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The Catholic Church: A History

The Catholic Church: A History

Professor William R. Cook Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Course No.  6640
Course No.  6640
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

The Catholic Church. It began as a small band of supporters following the teachings of an itinerant preacher in an outpost of the Roman Empire. From there, the church expanded both its size and its importance in the grand scheme of Western history. Consider that the Catholic Church

  • steered Western civilization through historical events such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Reformation;
  • influenced the political ideas and actions of powerful leaders in a variety of European nations;
  • made deep contributions to the Western philosophical tradition through the works of religious philosophers such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas;
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The Catholic Church. It began as a small band of supporters following the teachings of an itinerant preacher in an outpost of the Roman Empire. From there, the church expanded both its size and its importance in the grand scheme of Western history. Consider that the Catholic Church

  • steered Western civilization through historical events such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Reformation;
  • influenced the political ideas and actions of powerful leaders in a variety of European nations;
  • made deep contributions to the Western philosophical tradition through the works of religious philosophers such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas;
  • funded and inspired the creation of fantastic works of religious art and literature, such as northern Europe's Gothic cathedrals, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, and Dante's Divine Comedy;
  • and much more.

Today, the church is the oldest continuously active organization on Earth and one of the most influential institutions in the world—a force capable of moving armies, inspiring saints, and shaping the lives of a billion members.

But how did this powerful institution develop out of the early church community—a loosely associated group of disciples who were inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus? Why do today's Catholics worship the way they do? How has this institution influenced world history far beyond the walls of its churches and monasteries?

In The Catholic Church: A History, you'll explore these and other questions as you follow the development of this important institution in 36 informative, fascinating lectures. With noted historian and Professor William R. Cook as your guide, you'll step into the world of the early church, hear tales of the martyrdom of the first Christian saints, witness the spread of Christendom across Europe, and learn about the origins of fundamental church institutions.

For Catholics, it's an enlightening and inspirational tale that deepens the meaning of faith. But the story is equally compelling for those outside the church. The history of the Catholic Church informs all Christian faiths, providing fascinating insights into the origins and development of a wide array of practices and beliefs.

The course also provides a unique and illuminating perspective on world history and politics as viewed through the lens of Catholic history. Throughout the course, Professor Cook delineates how broader historical events affected the development of the church, as well as how the church itself influenced the movement of history. Indeed, no understanding of Western civilization is complete without an understanding of this remarkable institution.

The Church from Ancient Times to Modern Days

Your journey begins as you travel back to the first years of the church, when Jesus's disciples and their many followers developed communities of faith where their beliefs flourished. Guided by Professor Cook, you delve into crucial early church documents, such as the letters of Paul, and gain an intriguing glimpse into the lives of these early believers.

From there, you'll witness the development and spread of this nascent religion into the far reaches of the Roman Empire and throughout the world. This comprehensive survey is an epic story that covers crucial developments in church history:

  • The formation and eventual unification of the early church
  • The conversion of the Roman Empire to Catholicism
  • The schism between the Roman faith and the Greek Orthodox Church
  • The flowering of monasteries across Europe
  • The Reformation, in which theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin questioned and eventually broke with the Catholic Church
  • The spread of Catholicism outside Europe by missionaries who accompanied explorers in the New World

As you explore this rich history, you also examine the place of the Catholic Church on the world stage. From the impact of the Christian Crusades on the development of international banking to the momentous struggles between monarchs of Europe and the medieval popes to the reforms of Vatican II, you see how the Catholic Church has played an integral role in world events, both shaping and responding to large-scale trends and developments.

The Many Faces of Catholicism

As you delve into this fascinating saga, you quickly see that the Catholic Church—"one holy catholic and apostolic Church," as it is called in the Nicene Creed, a key doctrine of the faith—actually takes many forms.

Beginning in the early centuries of the church, you trace the many variations of worship and belief that evolved as Christianity spread all over the Mediterranean. You encounter the Ebionites, who retained their Jewish customs and incorporated them into their Christian observances, as well as the Marcionites, who completely rejected Judaism and embraced an offshoot faith that replaced monotheism with a belief in twin gods of good and evil.

