Let's Stick Up for Our Imperfect Church

By Doyle, Kevin | U.S. Catholic, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Let's Stick Up for Our Imperfect Church


Doyle, Kevin, U.S. Catholic


Mother Church has made her mistakes, but it's our society that will suffer if we continue to ignore Catholicism's contributions to raising the world right.

THIS IS A TEST. PLEASE CONCENTRATE. What name pops up when you think: Catholic Church and science? OK, try another. The Catholic Church and literature; what's your first association? The church and women's equality; what's the topic? Think about the church and trials; what institution springs to mind?

If you are like members of my not-wholly-scientific survey group, you have answered: a) Galileo; b) censorship; c) an all-male priesthood; and d) the Inquisition. Right? Even the best-educated Catholics--indeed especially some of the best-educated Catholics--picture the Catholic Church as an institution that has devoted 2,000 years largely to thwarting progress, oppressing women, and persecuting unbelievers. Of course, the media have hardly strained to correct this caricature.

The Inquisition motif falls particularly hard on my lawyer ears. During the Starr-Clinton-Lewinsky circus, a widely read columnist here in New York wrote about the impeachment proceedings: "Here you had Henry Hyde leading what looked like the march of the cardinals and bishops, and you had Senator Strom Thurmond who couldn't get a job anywhere else playing the role of Grand Inquisitor. The only things missing were the red cardinals' hats and the pope's hat." Much more recently, a New York Times article gratuitously reminded us that "Cardinal Ratzinger's office was once called the Holy Inquisition." The Inquisition persists as the distinctly Catholic metaphor for all things draconian.

To be sure, the Inquisition represents a grotesquely sinful chapter in Catholic history. Even if modern scholarship--for instance Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (Yale University Press)--makes plain that those ecclesiastical courts compared favorably to their secular counterparts throughout Europe, we should deeply lament the human suffering of the Inquisition's victims.

Still, the Inquisition hardly represents Catholicism's total contribution to legal process and theory. Insisting on a logical approach to fact-finding, medieval canonists incorporated evidentiary distinctions today essential to all lawyering. And legal historians identify nobody more than Spanish priest-philosopher Francisco Suarez as the founder of international law.

England's use of juries in criminal cases took hold after the Fourth Lateran Council condemned trial by ordeal. More broadly, as medievalist Norman Cantor insists, the common law tradition that anchors our legal system is the fruit of pre-Reformation--that is Catholic, not Protestant--England. Of course, you won't glean such legal history from current media, highbrow or low.

Good news not deemed fit to print

When the subject is the church and science, again, you'll read about Galileo. Not about Dominican Albertus Magnus, a leader in experimental science. Not about the Parisian mathematician and philosopher Marin Mersenne--a mentor to Pascal--who in the first half of the 17th century served as Europe's one-man clearinghouse for scientific and mathematical research and who laid the foundations for both the Academy of Sciences in Paris and the Royal Society in London.

You don't read much about the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, whose work on the laws of heredity grounded modern genetics. The Catholicism of Louis Pasteur or Guglielmo Marconi wins little note. But you read about Galileo.

If you hear about the Catholic Church and literature on some thoughtful program, say on public radio or television, prepare for an earful about the now-defunct Index of Forbidden Books or old efforts to ban the works of James Joyce.

You don't hear about the Catholicism of Gutenberg or Chaucer or Dante. It's funny: Some years ago William Manchester wrote a book in which he declared as negligible the medieval contribution to literature. …

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