How Christian Charity Developed Western Ethics, Hospitals, Schools

Enza Ferreri
November 20, 2013

The Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan

This is my second article in reply to Tony, who wrote to me with critical observations on my speech “What is Uniquely Good about Western Civilisation Derives from Christianity“. The first article is “Support for Christianity Should Not Alienate People“.

My reply is in several parts because he covers many issues, although sometimes using too simplistic arguments compared to the attention they would deserve.

The problem I have in answering him is that in the space of a couple of emails he enumerates many things which he finds wrong about Christianity, each of which would require a book (and in fact they have books entirely devoted to them) to be addressed in full, or at least a short essay.

Furthermore, he mixes and confuses several different layers: criticisms of Christianity, of the Old Testament – which is the non-Christian part of the Bible –, and of the Church. They are three very distinct things, and putting them together only serves to entangle the issue, especially since he seems to believe that all of them are to be blamed on Christianity.

Add to all this that his minestrone contains both true and untrue ingredients – everything these days is thrown at Christianity but the kitchen sink, to remain in the culinary metaphor –, and you can see my predicament in giving a proper, and not superficial, answer.

I’m devoting so much attention to Tony’s comments because they represent several of today’s standard objections to the Christian message.

I’ll do my best, but sometimes, for more in-depth analysis than is desirable on a blog post, I’ll have to refer him – and other readers – to great books published on the matter or to other articles I’ve written that can complemement this.

Tony says:

I agree with you that many wonderful things have come from people professing to be Christians. Public schools and hospitals in Britain are one example. However there is no reason to believe these would not have come about without religion.

How it is possible to deny the role played by Christianity in all those advancements which were clearly derived from the application of Christian precepts and values, and also have a historical connection with the spreading of Christianity, I don’t know.

Nevertheless, to address this issue, let’s proceed in an empirical fashion, the way a scientist would. Let’s focus on one microcosm, one very specific and easily circumscribed case in which – due to the reduced number of variables affecting it – it is fairly simple to observe the influence that Christianity had on pre-Christian ethics and behaviour.

Let’s take a look, for example, at how Christianity changed the Roman treatment of gladiators. This is how an atheist, one of the most influential moral philosophers of our time, Peter Singer, who is no friend of Christianity, treats the subject in his book Animal Liberation (Amazon UK) (Amazon USA) (pages 190-192, The New York Review of Books, second edition).

First he quotes from W. E. H. Lecky’s History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne:

The simple combat became at last insipid, and every variety of atrocity was devised to stimulate the flagging interest … Nor was any form of human suffering wanting … Ten thousand men fought during the games of Trajan. Nero illumined his gardens during the night by Christians burning in their pitchy shirts. Under Domitian, an army of feeble dwarfs was compelled to fight.

Then Singer remarks:

It is against this background that the impact of Christianity must be assessed …

In its application to human beings, the new doctrine was in many ways progressive, and led to an enormous expansion of the limited moral sphere of the Romans …

On this basis the outcome of the interaction of Christian and Roman attitudes is not difficult to guess. It can be seen most clearly by looking at what happened to the Roman games after the conversion of the empire to Christianity.

Christian teaching was implacably opposed to gladiatorial combats. The gladiator who survived by killing his opponent was regarded as a murderer. Mere attendance at these combats made the Christian liable to excommunication, and by the end of the fourth century combats between human beings had been suppressed altogether.

And the Romans were the most advanced civilisation at the time, with a sophisticated system of law and highly developed morals.

What people often don’t take sufficiently into account is that ethics is like everything else, philosophical thought – of which it is part –, science, technology, crafts, economy, military, art, music, culture, political and social institutions: it progresses (or at least it may) through human history. We don’t blame the Romans for not having thought of inventing the computer, and we shouldn’t blame them for holding ethical views which seem backward now but were ahead of their time.

