Timeline of Catholic Church History
The origins of the Roman Catholic Church as it existed for 1000 years, through the Middle Ages until the Reformation—and still exists today as a somewhat different institution—can be traced to the 5th and 6th centuries. The purpose of this article is to take a look at that period of time and the beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church.
Rome fell to the Goths in 410 A.D. The Roman Empire was finished in the west of Europe. The Roman Empire lived on in the east based in its new capital (from 330) of Constantinople (Istanbul today). Before and after this time on the Christian Church was catholic (universal) but after 410 it developed differently in the east and the west. In the west the Church came to dominate the political world because of a vacuum I will address shortly; in the east the political world dominated the church.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church were not to split apart until the 11th century, though differences arose in the 5th century that were the seeds of this later schism. After Rome fell, the use and understanding of Greek in the west dropped precipitously as Latin prevailed. Few Greeks spoke Latin. Some disputes arose that were nothing more than mistranslations of each other's languages. The Western church came to view Mary the Mother of Jesus as having lived a sinless life (Immaculate Conception) and taken to heaven without physical death (Assumption). The Eastern Church did not accept these beliefs but did believe Mary to be the Mother of God (Theotokos) and a lifelong virgin—beliefs not adapted by the west. 1000 years later, Protestants rejected all of these ideas (Mariology). All Christians have always believed in the Virgin Birth of Jesus, of course.
Christians in those days treasured relics (remains). These would be body parts of a Saint, or clothing and other items said to have been worn or used by Saints. From this developed the practice of praying to dead saints (or later other dead people); and praying for dead people—ideas rejected a millennium later by Protestants.
The first Pope (papa—a reference to fatherly care of the Believers) was Leo the Great (400-461). Leo was elected by the Roman people as the bishop of Rome in 440 and immediately proclaimed himself the supreme head of all Christendom. A church council was called at Chalcedon in 451 to discuss this proclamation and the council instead declared that the bishops of Rome and Constantinople were equals. The Roman Catholic Church was officially proclaimed in response to that decision.
This was in no way some kind of conspiracy. Rome was where Peter and Paul had been martyred; the site of more Christian martyrdoms than any other city by far; had a long reputation for orthodoxy and piety among the churches there; and the largest city in the world. In earlier times of church history the bishops of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Carthage, Lyon, and Hippo had been powerful but the influence of these cities was on the wane. Constantinople had been a hotbed of heresies and division; and generally looked to Rome to solve their theological disputes. It was widely acknowledged that one of the bishops should have final authority to adjudicate the issues that faced the Church. Rome was the logical choice.
Pope Leo the Great soon assumed the role of civic and political leader of Rome—not traditionally the role of a minister. But this was no conspiracy either but rather the result of Barbarian invasions which had left no one else willing to perform these duties. The citizens of Rome insisted that he lead them. In 452 it was only Leo who had the guts to go outside the city gates and face Attila the Hun—famously persuading him, unarmed, into stopping his attacks on Europe.
The Council at Chalcedon did produce a statement in which the entire church, east and west, agreed as to what we now call orthodox (accepted standard) Christian belief. Here is the Definition of Chalcedon (451):
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood;
truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body;
consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood;
in all things like unto us, without sin;
begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood;
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably;
the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ;
as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
Saint Patrick; Clovis; Benedict
There were other important developments during these times in the history of Christianity. One of the greatest missionaries in history was St. Patrick (390-460), a Briton who converted virtually the entire country of Ireland. Clovis (466-511)—this name eventually became Louis—the king of the Franks, the most powerful tribe in Europe, converted to Catholicism in 499. The Italian monk Benedict (480-547) founded Catholic monasticism—which preserved literacy, learning and Christianity during the Dark Ages in Europe.
Gregory the Great (540-604) may have been the greatest Pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. His great-grandfather and another relative had been popes. Gregory was rich, and lived a distinguished public life before deciding to become a monk. He used personal funds to establish seven monasteries in Rome and Sicily—and gave away the remainder of his wealth to the poor. Gregory left a life of luxury for a life wearing a hairshirt; eating only raw fruit and vegetables. He accepted an appointment as representative of the Pope in Constantinople for seven years, during which time he became well acquainted with Eastern theology, spirituality, and church life. After this, Gregory longed to return to a monastic life of solitude and prayer but was recruited for a job he did not want: Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Gregory the Great—the first monk to become Pope—was a prolific writer. In his writings we sense a man theologically astute; pastorally sensitive; soaked in Scripture; with a deep spiritual awareness; and remarkably humble. He possessed a heart fervent with desire to see the church be just, honest and loving to friends and foes.
Gregory became the ruler of Italy—not because he wanted to be, but because no one else would accept the job of protecting the country against invaders. He sent a monk named Augustine to convert pagan Britain in 595—and he succeeded. He baptized King Ethelbert and 10,000 of his subjects at Easter 601. Augustine became the Archbishop of Canterbury and is today considered the father of the English Church.
Gregory may be the father of western music, Gregorian chant taking its name from him. Gregory also promulgated the doctrine of purgatory—unknown in the Eastern Church and rejected a millennium later by Protestants. This was based on a widespread hope through the entire Christian community (from ideas of Origen) that God might save some people after death after a purification—a temporary punishment of the fire of God. This would apply not to those who rebelled against the gospel, but those who have erred in their beliefs out of ignorance.
What Do Catholics Believe
The 6th and 7th centuries were a time when orthodoxy in Christian beliefs solidified. Orthodox was defined as consistent with the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles; with the teachings of the church fathers who followed the Apostles and in some cases knew them; with doctrines that had universal consensus by Christians everywhere—which were harmonious. The opposite of this is heresy, which is propagation of doctrines that are not in alignment with Scripture or tradition. On many occasions the church accepted some doctrines put forth by a church leader but not all. For instance the church rejected St. Augustine's doctrine of predestination—though it was revived 1000 years later by Protestants under John Calvin. A heretic was one out to destroy the orthodox teachings of the church, generally by bringing forth something new not contained in the Bible.
Orthodoxy had been formed by, in descending order of influence but all having some input: church councils, synods, bishops, priests, and ordinary Christians. To enforce orthodoxy, the church could excommunicate a heretic (put someone out of the religious community) as anathema (accursed). The idea is to eliminate quarreling within the Body of Christ; and prevent the gullible (or simple) from being perverted by false doctrines. In most cases, orthodox beliefs were the middle way between extremes that presented themselves from time to time.
By the year 600 a barely known (during His lifetime) Jew named Jesus, who died with a handful of followers, was worshipped from Ireland to India by people from all walks of life—from emperors to slaves. In the east they had become the church of the emperor—in the west the church of the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. When I resume this story a new danger arises: Muhammad and Islam.
By this time the canon of the New Testament was used in all Christendom; the doctrine of the Trinity fully developed; and the ecclesiastical structure of the Church in place.
No one could have predicted that this little baby Jesus, born to a virgin, would found a religion that would take over the known world and that He would become the central figure of human history. Christians everywhere believed—and believe today—that this is a supernatural story through the work of the Holy Spirit. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary and extraordinary people had been martyred rather than disavow the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus Christ. There are two billion Christians on Earth today.