In this essay I will discuss the history of the Roman Catholic Church and its influence on Western Civilization. I will bring an understanding to the beginnings of the Church and bring us to modern day ideals. Along with the history of the Catholic Church, I will cover some significant events during the middle ages. To understand the beginnings of the Catholic Church, it is important to grasp concepts of the foundation of the Catholic religion. Christianity is based on the beliefs and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was born of Jewish origins in the city of Bethlehem, just south of what is today Jerusalem between 6 B. C. And A. D. 6. He did not believe in following Jewish law, but following moral ethics he established. Jewish culture of Jesus’ day was highly materialistic, and Jesus spoke against materialism and ultimately against aristocracy among Jewish faith. Jesus did not agree to worship emperors or multiple gods as the Romans did. He, like his Jewish origin, professed monotheism, which is the belief in one single god. Although Jesus gained few followers, his teachings were very influential in the formation of the Christian faith. On that note, the culmination of his followings would not have been possible without his followers.
One of Jesus’ most influential and prominent apostles is Paul. Paul was a Jewish tent maker from Tarsus in Asia Minor. Paul’s work was influenced by Jesus’ teachings of the evils that follow material wealth and strict Jewish ideals. Paul is responsible for writing at least ten to fourteen of the stories in the New Testament. Paul was the first to preach the word of Jesus to non-Jewish people. Paul traveled thousands of miles spreading the miracles of Jesus and ultimately launching Christianity into the modern day. Paul focused his efforts on teaching about moral renewal and redemption from sin.
He spoke of the freedoms that Christianity can bring and how it is for everyone, no matter their political or financial situations. His large effort to spread the word of Jesus has allowed him to become known as the co-founder of Christianity. The life of Jesus has been one of curiosity and obscurity to those who study his life. The most informative sources are from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, who are evangelists and the authors of the Gospels. The Gospels were written between forty and seventy years after the crucifixion of Jesus. They were ritten to convert non-believers in the Messiah of God. The authors of the Gospels are known, but the historical accuracy of these stories are often times difficult to measure. Jesus was put to death for political and religious reasons, but officially for committing treason. The high priests felt as though he was a false messiah, pretending to be the Son of God in human form. Although he was persecuted for religious based infractions, the Jewish leaders feared that if he were to gain a large following within the Roman Empire, he would start a large repression, which would bring ruin to the Jewish Nation.
With his death he preached his resurrection, and it is his resurrection that is truly the starting point of the Christian faith. According to the writings of Paul, Peter was the first to perform the first miracle and preach the first sermon of Jesus. The spread of Christianity evolved due to the necessity for religious revitalization under the Roman Empire. Jesus brought forth a sense of personal comfort in the spiritual world as apposed to political and religious factions. Jesus preached against the material world, faith in God, and compassion for fellow human beings.
Jesus asked that before people serve their state or themselves, they serve God. Paul helped the spread of Christianity to non-Jews by offering it to everyone and anticipated an eternal life among God if they were to follow Jesus. Christianity allowed for the belief in one savior (God), the promise of salvation for humans, and the practice of moral goodness allowed for a spiritual alternative to the prevailing materialism of imperial Rome. The early centuries following the death of Jesus left much of the Christian faith in disorganization.
It wasn’t until 313 that religious persecution was no longer tolerated among the empire. The Edict of Milan was an attempt to restructure and re-strengthen the empire by the emperor Constantine. Constantine, struggling to hold the empire together, moved the capital city from Rome to Byzantium. He renamed the city, Constantinople. The legalization of the Christian faith gave way to many changes to Christianity. Christians were now able to build places of public worship. Not only did Christian Churches serve as places to worship, they allowed for massive crowds of Christians to enter and worship due to their large size.
In the early stages of Christianity’s new celebrated freedom, structure was needed to ensure the work of the apostles and Jesus continued. Their were four Church Fathers who were Latin scholars that collectively came together to interpret the dogma (prescribed doctrine) and the liturgy(rituals for public worship). These four fathers were Jerome, Ambrose, Gregory, and Augustine. Saint Jerome was educated in Rome and was able to translate the Hebrew Bible and the Greek books of the “New Testament” into Latin.
He is ultimately responsible for writing the Vulgate, which is the Latin Scripture that became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Ambrose was a Roman aristocrat who became bishop of Milan. Ambrose is responsible for writing some of the earliest hymns that were to be used in congregational use. Ambrose hymns were influenced by Hebrew psalms and Mediterranean chants, which modeled simplistic religious expression. Gregory was responsible for establishing early Church government. He organized an administrative system, which popes would come to follow. He assembled the liturgy into music for the early Church.
Most influential of all the Fathers would be Augustine. Augustine converted to Christianity at the age of 33 and was a follower of Paul. Augustine presents a model of earthly and heavenly order in his autobiography, Confessions. In this book Augustine makes a vast distinction between the satisfaction of the physical and spiritual world. This dualistic model demonstrates the temptations of sin in the physical world but also to demonstrate the power of faith in God to cleanse humans of their sins. Leaving the age of Antiquity, the Middle Ages begin a time of religious influence and a devotion to spirituality.
Christianity was now taking deep roots in the western world and its reaches would be vast. Rome, however, was facing devastating turmoil from the invading Barbarian migrations. In 476, Rome fell. Germanic tribes and Asian nomads known as the Huns, pressed into Roman territories. The two driving Germanic peoples are known as the East Goths (Ostrogoths) who came from the area between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, and the West Goths(Visigoths) were from the area near the Danube River just north of Macedonia. At the battle of Adrianople, the Visigoths defeated the Roman army.
