In the Fathers of the Church and

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In particular, the cultural influence of the Catholic Church upon western society has been vast. It played a role in ending practices such as human sacrifice, slavery, infanticide and polygamy.

Christianity in general affected the status of women by condemning infanticide (female infanticide was more common), divorce, incest, polygamy, birth control, abortion and marital infidelity.

While current official Church teaching now consider women and men to be complementary (equal and different), teachings by St. Paul, the Fathers of the Church and Scholastic theologians have been credited with advancing the notion of a divinely ordained female inferiority.

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Marriage and family life:

Social structures at the dawn of Christianity in the Roman Empire held that women were inferior to men intellectually and physically and were “naturally dependent”. Athenian women were legally classified as children regardless of age and were the “legal property of some man at all stages in her life.” Women in the Roman Empire had limited legal rights and could not enter professions.

Female infanticide and abortion were practiced by all classes. In family life, men, not women, could have “lovers, prostitutes and concubines” and it was not rare for pagan women to be married before the age of puberty and then forced to consummate the marriage with her often much older husband. Husbands, not wives, could divorce at any time simply by telling the wife to leave.

Although some Christian ideals were adopted by the Roman Empire, there is little evidence to link most of these laws to Church influence. After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion, however, the link between Christian teachings and Roman family laws became clearer. Early Church Fathers advocated against polygamy, abortion, infanticide, child abuse, homosexuality, and incest.

By the late 11th century, beginning with the efforts of Pope Gregory VII, the Church successfully established itself as “an autonomous legal and political entity within Western Christendom”. For the next several hundred years, the Church held great influence over Western society; church laws were the single “universal law … common to jurisdictions and peoples throughout Europe”, giving the Church “preeminent authority”.

With its own court system, the Church retained jurisdiction over many aspects of ordinary life, including education, inheritance, oral promises, oaths, moral crimes, and marriage. As one of the more powerful institutions of the Middle Ages, Church attitudes were reflected in many secular laws of the time.

Church teaching heavily influenced the legal concept of marriage. During the Gregorian Reform, the Church developed and codified a view of marriage as a sacrament. In a departure from societal norms, Church law required the consent of both parties before a marriage could be performed and established a minimum age for marriage.

The elevation of marriage to a sacrament also made the union a binding contract, with dissolutions overseen by Church authorities. Although the Church abandoned tradition to allow women the same rights as men to dissolve a marriage, in practice, when an accusation of infidelity was made, men were granted dissolutions more frequently than women.

The teachings of the Church were also used to “establish the status of women under the law”. According to historian Shulamith Shahar, “some historians hold that the Church played a considerable part in fostering the inferior status of women in medieval society in general” by providing a “moral justification” for male superiority and by accepting practices such as wife-beating.

Despite these laws, some women, particularly abbesses, gained powers that were never available to women in previous Roman or Germanic societies.

Although these teachings emboldened secular authorities to give women fewer rights than men, they also helped form the concept of chivalry. Chivalry was influenced by a new Church attitude towards Mary, the mother of Jesus. This “ambivalence about women’s very nature” was shared by most major religions in the Western world.


The Church initially accepted slavery as part of the social fabric of society during the Roman Empire and early antiquity, campaigning primarily for humane treatment of slaves but also admonishing slaves to behave appropriately towards their masters. During the early medieval period, this attitude changed to one which opposed enslavement of Christians but still tolerated enslavement of non- Christians.

By the end of the Medieval period, enslavement of Christians had been converted to serfdom within Europe, although slavery existed in European colonies in other parts of the world. Several popes issued papal bulls condemning mistreatment of enslaved Native Americans; these were largely ignored.

In his 1839 bull In Supremo Apostolatus, Pope Gregory XVI condemned all forms of slavery; nevertheless some American bishops continued to support slavery for several decades.

