Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 3 of 4)

 Scrovegni Chapel, one of the great masterpieces of Christian art. Painted by Giotto.

To return to part 2 of this series, click here.

VI. Law

The Church made important contributions to law.  She is credited with introducing the first modern legal system in Europe — canon law.[1]  In the 12th century, a monk named Gratian produced the Decretum Gratiani (“A Concordance of Discordant Canons”), a prodigious work that took several decades to complete.  Gratian systemically codified remarks from previous ecumenial councils, penitentials, popes, individual bishops, the Bible and the Church fathers into a comprehensive and consistent whole. He also drew from other sources in creating his work.  As a result of the Decretum Gratiani, Church law was now universally applicable throughout Christendom.  Prior to Gratian, Church law was regional in nature.[2]  As legal scholar Harold Berman comments on canon law:

[Canon law] is the first comprehensive and systematic legal treatise in the history of the West, and perhaps in the history of mankind — if by ‘comprehensive’ is meant the attempt to embrace virtually the entire law of a given polity, and by ‘systematic’ is meant the express effort to present that law as a single body, in which all the parts are viewed as interacting to form a whole.

[It] took a variety of texts — the Old Testament, the Gospel, ‘The Philosopher’ — Aristotle, ‘The Jurist’ — Justinian, the Church fathers, Saint Augustine, the Church councils; and by the use of the scholastic method and of a natural law-theory they [(e.g.  Gratian and other canon lawyers of the Church)]  were able to create out of these various sources, as well as out of the existing customs of their contemporary ecclesiastical and secular society, a coherent and rational legal science … it was the church that first taught Western man what a modern legal system is like.[3] 

The foundation of this Christian legal system was Christ’s command to “Love your neighbor as yourself”.  Gratian saw this command as the cornerstone of justice.  So important to him was the command that he opened the Decretum by citing it.[4]  Canon law, the first modern Western legal system, would serve as the model for secular jurists in developing the legal systems of the emerging nations of Europe.[5] 

The Church’s canon law also had an important effect in medieval society — it brought back reason with regard to law.  The barbarian kingdoms determined guilt through “trials of ordeal”, which were primitive tests to determine innocence and guilt. Examples of these trials vary but one example involved a defendant reaching into a pot of scalding water to retrieve a stone at the bottom.[6]  His arm would then be bandaged.  Three days later, when the bandages were removed, the man was declared innocent if the wound had begun to heal and scabs were visible.  If not, his guilt was established.  The rational procedures of canon law hastened the end of concerning methods such as this.  As noted by scholar Berman: “the introduction of rational trial procedures [introduced by canon law]” replaced “magical mechanical modes of proof by ordeals of fire and water“.[7] 

As for the contributions of canon law, there are many.  As noted by historian Woods:

Equally important was the content of canon law, whose scope was so sweeping that it contributed to the development of Western law in such areas as marriage, property and inheritance.[8]  

Let us now look at number of examples of how canon law contributed to the Western legal tradition.  For those who want a deeper treatment of the topic, see scholar Berman’s influential work, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. 

Canon law contributed significantly to the West’s legal tradition in terms of marriage.  It held that a valid marriage required the consent of both the man and the woman, and that a marriage could be deemed invalid if it took place under duress, or if one of the parties entered into the marriage on the basis of a mistake regarding either the identity or some important quality of the other person.[9]  As scholar Berman notes:

Here were the foundations not only of the modern law of marriage but also of certain basic elements of modern contract law, namely, the concept of free will and related concepts of mistake, duress, and fraud.[10] 

This contribution of canon law would shape the West’s legal tradition in a major and enduring way.

Canon law also made significant contributions when it came to determining the criminality of a particular act.  As noted by historian Woods:

When we examine the rules by which canon law sought to determine the criminality of a particular act, we discover legal principles that have since become standard in all modern Western legal systems.  Canon lawyers were concerned with the intent of an act, with various kinds of intent, and with the moral implications of various kinds of casual connections.  With regard to the last point, canonists considered examples such as this: Someone throws a stone to frighten his companion, but in the course of avoiding it the companion runs into a rock and causes himself great injury.  He seeks medical assistance, but a doctor’s negligence causes him to die.  To what extent was the throwing of the stone a cause of the man’s death? This was the kind of sophisticated legal question for which canon lawyers sought an answer.[11]

The same canonists also contributed in terms of the modern principle that extenuating factors could exempt someone from legal liability.[12]  Building on the contributions of the Romans, who distinguished between intentional and accidental acts, canon lawyers made notable refinements and contributions of their own. As historian Woods notes:

Thus, if one were insane, asleep, mistaken, or intoxicated, his apparently criminal actions might not be actionable.  But these mitigating factors could excuse someone from legal liability only if as a result of them the accused could not have known that he was doing something wrong, and only if he had not wrongfully brought one or more of these conditions upon himself, as in the case of someone who purposely makes himself drunk.[13]

They also introduced the initial contributions of the Romans into European societies that had known nothing about these distinctions during the numerous centuries under barbarian influence. 

