History of Roman Catholic Church


The worldwide diffusion of modern Christianity is in sharp contrast to its humble origins. Its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was born in Palestine around 84 b. c.

His life and teaching were recorded by his earliest followers in the New Testament. During his publie ministry, Jesus preached, worked a number of miracles, and manifested himself as the Messiah, or Christ— the anointed of God. His preaching eventually brought him into conflict with the Palestinian authorities, who crucified him about 30 a. d. because they expected that his death would end his infhıence. The opposite occurred. His disciples began to proclaim that “God has raised Jesus from the dead” (Acts 2:32) and has sent him “to turn away every one of you from his sins” (Acts 3:26).



The preaching of this Gospel, or good news, was soon accepted by many in Jerusalem and elsewhere. At Antioch in the midlst century, “the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26). At first Christians constituted a sect within Judaism: they followed Jewish practices, such as praying in the temple, but celebrated their own unique service, the Eucharist, as well. Christianity and Judaism soon diverged because of their doctrinal incompatibility. A church meeting at Jerusalem (about 49 a. d.) decided that a Christian need not submit to circumcision and other Jewish practices (Acts 15: 135). This decision, based on doctrinal considerations, effectively opened Christianity to the nonJewish world.

Persecution and Growth.

During the 1st century, missionaries such as St. Paul were able to win converts and organize churches in Asia Minör, Greece, Italy, and North Af rica. This intensive missionary activity was aided by the Roman Empire’s transportation system and by the use of Greek, the language of the New Testament, as the common commercial language. Although early Christian writers speak of an atmosphere of religious expectancy that made many receptive to the Gospel, conversions were neither instantaneously nor effortlessly made.

Paganism was the official state religion. Christianity was suspect, and Christians were subjected to persecution for a variety of reasons: they were accused of disloyalty to the state because of their refusal to participate in the official pagan rites; Christian rites were grossly misrepresented as acts of fanaticism and immorality; Christians were even blamed for natural disasters, such as famine and epidemic. Nero (reigned 54—68), for example, blamed the Christians for burning Rome, and executed many ineluding Saints Peter and Paul. The Emperor Trajan (reigned 98117), on the other hand, ordered that Christians were not to be sought out but must be tried if denounced. Thus a Christian was at the mercy of his enemies. At the trials of Christians, magistrates attempted to persuade them, by promises or by threats, to renounce their faith. Although many preferred torture, exile, or death to apostasy, some faltered. Generally, persecutions were sporadic and local, but enıpirewide persecutions were ordered by the emperors Decius (reigned 249251) and Diocletian (reigned 284305).


Doctrinal Development.

The church’s doctrinal development is discernible in the corpus of early Christian literatüre. This literatüre includes letters from one bishop or church to another, such as those of Ignatius of Antioch (q.v.), which discussed particular problems. A second type of literatüre, the catechetical, was designed to instruct prospective or recent converts in the principal Christian doctrines. In the 2d century, Christian literary effort assumed an apologetic purpose. The apologists, such as Justin Martyr (q.v.), attempted to convince their contemporaries of the civic loyalty of Christians and to explain Christian belief and practice. These writings may not have convinced the pagans or Jews, but they furnish important information about the early church. Theological writing developed in reaction to Gnosticism, a syncretistic religious movement that was potentially a greater threat to Christianity than the persecutions. Writers such as Irenaeus of Lyon pointed out the radical incompatibility between Gnosticism, which promised salvation through ritual knowledge (gnosis), and Christianity, which preached salvation through the revelation given by Christ. An indirect but important benefit of these polemical writings was the emergence of genuine theological reflection. See Gnosticism.

The 3d century development of Christian theology was occasioned by the necessity of presenting Biblical revelation in a form intelligible to intellectuals and by the correlative desire to achieve a systematic presentation of revelation. Basically this was part of a continuing process of transculturation; the Christian principles expressed in the Hebraic mentality of the New Testament were gradually developed by Greek thought, in accordance with Hellenistic philosophical categories. This endeavor emanated from catechetical schools, the most famous of which were at Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt, but the theological orientation of the two differed. Antioch, employing a literal interpretation of Scripture, emphasized Christ’s human nature; Alexandria, relying on an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, stressed the divinity of Christ. These different approaches, intensified by rivalry between the sees, clashed in the Christological controversies that emerged in the 4th century.

Organizational Development.

Early Christian literatüre indicates the development of church organization in the early centuries. The local church considered itself the assembly of those called by God to the faith and thus a focalization of the universal church. The authority of the church, according to a letter attributed to Clement of Rome (about 95), descended from God through Christ and the apostles to the leaders of the church, who thus exercised divine authority. Local authority was vested in a bisho{J and a college of presbyters, assisted by deacons (I Timothy 3:113, 5:1722); the role of the bishop, according to Ignatius of Antioch, was monarchical. Subsequent writings, such as the Pastor of Hermas (or Shepherd of Hermas; about 140), indicate a wellestablished hierarehical strueture of bishops, priests, and deacons. By the 3d century other offices, such as lector and acolyte, had been introduced.

