Review: Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization

The thesis of Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization is that the whole structure of Western civilization, every major institution, all of its intellectual, entrepreneurial, and cultural accomplishments can be traced to the work of innumerable priests over the past 2,000 years, both famous and faceless.

I have to admit that Fr. William Slattery provides a compelling case that the history of the West, in ways both surprising and unsurprising, owes nearly everything to the Church. But that’s my small quibble. In almost every example given, while the contributions of the ordained clergy of the Church was vital, the contribution of laypeople was just as vital.

Fr. Slattery does acknowledge this early on:

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

[…]

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

I don’t disagree with a bit of that, but I don’t think this book necessarily builds the case for it either. On the other hand, whatever the book’s subtitle or thesis, what it does do is provide a look at the remarkable contribution of the Church in the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and Renaissance to building a better world that we continue to benefit from today.

What Heroism and Genius does best is to strip away the accumulated cruft of centuries of “black legends” concocted by the Protestant reformers as well as Hollywood inventions that collectively created this image of the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and Martin Luther’s 95 theses as an unrelieved slog through the muck and mire of superstition that left 95% of the populace as virtual slaves serving privileged and backward-thinking robed masters. In fact, as presented by Fr. Slattery, the Church—in her priests, bishops and laypeople—advanced the cause of humanity in great leaps.

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Join Your Local Historical Society

A few months ago, I saw a notice on Facebook about an open house day at our small New England town’s historical society, focusing on the history of the town’s fire department over the last hundred years or so. It would also include a chance for the kids to see our town’s fire equipment and meet firefighters, which I always encourage1, and so we stopped by.

It was a nice little event that only took about 20 minutes out of our Saturday. We met the firefighters and the Boy Scouts who organized it as well as the folks who run the town’s historical society. After chatting with them a bit, I ended up joining the society for a whopping $10 in annual dues.

Lots of small towns have historical societies, especially in the older parts of the country, and I encourage others to join like we did. We get a monthly newsletter that highlights events in the couple-hundred-year history of my adopted (and the kids’ actual) hometown and the knowledge that we are helping to preserve the past. It makes a difference to know that our town has a past as we look to the future.

I love knowing that the road called Johns Avenue is called that because there was a convenience store on the spot 100 years ago owned by a man named John.

Supporting the small institutions of your hometown is a nice lesson for the kids in civic duties and responsibility and community spirit. It’s also a reminder to me that being an American citizen isn’t just about what happens in Washington, DC, or even Boston, but is first and foremost what happens in the little town where I live among the people I call neighbors.

  1. We encourage the kids to get to know and recognize our local emergency services personnel so that they aren’t strangers to them. We also encourage them to pray for them in our bedtime prayers.

The First American Chaplain Killed in WWII

Fr. Aloysius Schmitt died on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor just after celebrating Mass on the USS Oklahoma. He was among the men trapped inside after the battleship capsized and helped a dozen men escape through a porthole, but he died because he couldn’t fit. (I can sympathize.)

He was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and had a ship, the USS Schmitt named for him.

Thanks to DNA testing, his remains have been identified and he is returning home this month to Iowa to be interred in a chapel dedicated in his honor.