest; this progress and these advantages must also extend to society taken collectively, as well as to its individual members. We have remarked, it is true, that the proper and immediate mission of the Church is not to civilize nations and distribute to them the benefits of this present life; she has a higher end: to sanctify man, to reform him in his moral and religious life, and thus to lead him to the eternal happiness of Heaven. But it is very evident that in helping man to govern his passions, in reforming and perfecting souls, in setting before them the reason for suffering and death, in teaching them, with the prospect of Heaven, to bear the trials of life with patience, Christianity has borne its fruits from the very beginning: it has contributed powerfully to the relative welfare of mankind upon earth. By elevating and ennobling the individuals who compose society it necessarily exercised a civilizing influence upon society itself. "How admirable is the Christian religion," says Montesquieu, "which, though it seems to have no other object than the happiness of the other life, yet makes our happiness in this." It is easy to convince ourselves of the truth of those words, which are, moreover, only a philosophic and social commentary of the profound words of St. Paul: "Godliness is profitable to all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come." We may give a still higher definition of civilization and say with M. Kurth that "social perfection, or in other words civilization, consists in that form of society which affords its members the greatest facilities for attaining their final end." In fact, in the designs of God, everything here below, and society itself, is given to man to help him to attain this supreme end of his existence, his eternal salvation. Hence no trace of true civilization is to be found in pagan times. But as one of the ends of this chapter is to answer the charges made against the Church in the name of civilization, understood in the ordinary sense, we shall assume our adversary's views in order to refute them.



At the present day, when the Gospel has completely changed and regenerated the world, we are apt to forget the benefits we have received from it, or to enjoy them with proud ingratitude. We speak with complacency of fraternity, equality, philanthropy, of charity itself, but we are prone to forget that the world is indebted to Jesus Christ and to His Church for these noble sentiments and civilizing virtues.

Certainly we are far from denying the material civilization of the Roman world at the birth of the Church. We acknowledge, on the contrary, that in this respect it had attained an extraordinary degree of splendor. Our own times, despite all our inventions and discoveries, can hardly be compared to the old world. Count de Champagny gives a striking picture in Les Césars of this extraordinary prosperity of Rome. Nor can we deny the high rank which pagan Rome already held in the world of letters. No one would venture to deny the writers of the age of Augustus and Pericles the superior merit of form. Their style is enchanting, and the art of the writer is carried to the highest degree. Yet under this brilliant exterior and attractive form we find absolute poverty of doctrine and lack of reality. In regard, particularly, to religious truths, the most fundamental and the most necessary to man in this world and in the next, nothing but doubt, uncertainty, contradictions, and monstrous errors prevail.

But do this material grandeur and this intellectual superiority constitute true civilization, or have they ever made a people happy? Evidently not, for the true happiness of individuals as well as of peoples cannot consist in such enjoyments. Man was created to know, to love, and to serve God in this world, and to possess Him eternally in the next. His mind and his heart are made for the True and the Good, that is, for God Himself. In vain does man turn from his last end, in vain does he despise or ignore it; it nevertheless remains his end, and the words of St. Augustine will never cease to be true: "Thou hast made us, O Lord, for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in Thee." Moreover, experience tells us plainly enough that the capacity of the human heart is infinite, so to speak; that its desires are immense, and only immensity can fill it. Now, neither in extent nor duration can immensity be found in creatures. What do all creatures avail to satisfy the human heart's hunger for happiness? They are hardly more than a drop in the ocean.

