Roman Catholic Church: The Church in the Middle Ages

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.

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