Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 4 of 4)

The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul by Karol Tichy

To return to part 3 of this series, click here.

VII. Ethics

The most important way Christianity influenced our world is in terms of ethics (beliefs and theological assumptions).  The ten commandments, the teachings and example of Christ and the Bible in general, would be taken in by Christians down the centuries — resulting in radical changes in society. 

Christianity’s influence in terms of ethics was also important because it pacified the barbarians and united Europe under a single faith.  As noted by historian Dawson:

“The Church had to undertake the task of introducing the law of the Gospel and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount among peoples who regarded homicide as the most honorable occupation and vengeance as synonymous with justice.”[1] 

With that said, let us look into several key ways Christianity changed our world in terms of ethics.

A. The Crucifixion

When it comes to ethical beliefs and theological assumptions, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth caused great reverberations down the ages. Strikingly, Jesus’ death may have had as much of an impact as His life and teachings.

One way the crucifixion changed the world, particularly in terms of theological assumptions, is its elevation and empowerment of the weak.  In the ancient world, the strong imposed their will on the weak.  The weak had no dignity and those in power had no qualms about treating them callously.  Christianity changed all this, and it did so most clearly through the image of Christ on the cross.

In ancient Rome, the cross symbolized the power of the greatest empire on earth to torture anyone who opposed its rule.  Roman governors could punish rebels in a number of ways, the worst of which was crucifixion. Those who were crucified suffered excruciating pain.  They could be hung upside down, impaled, or have nails smashed through their bones (in this last case, in order to stay alive, they would have to pull themselves up and down resulting in the person feeling the metal scraping against their bone in the process).  Birds would flock around the crucified’s head and he would be unable to stop them from pecking his eye out.  The crucified individual would also have to endure this ordeal naked. 

The cross was also beneficial from a Roman point of view because it was public.  The crucified served as a sort of billboard, advertising their own humiliation and the power of the Roman authorities that were putting them to death.  Christianity, however, upended this symbol of Roman power in light of Christ’s resurrection (following his death from crucifixion).  As historian Holland put it “from degradation — the notion of triumph, from humiliation — glory, from death — life”.[2]  Furthermore, Holland continues, the idea that someone who suffered the death of a slave turns out to be the creator of all Heaven and earth and of all humanity — this taught and communicated that even the lowest in society had dignity and that God was closer to the weak than to the mighty.[3]

The cross also changed the world by serving a moral pedagogical function. It taught, through the example of Christ, that there was merit in lowering oneself for others (as we shall see in the next sub-section on humility). As noted by agnostic historian Tom Holland, the insights from the cross were a great “detonation under the assumptions of Roman power”.[4]  

The cross also had an impact by serving as a powerful symbol of God’s love.[5]  It communicated the primacy of love within the Christian faith, for the cross exemplified God’s love for humanity — God dying and suffering for man.  As Paul himself said: “I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).  In addition to communicating the primacy of love within the Christian faith, the cross also had a profound impact on the way man viewed God — as Love.

Ultimately, the reverberations of the cross had a great impact on Western morality as Christians would look at it, pray before it, and reflect on it down the ages.  It became an object of enormous theological reflection.

The Crucifixion of Christ by Salvador Dali

B. Humility

Christianity also revolutionized the world in terms of humility.  Although our society sees humility as a virtue, the ancient Greco-Roman world did not.[6]   As historian John Dickson notes, humility (humilitas in Latin, tapeinos in Greek) meant “crushed” or “to lower in status”.[7]  It was associated with failure and shame, which were to be avoided at all costs.  In ancient Rome, society was centered around philotimia, “the love and pursuit for honor”.  Aristotle for example, noted that “honor” and “reputation” are among the most pleasant things one could contemplate and attain for oneself.

In ancient Rome, people pursued honor and felt at liberty to parade their best accomplishments before others – provided that said accomplishments were true and communicated in a way that did not put down others.  Merit demanded honor and praise, and the latter two were proof of the former.

In antiquity, humilitas (the lowering of oneself) was appropriate before the gods.  It was also fitting before emperors.  However, humilitas before an equal or a lesser was morally suspect because such an action did not accord with the merit one possessed.

How then, did humility become a virtue? How did we go from drawing a straight line between greatness and honor as the ancients did, to drawing a straight line between greatness and humility? How did our culture move from prizing public honor and despising lowering yourself before an equal (let alone a lesser) to one that despises self-aggrandizement and prizes lowering yourself for others? The answer is Christianity – the teachings and life of Jesus.

