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Should we thank the Church for the origin of Universities?

Updated on March 28, 2017

The Gift of Knowledge Upheld

Universities as centres of learning in the 21st century are bursting at the seams with people who attest to being atheists. When I was in Russia in 1991 with a group of young people going through Moscow sharing the Gospel with pantomime and personal testimony, we found so many people open to the Gospel but we were astounded by one group of closed audiences, those we encountered in the university.

But where did universities arise from? Today we find many universities closed to even discussing the pro-life position of philosophy. But did universities always harbour many people who were closed to religious thinking or discussion?

To answer this question we need to explore the origin of the universities and even the western notion of education for the masses itself. The Greeks and Romans reserved their education only for boys of the privileged social classes. But the Catholic Church, comprised of the East (now the Orthodox Church) and the West (now the Catholic Church) were in full communion (fully united) and they began the concept of educating both men and women, rich and poor when teaching the faith through catechetical instruction over a period of two to three years. Around A.d. 150 Justin Martyr established such schools in Ephesus and in Rome. Soon after they were established in other cities. One in Alexandria, Egypt became notorious for its literary qualities, especially as it taught theology and also mathematics and medicine.

Early Education

Cathedral schools originated in about the fourth century. These schools were attached to cathedrals and maintained by bishops. They taught Christian doctrine as well as the seven liberal arts, the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy).

The First University

Back in the middle ages schools were attached to cathedrals, parishes and monasteries. With education in the cities people flocked to the cities. In the west, Paris was the first university with many of the students not being French. It arose from students banding together to protect their rights. At this time members of different crafts and guilds were banding together too. Masters of advanced studies wanted to be free of local control and so appealed to the pope. Thus the first western university was born. Pope Innocent III in 1273 stressed the university was a river of knowledge that fertilises the universal Church. The core subject of the university was to be theology which was known as the queen of the sciences. With the patronage of the pope the Paris University was given a charter, a document founding the university.

Paris thus blossomed with the influx of students. A monk from China in 1287 said there were 30,000 students; it was more likely about 4,000 students as the population of Paris was about 50,000. There were four faculties, or areas of expertise in the University of Paris: Theology, Law (civil and canon law – Catholic), Medicine and the Arts. Most of the students were clerics as they could read and write.

In the Middle Ages the university was only for boys, as young as 13. Alongside theology there was seven years of academic study which included the Trivium (speaking arts of grammar, rhetoric – reasoning and speaking properly to help persuade – and logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy). Between 1200 – 1400 A.D. twenty five universities were founded throughout Europe.

So the western universities were founded by the Catholic Church. The first university which taught other areas of science, such as astronomy was comprised mainly of clerics such as monks and priests. Therefore the queen of sciences, theology was taught and embraced. So all those who have learnt through education have the Catholic Church to thank for it. When you next gaze at the stars, remember that Father Nicolaus Copernicus is responsible for discovering the sun-centred model of the universe.

Brendan Roberts is a writer/author from New Zealand. He is in his last year of academic studies to a Bachelor of Theology. He is grateful to the Catholic Church for founding the western university system. His website is .


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      Zouhair 3 years ago

      This artclie is a home run, pure and simple!