Skip to content

Ecclesiastical History

Free World Class Education
FREE Catholic Classes


Ecclesiastical history is the scientific investigation and the methodical description of the temporal development of the Church considered as an institution founded by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Ghost for the salvation of mankind.

In a general way the subject matter of history is everything that suffers change owing to its existence in time and space ; more particularly, however, it is the genetical or natural development of facts, events, situations, that history contemplates. The principal subject of history is man, since the external changes in his life affect closely his intellectual interests. Objectively speaking, history is the genetical development of the human mind and of human life itself in its various aspects, as it comes before us in series of facts, whether these pertain to individuals, or to the whole human race, or to any of its various groups. Viewed subjectively, history is the apperception and description of this development, and, in the scientific sense, the comprehension of the same set forth in a methodical and systematic manner.

The history of mankind may have as many divisions as human life has aspects or sides. Its noblest form is the history of religion, as it developed in the past among the different groups of the human race. Reason shows that there can be only one true religion, based on the true knowledge and the proper worship of the one God. Thanks to the light of revelation we know that this one true religion is the Christian religion, and, since there are different forms of the Christian religion , that the true religion is in particular the one known as Catholic, concrete and visible in the Catholic Church. The history of Christianity, therefore, or more properly the history of the Catholic Church, is the most important and edifying part of the history of religion. Furthermore, the history of religion is necessarily a history of religious associations, since the specifically human, that is, moral -- and therefore religious -- life, is necessarily social in character. Every religion, therefore, aims naturally at some form of social organization, Christianity all the more so, since it is the highest and most perfect religion. There are three stages in the formation of religious associations:

  • The religious associations of pagans, i.e. of those who had or have no clear knowledge of the one true God. Among them every people has its own gods, religion coincides with nationality and lives no independent life, while the religious association is closely connected or rather wholly bound up with the civil order, and is, like the latter, essentially particularistic.
  • The religious community of the Jews. Although this also was closely connected with the theocratic government of the Jewish people, and hence particularistic and confined to one nation, it was still the custodian of Divine revelation.
  • Christianity, which contains the fullness or perfection of Divine revelation , made known to mankind by the Son of God Himself. In it are realized all the prototypes that appear in Judaism. By its very nature it is universal, destined for all men and all ages. It differs profoundly from all other organizations, lives its own independent life, possesses in its fullness all religious truth and, in opposition to the Jewish religion , recognizes the spirit of love as its highest principle, and penetrates and comprehends the whole spiritual life of man. Its cult is at once the sublimest and purest form of Divine worship. It is in every sense without a peer among human associations.
  • The annals of Christianity in its widest sense are occasionally dated from the creation of man, seeing that a Divine revelation was made to him from the beginning. However, since Christ is the founder of the perfect religion which derives from Him its name, and which He established as a free and independent association and a sublime common possession of the whole human race, the history of Christianity maybe more naturally taken to begin with the earthly life of the Son of God. The historian, however, must deal with the ages preceding this momentous period, in so far as they prepared mankind for the coming of Christ, and are a necessary elucidation of those factors which influenced the historical development of Christianity. (See LAW, NATURAL, MORAL, DIVINE; GOD.)

    The external historical form of Christianity, viewed as the religious association of all the faithful who believe in Christ, is the Church. As the institution which the Son of God founded for the realization on earth of the Kingdom of God and for the sanctification of man, the Church has a double element, the Divine and the human. The Divine element comprises all the truths of Faith which her Founder entrusted to her -- His legislation and the fundamental principles of her organization as an institute destined for the guidance of the faithful, the practice of Divine worship, and the guardianship of all the means by which man receives and sustains his supernatural life (see SACRAMENTS; GRACE). The human element in the Church appears in the manner in which the Divine element manifests itself with the co-operation of the human free will and under the influence of earthly factors. The Divine element is unchangeable, and, strictly speaking, does not fall within the scope of history; the human element on the other hand is subject to change and development, and it is owing to it that the Church has a history. Change appears first of all by reason of the extension of the Church throughout the world since its foundation. During this expansion various influences revealed themselves, partly from within the Church, partly from without, in consequence of which the expansion of Christianity was either hindered or advanced. The inner life of the Christian religion is influenced by various factors: moral earnestness, for example, and a serious realization of the aims of the Church on the part of Christians promote the attainment of her interests; on the other hand, when a worldly spirit and a low standard of morality infect many of her members, the Church's action is gravely impeded. Consequently although the teaching of the Church is in itself, as to its material content, unchangeable considered as supernatural revelation, there is still room for a formal development of our scientific apprehension and explanation of it by means of our natural faculties. The development of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and constitution, of the worship of the Church, of the legislation and discipline which regulate the relations between the members of the Church and maintain order, offers not a few changes which are a proper subject for historical investigation.

