3 Dark Eras of Church History (And How We Survived Them)

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Headlines about the Catholic Church aren’t very cheery these days. In fact, the news that breaks on a regular basis about Christ’s bride is disheartening, frustrating, heartbreaking, and infuriating.

But ever since the days where Jesus’ own apostle, Judas, sold the master for thirty pieces of silver, bad shepherds have regularly betrayed Christ and his Church.

In his new book, Catholic historian Rod Bennett introduces a number of bad Catholic shepherds. These include Eusebius of Nicomedia, who sold out the Church to the Roman emperor; Pope Stephen VII, who hated his predecessor so much that he had him dug up, put on trial and flung into the Tiber; and Benedict IX, who bought and sold the papacy (twice!).

The Church has some bad shepherds in her past, but while those shepherds did the devil’s work, good Catholics not only survived, but thrived.

Here are three eras of history that not only show the work of bad shepherds, but the cleansing of the Church that came about through the renewal efforts of faithful Catholics.

1. The Arians of the fourth century

The Catholic Church battled against the heresy of Arianism early on in Church history.

The heresy claimed that Christ, although he was holy, wise, and knowing, was not fully co-eternal with God the Father. Arius’s favorite catchphrase sums the heresy up well: “There was a time when the Son was not.”

But Arius wasn’t the driving force behind the heresy. Who was? Eusebius of Nicomedia, bishop of Constantinople, the empire’s eastern capital. Eusebius went as far as to befriend the emperor’s sister and integrate himself into Constantine’s household.

But the Church prevailed. “Every horror to which the Arian party descended—practically all Arians, mind you, Catholic priests and bishops acting against their own brethren—was occasioned by fear. Even worse, it was occasioned by fear of losing, as they say, ‘the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed,” Bennett writes.

Bennett suggests that Catholics today take Saint Paul’s advice to the Corinthians: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.” Keep your eye on the prize!

2. Resisters of reform

Even though lay heroes stepped into the light during the High Middle Ages, Bennett draws our attention to the corrosion of human sins and folly. A fantastic line from Chesterton encourages readers: “Yes, Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

Many calls for reform during the fourteenth century were blocked by bad shepherds.

“Bad shepherds, in fact, were the chief obstacles to reform in those days; most of the serious reform efforts were commenced by laypeople, secular leaders, and sometimes, religious monks and sisters,” Bennett writes.

Many of the worst abuses the Church suffered during this era in history were committed by clergy. “All the while, rages against these abuses grew ever more intense,” Bennett explains. “The catastrophe did finally take place. That vast, chaotic flood of a thousand mutually exclusive ‘reforms’ at once, which is usually called the Protestant Reformation.”

3. The Catholic Protestants

Finally, another era of Church history to study is the Protestant Reformation. “It ought to go without saying, but all the men who created Protestantism were Catholics,” Bennett writes.

Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Beza, Zwingli, Farel, and even King Henry VIII were all Catholics at one point in their faith journey.

“It remained until the Reformation of the sixteenth century to show four, five, ten, popes at once, scattered over Europe—and each now with a church of his own to lord it over, yet still unable to leave off quarreling and anathematizing! And every one of them a Catholic to begin with,” writes Bennett.

But did the Catholic Church thrive even in this walking nightmare of Church history?

“If thriving means keeping your posessions, your freedom, your untroubled lifestyle, then no, Catholic layman did not thrive during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Bennett argues. “But many of them did earn crowns, as promised by the apostles: ‘Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.'”

Looking for encouragement in the midst of scandal? You’ll want to get a copy of Rod Bennett’s latest book, Bad Shepherds: The Dark Years in Which the Faithful Thrived While the Bishops Did the Devil’s Work from your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.

Bennett’s book is not only a great history lesson, but also a source of consolation and hope.

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