Time Missed The Story of the Millennium


Time magazine’s millennium issue failed to mention any of the immensely important contributions the Catholic Church has made to Western culture over the past 1000 years.

Occasionally, in penance for my sins, I read an entire issue of Time magazine. The last issue of the millennium, which featured Albert Einstein as “Person of the Century,” was actually instructive and entertaining. There was a very good piece on Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Harvard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Stephen Hawking’s essay about the theory of relativity was one of the best popular expositions of the subject I’ve seen.

But, as I read on about the achievements of the millennium, I started to notice something. Where is the Catholic Church? Chesterton once said that everything worthwhile in our culture is by origin Catholic. Hospitals are a Catholic invention. The modem university has Catholic roots. Ditto for double-entry bookkeeping. Even the writ of habeas corpus, the grandfather of all human rights, was inspired by the medieval Church. It certainly was not the brainchild of the Vikings or the northern German tribes.

But you would have no idea of Catholicism’s contribution to Western culture picking your way through Time’s highlights of the past millennium. When the Catholic Church does appear, it is inevitably as an obstacle to human progress. The Inquisition, needless to say, makes several appearances. What Time does not mention is that, for all their faults, both the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions were considered among the fairest courts in Europe. Indicted criminals often put a religious spin on their alleged crimes so that their cases could be switched from the secular courts to the Inquisition. And it ought to be recalled that, at the time of Galileo’s condemnation (the punishment: commodious internment in a pleasant villa outside Florence), hundreds of “witches” and other religious deviants were being homed at the stake in northern Europe and New England.

In fact, the Roman Inquisition was easily outdone in brutality by Time’s poster person of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth of England, whose agents hunted down Catholic priests and, after mock trails, had them drawn and quartered at Tyburn. This, however, escapes the notice of the Time staff writer, who tells us that Elizabeth “allowed Catholics freedom of worship.” The fact is that, after 1581, anyone in England who made or became a convert to Catholicism was subject to the penalties of high treason and, after 1587, anyone who did not attend an Anglican service every Sunday was fined the modem equivalent of thousands of dollars. The hearing of Mass was punishable by death. So much for Time’s fact‑checkin‑ department.

A profound contribution of the Church to modern culture was its preservation of the great literary and philosophical works of antiquity. For about 500 years, the only literate persons in Europe were Catholic priests and monks, and it was they who kept the pilot flame of civilization burning. If not for their industry, there would be no Homer, no Vergil, no Cicero, no Horace on our bookshelves. There would, as a result, be no Shakespeare or Milton, either. How does Time present this all important transfer of our literary heritage over the gulf of the Dark Ages? Robert Wright, who always has a glib Darwinian explanation for everything, tells us that classical culture survived the general disintegration because self-replicating “packets of cultural information” (i.e., the Aeneid ) won the Darwinian struggle for survival in the information game. In other words, those industrious monks were mere robot vehicles for transmitting these works, and so need not be mentioned.

The triumphs of science and technology are, of course, the big story of the past thousand years, and Time is probably right to make Einstein the person of the century. What the magazine does not mention is that there would have been no Western science at all if not for the work of the great medieval Catholic thinkers, especially St. Thomas Aquinas.

Science is a delicate enterprise and it gets off the ground, so to speak, only when given permission by philosophers and theologians. This permission has been granted but once in history. In Stanley Jaki’s vivid phrase, science was “stillborn” in every culture‑Greek, Hindu, Chinese‑except that of the Christian West. It was the insistence of the great scholastic philosophers of the 12th and 13th centuries that the universe is rational and that physical creation has its own order and dignity which can be penetrated by the human intellect, that paved the way for Newton and Einstein. Buddhist religion, which insists that the material world is illusory, was never likely to kick off even a minor lab experiment.

Einstein himself did not have much in the way of religious belief, but he certainly breathed the atmosphere of metaphysical realism created by the Sumana Theologiae. And this made possible his startling leaps of intuition about the nature of the universe. In fact, Einstein delivered the sort of cosmos that Catholic theology had expected all along was there: one that is finite, highly specific and with a beginning.

At one point Einstein admitted that he had “given the priests a lot to write about.” We don’t expect a mainstream magazine like Time to have the rigor of a scholarly journal. But why is it that when the subject is the Catholic Church, the errors and omissions are so predictable?


George Sim Johnston. “Time Missed The Story of the Millennium.” National Catholic Register. (January 23-29, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City and a contributing editor for Crisis magazine and the National Catholic Register. His articles and essays have appeared in Harpers, The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Crisis, and Catholic World Report. He is a recipient of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. His most recent book, Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution is published by Our Sunday Visitor and may be ordered by calling 1-800-348-2440.

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