During his ministry, Jesus upended ancient notions of blessedness saying that the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:3), that the meek will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5), and that “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt 20:16).  He also upended ancient notions of greatness (Matt 20:26, 28), saying that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” for “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”.  Jesus also urged his disciples to lower themselves: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12).  Lastly, Jesus of Nazareth, believed to be God in the flesh, also displayed humility throughout the gospels – His lowly birth, His being the son of a carpenter, His washing of the feet of His disciples during their last meal together and most importantly, His death on the cross.

It was Jesus’ death on the cross that broke the honor–shame paradigm of the ancient world.[8]  In antiquity, honor was pursued and shame was avoided at all costs.  Honor was proof of merit and shame was proof of failure and worthlessness.  If this was the case, however, then what did that entail for Jesus, who was executed in the (literally) most shameful manner in the Empire – crucifixion.  Either Jesus was not as great as his followers thought (with his crucifixion being evidence of his insignificance) or the notion of “greatness” had to be redefined to fit his seemingly shameful end.  Opponents of early Christianity happily accepted the first option and indeed, this was the common-sense interpretation for those living in a culture that highly prized honor. This is why St. Paul noted that Gentile audiences had a hard time grappling with the idea of a crucified Messiah: “[the] Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified”“foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).  Christians, on the other hand, took the other option.  They did not see Jesus’ crucifixion as evidence for His humiliation, but proof that greatness can express itself in humility — the noble choice to lower oneself for the sake of others.  This perspective can be seen in Paul’s second letter to the Philippians, in which he urges his Christian readers to live in humility and follow the example of Christ (Philippians 2:3-8):

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

As historian Dickson notes, the writings of Paul above is evidence of nothing less than a “humility revolution”:

“The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became an object not of scorn but of worship and emulation.  Honour has been redefined, greatness recast.  If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service”.[9]  

When it comes to humility, the Christian moral universe was a near-complete inversion of the Greco-Roman one, with humility replacing pride as the rightful interior attitude in one’s life.

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown

C. The Primacy of Love

One of Christianity’s most enduring legacies to Western morality is the primacy  of love.[10]  When a scribe asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, Jesus told him that it was love —  love for God and neighbor (Mk 12:29-31):

“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.  And the second is namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  There is none other commandment greater than these”

The love called by Jesus of Nazareth was demanding. It was total, radical and universal in scope.  It applied not only to one’s loved ones but strangers and foreigners, as well as one’s enemies (Matt 5:43-48):

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

Indeed, Jesus told his disciples that others would know they were His followers through their love (Jhn 13:34):

“A new commandment I give unto you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also must love one another.  By this shall all men know that you are my disciples…”. 

The teachings of Jesus would be taken up after His death by His followers, who spread his teachings across the Empire with great zeal.  One of His followers, St.  Paul, displayed the primacy of love in his writings — letters to the newly founded churches across the Mediterranean (Gal 5:14 and 1 Cor 13:1-13):

“The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”

“If I speak in the tongues of angels , but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and exult in the surrender of my body, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.



And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love”.

The Christian primacy of love has had a huge impact on our history.  As historian Holland notes, because of it, our world “stood transformed as a result”.[11]  It has also been the driving force behind Christian charity. 

D. Charity

One of the clearest and most important ways Christianity revolutionized the world was in terms of charity.  As stated by historian Woods: ” [Christianity] invented charity as we know it in the West”.[12] 

In antiquity, the efforts of pagan priests did not go to helping those in need but as historian Holland put it, to “dancing, cross-dressing and self-castration”.[13] This indifference also extended to the gods of the pagan gods who “cared nothing for the poor”. Pagan philosophers also disregarded the weak in society.  As noted by agnostic historian Holland:

“The starving deserved no sympathy.  Beggars were best rounded up and deported.  Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self control.  Only fellow citizens of good character who, through no fault of their own, had fallen on evil days might conceivably merit assistance … there was little in the teachings of [pagan]  philosophers to justify any assumption that the poor, just by virtue of their poverty, had a right to aid”.[14] 

This all changed with the arrival and growth of Christianity.  As historian Holland comments:

“The roots of Christian charity ran deep.  The apostles, obedient to the Jewish tradition as well as to the teachings of their master, had laid it as a solemn charge upon new churches always ‘to remember the poor’.  Generation after generation, Christians had held true to this injunction.  Every week, in churches across the Roman world, collections for orphans and widows, for the imprisoned, and the shipwrecked and the sick had been raised.  Over time, as congregations swelled, and ever more of the wealthy were brought to baptism, the funds available for poor relief had grown as well.  Entire systems of social security had begun to emerge.  Elaborate and well organised, these had progressively embedded themselves within the great cities of the Mediterranean”.[15] 

Systems and institutions of charity emerged.  Deacons were assigned the job of distributing the collections at mass to those in need, be it in the form of money or very often in the form of other resources, such as food or clothing.[16]  Collections were also used by the Church to free slaves and to release the innocent from prison, or at least pay the guards to provide better treatment. Eventually, the Church would establish orphanages (so that give those who planned to abandon their infants had an alternative), poorhouses and hostels, hospitals, and leper houses.[17]  Eventually, with the Christianization of the Empire, charity became “normal” as it is today.

