The western legal tradition owes its existence in large part to the Catholic Church

Catholicism’s impact on Western law is considerable. It was the medieval development of canon law that retrieved, transformed, and then represented the long-forgotten Justinian Code of the Roman Empire to emerging European polities in dire need of good juridical models. Specifically, the emergence of ecclesiastical courts after Pope Gregory VII prompted civil courts to imitate and eventually supersede them.

This imitation can be seen in several areas, beginning with the very idea of the rule of law. Although this principle may be found in ancient civilization, it was reintroduced to the West thanks to the medieval Church. Catholicism’s belief, for instance, in the reassuring rationality of a divine Logos was instrumental in weaning Europe’s barbarian tribes off of such practices as trials by ordeal.

Catholicism is also discernible in the Anglo-American common law tradition. As John C. H. Wu observes, while “the Roman law was a deathbed convert to Christianity, the common law was a cradle Christian.” It was this derivation that cultivated the notions of equity, intent, and liability in the West, just as it was the Catholic teaching on marriage that provided the foundations of modern contract law. And when the Catholic conscience confronted the evils of New World colonialism, it responded with the development of international law by 16th-century theologians like the Dominican Rev. Francisco de Vitoria.

The West has borrowed from Catholic patrimony in smaller areas as well. Take, for example, the judge’s black robes: The judicial gown hearkens back to clerical garb and the days when all law students, even laymen, dressed as clergy during their matriculation. In other parts of the world, such as Canada and Great Britain, the indebtedness to medieval church custom is even more conspicuous: The wig worn by justices and barristers in Commonwealth countries is a substitute for the skull cap worn by medieval clerics, and when a British magistrate sentences a guilty person to death, he is required to put on his black hat — in imitation of the priest, who was once required to wear his biretta when hearing confession. Even the term “clerk” is an abbreviation of “cleric.”

But perhaps the single most important contribution of Catholicism to Western law is the one that is so fundamental, it is the easiest of all to overlook: concern for the victim.
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Book Selection: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization



From the role of the monks to art and architecture, from the university to Western law, from science to charitable work, from international law to economics, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization delves into just how indebted we are as a civilization to the Catholic Church, whether we realize it or not.

By far the book’s longest chapter is “The Church and Science.” We have all heard a great deal about the Church’s alleged hostility toward science. What most people fail to realize is that historians of science have spent the past half-century drastically revising this conventional wisdom, arguing that the Church’s role in the development of Western science was far more salutary than previously thought. I am speaking not about Catholic apologists but about serious and important scholars of the history of science such as J.L. Heilbron, A.C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, and Thomas Goldstein.

It is all very well to point out that important scientists, like Louis Pasteur, have been Catholic. More revealing is how many priests have distinguished themselves in the sciences. It turns out, for instance, that the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body was Fr. Giambattista Riccioli. The man who has been called the father of Egyptology was Fr. Athanasius Kircher (also called “master of a hundred arts” for the breadth of his knowledge). Fr. Roger Boscovich, who has been described as “the greatest genius that Yugoslavia ever produced,” has often been called the father of modern atomic theory.

In the sciences it was the Jesuits in particular who distinguished themselves; some 35 craters on the moon, in fact, are named after Jesuit scientists and mathematicians …

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