2.4.1 From Christian division to a new search for knowledge

Back to 2.3.4

Unit 2 Contents


The Christian faith is now nearly 2000 years old.  However something most Christians in the Western world now take for granted is much newer, dating from only the last quarter of the Church’s history.  This is the fact that in most cities and towns there are local churches representing a number of different denominations, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc.  It is only in the last 500 years that there has been this division into the several different Christian denominations with which we are now familiar.  Until the sixteenth century there was, institutionally, only one Church in the Western world, the Catholic Church.  But in that century, through the events called the Reformation, it became divided between the Catholic and various Protestant denominations.



The reading on the last screen described briefly both the Reformation and the Catholic response to it, often called the Counter-Reformation.  In light of this, and of other knowledge you perhaps have about these events, what do you make of them?

Thompson describes the result of the Reformation as “the violent fragmentation of the church” and calls this “tragic”.  From what you know so far, would you say these are accurate words?  Can you see positive things about them?


Not only did the Catholic/Protestant division that is still with us begin in the sixteenth century, but for much of the time between about 1550 and 1650, there was real conflict, bloody war, between Catholic and Protestant provinces and countries.  The label ‘The Thirty Years War’ is used to refer to some of these conflicts (although some historians say that there was no neatly defined period of just 30 years of such war).  These were finally brought to an end, more or less, by a hugely significant peace treaty in 1648, known as the Peace of Westphalia.  The basic outcome of this treaty was a Western Europe of separate nation-states, rather like we still have today.

I have begun this outline of the background to the emergence of modern Catholic Social Teaching with the ugly division of Western Christianity 500 years ago because of the long-term effects of this.  During the period of religious war, some intellectuals in Europe became very sceptical about Christian faith – it is easy to understand why.  Such people included Michel de Montaigne, a famous essayist, Rene Descartes, the father of modern Western philosophy, and Thomas Hobbes, an English political philosopher.



Do you know what Descartes is most famous for?

It is a saying in Latin in three words, Cogito ergo sum.  Do you know what this means in English?


Such thinkers were not always hostile to the Christian religion in theory, but they became very doubtful about its then current manifestations, Catholic and Protestant, and especially its claims to authority.  In particular they distrusted the inherited teaching and traditions of Catholicism and they doubted the Protestant emphasis on the Bible.  Instead of looking to these sources for what is true and for how people are to live, they began an entirely new search for knowledge.  They thought that use of human reason alone, without any dependence on Scripture or on what the Catholic Church taught, was the way to gain firm and secure knowledge.

It’s incidental to the main story we need to follow, but this explains the significance of Descartes’ saying, Cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’.  He held that the only way to obtain certain knowledge was to doubt everything he thought knew until he found a secure foundation.  He argued that, if you or I do this, we can be certain only of our own individual existence, and this is because we are thinking.  If you are thinking, you must exist.  This conclusion was the foundation on which he thought he could then build.  This unit is not the place to look into this subject, but many others have argued that there are other ways of gaining trustworthy information and reliable knowledge.

That search for new knowledge became allied with a new way of seeing the world around us.  It became viewed as a big mechanism, like a huge clock, which it is possible to investigate by experimentation in order to discover how it works.  (This way of seeing the world doesn’t seem new now – on the contrary, it’s the ‘default setting’ in how most modern Western people think of it.  But this didn’t used to be the case.)  Out of this combination of factors came what historians call the ‘seventeenth century scientific revolution’. These developments then inspired what became an immense movement known then and now as ‘the Enlightenment’.  This term refers to the heyday in the eighteenth century of the new search for knowledge on the basis of human reason alone.  It led, by about 1750, to self-conscious rejection of Christian faith by many leading thinkers, even if they retained a bare belief in the existence of God as the ‘first cause’.  (Very few people actually became atheists until much later.)



Note  This screen is very similar but not identical to Module A, 2.1.2.


End of 2.4.1

Go to 2.4.2 The French Revolution and its long tail

Module B outline

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