As church history progresses, you see how these and other forms of Christianity came into conflict again and again about the true faith, leading to the many councils and decrees that sought to unify the faith. You learn, for example, about how one of the fundamental beliefs of Catholicism—the idea that Jesus is both human and divine—was once a hotly debated topic, leading in the 4th and 5th centuries to councils that established beliefs that are the foundation of the church today.

You also witness how Catholic practice and faith have been transformed by the cultures and peoples it has touched. For example, you see how

  • missionaries made Christianity more acceptable to Germanic tribes in early medieval Europe by adapting local practices, such as the use of holy water, and by rechristening pagan holidays as Catholic saints' days;
  • the early Irish church had little contact with the rest of Europe, and so it developed its own practices, including a different date for Easter and a deeper emphasis on monasticism;
  • Christianity persisted in Japan despite widespread persecution, and these "secret" Japanese Christians developed their own canonical texts drawn from dimly recalled biblical stories, hymns, and liturgical practices blended with elements of Japanese culture and Buddhism.

Surprising Insights into the Catholic Church

As you review this fascinating history, you gain new insights into Catholicism and learn things about the Catholic Church you never expected—even if you're a lifelong member.

For example, you see how today's Catholic Church includes alternative forms of worship found in the often overlooked Eastern Catholic churches of eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and India. You learn how these churches—while fully in communion with Rome—practice the faith in ways that are often surprising to mainstream Catholics, including the option of marriage for clergy and widely varying practices for presenting and sharing the bread and wine for communion.

You explore how today's Catholic Church differs from the faith of the original apostles and trace how the accepted doctrines of today's church were the result of long, passionate, and theologically complex debates.

Along the way, you encounter surprising facts and intriguing stories that bring this history to vivid life. For example, did you know:

  • The first Christians were all Jews, and there were debates as to whether Gentile followers had to convert to Judaism.
  • For the first centuries of the church, there was no single, accepted text for Christianity. Different communities adopted and often produced their own versions of scripture. It wasn't until A.D. 367 that the list of books we know as the New Testament was first recorded.
  • In the year 1046, there were three competing popes, each claiming authority over the church, and from 1309 to 1378, the pope resided not in Rome but in Avignon, France.
  • Although most people think of the early centuries of the church as a time of martyrdom, it has been estimated that the 20th century has seen more Catholic martyrs than any other century.

A Unique Perspective on Western History

In telling the story of the Catholic Church, Professor Cook offers more than simply a history of an important institution. Through his comprehensive approach and insightful analysis, Professor Cook deepens your understanding of the flow of events in the history of Western civilization as it was shaped by this one supremely influential organization.

With his expertise in European history generally, and especially in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, Professor Cook offers a perspective that is informative and objective. A noted scholar and historian, he brings an unparalleled intellectual rigor to his presentation, balanced by a deep appreciation of the church's legacy and impact.

As you join him on this epic journey through Catholic history, you'll experience how this small gathering of faithful grew and changed in about three centuries to become one of the most powerful forces on the world stage—the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church."

