The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 5: The University System

The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 5: The University System


Thomas: “The Church is the enemy of knowledge and learning,” Her opponents say. Well then, why did She give birth to the university system? It’s another forbidden question and we’re going to look at it today on The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. (music) Thomas: Welcome to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. I’m Thomas Woods. This week we’re going to be talking about the development of the university system and the spr ead of learning throughout Western Europe, which are developments that are typically thought to have taken place rather in spite of the Catholic Chur ch instead of because of it. But as usual, we’re here to overturn the conventional wisdom. Now, for a long time it was said that a dark age descended upon Europe with the rise of the Catholic Church to pr ominence following the decline of the Roman Empire, that for 1000 years there was nothing but backwardness and darkness in the West. We’ve perhaps all heard this. But today more and more we see historians ar e scaling back the time period that they would designate as “dark”. No one in his right mind refers to the 1000 years fr om the late 400s to the 1400s as “dark”. Only a lunatic would call, for example, the 13th century “dark”. In fact, there was a great book written once called The 13th: Gr eatest of Centuries. Now, it is true there were dark, ther e was a dark period after the fall of Rome. There was a time where education declined, cultur e declined, civilization declined. But was that the fault of the Catholic Church? With barbarian groups in control politically at various parts of Eur ope, was that the Chur ch’s fault? Now, it’s interesting to note what historian Will Durant said. Now, who is Will Durant and why do we care what he said? The interesting thing about Will Durant is not only that he wr ote a zillion books. He was the Stephen King of history. He seemed to be writing, sitting at his typewriter 14 hours a day. What’s significant about Durant is that he was an agnostic. He had no dog in this particular hunt. He was not out to defend the Catholic Chur ch and sometimes he could be kind of vicious toward the Church. But even Will Durant understands that it’s not fair to blame everything that goes wrong in Western Europe on the Catholic Church. Durant said, “The basic cause of cultural retrogr ession was not Christianity but Barbarism, not religion but war. “The human inundations ruined or impoverished cities, monasteries, libraries, schools and made impossible the life of the scholar or the scientist.” And then he says, “Perhaps the destruction would have been worse had not the Church maintained some measur e of order in a crumbling civilization.” Well, even in the midst of the crumbling, the Chur ch did everything She could and on another episode we will look at the role of the monks. The monks did so many things. We should have 100 episodes on them. We’ll have one but that’s for another time. For now, let’s note that in the 8th century, in the 9th century, Catholics are going out of their way… Catholic bishops build schools. Charlemagne, the great emperor of the West, ordered the various cathedrals to open schools as I mentioned in a previous episode. After Charlemagne, 9th century bishops and local chur ch councils called for the opening of schools. This was the gr eat age of the copying of Latin manuscripts fr om the ancient world. Kenneth Clark is the author the great classic book called Civilization, and he says this. He said, “People don’t always realize that only three or four antique manuscripts of the Latin authors are still in existence. Our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne and almost any classical texts that survived until the 8th century has survived until today.” Well, ther e’s something to critique the Church with, don’t you think? In fact, the 8th and 9th century saw the beginnings… the beginnings that wer e unfortunately snuffed out… of a kind of cultural revival that was known as the Car olingian Renaissance. And here we saw the attempt to bring back learning and cultur e. And we see, for instance, the copying of manuscripts, which is important. We see in addition to that the development of something called Carolingian Minuscule. Carolingian Minuscule was a kind of writing. Before the existence of Carolingian Minuscule, you would see writing that had only capital letters and if you ever get an email fr om somebody who sends you an email in only capital letters and you just can’t bear to look at it, you know, “Who is this barbarian writing to me in all caps? It’s annoying, it’s hard to read, it takes longer to write!” They also had no spaces between the words before Carolingian Minuscule, no punctuation. So imagine just a big block of capital letters. That’s a lot of fun to read. Beyond that, because of geographical isolation, people in this part of Europe rather than this part of Eur ope, would develop their own script that was largely indecipherable to people from another part of Eur ope. Whereas it was monks who help develop what was called Carolingian Minuscule… minuscule because it introduced the idea of lower case letters, it also introduced spaces between the words, punctuation and it constituted a single script, a single standardized kind of writing so that people could travel throughout Western Europe and could understand each other. Well, that’s no small contribution. That’s one of the great contributions to the cause of literacy in the world and that came out of this Carolingian Renaissance. Unfortunately, the Carolingian Renaissance died a premature death, largely because of more waves of invasion, by still other barbarian groups. The 9th and 10th centuries, the 800s and 900s, saw wave upon wave of invasions by various groups… by the Muslims, by the Magyars and by the Vikings and these waves of evasion wer e devastating to the