THE CHURCH IN MEDIEVAL LIFE During the Middle Ages, two distinct Christian churches emerged: the Orthodox Christian Church in the east and the Roman Catholic Church in the west. (The two branches split permanently in 1054. The Roman Catholic Church became the main stabilizing force in Western Europe. The church provided religious leadership as well as secular, or worldly, leadership. It also played a key role in reviving and preserving learning. At the head of the Roman Catholic Church was the pope, whom followers believed to be the spiritual representative of Jesus on earth. Below the pope came cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and local priests. For peasants and town dwellers, everyday life was closely tied to local priests and the village church. The main responsibility of the church was to serve the spiritual needs of medieval society. Local priests instructed peasants and townspeople in the faith and provided comfort to them in troubled times. The Church taught that all men and women were sinners but that Christians could achieve salvation, or eternal life in heaven, through faith in Jesus, good works, and participation in sacraments, or sacred spiritual rituals. To escape the punishment of hell, they needed to take part in the sacraments of the Church.
Secular Role of the Church The Church filled many secular roles during the Middle Ages. As the largest landholder in Europe, the Church had significant economic power. The Church also gained wealth through the tithe, a tax Christians were required to pay that equaled ten percent of their income. The Church had their own set of laws called canon law, and its own courts of justice. The Church claimed authority over secular rulers, but monarchs did not always recognize this authority. As a result, there were frequent power struggles between the pope in Rome and various kings and emperors. Popes believed that they had the authority over kings. Popes sometimes excommunicated or excluded...
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