What have those pesky Christians ever done for us?

Easter is a good time to do a profit and loss statement on the creed which underpins Western culture.
Peter Smith | 28 March 2013
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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 “summarises 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 civilisation 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 favourably 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 civilisation 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 much 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 marginalised in that continent, Africa and Asia. The media in Britain have picked up on photos showing him travelling 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 civilisation, nor is it ‘extreme’ to recognise the intimate parenting our civilisation 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 civilisation and you have an empty vessel, steering rudderless in the night.

Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London.

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