    We are now in a position to grasp the scope of ecclesiastical history. It consists in the scientific investigation and methodical treatment of the life of the Church in all its manifestations from the beginning of its existence to our own day among the various divisions of mankind hitherto reached by Christianity. While the Church remains essentially the same despite the changes which she undergoes in time, these changes help to exhibit more fully her internal and external life. As to the latter, ecclesiastical history makes known in detail the local and temporal expansion or restriction of the Church in the various countries, and indicates the factors influencing the same (History of Missions, in the widest sense), also the attitude which individual states or political bodies and other religious associations assume towards her (History of Ecclesiastical Polity, of Heresies and their Refutation, and of the Relations of the Church with Non-Catholic Religious Associations). If we turn to the internal life of the Church, ecclesiastical history treats of the development of ecclesiastical teaching, based on the original supernatural deposit of faith (History of Dogma, of Ecclesiastical Theology, and Ecclesiastical Sciences in general), of the development of ecclesiastical worship in its various forms (History of Liturgy ), of the utilization of the arts in the service of the Church, especially in connexion with worship (History of Ecclesiastical Art ), of the forms of ecclesiastical government and the exercise of ecclesiastical functions (History of the Hierarchy, of the Constitution and Law of the Church ), of the different ways of cultivating the perfect religious life (History of Religious Orders), of the manifestations of religious life and sentiment among the people, and of the disciplinary rules whereby Christian morality is cultivated and preserved and the faithful are sanctified (History of Discipline, Religious Life, Christian Civilization.)


    The ecclesiastical historian must apply the principles and general rules of the historical method exactly and in their entirety, and must accept at their proper value all facts which have been proved to be certain. The cornerstone of all historical science is the careful establishment of facts. The ecclesiastical historian will accomplish this by a full knowledge and critical treatment of the sources. An objective, reasonable, and unbiased interpretation of the sources, based on the laws of criticism, is the first principle of the true method of ecclesiastical history. Systematic instruction in this field is obtained through the historical sciences usually known as auxiliary or introductory, i.e. palæography, diplomatics, and criticism.

    Secondly, in discussing the facts, ecclesiastical history must ascertain and explain the relation of cause and effect in the events. it is not sufficient merely to establish a certain series of events in their objective appearance; the historian is also bound to lay bare their causes and effects. Nor does it suffice to consider only those factors which lie on the surface and are suggested by the events themselves, as it were: the internal, deeper, and real causes must be brought to light. As in the physical world there is no effect without an adequate cause, so too in the spiritual and moral world every phenomenon has its particular cause, and is in turn the cause of other phenomena. In the ethical and religious world the facts are the concrete realization or outcome of definite spiritual ideas and forces, not only in the life of the individual, but also in that of groups and associations. Individuals and groups without exception are members of the one human race created for a sublime destiny beyond this mortal life. Thus, the action of the individual exercises its influence on the development of the whole human race, and this is true in a special manner of the religious life. Ecclesiastical history must therefore give us an insight into this moral and religious life, and lay clearly before us the development of the ideas active therein, as they appear both in the individual and in the groups of the human race. Moreover, to discover fully the really decisive causes of a given event, the historian must take into account all the forces that concur in producing it. This is particularly true of the free will of man, a consideration of great importance in forming a judgment about ethical phenomena. It follows that the influence of given individuals on the development of the whole body must be properly appreciated. Moreover, the ideas once current in religious, social, and political spheres, and which often survive in the masses of the people, must be justly appreciated, for they help, though as a rule imperceptibly, to determine the voluntary acts of individuals, and thereby to prepare the way for the work of especially prominent persons, and thus make possible the influence of individuals upon the whole race. Scientific church history must therefore take into consideration both the individual and the general factors in its investigation of the genetic connexion of the outward phenomena, at the same time never losing sight of the freedom of man's will. The ecclesiastical historian, moreover, can by no means exclude the possibility of supernatural factors. That God cannot intervene in the course of nature, and that miracles are therefore impossible is an assumption which has not been and cannot be proved, and which makes a correct appreciation of facts in their objective reality impossible. Herein appears the difference between the standpoint of the believing Christian historian, who bears in mind not only the existence of God but also the relations of creatures to Him, and that of the rationalistic and infidel historian, who rejects even the possibility of Divine intervention in the course of natural law.

