For the first centuries of the church's history, see Christianity.The Church in the Middle Ages
From the 9th cent. to 1520 the church was simply Western Europe taken in its religious aspect, and no clear line divided spiritual from temporal life. In the West (unlike the East) the religious organization was free for centuries from grave interference from civil rulers. Charlemagne was an exception, but his influence was benign. In the chaotic 9th and 10th cent. every part of the church organization, including the papacy, became the prey of the powerful.
The restoration of order began in monasteries; from Cluny a movement spread to reform Christian life (see Cluniac order). This pattern of decline of religion followed by reform is characteristic of the history of the Roman Catholic Church; the reform goals have varied, but they have included the revival of spiritual life in society and the monasteries, and the elimination of politics from the bishops' sphere and venality from the papal court. The next reform (11th cent.) was conducted by popes, notably St. Gregory VII and Urban II. Part of this movement was to exclude civil rulers from making church appointments—the first, bold chapter in a 900-year battle between the church and the "Catholic princes" (see church and state; investiture).
The 12th cent. was a time of great intellectual beginnings. St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians revived practical mystical prayer. Gratian founded the systematic study of the canon law, and medieval civil law began its development. This double study was to provide weapons to both sides in the duel between the extreme papal claims of Innocent III and Innocent IV, and the antipapal theories of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Also in the 12th cent., Peter Abelard and other thinkers pioneered in rationalist theology.
From early rationalist theology and from the teachings of Aristotle developed the philosophies and theologies of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas (see also scholasticism). This was the work of the new 13th-century universities; to them, and to the friars—the Dominicans and Franciscans—who animated them, passed the intellectual leadership held by the monasteries. St. Dominic's order was formed to preach against the Albigenses (a campaign that also produced the Inquisition). The vast popular movement of St. Francis was a spontaneous reform contemporary with the papal reform of the Fourth Lateran Council. The 13th cent. saw also the flowering of Gothic architecture.
The contest between church and state continued, ruining the Hohenstaufen dynasty and, in the contest between Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France, bringing the papacy to near ruin. Then came the Avignon residence—the so-called Babylonian captivity of the papacy (1309–78), a time of good church administration, but of excessive French influence over papal policy. Except for isolated voices, such as that of St. Catherine of Siena, the church seemed to lose energy, and a long period devoid of reform began. A long-enduring schism and a series of ambitious councils (see Schism, Great) involved most churchmen in a welter of politics and worldliness.
There were popular religious movements, characterized by revivalism and a tendency to minimize the sacraments (along with church authority); they encouraged private piety, and one group produced the inspirational Imitation ascribed to Thomas à Kempis. The popular tendencies were extreme in John Wyclif, who developed an antisacramental, predestinarian theology emphasizing Bible study—a "protestant" movement 150 years before Protestantism.
The 15th-century councils did little for reform, and the popes, shorn of power, were reduced to being Renaissance princes. Such men could not cope with the Protestant revolt of Martin Luther and John Calvin (see also Reformation). The Protestants aimed to restore primitive Christianity (as described in the Bible), and they succeeded in weakening the hold of the church in all of N Europe, in Great Britain, and in parts of Central Europe and Switzerland. Politics and religion were completely intertwined (as in England, Scotland, and France); hence the admixture of religious issues in the Thirty Years War.
Within the church there triumphed the most extensive of all the church's reform movements (see Counter Reformation; Jesus, Society of). From it sprang a general revival of religion and much missionary activity in the new empires of Spain and Portugal and in East Asia. In France, Catholicism found new life, beginning with St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul. There, too, began the cult of the Sacred Heart (i.e., God's love for men), which would affect Catholic prayer everywhere. A contrary influence was Jansenism (see under Jansen, Cornelis), an antisacramental middle-class movement.
