The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 9: Western Morality

The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 9: Western Morality


We’ve been talking about a lot of things the Catholic Chur ch has introduced into the world. How about the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage? Let’s talk about these things, and a whole lot mor e, today on The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. (music) Welcome to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. I’m Thomas Woods. Last time we talked about Catholic charity and how important and impressive it is. Today, we’r e going to talk about moral principles more generally, and we’re going to find, there’s much in common in the two episodes because it’s not as if we some views on charity and then some views on morality and some views on this and some views on that. It all comes down to the same message… the idea that human life is sacred and that each individual has a uniqueness and worth because he possesses an immortal soul, he possesses a rational nature, because he is made in the image and likeness of God. Now, this is a revolutionary message. At the end of our segment last time, I pointed out that a lot of the religions in the Near East took the view that human behavior really wasn’t all that important to the gods. I pointed out, for example, that the Sumerians were just at their wits’ ends as to what to do to appease their gods. Nothing seemed to appease them. And it so happened, of course, that they happened to live in a place that was particularly geographically vulnerable… vulnerable to floods, floods that did not occur on any r egular basis… so they tended to view the universe as a hostile place governed by hostile gods, who frankly wer e uninterested in their welfare. I gave the example of the Ancient Gr eeks. The Ancient Greeks had gods who treated them arbitrarily and capriciously, weren’t particularly keen on teaching them morality and good behavior… this seemed quite beside the point. The Ancient Greek gods were often completely self-absorbed and narcissistic… nothing at all like the God of our own tradition. Well, it’s no surprise, ther efore, that in the Christian tradition we believe that there are certain ways that we should behave and that God wants us to do these things, that God cares about us. God actually car es how we treat each other. In these other religions, we see an emphasis on appeasing God through engaging in various kinds of ritual sacrifice. Now, it’s true that for Catholics, we engage in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass every day, but we also treat each other, or are supposed to tr eat each other well because that pleases God too. And that’s something unique in the history of religions up to that point. This was something new in the world. The same religion that teaches you to give of yourself to others, to think about other people and their misfortunes and to give in a way that is unselfish and in no way self-interested, that same r eligion, it should not surprise us, also teaches us important moral principles that follow fr om the idea of the sanctity of life. It’s a single str eam of thought. Now, how can we see these principles in practice? Look at the Early Church. What types of things do we see going on in the Early Church? What are the causes that people are taking up in their society? Well, of course, the Early Church gets its start during the period of the early Roman Empire. And what do we see going on there? Well, among other things, we see the practice of infanticide taking place… literal infanticide. It isn’t simply that the Church went after abortion, which of course, it did, but we see even a much worse situation. We have infants simply being left to die, and typically because they wer e the wr ong sex. So you had many healthy female children exposed and abandoned. And we see the effects of this, by the way, because in the Roman Empire, men outnumbered women by 30%. There’s that doctrine in play. The Catholic Church moved to abolish that practice. But what we also note is that in the ancient world, ther e is no comparable teaching to what we see in the Catholic Chur ch about the uniqueness of human life and its absolute sanctity. Now, it’s true that the ancients did say that man had a dignity that surpassed that of other cr eatures, but they came nowher e near the Catholic belief in the sanctity of human life. We do not see that in the ancient world, even though we admir e and r espect the ancient world. Many of the Early Christians looked with pr ofound r espect at the ancient world. They pointed to people like Plato and Aristotle as having anticipated some of the most sublime teachings of Christ Himself. But at the same time, they understood that ther e was much that was, in fact, to be deplored in the ancient world. For example, Plato… one of the most notable philosophers you can imagine in the ancient world… deeply admired by St. Augustine and others, on one occasion, Plato said that a man who is too sick to work should be left to die. It’s impossible to imagine that in the Catholic Church. Now, what else is going on, in Ancient Rome, particularly? We see gladiatorial contests – that is to say, people are going and watching their fellow human beings try to kill each other and this is a form of entertainment. Well, obviously, this is an unspeakable offense against the dignity of human life and trivializes human life, that someone’s death would be something that we would want to be entertained by. So in fact, it was the Christian emperors who helped to abolish these gladiatorial contests, and that has been called one of the greatest moral