2.3.3 The medieval period

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Unit 2 Contents

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‘Medieval’ means ‘in the middle of the ages’.  It is a term coined by modern historians to refer to the period of, roughly speaking, nine centuries between c.600 and c.1500.  This is between what they call the ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ periods of Western history.  People living in the thirteenth century didn’t say: ‘We’re now living through the medieval period’!

By about 600, the Roman Empire had declined greatly.  This meant that, relative to the heyday of Roman power a few centuries earlier, there was disorder, poverty, poor administration of public life, and lack of education and communication.  Speaking very generally, this remained true of the areas in the former Roman Empire for about 200 years or more.  Gradually, there was a revival of learning and public administration after 800.  Eventually this gave birth to new educational institutions called ‘schools’ and these led, around 1200, to the emergence of ‘universities’ in a few European cities.

These developments accompanied a slow but, in the end, huge revival of Christian theological debate and writing, and indeed of church life.  The thirteenth century can be seen as the peak of this.  It saw both the founding of new religious orders that continue today, notably the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and the emergence of great intellectual figures, including St Bonaventure (a Franciscan) and St Thomas Aquinas (a Dominican).

The developments I have just mentioned relate especially to western Europe, and I concentrate on these simply because they form part of the long-term background to the emergence of CST.

Taking a slightly wider perspective, one of the most significant and, in Christian perspective, tragic things to happen during the medieval period was the divide between eastern Orthodox Christianity, centred on Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey), and western Catholic Christianity, centred on Rome.  This split had been developing since around 600 and became hardened and formalized in 1054.  While this schism had various causes, one pivotal problem was that, influenced by St Augustine’s theology of the Holy Trinity, Christians in the western part of the Church unilaterally added some extra words to the Nicene Creed.1. The eastern Christians saw this as reneging on what had been agreed by the whole Christian Church as far back as the Councils of the Fourth Century.

This divide is still with us.  Students of CST need to keep in mind that, at least since 1054, the Catholic Church’s teaching has not spoken for the whole Christian Church.  Perhaps the Orthodox and Catholic Churches will be able to work to overcome this division by its one thousandth anniversary in 2054.

Thompson’s section on the medieval period focuses on two great figures, St Francis of Assisi himself – the founder of the Franciscans – and St Thomas Aquinas.

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Reading (5pp)

Reading: Thompson, Introducing Catholic Social Thought, pp. 18-23

Notes

  • Thompson refers to Pope John Paul II making St Francis the patron saint of ecology (p. 20).  CST on ecology can be studied in Module A, Unit 3, which includes discussion of St Francis.
  • You will notice that, in connection with Aquinas, Thompson distinguishes between different kinds of justice, notably ‘distributive justice’ and ‘commutative justice’ (pp. 21-22).  When we looked at the meaning of justice in Unit 1, I didn’t introduce ‘commutative justice’.  But we shall give this attention in Unit 3 of this module, so you can pass over this distinction for now.
  • You might notice that Thompson refers too to a principle of CST that Unit 1 did not introduce, namely ‘socialization’ (p. 22).  You can pass over this too here, as we shall look closely at it in Unit 5.

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Reflection

Thompson begins this section by saying:

The Hebrew prophets were sent by God not to offer new insights into justice and right living, but to remind God’s people of the requirements of the covenant.  Although there are important and insightful adaptations of the Christian message to changing historical and cultural circumstances, basically Christian history is a similar story of God’s people failing to live according to the gospel.  (p. 18)

This is a pretty negative assessment of the record of Christians.  Do you think it is fair?  Reflect on it in light (a) of what you know of Church history, and (b) of your experience and observation of Christians now?

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End of 2.3.3

Go to 2.3.4 The early modern period

Module B outline

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  1. In western churches, the words “and the son” (Latin, filioque) came to be added in this way: we believe “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son…” 

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