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The Catholic Church considers Pentecost to be the beginning of its own history.[1][2] According to historians, the Apostles traveled to northern Africa, Asia Minor, Arabia, Greece, and Rome to found the first Christian communities,[1][3] over 40 of which had been established by the year 100.[4] Early Christians refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods or to worship Roman rulers as gods and were thus subject to persecution.[5] This began under Nero in the first century and persisted through the great persecution of Diocletian and Galerius, which was seen as a final attempt to wipe out Christianity.[6] Nevertheless, Christianity continued to spread and was eventually legalized in 313 under Constantine's Edict of Milan.[7]

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer

Early Christians were slaughtered as entertainment in the Colosseum in Rome. Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883.

During this era of persecution, the early Church evolved both in doctrinal and structural ways. The apostles convened the first Church council, the Council of Jerusalem, in or around the year 50 to resolve issues concerning evangelization of Gentiles.[8] While competing forms of Christianity emerged early, the Roman Church retained this practice of meeting in ecumenical councils to ensure that any internal doctrinal differences were quickly resolved, which facilitated broad doctrinal unity within the mainstream churches.[9][10] From as early as the first century, the Church of Rome was recognized as a doctrinal authority because it was believed that the Apostles Peter and Paul had led the Church there.[11][12][13] The concept of the primacy of the Roman bishop over other churches was increasingly recognized by the church at large from at least the second century.[14][15] From the year 100 onward, teachers like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus defined Catholic teaching in stark opposition to Gnosticism.[16] Church teachings and traditions were influenced over time by other Church Fathers such as Pope Clement I, Justin Martyr, Augustine of Hippo.[17] In 325, the First Council of Nicaea convened in response to the threat of Arianism, formulated the Nicene Creed as a basic statement of Christian belief,[18] and divided the church into geographical and administrative areas called dioceses.[19] Although this council sanctioned the primacy of three dioceses—Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch—Rome had certain qualities that destined it for particular prominence; it was considered the see of Peter and Paul, it was located in the capital of the empire, church scholars were desirous of obtaining the Roman bishop's support in doctrinal disputes, and it was wealthy and known for supporting other churches around the world.[20]

Emperor Constantine I commissioned the first Basilica of St. Peter and several other sites of lasting importance to Christianity.[21] By this time, the altar as the focal point of each church, the sign of the cross, and the liturgical calendar had been established[22] and in 380, Christianity was declared the sole religion of the Empire.[23] The Council of Rome in 382 created the first Bible when it listed the accepted books of the Old and New Testament.[24] The Council of Ephesus in 431[25] and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 defined the relationship of Christ's divine and human natures, leading to split with the Nestorians and Monophysites.[9] The Council of Chalcedon also elevated the See of Constantinople to a position "second in eminence and power to the bishop of Rome".[26][27]

Early Middle Ages

During the Migration Period, the Catholic faith competed with Arianism for the conversion of the barbarian tribes.[28] The 496 conversion of Clovis I, pagan king of the Franks, marked the beginning of a steady rise of the Catholic faith in the West.[29] The Rule of St Benedict, composed by Benedict in 530, became a blueprint for the organization of monasteries throughout Europe.[30] The new monasteries preserved classical craft and artistic skills while maintaining intellectual culture within their schools, scriptoria and libraries. As well as providing a focus for spiritual life, they functioned as agricultural, economic and production centers, particularly in remote regions, becoming major conduits of civilization.[31]

Pope Gregory the Great reformed church practice and administration around 600 and launched renewed missionary efforts[32] which were complemented by other missionary efforts[33] from the Celtic monks of the British Isles.[34] Missionaries such as Augustine of Canterbury, Saint Boniface, Willibrord and Ansgar took Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples.[33] In the same period the Visigoths and Lombards moved from Arianism toward Catholicism,[29] and in Britain the full reunion of the Celtic churches with Rome was effectively marked by the Synod of Whitby in 664.[34] Later missionary efforts by Saints Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century reached greater Moravia and introduced, along with Christianity, the Cyrillic alphabet used in the southern and eastern Slavic languages.[35] While Christianity continued to expand in Europe, Islam presented a significant military threat to Western Christendom.[36] By 715, Muslim armies had conquered Syria, Jerusalem, Caesarea, Alexandria, Iraq and Persia, Carthage and all of Spain.[37]