Another major contribution of canon law is the concept of human rights, which stems from the natural law tradition of Church (an inheritance from Greek philosophy) and Judeo-Christian theology.[14]  The concept of human rights evolved over time but it originated from Christian canon lawyers in the Middle Ages. For more on the subject see the book of leading medieval scholar Brian Tierney, “The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law 1150-1625”.

Medieval commentators of the Decretum, looking at the constant reference to “natural law” in the work, began to see that an adequate concept of natural justice entailed individual rights —  given that all men possessed an equal dignity being created in God’s image (Gen 1:27).[15] As the Church’s canon law tradition developed, specific rights soon began to be identified (to give one example, the right to appear and defend oneself against charges in a court of law) and a firm language of rights was developed.  As stated by historian Kenneth Pennington:

[Canon lawyers]  had developed a sturdy language of rights derived from natural law.  During the period from 1150 to 1300, they defined the rights of property, self-defense, non-Christians, marriage, and procedure as being rooted in natural, not positive, law.  By placing these rights squarely within the framework of natural law, the jurists could and did argue that these rights could not be taken away by the human prince.  The prince had no jurisdiction over rights based on natural law; consequently these rights were inalienable.[16]

Another significant development in the history of human rights came with the commentary of Pope Innocent IV on the Decretum (Innovent IV was himself a great canonist).  Innocent IV, in considering the question of whether fundamental rights of property and of establishing lawful governments belonged only to Christians or to all men, answered that they belonged to all men:

Ownership, possession and jurisdiction can belong to infidels licitly…for these things were made not only for the faithful but for every rational creature.[17]  

This text would be cited significantly by later Catholic rights theorists.  In the 17th century, the concept of human rights was further solidified during the European discovery of America. During this time Spanish scholastic theologians, led by Fr. Francisco de Vitoria, raised questions with regard to the rights of the inhabitants of these new lands. Spanish scholastics developed the idea that the American natives possessed natural rights that Europeans had to respect (these theologians frequently quoted the statement of Innocent IV earlier). They argued that the natives in the New World were not “lesser humans”, they were human — full stop — possessing equal dignity being created in God’s image. As a result, the natives possessed the same rights they did. These scholars condemned the mistreatment of the American natives by Spanish colonizers and they would find a staunch ally in Fr. Bartholomew de las Casas, a fellow Spaniard priest and reformer who shared their beliefs and was stationed in the New World. Writing passionately against the mistreatment of American natives, de las Casas used the term “derechos humanos” (human rights) to describe the inalienable rights these indigenous peoples had.[18]

Ultimately, the concept of human rights stems from the Church’s canon lawyers. As noted by scholars John Witte Jr. and M. Christian Green:

The idea of natural rights emerged from the legal culture of the Christian West in the Early Middle Ages and has been employed by lawyers, theologians, philosophers, political theorists, and social and political activists ever since. The philosophers of the Enlightenment inherited the idea from their Christian forbears; they did not devise it.[19]

Another important contribution of canon law is its approach to crime.  When it comes to crime, canon law was strongly influenced by St.  Anselm’s work, Cur Deus Homo, which tackled the question of why God should have become man in the person of Jesus Christ, and why Christ’s sacrifice was an indispensable ingredient in the redemption of mankind after The Fall.  Summarizing St.  Anselm’s reasoning to these questions, historian Woods explains:

God originally created man in order that he might enjoy eternal blessedness.  Man in a certain sense frustrated God’s intention by rebelling against Him and introducing sin into the world.  In order for the demands of justice to be satisfied, man must be punished for his sin against God.  Yet his offense against the all-good God is so great that no punishment he might suffer could offer Him adequate recompense.  Whatever punishment he did suffer, moreover, would have to be so severe that at the very least he would have to forfeit eternal blessedness, but since eternal blessedness was God’s plan for man in the first place, such a punishment would undermine God’s purposes yet again.  The reason that God cannot simply forgive man’s sin in the absence of some form of punishment is that when man rebelled against God he disturbed the moral order of the universe.  That moral order must be repaired.  God’s honor must be restored, and that restoration cannot occur so long as the rupture of the moral order that occurred as a result of man’s rebellion remains in existence.  Since man owes restitution to God but is incapable of making it, while God could vindicate His own honor through a gratuitous act (but should not), the only way that atonement for original sin can take place is through the mediation of a God-Man.[20]

