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A Book Review… Priests As Builders Of Western Civilization

January 22, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build — And Can Rebuild — Western Civilization, by William J. Slattery (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2017), 272 pp. $24.95. Available through or call 1-800-651-1531.

A work of great erudition and comprehensive scope, Fr. Slattery’s eloquent book provides a survey of the seminal ideas that shaped Western civilization, ideas founded in Catholic moral and social teachings taught or introduced by the renowned and humble priests who served God and loved their neighbor throughout the ages.
While many historical books examine the various ages through the policies of kings and rulers or through the major wars of the era or through the importance of dominant intellectual ideas, Slattery’s unique point of view is most original and most enlightening.
Comparing noble priests to famous political figures like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon with their alleged “greatness,” he writes, “Who else has achieved for mankind what priests like Leo the Great, Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, and Vincent de Paul have accomplished?”
The author devotes chapters to the “Fathers of Western Culture” (Ambrose, Augustine, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great) who preserved civilization and guided Europe during the political disorder of the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome in 476.
These Church Fathers synthesized the classical heritage of the Greco-Roman world, recognizing both the value of human wisdom and divine Revelation. They integrated the classical view of an intelligible universe governed by law and accessible to reason with the biblical idea of creation as the handiwork of God’s wisdom, love, and divine Providence.
The Fathers preserved classical moral standards rooted in natural law and defended Christian ideals that curbed the descent into the barbaric glorification of brute force. For example, Ambrose fearlessly condemned Theodosius the Great for his massacre of innocent victims, insisting “The Emperor is in the Church, not above it.”
Slattery comments, “The Caesars who had often behaved as if “L’état, c’est moi (I am the state) now recognized themselves as subjects of the natural law and accepted the Catholic Church as its custodian.”
Augustine, the recipient of a classical education and a convert to the Catholic Church, used both reason and faith in his comprehension of God, stating, “Before faith you must understand in order to believe, after faith you must believe in order to understand.” Because Augustine used the thought of Plato and Aristotle to illuminate Christian teachings and studied classical rhetoric and the moral thought of Cicero, Augustine as a Christian teacher used his literary training in his preaching and writing, and he esteemed the cardinal virtues of Cicero, Virgil, and Plato as complementary to faith, hope, and charity.
Thus he epitomizes for Slattery “the harmonious union of classical learning, philosophical genius, and the Catholic Faith,” a Christian “converter of culture.”
The book does true justice to the contributions of both the Benedictine and Irish monks — Benedict, Boniface, Columbanus, and Columba — in teaching a higher way of life than the plundering and destroying of the warrior barbarians — a way of life that respected manual labor and engaged in agriculture, the clearing of forests, and the handiwork of building.
As a tribute to the magnanimity and humility of the Benedictines, Slattery commends them as “focused men, with hearts detached from riches, power, and sensuality,” men of vocation in whom “converged the genius of Roman realism and order with Christian supernatural loftiness, producing a man who harmonized prayer and asceticism with study and manual work.”
The book illuminates the significance of the Irish method of private Confession that was not the common practice in the first centuries. Sparing the repentant sinner the humiliation of public Confession and the ruin of his reputation, the new rite assured confidentiality, secrecy, and milder penances to encourage the habit in conformity with the human need for privacy.
This practice engendered trust in the friendship of the priest-confessor, endearingly known as “soul-friend” (anam chara) and animae carus (beloved of the soul). Because of the availability of larger numbers of priests to hear Confessions, “A new and powerful instrument of civilizational change had been born,” one in which priests assumed the role of directing the souls of kings and queens in confessionals and purifying their minds, hearts, and souls from worldly ambitions and motives.
The book honors the great achievements of Charlemagne and Alcuin in creating schools that taught the trivium and quadrivium and in cultivating a love of learning. They organized a system of widespread education in which abbots formed schools to instruct monks in the liberal arts to teach parish priests also to play a crucial role as teachers of the young. Because of the special importance of education in civilizing nations, Slattery concludes that the court of Charlemagne became “the heir of the hitherto leading European educators.”
Under the influence of the learned schoolmaster Alcuin, a student of the Venerable Bede, higher standards governed the role of Christian monarchs. A universal European government under one king and under the rule of Roman and Christian law aspired to unify nations in a Christendom or “Christian Empire” (imperium Christianum) in which Charlemagne envisioned himself as a Christian ruler and servant of God, not as the successor to Caesar.
Alcuin’s holy instruction not only dissuaded Charlemagne from numerous wars but also taught the ruler of the folly of conversion with the sword when he threatened the Anglo-Saxons either to convert to Christianity or suffer the penalty of death. Through these civilizing effects of Christian education, the ideals of Christian forgiveness and the teaching of the Beatitudes replaced the violence of revenge as a crude form of justice as even the fierce Vikings, notorious for the terror they instilled, embraced the Catholic faith and learned the ways of peace and mercy.
In other chapters the book gives credit to the priests whose veneration of the Holy Mother inspired the ideals of medieval chivalry that not only tempered the brutality of barbarian warfare but also honored and elevated women to a new unprecedented stature — a model of femininity, beauty, and refinement deserving of man’s chivalry, protection, and service.
