The Catholic Engine of Western Progress

Published February 17, 2006

The standard account of the history of the West from, say, 400-1500 would run something like this:

The breakdown of the Roman empire sent western Europe into the centuries-long civilizational morass of the “Dark Ages.” The West only began to recover its intellectual elan during the Enlightenment, and it was during that period, when scientists and political theorists unshackled themselves from the repressive bonds of Catholic faith, that “modernity” began to take shape. Democracy and the free market are primarily Enlightenment projects, although Protestantism had something to do with the rise of capitalism. Catholicism, on the other hand, had to be throttled if democracy, the free economy, and science were to thrive.


Wrong, according to Baylor University scholar Rodney Stark in his new book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House) — a splendid exercise in intellectual bomb-throwing that combines rigorous scholarship with readability.

According to Professor Stark, the West became history’s most successful civilization because of the unique theology that undergirded western culture. Christian theology was both rational and progressive; it held that knowledge of God and of God’s purposes could deepen and develop over time, to the point where new doctrines could evolve. Unlike Islam, which froze doctrine in an unchangeable sacred text, Christianity affirmed the “development of doctrine,” and that had a profound cultural impact — it helped create a civilization that was future-oriented, that believed in material as well as intellectual and spiritual progress, and that thought itself obliged to apply human reason to nature so that the world might become a garden of God (as the Benedictines had it).

Stark also shows how this distinctively Christian understanding of theology as a rational and progressive enterprise was “absolutely essential…for the rise of science,” even as it planted in our culture an understanding of the dignity of the human person and the value of work. Christian ideas were thus crucial, Stark insists, to the medieval evolution of “responsive states” that nurtured a considerable measure of individual freedom, and to the development of capitalism, which is the application of reason to economic life and commerce. Thus medieval monks, not dour Dutch Calvinists, were the world’s first successful practitioners of market-driven economics.

Despotism — ancient, medieval, or modern — is the great enemy of social and economic progress. And it was Christianity, not the Enlightenment, that vaccinated the West against totalitarianism, by emphasizing that, while Caesar had his claims, there were limits to those claims — the limits imposed by the superior claims of God. There was nothing like this in Islam; we live (and die) with the results of that difference today.

Professor Stark’s arguments are buttressed by his relentless demolition of the notion that “invention” stopped with the fall of Rome and didn’t start again until the Enlightenment. Really? The so-called “Dark Ages” created the first economies that didn’t rely on human muscles, by inventing water-mills, perfecting dams, producing paper mechanically, which no other civilization had managed. Other inventions of the “Dark Ages”? How about windmills, the horse-collar, horseshoes, the heavy plow, fish farming, three-cycle crop rotation, cloth manufacturing, chimneys, eyeglasses, and clocks? Don’t forget the round-bottomed ship, the sternpost rudder, and the compass. Or, on the cultural front, the university, modern languages, polyphony, and Gothic architecture, with its flying buttresses and stained glass.

As for science, Stark describes Copernicus, not as an isolated scientist estranged from the Church, but as “one of the best-educated men of his generation, having trained at the universities of Cracow, Bologna (possibly the best university in Europe), Padua, and Ferrara.” His heliocentric model of the solar system marked an evolution, not a revolution, for Copernicus stood on the shoulders of Christian scholars; contrary to the regnant mythology, the Polish astronomer was not a forerunner of Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and other contemporary scientists who love playing the village atheist, imagining it an interesting role.

The Victory of Reason is a bracing antidote to the secularist smog that chokes education today. Give it to any college student you know — after reading it yourself.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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