Anti-Papal Movement




Catholic Church

Christian Church in the Middle Ages

Christian Church, Separation of


Conversion of Constantine

Development of World Religions

Jesus Christ

Origins of Christianity


Persecutions of the Christians in Gaul

Reformed Churches

Rise and Triumph of Christianity

Rise of Christianity

Roman Church

A History Christianity

Edited By: Robert A. Guisepi


The largest of the Christian denominations is the Roman Catholic church. As an institution it has existed since the 1st century AD, though its form, extent, and teachings have been significantly modified over the centuries. The headquarters of the church is Vatican City in Rome, Italy. The head of the church is the pope, who is the supreme authority in belief and practice for all members.

The name of the church is derived from its base in Rome and from a Greek term meaning "universal." The word Catholic refers to the wholeness of the church, and for many centuries the Roman church claimed to be the only true Christian denomination.

The Roman church has also been called the Latin rite church because its language was Latin and its main sphere of influence was in Western Europe. There are, however, a number of Eastern rite branches within the Roman church. They maintain their ancient liturgies, liturgical languages, and other traditions. 

Historical Summary

Churches were founded in major cities of the Roman Empire in the second half of the 1st century. The "mother church" was at Jerusalem, but the destruction of the city by Roman troops in AD 70 ended its role. The church at Rome gained some eminence because it was located in the capital of the empire, but until 313 the churches were either persecuted or ignored by the imperial power. The emperor Constantine published the Edict of Milan in 313, giving Christianity legal status. By the end of the century it had become the state religion. Alliance with the imperial power gave the church great authority, and from that day forward it persecuted its enemies relentlessly in an effort to maintain and enhance its position.

By this time there were two imperial capitals--the old one at Rome and the new one at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). In effect, however, the emperors lived and governed from Constantinople. The empire in the West, centered on Italy, disintegrated as it was overrun by barbarians. The absence of an imperial presence at Rome created a power vacuum into which the popes stepped. They had little choice if civil order was to be preserved.

As early as the 3rd century the popes were claiming for themselves a primacy over other churches in matters of doctrine. By the 5th century this claim had been transformed into complete legal jurisdiction over the churches. This claim was vigorously resisted by other bishops and never could be enforced in the East. The chief opponent was the patriarch of Constantinople. Dissension between these two leading bishops raged until, in 1054, they broke relations entirely

The popes of the early Middle Ages ruled a church in a ruined empire. The popes gained great political status in the absence of any significant competition. To the barbarians they personified the majesty of Rome. Combined with their religious duties, therefore, they were forced to become civil rulers as well. This meant governing land and peoples as well as ruling the church. The popes pressed the mission of converting the barbarians, eventually bringing all of Western Europe into the Roman church. Their religious prestige was greatly enhanced in the 7th century by the Muslim conquests in the Middle East, which effectively removed competition from the bishops in those areas.

By the 10th century the religious and cultural community that is called Western Christendom had come into existence. At the same time new political arrangements were being formed in Europe. Kings and nobles were dividing territory and exerting authority. Because the church had become an earthly power as well as a religious one, there followed inevitable conflicts between the popes and the civil rulers. What would later be called the divine right of kings clashed fiercely with the divine right of the papacy. In spite of such vigorous popes as Gregory VII and Innocent III, the papacy eventually lost. The emergence of nation-states late in the Middle Ages left little room for papal claims to exercise more than religious authority.

By the 14th century the papacy had become a pawn of political power. The French forced the popes to move from Rome to Avignon in what has been called the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy from 1309 to 1377. Following this episode was the Great Western Schism (1378-1418), during which opposing popes tried to rule. This ended with the Council of Constance, which deposed the popes and named Martin V (reigned 1417-31) as pope.

The low fortunes of the papacy, combined with extravagant corruption in the church, weakened it considerably in the face of demands for reform from men like John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia. The church resisted reform and punished the reformers. What were becoming increasingly national churches began to resist the claims of Rome in favor of supporting their own monarchies. Incessant demands for money from Rome contributed significantly to this resistance, as did the voluptuous life-style of the papal court.

The course of the papacy should not detract from other developments in the Western church. Monasticism emerged early in the Middle Ages and continued to play a vital role in maintaining the spiritual life of the church, keeping alive the culture of the Roman Empire and helping to educate the leaders of Christendom. An extensive mission enterprise launched by Gregory I was continued by his successors until all Europe had been brought into the church. Some spiritual reform took place within the church, spurred by outstanding leaders such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic. Universities were founded in major cities, culminating in the 13th-century endeavors in theology, art, philosophy, logic, and the sciences. The Crusades to recover the Holy Land were launched in 1095 by Pope Urban II. Renaissance scholars recovered ancient Latin and Greek texts and began a revival of classical studies. In Northern Europe such scholars as Desiderius Erasmus emphasized Biblical studies and the translation of the Bible.