Anselm’s exposition “rested fundamentally on the idea that a violation of the law was an offense against justice and against the moral order itself, [and] that such a violation required a punishment if the moral order were to be repaired, and that the punishment should befit the nature and extent of the violation”.[21]  These ideas of Anselm were taken in by Christian thinkers and as time passed, it became common to think not just about Adam and Eve and original sin but also about the perpetrator of crime in everyday life: having violated justice in the abstract, he had to be subject to some punishment if the order of justice were to be restored.  As a result of St.  Anselm and canon law, crime became in large measure depersonalized, as criminal actions came to be viewed less as actions directed at particular persons and more as violations of the abstract principle of justice, whose disturbance of the moral order should be rectified through the application of punishment. The legal tradition of the West, adopting the development of canon law on this issue, would bear the distinct imprint of Christian theology.  As scholar Berman notes on the effect of this development of canon law in relation to crimes:

Contracts, it was said, must be kept, and if they were not, a price must be paid for their breach.  Torts must be remedied by damages equivalent to the injury.  Property rights must be restored by those who had violated them.  These and similar principles became so deeply embedded in the consciousness— indeed, in the sacred values—of Western society that it became hard to imagine a legal order founded on different kinds of principles and values.  Yet contemporary non-Western cultures do have legal orders founded on different kinds of principles and values, and so did European culture prior to the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  In some legal orders, ideas of fate and honor prevail, of vengeance and reconciliation.  In others, ideas of covenant and community dominate; in still others, ideas of deterrence and rehabilitation.[22] 

VII. Art and Architecture

A. The Medieval Cathedral

Christianity’s greatest contribution to art and architecture, and one that undoubtedly left its mark on the European landscape, is the medieval cathedral. Particularly stunning are Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, which emerged in Europe in the 12th century. These cathedrals are characterized by three distinguishing features: the pointed arch, the flying buttress, and the ribbed vault. The pointed arch came from India and arrived in Europe sometime in the 11th century. The flying buttress and the ribbed vault are medieval innovations.  In Gothic cathedrals, these three elements were molded, as historian Hannam put it, “into a series of aesthetic masterpieces”.[23]  The goal of medieval masons in building these structures was to build upwards and create massive amounts of interior space.  Since the flying buttresses were outside the building, they were also able to fill the walls with glass rather than needing enormous trunks of stone. The result was breathtaking – soaring cathedrals, of monumental size and scope, and ample space and lighting.

Another achievement of Gothic cathedrals is their geometric coherence, which was inspired from an important strain in Christian thought, that God created a rational and orderly universe – setting all things in right order by proportion “by measure, number and weight” (Wis 11:21).  As historian Woods notes regarding the idea that God created a rational and orderly universe: “This idea became common currency among a great many Catholic thinkers, particularly those associated with the great cathedral school at Chartres in the twelfth century. It played a central role in the construction of Gothic cathedrals”.[24]  At the time Gothic architecture was evolving from its Romanesque predecessor, more and more Christian thinkers were becoming persuaded of the link between mathematics – geometry in particular – and God.  At the cathedral school of Chartres, says scholar Robert Scott, Christian thinkers “believed that geometry was a means for linking human beings to God, that mathematics was a vehicle for revealing to humankind the innermost secrets of heaven … [and] that the cosmos was a work of architecture and God was its architect.”[25] These ideas led builders “to conceive of architecture as applied geometry, geometry as applied theology, and the designer of a Gothic cathedral as an imitator of the divine Master.” Professor John Baldwin, commenting on this strain in Christian thought and the building of cathedrals notes: “Just as the great Geometer created the world in order and harmony, so the Gothic architect, in his small way, attempted to fashion God’s earthly abode according to the supreme principles of proportion and beauty.”[26] In the end, the desire for geometric precision and numerical meaning in constructing medieval cathedrals elevated their aesthetic beauty significantly.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of Gothic cathedrals is interior lighting. Builders of Gothic cathedrals paid particular attention to how light entered the building through windows, not only for practical reasons, but also for theological reasons.[27] One popular way in which light was perceived in relation to medieval cathedrals, is influenced by the writing of St. Augustine, who conceived of human beings’ acquisition of knowledge in terms of divine illumination: God enlightens the mind with knowledge. As historian Woods notes: “This idea of God pouring light into the minds of men proved a potent metaphor for architects in the Gothic tradition, in which physical light was meant to evoke thoughts of its divine source”.[28] Continuing, Woods gives an example of the Abbey Church of St. Denis in France, a great church of Gothic style: Here, the religious significance of the light pouring in through the windows in the choir and the nave cannot be missed. An inscription of the doors explains that the light elevates the mind upward from the material world and directs it toward the true light that is Christ”.[29] Scholar Scott notes that light was also utilized to symbolize God’s grace streaming down in benediction, encouraging worship.[30] Ultimately, light was utilized to draw worshippers to contemplate the divine or to represent the divine in the material world.

