The Catholic Church: Major Themes and Historical Markers



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The Catholic Church: Major Themes and Historical Markers

Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D. Professor, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit

CCC=Catechism of the Catholic Church


Church =the assembly of those called by God (ekklesia in Greek, ecclesia in Latin); the word, Church, in English, and Kirche, in German comes from the Greek word, kyriake, which means “what belongs to the Lord” (cf. CCC, 751)
The word “Catholic” comes from the Greek word, Katholikos, which means “universal,” “whole,” “full,” or “complete.” The first recorded reference to the Catholic Church is from St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110 A.D.) who wrote: “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.” The designation “Roman Catholic” can refer to either Catholics united with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, or to Catholics of the Latin liturgical Rite. Since there are over 20 million Eastern Rite Catholics in full communion with Rome, many Catholics simply prefer the designation “Catholic” rather than “Roman Catholic.” Some Christian groups outside of communion with the Pope also believe themselves to be “Catholic” (e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Catholics). Catholics in communion with the Bishop of Rome, however, believe that union with the Pope is necessary for full communion in the Catholic Church. According to the 2006 World Almanac, there are 1.1 billion Catholics (called “Roman Catholic”) in the world today. The 2008 Catholic Almanac (Our Sunday Visitor) lists the Catholic world population as 1.11 billion out of a world population of 6.46 billion.

Major Themes of Catholic Belief

1) The Church is divine and human. From a Catholic perspective, there is a need to look beyond the weakness of the human members and recognize that Christ is the head of the Church and the Holy Spirit is the Church’s soul.


2) The Church was instituted by Jesus Christ (Mt 16:18) and will be protected by Christ until He returns in glory (Mt 28:18-20). The Church “was prefigured in creation, prepared for in the Old Covenant, founded by the words and actions of Jesus Christ, fulfilled by his redeeming cross and his Resurrection…manifested as the mystery of salvation by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit [and] will be perfected in the glory of heaven as the assembly of all the redeemed of the earth (cf. Rev 14:4)” [CCC, 778].
3) Jesus founded one Church. As St. Paul says, “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). The Apostle also tells the Corinthians that they are to avoid divisions so they be “united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10). Divisions have occurred in Christian history because of human sin (CCC, 817).
4) The Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed [381 A.D.], CCC, 866-869).
5) The Church can be described as the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit (CCC, 803-809).
6) There are three states to the Church: the Pilgrim Church on earth, the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven (CCC, 954).
7) The Catholic Church is sacramental. There are seven sacraments (efficacious signs or rituals of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church): baptism, confirmation (or chrismation), the Eucharist (holy communion), penance (confession, reconciliation), anointing of the sick (extreme unction), matrimony and holy orders (deacon, priest, bishop). The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the entire Christian life” (Vatican II).
8) The Church is Hierarchical: the bishops, united with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, form the sacred order of authority (the hierarchy) of the Catholic Church. As successors to the apostles, the bishops, united with the Pope, teach, sanctify and govern in the name of Christ; under certain conditions, the bishops and the Pope can teach in an infallible manner. The teaching authority of the bishops and the Pope is referred to as the Magisterium of the Church.
9) The Catholic Church is devotional; there are many devotions that are encouraged, such as devotion to the saints (especially Mary); devotion to the Passion of Christ (e.g. the Way of the Cross); devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary; there are also many places of pilgrimage, especially to places where the Blessed Mother is believed to have appeared (e.g. Guadalupe in Mexico [1531]; Lourdes in Frances [1858]; and Fatima in Portugal, 1917). Since the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, devotion to the Divine Mercy has increased (a devotion linked to Saint Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who lived from 1905-1938).
10) The Catholic Church is concerned both with the world to come and the promotion of peace and social justice on earth. In 2004, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, based largely on the social teachings of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II.
11) The Catholic Church promotes the “Gospel of Life,” which affirms the sanctity of human life from the time of conception until natural death.
12) The Catholic Church believes that Jesus Christ is the one Savior of the human race and that the Catholic Church contains the fullness of the means of salvation. Nevertheless, many elements of truth and holiness can be found outside of the Church’s visible structure. Vatican II taught that Non-Catholic Christians as well as Non-Christians can be saved if they are outside of the Church through no fault of their own and, moved by divine grace, they strive to do God’s as they know it according to the dictates of their conscience.