victories in history. But it’s not just that. It isn’t just that we see examples of barbarism in the ancient world… barbarism, by the way, that we’r e seeing, of course, coming up once again in our own time. We’r e also finding that ther e’s a difference between the way the Ancient Romans and Greeks tr eated the interaction of men and women and the ideal we have for that. The Ancient Greeks were utterly contemptuous of women… utterly contemptuous of women! Whereas in the Catholic faith, we see, in fact, a pr ofound r espect for woman… and I realize this is the opposite of what people say. Supposedly the Catholic Church is anti-woman and it’s pro-men and it’s patriar chal, and all the rest of it. But for heaven’s sake, let’s think about it. Where else in the ancient world, or even going up into the Middle Ages, wher e in the world could you see women who were able to run their own institutions? They ran their own convents and schools, orphanages, and so on and on. Where do you see that other than in the Catholic Church? We have a legion of female saints. We have tremendous devotion to the Blessed Mother. We have all these aspects of the faith that are pr o-woman, and there are still others as well. This is why, in the Early Church, it so happens that the Catholic r eligion was accused of being a woman’s religion… because so many women belonged to it. So, so much for the idea that the Church is an opponent of women… it was called a woman’s religion! Now, we see also an emphasis in the Chur ch on the dignity of marriage… that intimate relations between men and women were to be confined to the marital bond. Such that even Edward Gibbon – some of you may know, Edward Gibbon was the historian in the 18th century who blamed the fall of Rome on the Christian religion, so he was not inclined to be sympathetic… but even he had to admit that, in fact, Christians have helped to restore dignity to the marital bond. Likewise, the Chur ch taught what we might call the equalization of adultery… that is to say, it’s not simply something to be deplored when a wife cheats on her husband but it is equally to be deplored when a husband cheats on his wife. Hum! And Edward Westermark, who was an expert in the history of Western marriage, has said that, in fact, it was the Christian religion that finally equalized adultery. So we have an emphasis on the equality when it comes to adultery, an emphasis on the sanctity of the marital bond, we have women in… to use a modern phrase… “leadership roles”. And in fact, incidentally, by equalizing adultery, in effect, the Church is saying that men can’t just get up and leave their wives and leave them with nothing. So these things, in fact, attracted women. But it’s more than even this. What else do we see with the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the dignity of human life? Well, we see a campaign against even the practice of suicide. Now, this may seem strange. Isn’t everyone opposed to suicide? Not so, actually. Ancient Gr eeks like Aristotle were against suicide. But others in the ancient world, in fact, believe it or not, had supported suicide. You’ll recall, in an earlier episode, we talked about the Stoics. The Stoics were a school of thought that argued that the ideal human being should be much the master of himself that he should be utterly unperturbed by outside events. He should have complete mastery over himself and his emotions. He should never allow his emotions to get the better of him. Well, the Stoics argued that, in fact, suicide was in some ways even an admirable way to depart this world because there mor e than in any other case, the ideal man was showing that he was utterly unperturbed by the world… so much so that he, at the moment of his choosing, would decide when he would depart that world. How else can you see an even better example of the idea of the Stoic values in practice? “I am so above other events in the world that I can even depart this world when I choose. “That is my mastery over the world.” That type of nar cissism, in fact, informed the Stoics’ views on suicide. And of course, the Church had to say, “This is not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense,” that life is something valuable. We ar en’t simply to cast it aside on a whim when we think it’s a good idea. In fact, a number of Catholics pointed out that Christ obviously disapproved of suicide. At no point did He say to His followers, “Listen, if the persecution ever gets too bad, you can commit suicide.” You can’t imagine those words being uttered! But there is the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the sanctity of life. It is not to be disposed of, even by ourselves, much less by some distant government or by some gladiator in a contest in the ar ena. Now, even beyond this, we have yet another topic that touches on the sanctity of life, and that’s the subject of the waging of war, because it was the Chur ch Who, before any other institution, introduced the idea that there actually could be limits on what is permitted in war, on the reasons you can go to war and the spirit in which war can be waged. There was nothing that corresponded to that in the ancient world because they did not have the same spirit of respect for the sanctity and dignity of life. So this moral issue pressed specifically on Catholics. When we come back from the br eak, we’ll talk more about the “just war” tradition. (music) (music) Welcome back to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. I’m Thomas Woods and we’re talking today about Catholic moral principles that most people, non-Catholics included, have come to take for granted… in fact so much so, they hardly even look