There was also a major change in philanthropy in terms of focus.  Prior to the Christianization of the Empire, the wealthy primarily donated temples, public buildings, theatres, bathhouses and other forms of public entertainment.[18]  However, due to the influence of Christianity, philanthropy became more focused on helping the poor, sick and needy.  As noted by historian Holland:

“The days when a wealthy man had only to sponsor a self-aggrandising piece of architecture to be hailed a public benefactor were well and truly gone”.[19]  

Christianity’s concept of charity also differed from that of the ancient world due to its emphasis on selflessness, humility and love for neighbor.  As noted by historian Woods:

“The spirit of giving in the ancient world was in a certain sense deficient when set against that of the Church.  Most ancient giving was self-interested rather than purely gratuitous.  The buildings financed by the wealthy prominently displayed their names.  Donors gave what they did either to put the recipients in their debt or to call attention to themselves and their great liberality.  That those in need were to be served with a cheerful heart and provided for without thought of reward or reciprocity was certainly not the governing principle”.[20]

When it comes to charitable efforts carried out by Christian individuals, parishes, dioceses, monasteries, religious orders, lay organizations and the Holy See, a complete history of all these would fill many large volumes.  As historian Woods notes, Christian charity “has had no peer in the amount and variety of good work it has done and the human suffering and misery it has alleviated”.[21]  With that said, let us look at some notable of examples of Christian charity.

When pestilences struck Carthage and Alexandria, Christians earned respect and admiration for the bravery with which they consoled the dying and buried the dead.  Pagans, on the other hand, kept to themselves, refusing to aid even their friends and plundering the dead.  St.  Cyprian, bishop of Alexandria, rebuked the pagan population for their behavior saying:

“No compassion is shown by you to the sick, only covetousness and plunder open their jaws over the dead; they who are too fearful for the work of mercy, are bold for guilty profits.  They who shun to bury the dead, are greedy for what they have left behind them.”[22] 

St.  Cyprian called Christians to action, urging them to aid the sick and bury the dead, including pagans who had been persecuting them (this event took place when the Empire was still persecuting Christians):

“If we only do good to those who do good to us, what do we more than the heathens and publicans? If we are the children of God, who makes His sun to shine upon the good and the bad, and sends rain on the just and the unjust, let us prove it by our acts, by blessing those who curse us, and doing good to those who persecute us”.[23] 

The remarkable response of Christians during this time was recorded by Dionysius:

“[They] did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril, and ministered to them assiduously … drawing upon themselves their neighbors’ diseases, and willingly taking over to their own persons the burden of the sufferings of those around them”.[24] 

The Christian response during this difficult time resulted in significant numbers of pagans converting to Christianity. 

St.  Paulinus was a wealthy Roman senator and skilled administrator.  He was extremely well-connected and owned a vast array of properties in Italy, France and Spain.[25]  Paulinus, however, converted to Christianity, and he and his already Christian wife Therasia renounced their wealth — with Paulinus himself renouncing his rank as senator.  Paulinus announced that all of his properties and possessions would be given to the poor and the Church.   He did not, however, give all his wealth in one go but spent it on the poor and the Church over his lifetime, funding many charitable projects.  Paulinus would spend the rest of his life residing in a small hut and living on a modest diet of beans — praying, carrying out vigils and giving alms to the poor.[26]   After the death of his wife, Paulinus would end up being ordained a priest and assuming the position of bishop of Nola, Italy.  His radical actions sent shockwaves through the circles of Rome’s elite, “thrilling some” and “appalling many others”.[27]  St.  Paulinus does not stand alone in his actions. Many wealthy and pious Christian men and women gave up their possessions to the poor such as St.  Francis of Assisi, St.  Elizabeth of Hungary (a German princess) and St.  Katharine Drexel. 