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    From Jesus to the Creation of the Church
    In the earliest days of the Christian faith, there was no church—no single institution or practice to guide the followers of Jesus. Step into the world of the early church and investigate the roots of Christianity as found in ancient Jewish traditions and the gospel. x
  • 2
    The First Christian Institutions
    In the first centuries A.D., the followers of Christ evolved from a loose band of disciples into tight-knit communities of worship. Catch a glimpse of these communities in some of the earliest Christian documents, including the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. x
  • 3
    Christianities in the Early Church
    Christianity quickly spread all over the Mediterranean region in the first few centuries. Learn how believers adapted the practice of their faith to create a great diversity of worship in the early church. x
  • 4
    Persecution and Saints
    As the Christian church grew and spread, it quickly caught the attention of the Roman emperor, who viewed the faithful as a threat to imperial authority and Roman culture. Learn about the widespread persecution of Christians that followed and led to a new class of Christian heroes, the martyred saints. x
  • 5
    Peace between Empire and Church
    In A.D. 312, Christianity gained a powerful ally when the Roman emperor Constantine adopted the faith of Jesus as his own. See how this shift affected Christian believers as the church went from being a persecuted minority to a privileged minority. x
  • 6
    Institutional and Doctrinal Developments
    Freed from Roman persecution, the church underwent an institutional revolution, developing an organizational structure and unified doctrine still recognizable into today's Catholic Church. Examine the origin and impact of these changes, from the development of a church hierarchy to the establishment of orthodox beliefs. x
  • 7
    Latin Theology, Including Augustine
    As Christianity became the chief religion of Rome, Latin overtook Greek in the West as the premiere language of the faith. Examine the rich developments of Latin church theology, from the earliest thinkers to the most important father of Christian theology, Augustine. x
  • 8
    Popes and Bishops in the Early Middle Ages
    Christian society was thrown into turmoil by the fall of Roman authority as civic structures collapsed and citizens were left prey to marauding bands of Germanic tribes. Learn how the church provided leadership in the chaos that followed, ultimately consolidating power for its chief officials, the pope and the bishops. x
  • 9
    Monasticism—Benedict and His Rule
    Starting in the 3rd century, some Christians began to seek a way to live more like Christ by dedicating themselves to a life of poverty and contemplation. Trace the development of this movement and examine the preeminent form of monasticism in the West. x
  • 10
    Evangelizing Northern and Eastern Europe
    While Christianity first took root in the Roman Empire, it eventually spread to the rest of Europe. Trace this expansion and survey the variations in worship that developed throughout the regions of modern-day Ireland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Germany. x
  • 11
    The Germanization of Christianity
    Christianity changed the lives of its believers, but how did these new believers affect the shape of the faith? Here, investigate the many ways that Germanic culture left its mark on Christianity in ways that affect adherents of the faith to this day. x
  • 12
    Charlemagne and the Church in Feudal Times
    During the tumultuous Middle Ages, Charlemagne undertook the political, cultural, and religious unification of most of western Europe. Examine how these efforts ultimately collapsed but led to a major development: the establishment of the Papal States. x
  • 13
    Monks and Hermits—New Forms of Monasticism
    By the end of the 10th century, corruption and political unrest plagued the Catholic Church, leading to deep and lasting reforms in monastic practice. Learn about these reforms and the new monastic orders—the Carthusians and Cistercians—that were established in response. x
  • 14
    Papal Reform and Church-State Controversies
    The 11th century was a period of unsettlement, resulting in the tumultuous schism between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. Investigate the causes and effects of this split as well as a reformation of the papacy known as the Gregorian Reform. x
  • 15
    Crusade, Heresy, Inquisition
    At the end of the 11th century, the church confronted two major challenges to its authority: the rise of Islam and the development of alternative heretical Christian doctrines. Learn how the church responded to these challenges through the Crusades and the Papal Inquisition. x
  • 16
    The Papacy—Innocent III to Boniface VIII
    The 13th century saw the rise of the papal monarchy as the church increasingly sought secular authority over lands in the Italian peninsula and beyond. Here, probe the complex political maneuvers that contributed to this move toward secular power and the ultimate collapse of the papal monarchy. x
  • 17
    Francis, Dominic, and the Mendicants
    With the rapid growth of cities in the 12th and 13th centuries, the church needed to respond to the problems and issues facing its urban followers. Learn how these answers were provided by new monastic orders established by two key figures: Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzman. x
  • 18
    Flowering of Church Art in the Middle Ages
    The 12th and 13th centuries also saw the rise of new expression through great works of religious art. Trace the development of church art from the gorgeous illustrated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages to the Gothic cathedrals, stained-glass windows, and painted frescoes of the high Middle Ages. x