for their sour ce. But their sour ce, as in the case of so many fruits of our Western Civilization, is in fact the Catholic Chur ch. And so we’ve looked at infanticide, gladiatorial contests and suicide, and now we’re beginning to look at the subject of war. The “just war” tradition develops in the Catholic world, perhaps beginning with Ambr ose but definitely beginning with St. Augustine. St. Augustine had a great deal to say about the justice of war. What’s interesting to note… as I said befor e the break… is that there really wasn’t anything like a “just war” tradition prior to Catholic reflection on the subject. This is very much differ ent fr om the views that we see in the 16th century with a famous political philosopher named Machiavelli. Machiavelli was, in effect, of the opinion that governments could not be held up to moral standards the way individuals wer e. Governments, in effect, had to do what they had to do. But the Church condemned that view and was condemning it as early as St. Augustine. So, for example, some of the principles that were laid out by Catholic thinkers according to which war could be justly waged wer e as follows. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas in his famous segment on war said that it’s important that the war be declared by the pertinent authority. An individual on his own cannot simply go and declar e war. It has to be somebody who holds legitimate, duly constituted authority. Secondly, there has to be a just cause involved. Any old reason for waging war is not acceptable. There has to be a right intention. You can’t go to war solely out of desire for vengeance or just for a desire for conquest. So in other words, war cannot always be justified. Just because a war is going on does not make it just. So St. Thomas set down these important principles. And then, with the passage of time, we begin to get the development of the “just war” tradition in the Catholic Church even further. In the 16th century, for example, a gr eat man at the University of Salamanca named Francisco de Vitoria had much to say on the subject of the just war. A couple of Catholics historians have recently summed up his view, I think, very nicely and eloquently. Vitoria, in effect, said as follows… that assuming that a prince has authority to make war, he should first of all not go seeking occasions and causes of war but should, if possible, live in peace with all men, as St. Paul enjoins on us. When war for a just case has br oken out, it must not be waged so as to ruin the people to whom it is dir ected, but only so as to obtain one’s rights and the defense of one’s country and in order that from that war, peace and security may in time result. When victory has been won, victory should be utilized with moderation and Christian humility. Francisco Suarez likewise said, “A just war must be waged by a legitimate power. “Second, its cause must be just and right. “Third, just methods should be used… that is, equity in the beginning of the war, in the prosecution and in victory. “The reason of the general conclusion is that although war in itself is not an evil, yet on account of the many ills which it brings in its train, it is to be numbered among those undertakings which are often wrongly done. “And thus, it needs many cir cumstances to make it honest.” Now, that is at least a brief taste of the just war tradition. And ther e ar e, of course, modern just war theologians who are trying to adapt this tradition to modern cir cumstances and continue to develop it. But the critical idea here is that states are subject to moral rules and cannot simply do whatever they wish. They ar e not allowed, for example, simply, for no other reason, simply to go out and slaughter civilians. There are rules on how war should be conducted, and that is because of the Church’s emphasis on the sanctity and dignity of life. Now, I r ecall years ago, back before my Catholic days, I was a student at Harvard… and that is a whole other show in itself, what it was like keeping your sanity being at Harvard – but I remember one of my dear friends at Harvard… his name was Fred DeCaro and he lives in Connecticut. He actually designed my website for free so I figured, he gives me a fr ee website, I mention him on television. Well, Fred DeCar o once said to me, when I was still a Pr otestant, he asked me why I wasn’t a Catholic. I gave some hemming-hawing answer. I did n’t have any good answer. “I don’t know. “I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t spent the time to think about it.” But I asked him why he was one! “Why ar e you a Catholic?” There are a lot of different reasons people could give for this, right? “Well, I was swept up by the Bible. “I was swept up by the story of some saint. “A lot of people prayed me into the Chur ch. “Or some argument convinced me.” Or whatever! But his answer was very simple and I never forgot it and it stayed with me all the way to my conversion. He said, “Because the Catholic Church tells us how to lead the good life.” That simple…”The Catholic Church tells us how to lead the good life.” I couldn’t ever get that out of my head because I thought to myself that what the Church teaches in so many areas is in fact challenging to us. And in some ways, it’s a real challenge to the baser part of our nature to live up to the great ideal that Church holds out to us. But I r emember coming to the conclusion one day that everybody at some point in his life has to answer the question, “Do I intend to live as a human being or do I intend to live as a beast?” And the Catholic Church holds out a glorious and noble path of life in which you’r e not self-absorbed, in which the whole