This year the world will celebrate 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, which set off an explosion that still reverberates around the globe. As a result of his act, the Roman Catholic Church split like a ripe watermelon and the religious world (of Christianity) separated into Catholic, Protestant, and 'Others.' The Others is the group I am in. Protestants, for the most part, consist of mainline U.S. denominations other than Baptists. Baptists did not come out of the Roman Church since they had lived along with the Church for hundreds of years. While non-Catholics disagree strongly with the Roman Church, they should recognize the many positive contributions that Church has made.
I am a Christian Fundamentalist, one who adheres closely to what the Bible teaches and I don’t find much in other religions and denominations to recommend religiously. Very frankly, I am right and the other religions, even parts of Christianity, are wrong. (What did you expect me to say?) Now that I have settled that, I am willing to admit the historical truth that the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox Churches have made major positive contributions to the world, especially from the fourth century forward. I still maintain my right to disagree, even declare they wrote the histories to make them seem to be original Christians, but they made valuable contributions.
For the record, it should be remembered that the Catholic Church was hundreds of years in the making with many godly, dedicated, and true preachers of the Word associated with it during that time. While the Roman Church was forming, there were numerous independent churches growing alongside it. While those independent churches stayed true to the Scripture for the most part, they did not have the clout, the cash, and the crowds of the Roman Catholic Church; consequently, they did not make the social impact on citizens of the Roman Empire as did the larger, better financed Catholic Church.
While the Roman Catholic Church was gaining more and more power as the Empire collapsed, there were unaffiliated independent churches all over the Empire who refused to conform to the growing power of the Roman Church. Each pope became stronger throughout Europe until Leo I (died 461) claimed superiority over all bishops in the West and the East! Leo was met with resistance since all bishops were to be equal. The patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria “claimed equal authority with the Roman see” so, as of 450 there was still no authoritative, supreme pope. That came with Gregory I in the late 500s (died 604) who was the first supreme pope.
The fabled civilization of a thousand years could see the handwriting on the wall as the brutal barbarians were at the gates of Rome and collapse was imminent. In 410 A.D., Rome collapsed as the city of the Caesars fell to uncivilized, uneducated, and uncouth barbarians. With the collapse of Rome, a chill went throughout the civilized world; however, as the Empire fell, the Church of Rome stepped in to fill the gap.
Following the alleged conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, the churches constructed and maintained hospitals, hospices for strangers, and houses for orphans, widows, and the indigent. As Rome crumbled, the Church remained the one (and only) stable institution that helpless citizens could depend on for help and protection.
As the Empire collapsed because of internal decay, corruption of officials, and the barbarian invasions, the social structure decayed also. The bewildered citizens looked to the only large, powerful entity for succor–the Church. The churches, primarily the Roman Catholic Church as it was gradually forming, basically replaced the failing Empire. As internal confusion and inability to maintain the army in the north accelerated, Rome became a shadow of its former glory. The more the Empire crumbled the more important and powerful the Church became. Although the Church became heretical, it provided fearful citizens with protection, food, health care, etc.
The Church at Rome (that became the seat of the Roman Catholic Church) had over fifty thousand members and supported 1,500 widows, orphans, and the poor according to Gibbon. He adds that the church at Antioch “consisted of one hundred thousand persons, three thousand of whom were supported out of the public oblations [gifts to churches].” Of course, that was long before the formation of the Roman Catholic Church.
After the Council of Nicaea in 325, the bishops were told to go into every Cathedral city (the main city of a diocese where the bishops ruled) and start a hospital–and later universities. Consequently, a number of hospitals were founded by rich Christians in various cities.
About this time, monasteries and convents were organized with many purposes, but they became the bastions of scholarship in many fields. Catholic engineers constructed massive and elaborate cathedrals throughout Europe that still amaze visitors with their beauty, size, and symmetry.
Basil of Caesarea (c.329-379) was the Greek bishop in Cappadocia (part of modern Turkey) who supported the Nicene Creed and opposed Arianism and other heresies. He was from a wealthy family and founded the first Christian hospital that ministered to the sick. It was the first hospital that had wards for specific diseases. He organized a soup kitchen and distributed food to the poor during a famine. He gave away his personal family inheritance to benefit the poor of his diocese. He actively worked to help thieves and prostitutes.
An obvious outcome of establishing hospitals was the need to provide workers; therefore, brotherhoods and orders were birthed to serve in hospitals, hospices, orphanages, etc. According to historian Kenneth S. Latourette, “One of the first of which we know began late in the ninth century in Siena. In the eleventh century many cathedrals and parish churches had hospitals…A large proportion, perhaps a majority of monasteries seem to have had hospitals attached to them, several gave training in medicine, and many abbots became expert physicians. Hospitals cared not only for the sick, but also for the orphaned and the poor, and in the cities many of them fed prisoners.”
Many groups organized and formed orders to care for the sick and dying. Catholic religious orders included the Order of Saint Benedict, the Order of Friars Minor, the Carmelites, the Dominican Order, and the Order of Saint Augustine. (All orders did not serve in hospitals or provide for the poor since each order had its own specialty.) Monasteries served as hospitals and places of refuge for the weak and homeless. The monks studied the healing properties of plants and minerals to alleviate the sufferings of the sick.
Historians admit that when the Roman Empire began to crack at its foundations, the Church had not only established hospitals but had also become “the schoolmaster of Western Europe and the tutor of the barbarian of the North.” The origin of many medieval universities can be traced back to the Catholic cathedral schools (monastic schools) which appeared as early as the 6th century. The Catholic Church is to be commended for being the impetus for most of the universities of the Middle Ages.
Catholic scientists that made the world better are Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Nicolas Copernicus, Louis Pasteur, Gregor Mendel, Roger Bacon, and many others. And the popes are to be commended for permitting dissecting of human bodies for medical research.
Moreover, the Cathedral churches and monasteries were the main preservers of literature after many libraries of the ancient world had been destroyed. Dedicated monks protected and copied books making them available for scholars throughout Europe.
Latourette reveals “the [Roman Catholic] Church was the first to accumulate reserves of capital, to begin the system of deposits, credit, and banking, and to advocate a stable coinage. The Templars were famous as bankers….The Church, too, inculcated the theory of the ‘just price.’” Again, much is owed to the Roman Church in the practical area of finance.
While there is much I disagree with in the Roman Church, especially its doctrine and religious ceremonial practices, I recognize their incredible contributions to giving some stability in very difficult, desperate and dangerous times; their production and protection of vast scholarly literature; their generous alleviation of suffering of millions; the construction and maintenance of universities; etc.
For all that, I tip my hat to my theological adversaries.