The Golden Age of the Catholic Church

By Rev. John Trigilio, Rev. Kenneth Brighenti

During the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Church flourished — especially under Pope Innocent III. The Church was at its zenith both spiritually and politically. In fact, never again would these two spheres be united so strongly in the Church.

Two new orders developed at this time: the Dominicans and Franciscans. They were known as mendicant orders because they didn’t own any property and relied on alms. They weren’t cloistered; rather, they became itinerant preachers, going from town to town preaching the Gospel. So instead of people going to the monastery for religion, the monastery now came to them.

The building of the great cathedrals occurred during this period in history. The architecture was gothic, and the new style allowed for high vaulted ceilings and large, stained-glass windows.

Books were rare during this time because the printing press hadn’t been invented yet. Manuscripts were penned by hand and were very expensive, so the general public was predominantly illiterate. Stained-glass windows became picture-bibles for the peasants.

Every important city wanted a bigger cathedral than the others. Building these houses of God took centuries and kept people employed when a war or insurrection wasn’t taking place. Today, travelers to France and Germany can still visit these awesome testimonies of faith. This period also saw a rise of towns, guilds, and societies. Great artists also flourished during this period. Giotto di Bondone (1266?–1337) painted with perspective and drew realistic scenes of men, women, and nature.

This was also a time of great literature: Dante Alighieri of Florence (1265–1321) wrote the greatest of all Christian poems, the Divine Comedy, which is a story of an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven; Geoffrey Chaucer of England (1343–1400) wrote the Canterbury Tales, which are vignettes of pilgrims on their way to a shrine.

Universities developed in the Middle Ages. First, they were attached to the cathedrals and staffed for the education of clergy. Later, they branched out into the secular sciences. Bologna developed a school of law; Paris, philosophy, rhetoric, and theology; and Salerno, a school of medicine. Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Glasgow, Prague, and Dublin universities all began at this time, too. With great schools came great teachers, such as Peter Lombard, St. Albert the Great, Hugh of Saint Victor, Alexander of Hales, and John Duns Scotus — just to name a few. The two most notable and influential intellects and scholars were St. Thomas Aquinas (a member of the Dominican order) and St. Bonaventure (a Franciscan).