HUMAN EVENTS Interview:Historian Woods Reflects on Western Civilization

With a background in American history and a deep interest in the Roman Catholic Church, Suffolk County Community College professor Tom Woods worked tirelessly over the past year on two books—The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, a New York Times bestseller, and How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. (Both were published by Regnery—a Human Events sister company.) During a recent visit to Washington, Woods spoke with Managing Editor Robert Bluey and intern Mary Ellen Burke about the books.

What is your expertise in these two areas—the Catholic Church and American history?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: American history is my area of expertise in terms of scholarly work. I have four Ivy League degrees in American history. But I’ve also written a lot about Catholic issues. I’ve written four books on the church. I’m associate editor of the Latin Mass magazine. I’m one of these people whom the media can call on to talk about American history or the next pope.

Was your book on the Catholic Church something you’ve wanted to write for a long time or was it a recent development?

Woods: I had always heard people say, ‘The church built Western civilization.’ I thought that would make a good book title. I had been reading very intently in several areas about science and law and other issues, and I thought, this is the kind of title that could serve as an umbrella for all these disparate topics, and bring under one cover all these aspects of the history of the church that most people don’t know about. Since much of my writing in the past has been critical of some of the hierarchy, I thought I’d write a good news book: What’s right with the Catholic Church? What are the things that we can be proud of and pleased with? And the timing is not coincidental either. People, especially American Catholics, are demoralized and frustrated and mortified by what’s been going on. This book is something partly for those faithful Catholics who have been disgusted by what’s going on. It’s a morale boost for them.

You outline the contributions the church has made to society. What do you personally see as the most significant?

Woods: One of them would be the university system and the intellectual life of the high Middle Ages. I cite a great many scholars—Catholics and non-Catholics—who say that the church and the university gave birth to a culture that was very rigorous in its treatment of intellectual topics. Look at Thomas Aquinas. He’s someone who takes an issue and chews it over, looks at it from every angle and considers all the objections to his position. That’s the kind of intellectual life that would bear such fruit in Western Europe and that culminates in the Scientific Revolution. They looked at all sides of the question and investigated it thoroughly.

The other thing would be charitable work. People don’t know how important it was quantitatively, but also the qualitative difference there was between the ancient worlds’ charitable work and that of the church. In the ancient world, in Greece and Rome, there was often contempt for the poor, and when people did show liberality toward them it was often just to show off or to put the poor in their debt. That’s why it was a culture in which you saw infanticide. There’s no emphasis on the sanctity of life. The church totally overturned that and brought a completely new way of thinking about the poor and about human life. That’s why it has been a formative influence on western civilization.

Why is the church so bad at promoting the accomplishments you highlight in the book?

Woods: Individual popes have written about the church’s devotion to learning, and I believe it was Leo XIII who started the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and established an astronomical observatory. But in spite of those efforts, at other levels of the church, people are not talking about it. We need more laymen in the church to write books like this one. For a lot of laity and churchmen, it just hasn’t hit them how much of a cultural revolution there has been. The church now never gets the benefit of the doubt.

Why are the church’s contributions ignored or disregarded?

Woods: The opinion-makers in the United States tend to be agnostic or atheist, or at least not in the Christian tradition. Ever since the Enlightenment, there’s been an attempt on the part of non-Christian intellectuals to claim for themselves all the accomplishments of the West. All you have to do is look at the European Union constitution. It doesn’t mention a word about the Christian foundations of Europe. All you have to do is walk down any European street and look at a cathedral. They can’t acknowledge it. But what do they acknowledge? The ancient world and the Enlightenment. So there’s been this prejudice ever since the term Middle Ages was coined, suggesting the church doesn’t owe anything to that past.

Shifting gears, your other book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, reminds me in a way of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, except the two couldn’t be more different in terms of content. Do you envision a day when you’ll have the same kind of following Zinn has achieved on the left?

Woods: The New York Post actually called me the right wing’s answer to Howard Zinn. I took that as a compliment because Howard Zinn is very influential and his book is still a hot seller. Years and years later, they can’t keep it on the shelves. If the e-mail I get is any indication, I have a lot of people, home schoolers in particular, who feel the book is a breath of fresh air. For one thing, just the bibliography steers them to books they can rely on.

In the limited space you had in the Politically Incorrect Guide, how did you decide what topics to cover?

Woods: I took ones that I thought were not mentioned at all, barely mentioned or hopelessly mangled. It’s not a thorough overview of American history. It leaves out major things, such as the Spanish-American War, but I wanted to cover the historical record that was most distorted. It can’t be a stand-alone book, but it can be a supplement. That’s how I’ve used it in my classes.

Should it be required reading for high school students?

Woods: It’s at a level that an intelligent high schooler should have no problem with it. College students, too. It’s not written in a way that’s complicated. But at the same time, it’s not written at a level that an adult would find insulting. Even people who consider themselves pretty knowledgeable about American history will get something out of this. But it’s also for those people who might not know that much but have a funny feeling they haven’t heard the whole story.