The beauty of light inside cathedrals is enhanced by another key feature of the Gothic tradition: the use of large-scale stained-glass windows.[31] These windows would cause streams of multi-colored light to enter the building – a sight that continues to enchant visitors of these structures today.  One prominent type of stained-glass window in the Gothic tradition were rose windows – which were enormous in size and circular in shape.[32]

Ultimately, medieval cathedrals are a testament to the age in which they were built.  They point to the Middle Ages being a period of supernatural faith, reason, and innovation. Fast forward several centuries later, these structures continue to awe visitors today. They are indeed, one of the greatest artistic and architectural achievements in history, and to some, the greatest even. As art historian Paul Johnson comments on these phenomenal structures: “The medieval cathedrals of Europe…are the greatest accomplishments of humanity in the whole theatre of art”.[33]

B. Stained Glass Windows

Although we discussed stained glass windows in the previous section, it does deserve its own section, since it is another significant contribution of Christianity to the field of art.  Colored glass has been made since ancient times.  Both the Egyptians and the Romans manufactured small colored glass objects.  However, it was Christianity that pioneered stained glass windows as an art form.[34]   

Stained glass windows gained recognition as a Christian art form in the 4th century as churches continued to be built.  Centuries later, in the Gothic period (12th-16th centuries), this art form would take center stage in the designs of medieval cathedrals.  As time passed, the size of stained glass windows increased, as well as their complexity.

In addition to providing lighting and aesthetic beauty, stained glass windows served a pedagogical function.  They were used to communicate events in the Bible, Church history, as well as Christian theology visually, and were particularly helpful to parishioners who could not read.[35]  In larger churches, it was not uncommon for stained-glass windows to be biblically comprehensive – communicating the most important stories from Genesis to Revelation.[36] 

C. Art

Christianity also contributed greatly in terms of art in general — paintings, frescos, sculptures, etc.  Countless Western artworks are Christian. If you go to Europe and walk into a museum of medieval or Renaissance art, it will be littered with Christian art.

As art historian Kenneth Clark notes, many of the West’s great artists were devout Christians, and their faith inspired them in their work.[37] Guercino, for example, spent much of his mornings in prayer. Bernini frequently went into retreats and practiced the Spiritual Exercises of St.  Ignatius. Rubens attended Mass every morning before beginning work. Fra Angelico was a priest and has been beatified due to his sanctity.  The great Christian artists of the West would go on to produce many Christian artistic masterpieces.

Some Popes, particularly Julius II and Leo X, were also huge patrons of the arts and were responsible for the creation of exceptional works such as St.  Peter’s Basilica, St.  Peter’s Square and colonnade, the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel.[38] 

To proceed to part 4 of this series, click here.


  1. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 6
  2. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 191
  3. Berman, Law and Revolution, The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, pg. 143, Berman, “The Influence of Christianity Upon the Development of Law”, pg. 93 and Berman, Interaction of Law and Religion, pg. 59.
  4. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 237
  5. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 192
  6. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 11
  7. Berman, The Interaction of Law and Religion, pg. 44
  8. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 192
  9. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 193
  10. Berman, The Interaction of Law and Religion, pg. 228
  11. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 195-196
  12. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 196
  13. Berman, The Interaction of Law and Religion, pg. 189
  14. Woods refers readers to Tierney’s influential work: The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law on pgs. 197 and 198.
  15. Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, pg. 6. See also Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 282
  16. Woods cites Pennington, The History of Rights in Western Thought in pg. 200.
  17. Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, pg. 7
  18. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 347.
  19. Witte and Green, Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction, pg. 42
  20. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 195-196
  21. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 196
  22. Berman, Law and Revolution, pgs. 194-195
  23. Hannam
  24. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 119
  25. Scott, The Gothic Enterprise, pg. 125
  26. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, pg. 107
  27. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 121
  28. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, pgs. 107-108
  29. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, pg. 108
  30. Scott, The Gothic Enterprise, pg. 132
  31. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 119
  32. Smith, H. (2020). Gothic Cathedrals: Architecture & Divine Light. Retrieved from:–divine-light/?fbclid=IwAR3Q6Ha1aAdTh2LSMhh03zF8S7UWqAh33O_UkpIPABifg2g4J3Z1WzrLuFY
  33. Johnson, Art: A New History, pg. 153
  34. History of Glass. The history of stained glass. Retrieved from:
  35. Kosloski, P. (2017). This is Why Churches Have Stained Glass Windows. Retrieved from:
  36. Kosloski, P. (2017). This is Why Churches Have Stained Glass Windows. Retrieved from:
  37. Clark, Civilisation, quoted in Joseph E. MacDonnell, Companions of Jesiots: A Tradition of Collaboration.
  38. Chapter 2: Artistic Expression of Jesuit Values. Retrieved from: See also Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 128