THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
Where’d we come from? Who are we?
Where’d the Bible come from? What’s its importance?
Jesus never wrote a book to guide His followers. What He did was to leave behind an extraordinary community, a Church built upon Peter, the rock foundation (Mt 16:18f). We are connected to Christ, our head, by belonging to His body, the Church (Col 1:18). He promised that the Spirit of truth would be with His Church always (Jn 14:16f), to guide us to all truth (16:13).
THE INFANT CHURCH
From the very beginning the Church preached repentance from sin, and Baptism (Acts 2:38, Mt 28:19). The apostles also laid hands on those who had been baptized so that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17, 19:5f), what today we call Confirmation. The first generation of Christians shared the Lord’s Supper--today we call it the Mass--which they believed to be the very body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:23ff, Jn 6:52-58). Marriage was seen as a sacred sign of Christ’s loving union with His Church (Eph 5:31f). The infant Church began developing a visible hierarchy of bishops, presbyters, and deacons (1 Tm 3:1, 8, 5:17), who were installed into office by the imposition of hands (Acts 6:6, 1 Tm 4:14), what today we call Ordination. Jesus’ followers were encouraged to confess their sins to one another (Jas 5:16) and were forgiven by the power Jesus had entrusted to Church leaders (Jn 20:23, Mt 16:19, 18:18), a practice which eventually developed into Confession. From earliest times Church leaders were called to pray over and perform Anointing of the Sick (Jas 5:14f). All these sacramental rites were part of Christian life during the first decades of the Church, when none of the Gospels had yet been written down. Long before the New Testament was written, there was already a visible, active, growing Church. Jesus was saving people through His Church.
THE FIRST SAINTS
The year 64 AD was a critical one in Church history. Christians began to be martyred by the Roman emperor Nero (Rev 17:6). These first martyrs had never heard of a Gospel, but their vibrant Christian life in the Church had made them courageous enough to face horrible deaths, rather than renounce their love for Jesus.
On the anniversaries of their deaths (their “birthdays” into heaven), the Christian community would gather to celebrate Mass in their honor, using their tombs as the altars. Later, when the persecutions stopped, churches were frequently built in their honor at these sites. From earliest times, the martyrs have been special heros and heroines in the Church. They have been revered as models of virtue and courage, as victorious members of the Church already in heaven, enjoying Christ’s presence (Phil 1:23).
While these holy men and women had still been alive, their fellow Christians used to ask them to pray for them. After their valiant deaths, the Church continued to pray for their assistance, confident that now, in heaven, they were even more powerful intercessors before God (Rev 8:9ff). It was way back with these first martyrs that the Church’s veneration for saints began, a “communion of saints” that unites the Church on earth with the Church in heaven.--One of these early saints, the venerable Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of Saint Peter), on his journey to Rome to be martyred, was the first to give the name catholic (“universal”) to the swiftly spreading Church (Ignatius’ “Letter to the Smyrnaeans” 8:2).
THE NEW TESTAMENT
Jesus did not return to earth as soon as the earliest Christians had thought He would. The eyewitnesses to His life, teachings, death and resurrection were dying off. It was then that the Church began to write down, copy, pass around, and gather together what eventually would become the New Testament (Lk 1:1-4, Acts 1:1f). Saint Paul wrote the first of his letters in the middle of the first century, but the last of the New Testament was not completed until the end of the century. Prior to the writing of the New Testament, there were various oral traditions that assisted the biblical authors in their divinely inspired work. After the New Testament had been put into writing, Church doctrines and practices continued to develop. But the books of the New Testament provide us with a wonderful glimpse into the life of the Church in the second half of the first century, a revealing slice out of the Church’s early history.
It explains, for instance, how the Church dealt with its first great controversy: Are non-Jewish Christians obliged to observe Jewish laws (Acts 15)? In order to settle this dispute, Church leaders gathered together in the Council of Jerusalem, debated the issue, and, mindful that the holy Spirit was with them (15:28), reached a decision. This is the way the Church has continued to resolve important disagreements down through the centuries. For example, when the great Arian controversy arose denying that Jesus was God, the bishops of the Church assembled in 325 AD at the First Council of Nicaea and wrote The Nicene Creed defending Jesus’ divinity. In the next century, when the Nestorian controversy began to deny that Mary was the Mother of God, the bishops gathered in 432 AD in the Council of Ephesus to confirm this ancient belief of the Church.
There were numerous Gospels (e.g., of Peter, Thomas, Philip, and the Twelve Apostles), Acts (e.g., of Peter, Paul, John, Andrew, and Thomas), and Letters (e.g., of Clement, Barnabas, and the Shepherd), in circulation among ancient Christians that are not included in our Bibles today. Why were these left out? No where does the Bible itself list which books are inspired by God and belong in the Bible. Once again it took the bishops of the Church, under the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit, to clarify this issue. They gathered together in council at Rome in 382 AD and made the official listing of the 27 books now included in the Bible.