And then, to speak only of ancient times and the very centres of pagan civilization, it is well known that only a limited class enjoyed the privileges of this temporal prosperity. Cicero tells us that in populous Rome there were hardly two thousand landowners. In the reign of Nero six great landholders possessed half the Roman province of Africa, that is, a territory much larger than all England. The masses were miserable and knew the pleasures of their masters only to envy them: Pauperism was a deep and hideous wound. The moral picture of the world before Christianity given us by writers of antiquity is most sad and appalling. We have no difficulty in acknowledging that noble thoughts, generous sentiments, kind and beneficent deeds are to be found in pagan antiquity, for the image of God in man, though horribly disfigured, has never been completely effaced. But it is no less certain that the salient trait of all, the universal and dominant character of the world before Christ, was pitiless hardness combined with gross immorality of institutions and customs. Reality on this point exceeds anything that can be imagined, and there is nothing in the corruption of the present day that can be compared to it. The gentlest among men and the most polished nations exhibited a hardness of heart, a contempt for humanity, a hatred of the poor, a horror of the unfortunate, a thirst for blood, murder, and infamy of all kinds, that we, with our centuries of Christian training, can hardly conceive of. The whole world was given up to a boundless pride, an unrestrained selfishness, a cruel sensuality which remorselessly sacrificed everything to its desires.

Let us hear how St. Paul sums up the history of the whole ancient world. Addressing the Romans, whose triumphant civilization had absorbed all the strength and all the vices of the conquered peoples, he tells them to their face with that intrepid firmness which fears no contradiction: You are without affection, without fidelity; you are filled with malice, with iniquity, with bitterness; hateful, hating one another; finally, you are without mercy (Rom. i. and iii.; Tit. iii.). And yet St. Paul is the most reserved of all the writers of that time. Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Plautus, Titus, Livy, Tacitus, Juvenal, Suetonius, Plutarch, Seneca, relate the horrors of pagan society with a good faith and indifference which make one shudder. It is evident this was the accepted and public morality of the most civilized nations. Strangers, prisoners, the vanquished, slaves, debtors, the sick, the poor, the aged, children, women, all who were weak, all who suffered, all who labored----in a word, the great majority of the human race was hated, despised, and oppressed. The rest wallowed in the mire of vice. Vice itself was deified; it had its temples, its priests, its altars in every city of the world; disorder became a social obligation, and immorality a public worship.

Such was the pagan world before the coming of Christ. Now to this world without pity, without love, without compassion, without virtue, plunged in every kind of error and iniquity, succeeded the world we know, radiant with the light of truth, of purity, of charity. What wrought this wonderful transformation, so impossible to foresee? What do we find at the point where these two worlds so widely different meet? We find a Cross, and on that Cross Jesus Christ, the Founder of Christianity, dying to redeem and regenerate fallen and degraded humanity.

Do we need anything further to recognize the Divinity of Jesus Christ and His work, the Catholic Church?

But this general outline will hardly suffice to make us appreciate the extent of the benefits we owe to Christ and to the Church our Mother. We must enter somewhat more into detail lest it be imagined that we have painted in exaggerated colors the brief picture which we have given of the corruption and depravity of the pagan world. It is understood, of course, that there are certain revolting details which we shall be obliged to pass over in silence.

Warning: This sub-section is not for the faint of heart.


We shall speak especially of slaves, gladiators, the poor, the working classes, that is, of the great majority of mankind.

I. SLAVES. [See Also next sub-chapter.]

1. NUMBER OF SLAVES.----Mr. Duruy, formerly Minister of Education in France, addressing the working men one day, justly observed that if they had lived in ancient times probably not one among them would have been a free man; they all would have groaned in the horrors of slavery. In fact the historical number of these unfortunate creatures is marvellous. In Attica alone the official census made by Demetrius Phalereus gives the number of free citizens as 20,000, and the slaves as 40,000. At Rome one Roman owned 1,000, another 10,000, another 20,000. According to Chateaubriand and Mgr. De Salinis six million men who were called the king's people oppressed, persecuted, and trampled under foot one hundred and twenty million slaves. In brief, the number of the slaves was so great that the senate, Seneca tells us, would never permit them to wear a special dress lest they should realize their numbers. "There was great alarm," he says, "at the small number of free men." It is to be noted, moreover, that slavery existed everywhere, among the most civilized as well as the most barbarous nations; hence we may say that at the coming of Christ the greater number of mankind were slaves.

