HomeMiddle AgesChurch in the Middle AgesHistorical Basis of Church Structure and Hierarchy in the Middle Ages

Historical Basis of Church Structure and Hierarchy in the Middle Ages



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The Church in the Middle Ages forged a context to preserve integrity and structure. The rise and growth of Christianity in the Mediterranean world coincided with Imperial Romes slow transformation which, in the western part of the empire, contributed to a European culture that, around AD 300, would slowly evolve into separate political states such as England and France. Christianity, identified in the West with the Catholic Church, often competed with secular powers and, in the process, developed a hierarchy and structure that not only allowed it to expand, but to maintain a separate sphere of control over every aspect of post-Roman Western Civilization.

The structure of the Church dictated a complex and ever-expanding role in the lives of all inhabitants in Western European society and culture. Local bishops represented this structure, and though often competing with secular leaders for power, integrated the Christian institution into every aspect of life. This included the yearly calendar which followed the chief religious festivals and days devoted to particularly important saints to the everyday habits and practices of peasants and, later in the Middle Ages, townspeople and non-agricultural workers. Church structure, led by the papacy, ensured the strength and expansion of daily practices involving not only worship and pilgrimage, but the most minute actions of all inhabitants.

As the Church expanded in Western Europe following the conversion of pagan tribes and as the Church hierarchy grew in power and influence, corruption frequently threatened the integrity of the institution. Reform movements, such as the early tenth century Cluny reforms or the efforts of extraordinary leaders like Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Innocent III, and Francis of Assisi, never sought to do away with the hierarchy or structure of the Church but merely to restore the institution in order to conform to its sacred vision and mission.

Early Middle Ages political institutions, flowing out of the feudal system and evolving into strict patterns of obligations and power, competed with the Church, often resulting in conflict. It is important to note, however, that even in the worst of circumstances, such as the imposition of papal interdict or the excommunication of powerful kings and lords, the secular motive was never to compel change in the functions of the Church, such as the sacraments and rites of the institution, but to confront Church power as it was expressed through individual popes and bishops. Henry IV, during the investiture crisis in 1075 for example, wanted to name his own archbishops and when thwarted by Pope Gregory VII, sought to depose the pope himself. Henry’s motives were political and rooted in secular power; at no time did Henry attempt to do away with the Church structure or question its foundations.

At the same time, Gregory VII was a reformer who attempted to strengthen the papacy by asserting the power of that institution as it was originally constructed. The logical extension of that power was compelled by the expansion of the Church over the first several decades of Western European growth in the early Middle Ages. The everyday functions of the Church in every parish and in every household, from peasant to Holy Roman Emperor, represented the mission of the Church as expressed in the structure and hierarchy. If corruption or secular power challenged the structure in terms of individual popes and bishops, the overriding mission of the Church as expressed in and through its leadership was never questioned. Priests and bishops could be removed but such actions could not ultimately harm the integrity of an apostolic Church that would resist challenges to doctrine and practice.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century represented the first large scale challenge not only to the structure and hierarchy of the Church but to its core beliefs. As the Reformation expanded in Europe, challenges to the Church also became political in an attempt to destroy its power and confiscate its wealth. The English Reformation under King Henry VIII is a major example of this. Much later, the French Revolution of 1789 represented a similar challenge: revolutionary France was virulently anti-Catholic, equating the Church with the hated Second Estate. Secular ideologies coming out of that revolutionary experience in the nineteenth century, for example, questioned not only the structure and hierarchy of the Church, but attempted to undermine the mission and practices of the Church. The response of the Church was logical: maintaining and preserving the integrity of the institution through structure and hierarchy.

Maintaining Church integrity did not mean compromising core beliefs. Core beliefs, in the modern era, were more clearly defined and subjected to  greater prominence such as the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception. The historical record of the Church within Western Civilization demonstrates that reform and revival efforts were never aimed at core beliefs and values and were never intended to do away with existing structure and hierarchy. Even Martin Luther, considered the father of the sixteenth century Reformation, began his criticism with dialogue and debate and only broke with the Church when it became apparent that his understanding of Scripture precluded the organization, structure, and hierarchy. Like John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century, Luthers ultimate criticisms denied that structure and hierarchy, something the subsequent Council of Trent or counter-Reformation could not accept without harming the integrity of the institution.

If the Church remains true to its historical record, no man would be elected pope if reform included the destruction of existing structure and hierarchy. Thus, issues such as celibacy and the ordination of women would not be considered.


Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages 300 – 1475, McGraw-Hill, 1992