From: Catholic Mountain
by Michael Terheyden
Even if we ignore the all-important spiritual blessings that we have received through the priesthood, we still owe a tremendous debt to the priesthood for its contribution to civilization. J. Pohle reminds us of this in an article titled "Priesthood" and published in The Catholic Encyclopedia. He states, "...the Catholic priesthood [and religious have] spread to all nations and brought into full bloom religion, morality, science, art, and industry." The following is a summary of part four of Mr. Pohle's article.
Although Charlemagne is credited with uniting the German hordes into one nation after the fall of Rome, it was Catholic missionaries and martyrs who paved the way for Charlemagne's success. They converted many of the Germanic peoples and helped raise them out of a state of savagery, considered barbaric even for those times. In later times, the Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, and others spread across Europe and around the world raising the level of morality and civilization.
They raised the level of morality and civilization by serving the people's needs and promoting human dignity. For instance, the maxim, "Education for all," was first uttered by Pope Innocent III. During the Middle Ages, universities and elementary schools were run by priests and religious. The first medical facility in Europe, the School of Salerno, was founded by the Benedictines. They not only practiced medicine, they educated skilled physicians for all Europe. Furthermore, it has been said that St. Vincent de Paul achieved more for the sick and the poor than many cities and states combined. More recently, Cardinal Lavigerie played an important role in the abolition of slavery, and Catholic congregations, such as the Trinitarians and the Mercedarians, devoted themselves to the liberation of slaves in pagan and Muslim lands.
The priesthood also played an important role in science, the humanities, and scholarship. The idea of scientific progress is of Catholic origin. The scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon was a Franciscan friar. The Heliocentric theory of the solar system is attributed to the Catholic cleric Copernicus. The first geographical chart of the world is attributed to Fra Mauro of Venice. Early humanism was strongly supported by Popes Nicholas V and Leo X. The humanist scholar and writer Erasmus was a priest. Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Calderon, all priests, are some of Spain's greatest writers. The foundation of historical criticism was laid by Cardinal Baronius, the monks of St. Maur, and the Bollandists. And a Jesuit is the father of comparative philology.
Social service and higher learning are not the only secular contributions of the priesthood. An advanced civilization cannot exist without a sound economic base and infrastructure to support it. Catholic bishops and priests, such as Duns Scotus, Nicholas Oresme, Bishop of Lisieux, St. Antoninus of Florence, and Gabriel Biel, laid the foundation for national economies. Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monks cleared the forests and cultivated the land, rendering vast areas free from fever. They also engineered and built drainage and irrigation systems and roads and bridges.
While Mr. Pohle's examples are numerous and wide-ranging, they are far from complete. For instance, he says little or nothing about the priesthood's impact on art, architecture, music and law. Nevertheless, he reminds us that the priesthood is made up of humble men of faith, many of whom God endowed with the intellect, skill, and courage to help build the greatest civilization in history.
Moreover, today's priesthood is the same priesthood that helped build Western civilization and raise the level of others because Christ is its head. When we see a large procession of priests dressed in their vestments, we see an army, a powerful, worldwide army that has lasted for almost two thousand years. And we can be certain of two things: the Catholic priesthood will survive these difficult times, and the future progress of civilization will depend on these gifted, humble men of faith.
Source: J. Pohle, "Priesthood", The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol XII, online ed., New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911