St.  Vincent De Paul, a French priest, devoted his life to serving the needy.  He was known for his attention to detail, a manifestation of the great affection and love he had for those he served.  To one group of his volunteers he wrote:

“Each sick person should have as much bread as he needs, with a quarter pound of boiled button or beef for dinner, and the same amount of roast for supper; except on Sundays when they may be given some boiled chicken for their dinner, and two or three times a week their meat may be chopped.  Those who have no fever should have a pint of wine each day, half in the morning and half in the evening … If fish can be found at an honest price, this shall be given them only at dinner.  Permission to eat meat in Lent and on other forbidden days should be obtained for those who are very ill; and if they are unable to eat solid meat, they should be given bouillon, bread-soup or toasted bread, barley gruel and fresh eggs, twice or thrice a day”.[28] 

Each orderly under St. Vincent was instructed to serve the needy “all with love, as if it were her son she were treating, or rather God, who counts as done to himself the good she does to the poor”.[29]

Vincent’s greatest contribution was the founding of the Daughters of Charity, whose “Grey Sisters” would labor in hospitals, hospices, foundling homes and armies (as the first female military nurses).[30] 

During the period of the Thirty Years War and the plagues and famines that accompanied it, Vincent also rose to the occasion.  He lodged thousands of refugees and 800+ orphans who were put to trade or in service.[31]  Right after the war, in the 1650s, Vincent’s various enterprises fed as many as 15,000 people.[32] 

When it came to the poor, Vincent told those who worked in his organizations the following:

“The poor are our masters.  They are our kings; we must obey them; and it is no exaggeration to call them this, since Our Lord is in the poor”.[33]

A more ordinary but certainly extraordinary model of Christian  charity would be Pier Giorgio Frassati, who carried out exemplary efforts to help the poor before dying at the young age of 24.  Pier Giorgio was a normal young man in many ways.  He loved having fun with his friends, cracking jokes and playing sports. He also had a passion for mountain climbing.  In addition to these, Pier Giorgio had a deep Christian faith that shone through in his life (in this discussion, we will only focus on his charity though). 

There are many stories of how Pier Giorgio loved the poor.  One time, when Pier Giorgio was a young boy, a frail woman knocked on the door of his home with a barefoot child in her arms. Pier Giorgio quickly removed his shoes and socks, gave them to her and shut the door before anyone in his family could object.[34]  Another time, during a freezing night, his father asked him where his coat was when he arrived home without it.  Pier Giorgio told him that he gave the coat away: “You see, Dad, it was cold”.[35]  At times, he would also give his train money to the poor and hurry back home on foot.[36] 

Pier Giorgio was also selfless with the money that was given to him.  When his sister, Luciana, got married and gave him 1,000 liras from her wedding gifts, he gave it all away to charitable causes.[37]  Likewise, when his father gave him 5,000 liras instead of a car, Pier Giorgio donated all of it to good causes as well.[38] 

An important event in Pier Giorgio’s life would be when he joined the St.  Vincent de Paul Society at the age of 17.  When Pier Giorgio joined, he was assigned specific poor families to visit and care for.  Pier Giorgio loved these visits.  He saw them as a chance not only to offer material support but also spiritual encouragement.  He visited the poor daily and lifted their spirits.  By the time Pier Giorgio was 21, he was personally helping several families (e.g.  purchasing medicines for them, helping them find work, carrying firewood, etc) and making sure that the local children received the sacraments (he would sponsor many of them himself).[39]  

Although a lot more can be said about Pier Giorgio Frassati, one striking aspect about his charitable work is how low-key he was in carrying them out.  Although his family knew that he carried out acts of charity, they did not know the extent to which he did so until after his death. 

When Pier Giorgio passed away, his loss was felt in Turin.  To the shock of his family, thousands of people showed up to his funeral, including many of the poor families he helped.  These families gave accounts of how Pier Giorgio helped them and Luciana collected hundreds of these testimonies in a book entitled “The Charity of Pier Giorgio”.[40]  Although Pier Giorgio’s acts of charity were rarely mentioned by him.  He did make a reference to them in a letter to a friend: “Jesus comes every day to visit me sacramentally in the Eucharist; I return the visit by going to find him among the poor”.[41] 

Moving on to another example of Christian charity, historian Woods also notes how the Christian “Church fathers”, who bequeathed to Western civilization a fine corpus of literary and scholarly work, found time to devote themselves to the service of the needy:

“Saint Augustine established a hospice for pilgrims, ransomed slaves, and gave away clothing to the poor.  (He warned people not to give him expensive garments, since he would only sell them and give the proceeds to the poor.) Saint John Chrysostom founded a series of hospitals in Constantinople.  Saint Cyprian and Saint Ephrem organized relief efforts during times of plague and famine”.[42]  

The impressiveness of Christian charity was also noted by pagan writers such as Lucian, Aristides of Athens, and Emperor Julian the Apostate (a devout pagan who detested Christianity):

The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible.  They spare themselves nothing for this end.  Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren!”[43]  

“If the [Christian]  brethren have among them a man in need and they have not abundant resources, they fast for a day or two, so as to provide the needy man with the necessary food”.[44]