West. Monasteries were sacked and destr oyed as were centers of learning. Now, Western Europeans were often very, very good fighters but they also tended to be very slow to organize. So by the time they could get themselves together, the raid was all over and they’d been sacked, and this happened year after year. Well, it’s not the Church’s fault if it’s hard to maintain civilization when the Vikings are attacking you every single year. And when we consider that one of the best known of these attackers was a man named Thorfin Skullsplitter we can get a little flavor of what this must have been like to live with that time. And yet, the monasteries of the Catholic Chur ch had incredible staying power. They were among the most resilient institutions that ever existed because you can destroy one of them but ther e are still hundr eds mor e. And even if you destroy all but one, the one can restore the culture. Christopher Dawson was one of the great Catholic historians of the 20th century. For a while he taught at Harvard. That’s never going to happen again, but Christopher Dawson taught at Harvard, and he said, among other things, he said, “99 out of 100 monasteries could be burnt and the monks killed or driven out and yet the whole tradition could be constituted from the one survivor and the desolate sites could be re-peopled by fr esh supplies of monks who would take up again the br oken tradition following the same rule, singing the same Liturgy, r eading the same books and thinking the same thoughts as their pr edecessors.” Well, if you want to revive a civilization, having monasteries ar ound certainly doesn’t hurt, does it? So the monastery, as we’ll see, as I say, in another episode, played an indispensable role. No matter how many of them you destroyed, it could start all over again because of the r emnants. Now, historian Lowrie Daly once said that, “The Catholic Church was the only institution in Europe that showed consistent inter est in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.” Isn’t that surprising to hear a historian say that? “The Catholic Church is the only institution that’s consistently interested in the cultivation and pr eservation of knowledge and the pursuit of truth.” Well, it so happens that that institution, the Catholic Church, did more than any other institution to give birth to the university system in Eur ope. The university was a unique creation of the High Middle Ages in Europe… and when we say High Middle Ages we typically mean perhaps 1150-1200, all the way to perhaps 1350 or 1300, that time period. And it’s an extraordinary time because, as I say, it gives birth to the university system. How could you call an age “dark” that gives us the universities? Now, where did the universities come fr om? All different sources. In fact, they come from, on the one hand, some of the cathedral schools, the cathedral school that were built and encouraged by Charlemagne and later bishops. Some of them turned into universities. Others, other universities got started as informal gatherings of scholars that eventually built up the infrastructure of a university. And we can’t identify with exact pr ecision a date that they get started but certainly we can say that by the latter half of the 12th century into the 1200s, the universities are beginning going and you start to see some of the great universities of the Western tradition. You start to see, you see the birth of Oxford and Cambridge and Paris and Bologna and the medical school at Salerno. These places are 800 years old and older in some cases. This is an extraordinary advance. And what institution made it possible? Not simply the Catholic Church but specifically the papacy. Henri Daniel-Rops was a Fr ench historian in the 20th century who said, “Thanks to repeated intervention of the papacy, higher education was enabled to extend its boundaries; the Church, in fact, was the matrix that pr oduced the university, the nest whence it took flight.” The popes, for example, chartered more universities than anybody else in Eur ope… but they did more than that. They didn’t just establish universities… they fostered and protected them. They extended all kinds of benefits to universities that made it possible to function and survive and indeed to flourish. Sometimes… I’ll just say this before we go to our br eak… we who live in a university town… I live in a university town. I’m not going to tell you, I don’t want to hurt any feelings… but we sometimes love the money the students bring to the town but we can’t stand the students ’cause they’r e so rowdy and noisy. That happened in the Middle Ages, too, and the popes pr otected the students fr om sometimes the abuse of the townsmen. Let’s see how he did it after we come back with The Church: Builder of Civilization. (music) (music) Welcome back to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. I’m Thomas Woods. Before the br eak we were looking at the development of the university system in Western civilization and noting that the Catholic Church played a larger role than any other institution in spreading knowledge, cultivating the pursuit of knowledge and allowing the university system to blossom. There was no institution that did more and the papacy in particular, consistently intervened. Now, right away as early as the 1200s, as the universities are forming, we already see the characteristics of modern universities. They were not absolutely identical to our universities but we see important similarities… for instance, that we had the same distinction between graduate and undergraduate education that we have now. We had the idea that you go and you pursue a fixed course of study upon the completion of which you receive a degr ee. All these things were features of the medieval university. Now, in the ancient world, they had schools of course, they had academies but they did n’t have quite these features that I’ve described. And typically, if you belonged to an ancient academy, it meant that you belonged to the school of thought that