What Have Those Pesky Christians Ever Done for Us?

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The Monty Python film, Life of Brian, has a scene in it where Reg, the leader of a group of Jewish rebels, asks what the Romans have ever done for the Jewish people. The assembled group chip in with ideas one-by-one, undermining the implication that the Romans have brought nothing by hardship to Israel. Reg cuts them off. “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” he cries. “Brought peace?” asks one rebel. “Oh, peace—shut up!”

I was reminded of this at a recent talk by a British Catholic priest at the Oratory church in central London. Fr Andrew Pinsent is a former particle physicist who worked at CERN before being called to the priesthood. He now serves as research director at the Ian Ramsey Centre of Religion and Science, conducting research into religious beliefs and theological concepts in relation to the sciences.

Fr Andrew is the sort of man whose name you hope a future Conclave will consider. Along with other brilliant priests who communicate the essence of Catholic Christianity and explain it aptly and fearlessly to the contemporary world, Fr Andrew has developed a set of themes and ideas that he returns to in his public speaking, writing and media appearances. In this case, it is predominantly an effort to shatter the trope that religion and science are incompatible. But he is far from a one-trick pony: he has also written a set of introductory courses to Catholic catechesis and apologetics called the Evangelium Project.

Over the past few years he has produced a standard presentation to explain why, far from being incompatible with science, the present state of science owes a great deal to the work and reasoning of Christians throughout the ages. The presentation is entitled The Alleged Conflict between Science and Faith, and—thanks to David Quinn and the Iona Institute for Religion and Society—is now available on YouTube. I thoroughly recommend taking an hour to watch it.

One of Fr Andrew’s skills is pithily defining notions and wearing his erudition lightly. Morality is loving the same thing that God does; grace exists to break the self-absorbed amour propre of human existence and creates awareness of an I-thou, personal relationship with other people. Catholic social teaching views society and political order as garden-like, with civil associations like family, clubs, institutions and businesses springing up to give shape and meaning to human existence.

Much of the historical material is also produced in Lumen, a short pamphlet for the Catholic Truth Society and co-written with Fr Marcus Holden, a parish priest in Kent. Lumen “summarizes the extraordinary fruitfulness of the faith, noting that our university system, art, music, legal tradition, charity and even much of our science arises from Catholic civilization and Catholic minds.” To take only one legacy of Catholic culture, namely science, readers will be familiar with da Vinci, Copernicus, and Galileo (treated much more favorably than detractors—often Protestant historians—will admit), but what of Volta, inventor of the first long-distance electronic communication and thus presumably with a claim to be the real “father of the internet”, Gregor Mendel, Augustinian monk and founder of the study of genetics, or Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French Catholic, developed the first theory of evolution, including the “notion of transmutation of species and a genealogical tree”?

Pinsent and Holden describe as “perhaps most surprising” the claim of Catholic civilization to have produced many of the first women scientists. Trotula of Salerno is the credited author of a book on diseases for women in the Eleventh Century, Dorotea Bucca taught at the University of Bologna for over forty years, and Maria Agnesi, who died in 1799, was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV to become the first woman to become a mathematics professor at any university.

Fr Andrew spoke during the period when Benedict XVI had announced his resignation, but before the selection of his successor. With the election of the new Pope, Francis, much has been discussed of what his “offering” will be, as though his Papacy is a business which must have a unique selling point that differentiates it from all other faiths in the marketplace of ideas. Labelled a so-called “conservative” merely because he has an orthodox belief in the received teaching of the Church, descriptions of him usually contain the lazy shorthand, “…but he has an interest in social justice,” as though the two are usually mutually exclusive.

Much has been said of his nationality: as he hails from Latin America, and is a Jesuit to boot, he is hoped to be “in touch” with the poor, dispossessed and marginalized in that continent, Africa and Asia. The media in Britain have picked up on photos showing him traveling bus public transport as a priest, archbishop and cardinal, and a picture purporting to show him washing the feet of HIV/AIDS sufferers, possibly, and aptly, on a Maundy Thursday. He reportedly chose the name of St Francis of Assisi because he wanted a “poor church for the poor.”

I sincerely hope that this is the substantive thrust of Francis’ papacy, and that he wins the media over to his core concerns of the spiritual needs of humanity. As he is reported to have told his fellow cardinals after being elected pope, “If we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not build on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses.”

