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Medieval Church And State Essay, Research Paper

Debra Crocker

ENG 693



The Relationship Between Church and State

In the Middle Ages

The church had considerable material wealth, which instigated a problem: Who was superior, Pope or King? This question caused a great deal of strife during the Middle Ages, but the pope always had the advantage, until the end of the Medieval Period, when the state finally triumphed over the popes? powers of interdict and excommunication. The practical impact of the Church resulted from the general acceptance of its theology. It taught that by devotion to its prescribed belief and code of conduct, the world would be improved against the Day of Judgment. This belief and code were inforced by strict penalties.

During the Middle Ages, Catholicism was the dominant (and often only) established religion throughout the British Isles, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Poland, Scandinavia, Iceland, France and northern Spain. In these areas almost everybody was a member of the Church. Thus one could easily be misled into believing that a large proportion of the populous was committed to the Church. This is an incorrect assumption to make. Clergy could only preach in nearby areas because traveling was too slow a process. Also, many people, including members of the lower clergy were uneducated. The concept of regular Mass on Sunday was far from reality. Taking these into account, one can see that those living in scattered rural communities could perhaps live having never seen a priest or received any kind of religious instruction. One can accurately assume that the Church must have had control throughout all levels of society, including a central force in government. The Church maintained this power by giving the common populous a reason to life, and an explanation of humankind?s creation.

From the 12th century on, religious dissent became a serious problem for the Catholic Church. One reason was anticlericalism ? condemnation of bishops and priests who failed to live up to the moral standards expected of them. Another reason was a large framework of dissenting thought. Peoples desire for meaningful religious experience could and did lead to heresy ? the holding of religious doctrine different from the Orthodox teachings of the Church.

The spread of heretical movements in southern France alarmed the Church authorities. Pope Innocent determined to solve the problem. He tried sending preachers to convince the heretics to return to the orthodox Catholic faith. It didn?t work and the leaders of southern France refused to help. Innocent decided to use force and the nobles of northern France were very willing to help. This crusade lasted almost 2 decades. Southern France was devastated but dissension remained. Over a period of years the Church?s attempt to devise a method for discovering and dealing with heretics led to the emergence of the Papal Inquisition. By 1233 Pope Gregory IX had entrusted both Dominicans and Franciscans with inquisitional power that had formerly only belonged to the bishops. Punishment for heresy was severe. Heresy was to be punished for the spiritual ?good? of the individual as well as for the preservation and enhancement of the status of the Church and State.

The next two centuries saw the continuance of this conflict. The 14th century ended in witnessing a papacy in turmoil and disarray, forced into a schism which saw three rival popes enthroned simultaneously in confusion and conflict.

By the late 15th century, northern Europe had attained a high level of political stability and economic prosperity. The Catholic Church, modeled upon the bureaucratic structure of the Holy Roman Empire, had become powerful but internally corrupt. The clergy were unable to live according to Church doctrine, and abuses of church ceremonies were widespread. Several Church councils were held to answer the call for reform, but the councils failed to reach an accord.

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. The Protestants aimed to restore primitive Christianity, and they succeeded in weakening the hold of the Church in all of northern Europe, in Great Britain, and in parts of central Europe and Switzerland. Politics and religion were completely intertwined, hence the admixture of religious issues in the Thirty Years War, between England and France. Within the Church there triumphed the most extensive of all the Church?s reform movements. From it sprang a general revival of religion and much missionary activity in the new empires of Spain, Portugal and East Asia. In France, Catholicism found new life. Slowly the state control over the church saw an increase. The revolutionary movement eventually destroyed the Catholic princes, and the Church had to live with secular states, some anti-Catholic, some tolerant.

In England, the revolt against the Church hit very hard. This disaster was produced not so much by the spreading of false doctrines but from the crown forcibly tearing the church away from Rome. Another national church was brought into being and there was a tremendous toll taken in lives and property on the road to building the Anglican Church.

As we have seen elsewhere, the civil power?s intrusion into Church matters had reached such a point that much of the higher clergy of England became estranged from the Holy See and more subservient to the king. Also, general recognition of the primacy of the pope had waned in the minds of many, ruler and ruled alike. Under such circumstances, it was only a matter of time before the right person would appear on the scene and take advantage of the deteriorating situation. For that person came in the 16th century, in the form of Henry Tudor VIII.

During the time of King Arthur the kingdom of God was in perpetual warfare ? both spiritual and literal ? against the Kingdom of the devil. This belief in warfare between light and darkness discouraged curiosity about the world and speculation about the unknown. People firmly believed that they were on their way to either heaven or hell; life here was just a pilgrimage, the world a testing ground. People then were not continually obsessed by the peril of their immortal souls. Nevertheless, medieval teachings emphasized the afterlife much more strongly than any period to follw. The Church was the center of the Universe.

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