    The same difference of principle appears in the teleological appreciation of the several phenomena and their causal connexion. The believing ecclesiastical historian is not satisfied with establishing the facts and ascertaining the internal relation of cause and effect; he also estimates the value and importance of the events in their relation to the object of the Church, whose sole Christ-given aim is to realize the Divine economy of salvation for the individual as well as for the whole race and its particular groups. This ideal, however, was not pursued with equal intensity at all times. External causes often exercised great influence. In his judgment on such events, the Christian historian keeps in view the fact that the founder of the Church is the Son of God, and that the Church was instituted by Him in order to communicate to the whole human race , with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, its salvation through Christ. It is from this standpoint that the Christian historian estimates all particular events in their relation to the end or purpose of the Church. The unbelieving historian on the other hand recognizing only natural forces both at the origin and throughout the development of Christianity, and rejecting the possibility of any supernatural intervention is incapable of appreciating the work of the Church in as far as it is the agent of Divine design.

    The foregoing considerations enable us also to understand in what sense ecclesiastical history should be pragmatical. The ecclesiastical historian applies first that philosophical pragmatism which traces the genesis of events from a natural standpoint and in the light of the philosophy of history, and tries to discover the ideas which underlie or are embodied in them. But to this must be added theological pragmatism, which takes its stand on supernatural revealed truth, and strives to recognize the agency of God and His providence, and thus to trace (as far as it is possible for the created mind ) the eternal purpose of God as it manifests itself in time. The Catholic historian insists on the supernatural character of the Church, its doctrines, institutions, and standards of life, in so far as they rest on Divine revelation, and acknowledge the continual guidance of the Church by the Holy Ghost. All this is for him objective reality, certain truth, and the only foundation for the true, scientific pragmatism of ecclesiastical history. This view does not hinder or weaken, but rather guides and confirms the natural historical understanding of events, as well as their true critical investigation and treatment. It also includes full recognition and use of the scientific historical method. As a matter of fact, the history of the Church exhibits most clearly a special guidance and providence of God.

    A final characteristic, which ecclesiastical history has in common with every other species of history, is impartiality. This consists in freedom from every unfounded and personal prejudice against persons or facts, in an honest willingness to acknowledge the truth as conscientious investigation has revealed it, and to describe the facts or events as they were in reality; in the words of Cicero, to assert no falsehood and to hide no truth (ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veri dicere non audeat, "De Oratore", II, ix, 15). It by no means consists in setting aside those supernatural truths we have come to know, or in stripping off all religious convictions. To demand from the ecclesiastical historian an absence of all antecedent views ( Voraussetzungslosigkeit ) is not only entirely unreasonable, but an offence against historical objectivity. It could be maintained only on the hypothesis " ignoramus et ignorabimus ", that is that the end of scientific investigation is not the discovery of truth, but merely the seeking after truth without ever finding it. Such a hypothesis, however, it is quite impossible to defend, for the assertion of sceptics and rationalists that supernatural truth, or even plain objective truth of any kind, is beyond our reach, is itself an antecedent hypothesis upon which the unbelieving historian bases his investigations. It is therefore only a simulated impartiality, which the rationalistic historian displays when he prescinds entirely from religion and the supernatural character of the Church.


