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.

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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.

In the years of the Long Dark, the monasteries and abbeys preserved culture and civilization and became a locus of peace among barbarism. St. Benedict and the tradition he founded were crucial to the shaping of what was to come: “It is no exaggeration to say that the whole of the extraordinary economic development of our modern Western society. . . can be traced back to Saint Benedict’s initiative.” The monastic schools alone were a remarkable achievement.

In education, the Celtic monastic schools spearheaded what became under Charlemagne and Alcuin a mass-literacy movement, creating a society of educational opportunities rare in history.

This educational drive was accomplished with such reckless generosity that any youth keen to study knew that he could just knock on the door of any abbey and he would be admitted: “The Scots [Scoti, Irish] willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with daily food without cost, as also to furnish them with books for their studies, and teaching free of charge.”

That’s just one of the major contributions made by Alcuin, who also managed to curb Charlemagne’s most violent impulses, turning the lawless barbarism of the Dark Ages into a Christian society based on Roman and Christian law, with the Church and the state working in harmony to convince all to live up to their Christian identity in the Gospel.

Likewise, the Church raised up the dignity of women, from their chattel state in pre-Christian societies to equality with men, with equal dignity and nobility and rights, especially in encouraging honor and fidelity toward the Blessed Mother. Fr. Slattery also writes that the Church was responsible for the “elimination of racism in the Dark Ages.”

Another benchmark for the revolutionary changes brought by Christianity is the elimination of racism in the Dark Ages. Missionaries made it clear to Greeks, Romans, and barbarians that a Catholic’s “whole religion is rooted in the unity of the race of Adam, the one and only Chosen Race”, that humanity is meant to be a brotherhood, and that every Christian must be a Good Samaritan to every person.

Of course it didn’t eliminate sin from every heart and from every man’s actions, but “the Church’s insistence on the principles of racial equality and the necessity of freedom of choice for the validity of marriage had another, more subtle, implication: it asserted the rights of the individual over those of the family, community, race, and state.”

I was especially pleased with the chapters on the Chivalric Age, including the deep sacramental meaning of the rite of knighthood, and the way in which an image of Christ as a Warrior again sin and evil appealed to the martial spirit in men’s hearts. Chivalry was a gift of the Church to the world and turned feudalism into something more. “’Chivalry’, said G. K. Chesterton, “might be called the baptism of Feudalism. It was an attempt to bring the justice and even the logic of the Catholic creed into a military system which already existed; to turn its discipline into initiation and its inequalities into a hierarchy.’”

Throughout the book, Slattery gives us examples of the great men of history who changed everything by their deeds: St. Augustine, St. Benedict, Pope St. Gregory, Alcuin, King St. Louis, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He also covers the contributions to music, art, and architecture to free markets and the the fundamentals of economic theories that today we take for granted.

In some of the most poignant passages, we get a glimpse at “what if.” Slattery relates a recent discovery that the monks of the Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, England in the 1500s had developed technology to create a blast furnace for the mass production of cast iron, which Slattery calls the key factor in the Industrial Revolution. But because Henry VIII had ordered the Catholic abbeys confiscated, the Industrial Revolution would be delayed another 250 years. Who knows, he asks, how history would have been different if the rise of the modern era of technology had begun under the careful ministrations of Catholic monks.

Likewise, in another “what if”, Slattery recalls the School of Salamanca in the 1500s as the seedbed of modern economics, especially a just free-market that encouraged entrepreneurship and allowed for profit. While they are credited with advancing the theory that the value of a product is what a buyer is willing to pay for it, i.e. supply and demand, Adam Smith—whose treatise Wealth of Nations is often offered as an alternative and competing seedbed for modern capitalism—held that the value of an object was determined by the amount of labor and other production costs. Some historians and economists opine that Smith’s labor theory of value became the starting point for Karl Marx in the 19th century. Slattery writes that the reason Smith’s theories were advanced in northern European economic powerhouses like England and Germany was because of the Protestant Reformation. The School of Salamanca was populated by priests, including many Jesuits, which made them anathema to Protestants, while Smith was a Calvinist. Again, how would the world have been different if the Salamanca theories, which eventually informed much of what today we call the Austrian School of Economics, had been dominant and prevented the rise of Marx’s problematic and devastating economics?

Compared to the sections detailing “how Catholic priests helped build” Western civilization, as the subtitle puts it, the “can help rebuild” section is much shorter. I found that it bears some striking resemblance or at least echoes similar treatments of the problem of the decline of Western civilization we see today, especially as we see in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option.

Slattery encourages us to have hope for the future. He notes that while the church is 2,000 years old, that doesn’t mean she’s old in the grand sweep of history. Scholars note that Chinese civilization is at least 3,500 years old, and maybe older. And who knows how much history stands before us?

“Instead of considering the Church as old, with the temptation to consider her youth and creative maturity as behind her, we face the fact that, for all we know, she may still be in her infancy,” Slattery writes. “Her vitality, so manifest in the passage from catacombs to cathedrals in the first millennium, is fully capable of yet another herculean struggle to bring into existence another Christian civilization.” And for all we know that new Christian civilization may take root in Africa or Asia or even in the West again.

Slattery is not wrong to say that Catholic priests saved civilization when the Roman Empire fell and helped build a new Christian civilization out of its ashes, creating the most charitable and loving society in history, with rights and dignity for every individual and the desire to provide for the poor and educate all. And we do owe a debt to all those tens of thousands (probably more) priests throughout the ages, the nameless priests serving small communities, hearing confessions, baptizing babies, consoling the sick and grieving, educating the uneducated, and bringing their flocks to Jesus Christ.

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