History of the Catholic Church

The Early Church

The Catholic Church burst onto the world scene on Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after the resurrection of Christ. Following His command, the apostles set out to preach the Gospel to the far ends of the earth (Mt. 28). They established local communities (churches) of believers, leaving them in the care of other bishops to whom they transmitted the sacramental power by ordination. As the communities grew, so did the uneasiness of the Roman Empire that looked upon Christians as adherents of a strange and foreign religion, incompatible with the pagan worship and lifestyle of the Empire. Bloody persecution was the norm throughout the following three centuries.

In contemporary histories we see a united, universal Church led by local bishops who in turn looked to the bishop of the “Mother and Mistress of the churches” (Rome) as the final arbiter in questions of both doctrine and practice.

At the beginning of the fourth century, the new emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan (313), putting a definitive end to the persecutions, legalised Catholic worship and gave full rights of citizenship to Christians.

The Age of Heresies and the Fathers of the Church

With the lull from persecution came the leisure for theological development. The Arian heresy taught that though Jesus was the greatest man ever, he was not divine. The first church-wide council was held at Nicaea in 325 to investigate. Arius was condemned and the Nicene Creed (now recited at every Sunday Mass) was formulated. In spite of its condemnation, Arianism flourished and was embraced by the imperial court and by weak and ambitious bishops. The entire Church was infected, but was brought through the crisis by courageous bishops such as St Athanasius of Alexandria and St Hilary of Poitiers.

Hot on the heels of Arianism came a series of further heresies, each condemned at councils convened to adjudicate. These included Nestorianism (the teaching that there are two persons in Jesus), condemned at the Council of Ephesus, 431; Monophysitism (Jesus has only the divine, not a true human nature), condemned at the Council of Chalcedon, 451; Sabellianism (God merely manifests as three persons but is not really a Trinity), condemned at the First and Third Councils of Constantinople, 381 and 680; and a host of others.

With the study of these errors came a flowering of Catholic theological thought, which would in turn feed into the scholastic movement with its culmination of the great mind of St Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274).

With the Church now free of persecution, a Catholic intellectual, social and devotional culture began to develop and to spread through the new missionary impetus to the edges of Europe and beyond. Monasteries and convents were developed for communities of men and women who wished to devote the entirety of their lives to the worship and service of God. These were centres of learning in a time long before universal education was possible after the development of the printing press in the fifteenth century. With the flourishing of the religious life, hospitals and orphanages were established, widows were cared for and the poor supported.

The Age of Christendom

As the principles of the Gospel became embedded in the fabric of Europe life and law, encouraged by pious kings and queens, all of society came under the sweet yoke of Christ the King. His rights were recognised and His Church was acknowledged as the one means given by Him for our salvation. This is not to say that there were never problems between Church and State, as the martyrdom of St Thomas à Becket and others attests. While modern historians refer to this period as the “dark ages”, it was in fact a time of wonderful cultural fertility, with advances made not only in theology, but also philosophy, all of the arts and sciences. Perhaps the highest point of this development was the thirteenth century, which produced the Franciscan and Dominican orders; St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest scholastic theologian of the Church; the soaring Gothic cathedrals of France; the glorious frescos of Giotto and Fra Angelico; and so much more besides!

This was also the period of the Crusades, begun already in Spain against the Moorish invaders and continued in the Holy Land. Islam was wreaking havoc among both the local population and pilgrims to the holy places and were threatening to advance on Constantinople, still the seat of the Romano-Byzantine Empire. At the request of the Emperor, Pope Urban II called a crusade in 1095. The crusades were initially successful but in the end fell prey to the self-interest of a number of kings and generals. Constantinople (now Istanbul) finally fell to Islam in 1453, but with the battles of Lepanto (1571) and Vienna (1683) the crusaders succeeded in preventing Islamic expansion into Western Europe.