2. HOW SLAVES WERE REGARDED.----The unanimous teaching of antiquity was that slavery was founded upon natural law, that is, that among men some are born to be free, others to be slaves. "Nature," says Aristotle, "requires that there be slaves." Varron enumerates them among the implements of labor. "There is, however, a difference," he says, "oxen bellow, slaves speak, and the plough is silent." "A wise husbandman," says Cato, the censor, "must get rid of all implements no longer in use, worn-out ploughs, old horses, aged slaves." Hence when sickness or old age rendered them useless they were put to death or left to die of hunger. Nor did the law take slaves under its protection. On the contrary, it confirmed these barbarous doctrines. In the eyes of the law a slave was not the servant but the property of the master; he was not a man, but a chattel. "He was null, rather than vile----non tam vilis quam nullus; there was no rest for him----non est otium servis; he counted as nothing----pro nullis adhibentur; a slave has no right---- servus nullum caput habet; he was as one dead----servitus morti assimilatur."

3. TREATMENT OF SLAVES.----If such were the opinions current among even good men, if such were the laws, we can readily imagine the fate of the unfortunate creatures condemned by birth, by the fortunes of war, by debt to servitude. It fills one with horror to read the details on this subject given by Fr. de Champagny in Les Césars. Yet he only repeats what is related by all the writers of antiquity without the least protest or sign of disapproval.

The Roman law recognized no right in a slave----servus nullum jus habet; hence his master could treat him like a domestic animal, overwhelm him with blows, torture him, and even put him to death without being held responsib by anyone; there was no obligation towards a slave----in personam servilem nulla cadit obligatio. The law required that when a master was killed by one of his slaves, all the others, whatever their number, dwelling under the same roof should be crucified. It is needss to say that the pagan masters, usually as selfish and cruel as they were vicious, amply availed themselves of their absolute right over their slaves, and exceeded, if possible, the ferocity of the laws by their barbarous application of them. The lot of these unfortunate creatures was frequently so terrible that they sometimes flung themselves in despair into the arena to be devoured by wild beasts. To lessen the expense of the animals kept for the circus Caligula ordered them to be fed with slaves.


In addition to slavery, there was something still more horrible, before Christianity: the games of the circus and the combats of the gladiators. The spectacle of men killing one another or devoured by wild beasts was the great amusement, the supreme pleasure, of the Roman people. The day being all too short for such pleasures, the slaughters were prolonged into the night by the light of torches. All that the populace asked of their base and tyrannical masters in exchange for their liberty was bread and amusement----panem et circenses.

It was this thirst for human blood which built the vast enclosures the ruins of which we still admire, and organized the great hunting expeditions in remote provinces for the purpose of capturing alive the wild animals which were baited with human victims. The nobles vied with one another in the production of wild beasts for the slaughtering of fellow creatures in the arena.

The human combats were still more horrible; for example, to cite a single instance, at the celebration of the triumph of Titus, who was called the delight of mankind, thousands of men were forced to fight to the death during one hundred days; and this wise emperor himself delivered over to the circus at the time of his father's obsequies five thousand gladiators. The good Trajan to celebrate his triumph over the Dacians gave to the games, which lasted one hundred and twenty-three days, ten thousand gladiators and eleven thousand wild beasts.

In the mock sea-fights for which immense reservoirs were constructed, millions of victims perished by drowning. "It is estimated," says Loudun in his work L'Antiquite, "that the spectacle of the gladiators cost, on an average, thirty thousand men a year." In fact there were months in which more than twenty thousand men slaughtered one another for the amusement of the people.

And these hideous spectacles, which were at first confined to the Romans, spread throughout the whole empire, into Gaul, Greece, and Asia, and were, moreover, sanctioned by the law and approved by the sages of the time; no pagan was ever moved to pity by the fate of these unfortunate creatures; the victims themselves, forgetting that they had a right to live, died saluting the god Cæsar. As for Cicero, Pliny, and all the fine minds of the time, they saw inthese cruel games only a noble institution, and an excellent discipline to fortify the people against suffering. Pliny goes so far in his panegyric as to praise Trajan for not giving the spectators to the games. But humane instincts did not always prevail to this extent; on one occasion, when there were no gladiators for the beasts, Caligula, Tacitus tells us, ordered that the first-comers among the spectators be thrown into the arena, taking the precaution to have their tongues cut out in order to stifle their cries. To satisfy the thirst of the patricians for human blood, the senate, the same historian says, decreed that the gladiators should no longer fight in couples, but in masses as in a regular battle.