And therein lies the point. It is not hyperbole to note the foundational role Christianity plays in Western civilization, nor is it ‘extreme’ to recognize the intimate parenting our civilization has in its residual faith. Remove the spiritual dimension from the international Church and you have a wing of the UN or a particularly well-developed NGO. Remove the Church from Western civilization and you have an empty vessel, steering rudderless in the night.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared March 28, 2013 on Mercatornet.com and is reprinted under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Smith

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Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London. He has previously worked in Parliament for Sir Edward Leigh MP.

  • hombre111

    Excellent. But it seems to me that the question asked of the Church is “what are you doing for us now? How good are you at answering modern questions?” Here, too, we can point at some great things, like the Church’s continuing concern about the poor and growing discomfort with war, the death penalty, and predatory capitalism. But then we are flumoxed by the Church’s attitude toward women, gays, and male or female married priests. Somehow, in my experience with alienated young Catholics, these seem to be the dominating issues.

    • tom

      A Church lasts 2000 years because it has standards and is not subject to silly trends. If the crowd says “Give us Barabbas” is that a referendum against the truths Christ brings to us? After all, a straight line is shortest in morals as well as in geometry.

      • hombre111

        I would suggest an interesting book called “Rome Has Spoken,” which explores some of the times when the Church changed its mind or spoke foolishly. A person educated in Church history knows that it is an unfolding story. Not all the answers were there from the beginning. Questions were answered as they came along. Things appeared and disappeared. I hand on my good books as I read them. What I find on my self right now are: A Popular History of the Catholic Church, by Carl Koch; The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, by Ray Brown; Papal Primacy, by Klaus Schatz; The Early Christians, by Ben Meyer. Read books like these and do some growing.

        • tom

          The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton is special, too. Not everyone is as bright as you, but we try, hombre. Keep the Faith.

        • http://twitter.com/Desertsunart Desert Sun Art

          Interesting choice of works, hombre. Doing a little checking into these titles and authors reveals that these are leftist, dissenters with a biased agenda. Poorly written, footnotes missing, statements taken out of context, etc. Just want you might want to read if you were looking for anything to support your lack of faith in the Church. Read these books hombre, and grow away from your faith. As for me, I prefer to enrich and enliven my faith with honest and factual works. God bless.

          • hombre111

            Explain how you “checked into those titles and authors?” Ray Brown was considered the greatest Catholic biblical scholar of the last century. Klaus Schatz is another one of those pesky Jesuits with intellectual integrity. The thing that separates “orthodox” from “dissenters” is the perspective of history. The orthodox blindly believe in a Church fully formed in the beginning and unchanging from beginning to end. The dissenters use a little historical research to prove it just ain’t so. Go on, believe in your fairy tale.

            • accelerator

              Ray Brown… acclaimed AND contested. There are solid scholars on both sides, and conservatives are no more “blinded” than liberals, witness the latest efforts from Gary WIlls.Just saying…

  • Randall Ward

    This article shows the way the church ends up dead. Adapting to the heathen way of thinking is not good for a Christian. Science as science is just another God given ability humans have as a gift. Science as the religion it has become is from Satan. Science explains nothing about our relationship to God, but many scientists in the USA want to replace Christianity with the religion of science.
    The author of the above article can write well but is a confused and ignorant man. We need God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and our Church to lead us to God and help us in our every day life to live out our faith.
    Does it matter if a future Pope is a scientist? If you think it might matter; read the life history of some of the “great” scientists.

  • Bono95

    Did you know that the Big Bang Theory was formulated by a Catholic priest from Belgium?

    • tom

      Monsignor Georges Lemaître also discovered Hubble’s Law two years before Hubble. He wisely said that science and religion are separate fields and that it can be dangerous to mix them.

  • Tony

    There are two things everybody needs to know about the world: it is old, and it is stupid. The Church often ends up grimed by unavoidable contact with the world, and by the old stupid sinners that we are, who make up the Church on earth. But it was the world, not the Church, that held up slavery as a necessity of nature; and it is the world, not the Church, that now flies the banner for every sexual degradation known to the ancients, and then some. If everyone were to live by the teachings of the Church, we would have the closest thing to paradise on earth. We would not have — to take one example from the latest outrage in our schools — perverted experts on sex recommending to teenagers that they try out inserting vegetables into one another’s rectums. This is beyond my capacity for irony.

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