“These impious Galileans [(i.e. Christians)] not only feed their own poor, but ours also …  Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.  Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods.”[45]

In the end, Christianity revolutionized our world through charity, and transformed ancient pagan society in another very important way.  As historian W.  E.  H.  Lecky recognizes, there can be “no question that neither in practice nor in theory, neither in the institutions that were founded nor in the place that was assigned to it in the scale of duties, did charity in antiquity occupy a position at all comparable to that which it has obtained by Christianity.  Nearly all relief was a State measure, dictated much more by policy than by benevolence”.[46]

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40) – Jesus of Nazareth (Parable of the Sheep and Goats)
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati during one of his climbs. He was dubbed by Pope John Paul II as “the man of the eight beatitudes”

E. The Dignity of the Human Person

Another essential contribution of Christianity is the belief in the dignity of the human person.  In the ancient world, only the wealthy and powerful had dignity.  It was not something that the poor possessed.  Christianity, however, taught that all men possessed an equal intrinsic dignity. 

The dignity of the human person is grounded in the belief that all men are created in the image and likeness of God (“Imago Dei”).  The idea that the poor possessed dignity was further reinforced by the fact Christ Himself chose to live and die as one of the poor.  As St.  Gregory of Nyssa said in the 4th century regarding the poor:

“Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect.  Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; that they have taken upon them the person of our Saviour.  For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person”.[47] 

Historian Holland notes the radical change Christianity brought about on this issue:

“Dignity, which no philosopher had ever taught might be possessed by the stinking, toiling masses, was for all.  There was no human existence so wretched, none so despised or vulnerable, that it did not bear witness to the image of God.  Divine love for the outcast and derelict demanded that mortals love them too”.[48] 

With the entire person came the body. For Christians, it followed that the body also had a God-given dignity. St. Paul preached the dignity of the body in his letters.  His writings were a clear challenge to the Roman sexual norms of his day not only when it came to fornication and prostitution but also when it came to the norm of males being able to sexually abuse their social inferiors (i.e. slaves and prostitutes).  To the Romans, sex was an exercise of power.[49]  As historian Holland notes, this is also reflected in their gods — Zeus, Apollo and Dionysus: had all been habitual rapists.[50]  Historian Holland, commenting on Roman sexual culture notes:

“The dynamic in the Roman world was not between, as it is now, men and women.  It was between those who have power, namely Roman free male citizens, and those who were subordinate to them.  And essentially the Roman sexual universe was by our lights very brutal.  It was a very Harvey Weinstein sexual arena.  A Roman man had the right to sexually use anyone who was subordinate to him: Slaves, social inferiors.  He could just use their mouths, their various orifices, as receptacles for his excess sperm.  And so, the Romans had this one word “mayo” for urine and ejaculate.  …  Now, Christianity radically, radically changes that”.[51] 

In contrast to Roman sexual norms, Paul preached that everyone’s body was sacred, and so, ought to be treated with dignity and respect.  As stated in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:13; 18-20):  

The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body … Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?



 Flee from sexual immorality.  All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.  Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? … Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Under Christianity, men were encouraged to respect their bodies and not dishonor them through sexual sin. Men also no longer had the right to sexually abuse the bodies of their social inferiors since their bodies were sacred as well.  The Roman practices and attitudes on sex would cease as they would be replaced by Christian views and attitudes. 

The creation of man by Michelangelo. God (depicted in human form) reaches out with his right arm, creating and giving life to Adam. Adam’s left arm is extended in a pose mirroring God’s, communicating the biblical truth that man is created in the image and likeness of God.

F. Sex and Marriage

Christianity also contributed greatly when it comes to sex and marriage. 

Christianity gave dignity to the institution of marriage and elevated the position of women within it.  Once again, St.  Paul’s writings would serve as the key basis for the Christian understanding of marriage, particularly his comparison of  a man marrying a woman being like Christ (bridegroom) marrying the Church (bride):

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church … Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it … Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the Church — for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”

This gave as historian Holland put it, an “incredible sacral potency to every man and every woman in a married relationship … The insistence of scripture that a man and a woman, whenever they took to the marital bed, were joined as Christ and his Church were joined gave to both a rare dignity”.[52]  Marital relations were modelled on the relationship of Christ and His Church. 

