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God in America | Article

People and Ideas: Europe

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Leo X with Cardinals. Courtesy: The Yorck Project

The Roman Catholic Church in Medieval Europe
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.

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.

In Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile recognized that a strong church encouraged social stability and political cohesion. 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.

The Protestant Reformation

In 1517, the German monk and theologian Martin Luther challenged Catholicism and its influence on Europe. Luther attacked the sale of indulgences, certificates sold to the faithful and intended to limit the time the dead spent in purgatory. In contrast to Catholicism, which stressed the authority of the church, Luther gave primacy to individual experience, the radical notion that the individual could communicate directly with God and seek his or her own salvation, without the intermediating authority of the church or priests. He was convinced that sins could not be washed away by penance or forgiven by indulgences; salvation came from faith in God and by faith alone. On spiritual matters, it was the Bible -- not the Vatican -- that possessed ultimate authority.

Luther's ideas struck a fundamental blow to the primacy of the Catholic Church. He was excommunicated by the pope and rejected by the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, but he had captured the imagination of many in Catholic Europe.

By the mid-16th century, two competing ideologies -- one Catholic, the other a burgeoning Protestantism -- warred for supremacy. The ideological battle raged with particular ferocity in England, where King Henry VIII wished to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella, in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. When the Vatican refused to grant a divorce, Henry separated himself from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. He then became head of both the church and the state in England. Catholics who refused to swear oaths of allegiance or recognize Henry's new marriage were persecuted.

When she became the queen of England six years after her father's death, Mary Tudor, King Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon and an ardent Catholic, attempted to restore Catholicism to England and launched a systematic persecution of Protestants. At her death in 1558, her half-sister, Elizabeth I, was crowned queen of England.

For Protestants, Elizabeth's ascension in 1558 served as a symbol of their hopes. Her triumphal entry into the capital London in 1559 was carefully scripted by her advisers as a display of Protestant pageantry. That same year, Parliament, with a bare Protestant majority, passed the Religious Settlement Act. Thirty-nine articles stated the basic doctrines of the church. The Book of Common Prayer proscribed the prayers and the liturgy to be followed each day. The style of worship was in keeping with the queen's own personal tastes: She liked imagery, in moderation, appreciated choral music and was less enthusiastic about preaching. These reforms passed by Parliament were not radical ones, but steered a careful middle course that was sensitive to Catholic tradition and did not loudly proclaim a robust and assertive Protestantism. But the lingering remnants of Catholicism troubled some Protestant reformers.

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