When St. Peter left Jersualem, he lived for a time in Antioch before journeying to Rome where he held the position of primate. Catholics believe that the primacy of Peter is continued in his successors through the office of bishop of Rome. The significance and exercise of the Roman primacy underwent a long process of development. Ân early indication of the authority of the Roman church is Clement of Rome’s letter to the church at Corinth attempting to settle a dispute among its members. Similarly, Ignatius of Antioch gave special recognition to the Roman church as “presiding in love, maintaining the law of Christ”; and in answer to the Gnostic leaders’ claims to special revelation, Irenaeus (about 180) pointed out that the true doctrine was the possession of the apostolic churches, especially that church “founded by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul,” with which “every church must agree.” Such recognition is remarkable, since the popes of this period were not so outstanding as the writers who acknowledged their office; furthermore, the fact that such acknowledgment was even given by those who differed from Roman decisions on particular questions is unique.

Controversy and Councils.

Under Constantine (reigned 306-337), Christianity became privileged. He credited the Christian God with his victory över Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (312) and hoped that, in return for religious toleration, the Christians would aid him in unifying the empire. Constantine felt responsible for preserving unity within the church. When Arius, a priest of Alexandria, created a controversy by teaching that Christ was not properly the Son of God, but only the highest of creatures and unequal to the Father, Constantine summoned all bishops to a council that met at Nicaea in 325. After considerable debate, a creed was accepted that professed belief in Jesus Christ as “begotten, not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.” Constantine expected the Nicene creed to settle the Arian controversy, but acrimonious debate about the homoousios continued for decades. Eventually, because of the efforts of Saints Basil, Gregory of Nyasa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, the Nicene creed received universal recognition at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Council of Nicaea also acknowledged the special status of the patriarchal sees of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. But because of the civic importance of Constantine’s newly ereeted capital of Constantinople, the bishops of the “New Rome” claimed an honorific primacy second only to that of the see of Rome; this claim set the stage for future rivalry between sees in the East, and ultimately between Constantinople and Rome.

From the time of Constantine, Christianity gained ground, while paganism waned, despite the efforts of Emperor Julian (reigned 361363) to restore it. Under Theodosius (reigned 379395) paganism was outlawed, and Christianity became the official state religion. At Theodosius’ death, the empire was divided between his two sons into two parts—East and West. In the East, because of the elose alliance between church and state begun under Constantine, the emperors frequently intervened in ecclesiastical disputes, and the Eastern church came increasingly under imperial control; in the West, because of the breakdown of imperial authority, the church’s autonomy and prestige were intensified.


While the basic issue in the Christological controversies of the 5th and 6th centuries was the validity of varying philosophical presentations concerning Christ, a number of other tensions became manifest. These arose över the intervention of the emperor in church affairs, the rivalry among the Eastern patriarchal sees, and, at the same time, the acknowledgment of the Roman primacy implied by the Eastern appeals to Rome in doctrinal and disciplinary disputes.

The Council of Ephesus in 431 taught that Mary must be honored under the title “mother of God” (Theotokos), against the teaching of Nestorius that Mary was merely “mother of Christ” (Christotokos). Against the teaching of Eutyches that Christ’s human nature was absorbed by His divinity, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 accepted the Tome of Pope Leo I and declared that Christ is “truly God and truly man.” Chalcedon s decision failed to satisfy those who held the monophysite position of Eutyches; their oppositıon, however, was more antiimperial than heretical. Justinian’s attempt at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 to impose a doctrinal statement broad enough to satisfy everyone was only partially successful.

The Church as a Temporal Power.

From the 4th century on, the church in the West developed in a different direction than the church in the East. The migration, or “invasion,” of the barbarian tribes that crossed the Rhine completely disrupted the Western Empire. In the resulting state of disorder, the 5th century church emerged as the only effective organization, in both spiritual and temporal matters. Pope Leo I (reigned 440461), for example, exercised the primacy for the East as well as the West in his decisions and defended Rome from barbarian depredations.

The barbarians were either pagans or Arian Christians hostile to Catholicism. At the end of the 5th century, a Frankish tribe under Clovis was converted from paganism to Catholicism. Gradually the Franks became dominant in northern Europe, and their Catholic faith spread.

The Church as a Spiritual Force.

While the Westem church was concerned with the ordering of man’s life in the temporal world, its theologians discussed man’s salvation. Against Pelagius, who claimed that man is naturally able to live without sin, St. Augustine (354^430) taught that man’s justifîcation depends on grace, a free gift of God. Augustine was undoubtedly the greatest theological writer of the early Westem church; his Confessions and the City of God stili influence theological thought.

Although monasticism existed in Judaism and other religions, Christian monasticism originated in 3d century Egypt. It was founded to enable men to live the Gospel counsels perfectly, and many felt that this was possible only by withdrawing from worldly concernş. Two basic types of monasticism developed: the solitary life, advocated by St. Anthony of Egypt, in which each hermit lives alone; and the communal life, organized and directed byl St. Pachomius, in which monks live and work as a group following a rule. Monasticism spread from Egypt eastward and northward to Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minör, where the monastic directives of St. Rasil were followed.