This comparison by St.  Paul also promulgated sexual fidelity.  If the wife was instructed to submit to her husband, then so equally the husband was instructed to be faithful to his wife.  This was a particularly high demand in the ancient world since men were not expected to be faithful to their wives even if they were married.  This double standard was removed with the Christianization of society. As noted by historian Holland and Woods:

“That Roman Law … defined marriage as a monogamous institution had not for a moment meant that it required men to display life-long fidelity … The double standards that for so long been a feature of marital ethics had [ceased due to Christian influence]”[53]

“Adultery, according to the Church, was not confined to a wife’s infidelity to her husband, as the ancient world so often had it, but also extended to a husband’s unfaithfulness to his wife.  The Church’s influence in this area was of great historical significance”.[54]

Christianity also affected the institution of marriage in other significant ways. 

Prior to marriage being brought firmly under the Church via canon law, marriage was seen by many as a means to cement alliances between two families.  However, this changed as the Church taught and enshrined at the foundation of the marital union, consent (free will).  As noted by historian Holland:

“No couple could be forced into a betrothal, nor into wedlock, nor into a physical coupling.  Priests were authorised to join couples without the knowledge of their parents — or even their permission.  It was consent, not coercion, that constituted the only proper foundation of a marriage.  … Inexorably, the rights of the individual were coming to trump those of family.  God’s authority was being identified, not with the venerable authority of a father to impose his will on his children, but with an altogether more subversive principle: freedom of choice“.[55] 

The Church saw freedom of choice as so central to marriage that it actively pursued efforts to end the practice of clans keeping marriages within the family for purposes of power.  It did so by forbidding through its canons, marriages up to six degrees of separation.  This was done to “smash the power of clan lords — leaders who felt that they have the right to marry one cousin off to another to keep things in the family”.[56]  The Church’s belief in the importance of free will also led to the overcoming of the practice of infant marriage among barbarian tribes.[57] Since infants were incapable of giving consent, they could not enter into a marital union. 

Christianity also made monogamy and permanency marital norms in societies that fell under its influence. As historian Holland notes, the Christian Church imposed on believing Christians this sense that being male does not license you to have multiple wives and concubines — you have to focus on one.[58] 

Christianity also curbed pagan sexual appetites.  In ancient Rome, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus commented that a chaste wife was a rare phenomenon.[59]  The Roman poet Juvenal wrote that widespread promiscuity had caused the Romans to lose the goddess Chastity.[60]  Ovid observed that sexual practices in his day had grown particularly perverse, even sadistic.[61]  Similar testimonies to the state of marital fidelity and sexual deviancy could be found in other writings such as those of Catullus, Marital and Suetonius.[62]  However, the Church managed to curb this, preaching chastity within the Christian life and the confinement of sexual relationships between a husband and wife.  The second century Greek physician Galen was so impressed by the rectitude of Christian sexual behavior that he described them as “so far advanced in self-discipline and … intense [in] desire to attain moral excellence that they are in no way inferior to true philosophers”.[63]

In the end, as historian Edward Gibbons affirms:

“The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians”.[64]

G.  Human Rights

Another critical contribution of Christianity to the West is the concept of human rights. As agnostic historian Tom Holland notes the concept of human rights derived “not from ancient Greece or Rome … It was an inheritance from the canon lawyers of the Middle Ages.[65]  Human rights arose from a belief in natural law and in the dignity of the human person as a result of his being created in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27).

Since man is created in God’s image, he possesses an intrinsic dignity that needs to be rightly accorded. The tradition of human rights works out the implications of this conclusion, a conclusion grounded in Judeo-Christian theology.[66] 

H.  Other Social Change

Christianity provoked other major positive social changes.

Christianity spoke out against infanticide and eventually abolished it. Infanticide was common and considered morally acceptable in the ancient Roman empire.  The fate of a newborn was determined by its father, who conferred personhood upon a child by recognizing him or her.[67] History writer Aquilina describes this process. When a mother gave birth, a midwife placed the child on the floor and the father was summoned into the room.  The father examined the child with his criteria in mind.  Was the child his — did he suspect his wife of adultery? Was it weakly or abnormal? Was it female (females were less desired in patriarchal societies)? If the father decided to reject the child for whatever reason he left the room.  The child would be drowned in a bucket of water or left to die on the side of a street or in a town or city dump.  If the father accepted the child, he picked him or her up from the floor and recognized the child as his.  Historian Holland paints a picture of infanticide in the ancient world, a practice that was ended by Christian influence:

“Across the Roman world, wailing at the sides of roads or on rubbish tips, babies abandoned by their parents were a common sight.  Others might be dropped down drains, there to perish in the hundreds.  The odd eccentric philosopher aside, few had ever queried this practice.  Indeed, there were cities who by ancient law had made a positive virtue of it: condemning to death deformed infants for the good of the state.  Sparta, one of the most celebrated cities in Greece, had been the epitome of this policy, and Aristotle himself had lent it the full weight of his prestige.  Girls in particular were liable to be winnowed ruthlessly.  Those who were rescued from the wayside would invariably be raised as slaves.  Brothels were full of women who, as infants, had been abandoned by their parents — so much so that it had long provided novelists with a staple of their fiction.  Only a few peoples — the odd German tribe and, inevitably, the Jews — had stood aloof from the exposure.  Pretty much everyone else had always taken it for granted.  Until, that was, the emergence of a Christian people”.[68]