Latin America:

It was women; primarily Amerindian Christian converts who became the primary supporters of the Latin American Church. While the Spanish military was known for its ill-treatment of Amerindian men and women, Catholic missionaries are credited with championing all efforts to initiate protective laws for the Indians and fought against their enslavement.

This began within 20 years of the discovery of the New World by Europeans in 1492 – in December 1511, Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar, openly rebuked the Spanish rulers of Hispaniola for their “cruelty and tyranny” in dealing with the American natives. King Ferdinand enacted the Laws of Burgos and Valladolid in response. The issue resulted in a crisis of conscience in 16th-century Spain.

Further abuses against the Amerindians committed by Spanish authorities were denounced by Catholic missionaries such as Bartolome de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria which led to debate on the nature of human rights and the birth of modern international law. Enforcement of these laws was lax, and some historians blame the Church for not doing enough to liberate the Indians; others point to the Church as the only voice raised on behalf of indigenous peoples.

Slavery and human sacrifice were both part of Latin American culture before the Europeans arrived. Indian slavery was first abolished by Pope Paul III in the 1537 but Sublimis Deus which confirmed that “their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans” and they should neither be robbed nor turned into slaves.

An unintentional catastrophe was wrought upon the Amerindians by contact with Europeans. Old World diseases like smallpox, measles, malaria and many others spread through Indian populations.

“In most of the New World 90 percent or more of the native population was destroyed by wave after wave of previously unknown afflictions. Explorers and colonists did not enter an empty land but rather an emptied one”.


Slavery and the slave trade were part of African societies and states which supplied the Arab world with slaves before the arrival of the Europeans. Several decades prior to discovery of the New World, in response to serious military threat to Europe posed by Muslims of the Ottoman Empire, Pope Nicholas V had granted Portugal the right to subdue Muslims, pagans and other unbelievers in the papal bull Dum Diversas (1452).

Six years after African slavery was first outlawed by the first major entity to do so, (Great Britain in 1833), Pope Gregory XVI followed in a challenge to Spanish and Portuguese policy, by condemning slavery and the slave trade in the 1839 papal bull In Supremo Apostolatus, and approved the ordination of native clergy in the face of government racism. The United States would eventually outlaw African slavery in 1865.

By the close of the 19th century, European powers had managed to gain control of most of the African interior. The new rulers introduced cash-based economies which created an enormous demand for literacy and a western education-a demand which for most Africans could only be satisfied by Christian missionaries. Catholic missionaries followed colonial governments into Africa, and built schools, hospitals, monasteries and churches.


Historians of science, including non-Catholics such as J.L. Heilbron, A.C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, Thomas Goldstein, and Ted Davis, have argued that the Church had a significant, positive influence on the development of civilization.

They hold that, not only did monks save and cultivate the remnants of ancient civilization during the barbarian invasions, but that the Church promoted learning and science through its sponsorship of many universities which, under its leadership, grew rapidly in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s “model theologian,” not only argued that reason is in harmony with faith, he even recognised that reason can contribute to understanding revelation, and so encouraged intellectual development.

The Church’s priest-scientists, many of whom were Jesuits, were the leading lights in astronomy, genetics, geomagnetism, meteorology, seismology, and solar physics, becoming the “fathers” of these sciences.

It is important to remark names of important churchmen such as the Augustinian abbot Gregor Mendel (pioneer in the study of genetics), Roger Bacon (a Franciscan friar who was one of the early advocates of the scientific method), and Belgian priest Georges Lemaltre (the first to propose the Big Bang theory).

Other notable priest scientists have included Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Nicholas Steno, Francesco Grimaldi, Giambattista Riccioli, Roger Boscovich, and Athanasius Kircher.

Even more numerous are Catholic laity involved in science: Henri Becquerel who discovered radioactivity; Galvani, Volta, Ampere, Marconi, pioneers in electricity and telecommunications; Lavoisier, “father of modern chemistry”; Vesalius, founder of modern human anatomy; Cauchy one of the mathematicians who laid the rigorous foundations of calculus.