In the West, a Latin translation of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony inspired many to lead a monastic life. Communities were established in 4th century Italy and Gaul, and as Christianity spread, monasticism became rooted throughout the West. The greatest figüre of Western monasticism was St. Benedict (about 480547); after living as hermits at Subiaco, Italy, he and his followers built a monastery on Monte Cassino. The Rule of St. Benedict gradually predominated in the West. In the history of western Europe from the 6th to the 12th century, the monasteries were practically the only stable institutions. They preserved and propagated the influence of both civilization and Christianity.

The first six centuries of Christian history closed with Pope Gregory the Great (reigned 590604), whose pontificate recapitulated the currents at work during the preceding centuries and exemplified the ideals that influenced succeeding centuries in the church. After serving as civil prefect of Rome, Gregory disposed of his family inheritance and became a monk; he always remained a monk at heart, even after his appointment as papal legate to Constantinople and his election as pope. During his pontificate he defended the prımatial rights of the Roman see, worked for civıl peace in a period of turmoil, sent St. Augustine of Canterbury with missionaries to England, and administered the patrimonial possessions of the papacy. Through his writings, such as the Pastoral Care and the Dialogues, Gregory’s influence continued throughout the Middle Ages.


The medieval church is the church of the West in the period between late antiquity (about 600) and the beginning of the Reformation (1517). It is impossible, however, to limit the medieval church with chronological accuracy; its history neither began nor ended abruptly. In Italy, for example, the medieval element in church life was greatly transformed by the Renaissance, while in Germany it was the Reformation that was most influential in displacing it. Since the medieval church varied in character with the passage of time and with the national culture of the different peoples who composed it, to generalize about it is difficult. The church in medieval Ireland, for example, was very different in spirit and structure from the church in England. Yet common to both, and to the other national churches, was an adherence to Latin Christianity; the medieval church was Latin, not only in its cultural origins but also in its law, its theology, and its religious expression—both biblical and liturgical. its formation was inspired by the cultural supremacy of Rome. The medieval church was a religious community in transition. its spirituality was derived from ancient Christianity, but it was rapidly becoming a centralized institution with the office of the Roman pontiff as its core. But the pope presided över more than the church, he presided över Christendom—the Christian nations of the West.

The most pressing problem of the church from the 5th to the 8th century was the conversion of the pagan and the SemiArian people of northern Europe. This it accomplished by missionary enterprises of the first quality—St. Patrick in Ireland and St. Augustine of Canterbury in England. St. Boniface Christianized the East Franks in the 8th century, while Saints Cyril and Methodius were apostles to the Slavic peoples in the 9th century. This vast apostolic work, substantially completed by the midlOth century, was basic to the realization of Christendom as a unified society: universally Catholic, coextensive with modern Europe, and Latin in cultural roots. The conversion of these barbarian peoples provided a common bond between them and the Latin peoples to the south. It also led to their unification under the papacy and to the creation of the church of the Middle Ages.


The Concept of Christendom.

The religious unity realized in the early Middle Ages was cemented by a political unity. On Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne in the basilica of St. Peter at Rome. This conferring of the imperial dignity by the papacy secured the unity in the religious and political orders that was the presupposition of medieval Christendom. The coronation signifled not only that the emperor of the Romans, as Charlemagne and his successors were styled, would have an obligation to protect the church in the temporal order and to promote its spiritual welfare, but also that the pope had the right to confer the imperial crown. At the same time, it signified a new orientation for the church. Up to that time the papacy had looked to the east and to the Byzantine emperor for protection. After Charlemagne’s coronation the popes looked to the north for support.

Political Structure.

The modern conception of church and state as two distinct entities did not exist in the Middle Ages. Christendom was a structure unified religiously, culturally, and politically and rested on pope and emperor. The pope was believed to be superior by the will of Christ. As all bishops stood under the pope, so all princes theoretically stood under the emperor. Both powers were supreme; neither was absolute, for both stood before the law of God and the voice of conscience. Relations between the two powers were constantly in a state of flux; their interests conflicted, and their spheres of influence overlapped. As the Middle Ages grew older, tension mounted until it exceeded the strength of the structure of society.

Social Structure.

Church and society were neither differentiated nor separated from one another in the Middle Ages. The two blended. The philosophy of the medieval church was concerned with the hereafter, but its actions were directed toward the temporal; the church did not retreat from the world, nor was the world withdrawn from the church. The two coalesced at so many points that the separation became blurred. Abuses that marked church life in the Middle Ages—overinvolvement in secular concerns and undue preoccupation with the affairs of princes and nations—were, to a large extent, due to the obscurity of the demarcation.

Medieval society was monolithic in religion; religious pluralism was not admitted. In the early medieval period, church and crown were generally tolerant of diversity of religious persuasjon. Heresy was not approved, but neither was it persecuted. By the late 12th century, however, Christendom had become a more closed, sensitive society. It became suspicious of religious thought (for example, Jewish and Albigensian) that was at variance with the common faith of Christendom. Aberrations were thus regarded as a threat to church, realm, and society itself. Hence the Inquisition was established by Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX to prosecute and persecute religious dissenters.

