The Catholic Church in the Western Civilization History


The Catholic Church is the most comprehensive Christian system in the world. The Catholic Church has been and continues to play an essential role in the history of Western civilization. It is characterized by structural centralization and the greatest number of adherents. The formation of a unique doctrinal system in Catholicism is connected with the gradual emergence of the Western Church of power theory. It is supreme jurisdiction and authority in matters of faith and Christian morality of the Pope.

The Medieval Period

The concept of the supremacy of the Pope develops from the notion, based on the Evangelical text, of the primacy of the Apostle Peter. That is, of his extraordinary and sole jurisdiction over the entire Christian Church, which he received from Christ. The Popes, as successors of the Apostle Peter, considered in Catholic tradition the first Bishop of Rome, inherit from him this fullness of pastoral authority. Historically, the primate position of the Bishop of Rome and the apostolic origin of the cathedra was due to its location in the capital of the Roman Empire and to the large and wealthy Roman community (Hahn 121). Towards the end of the first century, Rome became a theological center where the traditions of Christian communities were brought together, allowing for the resolution of controversial doctrinal issues.

From the first centuries of Christianity, bishops sought to act as custodians and exponents of the apostolic tradition for the entire Christian Church. In the first centuries of Christianity’s establishment as the Roman Empire’s official religion, the church began to play an important state-political, social, and cultural role. Moreover, it accepted the care for the spiritual, socio-cultural, and political development of the peoples of Europe (Scott 125). The Western Church was active in missionary work throughout the European world, trying to convert many peoples to the Catholic faith.

During the 2nd century, Christianity, despite perennial persecutions, spread throughout the whole Roman Empire and, according to the Edict of Milan (313), received official recognition from the authorities. Sovereign examination of Christianity has led to a flourishing of theology which has found expression in the works of fathers and teachers of the Church, in decisions of questions on Ecumenical Councils. Catholic Church recognizes 8 Councils as Ecumenical, which have taken place in 1 millennium, and 13 Councils that occurred in the second (Hahn 146). In the middle of the first thousand years in the Roman church, there was monasticism.

In the 10th century, along historic rivalry between the Pope and the Germanic emperor started. Pope Gregory VII, who ruled from 1073-1085, initiated a struggle for investiture – the right to ordain bishops who were in vassal dependence on the German emperor (Hahn 176). St. Bernard of Clairvaux put forward a theoretical justification for the power of the Pope – the doctrine of the two ‘swords; (spiritual and secular authority) that belong to the Pope.

Various heresies and sectarian movements arose in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, appealing for apostolic poverty and repentance. By the decision of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Inquisition was established, with the Dominican and Franciscan orders leading the way (Hahn 198). The so-called ‘Captivity of the Papacy of Avignon’ occurred in the fourteenth century. The residence of Pope was transferred to Avignon in the south of France. The French kings actively intervened in the affairs of the Catholic Church and elected their cardinals to the papal throne.

The Counter-Reformation and The New Age

The prosperity of Renaissance culture in the late 15th and early 16th centuries gave the Catholic Church great masters who created masterpieces of Catholic art (Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo). It also contributed to the emergence of tendencies for the reification of the church life, which led to a pro-protest reaction in the form of Reformation and the manifestation of Protestantism (Wright 240). In the sixteenth century, the most significant trend in the life of the Catholic Church was the Counter-Reformation, a movement aimed at restoring the influence of the Catholic Church against the Protestants. ‘Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants did not cease throughout the 16th-17th centuries. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) strengthened the church’s position, clarified doctrine, consolidated the authority of bishops, and reinforced the ranks of the clergy. It was decided to require vocational training for priestly ministry. The dogmas of purgatory, veneration of saints, and indulgences were proclaimed (Wright 247). The post-Conciliar era was characterized by the development of Catholic missionary activity in India, Africa, China, Japan, and America. The Jesuit order also developed extensive missionary activity.

A new period in the relationship between church and secular society began after the case of Galileo, who the Inquisition forced to recant his views. During the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794 and under Napoleon I, the Catholic Church was subjected to numerous persecutions. At that time, intra-church movements for dialogue with a secular culture developed. To counter this course, in 1864, Pope Pius IX published the ‘Syllabus, ’ a list of recent errors. In the second moiety of the 19th century, the idea of the unlimited power of the Pope was formalized (Wright 287). At the edge of the 19th century, the Catholic Church began to affirm the dignity of work and the laboring man, expressed in Pope Leo XIII’s ‘Rerum Novarum’, and the ideas of Christian democracy began to develop.

