1. The ecclesiastical organization
During the High Middle Ages , the clergy was divided into secular and regular . The secular clergy consisted of elders, deacons, bishops, metropolitans, patriarchs, and pope. It was called secular because its components lived in contact with the saeculum, (non-ecclesiastical world). Already the regular clergy was composed of monks, followers of a rule that preached, essentially, chastity, poverty and charity. This clergy proposed a more spiritual behavior and the removal of mundane, material things.
The clergy that first organized was the secular one; the regular came as a reaction to it. The first monks appeared in the Roman Empire around the third century. But it was St. Benedict of Nury who organized on Monte Cassino (Italy) the first monastery, which proposed, in addition to normal vows, obedience, productive work and prayers. It was the Benedictine rule. By this rule, the monks should obey the abbot, head of the monastery, chosen by the monks themselves.
At the social level, in a global way, we can divide the clergy into high and low. The high clergy were composed of members of the feudal nobility who became bishops or abbots. The lower clergy were of more modest origin, being made up of priests and monks. Any Christian could join the clergy, except the servants, for they were bound to the land they cultivated.
The rule of choice of the abbots by the monks and bishops by the priests was not followed during the Middle Ages. The bishops were invested in their functions by the counts, dukes, kings and emperors. Thus, the chosen ones did not always have regulated life, as it would be convenient for a religious.
They were indeed ecclesiastical lords who enjoyed the income of the bishoprics and abbeys received from the lay suzerains as fiefs, and were thus obliged to perform the normal duties of any vassal. This lay investiture had harmful repercussions on the clergy. The bishops and abbots had immoral lives for a religious and negatively influenced the lower clergy, leading the monks to marry or have lovers. This moral renegade of the clergy is called nicolaísmo (because Nicholas, a bishop, preached the right of marriage of the clerics). Another problem arising is simony, which consisted in negotiating sacred things – including ecclesiastical offices.
Around the tenth century, the reaction movements began within the Church itself against lay investiture, simony and nicolaeism, leading to the Investiture Tale (struggle between the Germanic emperors and the Papacy).
2. The Christianization of Europe
The process of Christianizing Europe was very slow. It extended from the 5th to the 11th century. It was divided into two stages: baptism and conversion. Baptism was the initial phase, in which only the chiefs of the Germanic tribes were baptized, considering the ceremony extensive to their commanders. The most difficult was to convert, that is, to teach doctrine (dogmas, morals and obligations).
The Papacy’s role in this religious enterprise was enormous. It began with Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), the true political and religious leader of Rome, supreme ruler of all Christendom. Gregory sought to reconnect the Christian Churches and monasteries scattered throughout the Western world and separated by the invasions of the fifth century. He encouraged the faith of clerics and religious culture through writings such as the Pastoral Rule. He also composed religious hymns, the so-called Gregorian chant .
Gregory encouraged the conversion of pagans and Christians belonging to the Aryan sect, that is, adherents of the heresy of Year, a bishop who preached that Christ was a creature of a human nature.
For their encouragement, monks went to Britannia, where the Anglo-Saxons were converted, under the leadership of St. Augustine (not to be confused with the theologian of the same name), who founded the first bishopric in the country. Other monks left Ireland, which had already been Christianized, to convert the barbarians of Northern England and the pagans of Scotland. These two streams of evangelization later came as a shock, since their teachings were not exactly the same.
The Anglo-Saxon monasteries became important cultural centers in the High Middle Ages, not only because they preserved works of Classical Antiquity, but also for the erudition of many of their monks. The greatest representative of the intellectual life of this period was Beda the Venerable, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the monastery of Jarrow.
From England many missionaries went to Germany, where the work of St Boniface was outstanding; this, later, would organize the Church among the Franks.
At the end of the sixth century, the Lombards (a Germanic people) invaded northern Italy. In the following century, they expanded their rule in the region and, from 752 onwards, began to threaten Rome, whose ruler was indeed the pope, as bishop of the city. The Franks, commanded by Pepino the Brief, rushed to the aid of the pontiff. Pepin defeated the Lombards (756) and donated to the Papacy the territories he had conquered in Central Italy. This created the Patrimony of St. Peter (later states of the Church), over which the pope possessed temporal power.
Connections with the rising Franco State strengthened the Papacy, but at the same time placed it in dependence on the Carolingians. Charlemagne, for example, often intervened in the choice of bishops. For the Church, this relationship had a positive aspect, since the lay state became interested in the diffusion of the Christian faith among the pagans; but it also had a negative side because it subjected the papacy to a temporal authority and encouraged lay investiture (an act by which a non-ecclesiastical authority, such as a king or emperor, appointed a bishop and put him into the exercise of his ecclesiastical function). As a consequence, the practice of simony (trafficking of sacred things and ecclesiastical positions) and of nicolaísmo (marriage or concubinage of members of the clergy) grew.
3. The organization of the Church
The evolution of ecclesiastical organization and the progress of evangelization in Europe (which broadened the area of influence of the pope) are the basic factors in explaining the Church’s reaction against the interference of temporal power.
The Church was organized along the lines of a pontifical monarchy (one of the titles attributed to the Pope was that of the Supreme Pontiff). The bishops, who were originally elected by the elders and approved by the popular acclamation, were chosen by the pope. To resolve issues concerning the Church in other countries, the pope sent special representatives, the papal legates. At the central level, the Roman Curia , divided into several departments, administered the vast empire of the Church.
The summit of the ecclesiastical hierarchy was part of the College of Cardinals , which from 1058 onwards elected the Pope. The expenses of the pontifical monarchy were covered by the incomes of the papal domains, with the remittances of funds from the dioceses and monasteries, with the tributes paid by the vassal states of the Papacy and with the money of St. Peter’s – voluntary contribution of the faithful, all of Christendom.
The secular clergy were formed by the archbishops (heads of the ecclesiastical provinces or archdioceses), the bishops (heads of the dioceses) and the common priests. Below the bishops and above the common priests were the priests , who administered the parishes – local churches, erected in villages or in neighborhoods of larger cities.
The regular clergy were formed by monks or friars, who lived in community in the monasteries or convents. The smaller monasteries were subordinated to a larger one, led by an abbot. The regular clergy comprised numerous orders or congregations, each with its specific rule. The first rule for monks in Europe was elaborated by St. Benedict, founder of the Order of Benedictines.
In the tenth century, a reformist and moralizing movement that gave rise to the Order of Cluny began within the regular clergy . It was intended, as an example, to encourage the regular clergy to return to the principles established in the rule of Saint Benedict (chastity, poverty, charity, obedience, prayers and work). It was the clonic monks who urged the Papacy to dispel the pernicious influence of temporal power on the Church.
But the monasteries of Cluny fell into the same disrespect of the others, which provoked the emergence of new reformist movements. These, in turn, ended up focusing on the same faults, and then appeared other congregations imbued with the same ideals. One of the most rigorous rules was that of the Cistercians (or Order of Cister ), founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
In the thirteenth century, a great innovation took place within the regular clergy: the emergence of mendicant orders , so called because they preached absolute poverty and lived from the charity of the faithful. The Franciscans originated from St. Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy father, but who disposed of his material goods to live in total simplicity (1210). The Dominicans come from Santo Domingo, a Spanish nobleman who founded a congregation dedicated to preaching to the faithful together, in order to strengthen them in the Catholic faith (1215). These two orders produced great thinkers in the Middle Ages, such as the Franciscan Rogério Bacon and the Dominican Tomas de Aquino.