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The Catholic Church: A History

Explore the vast and fascinating history of one of the most influential institutions in the world.
The Catholic Church: A History is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 135.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from I binged on these lectures - so awesome I've listened to Dr. Cook's lectures on Dante, St. Augustine and Great Christians, and I always feel he has something important to teach about humanity in these lectures. In these lectures he makes this very complex and massive subject understandable and engaging at the same time. He presents the sweeping history of the Catholic Church from its foundation to the present day (2009) in manageable size lectures. While he presents the complex political intrigues (as well as the human failings) of the institutional church, and the role of the Church in Western history, he also discusses the lives of men and women throughout the Church's history who sincerely sought to live out the Christian message. This history also gives context to the reasons why certain tenets of Catholicism exist in the way they do today. My favorite chapters were the lectures on 19th century Catholicism and Vatican II.
Date published: 2023-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deep content delivered by a great storyteller I just finished this course and while it was a marathon, it's one that I will likely go back and listen to again. Dr. Cook has such passion for this topic and a unique ability to take thousands of years of history, organize it in a way that makes contextual sense and then deliver the information in a storytelling fashion that keeps you engaged and moving. As someone who converted to Catholicism as an adult through marriage, taking this course has not only deepened my appreciate for the organization of the church, it has also helped me to see both the beauty and the ugliness of Catholicism as it has progressed through the ages. In particular, I took away from this course a new appreciate for the Saints and how their stories help guide Christians in their practice of the faith. I definitely recommend this course...
Date published: 2023-01-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from before me there was you, before me there was, lou wants his glasses back
Date published: 2022-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful I am not a teacher or scholar, but I am an everyday person just interested in learning some of the basics of the Catholic faith and history. Professor Cook's presentation is wonderful. I am not here to give a you a 2,000 word synopsis of this presentation but to say, as an opening to learning and growing in the Catholic Church's history, this is a must buy program presented by The Great Courses. I have learned a great deal and will enjoy redoing this presentation.
Date published: 2022-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great job! Very much enjoyed listening to Professor Cook’s approach! I learned a lot!
Date published: 2022-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course / Captivating Professor Professor Cook brings an enthusiasm and deep wealth of knowledge to a fascinating subject. His style is one that grabs you from the beginning, makes want to move from lecture to lecture, and then be sorry when it’s finished. He makes you want to learn more about the collateral topics he touches on. He weaves a wonderful story that is never mired in too much detail, but which is complete, and has relevance to today even when telling about things 1000’s of years ago.
Date published: 2022-08-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great potted history of the Catholic Church I bought this and am happy I did as it has fleshed out a lot of the knowledge I have of the Church. However I was disappointed that it did not include quite a few areas of the global church such as the Indo-Pacific including Australia and NZ. I was also very disappointed that the lectures concluded with Benedict' and did not include the Francis papacy which is changing the face of the Church.
Date published: 2022-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Makes history entertaining I’m enjoying these lectures on the catholic church. I’m interested in the entire history of Judaism and christianity. Cook explains and describes the many changes the first christians, the catholic church has gone through. Cook has a wonderful sense of humor. His knowledge is extensive and he’ll keep you interested.
Date published: 2022-06-19
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Explore the vast and fascinating history of one of the most influential institutions in the world with The Catholic Church: A History. In 36 informative and engaging lectures, follow the development of this powerful religious force throughout the centuries and witness its ability to move armies, inspire saints, and shape the lives and spirits of its more than 1 billion members. With noted historian and Professor William R. Cook, you'll quickly realize why no understanding of Western civilization is complete without an understanding of the Catholic Church.


William R. Cook

In some ways, being detached from the world allows you also to be united with the world.


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.

By This Professor

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The Catholic Church: A History


From Jesus to the Creation of the Church

01: 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.

32 min
The First Christian Institutions

02: 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.

31 min
Christianities in the Early Church

03: 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.

32 min
Persecution and Saints

04: 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.

32 min
Peace between Empire and Church

05: Peace between Empire and Church

In 312 CE, 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.

32 min
Institutional and Doctrinal Developments

06: 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.

32 min
Latin Theology, Including Augustine

07: 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.

32 min
Popes and Bishops in the Early Middle Ages

08: 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.

31 min
Monasticism—Benedict and His Rule

09: 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.

32 min
Evangelizing Northern and Eastern Europe

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.

32 min
The Germanization of Christianity

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.

32 min
Charlemagne and the Church in Feudal Times

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.

32 min
Monks and Hermits—New Forms of Monasticism

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.

32 min
Papal Reform and Church-State Controversies

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.

32 min
Crusade, Heresy, Inquisition

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.

32 min
The Papacy—Innocent III to Boniface VIII

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.

32 min
Francis, Dominic, and the Mendicants

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.

32 min
Flowering of Church Art in the Middle Ages

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.

32 min
Scholastic Thought

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.

32 min
Medieval Mysticism

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.

32 min
The Great Schism and the Conciliar Age

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.

32 min
The Renaissance Church

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.

32 min
Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation

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.

31 min
Catholic Responses—The Council of Trent

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.

31 min
The Jesuits

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.

31 min
Catholicism in Asia and the New World

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.

31 min
American Catholicism

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.

32 min
The Church in the Age of Reason

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.

32 min
Pius IX and Papal Infallibility

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.

32 min
Leo XIII and the Modern World

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.

32 min
The Eastern Catholic Churches

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.

31 min
The Second Vatican Council

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.

32 min
The Catholic Church Looks Outward

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.

32 min
The Challenges of New Theologies

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.

32 min
John Paul II and the 21st-Century Church

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.

31 min
One? Holy? Catholic? Apostolic?

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.

32 min