    The rich and abundant material for scientific investigation that the long life of the Church offers us, has been variously treated by historians. We must first mention the great exhaustive works of a universal nature, in which the entire temporal development of the Church is taken into account (Universal Ecclesiastical History); alongside of these works we find numerous researches on individuals and particular institutions of the Church (Special Ecclesiastical History). These particular expositions treat either of the internal or external life of the Church, as has been explained at length above, and thus lead to a distinction between internal and external history. There are, however, many works which must consider both phases of religious life : to this class belong not only works on church history in general, but also many whose scope is confined to definite spheres (e.g. Histories of the Popes ). Special ecclesiastical history falls naturally into three main classes. First we meet with accounts of the lives and activity of individuals (Biographies), who were during their lifetime of special importance for the life of the Church. Moreover special ecclesiastical history treats of particular parts and divisions of the Church in such a manner that either the whole history of a given part is discussed or only selected features of the same. Thus we have historical descriptions of single countries or parts of them, e.g. dioceses, parishes, monasteries, churches. To it also belongs the history of missions, a subject of far-reaching importance. Finally, after a selection of special subjects from the entire mass of material (especially of the internal history of the Church), these are separately investigated and treated. Thus we have the history of the popes, of cardinals, of councils, collections of the lives and legends of the saints, the history of orders and congregations; also of patrology, dogma, liturgy, worship, the law, constitution, and social institutions of the Church.


    The office of universal ecclesiastical history is, as its name implies, to exhibit a well-balanced description of all phases of ecclesiastical life. The investigation and treatment of the various phenomena in the life of the Church furnish the material of which universal church history is built. It must first treat of the one true Church which from the time of the Apostles, by its uninterrupted existence and its unique attributes, has proved itself that Christian association which is alone in full possession of revealed truth : the Catholic Church. It must, moreover, deal with those other religious associations which claim to be the Church of Christ, but in reality originated through separation from the true Church. The Catholic historian does not admit that the various forms of the Christian religion may be taken, roughly speaking, as a connected whole, nor does he consider them one and all as so many imperfect attempts to adapt the teachings and institutions of Christ to the changing needs of the times, nor as progressive steps towards a future higher unity wherein alone we must seek the perfect ideal of Christianity. There is but one Divine revelation given us by Christ, but one ecclesiastical tradition based on it; hence one only Church can be the true one, i.e. the Church in which the aforesaid revelation is found in its entirety, and whose institutions have developed on the basis of this revelation and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To assume equality among the various forms of the Christian religion would be equivalent to a denial of the Divine origin and supernatural character of the Church.

    While, however, the Catholic Church is the central subject of universal ecclesiastical history, all other forms of the Christian religion must also be considered by it, for they originated by secession from the true Church, and their founders, in so far as each form can be traced back to a founder, were externally members of the Church. Some of these separated bodies still retain among their institutions certain ecclesiastical forms which were in common use at the time of their separation from the Church, wherefore a knowledge of such institutions is of no little use to students of ecclesiastical conditions previous to the separation. This is true in a special manner of the Oriental Christian communities, their liturgy and discipline. Moreover, such schismatic bodies became, as a rule, the bitterest enemies of the Church ; they harassed and persecuted its faithful adherents and endeavoured in every way to induce them also to secede. New doctrinal discussions arose as a result of these secessions, ending usually in fuller and more exact statements of Christian teaching, and new methods had to be adopted to nullify the attacks made by apostates on the Catholic Faith. In this way non-Catholic communities have often indirectly influenced the development of the interior life of the Church and the growth of new institutions.

    The vast material which, from these points of view, a universal history of the Church must treat, calls of course for methodical arrangement. Ecclesiastical history has generally been divided into three chief periods, each of which is subdivided into shorter epochs characterized by changes of a less universal nature.

    First Period:

    The foundation of the Church and the development of fixed standards of ecclesiastical life within the limits of Græco-Roman civilization. -- In this period the geographical extent of the Church is practically confined to the Mediterranean lands of the Roman empire. Only in a few places, especially in the Orient, did she overstep its boundaries. The uniform and universal Græco-Roman civilization there prevailing was a propitious soil for the growth of the new ecclesiastical life, which displays three main phases.