  • 19
    Scholastic Thought
    Around the year 1000, a new kind of Christian scholarship and writing developed out of the study of logic. Learn about this new form of thought, called scholastic theology, and examine the works of some of its greatest practitioners, including Thomas Aquinas. x
  • 20
    Medieval Mysticism
    Although the Middle Ages is often associated with scholarly theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, it was also an era of the flowering of a more affective and contemplative body of Christian experience. Examine this trend in the lives of mystical writers, including Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure, and Thomas à Kempis. x
  • 21
    The Great Schism and the Conciliar Age
    The 14th century saw many tumultuous changes, including the transfer of the papacy to Avignon in France that led to a schism between the factions of the competing popes. Trace the struggles during this period and examine the efforts to reunify the church. x
  • 22
    The Renaissance Church
    The 15th century was a period of both artistic inspiration and political upheaval for the papacy. Explore some of the period's greatest achievements—such as the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—as well as its political debacles, including Pope Julius II's infamous deployment of troops against other Catholic Christians. x
  • 23
    Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation
    Riding the crest of the Renaissance was the Reformation, with its call for the rejection of corruption within the church and inferior levels of pastoral care. Examine the impact of two key figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin. x
  • 24
    Catholic Responses—The Council of Trent
    How did the Catholic Church respond to the protests of reformers like Luther and Calvin? Was the church's Counter-Reformation a new movement, or were there reform movements prior to the Reformation? Explore these questions and investigate the church's official response to the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent. x
  • 25
    The Jesuits
    With the establishment of the Society of Jesus in 1540, Ignatius Loyola sparked a new missionary zeal in the church that had an enormous impact. Learn about the origins of this influential order and see how the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola still touches the lives of Catholics today. x
  • 26
    Catholicism in Asia and the New World
    As European explorers embarked on journeys to new territories, they took with them Christian missionaries dedicated to spreading their faith beyond the boundaries of Christendom. In this lecture, follow the path of Catholicism into Latin America, Africa, and Asia. x
  • 27
    American Catholicism
    Since 1521, when mass was first said in what is now Florida, Catholicism has been a constant force in American life. Take a tour of more than 400 years of Catholicism in America, from its early days in Spanish missions and French colonies to canonization of the first U.S.-born saint. x
  • 28
    The Church in the Age of Reason
    During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Catholic Church faced increasing challenges to its authority from military and political conflicts to the rise of a new emphasis on science and Humanism. Explore these complications and the church's response in this lecture. x
  • 29
    Pius IX and Papal Infallibility
    In the wake of several centuries of unrest and challenges, the church formed a key doctrine designed to help consolidate its authority: the doctrine of papal infallibility. Learn about the conditions that led up to this declaration. x
  • 30
    Leo XIII and the Modern World
    With the ascent of Leo XIII, the church began to grapple with modern problems, as seen in this pope's landmark encyclical on the problem of labor and industrialization, Rerum Novarum. Explore the achievements of this influential church leader and his successors—Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII. x
  • 31
    The Eastern Catholic Churches
    Modern Catholicism includes a wide array of practices. Examine the great variety of these different forms of worship, together called the Eastern Catholic Churches, found mainly in eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and India. x
  • 32
    The Second Vatican Council
    Between 1962 and 1965, the bishops of the Catholic Church held a historic series of meetings called the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II. Study the achievements of this groundbreaking council and consider the ways it has changed life and worship for modern Catholics. x
  • 33
    The Catholic Church Looks Outward
    Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has adopted a new stance of cooperation with other religions and has sought ways to reach out to those of other faiths. Examine this trend toward greater ecumenicalism in the church. x
  • 34
    The Challenges of New Theologies
    In addition to reforming liturgical practice, Vatican II also opened up a dialogue about Catholic theology to incorporate new points of view appropriate for the modern world. Explore these "new theologies," including the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff. x
  • 35
    John Paul II and the 21st-Century Church
    With the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978, the Catholic Church saw the rise of a remarkable and unforgettable leader. Review the career of this "rock star pope" and examine how his life and legacy continue to touch the lives of Catholics the world over. x
  • 36
    One? Holy? Catholic? Apostolic?
    Each Sunday at mass, Catholics recite the Nicene Creed, which includes the words: "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church." In this final lecture, take a look at today's church and examine the ways in which it fulfills and fails this pledge to unify the adherents of this 2,000-year-old faith. x

