Fr. JOHN REDFORD
A step-by-step beginners’ guide to the Catholic faith
THE STORY OF THE CHURCH – II
In Britain, it is very much a part of Western civilization, which now has become very prosperous and highly developed in scientific and technological terms. The things which are so much a part of our everyday life in the West (television, electricity, railways, washing-machines) did not come out of the blue, but have grown up in European countries like Britain, France and Germany which were all Catholic countries in the Middle Ages.
The Church encouraged scientific enquiry at first, one of the first great scientist being a Franciscan Friar, Father Bacon. But a conflict soon arose when it seemed that some scientific ideas about the world did not square with the Bible; although now we are sure that there is no conflict between science and the Bible, because they are teaching different aspects of the truth.
But there was an even bigger conflict in Europe when a German friar called Martin Luther challenged the Pope’s authority over the question of indulgences and, as time went on, Luther became even more bold, and found more and more of the German princes on his side. He challenged the need for the Church to interpret Scripture at all, saying that the Bible alone was sufficient for faith. Thus, eventually, Germany, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, or at least large parts of them, accepted the ‘protestant’ religion.
In England, Henry Tudor VIII gave himself the title ‘Head of the Church’ in his own country, after Cardinal Wolsey had failed to persuade the Pope to give an annulment declaring invalid the King’s marriage with Katherine of Aragon. In defiance of the Pope, Henry went ahead to marry Anne Boleyn, and the schism from Rome of the Church in England began.
Thus, by the middle of the sixteenth century, what was once Catholic Europe was in tatters, with Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland still remaining true to the old faith, but with the remaining countries now broken from Rome. Even other nations like France, still officially Catholic, were threatened with the possibility that they would be converted to the new religious ideas.
The first need was to reform and update the Catholic Church herself. This was done at the Council of Trent, which reformed the Mass, the training of priests, and deepened the understanding of Catholic doctrine. Thus arose a great era of what is called ‘Counter Reformation’, led by the Jesuit order and by the newly-trained secular priests, many of whom died a martyr’s death for their faith.
From now on, there was a new spirit of free inquiry in Europe, which led to the great inventions which are now so much part of our lives, but which also led to the more scientific study of the Bible itself, by both Protestants and Catholics. There was also, however, growth in scepticism and an increasing number of thinking persons who rejected the idea of supernatural religion.
In England, in the nineteenth century, there was a great revival of Catholicism in England, with a prominent Anglican theologian, John Henry Newman, becoming a convert to Catholicism. Great thinkers like Newman grappled with problems presented by atheism and agnosticism, and the Church prospered not only in Europe, but even more in the new colonies in Africa and in South America and in India.
In the twentieth century, marked by great changes due to technological progress, but also by incredible cruelty on a massive scale, the Christian Churches have come much closer together after the Second Vatican Council; and we pray with Christ that divisions may be healed, and ‘that they all may be one…’