Ecclesiastical Structure.

In its earliest stages the medieval church was relatively unorganized; the primacy of the see of Rome was generally admitted by the faithful, but the bonds between it and the local or national churches were loose. By reason of its apostolic origins, the church of Rome enjoyed a preeminent position as the final court of appeal in matters of faith and morals. In the midllth century a dramatic change overtook the church and its structure: the motivating force was the reaction of Pope Gregory VII (reigned 10731085) to the absorption of the bishops into the constitutional structure of the empire. Secularization had gone as far as it could go without extinguishing that “liberty of the Church” that “the justice of God” demanded. In the reform that Pope Gregory directed against the right of Emperor Henry IV to invest bishops the papal program ııltimately succeeded in bringing the hierarchy of Germany—and ultimately of ali Christendom—under the authority of the pope. This was the beginning of ecclesiastical centralization: at this time the words “Curia Romana” (Roman court) came into general use with regard to the ruling bodies in the church, and the tiüe “Vicar of Christ” was commonly attributed to the pope. At this time, too, the college of cardinals, electors of the pope since 1059, emerged as a power in church administration. Subsequently the church’s government tended to become more centralized, bureaucratic, and oligarchic. Under the growing influence of Roman law, canon law became more and more universal in scope and extent.

Power Structure.

By the opening years of the 13th century the Holy See virtually presided över the whole Western world. Innocent III (reigned 11981216) demonstrated the international significance of the medieval papacy when he settled the feudal dispute between King Philip Augustus of France and King John of England. Further, he condemned the Magna Carta as an illicit intrusion on his overlordship in England. Maintaining that it was his right to give the imperial crown to whomsoever he would, because the empire pertained to the papacy by reason of its translation from the Greeks to the Romans to the Germans, and by reason of papal coronation and anointing, he constituted himself supreme judge in the socalled Throne Controversy between Otto IV and Philip of Swabia. Yet at the end of that century, Boniface VIII (reigned 12941303), despite the pretensions to universal jurisdiction that he expressed in his famous bull Unam sanctam (1302), witnessed the nadir of the papacy. His long struggles with Philip IV of France ended at Anagni, Italy, where Philip’s men actually attacked the person of the Pope, and Boniface died a month later.

Educational Structure.

The whole tenor of ecclesiastical education in the Middle Ages was Latin. Knowledge of Greek had become rare early in the Middle Ages; by the mid9th century Duns Scotus (see Erigena, Johannes Scotus) was the only Greek scholar in the West. Contact with the rich tradition of Byzantium was cut off. Certain classical authors, such as Virgil, were known, but interest centered on the four Latin Fathers: Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory. These authors were fundamental to both ascetical doctrine and Biblical exegesis. The study of Holy Scripture was “the queen of the sciences,” not only because ali leaming was to be derived from its sacred pages, but basically because ali learning was ordered to its comprehension and interpretation.

The earliest medieval schools of sacred doctrine were monastic. Here Biblical exegesis was cultivated in the tradition of Origen and Gregory the Great, an approach to Scripture that depreciated the literal (historical) sense of the sacred page, caused the religious mind to withdraw from history, and led to a development of a comprehension of the Bible that was largely arbitrary. These attitudes colored the religious mind of the medieval church with the conviction that the spiritual, the invisible, the inaccessible transcended the material, the visible, the tangible. Biblical exegesis also affected liturgy. Every liturgical action, word, and object was found to have a transferred meaning, apart from its own history and objectivity, in the allegorical order.

The monastic schools, such as Reichenau, Corbie, and Fulda, developed a Biblical theology that was meaningful in its own historical context. It was based on a study of the Bible that aimed at goodness. The questions that it posed were traditional and received traditional answers from the Church Fathers. Little room was left for expanding the scope of theology, and by the llth century monastic education was exhausted. New schools arose in cities such as Lyon, Paris, and Laon in close proximity to the cathedrals and their administration. Their concern was more humanistic and secular than Biblical and religious; but their success and achievements were noteworthy, By the end of the 12th century a new theological method had developed: the dialectics of Aristotle were applied to the content of Christian revelation, and theological vistas were opened. A methodological technique, aimed at systematizing ali Christian doctrine according to logical categories, was perfected. The power of this system of thought, called scholasticism, was great enough to create a distinct phase in the history of the medieval church: within its intellectual frame the university as an institution emerged, and an illustrious line of doctors—Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus), Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus—developed. Their thinking was to shape the church for the next five centuries. See Scholasticism.

Abuses and Achievements of Christendom.

The church of the Middle Ages was a creative force. Under its auspices and with its support the University of Paris developed as the most renowned theological center in the world, and St. Dominic was able to found the Order of Preachers as an instrument for educating the faithful in the Gospel. The constitution of his organization was remarkable for the stress that it placed on liberal education, especially in theology, and for the freedom that its members enjoyed in electing their own superiors. At the same time St. Francis of Assisi founded, with papal approval, an order of “little brothers” to imitate the poverty and humility of Christ. The trlıe Gospel simplicity which animated his foundation inspired the Christian world with new vitality at a time when its energies were almost depleted. The inspirational power of the medieval church is most vividly revealed in her art (painting, sculpture, book illumination) and architecture (Romanesque and Gothic).