A conflict arose in the Eastern Church in the 8th century, over the use of images in religious worship.[38][39] In 787, the Second Council of Nicaea ruled in favor of icons but the dispute continued into the early 9th century.[39] The militant support of most of the Byzantine emperors for the iconoclasts led to a growing estrangement from the Papacy, which sided strongly with the supporters of images, the iconodules. The consequent alliance between the Pope and the Franks resulted in the creation of the papal states and the coronation of the Frankish King Charlemagne as Western Emperor in 800. This created its own problems for the Church as succeeding Western emperors sought to impose an increasingly tight control over the popes.[40][41]

Eastern and Western Christendom grew further apart in the 9th century. Conflicts arose over ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Byzantine-controlled south of Italy, missionaries to Bulgaria and a brief schism revolving around Photios of Constantinople.[38][42] Although this was resolved, further disagreements led to Pope and Patriarch excommunicating each other in 1054, commonly considered the date of the East–West Schism.[43] The Western (Latin) branch of Christianity has since become known as the Catholic Church, while the Eastern (Greek) branch became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church.[44][45] Efforts to mend the rift were attempted at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 and Council of Florence in 1439 and, even though in each case both the Eastern Emperor and Eastern Patriarch agreed to the reunion, both failed to heal the schism[46] because "they never affected the general life of the Churches".[47] Some Eastern churches have subsequently reunited with the Catholic Church.[45] In spite of recent attempts at reunification, the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Church remain in schism although excommunications were mutually lifted in 1965.[48]

High Middle Ages

The Cluniac reform of monasteries that had begun in 910 sparked widespread monastic growth and renewal.[49] Monasteries introduced new technologies and crops, fostered the creation and preservation of literature and promoted economic growth. Monasteries, convents and cathedrals still operated virtually all schools and libraries.[50][51] Despite a church ban on the practice of usury the larger abbeys functioned as sources for economic credit.[52] The 11th and 12th century saw internal efforts to reform the church. The college of cardinals in 1059 was created to free papal elections from interference by Emperor and nobility. Lay investiture of bishops, a source of rulers' dominance over the Church, was attacked by reformers and under Pope Gregory VII, erupted into the Investiture Controversy between Pope and Emperor. The matter was eventually settled with the Concordat of Worms in 1122 where it was agreed that bishops would be selected in accordance with Church law.[53][54]


Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont (1095), where he preached the First Crusade; later manuscript illumination of c. 1490

In 1095, Byzantine emperor Alexius I appealed to Pope Urban II for help against renewed Muslim invasions,[55] which caused Urban to launch the First Crusade aimed at aiding the Byzantine Empire and returning the Holy Land to Christian control.[47][56] The goal was not permanently realized, and episodes of brutality committed by the armies of both sides left a legacy of mutual distrust between Muslims and Western and Eastern Christians.[57] The sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, conducted against papal authorisation, left Eastern Christians embittered and was a decisive event that permanently solidified the schism between the churches.[58][59]

The crusades also saw the formation of military orders which included the Hospitallers, Templars and later, the Teutonic Knights all of whom provided social services as well as guardianship of pilgrim routes.[60] The Teutonic Knights conquered the then-pagan Prussia.[60] The Templars became noted bankers and creditors who were eliminated by a debtor, King Philip IV of France shortly after 1300.[61] Later, mendicant orders were founded by Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzmán which brought consecrated religious life into urban settings.[62] These orders also played a large role in the development of cathedral schools into universities, the direct ancestors of the modern Western institutions.[63] Notable scholastic theologians such as the Dominican Thomas Aquinas worked at these universities, his Summa Theologica was a key intellectual achievement in its synthesis of Aristotelian thought and Christianity.[64]

12th century France witnessed the emergence of Catharism, a belief which stated that matter was evil, "prohibited marriage, encouraged suicide, and ... combined asceticism with immorality."[65] After a papal legate was put to death by the Cathars in 1208, Pope Innocent III declared the Albigensian Crusade.[66] Abuses committed during the crusade prompted Innocent III to informally institute the first papal inquisition to prevent future abuses and to root out the remaining Cathars.[67][68] Formalized under Gregory IX, this Medieval inquisition put to death an average of three people per year for heresy at its height.[61][68]