Historical Markers
I) The Apostolic Age and the Age of the Church Fathers) circa 50-800 A.D.
circa 4 B.C.-30 A.D. –the life of Jesus
circa 50-100 A.D. the writing of the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament
Persecutions of the early Christians by the Roman emperors, with the most violent under Nero (64-68), Domitian (95-96), Trajan (106-117), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Septimus Severus (202-211), Decius (249-251), Diocletian and Galerius (303-311).
“the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians” Tertullian (c. 150-220).
circa 64-67 –St. Peter and St. Paul martyred in Rome
circa 110, martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch in Rome (St. Ignatius testified to the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the primacy of the Church of Rome and the three holy orders of deacon, priest and bishop).
St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200), Bishop of Lyon, France; he defended the four Gospel canon, the apostolic succession of bishops and the need for all the Churches to be in agreement with the Church of Rome because of its “superior pre-eminence.”
In 313 A.D., the Roman Emperor, Constantine (who would later be baptized) granted legal recognition and religious freedom to Christianity.
In 330, Constantine moves the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium in Asia Minor (later renamed Constantinople).
393 A.D. Synod of Hippo affirms the 46 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament as the official canon (list) of the books of the Bible.
397 A.D. The Synod of Carthage affirms the same canon of the Bible as at Hippo.
383-405 A.D. St. Jerome translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin (the Vulgate Bible)
495 A.D. Pope Gelasius affirms the same canon of the Bible that Hippo and Carthage had authorized.
Early heresies (false teachings) emerge, e.g. Arianism (named after the priest Arius (c. 260-336); he denied Jesus as God; Nestorianism (named after the bishop, Nestorius) claimed Mary was only the mother of the human being Jesus to whom God, the Word, united Himself; Monophysitism, which claimed that there was only one nature in Christ rather than two (human and divine); Iconoclasm, which opposed the use of sacred images.
Early ecumenical councils of the Church condemned these heresies. Some of these councils were:
The Council of Nicea, 325: condemned Arianism.
The Council of Constantinople I, 381, condemned Arianism; affirmed the Holy Trinity; expanded on the Nicene Creed.
Council of Ephesus, 431: condemned Nestorianism and affirmed Mary as the “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.”
Council of Chalcedon, 451: condemned Monophysitism and defined the truth of Jesus as one person with two natures (human and divine).
In 602, some Jews from Naples, Italy write to Pope Gregory I complaining that certain people in that city are trying to stop them from celebrating their holy days. Pope Gregory I responds by writing to the Bishop of Naples informing him that the Jews of that city have the right to the religious freedom which they have always enjoyed. Moreover, they are not to be forced against their will to join the Catholic Church
The Second Council of Nicea, 787: condemned Iconoclasm [opposition to the use of sacred images] and reaffirmed the right to give veneration to holy images of Jesus, Mary, the angels and the saints. This council also re-affirmed the Catholic condemnation of forced conversions to the Catholic faith.
In the Age of the Church Fathers, there was also the development of monasteries and convents by saints like St. Basil (c. 330-379), St. Macrina (c. 327-379), St. Augustine (354-430), St. Benedict (c. 480-547) and St. Scholastica (c. 480-543).
In the 600’s, there was the rise of Islam under Muhammad (570-632). The Muslims deny the Trinity and teach that Jesus is not God but only a prophet/messenger of God. They claim that their holy book, the Qur’an corrects the mistakes of Christians and is the final revelation of God.
The Muslims became a military power and conquered Jerusalem in 638; Alexandria, Egypt in 642; Carthage, North Africa in 698; and Spain in 712; the Muslims were set to conquer the rest of Europe, but were defeated by Charles Martel in 732 in France. In the 800’s, the Muslims tried to conquer France and Italy but were only able to conquer Sicily (the island south of the Italian mainland). In 1091, the Normans were able to drive the Muslims out of Sicily and re-establish Christian/Catholic rule. Later, under the Turks, the Muslims tried to conquer Europe from the East.
The Crusades were a series of military ventures, authorized by the Popes and other Christian leaders, to respond to Muslim expansionism and persecutions of Christians in the Near East. These Crusades began in 1095 and ended in 1291. Only the First Crusade was successful in recapturing the Holy Land from the Muslims. There was a Latin kingdom in the Holy Land from 1096-1171. The other Crusades were not successful, and there were some tragedies along the way, such as the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Franks, and the Children’s Crusade in 1212.
The Middle Ages, circa 800-1400 A.D.
The crowning of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800 can be understood as the beginning of the Middle Ages in the West.
In 1054, A.D., there was the tragic schism (split) between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, which would lead to the ongoing separation of the Eastern Orthodox Churches from the Catholic Church under the Pope. The split was mostly over the Eastern Orthodox rejection of the Pope’s primacy of jurisdiction over the Churches in the East and the addition of the phrase “and the Son” (Filioque) to the Creed. Later attempts at reunion in 1274 and 1439 would not be successful.
During this age, there was the rise of the great mendicant religious orders of the Dominicans and the Franciscans. The founder of the Dominicans (or Order of Preachers) was St. Dominic Guzman (c. 1170-1221); the founder of the Franciscans (or Order of Friars Minor) was St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). St. Clare of Assisi (c. 1194-1253), together with St. Francis, founded the order of the “Poor Clares” for women.
During the Middle Ages, there was also the rise of the universities and learning. Among the great universities started during the 12th and 13th centuries were those of Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. Some of the great teachers at these Universities were the Franciscan, St. Bonaventure (c. 1217-1274), and the Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274).
During the Middle Ages, there emerged some heretical movements [heresies are false teachings], such as the Albigensians or Cathars (‘pure ones”) who believed that matter was evil and only the spiritual is good; and the Waldensians, who believed that sinful bishops and priests lose their authority and sacramental power.
These heresies lead to the creation of the Papal Inquisition in 1232. The Inquisition only had jurisdiction over Christians—not over Jews or Muslims. Later, in Spain, an Inquisition there sometimes targeted Jews and Muslim converts to the Catholic faith (who continued to practice their former religions). Although the death penalty was, at times, used, modern historians agree that executions were used far less frequently than previously thought. In fact, there were far fewer executions during the whole history of the papal and Spanish Inquisitions than there were in one year during the French Revolution (1793) [40,000 in 1793 compared to about 4,000 in the Catholic Inquisitions].
In the early fifteenth century, the Muslim empire under the Ottomon Turks grew in power. These Muslim Turks captured Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey) in 1453 and eventually established rule over parts of Eastern Europe (e.g. Yugoslavia). The Turks tried to conquer Vienna, Austria in 1683, but John Sobieski III, the King of Poland, came to the aid of the Austrians, and defeated the invading Turkish army. After the Muslim defeat at Vienna, the Christian European powers, both Catholic and Protestant, grew in strength. The Ottomon Empire continued until 1921, but in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the European powers, aided by the technological advances of the West, proved superior in military strength.