Soon after, Western Europe and Rome were defeated another group of Germanic Tribes people known as the Vandals. The Vandals were a violently destructive tribe. They swept through Rome and made their way to the capital city of Ravenna. Odoacer, the Germanic commander, demanded power of the empire and this event is considered the end of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes were not simply taking over the empire. The tribes had no intentions of replacing all that was Rome. The adopted Christianity, embraced literary and architectural styling’s of Rome and modeled their laws after Roman legal practices.
Some of the greatest literary works of the time were epic poems that included Beowulf, and the Song of Roland. Christianity would be prevalent throughout the rule of the Germanic tribes, and continue most prominently with the Frankish ruler Charles the Great (Charlemagne). Charlemagne came into power in 768 and was most influential in developing the resurgence of the Roman Empire under Christian Leadership. Charlemagne conquered much of Europe spanning from Rome northward to what would be Germany. He forcibly converted people of his lands into the Christian faith.
Upon the death of Charlemagne, the empire was left to suffer from a lack of unity and structure. The empire fell victim to the seafaring Vikings in the North and was under constant threat of Islam approaching from the southern Mediterranean regions. This fall of the Carolingian era sparked what would become known as the feudalist system. While the empire lay in shambles, the only system that was functioning properly was the feudal system. In a feudalistic system the remaining Dukes and Counts of smaller portions of the empire were left to rule and protect their claims.
People would receive land from a Duke or Count in return for military service to protect that land. This was a very simple administrative system, but in such an unstable time the Middle Ages were unable to produce anything more effective during the eighth century. Moving through the early Middle Ages leads us to Christianity’s most famous appearance and actions to date, The Crusades. By the beginning of the eleventh century Normand invaders from the north had settled most of northern Europe and capitalized on its disorganization.
They were Catholic and began to feel the presence and pressure from the Islamic expansion through the Mediterranean. The Turks, who took Jerusalem and pushed out Christianity from the holly land in the seventh century, were threatening the eastern empire. The only organization that could stop this invasion from the south and that was the Catholic Church. The Church was being threatened by the Islamic faith and Pope Urban ll organized a political and religious system to enhance his power over all of Christianity. Emperor Alexia of Orthodox Byzantium requested urgent help from the pope to come to aid against the threat of Islam.
Pope Urban saw this cry for help from the east as a prime opportunity to gain Christian support and to expand his political power. In 1095 Pope Urban held a public speech in which he offered liberation from all sins on earth and a place in Heaven. In the first crusade, Urban offered the riches and spoils of war to any Christian who would go and fight against Islam. Oddly enough, Christian faith does not agree with the killing of another human, but he preached that the Muslims were infidels and were to be murdered in the name of God.
As it were put, it is against Christian faith to kill any other Christian, but the Muslims were below Christians. These offerings brought forth many thousands of crusaders willing to take the cross to Jerusalem and rescue the land in which their savior rested. During the two hundred years of crusades, much land was recaptured and given back to Christianity. By 1291, all of the efforts made by the Crusades were in vein and all the land was eventually taken back by Muslims. By 1453 Constantinople had fallen to Muslim rule and the advance of the Islamic faith was becoming dominant in the region.
During the high Middle Ages the Catholic Church was able to exercise great authority both spiritually and politically. This brief history displays some of the power that the Church had gained over the course of the Middle Ages. The power of the pope and the Church emerged as the most powerful political institution of the day. Examples like education during the Middle Ages remained nearly exclusive to Christians. It is clear that the Catholic faith was dominant among political, religious, and cultural forces in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The Church guided society and and this gave it strong political power.
Christian faith has instilled moral codes that are still practiced today. In conclusion to the history of the Church, one can see many remaining ideologies still held in practice today in an effort to model the Christian system. Many of our political buildings are designed to replicate Roman Catholic architecture. Modern society still lives, mainly, by ethical codes that define Christian faith such as the Ten Commandments. Today the Church still is the driving force for Christian’s lifestyles. Augustine’s dualistic ideals of the separation of physical and spiritual satisfaction remain a driving force for the modern Christian.
Today, every Christian lives by the idea that what they do on earth will determine if they will make it to heaven when they are judged. Christianity has shaped much of the western world, and its influences will continue into the unknown future. I have found the influences the Church has made on modern ideals to be intriguing to say the least. Being unaffiliated with any religious practice, see the moral code in which Christianity has instilled in western civilization. I have found it to be the longest standing organization in existence and find it extremely fascinating how many people are influenced by Catholicism today.
There are endless examples of how Christianity influences entities with no religious affiliation. In the pledge of allegiance of the United States we say, “One Nation, Under God. ” This is exactly referencing Augustine’s model by demonstrating that we humans are under or inferior to God, even though the United States claims to have a separation between Church and state. There are many examples of how the modern world was influenced by the Middle Ages and Christianity and I really enjoyed learning of the timeline of events and how they relate to the world I live in today.
Bokenkotter, Thomas S. “Chapter 1 Jesus.” A Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 2004. 7-15. Print. Fiero, Gloria K. Humanistic Tradition/ MEDIEVAL EUROPE AND THE WORLD BEYOND. 5th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 2006. Print. The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross. A&E Networks, 2005. Youtube.com. Web. <http://youtu.be/zqK-RuntywY>. Kung, Hans. “11.” The Catholic Church: a Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2001. 94-101. Print.