5 Trends the Church has Led in the Past

Is the Church “anti-tech”?

The Catholic focus on tradition often gives the impression that Catholics are stuck in the past. And this impression is often borne out by the Church’s resistance to cultural changes and revolutions and skepticism towards new ideas. The Church’s public image can often give the idea that the Catholic Church is not a future-thinking institution.

But the Church is not an obsolete organization that discourages innovation. The Church teaches that human curiosity and human ingenuity are made in the image and likeness of the Creator. The Church has been a leader in science, technology, and innovation since its founding 2,000 years ago.

Here are a few of those innovations that might surprise you!

The Hospital

In the Roman Empire, some cities housed temples of healing to the god of medicine, Asclepius. Soldiers, spread throughout the empire, made use of military medical institutions that tended to them when injured or ill. But Christian leaders were the pioneers of public philanthropic residences to care for travelers, beggars, and the elderly. The first Christian hospitals were staffed by male and female monastics. They were not temples or churches, like the temples to Asclepius. They were sites of the best medical care they had available, which they offered to those in the city who could not afford a private physician.

One of the original hospitals, in Turkey, was known as the “Basiliad” named after St. Basil, one of the Cappadocian fathers. This hospital ministered to the poor and diseased, and offered food, shelter, and rest to those free of charge from the monastic orders who ministered to them.

Since broad social structures like “hospitals” have many prototypes, it’s often hard to declare one singular origin point for them. But historians note three factors that define the beginning of modern hospitals: inpatient facilities, professional medical caregivers, and care given for free.

The Christians focus on caring for Christ in the face of the poor spurred them to care for the poor at the margins of the city. And their belief that Christ was in the face of the sick, the poor, and the outcast spurred them to overcome concerns for their own purity or status. Giving care and dignity to anyone, no matter who they are or how rich they became a defining feature of the Christian hospital. The Christian commitment to care for the patient until death was a true innovation. It bore witness to the Christian belief in the dignity of all people, particularly the poor.

The hospital was a revolution of medical care. And even more so, caring for those who had no status or capital in the city was an act of radical Christian love. And, clearly, the hospital is a trend that had staying power!

Basil of Caesarea

The Book

Christianity came onto the world scene just as a new technology was also emerging: the codex. Originally, written works were preserved on scrolls, usually made of lightweight rolls of papyrus. Roman scribes took notes on wax tablets with two sides that could be inscribed and erased. This innovation of writing on both sides of the tablet was a forerunner of the codex. The codex is the style of book that we are most familiar with today.

In the second century AD, as the Gospels were being copied down and spread among Christians, they began to be written down on codices, and this trend continued.  In the second and third centuries, even though most secular texts were still written on scrolls, a higher percentage of Christian texts were being written on the codex.  The codex wasn’t invented by Christians, but Christians showed considerable foresight in embracing this technology more quickly than the wider community.

The codex outpaced the scroll by a few key advantages. The codex allows the reader to flip between different sections easily to find a reference quickly. The codex is also a mnemonic device. Breaking up the book into physical spaces (the left page, the right page, the beginning of a paragraph, the upper left-hand corner or right before a page turn), helps the reader remember the words of the book better.

Not only did the Bible popularize the codex, but during the middle ages, Christian monks preserved the codex. The monks kept the tradition of reproducing codices through a method called illumination alive in Europe. The Bible again was at the vanguard of book evolution in 1455, when Johannes Gutenberg printed a bible on his new printing press.

The Bible has been at the forefront of bibliographic innovation since the second century. Even in the digital age, religious publishing–particularly of bibles–has grown in the United States. The Bible remains one of the most published books throughout the world.

Architectural Innovations

What do Notre Dame de Paris, St. Peter’s Basilica, Westminster Abbey, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and the Hagia Sophia have in common? Each one of these is a Christian church and is also a world-class feat of architectural engineering.

The Church has led architecture with many innovations that have made new heights possible, quite literally.

Photo by Glen Scarborough via Flickr

If you visit most major cities in Europe–and even if you pop into some small towns–you’ll discover that at the heart of the city is a beautiful Cathedral. The Gothic architecture that decorates so many of these European masterpieces is a Christian invention. Gothic architecture departed from and developed out of the older Romanesque style of the Roman Empire.

