Can those inhabiting the West agree anymore on what constitutes a Western civilization worth preserving? An old friend who is a classics professor at a highly-respected university told me recently that he didn’t believe in “self-congratulatory fictions of ‘the West’ and ‘Western Civilization.’” Given the tenor of recent student protests across America’s colleges, which usually target representatives of “intolerant” power structures associated with an “oppressive” Western tradition, I’m not sure my friend holds a minority opinion among Americans.
For those (like myself) who believe in Western civilization and that its global impact has been a definitive “net positive,” what hope is there of preserving the heritage of the West? William J. Slattery’s Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build — and Can Help Rebuild — Western Civilization builds upon the work of other pro-West scholars like Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (and his 2005 How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization) to offer a fresh perspective on what should—and can—be saved.
Finding Common Ground
In the not-so-distant past, a majority of Americans, and even Europeans, still recognized and cherished a common Western heritage. In reference to religion, almost half of Americans attended church weekly, and the vast majority of them believed in an understanding of God recognizable as stemming from the Western tradition.
As for the Western literary canon, a recent First Things podcast noted that millions of Americans participated in the Book of the Month Club or the Great Books of the Western World project. In the arts, Texaco sponsored a weekly broadcast of the metropolitan opera that garnered an audience of almost 10 percent of the population, while the Great American Songbook offered a widely hailed canon of American music.
As we enter 2018, much of this shared culture has evaporated. About a quarter of Americans no longer identify with any religious affiliation. Many have stronger connections to their favorite sports team than to any religious denomination—more than a quarter of Americans spend at least six hours of their Sundays watching professional football. Millennials are the least religious generation in American history, and it seems probable Generation Z will surpass them in unbelief.
Eastern religions and religious practices such as yoga, are in turn experiencing meteoric growth in the United States. Each year Americans, especially high-school students, are reading less, and what they read is often not recognizable as part of the Western canon. American interest in classical music has also considerably waned, evidenced in the sharp decline in classical music stations available on U.S. radio. A 2016 Washington Post poll found 40 percent of Americans have “lost faith in democracy.”
If Western religious belief, literature, and art are no longer accepted by many Americans as worth preserving, what is? Our nation’s younger generations seem to be largely in agreement over some principles that are considered part of the Western tradition, such as the equality of the sexes and the value of free-market economics. Flattery and Woods effectively demonstrate not only that these (and many others besides) emanate from the Western tradition, but that they were first conceptualized and promoted by the priesthood of the Catholic church.
Clerical Contributions to Western Civilization
As much as Christianity, and particularly the Catholic church, has been vilified by contemporary culture for maintaining “traditional” roles for women, it was the church that first promoted the inherent dignity of women. Christian leaders in the first centuries of the church were outspoken in their opposition to infanticide, which disproportionately targeted females. Historians assess that this practice led to males outnumbering females in first-century Italy, Roman North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean by about 30 percent. The Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and their Companions, a third-century account of the martyrdom of two Christian women, is the first document in world history to offer a first-person account where the female is the main character.
St. Ambrose in turn exhorted the Christian men of the fourth century: “You are not a master, but a husband… Be a sharer in her activities. Be a sharer in her love.” The church railed against polygamy, canonized female saints, and offered women new freedoms to reject marriage in favor of alternative religious vocations. In thirteenth-century France, women were included in the ranks of such professions as teachers, doctors, and pharmacists, among others. Under church auspices, women received unprecedented levels of education. The 29-year-old Catherine of Siena in 1376 provided directives to Pope Gregory XI—that he obeyed! These developments were historically groundbreaking.
The church also facilitated the broad Western movement towards a free-market economy. It emphasized the freedom and inherent dignity of the individual Christian, a significant transition from premodern societies, where the vast majority of citizens had few, if any rights. The church also ennobled manual labor by declaring all of it to have intrinsic value, another significant shift from views held in ancient Rome, Greece, and even China.
Driven by these paradigmatic shifts, abbeys across Europe were engines of economic vitality and incubators of technological developments, including in agriculture, alcohol production, monetary credit, machinery, and mechanization. Moreover, it was the “School of Salamanca,” a group of Spanish clerics beginning in the sixteenth century, who birthed many economic theories and practices of the modern world: expectations theory, the principle of purchasing power parity, the risk-effort theory of business profit, and the subjective theory of value, among others.
Christianity’s impact on the modern world reaches far beyond these examples. As both Slattery and Woods observe, the preservation of classical Greek and Roman literature, the promotion of universal education, the creation of the modern university, the teaching of the inherent dignity of all mankind, the generation of the West’s greatest artistic, musical, and architectural traditions, and the conception of modern international law, among many other things, were all encouraged, if not explicitly built, by Christianity.
Yet, as noted above, most Americans, if not most Westerners, take these things for granted, blissfully unaware of Christianity’s indelible, positive influence. Moreover, many in the West no longer view this long list as “positive goods” worth preserving, anyway. Who cares about Dante when nobody bothers to read him? Who cares about Bach when nobody can recognize “St. Matthew’s Passion”? In light of the West having “passed its own, seemingly irretrievable, tragic sentence upon itself,” what is to be done?
A Return to ‘First Things’
This is where Slattery’s and Wood’s most important thesis comes to the fore: The Christians and clerics who helped build Western civilization did not contribute to this project simply for the sake of art, education, or economics. These are indeed good ends, but they can never replace the truest telos. Rather, these men and women were motivated by an abiding conviction that “Jesus Christ is Lord and mankind’s only Savior,” and, to paraphrase St. Augustine, man’s heart will be restless until it rests in him. Christians built the West to glorify God and seek, however imperfectly, to reflect that glory in mankind.
It is because the Christian faith is not only good and beautiful, but true, that it possesses what Slattery calls “an eternal wisdom and energy that is capable of perennial rejuvenation.” In sum, the closer we cling to Christ (or, for our monotheistic brethren, God), the more capable we become of re-creating a culture as dynamic as that of the West. Indeed, it is not really the West per se that needs to be preserved, as much as it is our search for the objectively true, good, and beautiful—things that are ultimately found in the heart of God.
For Christians, and particularly Catholics, Slattery offers a further insight worthy of consideration. The Mass, or “Ancient Rite,” is an eternally powerful, self-generating tool in the preservation of Western civilization. This is because the holy liturgy, perhaps most saliently among all cultic rites, weaves together the many threads of the West’s most beautiful apparel.
A religious rite with ancient pedigree, its continual performance over the last two millennia makes it a uniquely living ceremony. Moreover, it is a celebratory feast where “language, art, architecture, music, tapestry, woodwork, ironwork,” and many others forms of human expression have converged to form a wonderfully complex sacrificial offering of worship to God. Furthermore, it is a religious ritual that declares the truth, encapsulated in such doctrinal formulations as the Nicene Creed, recited at every Mass. Even non-Catholics have for centuries been able to appreciate the many goods communicated in and through the Catholic liturgy.
Catholic or no, readers of Slattery and Woods will be given a dossier of Catholic and Christian historical achievements difficult to refute. Whether or not we realize it, the United States, indeed the entire world, is deeply indebted to the prelates and laity of the Catholic church for its contributions to the modern world. Our ability not only to recognize those achievements but perceive their driving theological impetus will be the determining factor in how good, true, or beautiful this millennia compares to those that have preceded it.