The Reformation begun by Martin Luther in 1517 split Western Christendom permanently. It was fiercely resisted by Rome and its political allies, but it became an established fact by the middle of the 16th century. The hatreds it aroused, however, perpetuated the strife through the Thirty Years' War. Faced with the Reformation, the Roman church underwent its own transformation in the Counter-Reformation. It consolidated its theological position in the face of Reformation doctrine

During the 15th century the church also made huge gains in membership. The colonization of Latin America and the Philippines by Spain and Portugal and of Canada by France added large territories and uncounted American Indian tribes to its roles through the untiring efforts of missionaries.

After the end of the Thirty Years' War, the church was forced to accept the reality of Protestantism where it could not do otherwise. It was also gradually forced into a vastly diminished worldly role as territorial ruler. By 1870 all of the Papal States had been lost, leaving only Vatican City as the pope's civil domain.

The church also faced and opposed the new approaches to science, new political philosophies, and the emergent democracy in Western Europe and North America. It sought to strengthen its spiritual hold by promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870. Resistance to all forms of modernism was spearheaded by Pius IX and Leo XIII in the 19th century. Pius IX's 'Syllabus of Errors' (1864) condemned pantheism, socialism, secular education, and civil marriage and put the church on the side of reaction and against all liberal tendencies.

These attitudes remained essentially unchanged until the papacy of John XXIII (reigned 1958-63). He called the Second Vatican Council and forthrightly addressed the problems of the modern world. Since Vatican II the church has undergone a renewal of its liturgy, engaged in conversations with other denominations, tried to heal the rift with Eastern Orthodoxy, and opened itself to modern social movements. This openness has had some drawbacks. Many members feel change did not go far enough. Especially in the United States many Catholics have called for an end to priestly celibacy, a greater role for women in the church, and a relaxation of policies on marriage. Conservatives, in contrast, have resisted change and desire a return to the pre-Vatican II church and isolation from other denominations.


Great Western Schism, the period in the history of the Roman Catholic church when there were often two, sometimes three popes, each with his own following. The schism, or split, lasted from 1378 until 1417. The major cause of the schism was the move of the papacy to Avignon, France, early in the 14th century.

The headquarters for the popes, heads of the church, was Rome, Italy, since the 1st century. In 1309, however, Pope Clement V moved his residence to Avignon, France, to escape factionalism and violence in Rome. He had been invited by King Philip IV of France to do so, and Philip was one of the most powerful monarchs of the time. France was a unified political state, while Italy was fragmented into a number of states that were often at war with each other. The removal of the papacy to Avignon damaged the prestige of the office in Germany and England, where the pope came to be viewed as a tool of Philip IV. Most of the popes of the 70-year residence in Avignon were French, giving credence to the suspicions of the English and Germans.

In 1370 Gregory XI became pope. His immediate desire was to return the seat of the church to Rome. He succeeded in doing so in 1377. He died the following year and was succeeded by Urban VI, who soon came into conflict with the cardinals of the church. They had assumed a great deal of authority during the years at Avignon. The cardinals met and elected another pope, Clement VII, who settled at Avignon. Immediately the followers of the popes were divided along national lines. The French, now engaged in the Hundred Years' War with England, supported Clement. The English and Italians supported Urban. Both popes rejected all plans to end the schism. Cardinals hoping to end the standoff met in Pisa, Italy, in 1409 and elected yet a third pope, Alexander V. He was succeeded at Pisa by the antipope John XXIII. In 1414 the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, pressured John to call a conference to resolve the schism.

This gathering, the Council of Constance, met from 1414 to 1418. By this time the old and traditional means of resolving church conflicts by means of a council had come into favor again. The clergy who met at Constance deposed John XXIII; accepted the resignation of the Roman pope, Gregory XII; and denied the validity of the pope at Avignon, Benedict XII. Having rid itself of all reigning popes, the council then unanimously elected Martin V on Nov. 11, 1418. It became his responsibility to restore confidence in the church at Rome, after more than a century of division, dissent, and strife. He established his residence in Rome, ensuring that it would be the headquarters of the church. He also rejected the notion that church councils had a higher authority than that of the pope. He asserted supremacy for the papacy in all matters relating to the church. By the end of his reign in 1431 he had consolidated the power of his office and ended the divisions within the church

The Church In The Middle Ages

Amid the turmoil of the Middle Ages one institution stood for the common good. It was the Roman Catholic church. Many historians say that its spirit and its work were the great civilizing influence of the Middle Ages.

