The Church and Civilization: Part 2
Fr. W. Reviver, SG
Edited by Bishop S.G. Messier, DD, DCL
Bishop of Green Bay, WIC.
Imprimatur, 1903



"If Christ had not appeared upon earth," says Laboulaye (1. c.), "I do not know how the world could have resisted the despotism which was stifling it. I do not speak here as a Christian, I set aside every religious question, and I am only a historian. In this character I affirm that, in politics as well as in morals and philosophy, the Gospel gave new life to souls. We have reason to date from the new era, for a new society sprang from the Gospel."

We have spoken elsewhere of the miraculously rapid propagation of the Church throughout the world known to the ancients. Therefore it was impossible for the world to remain as it was. At the same time, this marvellous change could not be the work of a day; it was wrought by slow but persevering labor. It is evident, moreover, that there must needs have been fierce war between paganism and the new religion; between the empire of Satan and the kingdom of Christ. On one side was material, brute force; on the other, truth and her invincible patience. Hence we see that Christian blood flowed for three centuries; but victory could not fail to crown the work of God. With Constantine the triumphant Cross became a sign of honor, and by a truly providential dispensation, the heir of the Cæsars transferred the capital of the empire to Byzantium, as if to permit the seat of the spiritual power to be established at Rome, which had hitherto been the seat of the civil power.

The Church did not wait this brilliant triumph to begin her labor for the transformation of the pagan world. This work of civilizing nations began the very day when the head of the Apostles, strengthened with power from on high, wrought his first conversions. In fact the Church by changing souls, by reforming the ideas, sentiments, and morals of individuals and families, transformed mankind.

In her doctrine, her laws, and her institutions she was the antithesis of pagan society: by the very fact of her propagation she must gradually transform the iniquitous laws and cruel institutions of the countries she subjected to her spiritual empire. "According as Christianity developed and realized the miracle of its universal propagation, Roman jurisprudence could not but be affected by the influence of Christian ideas: an indirect influence under the pagan emperors, a direct influence under the emperors converted to the new religion." A good summary of the principal characters of the civilization due to the Catholic Church is to be found in the twentieth chapter of Balmes' "European Civilization." Let us enter into a few details.



A. By her doctrines and her institutions the Church could not but ameliorate the condition of slaves, raise them from their state of shame and degradation and, finally, free them from their bonds. Thus she declares that the slave has the same origin, the same nature, the same destiny as his master; that his immortal soul is of the same value in the eyes of God; that he also has been redeemed by the Blood of Jesus Christ; that he has a right to seat himself at the same eucharistic banquet; that he may occupy even a higher place than his master in the kingdom of heaven, where the degree of glory is proportioned only to virtue and good works. "There is neither Jew nor Greek," says St. Paul, "there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. iii.).

"God is not a respecter of persons." "I beseech thee," says the same Apostle to a master to whom he was writing in behalf of a runaway slave, "I beseech thee for my son whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus . . . receive him, not now as a servant, but instead of a servant a most dear brother.  . . . If he hath wronged thee in anything, put it to my account." Such is the doctrine of the Gospel. Without annihilating the distinctions necessary for the government of the world, without disturbing in any way the hierarchy of conditions and powers, without forgetting the duties of inferiors toward superiors, she publicly proclaims man's nobility before God. Could her doctrine fail to result in softening the lot of the slave and in gradually abolishing slavery itself? [2]

Let us remark, however, that the Church, despite her solicitude for these unfortunate creatures, never dreamed of abolishing slavery at one blow; this she had neither the right nor the power to do. Moreover, the political situation of the time did not permit a simultaneous and universal affranchisement: terrible disasters would have been the consequence of a general decree of abolition. We know that the whole social organization was then dependent upon slavery: industry, agriculture, commerce were in the hands of the slaves. Moreover, the slaves were not prepared for independence; to free them, before rescuing them from their state of moral degradation, before making them men and Christians, before securing them a means of subsistence, would have been to overthrow society, to organize a general massacre in the world, and to condemn the slaves themselves to still greater misery.

