The Catholic Church


Photo taken by Charlotte Thomas

Photo taken by Charlotte Thomas

The Roman Catholic Church  is one of the oldest and largest religious institutions in the world.  The Church has played a prominent role in the formation of Western Culture. As Catholicism was the only form of Christian Religion in Europe till the Great Schism in eleventh century and the Reformation in the sixteenth century, most historians refer to Catholicism as Christianity when speaking of religion before the Great Schism. Christianity has fundamentally influenced every aspect of Western Civilization, from its religious beliefs to its artistic development, from its conception of time and history to its sexual morality, from its understanding of law and political authority to its music.[1]  However this was a lengthy process which was accomplished by the Romans and their conquest of their Empire. Christianity spread out into the polytheistic pagan world, through the expanse of the Roman Empire when they adopted Christianity as their state religion.[2] However, when the Empire collapsed, Christianity still continued. The faith continued to grow at an extraordinary rapid speed and began to take on, for the first time in its history, a large-scale and fairly cohesive institutional structure.[3]  Religious life reached its peak in the thirteenth century. The soaring cathedrals that dominated the landscapes were built with passion as well as stone, and the high emotional pitch that attended their construction spilled out into the streets in mass popular processions, in crowds huddled around market-place preachers, and in large-scale pilgrimages to holy sites.[4] This is the image in which most associate with religion in the Middle Ages, however, it was not to last. By the fourteenth century, many Catholic faithful, both high- and low-born, had become dissatisfied with the Church’s growing worldliness, its concern with crusades and taxation, its attempt to manipulate the international economy, its head-long push into politics, and its meddling with the intellectual activities of the universities. However, it was not just the Church’s worldliness that caused the growing resentment and would later cause Western Europe to split. The Pope seemed to be undermining the authority of the local clergy in order to maximise his own.[5] This caused respect for the papacy to fall, and popular anticlericalism rose accordingly.[6] The Church, bedraggled though it was, was still the dominant institution in European life.[7]  However, the keen disappointment felt by millions helped to pave the way for the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth centur


The term ‘Reformation’ is applied by historians to a set of historical events, often treated as if it was an inexorable process: a theological attack on Catholic doctrine, the abolition of papal authority, the reduction of priestly power, the suppression of monasteries and chantries, the abolition of the mass, the introduction of simplified Protestant worship, the enforcement of Protestant ideas, the conversion of people from Catholic to Protestant loyalties. [9] In England, such events did not come in swift and orderly sequence, as consecutive steps of a pre-planned programme or a protest movement: they came (and went again) as the accidents of everyday politics and the consequences of power struggles. Continental Reformation solely based on the unsatisfactory conduct of the Church and clergy; in England it appeared to be a mix of different factors. Although, there was some anticlerical feeling, the English and Welsh clergy were not as corrupt as though on the Continent with the exception of a few. However, Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce from his first wife instigated a break from Rome and Church after the Pope refused to grant the divorce. This started not only a religious break from Rome but eventually a political break through the use of Parliamentary acts to outlaw Papal dominance over the English Church. However, Henry’s schism was not, yet, a Protestant Reformation but it was a Reformation made possible by Protestantism.[10] After Henry’s death, English and Welsh religious practices swung from Protestantism back to Catholic revival and back again under the Reign of Henry’s Children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Only in 1559 did the English regime opt for a full Reformation, but still there were theological, liturgical, and legal loose ends to be tied up.[11] However, by the 1580s the Protestants had effectively won the struggle. The settlement of 1559 had given them command of the Church and the universities, and so the opportunity to mould the next generations of magistrates and ministers. With age-cohort, Protestants gained a higher proportion of the positions of power, until by the 1580 they controlled the Privy Council, the Court, Parliament, county commissions of the peace, and civic governments, and were well on the way to control churches and schools.[12] By the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, she had cautiously but successfully made England and Wales a protestant nation which had taken over three quarters of a century to accomplish. However, the persecution of Catholics was far from over, many fled but for those that stayed, they worshipped in secret and would not be able to open about their faith till the nineteenth century.


Click here to see the history of religious orders in Swansea and click here for Catholic Hierarchy.


[1] Backman, P. 23.

[2] Backman, P. 27.

[3] Backman,  P. 39.

[4] Backman, P. 352.

[5] Backman, P. 388.

[6] Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe, P. 390.

[7] Backman, P. 436.

[8] Backman, P. 394.

[9] Haigh, P. 13.

[10] Ryrie, P.129.

[11] Haigh, English Reformation, P. 13.

[12] Haigh, The English Reformation Revised, P. 214.


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