Although the central Christian teaching of the medieval church was dogmatically pure, it was transmitted to and comprehended by the faithful in a distorted manner. The church suffered acutely from poor education among its lower clergy and the simple laity. Since both Bible and liturgy were in Latin, a language that was not understood by the majority, the tendency was to bypass the Gospel in favor of more picturesque, imaginative, and appealing religious forms. Thus devotion to saints, and ali that it involved—relics, pilgrimages, devotions—grew by leaps and bounds; and devotion to Mary took a position of ascendancy that, in retrospect, seems exaggerated and disproportionate. The drift of medieval religion was toward exteriority. Good works were rewarded with indulgences that remitted punishment in the afterlife.

In a certain sense the medieval church was victimized by legalism and moralism; it was overconscious of sin and death. But on the other hand it was able to supply the faithful with an inspiring vision of life and of faith; it gave man an objective substance on which to form his conscience and to live his life. It also gave him a vigorous concept of the sacred and the mystical. Medieval religion had its defects; but it was able to civilize man and to elicit from him true human goodness. It made man transcend himself in greatness of life. There were abuses in this ancient church; but the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy were not forsaken. its genius lay in preserving the past; it was not, however, alert to the future and its needs. This is probably why it decayed.


As the French monarchy more and more dominated the papacy the church’s moral and temporal authority declined. Pope Clement V (reigned 13051314) decided to forsake Rome and reşide in France. Thus, the bishop of Rome was enthroned in Lyon and in 1309 moved to Avignon. This city and its environs, including the Comtat de Venaissin, were purchased from Joanna I of Naples in 1348; and the popes, ali Frenchmen, remained there until 1378. Their absence from Rome is known as the Babylonian Exile of the church. Deprived of revenues from the papal states, the popes of Avignon perfected a system of taxation and collation of benefices that made the papacy the greatest western fiscal power. The maintenance of a brilliant court, the increase of curial personnel, and efforts to finance military undertakings in support of territorial claims did much to lessen papal prestige. The papacy also was confronted with nascent nationalism in the political sphere, nominalisin in the philosophical sphere, and the conciliar movement, which threatened to destroy the total authority of the pope.


The suppression of the Knights Templars was an early example of national interests overriding the church’s universalism. In 1307, Philip the Fair of France, with ecclesiastical approval, arrested the grand master of the order, Jacques de Molay, and över 2,000 knights. At the Council of Vienne (13111312) Pope Clement V in the bull Vox in excelso suppressed the Templars. its properties were confiscated and its leaders executed.

The final struggle between pope and emperor also occurred during this period. Pope John XXII (reigned 13161334), a former chancellor of King Charles II of Naples, favored the Frenchsupported candidate, Duke Frederick of Austria, över Louis of Bavaria in a contested imperial eleetion. John excommunicated Louis in March 1324, after his coronation as emperor, but the conflict preoccupied the papacy until Louis’ death in 1347. The quarrel was complicated by the question of apostolic poverty as practiced by the mendicant orders. A large number of Franciscans sided with Louis against the Pope, including William of Occam, a leading nominalist. The Parisian professors Marsilius of Padua and John of Jandun also supported the Emperor, and a vigorous literary feud ensued över the ehurehstate relationship. Marsilius violently attacked the medieval theory of church and state in Deferısor pacis, advocating laicism and democratic principleş in the church. For Marsilius ecclesiastical authority resided in the Christian community; the highest court of the church, the general council, could be summoned by civil authorities, and the laity were to have a right to be seated and heard at the council.

The struggle between the pope and the emperor had its counterpart in England. During the Hundred Years’ War the English became increasingly suspicious of the French controlled papacy and lessened papal authority through legislation. Parliament declared ali papal appointments to English benefices invalid and established severe penalties for appealing to ecclesiastical courts outside of England. John Wycli£Fe, a professor of theology at Oxford, declared that the church was not composed of a hierarchy and the faithful, but was an invisible communion of the predestined. Many of his doctrines were spread by a group called the Lollards. In 1401, by an act of Parliament, the Inquisition was introduced in England.

St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Siena, and Petrarch fmally convinced Pope Gregory XI (reigned 13701378) to return to Rome (January 1377). Since that time the popes have resided in the Vatican, not as formerly in the Lateran Palace. Gregory’s successor, Urban VI, plunged the church into an even greater crisis in 1378. Urban, the last pope not a cardinal at the time of his election, was the former archbishop of Bari. Several months after his election 13 French cardinals, claiming the election invalid due to duress, returned to Avignon. In August 1378 they elected a new pope, Clement VII (reigned 13781394), a cousin of the French King. Thus began the Great Western Schism, which divided the Catholic world into two hostile camps; central and northern Italy, Hungary, England, northern Germany, and Scandinavia adhered to the Roman popes. Two series of popes, one in Avignon and the other in Rome, continued to excommunicate each other and their followers for almost 40 years (13781417).