By the 13th century the church was the strongest single influence in Europe. Everyone--except Arabs, Jews, and people in the Byzantine Empire--belonged to the church and felt its authority. The pope had more power and wealth than all the kings and nobles combined. His subordinate officials--the archbishops, bishops, and abbots--were usually great feudal lords, with rich possessions and military strength. The church courts controlled all cases involving the clergy and church property and many other cases, such as those of marriage, wills, and orphans.

The power of the church was rooted in the spiritual force of excommunication. A person guilty of offense against the church was expelled from it, and all Christians, even members of his family, were forbidden to associate with him. Emperor Henry IV was excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII in 1076. Popular uprisings soon forced Henry to beg absolution.

If an excommunicated noble remained defiant, the church imposed an interdict. This closed the churches throughout the noble's realm. Marriages could not be performed, nor could the dead be buried in sacred ground. Few nobles dared risk the rebellious fury that such a decree would arouse in their subjects.

Because the church believed in the worth and the rights of the individual, it extended sanctuary to anyone accused of civil offense. Often in those violent times an accused was hunted by a mob. But if he could escape into a church, the mob could not touch him. If guilty, he could confess his sin and then, for a time, remain in safety until he had made retribution or had left the country. In an effort to protect life and property, the church in the 11th century proclaimed the Truce of God. The decree was only loosely enforced. The truce aimed to restrict private wars, or feudal forays, to a few days in the week and to ban them entirely in certain holy seasons.

The church kept alive the spark of public education. True, in the castles of the feudal barons pages went to their lessons, but pages were extremely few compared with the number of peasant boys. For them, the church looked to each village parish to supply a school and religious training. Each diocese was expected to maintain a cathedral school to educate the clergy. The universal language of the church's schools was Latin, maintained as the common language of learning.

The work of the church was rooted in the services given by the men and women who retired from worldly distractions to live in monasteries and convents. These were the monks and the nuns. They gave up earthly pleasures to prepare for salvation. For that, they accepted a life of prayer and labor and upheld the Christian precept of "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Most of the monks followed the strict yet wholesome and practical Rule of Benedict of Nursia (480?-544?). The Benedictine Rule put upon the monks the double duty of prayer and work. The rule's demand for work was salutary, for neither the Romans nor the barbarians respected work. They felt it beneath the dignity of a freeman and fit only for slaves. But the monks had to do some manual labor, such as farming, clearing forests, draining swamps, copying books, nursing the sick, sheltering travelers, and serving the needy. By their example they helped to break the traditional belief that the immense majority of people were born to support a small group of aristocratic idlers. Their example was bulwarked by the work of the friars, men of religious orders who went into the world to serve the oppressed. The labor and the democracy of the monks and friars helped to dignify the individual and to credit his task.

The monks made two special contributions. One directly helped people of the Middle Ages; it was farming skill. Even under the wasteful "three-field system," the monks improved ways of cultivating crops. The Cistercians have been called the best farmers of medieval days.

The monks' second special service contributed to the future--to the making of our modern age. This service was their work in producing manuscripts of classical learning. Even before the downfall of Rome the church had begun to preserve the scrolls, or books, of Roman and Greek knowledge. Neither the siege nor the sack of Rome found the church surrendering its full treasury of classical learning. Later, when the church came to power, monks spent hours in the scriptorium, or writing room. There they meticulously copied the scrolls, letter by letter. One monk wrote at the end of a manuscript: "He who does not know how to write imagines that it is no labor; but, though only three fingers hold the pen, the whole body grows weary." Their labors preserved classical knowledge


Pilgrimages and Crusades

As religion touched nearly every facet of medieval life, people of all classes journeyed to shrines, or places of religious interest, on pilgrimages. The hallowed place might be the grave of a martyr, or a church that sheltered the relics of a saint. Travel was hard, but discomfort was even welcomed as a kind of penance. The pilgrim who could not afford a horse plodded on foot, aided by a staff. The typical pilgrim garb was a cloak, girdled by a cord, and a brimmed felt hat.

Every country had its favorite shrines, but the great shrine for all Christians was the Holy City, Jerusalem. Even though the Holy Land had been held by the Arabs for centuries, Christian pilgrims had been unmolested. When the Holy Land fell to the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, they persecuted pilgrims.

Christian Europe then vowed to win the Holy Land from the Turk "infidels." Pope Urban II declared in 1095, "God wills it. Christ Himself will be your leader when you fight for Jerusalem." On that command he sent forth Europe to fight a series of religious wars called the Crusades. There were seven major and many smaller expeditions, and, in all, the Crusades spread over 200 years. The Crusades finally failed in their purpose, but they were one of the chief factors in leading Europe out of the Middle Ages. The marches into other lands and the contact with other peoples showed the crusaders a much higher level of civilization. They brought to Europe new ideas, new customs, and new products. These innovations helped to stimulate business and to revive wide commerce

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