The Post-Conciliar Period

In the second half of the 19th century, a liturgical movement arose in Europe, the supporters of which were initially in favor of the revival of parish life and the Gregorian choir. Later, they stood for a wider reform to purify divine service from the second-step elements that hinder its acceptance by the laity and return to the practice of the early Church. The main event of church life in the 20th century was the Second Vatican Council, with Pope John XXIII presiding at the first session and Pope Paul VI after his death (Grass 200). The Council’s work resulted in a program of renewal of church life called the aggiornamento (‘renewal’). The pastoral constitution ‘Gaudium et Spes’ declared that the Church does not bind itself to any form of human structure or political, economic, or social system.

The renewal of Catholic social teaching found expression in the appearance of ‘social theologies,’ such as ‘theology of work,’ ‘theology of peace,’ ‘theology of politics,’ ‘theology and ethics of economic life,’ and ‘theology of liberation.’ Moreover, after the Second Vatican Council, national languages in divine service were legalized, new books were published, and the Calendar of Saints’ Feasts was reformed (Grass 218). An important innovation was the introduction of a 3-year cycle of Bible readings for the Sabbath days at the expense of a general increase in the volume of the Bible text used in the divine services. Furthermore, the priest or bishop was to serve the mass ‘with his face to the people (Grass 247). The Breviary was replaced by the book of the Liturgy of the Hours, which emphasized the idea of completing the services of the daily circle by the whole community, not just by the priests.

The modern divine service of the Roman Catholic Church is divided into sacraments, and the Eucharist occupies the supreme service of time, the central place among them. According to the Catholic doctrine, which is enshrined in Canon Law, the Pope, is the successor of the Apostle Peter, Christ’s nemesis and the RCC holder, who has the supreme, full, unmediated, and universal authority (Grass 306). The Pope is elected by the conclave of a collegium of cardinals, who, apart from the election, carry out their ordination service as a collegial one. They are chosen to discuss the most important church matters. They receive appointments for the highest posts in the Roman curia or on the cathedra of the most influential dioceses. With the help of the Roman Curia, Pope carries out the highest management of the Roman Catholic Church.

The RCC is divided according to territorial and ceremonial principles. All countries with a pre-modern Catholic population and most other states are separated into dioceses, and a bishop head each. Most dioceses are located in the metropolis and are headed by archbishops-metropolitans who have ‘the first among equals’ status (Grass 343). The dioceses are divided into parishes headed by priests appointed by bishops. Besides diocesan bishops, there are titular ones who are not heads of dioceses but carry out special papal instructions in the religious, scientific, or diplomatic spheres. In addition, the territorial structure of the RCC includes an insignificant number of institutions, having territorial or personal jurisdiction which extends to a specific group of persons in a specific territory or the whole world. They include territorial prelatures and abbeys; apostolic vicariates, prefectures, administrations, exacts and ordinaries; military ordinaries, sui iuris missions, patriarchal and archiepiscopal exarchates; one personal prelature.

There are also the structures of Eastern Catholic churches that use the rites of five traditions for worship: Alexanian, Antiochian, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine. The structures of these churches exist both in their territories and territories parallel with the structures of the Church of the Latin Rite and with each other (Grass 356). Eastern Catholic churches are headed by priests (some in pre-patriarchal status) who are subordinate to the Pope and have the same status as metropolitans concerning the bishop of their churches.


The Catholic Church is one of the oldest religious institutions globally, which has played a major role in the history of Western civilization. Its formation has gone through many periods, within which organizational centralization has taken hold, and the church has gained numerous adherents throughout the world. Today the Catholic Church has a significant influence on the political, economic, and cultural spheres. Catholicism has a wide-ranging system of social institutions, and the laity is being activated to carry out its social teachings. The task is to make every believer an active agent of Christian ideas in diplomacy, business, and professional life.

Works Cited

Grass, Tim. The Lord’s Work: A History of the Catholic Apostolic Church. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017.

Hahn, Scott. Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism. Ignatius Press, 2016.

Wright, Anthony. The Counter-Reformation: Catholic Europe and the Non-Christian World. Routledge, 2017.

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