The Catholic church

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The Catholic Church was the most important force in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. During the renaissance, a time when Europeans experienced a cultural and spiritual awakening, people started to develop a new attitude about themselves and the world around them. With the thirty years war going on, many started to doubt tradition and doubt the customary ways of doing things. Some began to strongly question the authority and wealth of the church, believing that it may just truly be corrupt.

Michel De Montaigne was quite skeptical of the Christian religion as well. According to him, men in trying to become angels transformed themselves into beasts. In his words: "I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead."

In this passage, Montaigne compares cannibalism, the "barbarous horror" of roasting and eating a dead man, to the European torture of "tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments." By creating such a comparison, Montaigne makes it clear to his reader that it is morally more barbaric to eat a man alive than when he is dead.

The purpose, therefore, of this work is not to decry any specific cannibalistic or Western practices, but rather to convey the universal need for, as Montaigne describes, "stability, not of legs and arms, but of the courage and the soul." By using such language, he is able to bring the reader to a level higher than the simple physicality of these civilizations and their practices." (1) Thus he introduced a new multicultural note into the European civilization.

Then in 1517, a German monk, Martin Luther, pinned a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic Church, on a church door in the town of Wittenberg. Soon printed copies of Luther's complaints spread throughout Germany. Luther's bold act sparked the reformation, a movement whose followers sought to reform the churches infractions. This reform led to a spilt in the church that produced a new form of Christianity known as Protestantism, which spread across Europe.

Because Martin Luther (1483-1546 A.D.) and the Protestant reformation (1517 A.D.) questioned Church authority, the Roman Church lost significant power and influence. The influence of the Reformation became a background factor in Galileo Galilee's conflict with the Church. The Church, in turn, reacted with a list of literature forbidden to Catholics. Included were any writings challenging traditional Scripture interpretation. (3)

Galileo Galilee was loyal to the church his entire life. At the same time, he wasn't truly on the same page as them. He didn't necessarily believe that where science lacked religion could fill in for. He saw no contradiction between religious belief and scientific inquiry, believing that though they may be heading to the same destination, the two are quite distinct from each other. (2)

With these beliefs held in mind, Galileo gripped hold of the horns of Copernicanism, a very controversial theory during this time. "The geocentric view had been dominant since the time of Aristotle, and the controversy engendered by Galileo's opposition to this view resulted in the Catholic Church's prohibiting the advocacy of heliocentrism as potentially factual, because that theory had no decisive proof and was contrary to the literal meaning of Scripture. Galileo was eventually forced to recant his heliocentrism and spent the last years of his life under house arrest on orders of the Inquisition."

He said, "It vexes me when they would constrain science by the authority of the Scriptures, and yet do not consider themselves bound to answer reason and experiment". [Galileo Galilei, The Authority of Scripture in Philosophical Controversies] "Science based on observation is the true source of knowledge of the physical world, as opposed to traditional authority and philosophical speculation."

There were two methods to deriving knowledge. The deductive method strove to find truth purely by reason (Rene Descartes), while the inductive method, a much more in-depth study about independent things, began sweeping the way. Francis Bacon, about 30 years before Descartes, had really begun to prepare the way for this. This scientific method and growth of empirical knowledge, because it turned out to be so practical and useful, had wide sweeping impact on society.

Francis Bacon was a one of the earliest "natural philosophers" in England during the time. He spoke about four idols. The first is Idols of the Tribe, which states that the human understanding is like a false mirror. If people admire someone, love them, and raise them to be their own idol, they will begin to subconsciously and consciously pick up the traits of the one they admire. Idols of the tribe clearly lead to the debasement of the individual mind and lead to corruption of self-preservation. Build strong roots, stand firm, and the disappointment will be minimum. The second is called Idols of Cave stating the spirit of man is governed, as it were, by chance. People who look too far in the future or too far in the past, fall victim to the ill actions of their personal idols, of the cave. Thinking of the past faults and of the future fun one could have, robs from the precious present. Thirdly, the Idols of the Market Place states words plainly force and overrule the understanding. Idols of the Market Place cause misconceptions to occur in society as words are purposely used in the wrong context over and over again. And last but not least, the Idols of the Theater states all the received systems are but so many stage plays. This idol manipulates the masses and corrupts millions of lives with the beliefs of the few.

In 1545, the pope called for a meeting of the church leaders called the Council of Trent where the official teachings of the church and strict rules of behavior were defined. At the same time, a groups which became known as the Jesuits launched a fervent missionary effort to reclaim the former members of the Catholic Church. The Jesuits strongly believed in education and established many schools and universities across Europe.

During the tail end of the 15th century, it was not such a happy time for the rationalists of Europe. They were more like a dying breed at that point because they were overtaken by empiricalism and the growth of science. But reason has a way of organizing society.

In England, King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, declaring himself, not the pope, divine ruler of the English church. By the middle of the 16th century, Europe was divided into a protestant north and a catholic south. Protestantism had become one of Europe's principal religions. To counter the protestant challenge, Catholics decided to respond to some of Luther's complaints, in a movement that become known as the Counter Reformation. The Catholic Church eliminated many of the uses, and redefined its religious beliefs.

Unlike his predecessors, Rene Descartes was a writer for the 17th century instead of the Middle Ages. During that time, the authority of the church, state, and authority of Aristotle carried a lot of weight. So what Descartes did was take a look from the beginning at my beliefs. I'm not going to accept authority. I'm not going to accept any opinion. I'm starting from scratch and look at it as purely an individual. I'm going to look at it for myself and I'm going to say what can I really know, relying only on myself, and not on the authority of anyone else. And that was his method.

Descartes would have believed that the universe was a much more rationally ordered place than it perhaps is. But certainly that first step in his theory though, that radical doubting of all knowledge, leads into this state where we are ourselves tend to say yes we are in that state of radical doubt and it's very hard to get out of it. The next three steps in the method, which take us mathematical through dividing the problem into smaller steps and solving one step at a time then rechecking all over our work, all of that is the basis for a scientific approach. But Descartes most likely thought that what would happen is that the result of that when you reach the end of that would be absolute servitude where you would have absolute knowledge, truth and certainty.

Prior to Descartes, the primary questions were metaphysical questions such as what is the nature of reality?, what is the nature of god?, and by reason alone authorities could come up with the nature of reality. Descartes changed the subject. He asked what are our sources of knowledge?, where does it come from?, and how can we be certain of anything?. This became and is still the agenda of the current years.

From establishing a new religion to building universities, Martin Luther's action in Wittenberg sparked a chain of events resulting in effects we still see today. Power of opposition, desire for change, can ride a wave of determination that shapes history.


  1. Moral Barbarism in Montaigne's "Of Cannibals" Jane Porter '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003
  2. The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers, by Jim Willis, Visible Ink (
  3. Mark Van Bebber, "What is the lesson that Christians should learn from Galileo?", Christian Answers Network (www.ChristianAnswers.Net: Christian Answers Network, 1995