The Christian knight dedicated to purity consecrated himself to a defense of the Church with a spirit of self-sacrifice ready to shed blood in defense of just causes and holy crusades. The Crucified Christ who emptied Himself inspired this noble heroic ideal that appeared in The Song of Roland and El Cid and in the character of Sir Galahad.
The symbol of the knight’s sword during initiation ceremonies designated not only the fortitude to excel in conquest but also the self-conquest to abstain from all the temptations of the flesh that violate masculine honor. The heir of Catholic culture, the knight personified “a new type of soldier” that had no equal in any previous age: “Neither warriorhood nor war knew the meaning of restraint among the Germanic tribes, Magyars, and Vikings; neither for that matter were the ‘civilized’ Romans much better.”
In the cause of justice the chivalric knight gave special consideration to the poor, the widow, and the orphan. The Catholic faith in its veneration for the Holy Mother also recognized the dignity of all women as deserving of special protection and privileges, inspiring religious vocations and consecrated religious life as another option to marriage and motherhood and honoring holy women as saints and martyrs:
“How many hospitals, orphanages, schools, universities, and centers for the poor . . . arose from the heroine hearts of women like Scholastica, Clare of Assisi, Angela de Merici . . . and Teresa of Calcutta.”
This idealization of woman also expressed itself in a fresh vision of marriage modeled on the image of Christ as Bridegroom: “farewell to all forms of domination — every man’s spousal existence must be a lifelong thrust toward a Christ-like sacrifice of self for the beloved.”
Beautiful marriage ceremonies, customs, and prayers developed, like the incensing of the marriage bed and its sprinkling with water to create a sense of the romantic mystique of marital union and to exalt human love to an intimation of supernatural joy — as seen in Dante’s love for Beatrice through whom he contemplated both human and divine beauty.
The book cites “the legal revolution” of the thirteenth century that incorporated Augustine’s political thought in The City of God, ideas that influenced Alcuin and Charlemagne “to tame the barbarian tribes accustomed to solve disputes by vendettas and bloodbaths” instead of by divine law.
Culminating in the Magna Charta of 1215, this legal revolution set limits to the power of monarchs and the use of war. It produced an acknowledgment of natural human rights for women, children, and slaves having no precedent in classical antiquity. These new laws recognized the equality of man and woman under the law, “protecting her right to choose a spouse and gain a declaration of annulment,” and granted to slaves the status of “fellow men and brothers in Christ.”
Another chapter recognizes the masterpieces of great art as another fruit of the Catholic Church and of the genius of priests, especially the beauty of Gothic architecture and Gregorian chant. The atmosphere of a world illuminated with light created in these cathedrals radiated everywhere the God who is light, truth, beauty, and splendor. The columns and heights direct man to a vision of the sublime, lofty peaks of eternal happiness and heavenly glory.
The great art of stained-glass windows that tell the story of salvation history reminds man of the Church that represents the Body of Christ, the company of saints, heroes, and angels that accompany his human pilgrimage to the heavenly city. Gothic architecture as art lifted man’s soul to a contemplation of the transcendent: “all was meant to be a total sensory experience of the truths of his religion; light, glass, and stone, the waves of Gregorian and polyphonic chant, the sweet perfumes of oriental incense, the sight of soaring vaults, the rustle of silk chasubles, the touch of shining metal, and the shimmer of jeweled chalices.”
The art of Gregorian Chant with its “ascetic purity of sound” had the same religious effect, music with stately dignity that preserves the ordered serenity of the soul free of emotional storm and stress and that sensitizes the heart to the tender, poignant feelings in touch with the goodness and sweetness of the Lord — music that elevates the soul to a contemplation of God like the ancient liturgy that proclaims “Lift up your hearts” (Sursum corda).
The genius of priests never underestimated the great power of sacred music to purify the soul and inspire the heart to a deeper knowledge and love of God: “For serenity is the ambience necessary for the soul’s growth in knowledge of God and self — the indispensable gateway to arrive at prayer’s summit: divine union.”
Slattery explains that Catholic social teaching about the common good recognizes the dignity of work, man’s free will, and the right to property, all paving the foundation for economic prosperity through the free-market approach for the exchange of goods. “The Church declared every genre of work valuable — including manual work in field and forge.”
The Church moved men to be fruitful and produce and showed how honest, industrious work benefited them personally and contributed to the common good of a prosperous economy. The Catholic faith never endorsed a slave-based or government-controlled economy that only benefited the special interests of the few.
The work ethic of monks not only produced bountiful harvests and surplus goods but also other arts like pottery, tannery, cattle and horse breeding, and winemaking. This genius has a simple explanation: “the monks put the same spirit into their production that they did into building Gothic churches, singing Gregorian Chant, educating, and caring for the poor: a spirit alluded to by the initials DOM,” an abbreviation for Deo Optimo Maximo, which Slattery summarizes perfectly as “giving to one’s fellow man the best and the greatest for God’s sake.”
In short, this book is a treasury of valuable knowledge, exceptional insight, and extraordinary depth of understanding. It offers a fresh perspective on well-established facts that make them shimmering truths full of wonder. The humble priests who honored God with their dutiful vocations, heroic sacrifices, noble work, and intellectual and artistic gifts produced, in the words of Pope Leo XIII quoted by the author, “even in this life, the fountain of blessings so numerous and great, that they could not have been greater or more numerous had the original purpose of her foundation been the pursuit of happiness during the lifetime which is spent on earth.”

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