    • (1) The foundation of the Church by the Apostles, those few but all-important years in which the messengers of God's Kingdom , chosen by Christ Himself, laid out the ground-plan for all subsequent development of the Church (Apostolic Epoch).
    • (2) The expansion and interior formation of the Church amid more or less violent but ever persistent attacks on the part of the Roman government (Epoch of Persecutions ). In the different provinces of the Roman Empire, and in the East even beyond its confines, Christian communities sprang into life guided originally by men who had been appointed by the Apostles and who continued their work. Insignificant at first, these communities increased steadily in membership despite the equally steady opposition of the Roman government and its sanguinary attempts at repression. It was then that the ecclesiastical hierarchy, worship, the religious life assumed fixed forms that conditioned all later development.
    • (3) The third epoch is characterized by a close union between Church and State, by the consequent privileged position of the clergy and the complete conversion of the Roman state (The Christian Empire).

    Heresies regarding the person of the Incarnate Son of God bring to the front important dogmatical questions. The first great councils belong to this epoch, as well as the rich ecclesiastico-theological literature of Christian antiquity. Meanwhile the ecclesiastical hierarchy and administration are developed more fully, the primacy of Rome standing out conspicuously as in the preceding epoch. Monasticism introduces a new and important factor into the life of the Church. The fine arts place themselves at the service of the Church. In the eastern half of the empire, later known as the Byzantine empire, this development went on quite undisturbed; in the West the barbarian invasion changed radically the political conditions, and imposed on the Church the urgent and important task of converting and educating new Western nations, a task which she executed with great success. This brought a new element into the life of the Church, so important that it marks the beginning of a new period.

    Second Period:

    The Church as mistress and guide of the new Romanic, German, and Slavic states of Europe, the secession of Oriental Christendom from ecclesiastical unity and the final overthrow of the Byzantine empire. -- In this period occurred events which for a considerable time greatly affected ecclesiastical life. Three main epochs suggest themselves.

    • (1) The first centuries of this epoch are characterized by the development of a close union between the papacy and the new Western society and by the falling away of the Orient from the centre of ecclesiastical unity at Rome. The Church carried out the great work of civilizing the barbarian nations of Europe. Her activity was consequently very many-sided, and she gained a far-reaching influence not only on religious, but also on political and social life. In this respect the creation of the Western Empire. and its relations with the pope as the head of the Church were characteristic of the position of the medieval Church. A deep decline, it is true, followed this alliance of the popes with the Carlovingians. This decline was manifest not only at Rome, the centre of the Church, where the factious Roman aristocracy used the popes as political tools, but also in different parts of the West. Through the intervention of the German emperor the popes resumed their proper position, but at the same time the influence of the secular power on the government of the Church grew dangerous and insupportable. The action of Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, led to a rupture with Rome, which was destined to become final.
    • (2) A second part of this period shows how the Christian West grew into the great fellowship of the peoples under the supreme guidance of a common religious authority. Popular life everywhere reflects this Christian universalism. In the conflict with the secular power, the popes succeeded in carrying through ecclesiastical reforms, and at the same time set afoot in the West the great movement of the Crusades. All public interests centered in the ecclesiastical life. Nobles and commonalty, filled with the spirit of faith, furthered vigorously through powerful associations the aims of the Church. The papacy rose to the zenith of its power, not only in the religious, but also in the temporal domain. New orders, particularly the mendicant, fostered a genuine religious life in every rank of society. The universities became the centres of a notable intellectual activity, devoted for the most part to the development of theology. The building of magnificent churches was undertaken in the cities and was an evidence at once of the religious zeal and the vigorous self-confidence of the inhabitants. This powerful position of the Church and her representatives entailed, nevertheless, many dangers, arising on the one hand from the increasing worldliness of the hierarchy, and on the other from the opposition to an excessive centralization of ecclesiastical government in the papal curia, and the antagonism of princes and nations to the political power of the ecclesiastical superiors, particularly the popes.
    • (3) In consequence a third epoch of this period is filled with reaction against the evils of the preceding time, and with the evil results of wide-spread worldliness in the Church and the decline of sincerely religious life. It is true that the papacy won a famous victory in its conflict with the German Hohenstaufen, but it soon fell under the influence of the French kings, suffered a grievous loss of authority through the Western Schism and had difficulty at the time of the reform councils ( Constance, Pisa, Basle) in stemming a strong anti-papal tide. Furthermore, the civil authority grew more fully conscious of itself, more secular in temper, and frequently hostile to the Church ; civil encroachments on the ecclesiastical domain multiplied. In general, the spheres of spiritual and secular authority, the rights of the Church and those of the State, were not definitely outlined until after many conflicts, for the most part detrimental to the Church. The Renaissance introduced a new and secular element into intellectual life; it dethroned from their supremacy the long dominant ecclesiastical studies, disseminated widely pagan and materialistic ideas, and opposed its own methods to those of scholasticism, which had in many ways degenerated. The new heresies took on a more general character. The call for "reform of head and members", so loudly voiced in the councils of those days, seemed to justify the growing opposition to ecclesiastical authority. In the councils themselves a false constitutionalism contended for the supreme administration of the Church with the immemorial papal primacy. So many painful phenomena suggest the presence of great abuses in the religious life of the West. Simultaneously, the Byzantine Empire was completely overthrown by the Turks, Islam gained a strong foothold in south-eastern Europe and threatened the entire Christian West.
    Third Period:

    The collapse of religious unity among the two western nations, and the reformation from within of the ecclesiastical life, accomplished during the conflict against the latest of the great heresies. -- Immense geographical expansion of the Church owing to the zealous activity of her missionaries through whom South America, part of North America and numerous adherents in Asia and Africa, were gained for the Catholic Faith. In this period, also, which reaches to our own time, we rightly discern several shorter epochs during which ecclesiastical life is characterized by peculiar and distinctive traits and phenomena.

    • (1) The civil life of the various Western peoples was no longer regarded as identified with the life and aims of the Universal Church. Protestantism cut off whole nations, especially in Central and Northern Europe, from ecclesiastical unity and entered on a conflict with the Church which has not yet terminated. On the other hand, the faithful adherents of the Church were more closely united, while the great Ecumenical Council of Trent laid a firm foundation for a thorough reformation in the inner or domestic life of the Church, which was soon realized through the activity of new orders (especially the Jesuits ) and through an extraordinary series of great saints. The popes again devoted themselves exclusively to their religious mission and took up the Catholic reforms with great energy. The newly discovered countries of the West, and the changed relations between Europe and the Eastern nations aroused in many missionaries a very active zeal for the conversion of the pagan world. The efforts of these messengers of the Faith were crowned with such success that the Church was in some measure compensated for the defection in Europe.
    • (2) The subsequent epoch shows again a decline of ecclesiastical influence and religious life. Since the middle of the seventeenth century, there exist three great religious associations: the true Catholic Church ; the Greek schismatical church, which found a powerful protector in Russia, together with the smaller schismatical churches of the East; Protestantism, which, however, never constituted a united religious association, but split up constantly into numerous sects, accepted the direct supremacy of the secular power, and was by the latter organized in each land as a national church. The growing absolutism of states and princes was in this way strongly furthered. In Catholic countries also the princes tried to use the Church as an "instrumentum regni", and to weaken as much as possible the influence of the papacy. Public life lost steadily its former salutary contact with a universal and powerful religion. Moreover, a thoroughly infidel philosophy now levelled its attacks against Christian revelation in general. Protestantism rapidly begot a race of unbelievers and shallow free-thinkers who spread on all sides a superficial scepticism. The political issue of so many fatal influences was the French Revolution, which in turn inflicted the severest injuries on ecclesiastical life.
    • (3) With the nineteenth century appeared the modern constitutional state based on principles of the broadest political liberty. Although in the first decades of the nineteenth century the Church was often hampered in her work by the downfall of the old political system, she nevertheless secured liberty under the new national popular government, fully developed her own religious energies, and in most countries was able to exhibit an upward movement in every sphere of religious life. Great popes guided this advance with a strong hand despite the loss of their secular power . The Œcumenical Council of the Vatican , by defining papal infallibility, supported with firmness ecclesiastical authority against a false subjectivism. The defection of the Old Catholics was relatively unimportant. While Protestantism is the daily prey of infidelity and loses steadily all claim to be considered a religion based on Divine revelation, the Catholic Church appears in its compact unity as the true guardian of the unadulterated deposit of faith, which its Divine Founder originally entrusted to it. The conflict is ever more active between the Church, as the champion of supernatural revelation, and infidelity, which aims at supremacy in public life, politics, the sciences, literature, and art. The non-European countries begin to play an important role in the world, and point to new fields of ecclesiastical activity. The Catholic faithful have increased so rapidly during the last century, and the importance of several non-European countries on ecclesiastical life has taken on such proportions, that the universal history of the Church is becoming more and more a religious history of the world.