Marcus Aurelius the philosopher, who passes as a sage in paganism, does not hesitate to declare it weakness to pity the unfortunate, to weep with those who weep. Seneca says that mercy is a vice of the heart, hence good people should carefully avoid it. "The true sage," he says again, "is devoid of pity." The following, according to Cicero, are some of the precepts of Stoicism: no one is compassionate unless he is foolish or thoughtless; a true man never allows himself to be moved or touched; it is a misdemeanor and a crime to heed the promptings of compassion.

We would not cite these painful and deplorable facts, except that they enable us to appreciate the depth of the abyss whence Jesus Christ raised the human race. In a society where such maxims were universally accepted we can readily understand that the afflicted, the poor, the unfortunate, far from exciting pity, inspired generally contempt, disgust, and horror.

"To gjve food and drink to a poor man," says Plautus, "is a double folly: one loses what he gives, and prolongs the misery of another." "The poor," says Epictetus, "are abandoned like a dry, infected well, from which all turn with disgust." At Athens as well as in Egypt a man who had no food and asked for it was punished by the law with death.


As to labor, we may say that it was generally regarded with contempt among pagans; agriculture and all branches of industry were considered dishonorable. Cicero is loath to except in this general anathema medicine and architecture. Aristotle proclaimed labor not worthy of a free man. Plato was of the same opinion. Workmen were not regarded by the Greeks as worthy of the name of citizen. According to Terence, to be respected one must lead an idle life, and not be obliged to work for a livelihood.

No less painful things could also be related of the treatment of the aged, of debtors, of prisoners, but the facts supported by incontestable testimony, which we have just given, enable us to divine what must have been their fate in this society devoid of mercy.

III. THE FAMILY [see also next sub-chapter.]

We know to what a degree of degradation family life among pagans had fallen. Brutal selfishness took the place of mutual affection. The very weakness of women and children placed them in abject submission to the head of the family, who was not, as in Christian households, the spouse and father, but the master and tyrant. This state of things was only a logical consequence of the doctrines which prevailed.

A. WOMAN, in the eyes of pagan nations, was not man's companion and equal; she was an inferior being both as regards her origin and her destiny; her condition was absolute servitude. Greek philosophy, imitating the philosophy of China, India, Persia, and Egypt, has always been pitiless toward woman; it regarded her as an abject, unclean, wicked being, having no soul; hence her humiliating and degrading position; hence the practice of polygamy in the majority of nations, with its innumerable train of miseries; hence, among the Greeks and Romans, the habitual practice of divorce, no less disastrous in its consequences, and which could be obtained on the most frivolous and the vilest pretexts. Hence also the almost unlimited power of the husband over the wife, and of the father over the daughter. At every period of paganism, even among the most civilized people, the right of life and death which he exercised was recognized and guaranteed by the laws. A daughter, usually sold by her parents to the man she was to marry, became the personal property of her husband, and endured all the consequences of this position.

B. THE CHILD.----Nor was the child treated any better; it was also completely in the power of its father. At Rome, when a child was born, it was laid at the feet of its father; if he took it in his arms, it was allowed to live; hence the expression suscipere liberos. If, on the contrary, he let it lie on the ground, the child was strangled, or thrown with the refuse into the great cesspool, or most frequently it perished of hunger. Infanticide and a thousand other revolting horrors were universally admitted and practised among pagan nations. Had not Tertullian been certain that he could not be contradicted, he would not have dared thus to apostrophize the pagans of his time: "Among those who surround us and who thirst for the blood of Christians, among you yourselves, O stern magistrates, so severe toward us, who is there who has not put his own child to death?"

Moreover, the philosopher Seneca observes on the same subject "that nothing is more reasonable than to remove useless things from the house;" and the grave Quintillian declares that "to kill a man is frequently a crime, but to kill one's own children is frequently a very beautiful action."