Witness, for example, the evils which followed when the French Republic declared slaves in the colonies free. Interests connected with slavery had much to do with the disastrous Civil War in the United States between the North and the South. Both regarded the Negro as a sort of domestic animal, but the South, in the interest of agriculture, wished to preserve slavery; and the North, in the interest of the manufactories, wished to abolish it. Faithful to the traditions of the Church, the bishops of America assembled in Council at Baltimore desired that the Negroes be gradually freed.

It was wisdom on the part of the Church to move as she did, slowly: she could not proclaim the universal freedom of the slaves, but by employing the means in her power she efficaciously prepared the way for the complete suppression of slavery. Under her inspiration and after her example governments and individuals multiplied affranchisements, and the laws of Christian princes favored them. Meanwhile nothing was spared to render the condition of the unfortunate creatures more endurable. For further details of the abolition of slavery see the works of Balmes and Bp. England.

As to the barbarous traffic called the slave trade, the Church, always faithful to her doctrines, energetically protested from the first against this horrible preying of man upon man. Witness the noble and courageous language of the apostolic letters of Pius II, Paul III, Urban VIII, Benedict XIV (1462, 153?, 1639, 1741). At the beginning of the present century Pius VII succeeded in interesting the principal European governments in the holy work of emancipating slaves. Finally, Gregory XVI issued, the 3d of November, 1839, new apostolic letters which afford additional proof of the Church's maternal solicitude for the victims of inhuman cupidity. And like testimony is furnished by the crusade organized under the patronage of Leo XIII to deliver Africa from the horrible scourge which each year carries off millions of free men to reduce them to the most cruel slavery. Let us pray that, seconded by European powers and by the devotion of generous hearts, the Church may bring happier days to this desolate land.

B. The gladiatorial combats, which nothing could excuse or justify in the eyes of a Christian, must naturally disappear with slavery. These cruel games had been proscribed by an edict issued in 392 in the name of Honorius and Arcadius. Yet the taste for these sanguinary spectacles was not stifled: it needed the blood of a Martyr to abolish them completely. On the 1st of January, 404, when Rome was celebrating the election of the consuls, there appeared in the midst of the Coliseum a monk from the East named Almachius. He threw himself between the gladiators to separate them, then turning to the crowd said: "We celebrate today the octave of the coming of the Son of God, the King of peace; cease, then, these inhuman games invented by pagan cruelty." At these words a terrible tumult arose in the amphitheatre. The infuriated populace fell upon Almachius and tore him to pieces. The next day Honorius stopped the gladiatorial games. [3]


The lot of the poor, of the unfortunate, of all the disinherited, was changed on the day when Christ said, "As long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me" (Matth. xxv. 40); and when He proclaimed the sentence to be given at the Last Judgment, "I was hungry and you gave Me to eat," etc. (ib. 35 ff.). He never ceased during all His life to repeat His precept, so new and strange to the pagan world, to love all men as our brethren, as we love ourselves, or, rather, as Christ has loved us. He Himself, moreover, chose to be born poor and to live in poverty; His Apostles were poor; the poor and the unfortunate of every kind were the object of His special favor; it was for them specially that He wrought His miracles; He was severe only to the hard and pitiless rich. Is it astonishing, then, that the poor, the sick, the abandoned, the aged, all who were objects of contempt or a prey to suffering, found themselves in the first ages of Christianity surrounded with devoted care? Assistance of every kind was given to them with such ingenious tenderness that the pagans were forced to exclaim, "See how these Christians love one another!" Many were even attracted to the new religion by this hitherto unheard-of charity. And afterward how many benevolent institutions of every kind, how many religious orders were established to relieve the numberless miseries to which mankind is a prey! But let us not insist upon a truth so manifest and of which we have already spoken (pp. 240 ff).


It is needless to say how the Church has elevated and ennobled labor and the laborer. The example of her Founder Himself and of His first Apostles speaks with sufficient eloquence. [5]

How numerous are the institutions and laws created or inspired by her during eighteen centuries to lighten the lot of the working classes, to reconcile the various classes of society, to unite them by the powerful and indissoluble bond of Christian charity! The admirable works founded by the Church in favor of the working classes found their full development in the bosom of the guilds or confraternities of the Middle Ages.