Over time, other inquisitions were launched by secular rulers to prosecute heretics, often with the approval of Church hierarchy, to respond to the threat of Muslim invasion or for political purposes.[69] King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain formed an inquisition in 1480, originally to deal with distrusted converts from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism.[70] Over a 350-year period, this Spanish Inquisition executed between 3,000 and 4,000 people,[71] representing around two percent of those accused.[72] In 1482 Pope Sixtus IV condemned the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, but Ferdinand ignored his protests.[73] Some historians agree that for centuries Protestant propaganda and popular literature exaggerated the horrors of the inquisitions in an effort to associate the entire Catholic Church with crimes most often committed by secular rulers.[74][75][76] Over all, one percent of those tried by the inquisitions received death penalties, leading some scholars to consider them rather lenient when compared to the secular courts of the period.[71][77] The inquisition played a major role in the final expulsion of Islam from Sicily and Spain.[36]

At the end of the 13th century, Pope Boniface VIII was involved in a heated conflict with the French king. Subsequently, the Papacy came under French dominance, with Clement V in 1309 moving to Avignon, then located just outside the French borders.[78] The Avignon Papacy ended in 1376 when the Pope returned to Rome[79][80] but was soon followed in 1378 by the 38-year-long Western schism with separate claimants to the papacy in Rome, Avignon and (after 1409) Pisa, backed by conflicting secular rulers.[81] The matter was finally resolved in 1417 at the Council of Constance where the three claimants either resigned or were deposed and held a new election naming Martin V Pope.[81] The council could not prevent religious schism and the Hussite Wars in Bohemia.

Late Medieval and Renaissance

Just before the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1453,[82] in an effort to combat the spread of Islam, Pope Nicholas V granted Portugal the right to subdue and even enslave Muslims, pagans and other unbelievers in the papal bull Dum Diversas (1452). Several decades later European explorers and missionaries spread Catholicism to the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania. Pope Alexander VI had awarded colonial rights over most of the newly discovered lands to Spain and Portugal[83] and the ensuing patronato system allowed state authorities, not the Vatican, to control all clerical appointments in the new colonies.[84] Although the Spanish monarchs tried to curb abuses committed against the Amerindians by explorers and conquerors,[85] Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar, openly rebuked the Spanish rulers of Hispaniola in 1511 for their "cruelty and tyranny" in dealing with the American natives.[86][87] King Ferdinand enacted the Laws of Burgos and Valladolid in response. The issue resulted in a crisis of conscience in 16th-century Spain[87][88] and, through the writings of Catholic clergy such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria, led to debate on the nature of human rights[87] and to the birth of modern international law.[89][90] Enforcement of these laws was lax, and some historians blame the Church for not doing enough to liberate the Indians; others point to the Church as the only voice raised on behalf of indigenous peoples.[91] Nevertheless, Amerindian populations suffered serious decline due to new diseases, inadvertently introduced through contact with Europeans, which created a labor vacuum in the New World.[85]

In 1521 the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan made the first Catholic converts in the Philippines.[92] The following year, the first Franciscan missionaries arrived in Mexico, establishing schools, model farms and hospitals. When some Europeans questioned whether the Indians were truly human and worthy of baptism, Pope Paul III in the 1537 bull Sublimis Deus confirmed that "their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans" and they should neither be robbed nor turned into slaves.[93][94][95] Over the next 150 years, missions expanded into southwestern North America.[96] Native people were often legally defined as children, and priests took on a paternalistic role, sometimes enforced with corporal punishment.[97] Elsewhere, Portuguese missionaries under the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier evangelized in India and Japan.[98] By the end of the 16th century tens of thousands of Japanese followed Roman Catholicism. Church growth came to a halt in 1597 under the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu who, in an effort to isolate the country from foreign influences, launched a severe persecution of Christians or Kirishitan's.[99] An underground minority Christian population survived throughout this period of persecution and enforced isolation which was eventually lifted in the 19th century.[99][100]

Whitby abbey

Whitby Abbey England, one of hundreds of European monasteries destroyed during the Reformation