Another Christian achievement is the abolition of gladiatorial contests, a practice that excited many in ancient Rome.  These contests trivialized human life in a way that went against Christian belief in the dignity of the human person.  As a result, they were eventually outlawed by Christian emperors — in the western half of the empire by the late fourth century, and in the eastern half by the early fifth.[69]  As historian W.  E.  H.  Lecky notes: 

“There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of gladiatorial shows, a feat that must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian Church”.[70]

Christianity was also responsible for ending slavery.  The abolition movements that swept Britain then the U.S.  in the 18th and 19th centuries were thoroughly Christian.[71]  The Britain abolition movement, led by Christian leaders, picked up great steam. This momentum further increased when many seized the event of the American Revolution to claim that the British Empire was being punished by God for their slavery.  In 1787, a full blown abolition movement was at hand, driven out of an evangelical urgency for national redemption and quickly succeeded.  As historian Christopher Leslie Brown notes:

“Through the campaign against the Atlantic slave trade, some British abolitionists hoped to make the British people better Christians.  That was the possibility first anticipated by Anglican evangelicals gathered at Barham Court in Teston, Kent during the 1780s and subsequently at Clapham Common south of London.  These evangelicals within the Church of England – Hannah More, William Wilberforce, James Ramsay, Charles and Margaret Middleton – had grown uncomfortable with the distaste for earnest Christianity among certain elements of polite and fashionable society … Slave trade abolition, accomplished with overwhelming public support in 1807 but orchestrated by Clapham Sect leadership, offered concrete proof that the British people had come to embrace in form and substance a devotion to practical Christianity”.[72]

In time, the Christian abolitionist movement found its way into the U.S. and gained momentum.  It found complete success after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which next to the Bible, was the second best-selling book of the 19th century.  Its Christian argumentation against slavery and defining of abolition as a Christian imperative swung the consensus of the American people against slavery.[73]  Less than 15 years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, America followed the footsteps of Britain and abolished slavery. 

Christianity played a primary role in the fight against racism.  Martin Luther King, a Christian minister, led the charge for racial equality in America in the 20th century.  The movement led by King was driven by Christian conviction and aimed to persuade through religious argumentation — “pricking” the conscience of white American Christians.   As historian Holland notes: 

“The campaign for civil rights gave to Christianity an overt centrality in American politics that it had not had since the decades before the Civil War.  King, by stirring the slumbering conscience of white Christians, succeeded in setting his country on a transformative new path …  the spark had set it to flame with a renewed brilliance was the faith of African Americans.  The sound of protest was the sound of black churches…”.[74]

One more example of Christianity and social change is St.  Pope John Paul II and the pivotal role he played in the fall of communism in his native Poland, and more largely, Eastern Europe.[75]  When it comes to John Paul’s first visit to Poland in 1979, history writer Thomas Bokenkotter described its effect saying that “it was nothing less than a Polish Pentecost, a moral renewal and an incomparable spiritual experience that restored to the Polish people a sense of their nationhood”.[76]  As John Paul II gave a stirring speech to over a million Poles, who were previously burdened and impoverished by their country’s communist-atheist regime, the crowd in reply would chant lines such as “We want God!” and “Christ has conquered, Christ is king and Christ commands our lives”.  A year later, Solidarity, an anti-communist movement founded on Christian ideals, emerged.  Previously, the Poles had rallied against their Communist rulers before — in 1956, 1970 and 1976 — each time ending in violent futility.  Now, inspired by John Paul II, they carried out strikes committed to Christian nonviolence and maintained that heroic commitment throughout.  As historian Timothy Garton Ash comments on this Polish revolution:

“It is hard to think of any previous revolution in which ethical categories and moral goals have played such a large part ; not only in the theory but also in the practice of the revolutionaries, not only at the outset but throughout the revolution … This extraordinary record of non-violence, this majestic self-restraint in the face of many provocations, distinguished the Polish revolution from previous revolutions”.[77] 

In addition to his role in the fall of communism, John Paul also played a signigicant role in the collapse of three dictatorships in three South American countries: Haiti, Paraguay and Chile.[78]  The life and actions of John Paul is another testament to the power of Christian ethics, inspiration and mobilization in causing social change.

