History - An Introduction

If the reader is looking for a full account of the history of the Catholic Church, he or she has come to the wrong place. The history of the longest enduring institution in the world cannot be contained in the few words found here. The serious enquirer might get hold of History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (James Hitchcock, 2012) or a similar contemporary text. Some accessible online resources, of admittedly limited value, are offered below. Here we content ourselves with a basic introduction to the history of the Catholic Church, with a particular focus on its origins.

Even for those who are not Catholic, an awareness of the history of the Catholic Church is of importance. This is because of the impact it has had on the development of the Western civilisation that we experience today. An attempt to understand that civilisation while ignoring the impact of the Catholic Church, and the Catholic faith in general, would at best be truncated. For example, the development of art, music, literature, architecture, philosophy and science in the West cannot be understood without recognising the contribution made by Catholics in particular and the Catholic Church in general. Furthermore, the role that the Church has had on the support of human rights, developing access to education, provision of hospitals, and at the service of the economically disadvantaged, the disabled, the refugee etc. cannot be denied. Many of the rights and services we take for granted today came into being, in no small part, as a lived expression of the Catholic faith at the service of those in need. To gain some insight into the works currently attended to by the Catholic Church in Australia see https://shop.catholic.au/Good-Works-The-Catholic-Church-as-an-employer-in-Australia-p56245426.

The word ‘Catholic’ simply means ‘universal’, and has been applied to the Christian Church from earliest times (see the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Church of Smyrna, 107 AD) as an expression of its mission to go out to all peoples (Mark 16:15, Luke 14:23, Matthew 28:19 – 20, Acts 1:7-8). In more recent times the word ‘Roman’ has often been placed before the word ‘Catholic’ primarily to indicate that this is the Church founded by Christ on the leadership of the Apostle Peter (Matthew 16:18 – 19; Luke 22:32 & John 21:15 – 17), recognised as the leader of the Apostles and the first bishop of Rome.

Origins and Connections

However, the Roman Catholic Church recognises that there are other Christian communions deserving of acknowledgement and respect. The first of these – the Eastern Orthodox, which together with the Catholic Church, constitutes the two lungs of the Body of Christ (Ut Unum Sint: John Paul II, 25 May 1995). The study of the history, theology and spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox, while not attended to here, is highly to be encouraged.

The second is that of the Christian communities brought about by the Protestant reform. Their contribution to an understanding of the vocation of all the baptised, the beauty and power of the Scriptures, and the life transformed in the Holy Spirit, has been a great blessing to the Body of Christ. The desire for healing and reconciliation brought about by 500 years of division within the western ‘lung’ of the Church is at the forefront of ecumenical dialogue (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/31/catholic-and-protestant-leaders-unite-mark-start-reformation-archbishop-canterbury-service).

Of the three (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) the Catholic is the largest at around 1.2 billion, the Orthodox (260 million) and combined Protestant (800 million) Churches.

As mentioned above, the Roman Catholic Church traces its history back to Jesus Christ and the Apostles. From Jesus, it inherited its mission to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ (that through his saving death and resurrection all people can be healed and make their way into the promises God has for them) throughout the world. It also inherited its structure: a community of faith, good works and prayer organised around the leadership of the Apostles (Acts 2) and, as they died, their successors (Acts 2:1 – 4).

The central reality at the heart of the Catholic faith is the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus. While extraordinary in its implications for the human desire for meaning and life, it must be admitted that, as a point of history, the resurrection is problematic. The event of the resurrection was not witnessed directly, and cannot be proven in the way that modern historians would require. While there are eyewitness accounts from those who encountered Jesus after the resurrection, the objectivity of those accounts is called into question by those who are concerned that the witnesses are people who believed in Jesus. That is to say, their faith in him may be said to have influenced their experience. However, this is not entirely accurate. The resounding exception to this is in the experience of the enemy of the early Christian community: Saul of Tarsus. Far from being someone whose faith in Jesus may have swayed his perception of events, Saul had a vested interest in the opposite. His mission was to violently suppress the growing community brought about in response to the resurrection of Jesus. That amid that program of persecution, Saul should himself encounter the risen Jesus, was profoundly traumatic and inexplicable without the simple acknowledgement that this is what occurred (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9).

Not that everything rests on the testimony of the man who would become St Paul. The truth and meaning of the resurrection of Jesus has provided the impetus for the Church throughout the 2000 years since. As Hitchcock notes:

“While there is no purely historical argument that could convince sceptics that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, his resurrection can scarcely be excluded from any historical account. Marc Bloch, the great medievalist who was a secular-minded Jew (he perished in a German prison camp), observed that the real question concerning the history of Christianity is why so many people fervently believed that Jesus rose from the dead, a belief of such power and duration as to be hardly explicable in purely human terms” (Hitchcock, 2012, p. 11).

Throughout the ups and downs since that time, the Church has grown in its understanding of God, evolved its theology and practices, and been the nurturing ground for many great men and women. Sadly, it also bears the inevitable scars of the inherent weakness of its members. The need for constant re-evaluation, renewal and reform never diminishes. While the Church is an institution founded by Jesus Christ on the leadership of Peter, it is a profoundly human institution. An investigation of its history will reveal the presence of the divine and the all-too-human in equal measure (see Catholic Enquiry Centre: Introduction to Renewal and Reform).

Recommended Reading
Hitchcock, J. (2012) History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. San Francisco: Ignatius Press

Britannica: Roman Catholicism
New Advent: Ecclesiastical History
History of the Church in Australia

Original text by Shane Dwyer
Gallery photo by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019

30 October 2019

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