In a sense, many of our modern-day woes began in the 14th century when Pope Clement V moved the papal residence to Avignon, which today is in southern France. At a time when European countries were beginning to rapidly develop, the worst thing the Church could do was to seemingly ally herself to France and French dominance.
This of course, was not helped by the fact that Clement was French, grew up as friends of French King Phillip IV, was installed as pope in Lyon, France, and appointed several new French cardinals immediately after being elected. To make things worse, Pope Clement V bowed to the secular wishes of the greedy King Phillip, allowing him to falsely accuse and persecute the Knights Templar. These knights, by the way, were warrior monks who fought during the crusades to the holy land, living both lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience and also vowing to protect innocent pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. While only several hundred defended Jerusalem at any one time, nearly 20,000 of them died during the war! Phillip wanted the Templar’s lands and possessions that were in France – and Pope Clement, in a cowardly act of appeasement, allowed the order to be annihilated. This is good example of the fact that while popes are infallible, they are not impeccable!
As nationalism grew in countries around Europe, national interests began to move the fledging countries away from the Catholic Church, which they feared was a puppet of the French. No self-respecting nation would listen to a pope if they feared his words were the words of the French king! This anti-Church and anti-pope position would lead intellectuals within these countries to attempt to justify the attitudes of their country.
The seeds of our modern culture crisis were thus being sown.
In England, an Oxford professor named John Wycliffe began to teach that the State should control the Church. His teachings would be used nearly two hundred years later to do just that: establish a Church of England run by the King with its foundation resting on the destruction of the sanctity of marriage. In case you forgot, King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church in order to divorce his wife… Apparently Henry thought he was above both the Church and Jesus, Who utterly condemned divorce. Perhaps he forgot that the Church and Jesus are one, just as a head is one with his body or a groom is one with his bride. Oh well, Anglicans today are dealing with this issue once more in the gay marriage debate. Many are putting two and two together and are coming back into union with Rome!
Intellectually speaking, attacks on the Church could take two extremes: a liberal/secular extreme and a conservative/fundamentalist extreme. In the persons of William of Ockham and Jan Hus, we see both. William of Ockham rejected the classical scholasticism of the great saints like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anslem, and St. Albert the Great in favor of nominalism. Nominalism was the beginning of our culture's religious skepticism and reductionism. It denied transcendent ideas and essences – spirit begins to be reduced to mere matter. With this belief, the existence of God and the soul is extinguished.
Recall Hamlet who told his friend Horatio that there was more to reality than what could be discovered with our five human senses. In his case, he was saying that ghosts/spirits are real. Most pre-modern thinkers believed that there was more to life than the body. As the philosopher Peter Kreeft says: “But the modern tendency in the West is the opposite. It could be called ‘reductionism.’ It seeks to reduce rather than to expand the student’s objects of belief. This tendency is already clearly present in [philosophers] Bacon, Machiavelli, Descartes, and Hobbes. In fact, it began with William of Ockham’s Nominalism, the denial of objectively real universals, which even in the 14th century was called the ‘via moderna,’ the modern way” (emphasis mine). By adopting this view, the state is more important than the citizen – for the state will outlive the soulless citizen and it should be the secular state at the center of worship, not God.
This view was counterbalanced with what would become Protestant fundamentalism. Begun by the teachings of Jan Hus, faith was held higher than reason. He rejected the role of Sacred Tradition in knowing divine truth, claiming the Bible alone should be used. He denied the role of the Church and the Pope as well as the necessity of the sacraments. Though at first championed by local citizens, he was eventually condemned by the Church and burned at the stake. His teachings would be adopted by Martin Luther, who would be the founder of Protestantism – a breaking which would result in thousands of theologically contradictory sects.
The alliance between France and the Pope would culminate in the destruction of much of the Church in France during the French Revolution. Though the Pope returned to Rome through the intersession of the great saints Catherine and Bridgette, the French secularists of the 18th century will condemn Catholicism with their King.
The descendants of the secular and fundamentalist founders still attack the Catholic Church – but they have also grown into a particular hatred of each other. This is quite evident in the battle between faith and reason. The evolution debate is a good example of this. Fundamentalists preach a literal six-day Creation and an Earth which is only some thousands of years old. Evolutionists preach a materialistic-random chance universe of millions of years old. Both are wrong in their own way but both have some truth to them.
In the end, those who began a movement to attack Catholicism failed in their attempt and created a series of divisions which have come down to our day. Only in Christ, and the Church He founded, will the divisions cease and healing begin.