In 1509, the scholar Erasmus wrote In Praise of Folly, a work which captured a widely held unease about corruption in the Church.[101] The Council of Constance, the Council of Basel and the Fifth Lateran Council had all attempted to reform internal Church abuses but had failed.[102] As a result, rich, powerful and worldly men like Roderigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) were able to win election to the papacy.[102][103] In 1517, Martin Luther included his Ninety-Five Theses in a letter to several bishops.[104][105] His theses protested key points of Catholic doctrine as well as the sale of indulgences.[104][105] Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and others further criticized Catholic teachings. These challenges developed into a large and all encompassing European movement called the Protestant Reformation.[20][106] In Germany, the reformation led to a nine-year war between the Protestant Schmalkaldic League and the Catholic Emperor Charles V. In 1618 a far graver conflict, the Thirty Years' War, followed.[107] In France, a series of conflicts termed the French Wars of Religion were fought from 1562 to 1598 between the Huguenots and the forces of the French Catholic League. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre marked the turning point in this war.[108] Survivors regrouped under Henry of Navarre who became Catholic and began the first experiment in religious toleration with his 1598 Edict of Nantes.[108] This Edict, which granted civil and religious toleration to Protestants, was hesitantly accepted by Pope Clement VIII.[107][109]

The English Reformation under Henry VIII began more as a political than as a theological dispute. When the annulment of his marriage was denied by the pope, Henry had Parliament pass the Acts of Supremacy which made him, and not the pope, head of the English Church.[110][111] Although he strove to maintain the substance of traditional Catholicism, Henry initiated and supported the confiscation and dissolution of monasteries, friaries, convents and shrines throughout England, Wales and Ireland.[110][112][113] Under Henry's daughter, Mary I, England was reunited with Rome, but the following monarch, Elizabeth I, restored a separate church which outlawed Catholic priests[114] and prevented Catholics from educating their children and taking part in political life[115][116] until the first Catholic Relief Act of 1778 began the process of eliminating many of the anti-Catholic laws.[117][118]

The Catholic Church responded to doctrinal challenges and abuses highlighted by the Reformation at the Council of Trent (1545–1563), which became the driving force of the Counter-Reformation. Doctrinally, it reaffirmed central Catholic teachings such as transubstantiation, and the requirement for love and hope as well as faith to attain salvation.[119] It also made structural reforms, most importantly by improving the education of the clergy and laity and consolidating the central jurisdiction of the Roman Curia.[119][120][121][note 1] To popularize Counter-Reformation teachings, the Church encouraged the Baroque style in art, music and architecture,[124] and new religious orders were founded. These included the Theatines, Barnabites and Jesuits, some of which became the great missionary orders of later years.[125] The Jesuits quickly "assumed a leading role in education as a battleground for hearts and minds" during the Counter-Reformation[126] and the writings of figures such as Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales and Philip Neri spawned new schools of spirituality within the Church.[127] In central Europe, the Counter-Reformation presented the Habsburg dynasty with an opportunity to "combat Protestantism and consolidate their realms in the name of God".[126]


Toward the latter part of the 17th century, Pope Innocent XI reformed abuses by the Church, including simony, nepotism and the lavish papal expenditures that had caused him to inherit a large papal debt.[128] He promoted missionary activity, tried to unite Europe against the Turkish invasions, and condemned religious persecution of all kinds.[128] In 1685 King Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, ending a century-long experiment in religious toleration. This and other religious conflicts of the Reformation era provoked a backlash against Christianity, which helped spawn the violent anti-clericalism of the French Revolution. Direct attacks on the wealth of the Church and associated grievances led to the wholesale nationalisation of church property in France.[129] Large numbers of French priests refused to take an oath of compliance to the National Assembly, leading to the Church being outlawed and replaced by a new religion of the worship of "Reason".[129][note 2] Napoleon later re-established the Catholic Church in France through the Concordat of 1801.[130] The end of the Napoleonic wars brought Catholic revival, renewed enthusiasm, and new respect for the papacy.[131]