This position is the reverse of the view, held by some enlightenment philosophers, that the Church’s doctrines were superstitious and hindered the progress of civilization. It is also used by communist states in its education and propaganda for giving a negative view of Catholicism to its citizens

In the most famous example cited by these enlightenment philosophers critics, Galileo Galilei, in 1633, was denounced for his insistence on teaching a heliocentric universe, previously proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus, who was probably a priest. Pope John Paul II, on 31 October 1992, publicly expressed regret for the actions of those Catholics who badly treated Galileo in that trial.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, in the nineteenth century, claimed that those who attack the Church can only point to the Galileo case, which too many historians does not prove the Church’s opposition to science since many of the churchmen at that time were encouraged by the Church to continue their research.

The Church banned by force the scientific works of Johannes Kepler, whose scientific theories were considered heretical.

Recently, the Church has been criticized for its teaching that embryonic stem cell research is a form of experimentation on human beings, and results in the killing of a human person. Criticism has been on the grounds that this doctrine hinders scientific research.

The Church argues that advances in medicine can come without the destruction of humans (in an embryonic state of life); for example, in the use of adult or umbilical stem cells in place of embryonic stem cells.

Art, literature, and music:

Several historians credit the Catholic Church for what they consider to be the brilliance and magnificence of Western art. They refer to the Church’s consistent opposition to Byzantine iconoclasm, a movement against visual representations o? the divine, and its insistence on building structures befitting worship.

Important contributions include its cultivation and patronage of individual artists, as well as development of the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles of art and architecture. Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Bernini, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Titian, were among a multitude of innovative virtuosos sponsored by the Church.

In music, Catholic monks developed the first forms of modern Western musical notation in order to standardize liturgy throughout the worldwide Church, and an enormous body of religious music has been composed for it through the ages. This led directly to the emergence and development of European classical music, and its many derivatives.

The Baroque style, which encompassed music, art, and architecture, was particularly encouraged by the post-Reformation Catholic Church as such forms offered a means of religious expression that was stirring and emotional, intended to stimulate religious fervor.

Economic development:

Francisco de Vitoria, a disciple of Thomas Aquinas and a Catholic thinker who studied the issue regarding the human rights of colonized natives, is recognised by the United Nations as a father of international law, and now also by historians of economics and democracy as a leading light for the West’s democracy and rapid economic development.

Historian of hospitals, Guenter Risse, says that the Church spearheaded the development of a hospital system geared towards the marginalised.

Joseph Schumpeter, an economist of the twentieth century, referring to the Scholastics, wrote, “it is they who come nearer than does any other group to having been the ‘founders’ of scientific economics.”

Other economists and historians, such as Raymond de Roover, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, and Alejandro Chafuen, have also made similar statements. Historian Paul Legutko of Stanford University said the Catholic Church is “at the center of the development of the values, ideas, science, laws, and institutions which constitute what we call Western civilization.”

Social justice, care-giving, and the hospital system:

The Catholic Church has contributed to society through its social doctrine which has guided leaders to promote social justice and by setting up the hospital system in Medieval Europe, a system which was different from the merely reciprocal hospitality of the Greeks and family-based obligations of the Romans. These hospitals were established to cater to “particular social groups marginalised by poverty, sickness, and age,” according to historian of hospitals, Guenter Risse.


Missionary activity for the Catholic Church has always incorporated education of evangelized peoples as part of its social ministry. History shows that in evangelized lands, the first people to operate schools were Roman Catholics.

In some countries, the Church is the main provider of education or significantly supplements government forms of education. Presently, the Church operates the world’s largest non-governmental school system.

Latin America:

Education in Latin American began under the direction of missionaries who were sponsored by the Spanish crown. Royal policy stipulated that the Amerindians had to accept missionaries but they did not have to convert. Indians who agreed to listen to the missionaries were not subjected to work for encomenderos some of whom were notorious for brutal conditions.

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