Just to make a comparison with another ancient population, Thomas Sowell writes in Conquests And Cultures: An International History:

For about one-fifth of its recorded history, Britain was a conquered country, a province of the Roman Empire – and one of the more backward provinces at that. Men from other provinces ruled over Britain, but Britons did not rule other provinces. One measure of the backwardness of pre-Roman Britain was the ease with which it was conquered by greatly outnumbered Roman soldiers and held in subjugation, despite a massive and desperate uprising in 61 A.D. The Romans were simply far better equipped and far better organized. In many other ways as well, the Romans represented a much more advanced civilization than existed in Britain at that point in history. Indeed, after the Romans withdrew from Britain four centuries later, the Britons began to retrogress, and in many respects it was centuries after that before Britain regained the economic, social, or cultural levels it had reached as a province of the Roman Empire.

… There was little inkling of such historic potential [of Britain] in the land and people that Julius Caesar encountered in a raiding expedition on the British coast in 55 B.C. Indeed, not a single Briton’s name had entered the pages of history before that time.

We all know what a great civilised nation Britain became later, but we are now considering ancient times.

What about public schools and hospitals, the specific cases mentioned by Tony?

The influence of Christianity on these institutions is direct, easily traceable and with plenty of evidence to support it.

But first let’s see what Tony writes just after the extract from his emails that I’ve quoted above:

The societal benefits that you describe as coming from Christianity came after the Reformation, when the power and influence of Christianity was greatly reduced, and the Church was put in its place. Prior to the Reformation, society was undermined by superstition, religious persecution and backwardness, there was very little in the way of social or scientific development for hundreds of years, which is why it’s called The Dark Ages.

A thing is to be immediately noted here. The decadence in learning from the classical era experienced during the Medieval period has several historical causes. One of them is that, when you reach a peak in human achievement, this is eventually followed by a stasis, another is that the fall of the Roman Empire created a profound crisis in Western Europe.

To attribute this decline in total or in part to Christianity or the influence of the Church may be fashionable, but is unsupported.

The opposite is true: it is thanks to the Church that those ages were not darker.

It’s odd how there is an increasing emphasis on the role played by the Islamic world in the preservation of classical antiquity’s enormous cultural and intellectual treasures, but we hardly ever hear about the vital role of Church scholars and missionaries in preserving classical knowledge.

Church scholars were the only ones in Western Europe who preserved Greek and Roman texts in their libraries and scriptoriums in the Middle Ages. Even to this day the Church is, as has always been, a source of continuity linking contemporary Western culture to its classical roots.

But here, as in many other cases, the Western modern anti-Christian movement has given a great helping hand to Islam, whose apologists profess its unique role in the preservation of classical treasures while Christianity’s right similar claims have been silenced by the West’s repudiation of its historical religion’s value.

The name “Dark Ages” for a certain period of European history, i.e. the early Middle Ages, has nothing to do with the negative role of the Church, as Tony portrays, but with what happened when the invading Germanic hordes moved into the civilised Roman world and nearly destroyed its ancient culture, leaving almost no formal education for children. Rome’s elaborate school system disappeared.

During the chaos that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Church remained the only institution capable of supporting intellectual culture. Virtually nobody in Western Europe could read or write outside of monasteries, which became the centre for developing literacy.

Even Left-leaning Wikipedia has to recognise this:

The cultural influence of the Church has been vast. Church scholars preserved literacy in Western Europe following the Fall of Rome. During the Middle Ages, the Church rose to replace the Roman Empire as the unifying force in Europe. The cathedrals of that age remain among the most iconic feats of architecture produced by Western civilization. Many of Europe’s universities were also founded by the church at that time.

And even after Western Europe found an order again, the Church continued to be a driving force in education, in schools associated with its monasteries, churches and cathedrals. Cathedral schools were centres of advanced education, and often developed into the Medieval universities which were the source of many European later achievements.

Recognising its unique role in learning, practically all men of intellect joined the Church in the Middle Ages, which is why Latin, the church’s language, was for many centuries, as late as into the 18th and 19th centuries, the language of scholarship and erudition, science included.

Significant works of all subjects were written in Latin: Vesalius, Galileo, Descartes, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Torricelli, Kepler, Havers – and these are only a tiny number – wrote in Latin.

Newton wrote his scientific masterpiece Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in Latin. For Newton, God was part of his mechanics. Newton believed that his concept of absolute space protected the idea of God as the divine substance that expresses its own infinity in the double infinity of absolute space and time. He described God as:

a powerful ever-living agent, who being in all places, is more able by his will to move the bodies within his boundless uniform sensorium, and thereby to form and reform the parts of the universe, than we are by our will to move the parts of our own bodies.