In the last century, unfortunately, the most fatal doctrines overthrew the edifice so patiently reared by the Church. The troubles and disorders which followed as an immediate consequence are known to the world. But the Church is never discouraged. She still labors with an ardor inspired by her maternal love to save society from the cataclysm which threatens it. Witness the admirable encyclical of Leo XIII on the condition of the working classes, in which he indicates with so much wisdom the most effectual remedies for the too real sufferings of the working classes. The encyclical gives a complete programme of Christian economy, forming a striking contrast to the anarchistic egotism of the French Revolution. Thus the papacy, faithful to the traditions of the past, intervenes once more as mediator in the terrible social struggles of the present day.


A. WOMAN.----In the eyes of the Church woman is no longer, as in pagan times, an inferior, degraded being, the slave of her husband, an object of contempt to her own children; she is the companion of man, the flesh of his flesh, the bone of his bone; she has resumed in the household the place of honor which belongs to her; she reigns there by virtue and love, as the husband by authority. It was by reestablishing the great law of the unity and indissolubility of marriage, raised to the dignity of a Sacrament, that the Church restored to woman all her moral dignity. By presenting to the homage of the faithful a woman, Virgin and Mother, to whom Our Saviour Himself paid profoundest respect; by honoring widows, by making Christian virgins the object of special veneration, she has given to civilization one of its most indispensable elements.

B. THE CHILD.----The child in the eyes of the Christian is a son of God and heir to the kingdom of Heaven; regenerated by Baptism, he becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself deigned to come into the world with all the weakness and miseries of infancy; in public life He showed special tenderness toward children; He even declared that we must become like them to enter the kingdom of Heaven; finally, He pronounced terrible anathemas against all who would scandalize them. Therefore, children since the coming of Christ have become objects of tenderest solicitude; orphanages, nurseries, schools, colleges, all that the most delicate charity could invent, have been established for them.


A. From what we have said it is clearly evident that public society has been profoundly modified by the Church. In fact, by changing the ideas of individuals, by reforming family life, the Church transformed public opinion and public morals. No doubt vicious men did not completely disappear from Christian society, for man preserves with his imperfect liberty the possibility of failing in his duty, but vice was forced to hide its head, it became a dishonor, it no longer held the place it had held in pagan society.

By proclaiming that "all power comes from God," and that, though seated on a throne, princes and rulers are no less obliged to obey the laws of God and to govern their subjects by wise and just laws, the Church put an end to the tyranny of the State, which hitherto had recognized no will superior to its own. Thus, how far removed the legislation of the reign of Nero from that of Theodosius,----that of Caligula from that of St. Louis!

By repeating at the same time to the governed the clear principle contained in the words of Jesus: "Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's," the Church regulated the duties of subjects and abolished all they unjustly claimed as rights. The Christian readily submits to lawful authority, but this obedience is not abject, for it is paid to God's representative; he preserves, moreover, a noble independence, and when the commands of the human power positively contradict the Divine or the natural law, the subject, taking refuge in the inviolable sanctuary of his conscience, proudly repeats the words of the Apostles: we cannot----non possumus! "We must obey God rather than men." [7]

B. It is evident that international relations could not but assume a more humane and just character. Could peoples, convinced that all men are brethren, children of God and of the Church, continue to treat one another as barbarians and inhumanly destroy one another?


A word remains to be said of the work of the Church in civilizing barbarous nations, who in the fourth and fifth centuries, particularly, invaded all parts of the Roman world. Roman society was, it would seem, too much weakened by the dissolvent action of paganism to be capable of a complete restoration. God used these barbarians as the ministers of His vengeance upon the persecuting empire, and at the same time to revive, after its conversion, the languishing West. It would seem as though the leaders of these savage hordes were conscious of their terrible mission: they called themselves the scourges of God. The spectacle Europe presented in the fifth century after it had been literally ravaged by them witnessed to the horrible cruelty with which these avengers sent by God accomplished their work. Let us content ourselves with a few brief quotations:

"In Spain"----it is the chronicler Idacius who speaks----"pestilence and famine followed closely in the bloody footsteps of the barbarians, and the public distress was so great that men fed upon the flesh of their fellow creatures, and mothers devoured their own children."

