And then there is The Da Vinci Code , which has sold a staggering nine million copies.
Even its author appears to think so. But a book that claims that Christians did not believe in the divinity of Christ until the fourth century, that a Roman emperor chose the four Gospels, that the Church executed five million witches, and that Opus Dei has monks is obviously little more than a farrago of nonsense.
We live in a sea of false historiography, and so it is worth asking: What exactly happened during the first centuries of Christianity?
How did a small band of believers, starting out in a despised outpost of the Roman Empire, end up the dominant institution of the Mediterranean world? What was "primitive Christianity"? John Henry Newman became a Catholic in the course of answering that question. History, he said, is the enemy of Protestantism. It is also the enemy of the newly vigorous anti-Catholicism that circulates among our cultural elites. The word gospel means "good news," and the first thing to say about the early Church is that its members had an urgent message for a civilization that already contained the seeds of its own demise.
Early Christianity was above all a missionary enterprise, an evangelical movement in a world ripe for its teachings. At the end of his public life Christ had said to His disciples, "Go"; and, in addition to the journeys recorded in the New Testament, tradition has the apostles spreading all over the map: Thomas to Parthia and India, Andrew and John to Asia Minor, Bartholomew to south Arabia. Each may have undergone exploits as spectacular as St.
Paul's, but unfortunately there was no St. Luke to record them. Early Church Fathers like St. Augustine believed that Providence had arranged ancient history so that Christianity could spread as rapidly as possible. The Pax Romana was a remarkable achievement, and the general law and order, combined with Roman road-building, made it easier to get around Europe at the time of Tiberius and Claudius than it would be a thousand years later.
There was also a widespread Hellenistic culture, which meant that many people spoke Greek. This was the legacy of Alexander the Great, who not only spread a common tongue but, like other rulers of that era, had a mania for building cities. The large concentration of urban dwellers made evangelization more efficient, and within the space of about a century we find Christianity flourishing in all the vital nerve-centers of the Roman empire, which had a population of about 60 million.
The great tipping points of history often occur beneath the radar, and it is doubtful that anyone in the year 51 noticed an itinerant rabbi from Tarsus crossing the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. But this was Christianity's entrance into Western Europe, with incalculable consequences for the future. Christopher Dawson writes that Paul's passage from Troas in Asia Minor to Philippi did more to shape the subsequent history of Europe than anything recorded by the great historians of the day.
Put simply: The Faith created modern Europe, and Europe created the modern world. What Paul and other missionaries found everywhere in the Roman Empire was a spiritual vacuum: The Roman gods, practically speaking, were dead, the victims of much scoffing from intellectuals and poets. The upper orders had turned to Stoicism — self-cultivating itself in aristocratic isolation — but this spoke only to a small minority.
Others with spiritual hankerings went to more dubious sources: mystery cults, Asiatic magic, exotic neo-Platonisms, whose goal was ecstatic visions and emotional release. There was a lot of philosophical mumbo jumbo in an atmosphere of tent revivalism, with a dash of emperor worship on the side. But no matter where it turned for solace, the late classical mind was steeped in melancholy, a kind of glacial sadness; it was utterly lacking in what Catholics would call the theological virtue of hope.
Apart from offering infinitely greater spiritual riches, Christianity gave the ancient world what might be called a New Deal. In the year that Paul arrived in Rome, there was a sensational incident, the sort of thing that today would make the cover of the New York Post. The prefect of Rome, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by a slave who was jealous of his master's attention to a slave girl. According to Roman law, all the slaves in the household were to be put to death — which in this case meant more than slaves.
There were protests, but the emperor and Senate went ahead with the executions. It is not surprising, then, that the "have-nots," who constituted most of the empire, responded to the Christian message that every person has an equal and inherent dignity, and that even the emperor as St. Ambrose would later explain to Theodosius was within and not above the law. Since The Da Vinci Code and other dubious best-sellers claim that early Christianity was anti-feminist, it's worth recalling that large numbers of women during these centuries thought otherwise.
The Church's teachings about marriage and family, along with its strictures against divorce, abortion, and the exposure of newborn babies — all of which a pagan husband could force his wife to do, no questions asked — resonated with women who were treated like chattel under the old dispensation. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke goes out of his way to mention female converts like Lydia and Damaris. Even at this early date, women played a key role in the Church's evangelical mission. No world religion has ever given women a more important place than Roman Catholicism.
Even Protestantism would turn out to be largely a male enterprise. These early Christians were conscious of a single responsibility that transcended and sustained all others. They were bound to preserve with the utmost fidelity what had been taught by the apostles. Long before there was a New Testament, there was a deposit of faith concerning the nature of God, His threefold personality, His purpose in making man, the Incarnation.