The 17th cent. saw an increase of state control over the church (see Gallicanism) in all the Catholic countries, and in the 18th cent. the Bourbons began a course openly aimed at eliminating the papacy. The suppression of the Jesuits was part of the campaign, which reached a climax in the legislation of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. The revolutionary movement eventually destroyed the Catholic princes, and the church had to live with secular states, some anti-Catholic, some tolerant. The facts of the change were not clear at once, and for much of the 19th cent. the popes (and other Catholics) would look back to an idealized 18th-century golden age before "liberalistic" atheism and materialism. The last of these popes was Pius IX, who was forced to give up the Papal States. In enouncing the dogma of papal infallibility Pius did much to cement church unity.
In Pius's successor, Leo XIII, the church found new leadership; he and his successors worked and preached to urge Catholics to take part in modern life as Catholics, abandoning reactionary dreams and seeking some social reform. In some countries Catholic political parties were formed. Meanwhile oppressive conditions and the development of a mass socialist movement combined to detach much of the working class from the church. Otto von Bismarck (in Germany; see Kulturkampf) and "liberal" governments (in Italy, France, and Portugal) passed hostile measures, especially against religious orders.
In the 20th cent. the tensions between the church and national governments sometimes led to outright suppression of the church, as in the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe, Mexico, Spain, and China. Mussolini and Hitler also ruined as much of the church as they could. The century has been marked more noticeably, however, by new trends in the practice and outlook of the church. The encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891), was followed by the Quadrigesimo Anno (1931) of Pius XII, and the Mater et Magistra (1961) of John XXIII, the Progressio Populorum (1967) of Paul VI, and the Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centessimus Annus (1991) of John Paul II. The purpose of these was fundamental readjustment to the moral and social problems of modern life and a greater stress upon the role of the laity in the church. Linked with this was a movement for church "renewal" both by laity and the clergy. This was particularly strong in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States.
Some of the issues stressed were the need for liturgical reform, the recognition of the various regional contributions to the living existence of the church, and the recognition of the nonpolitical internationalism of the church (although declarations of implacable opposition to atheistic Communism persisted and were particularly strong under Pius XII, who urged the church to oppose all antireligious totalitarianism). Another growing revival involved the tightening of relations between the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and various Protestant churches.
All of these "progressive" currents came together at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), which, under John XXIII and Paul VI, initiated broad reforms in the areas of public worship, government, and ecumenism (see ecumenical movement). The long-reigning John Paul II made the church more international and continued his predecessors ecumenical trends, but he affirmed (as the popes preceding him did) the church's traditional stands on marriage, abortion, homosexuality, and other doctrinal matters, opposed relaxing the rule of celibacy, and reemphasized the primacy of the Vatican in church government.
The church in the United States began the 21st cent. confronting a major crisis concerning sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests and how it is and was handled by the U.S. hierarchy. Multiple revelations in 2002 that some bishops had allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to remain in the priesthood and to continue to perform their duties in situations where abuse could and sometimes did recur sparked outrage in the United States; such cases were also not reported to civil authorities. Various dioceses faced civil lawsuits and criminal investigations, several bishops resigned after their involvement in sexual relationships was revealed, and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston resigned because of criticism over his handling of sex abuse charges. The issue led to a meeting between American cardinals and the pope in Rome, and, after a meeting of American bishops and discussions with the Vatican, to the establishment of new policies that included barring a priest who has sexually abused a minor from any ministerial role and that committed the hierarchy to alert legal authorities to instances of abuse. Sexual and physical abuse scandals involving Roman Catholic priests and brothers have occurred in other countries including Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands.
Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul II, was regarded as a traditionalist and generally continued John Paul's policies, but he broke with tradition in 2013 when he resigned as pope for reasons of age. Although the church set a retirement age for bishops and an age limit for the cardinals who vote to elect a pope, the tradition of lifetime tenure for the pope was longstanding; the last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, who abdicated to facilitate the end of the Great Schism. Benedict was succeeded by Francis, an Argentinian who was the first pope from the Americas and the first Jesuit to hold the office.