Early efforts to heal the schism failed. Later, in March 1409, 13 cardinals of both obediences, together with some 200 bishops and 200 abbots, convened in Pisa and elected a new* pope, Alexander V. Since the rivals, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, refused to resign, three popes claimed rightful rule to Christendom. In 1414, pressured by Emperor Sigismund, John XXIII, Alexander V’s successor, summoned the ecumenical Council of Constance (14141418). Three tasks confronted the last great assembly of the Christian West: the termination of the schism; the condemnation of the errors of Wyclifîe and Jan Hus; and the reform of the church. Dominated by partisans of the conciliar theory, who maintained that a general council wielded supreme authority in the church, the council deposed ali three contenders and elected Cardinal Odo Colonna as Martin V (reigned 1417—1431). The Czech reformer Jan Hus and his colleague John of Prague, although not guilty of the charges against them, were condemned and burned, and a civil war raged in Bohemia until 1436 as a result. The teachings of Wycliffe were also condemned, but little or nothing was done to abolish ecclesiastical abuses.

The council declared the superiority of a council över the pope in the decree Haec sarıda and urged the frequent holding of councils, but Martin and his successors repudiated this. The contest between the pope and the conciliarists culminated at the Council of Basel (1431-1437). The fîrst 25 sessions of this Council together with the Council of FerraraFlorence (1438-1442) form what is considered the 17th General Council. its main achievement was a temporary reunion between the Latin and the Greek churches.


During the 14th and 15 centuries the scholastic theology of the high Middle Ages was radically altered with the rise of the system known as nominalism. It opposed extreme formalism and stressed the absolute omnipotence of God: advocating the notion that God could in no way be man’s debtor, it paved the way for the rejection of the medieval merit and penitential system. Indicative of a trend toward individualism and subjectivism in theology were the writings of the 14th century Rhenish mystics Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, and Heinrich Suso. A proliferation of sects appeared: the Friends of God, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and the Beghards and Beguines. In Germany and the Low Countries the Brethren of the Common Life fostered a more personal approach to the divine. This laicized theology found its finest expression in the Imitation of Christ, written in 1420 by Thomas â Kempis. The great hümanist, biblicist, and critic of church abuses, Erasmus of Rotterdam, was influenced by these trends. His Greek edition of the New Testament (1516) and his translations of the Fathers paved the way for the Reformation.



A number of new devotional practices appeared during the late Middle Ages. The Angelus, the custom of reciting certain prayers at the ringing of a beli, became widespread after 1456 when Pope Callistus III ordered church bells rung at noon to remind the faithful of the Turkish peril. The Way of the Cross (Stations) took on a more definite form, and devotion to Mary increased. The feasts of the Visitation and the Immaculate Conception were instituted, and the rosary was popularized. It was the granting of indulgences, the temporal remission of punishment due to sin, however, that gained the greatest popularity. Papal grants of indulgence for the dead fîrst appeared in the mid15th century. The Jubilee indulgence, a grant of special graces for those visiting the city of Rome, was held every 25 years.

History of Roman Catholic Church

The invention of movable type made possible an increase in the number of printed Bibles. During the incunabular period of printing (14501500) almost 100 editions of the Vulgate appeared. Some 14 editions of the Bible had been printed in German before 1518. In church architecture a new style, borrowed from ancient Greek and Roman models, succeeded the earlier Gothic. The Renaissance style aimed at spaciousness and emphasized decorations, leafwork, and friezes.

While the Renaissance, with its glorification of nature, was in many ways inimical to the church, nonetheless under Pope Nicholas V (reigned 14471453), Rome rather than Florence became the center for the revival of classical learning. Nicholas founded the Vatican Library, Pius II (reigned 14581464) was a leading hümanist, and Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence, became Pope Leo X (reigned 15131521). Under Julius II (reigned 15031513), Bramante began the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, and Michelangelo painted the Şistine Chapel.

Spain, which by the early 16th century had become the greatest nation in Europe, was thought to have owed much of its power to an insistence on “racial purity” and religious orthodoxy. The Inquisition was revived under Isabella and Ferdinand and began to function in Seville in 1480. In 1483 the Pope appointed the Dominican Tomâs de Torquemada grand inquisitor. The chief victims of the Spanish Inquisition were Jews and Muslims; the former were expelled in 1492, the latter in 1502. The last death sentence was passed in Seville in 1781.

The Dominican preacher Savonarola typified the identification of political with religious reform on the eve of the Reformation. He was hanged for heresy in Florence and his body burned. (Since 1955 the Dominicans have sought his canonization.)

Protestant Reform.