The Jesuit Reduction of São Miguel das Missões, in Brazil

In the Americas, Franciscan priest Junípero Serra founded a series of new missions in cooperation with the Spanish government and military.[132] These missions brought grain, cattle and a new way of living to the Indian tribes of California. San Francisco was founded in 1776 and Los Angeles in 1781. In a challenge to Spanish and Portuguese policy, Pope Gregory XVI, began to appoint his own candidates as bishops in the colonies, condemned slavery and the slave trade in the 1839 papal bull In Supremo Apostolatus, and approved the ordination of native clergy in the face of government racism.[133] Yet in spite of these advances, the Amerindian population continued to suffer decline from exposure to European diseases.[134]

In South America, Jesuit missionaries tried to protect native peoples from enslavement by establishing semi-independent settlements called reductions. In China, despite Jesuit efforts to find compromise, the Chinese Rites controversy led the Kangxi Emperor to outlaw Christian missions in 1721.[135] These events added fuel to growing criticism of the Jesuits, who were seen to symbolize the independent power of the Church, and in 1773 European rulers united to force Pope Clement XIV to dissolve the order.[136] The Jesuits were eventually restored in the 1814 papal bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum.[137]

Industrial age

By the close of the 19th century, European powers had managed to gain control of most of the African interior.[138] The new rulers introduced cash-based economies which created an enormous demand for literacy and a western education—a demand which for most Africans could only be satisfied by Christian missionaries.[138] Catholic missionaries followed colonial governments into Africa, and built schools, hospitals, monasteries and churches.[138] At the same time, in response to growing concern about the deteriorating working and living conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum. This set out Catholic social teaching in terms that rejected socialism but advocated the regulation of working conditions, the establishment of a living wage and the right of workers to form trade unions.[139]

Although the infallibility of the Church in doctrinal matters had always been a Church dogma, the First Vatican Council, which convened in 1870, affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility when exercised in certain specifically defined pronouncements.[140][141] This decision in many eyes gave the pope "enormous moral and spiritual authority over the worldwide" Church.[142] Reaction to the pronouncement resulted in the breakaway of a group of mainly German churches which subsequently formed the Old Catholic Church.[143] The loss of the papal states to the Italian unification movement created what came to be known as the Roman Question,[144] a territorial dispute between the papacy and the Italian government that was not resolved until the 1929 Lateran Treaty granted sovereignty to the Holy See over Vatican City.[145] Church power and influence over Western society declined during this period with the rise of rationalism, secularism, nationalism, anti-clericalism, liberalism and freemasonry.[142]

In Latin America, a succession of anti-clerical regimes came to power beginning in the 1830s.[146] One such regime emerged in Mexico in 1860. Church properties were confiscated and basic civil and political rights were denied to religious orders and the clergy. The even more severe Calles Law introduced during the rule of atheist Plutarco Elías Calles eventually led to the "worst guerilla war in Latin American History", the Cristero War.[147] Between 1926 and 1934, over 3,000 priests were exiled or assassinated.[148][149] In an effort to prove that "God would not defend the Church", Calles ordered Church desecrations where services were mocked, nuns were raped and captured priests were shot.[147] Calles was eventually deposed[147] and despite the persecution, the Church in Mexico continued to grow. A 2000 census reported that 88 percent of Mexicans identify as Catholic.[150] In the twentieth century, General Juan Perón's, Argentina and Fidel Castro's Cuba saw extensive persecution of the priesthood, and confiscation of Catholic properties.[151][152] In Europe a particularly violent outbreak of anti-clerical persecution took place in 1936 Spain. Because priests and nuns were symbols of conservatism, they were murdered in "large numbers" during the Spanish Civil War by republicans and anarchists.[153] Confiscation of Church properties and restrictions on people's religious freedoms have generally accompanied secularist and Marxist-leaning governmental reforms.[154]

Survivors liberation dachau

Surviving prisoners at Dachau concentration camp wave on liberation day. Of the 2700 ministers who were ultimately imprisoned there during World War II, over 2600 were Roman Catholic priests; 2000 were ultimately put to death.[155]

