Social Issues in the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were a time of intellectual growth and dramatic social change.
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The Middle Ages were a time of enormous upheaval for Europeans and the Catholic Church. Social changes created by the rise of European universities and the spread of the Black Death transformed the face of European society. In addition, Catholic policies regarding economics and the family were being rewritten for a new age, introducing new beliefs and practices to society.

1 Education

During the 12th century, a new concept called "scholasticism" emerged within the Catholic Church. Initially, the church disapproved of scholasticism, which it feared would undermine faith and promote heresy; however, its eventual acceptance led to the development of prominent scholars such as Thomas Aquinas who used logic and traditional philosophy to understand nature and the Bible. In the early Middle Ages, the church established cathedral schools to educate the clergy. These led to the establishment of the university system in Europe and to the early spread of literacy throughout the non-clerical population of Europe.

2 Women and the Family

It was the official policy of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages that women were subservient to men in all things, although this was not always observed in practice. The church officially disapproved of sexuality even between married partners and attempted to legislate the days and seasons of the year when married couples could be intimate. Despite this, believers were strongly encouraged to reproduce as a means of strengthening the church. The Catholic Church established a policy forbidding divorce in the fifth century; however, this doctrine conflicted with and was superseded by preexisting secular laws that allowed divorce in almost every European country.

3 Poverty

As society became increasingly stratified after the 11th century, Europeans began to become aware of a growing class of poor people. Some governments denied legal protection to the poor, raising concern within the church. Catholic monastic factions felt that poverty was a holy way of life and that feeding the poor worked against the will of God; however, a group known as canonists argued that it was the church's responsibility to care for those in need. This group began to fight for legal protection and to provide services for the poor, eventually leading to the creation of Europe's first hospitals and to a sense of responsibility for the poor within the church.

4 The Black Death

Terrible famines at the end of the 13th century paved the way for the Black Death, a catastrophic pandemic that killed millions of people throughout Europe. Casualties among the clergy were high, leaving the church with inexperienced and often corrupt leadership. The large-scale loss of life resulted in a shift in European cultural priorities away from the church and toward the growth of science and innovation among the laity. This shift, coupled with growing dissatisfaction regarding church corruption, eventually lead to the Protestant Reformation and to the beginning of a new era in Europe.

Agatha Clark is from Portland, Ore., and has been writing about culture since 2001. She specializes in intercultural communication and is completing a Bachelor Arts at the University of Oregon with double majors in linguistics and Spanish. Clark is fascinated by expressions of human psychology and culture. Before refocusing her educational path toward language, she originally went to school to become an artist.