While Spain and the areas under its control retained the medieval faith, the 16th century witnessed Catholicism’s loss of most of northern Europe. The Reformation arose from many causes: the farreaching deterioration of religious and moral strength, a lack of precision in central questions of belief and of a sense of pastoral responsibility among the clergy, and lost opportunities for reform. The fact that it happened was due to a great extent to the personality and work of the Germanbom Augustinian Martin Luther (14831546). He was ordained in 1507 and received his doctorate in theology in 1512. During the next two years, while lecturing on the Psalms and the Pauline Epistles at the University of Wittenberg, he developed his doctrine that Scripture is the sole source of revelation and that man is justified by faith rather than the performance of good works. The sale of indulgences for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica occasioned the fîrst public enunciation of his new theology. The 95 theses, distributed in 1517, led to his condemnation by Rome in 1520. During the same year he published his most violent attacks on the Roman Church, rejecting the primacy of the pope, the sacramental system, and the sacrifîcial nature of the Mass.

In 1529 at the second Diet of S peye» the protest of many of the imperial Cities and territories in the empire against the continuation of Catholic practices gave birth to the expression “Protestantism.” The Lutheran form of Protestantism spread to Sweden in 1527, to Finland and Denmark in 1536, and to Norway in 1545. important Reformers outside of Germany were Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and Martin Bucer in Alsace. Both accepted the principles of justifîcation by faith alone and the Bible as the sole source of revelation. Both identified the reform with improved social and moral conditions. The Frenchborn theologian John Calvin led the second generation of Reformers. Directing the movement from Geneva he gave to Protestantism a more systematic theology and eloserknit organization, adapting it to the social virtues of the emerging commercial elasses. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) stressed faith in God’s special guidance in the affairs of man. Whereas Luther taught an absolute trust in a redeeming Saviour, Calvin taught assent to the will of God. By the end of the century Calvinism had taken root in France, Scotland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Hungary.

The Reformation in England was largely an act of state. Henry VIII originally opposed the doctrines of Luther. His Defense of the Seven Sacraments won for hini from Pope Leo X the title Defender of the Faith. It was the claim that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid because of her previous marriage to his brother Arthur that led to a break with Rome. In 1531 the convocation of the clergy, not without protest, voted to recognize the king as head of the church “as far as the law of Christ allows.” On May 23, 1533, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null, thus validating his marriage with Anne Boleyn. The Act of Supremacy of November 3, 1534, transferred ali legal rights and duties of the pope to the crown. Since Bishop John Fisher of Rochester and Sir Thomas More refused to swear to the Act of Supremacy, they were beheaded in 1535. With Parliament’s consent a statute of April 4, 1536, suppressed 291 lesser monasteries. Between 1537 and 1540 the larger monasteries were dissolved. It was not until the reign of Edward VI that elements of Continental Protestantism were introduced. An English Communion Rite composed by Cranmer was preseribed in 1548. The Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1549. Both changed not only the language but the doctrinal content of the liturgy.

Catholic efforts to stem the reform were hindered by papal involvement in political struggles and by a failure to fathom the depth of the new theory of salvation. The gradual exclusion of Erasmian reform ideas and the establishment of the Inquisition eliminated moderating influences and prepared the way for the Council of Trent and the militaney of the newly founded Jesuits.



By the 17th century, Europe’s religious map had taken its present shape. The Catholic CounterReformation kept Austria, southem Germany, Poland, most of Hungary and the nonOrthodox Slavic lands loyal to Rome. Between the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, effective Roman reaction was begun by Pope Paul III, who created a reform commission (1536), approved the Society of Jesus (1540), and convoked the Council of Trent (15451563), which passed decrees on Scripture, original sin, the sacraments, seminary training, preaching, indulgences, and reform of clerical life.

Pope Paul IV (reigned 15551559) curbed abuses in religious orders, fînance, ecclesiastical behavior, and political interference. Pius IV (reigned 15591565) continued the reform, which was exemplifîed in the aetions of his nephew St. Charles Borromeo (q.v.). St. Pius V (reigned 15661572) vigorously implemented Trent’s decrees, standardized the catechism and liturgical books, encouraged the growth of colleges and seminaries, and worked politically against Protestantism: he excommunicated Elizabeth I of England and organized a successful crusade against the Turks.

Gregory XIII (reigned 15721585) sent Jesuits to England and sponsored a futile invasion of Ireland (1580). The Gregorian calendar (1582) is named for him. Sixtus V (reigned 15851590) subsidized the Spanish Armada (1588), thus widening the breach between England and Rome. Gregory XV (reigned 16211623) founded the central mission office, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, in an age of missionary expansion. New and reformed religious orders arose: contemplative Carmelites under St. Teresa of Âvila and St. John of the Cross, and Capuchin Franciscans; Oratorians like St. Philip Neri and Caesar Baronius further contributed to church reform.

Secular rulers both helped and hindered Catholic reformation. Emperor Charles V delayed the opening of Trent and, in the Peace of Augsburg (1555), acknowledged the right of a prince to determine the religion of his people. France, torn by religious civil war (15621598), was the scene of the bloody massacre of Protestants (Huguenots) on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572. Although toleration was granted to the Huguenots by the Edict of Nantes, it was revoked in 1685. Philip II of Spain was generally a papal ally, but his alliance with Rome compromised Catholics in countries hostile to Spain.

