There are two ways of looking at the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages: as an era of monstrous corruption, or as a golden age. Both are prone to exaggeration. This Columbus Day weekend, while doing the fall cleaning, I rediscovered an old gem of a book from the year 1907 titled The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries, by one James J. Walsh (1865-1942). A medical doctor who wrote about Church history for Catholic audiences, Walsh’s book definitely falls in the latter category.
For Walsh the 1200’s was a time of unparalleled progress in the spiritual, pastoral, intellectual, and artistic realms. His book, praised by such luminaries as President Theodore Roosevelt, was standard reading in Catholic colleges until the 1950’s. Although its inflated Victorian prose and militant triumphalism hasn’t held up well, it still makes an important point: the Church did have a major role to play in the building of Western Civilization.
And the thirteenth century was, by any standard, an amazing era: the age of Dante, a time when many of Europe’s great Cathedrals and universities came into being and when Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) produced his forty-volume Summa Theologica. As the nineteenth century historian Frederic Harrison wrote, it was
An era of no special character. It had great thinkers, great rulers, great teachers, great poets, great artists, great moralists, and great workmen. It could not be called the material age, the devotional age, the political age, or the poetical age in any special degree. It was equally poetic, political, artistic, practical, industrial, intellectual, and devotional. And these qualities acted in harmony on a uniform conception of life with a real symmetry of purpose.
The Church emerged from its own “Dark Ages,” a key figure being the brilliant lawyer-theologian Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), elected at age 37. A proud nobleman, one historian writes that he “felt the full majesty of his own office.” A favorite Biblical quote was from Jeremiah: “I have set you over nations and over kingdoms.”
One of Innocent’s greatest achievements was the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, “the” general council of the Middle Ages. Besides calling for Crusades and condemning heresies, it started the process of systematically organizing and codifying Church teaching. As pope, Innocent also gave approval to grass-roots reform movements like the new mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans.
Rather than living in monasteries (many of which had acquired great wealth), mendicants depended on alms and lived among the people. After undergoing a powerful conversion, Francesco di Bernardone (1182-1226) sought a radical reclamation of the Gospel. His Friars Minor (literally “little brothers”) aimed to “observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by giving in obedience, without property, and in chastity. Francis told them to proceed with confidence:
Because in these days the Friars Minor have been given the world for its benefit, so that the elect may behave toward them in such a way as to deserve the praise of the Judge on the last day of the judgment and hear the words: ‘As often as you did it for one of my dear brothers, here, you did it for me.’
Besides internal corruption, other challenges included movements like the Albigensians and the Waldensians, who distorted Church teaching on the body and the sacraments. Domingo Guzman, a Spanish priest, founded the Order of Preachers to travel among the people preaching the Gospel in all its purity. “Zeal,” he said, “must be met with zeal, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching lies by preaching truth.” Soon his priests became known as the Domini Canes (“hounds of the Lord”).
While monks dominated the first half of the Middle Ages, mendicants dominated the second part. Matthew Arnold, the nineteenth century English author, said of Francis:
He brought religion to the people. He founded the most popular body of ministers of religion that has ever existed in the Church. He transformed monachism [monasticism] by uprooting the stationary monk, delivering him from the bondage of property, and sending him, as a mendicant friar, to be a stranger and a sojourner, not in the wilderness, but in the most crowded haunts of men, to console them and to do them good.
In 1276, the first Dominican Pope was elected Innocent V. (The papal white is actually derived from the Dominican habit.) Twelve years later, Girolamo Masci became Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan Pope.
To form his preachers, Dominic sent them to the best schools, beginning the order’s intellectual tradition. Soon Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas founded a school of thought integrating philosophy with theology, and reconciling faith with reason by showing their compatibility. Scholasticism (derived from doctores scholastici, “teacher of the arts”) would be the bedrock of Catholic intellectual life for centuries to come.
For Walsh, this was a golden age of Catholic life, and he highlights the Church’s contributions to law and the development of the hospital system. He looks at monarchs like St. Louis IX (1214-1270); the works of literature, notably Dante’s Divine Comedy. But even golden ages have problems; ecclesiastical corruption continued, while monarchs extended their control over the Church. Later the papacy, moved to France, became a tool of the French crown, and it took a formidable woman, St. Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380), to bring it back to Rome.
To call one century the greatest isn’t historically accurate, let alone fair. (And let’s be honest, we do have a few advantages over the Middle Ages, like plumbing and healthcare!) Ultimately, I think Walsh was trying to make the point that the Church is a living thing, a human institution divinely instituted, empowered with Christ’s promise that he would be with us to the end of time. And that should give us encouragement for today. For if, like the little poor man from Assisi, we’re open to receiving the Good News undiluted, we can accomplish great things together. Maybe that’s why Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the name he did.