In Africa, St. Augustine was so grieved by the suffering which the Vandals inflicted upon the inhabitants of Hippo, and upon Africa in general, that he begged God to take him to Himself. "The Saint beheld," says the historian Possidius, "cities ruined, villages destroyed, the inhabitants massacred or put to flight. Some had expired in torments, others had perished by the sword, others again, reduced to slavery, served pitiless masters. Those who escaped the conquerors took refuge in the woods or in the caves in the rocks, where they died of hunger and misery."

Italy was no less fortunate, for she was pillaged from one end to the other. The pillage of Rome by Alaric lasted three days; that of Genseric with his Vandals two weeks, and the ruin effected by the latter was so great that the word vandalism has become a synonym for destruction. [8

The historian Guildas tells us that "the red tongue of incendiarism swept Great Britain from sea to sea; that fragments of towers and walls, stones of altars, blood-stained bodies lay heaped together in the public places, and that the only sepulchre for the dead was the houses in ruins, or the stomach of the wild beasts and birds of prey."

These horrible ravages no longer astonish us when we learn from history the physical, and particularly the intellectual and moral, condition of the barbarians. We can form some idea of it from the work of Ozanam, Les Germains avant Ie Christianisme. In chapter iii. we find that family life among these people differed little from that of the pagans, of which we have given a brief sketch. Here also the head of the family was the tyrant to his wife, his children, and to his slaves. The warriors themselves, the only living power esteemed by the nation, were relegated to domestic duties with the women when age or infirmities rendered them incapable of brandishing a battle-axe: if they were unable to be of service, all that remained for them was to die. In Sweden, old men ended their days by being thrown from the top of high rocks; among the Heruli they were slain with sword-thrusts, for it was supposed that in order to be received by Odin into Walhalla one must bear the mark of the sword.

Neither in the tastes nor in the morals of the barbarians; neither in their political institutions nor in their religion, which was a sort of fetishism and flattered their instincts of murder and carnage, was there anything which showed them capable of regenerating the old society of Rome. Their invasion would inevitably have annihilated all civilization if the Church had not been at hand to subjugate the invaders and effect harmony between the conquering and the conquered race.

We have no need to state in detail the means by which the Church transformed these fierce spirits into the Christian nations which history presents to our admiration. Nourished by the same teachers, subjected to the same religious laws, obeying pastors chosen without distinction from the two races, kneeling at the same altars, partaking of the same Eucharistic banquet, the Romans and the barbarians could not but end by being fused into one new people, destined to reap all the happy fruits of Christian civilization. Among the institutions especially fitted to civilize barbarous peoples we may mention the Truce of God, the right of asylum, and chivalry!

But here again the transformation was not wrought in a day. The Church had a difficult task to enlighten the intelligence, to subdue the will, to modify the customs and political institutions of these naturally fierce men. Several centuries were necessary to soften the savage harshness of these rude natures and temper the fervid heat of their blood; hence for a long time, side by side with the most heroic virtues and veritable marvels of holiness, we find sanguinary customs and monstrous crimes; but the Church, by force of perseverance and patient firmness, triumphed over the world of barbarism as she triumphed over the pagan world.


Before pursuing this study of the civilizing influence of the Church, it may be well to refute, in a few words, a trite objection, which nevertheless impresses unthinking minds. It is founded on a comparison between Catholic and Protestant nations of Europe. There are not wanting men who affirm that the civilization of the latter is higher, and they do not hesitate to attribute the honor. of this alleged superiority to Protestantism itself, and to hold it as a proof of the lawfulness of the Reformation. Let us mention a few principles which will suffice completely to destroy this objection. [10]

1. The falseness of Protestantism, as well as the truth of Catholicism, has been demonstrated by peremptory arguments. Until the force of such proofs is weakened, all conclusions of this kind will be absolutely of no value; they are merely a repetition of the gross sophism, post hoc aut cum hoc, ergo propter hoc. Simple anteriority or concomitance is in no way a relation of cause.