dominated that academy. Whereas, in the medieval university there was no reigning school of thought. Instead you had vigorous debate back and forth on a variety of subjects. But just befor e we went to the break, I specifically pointed to the role of the Popes. How did the Popes help to foster the universities, apart from chartering more universities than anybody? The Popes also extended the benefit of clergy to students. Benefit of clergy is, is a privilege that was extended typically, of course, to clergyman, which said that if you were to harm a clergyman, it would be consider ed an especially heinous offense. Also benefit of clergy meant that if you wer e a clergyman, you could have your case heard in a chur ch court rather than a local secular court. Well, this benefit was extended to the students at universities because, as I suggested at the break, sometimes the local townspeople didn’t really like the students, just the way they are today. A lot of people today look at the university students and they say, “I like the fact that they’ve brought mom and dad’s money to my town and they’re ready to spend it on all kinds of ridiculous nonsense. “However I don’t like the fact that they keep knocking over my mailbox. “I mean, why would you get pleasur e out of knocking over my mailbox?” This sort of thing. People love the money and they hate the students. That’s exactly how they felt in the Middle Ages. So sometimes the students would find themselves being hauled into some local court on trumped-up charges and just being harassed in general. The Pope prevented that fr om happening and allowed the life of the university to flourish by extending benefit of clergy to the students. Any time there was any need to intervene in the university system, if there was some kind of problem, people knew you appeal to the Pope and he will resolve it. In fact, on numer ous occasions, the Pope had to intervene to insure that the professors’ salaries were being paid. Now, think of how pr o-Catholic Eur opean universities would be today if Pope Benedict could do that, if he could intervene and get them a raise or something! Well, anyway, those days are gone. However, it is important to recognize that among the universities that wer e chartered by the Pope, there was something called… in Latin, and I’m using the Church pronunciation… jus ubique docendi, which literally means the right of teaching everywhere. What that means is that if you got a degr ee at a university that the Pope had founded, had given its charter to, that you had the right, automatically no questions asked to go to any university in Western Europe and begin teaching, no questions asked. So that begins to foster the idea of an international scholarly community because someone coming fr om this university can just go and teach over at this one and we begin to get fruitful intellectual exchange. Now, some people, I’m sure, have a sort of caricatured view of what intellectual life must have been like in a medieval university because, for instance, it’s sometimes said that, “Oh, of course be had universities but the pr ofessors had to tow the line, right. “They had to say whatever the bishop wanted them to say, or the Pope. Or they were always hemmed in and they couldn’t just say what they wanted to say.” That is so false that it would take for ever to refute it! To the contrary, as any impartial historian of the universities will tell you, to the contrary, the intellectual life of these universities was very vigorous and r obust. There was hardly any question that was not rigorously debated at the medieval university. Now, it’s true, ther e were br oad theological limits within which this debate took place but within those limits it was open season for various questions being debated. I mean, arguably there was mor e rigor ous debate in medieval universities than ther e are when we see in universities today. I mean, in universities today we all know you have to walk on eggshells, you’re not allowed to say certain things or you’re not allowed to defend concerns types of people or defend the Catholic Church. We all know that. You didn’t have that in the medieval university. You had rigorous, vigorous debate going on back and forth. In fact, what you would see in the afternoons after the pr ofessors would give their morning lectures was that a professor would get up before the entire assembled university community and he would do something called “determine a question”. That is to say some controversial question would be debated by skilled debaters on both sides of that matter and they would both make the str ongest cases they could for their own positions. And then it would be up to the professor to step forward and synthesize everything that had just been heard and put it all together and r esolve it, come to a solution on the basis of this rigorous debate. That was called “determining a question” and that took place in the afternoons. Now, I would like to see a modern university try something like that but you won’t see it because the pr ofessors are all tenured and they want to just sit in their offices and type entries on their blog. So they’re not going to want to do that. But that was what the university system was like. And if you wanted to get a degr ee in a medieval university, you had to do that too. You as a student had to stand up there in front of the whole university community and determine a question. That’s hard. That’s difficult. Now, consider also that we can see the debating nature of our Western civilization, we can see it evident in the writings of this time, the writings of the early centuries of the university. Take, for example, the great St. Thomas Aquinas who was admired by all civilized people everywhere in effect. Look at St. Thomas. Look at the way he debated with people. First of all if you look at his Summa Theologea or Summa Theologica you see that it’s arranged according to questions and answers, thousands of questions he raises. Incidentally, I used to put on my quizzes, I used to