A. If the head of the family oppressed all who depended upon him, he, in his turn, was a victim to the tyranny of the State. Among pagans there was no sentiment of the independence and the dignity of man; individuals existed only for the State; they were valued only in as far as they were capable of serving the country. Country was a divinity whose orders were to be obeyed at any price. "The State," says Fustel de Coulanges in La Cite antique, "considered the body and soul of each individual its property; hence its desire to mould this body and soul in such a way as to derive the greatest benefit from them.  . . . The human person counted for very little before this holy and almost divine authority called country or State.  . . . There was no guarantee for the life of a man when there was question of the interest of the commonwealth.  . . . It was thought that right, justice, morality, everything should yield to the interest of the country.  . . . The government called itself, by turns, monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, but none of these evolutions gave man true liberty, individual liberty." "Paganism," says Balmes, "never seems to have dreamed that the end, the object of society was the welfare, the happiness of families and individuals." Hence the great Corneille had indeed reason to make one of his heroes say:

"I thank the gods I am no Roman,
I thus preserve a spark of nature human."

Every right and every sentiment of nature were outraged, insulted, violated in these pitiless constitutions of pagan antiquity. "All the power of the Romans was vested in Cæsar; Cæsar was the living law, the real divinity of the State" (Perin, Les lois de la societe chretienne, t. ii.). "We do not even find," says Laboulaye (L'Etat et ses limites) "that the ancients disputed with the master of the world what seems to us to-day the most sacred right of the individual, I mean conscience, intelligence, labor. Religion, education, letters, commerce, industry, everything was in the hands of the emperor from the day when the people, willingly or unwillingly, transferred to Cæsar his sovereign power. Neither Trajan nor Marcus Aurelius doubted for a moment that his power was unlimited. They governed in the name of the people: to attempt to limit this power was a crime of high treason."

The worship of the God-State and the adoration of the emperors may, we acknowledge, have produced certain acts ot fanatical patriotism, but certainly it was far from contributing to the happiness of citizens and of families.

B. The relations between nations were no less deplorable. In vain do we seek in paganism the idea of fraternity of nations, or the shadow of a principle of justice in their relations. To the Romans, society was Rome; to the Athenians, Athens. Outside of Rome and Athens there existed for them only coarse, barbarous peoples condemned to live isolated and uncultivated. If a man owed everything to his country, he recognized no rights in a strange nation. Each nation considered the other as enemies, consequently dreamed only of conquering one another. Hence wars were incessant and victories always cruel: the vanquished were massacred or reduced to slavery. The march of armies was only too frequently signalized by blood-stained ruins. The complete destruction of Carthage, Numantia, Corinth, and numerous other cities which were levelled to the ground, bear adequate testimony to the implacable cruelty of the conquerors. "Athens did not think she exceeded her right when she decreed that all the Mitylenians, without distinction of sex or age, were to be exterminated; when, the next day, she revoked her decree and contented herself with putting one thousand citizens to death and confiscating their lands she believed herself humane and merciful." (M. Fustel de Coulanges, 1. c.)


1. o XIII., The Church and Civilization (O'Shea, N.Y.); Allies, I., II.; Balmes; Manahan; Montambert; Ozanam; Thebaud, Ch. and M. W.; Moriarty; Murphy, pt. iv.; Hettinger, Rev.. ReI., ch.7; Schanz, III., ch. 15; Gibbons, Ch. Herit.; Kenrick, Primacy, ch. 23; Spalding, J. M., Miscell., Essays 7 and 46; Archbp. Hughes, I.; Lacordaire, conf. 32 ff. on Calli. Doctr.; Br. W. ix., xii., xiv.; A. C. Q. x. 193; D. R. Old Ser. xxxiv. (trade, manufacture), xlviii. 81, 422, New Ser. vi. 297, xxi. 323, and xxii. 69 (usury laws): C. W. i. 775, iii. 638, lviii.. 1, xiii. 342 (gislation), xxviii. 459 (labor), xxix. 192 (medicine).
2. Thebaud, Gentilism; Marcy; Allies, vol. i., ii., iii.; Alzog, Ch. Hist., I., hist. introd.; Manahan, bk. i.; A.C.Q. v. 468.