THE BISHOP OF ROME
The Gospel of Luke traces the journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, the city of destiny, where our salvation was accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection (9:31, 51). Luke’s second volume, the Acts, traces the Spirit-guided journey of the Word of God from Jerusalem (Acts 1:8) to Rome, then capital of the civilized world (28:11ff). It was in Rome that both Peter and Paul are believed to have ended their ministries, and suffered martyrdom. During its early years, four great centers developed in the Church: Antioch (where Christ’s followers were first called Christians--Acts 11:26), Alexandria, Constantinople, and, most important of all, Rome. The Bishop of Rome (whom we now call the Pope) was the successor of St. Peter, leader of the Apostles, and so was given the first place of honor and called upon to resolve disputes. When barbarian attacks weakened the Roman Empire, the Pope’s importance grew as he stepped into the vacuum in order to defend civilization. But in taking on secular responsibilities, the Church began to compromise its spiritual mission with political entanglements.
THE EAST-WEST SCHISM
With the removal of the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople (330 AD), a struggle for preeminence began between the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople. Eventually the Christian world was divided by the Schism (“split”) of 1054 into the Roman Catholic Church in the west and Orthodox Churches (e.g., Greek and Russian) in the east. For the last thousand years the majority of eastern Christians, the Orthodox, have continued to have the same beliefs as Roman Catholics, but have refused to acknowledge that the Bishop of Rome is any more than “the first (bishop) among equals.”
There are, however, many millions of Eastern Rite Catholics who do recognize the authority of the Pope and remain part of the Catholic Church. Eastern Rite Catholics continue ancient rites and traditions that are very different from those of western, or Latin Rite, Catholics. For example, when Baptizing babies, Eastern Rite Catholics also Confirm the baby and give it a small portion of Holy Communion. Another difference is that their Catholic priests, although not their bishops, have always been permitted to marry. [One can find and visit Easter Rite Catholic Churches that have moved nearby. For example, SS. Peter and Paul Byzantine Catholic Church, 285 Hamilton St., Somerset, NJ; St. Joseph Byzantine Catholic Church, 30 High St., New Brunswick, NJ; and St. Sharbel Antiochene Maronite Catholic Church, 500 Easton Ave.]
Although Jesus spoke Aramaic, most of the first Christians spoke Greek and so that was the language in which the New Testament was originally written. Translations into other languages did not always agree on wording. And, as with all ancient books, the Bible had to be continually recopied by hand. The copyists made mistakes. Some copyists felt free to change the wording in order to clarify the meaning. As a result, variant wordings crept into the Bible. Also, ancient manuscripts from different parts of the world sometimes developed different versions. For example, the Gospel of Mark has different endings in various ancient texts. In modern times, Biblical scholars have worked to reconcile the different wordings and versions found in ancient manuscripts, in order to decide which seem to be most authentic. A good historical perspective helps us to appreciate that none of our Christian ancestors had the version of the Bible that modern scholarship has given us today.
In fact, few of our Christian ancestors owned any Bible at all. Manuscripts were expensive. Moreover, few people even knew how to read. For many centuries Christians were saved without ever reading the Bible. The faithful were made one with Christ, the head, by sharing the sacramental life of His body, the Church. Their faith was fed by hearing the Bible proclaimed and explained in Church. Their hearts were strengthened by Holy Communion, their prayer life, and the inspiration of the saints. Down through the centuries, there were always educated Church leaders who studied, commented upon, and preached the Bible. But it has always been love, not literacy, that leads to eternal life (Mt. 25:31ff).
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
It would be difficult to exaggerate how much Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1455 changed society. Now, for the first time, books, including the Bible, became available to the masses. Now, after 14 centuries of Christianity, individual reading of the Bible, and not just listening to it being read, was possible. Individualism began to spread. Another powerful force, nationalism, was also taking hold in Christian Europe. In a society in which the roles of church and state were intermeshed, the rise of nationalism would have a profound impact upon the transnational, or “Catholic,” Church.
But most seriously of all, the Catholic Church was badly in need of reform. Many excesses and abuses existed within the Church, for example, the selling of spiritual favors (“indulgences”) in order to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica (the church used by the Pope for large celebrations) in Rome.
In 1517 a Catholic priest, Martin Luther, tried to get the Church to reform itself. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (the reform movement of Christians “protesting” abuses in the Roman Catholic Church). Unfortunately, Church leaders did not respond positively. German princes saw this rift in the Church as an opportunity to shed Rome’s influence and set up a national church. Luther (and his Lutheran followers) and Church authorities became increasingly antagonistic toward each other. Luther taught that faith alone, without good works, saves us. The Church insisted that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jas 2:14-19). Luther retorted that since we are saved by faith alone, there is no need for the Church, or for its priesthood.