The Renaissance and Reformation Period, circa 1400-1650

The Council of Constance (1414-1418) healed the “Great Western Schism” during which two or three different men were claiming to be Pope.


St. John of Arc (c. 1412-1431) is executed on false charges of witchcraft. In 1456, Pope Callistus III ruled that St. Joan had been wrongly convicted. In 1920, she was canonized a saint.
Pre-Lutheran heretics: Marsilius of Padua (1280-1343) wished to put the Church under the power of the state; John Wyclif (1324-1384), anticipated certain Lutheran ideas such as Scripture alone (sola scriptura); and John Hus (1369-1415), who believed that one must receive communion under both species in order to receive the full Christ.
St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) – a Catholic reformer and mystic who inspires a Treatise on Purgatory.
The Protestant movements of the 1500’s: Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anabaptists and the Anglicans broke from the authority of the Catholic Church under the Pope. The Protestants, for the most part, accepted only the Bible as the ultimate authority. However, when the different Protestant groups differed in their interpretations of the Bible, multiple Protestant groups were formed.
1531, the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego and the miraculous image on his cloak; this miracle leads to the conversion of some 8-9 million Native Americans (Indians) to the Catholic faith in Mexico.
1537, Pope Paul III condemns the efforts of some Spanish to reduce the Indians to slavery; the Pope also condemns any efforts to convert the Indians by force.
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) reforms the Church and clarifies Catholic teaching in response to the Protestants.
Catholic Reformers of this period: St. Thomas More (1478-1535), St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) [the founder of the Jesuits], St. Philip Neri (1515-1591), and the great mystics, St. Teresa of Àvila (1515-1582) and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591).
During the late 1500’s, 1600’s and 1700’s, the Jesuits, Franciscans and Domincans send many missionaries to the Americas and Asia (including India, China and Japan).