2. Good is found where truth is. No doubt a false religion, by means of the truths which it has preserved, may be useful to the State, but it is no less true that religious truth, pure and entire, will necessarily be more productive of good to the State. Nor can it be otherwise, since true religion, at the same time that it enlightens the intelligence, communicates to the will the strength necessary to make our conduct in harmony with our belief, and thus contributes powerfully to the happiness of individuals, of families, and of society. Moreover, we have demonstrated by incontestable facts thai Catholicism created modern civilization at a time when there was no question of Protestantism. What it did in the past is it not capable of doing in the present? Has truth or the nature of man changed?

3. A religious doctrine which denies free-will, which declares that faith alone is necessary for salvation, that good works are reprehensible and of no avail in the sight of God, which teaches the inadmissibility of justice----is it fitted to civilize nations, to procure them real peace and happiness? With such principles what must become of public as well as private morality? That innumerable Protestants do not carry these disastrous maxims into practice only proves that they are fortunately inconsistent, but it does not redound to the praise of Protestantism or to the credit of its civilizing power.

4. Even admitting that Protestant nations of the present day possess a higher civilization (taking the word in the sense of our opponents) than Catholic nations of Europe, yet it cannot be the effect of the religion, for, the same causes always producing the same effects, this superiority ought to have been evident in each of the preceding centuries since the beginning of the Reformation. Now history undoubtedly attests the contrary. To convince ourselves of this we, have only to go back to the beginning of this century, when Napoleon I was the arbiter of Europe. And before him it certainly was not Prussia or England which held the balance of political power, but the most profoundly Catholic nations, Spain, France, and Austria. And if Protestantism is so preeminently civilizing, why are not Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, so long invaded by the Reformation, also at the head of civilized nations? On the contrary, if France has lost her political preponderance, it certainly has not been because her present government is too deeply attached to the Church.

5. We are far from admitting, moreover, the superior civilization claimed for nations separated from the Church. If it were only a question of political preponderance, of material riches, of commercial genius or matters of a like nature, we should have no difficulty in acknowledging that at the present moment the balance is manifestly in favor of Protestant nations. But a preponderance created by a few successful combats may rapidly disappear for contrary causes. Would civilization disappear at the same time with victory? Who would venture to claim that Prussia's success at Sadowa and Sedan was due to her religion? It would be only too easy to draw from the history of preceding centuries a diametrically opposite conclusion which tells in favor of Catholicism. Would you say, for example, that the invading barbarians were more civilized than the nations they conquered by their arms, or that the victorious Turks surpassed in civilization their fallen enemies? In paganism also there were rich and powerful nations, but their power and their riches were purchased at the price of human dignity, and individual liberty trampled under foot in millions of slaves by a small number of free men. Side by side with a few colossal fortunes there may be the greatest misery and still more deplorable degradation in the masses.

6. "The question of the primacy of nations," says Aug. Nicolas, "is of all things in the world the vainest, as long as we do not seek the standard which should serve as a basis of appreciation." This standard is certainly not wealth, or luxury, or commerce, or industries, or powerful manufactories, or even political power; it is man himself, it is, above all, his soul, his intelligence, and his free-will. We have shown that the Catholic Church has done everything for individual liberty, for the advancement and sanctification of souls, and thus for the happiness of individuals and of society. Moreover, as we have repeatedly observed, the Church by no means despises material progress, the welfare of society; she encourages, blesses, and hails with acclamation the discoveries of science and the marvels of industry. But she cannot forget that man is not placed in this world for the enjoyment of temporal good, but, on the contrary, to love and serve God and merit heaven; she unceasingly tells him, on the authority of God's word, that it Will avail him nothing to gain the whole world if he lose his soul. She does not wish that the "spirit be sacrificed to the body and the body to the machine, " and she declares with the Psalmist, "Happy the people whose God is the Lord!" (Ps. cxliii.) In what way can such maxims, which moderate all the passions and favor all virtues, injure the true happiness of individuals, of families, and of nations, or hinder their triple development, material, intellectual, and moral? The decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount, which are the principle of all civilization, are nowhere taught more efficaciously than in the. Catholic Church.