    The great turning-points in the historical development of the Church do not appear suddenly or without due cause. As a rule divers important events occurring within the shorter epochs bring about eventually a change of universal import for the life of the Church, and compel us to recognize the arrival of a new period. Naturally, between these prominent turning-points there are shorter or longer intervals of transition, so that the exact limits of the chief periods are variously set down by different ecclesiastical historians, according to the importance which they severally attach to one or the other of the aforesaid momentous events or situations. The division between the first and second periods has its justification in the fact that, owing to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire and to the relations between the Church and the new Western nations, essentially new forms of life were called into being, while in the East Byzantine culture had become firmly established. The turning-point between the old and the new state of things did not, however, immediately follow the conversion of the Teutonic tribes; a considerable time elapsed before Western life was moving easily in all its new forms. Some (Neander, Jacobi, Baur, etc.) consider the pontificate of Gregory the Great in 590, or (Moeller, Müller), more generally, the end of the sixth and the middle of the seventh century as the close of the first period; others ( Döllinger, Kurtz) take the Sixth General Council in 680, or ( Alzog, Hergenröther, von Funk, Knöpfler) the Trullan synod of 692, or the end of the seventh century; others again close the first period with St. Boniface (Ritter, Niedner), or with the Iconoclasts (Gieseler, Möhler ), or with Charlemagne ( Hefele, Hase, Weingarten ). For the West Kraus regards the beginning of the seventh century as the close of the first period; for the East, the end of the same century. Speaking generally, however, it seems more reasonable to accept the end of the seventh century as the close of the first period. Similarly, along the line of division between the second and the third periods are crowded events of great importance to ecclesiastical life: the Renaissance with its influence upon all intellectual life, the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks, the discovery of America and the new problems which the Church had to solve in consequence, the appearance of Luther and the heresy of Protestantism, the Council of Trent with its decisive influence on the evolution of the interior life of the Church. Protestant historians regard the appearance of Luther as the beginning of the third period. A few Catholic authors (e.g. Kraus ) close the second period with the middle of the fifteenth century; it is to be noted, however, that the new historical factors in the life of the Church which condition the third period become prominent only after the Council of Trent, itself an important result of Protestantism. It seems, therefore, advisable to regard the beginning of the sixteenth century as the commencement of the third period.

    Nor do authors perfectly agree on the turning-points which are to be inserted within the chief periods. It is true that the conversion of Constantine the Great affected the life of the Church so profoundly that the reign of this first Christian emperor is generally accepted as marking a sub-division in the first period. In the second period, especially prominent personalities usually mark the limits of the several sub-divisions, e.g. Charlemagne, Gregory VII, Boniface VIII, though this leads to the undervaluation of other important factors e.g. the Greek Schism, the Crusades. Recent writers, therefore, assume other boundary lines which emphasize the forces active in the life of the Church rather than prominent personalities. In subdividing the third period the same difficulty presents itself. Many historians consider the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century as an event of sufficient importance to demand a new epoch; others, more reasonably perhaps see a distinct epochal line in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), with which the formation of great Protestant territories came to an end. From the above considerations we deduce the following chronological arrangement of general ecclesiastical history:

    First Period:

    Origin and Development of the Church in the ancient Græco-Roman world (from the birth of Christ to the close of the seventh century).

    • (a) First Epoch: Foundation, expansion and formation of the Church despite the oppression of the pagan -Roman state (from Christ to the Edict of Milan, 313).
    • (b) Second Epoch: The Church in close connexion with the Christian-Roman Empire (from the Edict of Milan to the Trullan Synod, 692).
    Second Period:

    The Church as the guide of the Western nations (from the close of the seventh century to the beginning of the sixteenth).

    Join the Movement
    When you sign up below, you don't just join an email list - you're joining an entire movement for Free world class Catholic education.

    Saint of the Day logo
    Prayer of the Day logo

    Catholic Online Logo

    Copyright 2024 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2024 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.

    Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.