The Early Modern Period, circa 1650-1900: the rise of secularism [complex of ideas and policies that are non-religious]

The French Revolution (1789-1799) attempts to place the Catholic Church in France under state control.


Napoleon I in power from 1799-1815; Pope Pius VII excommunicates Napoleon in 1809; from 1812-1814, Napoleon keeps Pius VII as his prisoner for refusing to declare war on all the enemies of France.
In 1854, Pope Pius IX defines the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception [that Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception in her mother’s womb]
1858, the Blessed Mother appears to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France and tells St. Bernadette that she is “the Immaculate Conception”
Vatican I in 1870 defines the dogma of Papal infallibility; the Council ends when the Italian imperial troops take over Rome and the Papal Sates. The Pope remains without a state until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 gives the Pope sovereignty over Vatican City State.
The Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries, 1900-2005
In 1917, the Blessed Mother appears to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. Mary reveals three secrets and there is the “Miracle of the Sun.” The first secret is that many souls are going to hell because of a lack of faith and immoral living; the second is that Russia will be converted if dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary; the third secret was not revealed until a few years ago. It describes a scene of a Pope falling down as if dead. Many think this was a prediction of the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981. Pope John Paul II does credit Our Lady of Fatima with saving his life.
Pius XI issues encyclicals condemning Italian Fascism (1931), German Nazism (1937) and atheistic Communism (1937). He also issues his encyclical, Casti Connubii (1930) upholding the dignity and holiness if marriage and condemning abortion and artificial contraception. During World War II, Pope Pius XII grants refuge to many Jews in Catholic churches; through these efforts and diplomatic means, he helps to save around 700,00 to 800,000 Jewish lives [according to the Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide in his 1967 book, Three Popes and the Jews].
In 1943, Pius XII gives approval to modern methods of biblical study and allows for new Catholic translations to be made (from Greek and Hebrew rather than from the Latin Vulgate edition).
1958-1963: the pontificate of Pope John XXIII, who calls for an ecumenical council.
1962-1965, Vatican II is held: the universal call to holiness and ecumenism [work towards Christian unity] are emphasized. Respect is urged towards non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian religions. The way is opened towards greater use of the vernacular [local] languages in the Roman liturgy rather than simply Latin.
1968-1978: the pontificate of Pope Paul VI.
1968: Paul VI reaffirms the condemnations of abortion and contraception.
1969: Paul VI approves the new version of the Roman Missal.
August 26, 1978, Pope John Paul I, the Patriarch of Venice is elected pope, but he dies of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1978 (pope for only 33 days).
1978- 2005: the pontificate of John Paul II: known for his many travels and writings. In 2000, he prays at the Western Wall of the former temple in Jerusalem and asks God to forgive all who have caused the Jews to suffer in the course of history. From 1987-1988, he calls for a year dedicated in a special way to Mary; and in 2004-2005, he calls for a special year of dedicated to the Eucharist.
April 2, 2005: the death of Pope John Paul II
April 19, 2005: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is elected Pope Benedict XVI.
December 25, 2005: Benedict XVI issues his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).
November 30, 2007: Benedict XVI issues his second encyclical letter, Spe Salvi (In Hope We Are Saved).
April 18, 2008: Benedict XVI speaks before the United Nations in New York. Recalling the 60th anniversary of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), he underscores the importance of fundamental human rights “based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”
November 6, 2008: Speaking before the Catholic-Muslim Forum, Benedict XVI urges Catholics and Muslims “to overcome past prejudices and to correct the often distorted images of the other … to build a common future.”







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