world doesn’t revolve around you, but you ar e part of the nexus where you care about other people and you care enough about yourself to treat yourself with dignity. I recall, there’s a quotation from Seneca, an ancient Roman, who said, “What a contemptible thing is man if he fails to rise above the human condition.” Even a pagan Roman understood that ther e is something about unaided human nature that is incomplete, that one cannot live the virtuous life without extra help. So it was almost as if Seneca understood that if we are going to live a life that truly befits a human being, we need the assistance of Divine Grace. Now, the animal kingdom is composed of creatures who possess only instinct. They can’t engage in moral reflection. They don’t possess reason. So it stands to reason that we human beings should be held to a higher standard than the beasts, that we should observe moral principles; we should reflect on our behavior. Now, all this went thr ough my mind as I was considering converting to the Catholic Church and I was attracted to Her moral teaching. A lot of people say, “Oh, the Church is too tough in Her teaching. She’ll drive people away.” To the contrary, people ultimately, deep down want to be challenged. They want to be challenged by holiness, and I remember, that that’s what attracted me. And I remember learning that in ancient Gr eece, Socrates had said that, “To know the good is to do the good.” That as soon as you know what the good thing to do is, well, you just automatically feel compelled to do it. But I knew that wasn’t so. I knew of many times in my life when I had perfectly well known what the good thing was to do and I absolutely had not done it and I had perfectly well known what the evil thing to do was and I had pursued that. So, so much for Socrates. But then you read St. Paul, and St. Paul has so much moral r ealism when he says that, “There are times when I know perfectly well what the good is and I shun it, and I know perfectly well what the evil is but yet I pursue that.” And I remember when once I finally did convert to the Church, I remember my spiritual director telling me that the next time I was tempted to eat a cupcake, I should have a carrot instead. Now what did he mean by that? Did he mean that cupcakes were evil? He meant that cupcakes are delicious. That’s why it’s an exer cise of will to avoid them, and that by avoiding something like cupcake, which is morally neutral, I can train my will. I can in effect tell myself, “I am in control. “I’m not going to be swept away by passions. “I’m not going to be swept away by irrationality.” I can train myself, because by avoiding cupcakes and eating carr ots, I train my will to be able to say no, so that when the moment of temptation comes and I really am faced with a choice between good and evil, I will have a will that is trained to face it and come out victorious. Now, what a beautiful message this is, that as a human being you have such a dignity, that there is a special kind of life that God wants you to live that is appropriate for you as a human being. And I was recently at DePaul University. They had an event called “Catholic Week”. I won’t get into “Catholic Week” at a Catholic University. What about the other 51 weeks? That’s another matter. But when I was at DePaul, a reporter for the student paper asked me, “How would you sum up your talk? Give me one sentence.” Well, I couldn’t give her one sentence, gave her two or thr ee. But I said, “Her e’s what I would say to the students at De Paul. “I would say that the Catholic Church is the most beautiful institution on earth and if you want to live a good life, if you want to live a life that befits a human being, the Catholic Church has much to say to you,” and that’s a message I think a lot of young people who ar e totally adrift could stand to hear. Of course I feel old any time I start talking about “young” people, but such is life. Now, let me conclude with this. The Catholic Church consistently emphasizes the dignity and value of human life and tells us that we are to live in constant awareness of our created nature in the image and likeness of God, that we are not to live as beasts, that we’re not just to do whatever brings us pleasur e… that we might as well be a cow. You’r e not a cow. You’r e a human being. Christ didn’t die for cows. He died for you, and He died in part so you could live a good life so that we may be worthy to join with God in Heaven. What an astonishing statement. It’s particularly beautiful that the Eastern Fathers talked about the deification – that in effect, as we live the life of the Sacraments we become like God. Now, there is some real dignity. There is the idea that human beings aren’t just random assemblages of cells, but they are worth something. They matter. And here’s something you can finally tell to teenagers… that you don’t have to live this crummy life that MTV is holding out for you. What in the world is there to compare between MTV and the Catholic Chur ch, 2000 years of heroism and holiness? And they think so little of young people they’re going to hold out the MTV alternative. Forget it, ditch it. Don’t live as beasts. Live as human beings. That’s what the Chur ch has to tell us all. Now, there’s another way that the Church has emphasized the dignity and rights of the individual, and that is with the very idea of rights, and that’s where we’re going to pick up next time. Where does this idea that I have a right to life, and a right not to be, not to be robbed or, or expropriated? That comes also from the Catholic Church. So join me next time for The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. See you then. (music)