We might appeal to facts here, and compare the morality of Catholic and Protestant nations. But we do not think that statistics on this point are sufficiently advanced to enable us to form a complete judgment in the matter. Statistics, however, as they stand at present are not favorable to heretical nations. And if immorality is making alarming progress in Catholic countries, it is certainly not because the precepts of Catholicism are too faithfully observed by the people. We have shown, on the contrary, that the morality of the founders of Protestantism could not but foster, and did in reality cause, frightful immorality. (easter44-3.htm) Finally, even in Protestant countries the most moral as well as the happiest parts of the country are those where Catholicism flourishes. As to the other provinces, we must not forget that they are still largely influenced by what they have retained of the teaching and practices of Catholicism which they formerly possessed. If immorality is not greater among them, it is despite the maxims of Luther and Calvin.


1. Leo XIII, Letter to the Bishops of Brazil, May 5, 1888, and Encycl. on Abolition of Slavery in Africa, Nov. 20, 1890; Parsons, Studies, VI., ch. 13; Brownlow; Balmes, ch. 15 ff.; Hughes, vol. i.; England, vol. iii.; Br. W. xv.; A. C. Q. ix. 358, xiii. 577; M., Jan., Feb.
2. Though there was much that was unjust and against nature in the treatment of slaves, yet it cannot be stated absolutely that slavery itself is contrary to nature. It can never be allowed to reduce man to a mere "thing," to arrogate to one's self an absolute right over the life and conscience of one's fellow man, to deprive him of the rights of husband and father. It is quite important to observe that such was not the slavery sanctioned by the Mosaic law, nor the institution of colonists (tenants) and serfs in the Middle Ages. Neither of these implied any idea whatever of moral or social degradation.
3. See Butler's Lives of the Saints, Jan. 1st.
4. Baluffi; Mulhane; Lacordaire, l. c., conf. 33 on Cath. Doctr. and Soc'y; C.W. iv. 434, viii. 703, 734, xlvii. 470; D. R. New Ser. xxix. 361, xxx. 89, xxxi. 12j III., Ser. i. 26.
5. Leo XIII, Encyclicals on Socialism, etc., Dec. 28, 1878;on Workingmen, May 15, 1891, and on Christian Democracy, Jan. 18, 1901; D. R.. Apr., July 1902 (Polit. Econ'y of Leo XIII); Bayaert, ch. 6; Soderini; Nitti, Cath. Socialism; Bp. Spalding, Socialism, etc.
6. Devas; Evans; Humphrey, S.J.; Monsabre; Riche, The Family; Woolsey; Lacordaire, 1. c., conf. 34; Bp. Spalding, Socialism, etc., ch. 5; Br. W. iii., xii. 339, xiii. 526. On Marriage and Divorce see Leo XIII., Encycl., Febr. 10, 1880; A.C.Q. v. 312, viii. 385, xvi. 611; C.W. v., xvi. 585, 776, xxv. 340, xxxi. 550, xxxv. 11, xlviii. 23, 822; M. xlviii. 254; M. S. H., Jan., Febr. 1900. On Woman see A.C.Q. xi. 651; C.W. xv. 78,255, 366, 487, xlv. 816; D.R. III. Ser. v. 288; Br. W. xviii.
 7. Lacordaire, 1. c., conf. 35.
8. Allies, vol. iii.
9. Parsons, Studies, II., ch.19; Balmes, ch. 27.
10. Young; Haulleville; Balmes; Vaughan; Spalding, J.L., Essays; Spalding, J.M., Miscell.,. Essays 25-30, 43, 46; Newman, Anglican Difficulties, vol. i., pt. 2; Ricards, Cath. Chr.; ch. 14; Alnatt, The Church and the Sects, 11. 1, 2; Br. W. vii. 347,517, xii. 309, xiii. 184, 201,222 (same in C. W. x.); A.C.Q. viii. 1, xxv. 791; C.W. ix. 52, 845, x. 50, xi. 106, xxii. 577, 721, xxiii. 30, xxxiv. 1 (Ireland and England); D. R. NewSer. xxix. 418; U. B., Oct. '98.