The Catholic Church. It began as a small band of supporters following the teachings of an itinerant preacher in an outpost of the Roman Empire. From there, the church expanded both its size and its importance in the grand scheme of Western history. Consider that the Catholic Church
- steered Western civilization through historical events such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Reformation;
- influenced the political ideas and actions of powerful leaders in a variety of European nations;
- made deep contributions to the Western philosophical tradition through the works of religious philosophers such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas;
- funded and inspired the creation of fantastic works of religious art and literature, such as northern Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and Dante’s Divine Comedy;
- and much more.
Today, the church is the oldest continuously active organization on Earth and one of the most influential institutions in the world—a force capable of moving armies, inspiring saints, and shaping the lives of a billion members.
But how did this powerful institution develop out of the early church community—a loosely associated group of disciples who were inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus? Why do today’s Catholics worship the way they do? How has this institution influenced world history far beyond the walls of its churches and monasteries?
In The Catholic Church: A History, you’ll explore these and other questions as you follow the development of this important institution in 36 informative, fascinating lectures. With noted historian and Professor William R. Cook as your guide, you’ll step into the world of the early church, hear tales of the martyrdom of the first Christian saints, witness the spread of Christendom across Europe, and learn about the origins of fundamental church institutions.
For Catholics, it’s an enlightening and inspirational tale that deepens the meaning of faith. But the story is equally compelling for those outside the church. The history of the Catholic Church informs all Christian faiths, providing fascinating insights into the origins and development of a wide array of practices and beliefs.
The course also provides a unique and illuminating perspective on world history and politics as viewed through the lens of Catholic history. Throughout the course, Professor Cook delineates how broader historical events affected the development of the church, as well as how the church itself influenced the movement of history. Indeed, no understanding of Western civilization is complete without an understanding of this remarkable institution.
The Church from Ancient Times to Modern Days
Your journey begins as you travel back to the first years of the church, when Jesus’s disciples and their many followers developed communities of faith where their beliefs flourished. Guided by Professor Cook, you delve into crucial early church documents, such as the letters of Paul, and gain an intriguing glimpse into the lives of these early believers.
From there, you’ll witness the development and spread of this nascent religion into the far reaches of the Roman Empire and throughout the world. This comprehensive survey is an epic story that covers crucial developments in church history:
- The formation and eventual unification of the early church
- The conversion of the Roman Empire to Catholicism
- The schism between the Roman faith and the Greek Orthodox Church
- The flowering of monasteries across Europe
- The Reformation, in which theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin questioned and eventually broke with the Catholic Church
- The spread of Catholicism outside Europe by missionaries who accompanied explorers in the New World
As you explore this rich history, you also examine the place of the Catholic Church on the world stage. From the impact of the Christian Crusades on the development of international banking to the momentous struggles between monarchs of Europe and the medieval popes to the reforms of Vatican II, you see how the Catholic Church has played an integral role in world events, both shaping and responding to large-scale trends and developments.
The Many Faces of Catholicism
As you delve into this fascinating saga, you quickly see that the Catholic Church—”one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” as it is called in the Nicene Creed, a key doctrine of the faith—actually takes many forms.
Beginning in the early centuries of the church, you trace the many variations of worship and belief that evolved as Christianity spread all over the Mediterranean. You encounter the Ebionites, who retained their Jewish customs and incorporated them into their Christian observances, as well as the Marcionites, who completely rejected Judaism and embraced an offshoot faith that replaced monotheism with a belief in twin gods of good and evil.
As church history progresses, you see how these and other forms of Christianity came into conflict again and again about the true faith, leading to the many councils and decrees that sought to unify the faith. You learn, for example, about how one of the fundamental beliefs of Catholicism—the idea that Jesus is both human and divine—was once a hotly debated topic, leading in the 4th and 5th centuries to councils that established beliefs that are the foundation of the church today.
You also witness how Catholic practice and faith have been transformed by the cultures and peoples it has touched. For example, you see how
- missionaries made Christianity more acceptable to Germanic tribes in early medieval Europe by adapting local practices, such as the use of holy water, and by rechristening pagan holidays as Catholic saints’ days;
- the early Irish church had little contact with the rest of Europe, and so it developed its own practices, including a different date for Easter and a deeper emphasis on monasticism;
- Christianity persisted in Japan despite widespread persecution, and these “secret” Japanese Christians developed their own canonical texts drawn from dimly recalled biblical stories, hymns, and liturgical practices blended with elements of Japanese culture and Buddhism.
Surprising Insights into the Catholic Church
As you review this fascinating history, you gain new insights into Catholicism and learn things about the Catholic Church you never expected—even if you’re a lifelong member.
For example, you see how today’s Catholic Church includes alternative forms of worship found in the often overlooked Eastern Catholic churches of eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and India. You learn how these churches—while fully in communion with Rome—practice the faith in ways that are often surprising to mainstream Catholics, including the option of marriage for clergy and widely varying practices for presenting and sharing the bread and wine for communion.
You explore how today’s Catholic Church differs from the faith of the original apostles and trace how the accepted doctrines of today’s church were the result of long, passionate, and theologically complex debates.
Along the way, you encounter surprising facts and intriguing stories that bring this history to vivid life. For example, did you know:
- The first Christians were all Jews, and there were debates as to whether Gentile followers had to convert to Judaism.
- For the first centuries of the church, there was no single, accepted text for Christianity. Different communities adopted and often produced their own versions of scripture. It wasn’t until A.D. 367 that the list of books we know as the New Testament was first recorded.
- In the year 1046, there were three competing popes, each claiming authority over the church, and from 1309 to 1378, the pope resided not in Rome but in Avignon, France.
- Although most people think of the early centuries of the church as a time of martyrdom, it has been estimated that the 20th century has seen more Catholic martyrs than any other century.
A Unique Perspective on Western History
In telling the story of the Catholic Church, Professor Cook offers more than simply a history of an important institution. Through his comprehensive approach and insightful analysis, Professor Cook deepens your understanding of the flow of events in the history of Western civilization as it was shaped by this one supremely influential organization.
With his expertise in European history generally, and especially in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, Professor Cook offers a perspective that is informative and objective. A noted scholar and historian, he brings an unparalleled intellectual rigor to his presentation, balanced by a deep appreciation of the church’s legacy and impact.
As you join him on this epic journey through Catholic history, you’ll experience how this small gathering of faithful grew and changed in about three centuries to become one of the most powerful forces on the world stage—the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
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