14 thoughts on “The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 9: Western Morality

  1. The Catholic Church, builder of civilization? Bullshit! The Bible says it right on the money – she is Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth! Any of you "Protestants" want any proof, look up Revelation 17 … It shows it plain as day!

  2. If you ever want to know, I am a conservative Lutheran who attends a congregation with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod who has a genuine dislike for Catholicism.

  3. Yeah, they want to bring back church and state. Well, I hope that we are caught up in heaven in the Rapture before that happens.

  4. Hey, no one says you don't have the right to be on earth like anyone else. What the author here is saying is that LIfe begets itself. To stifle life is wrong, immoral. To commit acts that are counter to life is also non-productive. We live in a society where everyone does 'his own thing.'

  5. I'm not sure what you make reference to, but I can tell you that as a Catholic I took place in pro-life actvities for many years. As Catholics we preach that everyone has a right to exist, to thrive, independent of sex, race or social status. How can that be bad?

  6. To Have more of the Great Ideas of Western Civilization Development, Turn to Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Sorbone, and the hundreds of more – – in compared and quite deep knowledge of understanding. Leave your views behind – – and get to the very realities of the Newest on the Catholic Church – as the Greatest will be talking  about  them   ! !  – – That's the only way     !       ! 

  7. From some of the comments, I think that many of you are unaware of the host's other work. I am not a catholic, but I am watching because I am a fan of Woods. He is an anarcho-capitalist, so no, he is not advocating a theocracy. No, he is not advocating laws making 'homelessness illegal". In fact, most of his work is secular and he keeps his religious beliefs to himself. After being a fan for several years, I was suprised to learn he made this series.
    If you are interested in economics, check out his "Economic Cylces before the Fed" or his "A libertarian gallop through American History".

  8. The cupcake vs. carrot analogy at 22:12 is great.
    I wish there was a way of sharing clips onto other platforms.
    I may just copy that one into a document and share it.
    – Reg

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