The Church has always been a major source of schooling and medical care, and nobody in his sane mind can deny its prominent role in either. The evidence for that is too overwhelming even for the most lunatic atheist.

The people who dispensed these services were clearly inspired by Christianity:

As discipleship was important for the first believers (and those to follow), early formal education arose from Christian catechetical schools. Unique to Christian education was the teaching of both sexes.

Also a Christian distinctive, individuals from all social and ethnic groups were included. There was no bias based on ethnicity or class.

And for health care:

Consider also the issue of health care. Prior to Christianity, the Greeks and Romans had little or no interest in the poor, the sick and the dying. But the early Christians, following the example of their master, ministered to the needs of the whole person. During the first three centuries of the church they could only care for the sick where they found them, as believers were then a persecuted people. Once the persecutions subsided, however, the institutionalisation of health care began in earnest.

For example, the first ecumenical council at Nicea in 325 directed bishops to establish hospices in every city that had a cathedral. The first hospital was built by St Basil in Caesarea in 369. By the Middle Ages hospitals covered all of Europe and even beyond. In fact, ‘Christian hospitals were the world’s first voluntary charitable institutions’.

The website of London’s Science Museum has no doubt that Christian beliefs were the cause of the development of hospitals and not a coincidental occurrence:

Christian hospices first developed in the East in the late 300s. Some, like those founded by the Order of St John, appeared along routes of pilgrimage and offered shelter to religious travellers throughout Europe and the Middle East. The idea of religious charity lay at the heart of the medieval and early modern hospital. Medicine and morality were closely tied. This was evident in the location of beds, which was often determined by the location of an altar. Medical care was usually delivered by monks and [n]uns.

… The Christian practice of charity in Europe was based on the relationship between Christ and the pauper. The emphasis in hospital was therefore on care rather than cure, and the common denominator of patients was poverty, not illness. The original religious nature of early hospitals is still alive, most often in their names. Notable examples include the Hôtel Dieu in Paris, originally established in the 800s, and St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, which was founded in the 1100s and still exists today.

Not just hospitals, but medicine itself was developed by Christianity in the Middle Ages:

Guided by the principles of Christian charity and compassion, as well as by the biblical examples of helping the troubled and healing the sick, the clergy, besides the studying of medical sciences, soon turned to practical work and proceeded to treat the sick, establishing first hospitals within monasteries, initially accepting and treating monks and monastery servants, but subsequently admitting many ill laymen.

Tony says: all these positive developments could have occurred without Christianity. This expresses both the groundless and meaningless assertion that the same things might have happend through different causes – which can be said just about any historical phenomenon, including the bad things attributed to Christianity – and a strange way of thinking, namely the belief that Western principles and institutions developed in a sort of a vacuum.

Besides, there is no evidence for that claim. Even today, Christians outperform atheists in terms of charity, when it comes to giving money to charitable organisations as well as dedicating their lives to charitable causes.

Repeated studies over time have shown, for example, that the US more Christian states give a greater percentage of their income to charities than the more secular ones.

Christians are also better neighbours, and a Forbes study found that Christian charities are more reliable than others, ranking highest in terms of using donor money towards charitable projects and services, rather than putting it in their pockets.

Four out of the five charities that received a perfect rating in both fundraising efficiency and charitable commitment are Christian organisations.

Tim Mettey, of Matthew 25: Ministries, one of the top-rated charitable organisations, said: “We have to be less than 2 percent on overhead. We thrive on being so efficient.”

The association’s mission statement is based on Matthew 25:34-40, which calls for the hungry to be fed, the homeless to be sheltered and medicine for the ill.

Mettey explained that the group’s success depends on support from the Christian community, adding: “[W]e have 22,000 volunteers because of our message. Without volunteers none of this would be possible.”

The report on this Forbes study in Christianity Today concluded:

Faith-based organizations have the added benefit of turning to the Bible to remind themselves of motivation and direction.

All this, therefore, confirms that Christian teachings not only highly correlate with but also produce charity, generosity and selfless behaviour in aid of other people.

To be continued.