Before the outbreak of World War II in the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, Pope Pius XI "condemned the neopaganism of the Nazi ideology – especially its theory of racial superiority...".[156] Drafted by the future Pope Pius XII[157] and read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches, it described Adolf Hitler as an insane and arrogant prophet and was the first official denunciation of Nazism made by any major organization.[158] Pius XI later warned a group of pilgrims that antisemitism is incompatible with Christianity.[156] Nazi reprisals against the Church in Germany followed thereafter, including "staged prosecutions of monks for homosexuality, with the maximum of publicity".[159] When Dutch bishops protested against the wartime deportation of Jews, the Nazis responded with harsher measures[158] rounding up 92 converts including Edith Stein who were then deported and murdered.[160] "The brutality of the retaliation made an enormous impression on Pius XII."[160] In Poland, the Nazis murdered over 2,500 monks and priests and even more were imprisoned.[159] In the Soviet Union an even more severe persecution occurred.[159] After the war, historians such as David Kertzer accused the Church of encouraging centuries of antisemitism, and Pope Pius XII of not doing enough to stop Nazi atrocities.[161] Prominent members of the Jewish community contradicted the criticisms of Pius and spoke highly of his efforts to protect Jews;[162] Pinchas Lapide declared Pius XII "was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands".[163] Even so, in 2000 Pope John Paul II on behalf of all people, apologized to Jews by inserting a prayer at the Western Wall that read "We're deeply saddened by the behavior of those in the course of history who have caused the children of God to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."[164] This papal apology, one of many issued by Pope John Paul II for past human and Church failings throughout history, was especially important because John Paul II emphasized Church guilt for, and the Second Vatican Council's condemnation of, anti-Semitism.[165] The papal letter We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, urged Catholics to repent "of past errors and infidelities" and "renew the awareness of the Hebrew roots of their faith."[165][166]

The aftermath of World War II saw atheistic communist governments in Eastern Europe severely restrict religious freedoms. Even though some clerics collaborated with the regime,[167] the Church's resistance and the leadership of Pope John Paul II have been credited with hastening the downfall of communist governments across Europe in 1991.[168] The Communist rise to power in China of 1949 led to the expulsion of all foreign missionaries, "often after cruel and farcical 'public trials'."[169] In an effort to further detach Chinese Catholics, the new government created the Patriotic Church independent of the worldwide Catholic Church.[169] Rome subsequently rejected its bishops.[170] The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s encouraged gangs of teenagers to eliminate all places of worship and turn their occupants into labourers. When Chinese churches eventually reopened they remained under the control of the Communist party's Patriotic Church, and many Catholic pastors and priests continued to be sent to prison for refusing to break allegiance with Rome.[170]

Second Vatican Council and beyond

The Catholic Church engaged in a comprehensive process of reform following the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).[171] Intended as a continuation of Vatican I, under Pope John XXIII the council developed into an engine of modernisation, making pronouncements on religious freedom, the nature of the church and the mission of the laity.[171] It also permitted the Latin liturgical rites to use vernacular languages as well as Latin during mass and other sacraments.[172] Christian unity became a greater priority.[173] In addition to finding more common ground with Protestant Churches, the Catholic Church has again discussed the possibility of unity with the Eastern Orthodox Church.[174]

Changes to old rites and ceremonies following Vatican II produced a variety of responses. Although "most Catholics ... accepted the changes more or less gracefully", some stopped going to church and others tried to preserve the old liturgy with the help of sympathetic priests.[175] The latter form the basis of today's Traditionalist Catholic groups, which believe that the reforms of Vatican II have gone too far. Liberal Catholics form another dissenting group, and feel that the Vatican II reforms did not go far enough. The liberal views of theologians such as Hans Küng and Charles Curran, led to Church withdrawal of their authorization to teach as Catholics.[176]

In the 1960s, growing social awareness and politicization in the Latin American Church gave birth to liberation theology. The Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez, became a primary theorist and, in 1979, the bishops' conference in Mexico officially declared the Latin American Church's "preferential option for the poor".[177] Archbishop Óscar Romero, a supporter of the movement, became the region's most famous contemporary martyr in 1980, when he was murdered while saying mass by forces allied with the government.[178] Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) denounced the movement.[179] The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff was twice ordered to cease publishing and teaching.[177] Pope John Paul II was criticized for his severity in dealing with proponents of the movement, but he maintained that the Church, in its efforts to champion the poor, should not do so by resorting to violence or partisan politics.[180] The movement is still alive in Latin America today, although the Church now faces the challenge of Pentecostal revival in much of the region.[179]