Not long after Luther’s break with the Church, the Pope refused to grant Henry VIII a marriage annulment. The King responded by nationalizing the Church, declaring himself to be the head of the Church of England (1534, the Anglicans or Episcopalians). In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, also very influential reformers, and more radical than Luther in their rejection of Church teachings, found princes to protect and support them
Many other reformers established their own Churches, for example, Knox (1560, the Presbyterians), Smith (1609, the Baptists), and the Wesley brothers (1744, the Methodists), and Booth (1865, the Salvation Army). Protestants disagreed among themselves about many things, but they agreed on the need to sever ties with the Roman Catholic Church and to let the Bible alone be their only guide. Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”) rejected the ancient custom of infant baptism (see Mk 10:13-16; Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8), but found themselves vigorously denounced by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Roman Catholics. Among the more famous founders of Churches in the United States are Joseph Smith (1830, the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints), William Miller (1831, the Seventh Day Adventists), Mary Baker Eddy (1879, the Christian Scientists), Charles Taze Russell (1870's, the Jehovah’s Witnesses). Because most Protestants rely solely on personal interpretation of the Bible but are unable to agree on what the Bible teaches, Protestantism continues to splinter into thousands of denominations right down to the present day.
During the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants condemned each other as heretics (believers in false doctrines), who were heading for hell. Rebellion against local Church authority, whether it was Catholic or Protestant, was also seen as treason against the state. Torture was used by all sides to protect the state and to try to get heretics to recant their errors, and so save their immortal souls. Europe fell into a long, terrible period of religious persecutions and wars.
Eventually the Roman Catholic Church did initiate much needed reforms, but it was too little too late. Just as the eleventh century Schism had broken the unity between eastern and western Christians, so now, in the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation shattered the unity of western Christians. The polarization between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians continued for more than 400 years. When the Protestants emphasized the authority of the Bible, Catholics responded by emphasizing the authority of the Church. When Catholics stressed the importance of the Holy Eucharist (the Mass), Protestants responded by stressing the importance of preaching. When Protestants rejected the value of praying to the saints, Catholics increased their devotion to the holy men and women who had gone before them. Catholics and Protestants were forbidden to enter into each other’s churches, much less to intermarry.
In the 1960's, Pope John XXIII began another wave of renewal within the Catholic Church. He assembled all the Catholic bishops of the world together for the Council of Vatican II (the Vatican, where the bishops gathered, is the section of Rome where the Pope lives and shepherds the Church). The Pope reminded all Christians of Jesus’ prayer that all His followers be one, so that the world might believe in Him (Jn 17:20-23). He publicly apologized to the Orthodox and Protestants for the part the Catholic Church has played in creating the divisions among us. He asked all Christians to begin to emphasize, not our differences, but our great common heritage, and so to see each other, not as heretics, but as “separated brethren.”
As Christians we do have much more in common than differences. We all acknowledge that in the face of our sinfulness “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). We believe that for our part we must “repent and be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of [our] sins” (Acts 2:38). Together we treasure the “sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving [us] wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tm 3:15ff). Following the example of Jesus, Christians are people who know the value of prayer (Lk 18:1; 22:40-42).
THE CHURCH AND THE BIBLE
Today there are in the world over a billion Roman Catholics, some 174 million Orthodox, and 469 million Protestants. We remain separated from each other because there remain some significant differences among us. For example, unlike our Protestant brethren, Roman Catholics and Orthodox do not believe that the Bible alone is the only guide to Christian belief. First of all, as we saw above, for fifteen centuries the overwhelming majority of Christians had no Bible and could not read. Then, and now, Christians can be guided to salvation through the teaching and sacramental life of the Church. Today, since Bibles are available to so many, the Church encourages us to study and live the Bible. It is wonderful when Christians love God’s Word and make good use of it. But reading the Bible is not the only way to foster a true Christian life. People today do not have to read the Bible in order to be saved, anymore than they did before the invention of the printing press.
Secondly, no where does the Bible even claim to be our only guide. On the contrary, as St. Peter himself warns, in the Bible “are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction” (2 Pt 3:15f). The Bible was not meant to be self-sufficient; it is an integral part of the life of the Church. By discarding the Church and relying exclusively on personal interpretation of the Bible, Protestants have come up with all kinds of contradictory doctrines and practices, and have caused a continuous dividing up of the body of Christ (see 1 Cor 1:10-13). Instead of believing in the Bible as the only guide, Catholics and Orthodox believe in the Spirit-guided Church, with leaders who have authority to govern (Mt 18:18) and teach (Mt 28:20) today, the way Peter and Paul, and those they installed into office, did for the first generations of Christians.
The Presence of the Holy Spirit within the Church does not mean that it has no need to correct abuses, to weed out errors, and to be continually renewed in order to meet the needs of each new age. Just as we, as individual Christians, need to be continually turning away from our sin in order to draw ever closer to Christ, so too Christ’s Church is always in need of reform. There have been times, such as during the Protestant Reformation, when Church abuses have been scandalous. But even in the worst of times, the Church has been God’s chosen instrument to bring countless people to holiness, to pass on the Good News of God’s love for us from one generation to the next.
Jesus never told His disciples to write a book. He told them to build a Church. As Roman Catholics we are members of the Church founded by Christ. He Himself is our head. We are part of the great communion of saints that stretches around the earth and back through history to Jesus and His first followers. We are a family from every place and time, who gather together at Mass in order to break open God’s Word, in the Bible and in the Bread of life, which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (Jn 6:32-51).
Ronald Stanley, O.P.