Some of these cathedrals and basilicas demonstrate the new heights of innovation achieved: the flying buttresses of Notre-Dame are a Gothic innovation that allows the stone supports to bear the weight of the delicate stone structure hollowed out by yards of jewel-toned stained glass.

Although these Gothic innovations are now revered examples of architectural beauty, at the time, these inventions were derided by some Catholics who still favored the Romanesque style as ugly experiments.

Westminster Abbey boasts an impressive display of an English invention, the fan vault, which covered the vaulted ceilings with intricate stonework. One of the oldest and most impressive feats of Christians architecture was the pendentive dome. For 1000 years, the unchallenged crown jewel of these domes was the dome of the Hagia Sophia. It was surpassed in 1590 by the completion of the pendentive dome atop the brand new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Church architecture demonstrates the abundance of human creativity and skill. The Churches of Europe are a testament to the investment the Church has made in funding and supporting innovative architects.

Photo by Richard White via Flickr

Jesuit Mechanics

During the Baroque period, a spirit of invention was in the European air. In the seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei invented the telescope, the first calculator was invented, the pocket watch and steam pump were all created.

As the spirit of invention swept the European continent, one of the bold new religious orders, the Jesuits, took full advantage of this new spirit of creativity and ingenuity. Jesuits began to experiment with new mechanics, particularly in churches and in their theatrical productions.

Perhaps the most famous of these Jesuit inventions is the altarpiece by Andrea Pozzo, SJ in the Church of the Gesù in Rome. The church’s altarpiece features a painting of the Trinity by Fr. Pozzo, which is lifted up by a mechanical system to reveal a silver statute. The original was captured by Napoleon, but there is now a plaster reproduction in its stead. Each day at 5:30pm, in the Church of the Gesù, visitors can witness this Baroque spectacle at work!

Scientific Origins of the Universe

In the early 1920s, developments in physics and cosmology boomed, as scientists responded to and developed new theories based upon Alfred Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity (E=MC2).

The current leading theory of the universe’s origins, The Big Bang Theory, was first hypothesized by Belgian priest Georges Lemaître. When it was introduced into the popular culture, the Big Bang Theory created quite a stir.

Announced just two years after the Scopes Trial of 1925, the Big Bang Theory seemed to many Christians to contradict the Genesis account of creation. To this day, many American fundamentalist Protestant groups, who believe that the Genesis account is a scientific text rather than a poetic text, continue to believe the Big Bang Theory contradicts Scripture.

Vatican II responded to the concerns of the faithful, in the document on Sacred Scriptures, called Dei Verbum, meaning “The Word of God.”

For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture (§12).

Dei Verbum assured the faithful that there was no conflict between faith and science, between God’s word revealed in creation and Sacred Scripture. Fr. Lemaître himself saw in the Genesis account of creation a symbolic and poetic reflection of the scientific account of the Big Bang. Lemaître believed these two accounts harmonized, rather than contradicted.

Today, a broad consensus of scientists, Christian and non-Christian, believe the Big Bang is the most probable explanation of the origins of the universe.

Tech companies look 7-10 years in the future, to see what trends are coming down the pike. If the Church followed suit, how would the Church respond to new technologies on the rise?

Any trend has both negative and positive components. The Church examines each trend and discerns the valuable from the chaff.  As a 2,000-year-old startup, the Church benefits by not always following trends and by questioning the ideologies of the current moment.

How might the Church respond to upcoming trends, from artificial intelligence to cryptocurrency?

The Church has never been afraid of technological advancements. The Church has always fostered within her walls artists and artisans who push their crafts forward for the greater glory of God. And, in the case of the codex or the Big Bang, the Church has often helped identify an idea that seems marginal or misunderstood and then ushers it into the mainstream. The Church is an invaluable aid in helping men and women who work in technology understand their work ethically. Pope John Paul II notes in Evangelium Vitae that technological and scientific research must consider the ethical consequences of their work. Pope Francis echoes John Paul II in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si when he writes:

Technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities […] Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build (§107).

As we contemplate the new technological tools and trends that are available to us, the Church invites us to ask what kind of society we want to build. With bold evangelical courage, we can then be trendsetters, instead of followers.

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