put… yes, I’m admitting on camera that I gave multiple choice quizzes at the college level. I did that just to make sure they read their books which they did n’t, but I gave them the quizzes all the same. And one of the wrong answers I gave was the Church told people not to ask questions. Now, if you even slightly listening to anything I was saying, ther e’s no way you’d cir cle that answer. You wouldn’t believe how many of them were circled. I could have spent the whole semester standing up there saying, “The Church foster ed a culture in which questions were r outinely asked.” It wouldn’t have made any difference. They’ve already been told, “The Church hates knowledge,” and so they all circled the wrong answer. Well, in any event, St. Thomas Aquinas asked question after question after question. And if you notice the style of his writing, you notice the organization of it, he and other scholastics debated things in this way. They would take some question and then they would consider all the possible objections to their opposition and list them out and then they would explain their own opposition and then they’d go back and they’d answer the objections. And he did this for question after question after question. It’s an extraordinary achievement. It’s fascinating reading! And what’s great about it is that St. Thomas was generous toward his opponents. St. Thomas wouldn’t just make up some ridiculous argument, attribute it to his opponents and then say, “Ah ha! “I triumphantly answer this person.” No, he would pr esent his opponents’ arguments as persuasively as he could… at least try to make it a little inter esting, right? He would portray it as accurately as possible and as persuasively as possible. In fact, in some cases St. Thomas would even think up arguments that his own opponents hadn’t even thought of. And he would say, “Well, wait a minute. “You guys also have this argument and this one. I’ll give you those,” and then he’d answer those. I mean, that is an honest debater. That’s what Western intellectual life was like and you see it in St. Thomas. It’s organized, in effect, the format of a debate, an ongoing debate with antagonists. That is an extraordinary achievement. That is what our Western civilization is about. It’s not just uniformity… it’s debate and discussion. Now, one of the great historians of science in our day is a man named Edward Grant and he looked back at these medieval universities not long ago and he found something very, very important there, and he said this. He said, “What made it possible for Western civilization to develop science and the social sciences in a way that no other civilization had ever done before? “The answer, I am convinced, lies in a pervasive and deep-seated spirit of inquiry that was a natural consequence of the emphasis on reason that began in the Midd le Ages. “With the exception of revealed truths, reason was enthroned in medieval universities as the ultimate arbiter for most intellectual arguments and controversies. “It was quite natural for scholars immersed in a university environment to employ reason, to probe into subject ar eas that had not been explored before, as well as to discuss possibilities that had not pr eviously been seriously entertained.” And Professor Grant went on to say that, “The commitment to reason and rational discussion that we see in the Middle Ages and that we see in our modern world, this is one of the great gifts of the Latin Midd le Ages to our world, but nobody knows about it.” And he said, “It must unfortunately r emain one of the best kept secrets of the past hundreds of years.” Isn’t that astonishing? We shouldn’t keep it a secret however. We should go ar ound telling people about this cause it’s an extraordinary aspect of our civilization. Let’s just end with St. Anselm, for example, is another example of what I’m talking about. St. Anselm… although he lived just before the universities were getting started but he had the same spirit of rational inquiry. St. Anselm, for instance, had a book in Latin, C ur Deus Homo, which has been usually rendered in English as, Why the God-Man? Or Why Did God Become Man? Because St. Anselm used purely rational argument to try to consider “Why did God do the extraordinary? “Why did He become Man and dwell among us? “If He wished to reconcile the human race to Himself, why did He not simply make a declaration from Heaven? Why did He become Man?” And St. Anselm explained this by using his own reason, thinking about it. But what St. Anselm is known for the most, perhaps, among philosophers is that he asked another question…”Does God exist?” And he began to use reason to try to uncover the answer to that q uestion, “Does God exist?” St. Thomas picked up this question, of course, and he had five ways that he used to demonstrate that God existed. And this is wher e we’re going to pick up next time, because this intellectual tradition of debate and discussion and reason turns itself on the faith itself and asks questions like, “Does God exist, and if so, can we demonstrate it?” And I’m going to suggest that they did it. How did they do it? We’ll see next time on The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. See you then. (music)

8 thoughts on “The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 5: The University System

  1. <3 We need an invigoration of the Catholic way of academe, I'm sure its around, but we need it in social media and everywhere!

  2. the tItle of this is a Big lie . Where ever they Catholic church went in the world they found civilizations they were sophisticated for centuries before

  3. I'm watching/listening to the whole series.
    Up to this point I find this episode (#5) to be the most fascinating.
    I already had an idea of how the monks saved a lot of literature, but the early history of the whole university system is new to me.
    (Some day I'll have to start reading Thomas Aquinas.)
    Thanks for sharing this PerHedetun
    .
    – Reg
    +JMJ

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