A spiritual revival within Catholicism was popularized by the writer St. Francis de Sales (q.v.). St. Vincent de Paul (q.v.) founded organizations for charitable and educational work. But there were spiritual excesses. Jansenism taught that human nature was corrupt and man powerless to avoid sin without special grace. A second development, quietism, blended mystical religious and libertarian practices. Because of these religious disputes, religion was held up to ridicule just as the Enlightenment burst upon Europe. Men looked to science and modern philosophy for answers formerly sought in religion. Politically, the emphasis shifted from the impotent empire to nationstates.

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

England’s break with Rome, begun by Henry VIII, was consummated by Elizabeth I. Catholics were persecuted, as Protestants had been under Mary I. James I continued Elizabeth’s policies; the 1605 Gunpowder Plot led to penal legislation against “Papists.” Guy Fawkes Day (November 5), the anniversary of the foiling of the plot, became a national holiday. English Catholicism was torn by dissension and English Catholics were compromised by identification of their religion with Spain; their support of Charles was to lead to further difficulties under the Brotectorate and Commonwealth. Charles II was more lenient, but the 1673 Test Act excluded Catholics from public office, and the 1678 “Popish Plot” east suspicion on Catholic loyalty. James II, a Catholic, issued declarations of toleration in 1687 and 1688, but these were declared illegal exercises of royal power, and James was deposed (1688). Under William and Mary the 1689 Toleration Act benefited Protestant dissenters, but laws against Catholics inereased until the first Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1778. Catholic Emancipation did not exist fully until as late as 1829.

The 17th and 18th centuries on the Continent saw the church at odds with the national monarchies. “Gallicanism,” the assertion of the autonomy of the French church, and similar movements toward church nationalism in other countries, plagued Rome. The Enlightenment, which emphasized reason and anthropocentricism, dominated European thought. Deism became popular, and the Continental Masonic lodges emerged as centers for the new ideas. The first papal condemnation of Freemasonry dates from 1738. The Jesuits, a easualty of the Enlightenment and nationalism, were banned by governments in France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy under Clement XIII (reigned 17581769). Clement XIV (reigned 17691774), pressured by the Bourbon courts, suppressed them in 1773. Thus the papacy’s position was weakened in Europe, and missionary work in areas as far spread as China and the Americas was virtually halted.

When Pius VI (reigned 17751799), who had survived the French Revolution, died Napoleon’s prisoner, the church was shaken to its foundations. Pius VII (reigned 18001823) was also Napoleon’s captive from 1809 to 1814; Napoleon incorporated the Papal States into the French Empire, and in 1801 signed a concordat, which was to govern relations between France and the church until 1905. The 1815 Congress of Vienna restored the Papal States, and a series of conservative popes cooperated with the restoration settlement. The romantic movement exalted the power and person of the pope and encouraged Roman centralization. The Jesuits, restored in 1814, were another strong conservative force.

Nineteenth Century.

The 19th century industrial and scientific revolution gave birth to the liberal and socialist movements. Catholicism was at odds with both. Except in the United States, Ireland, and Poland, the church’s hold on the middle and working elasses weakened. Theology was at a low ebb; apart from Louvain and the Roman schools, no Catholic university existed in the world until toward the end of the century. German seholars were looked on with suspicion; efforts like that of the French priest Felicite de Lamennais to accommodate the church to democratic ideas were rebuffed. Advances in Biblical criticism and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin challenged traditional ideas.

The popes supported established powers against nationalist uprisings. Their possession of the Papal States alienated them from the Italian national movement and made them politically dependent on Austria and France. Thus began the “Roman Question,” which bedeviled relations with Italy until the 1929 Lateran Treaty set up the state of Vatican City. Pius IX (reigned 18461878) began as a paternalist but was ousted from Rome by the 1848 revolution and returned only with French help. Most of the Papal States were taken by Italy after the 1859 war with Austria; Rome itself fell in 1870. Popes from then until 1929 considered themselves “prisoners of the Vatican.”


Pius IX reacted to the spirit of the times with the 1854 definition of the Immaculate Conception, designed to honor the Virgin Mary, but also to proelaim papal authority and provide a theological basis for condemnation of contemporary exaltation of human nature. The first Vatican Council (18691870), which stated Catholic opposition to rationalism and defined papal primacy and infallibility as dogmas of faith, was similarly motivated. At Pius’ death the church in Germany was in conflict with Prince Bismarck, and the ensuing Kulturkampf lasted över a decade.

Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) restored peace with Germany but failed to obtain Catholic support for the French Third Republic. His encyclical letters on politics evidenced appreciation of the changing complexion of political and economic life. The 19th century was also a period of extensive missionary activity, which was greatly facilitated by the efforts of the majör nations to establish colonies in ali parts of the world. The Catholic Church in the United States began to be noticed. its membership had grown from 25,000 in 1785 to 12,041,000 in 1900. The church prospered in America, where it emerged as a church of the workingman when the working classes of Europe had largely deserted the church. European liberals looked with envy on its constitutional freedom.

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