The Decline and Fracturing of Christendom

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a decline from the heights of Aquinas and the crusading spirit. Following William of Ockham (d. 1347), philosophical nominalism took hold, promoting the idea that there are no essences but only names for individual things. Whatever we call a thing is what it is. This gravely undermined the understanding that man must conform himself to reality, and opened the door to the modern notion that man can define his own reality. This, alongside an increasingly ignorant and morally corrupt clergy and the papacy in confusion – there was at one time three bishops claiming to be the pope – the conditions were ripe for the rebellion of Martin Luther, a German monk. He rightly decried the abuses of the age, but wrongly cast aside the Church that Christ Himself had given us. From now on, the individual Christian would interpret what Christ taught, without any consideration of the unbroken teaching of the Church that went all the way back to the apostles themselves. Protestantism was formed and has continued to splinter into thousand upon thousands of “churches”.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563), was convened to defend the old Faith against the novelties, but also succeeded in reforming the education and the morals of the clergy. This was the time of the “Counter-Reformation” with a return to scholasticism, an explosion of colour in art and counterpoint in music (contrasting the artistic decline of puritan post-Lutheran Calvinist anti-culture). A number of new orders (Jesuits, Theatines, Somascans, Oratorians) were formed that continued the work of reform at home and brought the gospel to the hitherto unknown peoples discovered in this age of exploration of the Americas and Asia. Especially the Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans were responsible for evangelising these vast lands with such disparate indigenous cultures.

A number of monarchs – or potential rulers – at loggerheads with Catholic powers embraced the Protestant revolution and went to war in the name of religion. The wars of religion followed, the worst of them being the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Hostilities finally came to an end with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), wherein the European powers declared that if the monarch was Catholic, the country would be Catholic; if Protestant, the country would be Protestant.

The Modern Era

While the Peace of Westphalia came as a reprieve to war-torn Europe, it also signalled a truce with heresy and the beginnings of religious indifference, or relativism (that it is only a matter of personal preference which religion one professes). Religion was increasingly brought into scorn and ridiculed by the self-styled “enlightened”. These proponents of the “Enlightenment” hated the old order and sought to destroy both the Church and the Throne. In the French Revolution, they had their way by guillotining bishops, priests, monks, nuns and countless faithful. In the name of liberté, egalité et fraternité Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded, bringing an end to over a thousand years of Catholic monarchy in France.

It was about this time that the First Fleet arrived to Sydney Harbour in 1788, with Catholic convicts on board. The Church began in Australia with these convicts-turned-free-settlers, and priests from Ireland and England were sent to administer to their needs. Nor were the indigenous peoples ignored, with missionaries journeying to preach the gospel in even the remotest parts of the land. St Mary MacKillop (1842-1909) would be a missionary in her own right, bringing education and the love of God to the poorest children of society.

During the nineteenth century, the ideals of liberalism came to be adopted by some academics who attempted to reconcile them with the Catholicism. The popes from Gregory XVI (in Mirari Vos, 1832) onwards condemned these efforts as a corruption the Catholic Faith. Some abandoned this path, others remained quietly but zealously committed to it.

The territory of the Papal States (about a quarter of the Italian peninsula) was invaded and turned over to complete the newly unified Italian Kingdom. Pope Pius IX protested the despoliation of the papal territory and the Vatican did not recognise the Kingdom of Italy until the Lateran Treaty in 1929.

The Enlightment’s anti-Catholic principles were spread throughout the western world and found a new application through Charles Darwin’s philosophy of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Karl Marx, who called religion “the opium of the masses”, advocated violent revolution through Communism. The call was heard by Bolshevik revolutionaries with devastating effect for Christians in Russia and wherever it was adopted.

The most pivotal event in the Church’s modern history was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), called by Pope John XXIII to open the windows of the Church to the world. A new springtime was promised for the Church, but by 1972, Pope Paul VI lamented that “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God”. Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens, a leading liberal figure of the Second Vatican Council, called it the French Revolution in the Church.

In the developing world, the Church remains quite strong, with much of the Church’s practicing Catholics to be found in Africa and Asia. The Church in the Middle East has endured horrific persecution from Islamic militias and terrorists. In the West, the Church is in decline, with many professing to be Catholic dissenting from Church teaching and few attending Mass on Sundays. The Church has been left reeling from revelations of immorality among the clergy and religious.

The history of the Church is an endless cycle of passion and resurrection, as she is the extension of Christ in the world throughout time. The centuries have shown that Christ has been and continues to be faithful to His word: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Mt. 28).