The sexual revolution of the 1960s precipitated Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae which rejected the use of contraception, including sterilization, claiming these work against the intimate relationship and moral order of husband and wife by directly opposing God's will.[181] It approved Natural Family Planning as a legitimate means to limit family size.[181] Abortion was condemned by the Church as early as the first century, again in the fourteenth century and again in 1995 with Pope John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae.[182] This encyclical condemned the "culture of death" which the pope often used to describe societal embrace of euthanasia, contraception, genocide, suicide, capital punishment and abortion.[182][183] The Church's rejection of the use of condoms has provoked criticism, especially with respect to countries where the incidence of AIDS and HIV has reached epidemic proportions. The Church maintains that in countries like Kenya and Uganda, where behavioral changes are encouraged alongside condom use, greater progress in controlling the disease has been made than in those countries solely promoting condoms.[184][185] Feminists disagreed with these and other Church teachings and worked together with a coalition of American nuns to lead the Church to consider the ordination of women.[186] They noted that many of the major Church documents were full of anti-female prejudice and a number of studies were conducted to discover how this prejudice developed when it was deemed contrary to the openness of Jesus.[186] These events led Pope John Paul II to issue the 1988 encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem, which declared that women had a different, yet equally important role in the Church.[187][188] In 1994 the encyclical Ordinatio Sacerdotalis further explained that the Church follows the example of Jesus, who chose only men for the specific priestly duty.[189][190][191]

Major lawsuits emerged in 2001 claiming some priests had sexually abused minors.[192] In the US, the country with the vast majority of sex abuse cases,[193] the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a comprehensive study that found that four percent of all priests who served in the US from 1950 to 2002 faced some sort of sexual accusation.[194][195] The Church was widely criticized when it emerged that some bishops had known about abuse allegations, and reassigned accused priests after first sending them to psychiatric counseling.[192][195][196][197] Some bishops and psychiatrists contended that the prevailing psychology of the times suggested that people could be cured of such behavior through counseling.[196][198] Pope John Paul II responded by declaring that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young".[199] The US Church instituted reforms to prevent future abuse including requiring background checks for Church employees and volunteers;[200][201] and, because the vast majority of victims were teenage boys, the worldwide Church also prohibited the ordination of men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies".[202][198] Some commentators, such as journalist Jon Dougherty, have argued that media coverage of the issue has been excessive, given that the same problems plague other institutions, such as the US public school system, with much greater frequency.[203][204][205]



World Youth Day is a popular Catholic faith themed international youth event initiated by Pope John Paul II.

As in ages past, the pope remains an international leader who regularly receives heads of state from around the world. As the representative of the Holy See, he also holds a seat at, and occasionally addresses, the United Nations.[206] The 2005 election of Pope Benedict XVI saw a continuation of the policies of his predecessors. His first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) discussed the various forms of love re-emphasizing marriage and the centrality of charity to the Church's mission.[207] On his 2008 visit to the United States he was received with special dignity by the president and his Masses were televised live on the major national news networks. Even though the Vatican condemned the Iraq War as a "defeat for reason and for the Gospel",[208] when asked why the Pope received such special attention, George W. Bush said, "One, he speaks for millions. Two, he doesn't come as a politician; he comes as a man of faith...".[209]

Following Muslim offense over his Regensburg address, where he quoted a Byzantine emperor's remarks that criticized Islam, a May 2008 summit between the pope and a delegation of Muslims came to an agreement that religion is essentially non-violent, and that violence can be justified neither by reason nor by faith.[210] In contrast with periods of perceived religious and scientific intolerance in the past, today's Church seeks dialogue like this with other faiths and Christian denominations. It also sponsors the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a body whose international membership includes Stephen Hawking and Nobel laureates such as Charles Hard Townes among many others, and which provides the pope with valuable insights into scientific matters.[211] In politics, the Church actively encourages support for candidates who would "protect human life, promote family life, pursue social justice, and practice solidarity" which translate into support for traditional views of marriage, welcoming and support for the poor and immigrants, and those who would work against abortion.

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