Secularists have always taken delight in suppressing as many visible traces of religious expression as possible. Proof is the recent order by the European Court of Human Rights to ban crucifixes from the walls of Italy’s classrooms. According to the court, the practice of hanging crucifixes on classrooms walls violates the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. In addition, the practice contravenes children’s right to freedom of religion.
But traces of the Catholic Church’s presence in our culture are so deeply embedded that if every Catholic aspect were to be removed from Western civilization (1) doing so would take 500 years or more, and (2) there would be nothing left! There are myriad ways in which the Catholic faith has made its way into the daily lives of everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. I will leave out the obvious, like art and architecture, holidays and festivities, food and drink, manners and dining etiquette, etc., and just mention a few of the countless lesser ways in which Catholicism – unbeknownst to just about everyone today – has influenced so many familiar things.
For example, why do we refer to levels of a building as ‘stories’? In Romanesque and Gothic archi-tecture (both of which developed in a Catholic milieu) it was not uncommon for allegorical reliefs and sculptures to adorn the facades of churches or municipal buildings. Each of them told a story. Since by extension several strata of allegorical represen-tations told several stories, it became custom to indicate the height of a building by how many stories it had.
Also, it’s just amazing how deeply the Catholic influence has penetrated into the various nooks and crannies of Western legal practice. Law students, for example, often ‘clerk’ for a judge in the years following their graduation from law school. Law clerks and court clerks populate the legal system. It turns out, to many a secularists’ dismay, that the use of ‘clerk’ to designate such functions can be traced back centuries, to a time when practically everyone associated with the law had taken at least minor orders. Such clerics, being educated and literate, were especially suited to such work. The minor clergy eventually grew so closely associated with administrative and other bureaucratic duties that it became common to call these ‘clerical’ tasks and the people who carried them out ‘clerks’.
How about the origins of sign language? It was the French priest and abbot Charles-Michel d’Epeè who made a most profound contribution in developing the natural sign language of the deaf into a systematic and conven-tional language to be used as a medium of instruction.
Various forms of games and recreation are also directly related to Catholicism. The Schutzenfeste – the shooting festivals that constitute one of Switzerland’s most popular sports – what were they originally? They were training exercises for marksmen whose job it was to protect the Blessed Sacrament in Corpus Christi processions against attack by violent Protestants. Chess, too, has its Catholic origin. It was embraced and enjoyed by a great many clergy and laity, including even St. Teresa of Avila, who possessed extensive knowledge of the game. The piñata is likewise of Catholic origin. What we currently associate as meaningless birthday-party fun from Mexico began as good old-fashioned Italian sin-bashing during the holy season of Lent. The seven-coned piñata was said to represent the Seven Deadly Sins, all of which appear attractive and beguiling. Since sin is difficult to overcome, the piñata danced on a rope in order to elude being hit, and since sin is difficult to recognize for what it is, the piñata hitter would be blind-folded. Evil, however, can be defeated by good, and so the hitter had several aids at his disposal. The first was Virtue, symbolized by his stick or bat. The hitter also had the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith helped him trust the directions shouted out by the crowd, Hope kept him persevering and directed his actions heavenward, while Charity materialized once he broke the piñata and the treats, representing divine gifts and blessings, cascaded out.
The word ‘dumbbell’ comes from a special contraption used to train people to ring the large and difficult bells that adorned churches. Using the real bells for training purposes was impractical since they would have disturbed everyone in the area. Silent ‘dumbbells’ were therefore employed instead. The healthy physique that came from practicing on these dumbbells proved so popular that even men who were not bell-ringers began to use them. Eventually the term was applied to exercise weights.
On and on: from ‘knock on wood’ to ‘something blue’ for the bride-to-be, from ‘tying the knot’ to our musical notation, traces of the Catholic faith, and of God himself, are evident everywhere in our world – even in places where Catholics themselves may never have thought to look. We should expect nothing less, of course, from a religion founded upon the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, for that extraordinary event was the ultimate meeting of the divine and the earthly.