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People & Ideas: The Roman Catholic Church in Medieval Europe

The Roman Catholic Church in Medieval Europe

Pope Pius V Source: The Yorck Project

For centuries, the Catholic Church straddled the world of medieval Europe. Every king, queen, knight, serf and soldier lived and died within the embrace of the Catholic faith. The church was not simply a religion and an institution; it was a category of thinking and a way of life.

According to the Catholic faith, Jesus of Nazareth founded the church to administer the sacraments, rituals that contain the mystery of grace and the promise of salvation. Salvation comes only through the church; individuals cannot find salvation outside the institution.

In medieval Europe, the church and the state were closely linked. It was the duty of every political authority -- king, queen, prince or city councilman -- to support, sustain and nurture the church. With notable exceptions, the church reinforced the political authority of the states, and the states reinforced the authority of the church. French churchman Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet tutored Louis XIV's son in the principles of royal absolutism: "God establishes kings as his ministers, and reigns through them over the people. ... [K]ings are sacred because of their office; they are the representatives of the divine majesty."

Leo X with CardinalsSource: The Yorck Project

In Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile recognized that a strong church encouraged social stability and political cohesion. Ascending the throne in 1469, they surveyed a domain torn by more than a half century of war, social unrest and the Reconquista, a protracted struggle against the Moors, Muslims from North Africa who occupied portions of the Iberian Peninsula. Determined to consolidate and strengthen their rule, the royal monarchs conquered the last Moorish stronghold and expelled Jews who refused to convert to Roman Catholicism. With the Jews gone and the Moors defeated, Ferdinand and Isabella believed that Spain could fulfill its destiny as a pure Catholic nation -- the New Spain, the New World, the New Jerusalem.

Buoyed by this vision, the monarchs gave their approval to a Genoan seaman, Christopher Columbus, to sail west in search of the riches of the Orient. In 1492, Columbus landed on an island he named "San Salvador," or "Holy Savior," and confidently predicted that the Native inhabitants could easily be made Christian. In the years that followed, Spain colonized Mexico and the modern American Southwest, coupling its imperial ambitions with the determination to spread the Catholic faith in the New World.

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Published October 11, 2010

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