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William R. Cook
Ph.D. William R. Cook
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State's Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.
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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 58 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Surprisingly good You don't have to be a Catholic or have specific interest in the Catholicism to appreciate this course. Cook has an informed and engaging style that draws you in. As you listen you realize that the Catholic church has dominated much of Western History and in that way is relevant for understanding many "secular" aspects as well. What I found interesting was not what happened "within" the church as much as how the church has influenced everything from the "dawn of medievalism" to 19th century immigration patterns to evangelism around the world. Cook presents the material as straight history, not ideology or theology; this makes it quite approachable. It is a great companion to general History of (Western) Civilization courses. Recommended. July 22, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Interesting and Informative This is more my husband's thing than mine since he's the Catholic in the family, but we are both watching these lectures and finding them interesting and informative. The presenter is animated and very good at keeping our interest, especially with his asking and answering of questions in a down-to-earth manner to help us bridge the gap of culture and time to better understand the reasons for the turn of events. October 8, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by A divine message brought down to earth DVD review. A man — or god, depending on your point of view — proclaims a message to people much like himself: rural, mostly illiterate. That message is retold over and over through hundreds of intermediaries before being written down in a foreign, urban language the founder never spoke. Inevitably, some "early adopters" put in more time settling disputes, risking their lives and growing the movement than others. And as the founding generations died off, these leading believers formed mutual-support networks that gradually morphed into an organization. _____________________ Dr. Cook's THE CATHOLIC CHURCH: A HISTORY is 36 lessons long, but even such a wide canvas forces Cook to emphasize certain key periods: — The 4th Century: the Church achieved official status — The 13th Century: the Crusades, new theologies, new art and new religious orders. — The 16th Century: the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, missionary efforts around the world. — The 20th Century: redefinition and liberalization _______________________ Here are a few of the most important themes: DEVELOPING THE MESSAGE: Like it or not, Jesus was a counter-cultural figure who spent much more time saying what he was not than spelling out clearly a coherent doctrine of personal, political and institutional morality. This forced the early Church to cobble together these missing elements from Jewish and Greco-Roman examples. Depending on your point of view, this corrupted Jesus' message or brought it down to earth into something millions of sincere-yet-fallible people could live with. DOGMA AND HERESY: The message soon congealed into dogmas that spawned a constellation of clearly-defined tenets; altogether a super-sensitive barometer of dissent to be stamped out. SUCKED INTO POLITICS: After Christianity replaced paganism as Rome's official religion, the empire collapsed. The Church became the only de-facto civilizing, politically-active force spanning all of Western Europe. Its history thereafter was dominated by a tug-of-war with local princes intent on reclaiming control. BACKSTAGE HISTORY: Much of this course is taken up with "organizational infrastructure building" sponsored by the Church — new monastic orders, new artistic sensibilities, new learning methods, new missionary movements, new military and economic ventures, etc — and the extraordinary men and women behind their creation. NEW ETHICS: The rise of cities after 1200 C.E. bolstered dependence on money, trade and banking. The Church was creative enough to promote the development of mendicant orders; in effect a new urban-centered morality more acceptable to merchants, that went beyond feudal obligations and served the swelling number of unemployed poor. SCHISMS: Much time is also devoted to the linguistic, geographic, ideological and political tensions underlying the many divisions erupting between Christians. The Egyptian Coptics, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Reformation and many smaller heretical movements are examined. ______________________ The Church's influence was so profound, that this course is about more than a single branch of Christianity. It is a history of the mental and organizational infrastructure underlying Western civilization until Catholicism gradually lost pre-eminence after 1500 C.E. . This is an older TTC course with few images. Most of the time we see Dr Cook standing behind a lectern. PRESENTATION was crystal clear. Cook is a wonderful speaker with a distinctive fashion sense. His shirts and ties often combine clashing colours that get your attention. I nevertheless think that audio platforms, if combined with the well-designed course guidebook, will probably satisfy. Video platforms have the advantage in the art lessons and those on the Crusades where more maps are presented. Strongly recommended. August 17, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Outstanding Material with Very Good Presentation This course treats the history of the Catholic Church brilliantly. The depth and detail are perfectly balanced between too much information and not enough. Prof. Cook offers an objective history of the papacy, criticizing where appropriate and lauding where that's appropriate. It's a great introduction for those looking for a more in-depth study, but it's also sufficient for those who are looking for a good overall treatment of the topic. I would highly recommend this course, and it's the best of the five GC courses I've taken. May 4, 2014
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