John Paul II greets the people during his first trip to Poland in 1979

I.  Conclusion on ethics and values

Christianity has thoroughly shaped our sense of ethics and values over the last two thousand years.  As agnostic historian Tom Holland notes, to live in a Western country today is to live in a country “utterly saturated by Christian values and assumptions”.[79]  This applies even to Western countries that have largely turned away from the faith.  Indeed, “[t]wo thousand years on from the birth of Christ, it does not require a belief that he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable — indeed inescapable — influence of Christianity … Christianity may be the most enduring and influential legacy of the ancient world, and its emergence the single most transformative development in Western history“.[80]

The primacy of love, the emphasis on charity to the needy, the belief that every person possesses an equal dignity, etc — these are all an inheritance from the Christian tradition.  Our sense of ethics, which seem so normal to us, would have been seen as foreign, bewildering and even repellent (in some cases, such as equal dignity for the weak) to those living in Greco-Roman antiquity.  The fact that these are familiar, normal and attractive to us shows how deeply our consciences have been shaped by Christianity. As Holland notes, we are like “fish swimming in essentially Christian water”. We hardly even notice that we are doing it.[81]

In addition to deeply influencing our sense of ethics, we have also seen how Christianity has been a powerful stimulus for social change, bringing about the abolishment of immoral societal practices, as well as the healing and renewing nations.    

VIII.  Conclusion

Blessing of the Wheat by Jules Breton

Christianity has made a tremendous positive impact on history.  It is no understatement to say that it built Western civilization.  The Christian Church was the one fortunate constant of the West after the fall of Rome — nurturing and bringing it out of the Dark Ages. 

Christian monasteries were powerhouses of activity (agricultural, industrial, intellectual and charitable). They gave life to Europe and its people, especially during the West’s most turbulent time. 

Driven by a spirit of charity, Christianity innovated hospitals for the general public and was responsible for the spread of these institutions throughout Christendom — to the point that hospitals were found in both major cities and modest villages alike. Due to this second medical revolution, medicine eventually became well-ensconced in Europe’s public life and its universities.

No other institution championed learning and education quite like the Church.  She educated Europe through her monastic and cathedral schools and later on, invented and supported the university — the educational institution we are all familiar with today. Under Her wing, reason was enshrined at the heart of Europe’s intellectual life.

The Christian Church was also a great patron of the sciences. In addition to inventing and supporting the university, She also sponsored the education of Her clergy, and encouraged and funded the scientific endeavors of Her members. The Church was, in fact, the leading patron of science until the late 18th century and many of its priests (e.g. Bacon, Grosseteste, Buridan, Bradwardine and Oresme) made key contributions to the emergence of modern science. Christian theology also encouraged the study of the natural world, and guided Christians to see and study Nature the right way. In time, it guided Christian scholars to embark on a quantitative inquiry as a way of understanding the universe. 

The Church’s canon law was the first modern Western legal system. It brought back reason with regard to law, made a number of original and important contributions in the field of law and served as the model for secular jurists in developing the legal systems of Europe’s emerging nations.

Christianity also affirmed the importance of beauty. Its contributions to art and architecture have left a major, lasting and distinctive mark on the West, and moved and uplifted many souls.

Most importantly, Christianity shaped our sense of ethics and values thoroughly. In terms of ethics and values, we are not Greek or Roman. We are Christian.

In the end, Christianity’s mark on our history is indisputably deep, and it is a mark we should all be grateful for.  Without Christianity, it is difficult to imagine what today would even be like — for Christianity shaped the type of civilization we live in and the type of people we are immensely. 

References

  1. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 11
  2. Holland, Unbelievable Debate with A.C. Grayling, 2019. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/7eSyz3BaVK8?t=407
  3. Holland, T. Tom Holland & AC Grayling — History: Did Christianity give us our human values? Retrieved from https://youtu.be/7eSyz3BaVK8?t=407 and Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 9 and 441.
  4. Holland, T. Tom Holland & AC Grayling — History: Did Christianity give us our human values? Retrieved from https://youtu.be/7eSyz3BaVK8?t=407
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  52. Daniyal, S. (2020). ‘Christianity gave women a dignity that no previous sexual dispensation had offered’: Tom Holland. Retrieved from: https://scroll.in/article/953904/christianity-gave-women-a-dignity-that-no-previous-sexual-dispensation-had-offered-tom-holland
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  57. Berman, “Influence of Christianity Upon the Development of Law,” 93.
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  61. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 211
  62. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 211
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  66. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 401-402.
  67. Aquilina and Papandrea, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World And Can Change It Again, pgs. 47-48.
  68. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 143
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  75. Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History, pg. 193
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  77. Ash, The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe, pg. 60
  78. Kwitny, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, pg. 592
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