It is already presupposed in the early letters of Paul as well as ancient documents like the Didache. Any departure from these teachings provoked the strongest possible response, and the Acts of the Apostles and most of Paul's letters show the Church facing her first doctrinal and disciplinary problems. The determination to hold fast to "what has been handed on" tradere , hence "tradition" is one explanation for the early Christian's veneration of the episcopal office.
If there has been a revelation, then there must be an authoritative teaching office to tell us what it is.
Back to the Beginning: A Brief Introduction to the Ancient Catholic Church
And so the role of bishops — whose job was, and still is, to teach, govern, and sanctify — was crucial from the beginning. We do not know the precise details of how the Church's internal authority evolved in the first century. It is one of the most debated points of Church history. Protestants have an obvious bias toward an early congregationalism, but there is little evidence for this.
We do know that from the original "twelve" there soon emerged a hierarchical church divided into clergy and laity. It seems that at first there were apostolic delegates, people like Timothy and Titus, who derived their authority from one of the apostles — in this case, Paul. These men governed the local churches under the apostles' direction, and, while some apostles were still on the scene, this arrangement naturally evolved into the college of bishops.
The seven great letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written around the year while on his way to Rome to be thrown to the beasts, take for granted the existence of local hierarchical churches, ruled by bishops who are assisted by priests and deacons. Ignatius, a living disciple of John the Apostle, writes that "Jesus Christ Let us be careful, then, if we would be submissive to God, not to oppose the bishop.
Within each city there was a single church under a bishop, who in turn was assisted by priests in the spiritual realm and deacons in the administrative. The latter devoted themselves especially to alms-giving, and a striking feature of primitive Christianity is its organized benevolence. These local churches were largely self-sufficient but would group around a mother church in the region — Antioch, Alexandria, Rome — and the bishops of each region would occasionally meet in councils.
But they all considered themselves part of a universal Church — the Catholic Church, as Ignatius first called it — united in belief, ritual, and regulation. From the earliest times we find one of these churches exercising a special role, acting as a higher authority and final court of appeal.
We don't know much about the early development of the Roman church, and the lists of the first popes are not always consistent. But we do know that around the year 90 a three-man embassy bearing a letter from Rome traveled to Corinth, where there were dissensions in the local church.
In that letter, Pope St. Clement speaks with authority, giving instructions in a tone of voice that expects to be obeyed. The interesting point is that the apostle John was still living in Ephesus, which is closer than Rome to Corinth. But it was Rome at the time, a smaller diocese that dealt with the problem. Here was the prototype of all future Roman interventions. It is not difficult to find even liberal Catholic scholars who endorse the early primacy of Rome.
In his popular history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners , Eamon Duffy writes that the apostolic succession of the Chair of Peter "rests on traditions which stretch back to the very beginning of the written records of Christianity.
Roman Catholic Church
Irenaeus, battling heretics who presumed to correct and supplement the Faith with their Gnostic speculations, wrote that if anyone wishes to know true Christian doctrine, he has only to find those churches with a line of bishops going back to one of the apostles. But it is simpler, and suffices, to find out the teaching of the Roman see: "For with this Church all other churches must bring themselves into line, on account of its superior authority. The early Church was not only hierarchical, it was liturgical and sacramental.
But it was above all Eucharistic. Ignatius, in his letter to the church at Smyrna, attacks local heretics who "abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of Our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins Justin Martyr described the Sunday liturgy in some detail, all the principal elements of the Mass are in place: Scriptural readings, prayers of intercession, offertory, Eucharistic prayer, and communion. There was no need back then to remind the faithful that Sunday Mass attendance was obligatory, since they regarded the liturgy as absolutely central to their lives as Christians.
It would not have occurred to them to forgo Sunday Mass for a brunch date or ballgame. The readings at these early Masses were from both the Old Testament then simply called "Scripture" and from many but not all of the documents that eventually would comprise the New Testament. And how did the New Testament canon come together? Although some Protestants seem to think otherwise, this was not a spontaneous process. Humanly speaking, it involved a lot of institutional machinery. The 27 books themselves were a kind of providential accident. Christ Himself did not write anything, nor so far as we know did He tell His disciples to write anything.
There is, after all, something about hearing, rather than just reading, the Christian message.
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Social commitment is often lacking in modern Mexican Catholicism, he said: corrupt politicians, tight-fisted businessmen and cartel kingpins all consider themselves proper Catholics. Politicians seem anxious to appear with the pope, too, suggesting that the political class needs the church to bolster its popular appeal amid a string of scandals and desperately low popularity ratings.
Observers suspect the visit may prove problematic for politicians in search of approval and prelates seen as seeking a spot at the right hand of power, however. Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics Mexico. Reuse this content. Order by newest oldest recommendations.
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