The early church spoke of its fellowship of believers as “catholic,” a word which means “universal.” Today, the whole Christian church still affirms “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church” in the Nicene Creed. However, the term Catholic with a capital “C” also applies in common parlance to the Churches within the Catholic Communion, centered in Rome. The Church of Rome is one of the oldest Christian communities, tracing its history to the apostles Peter and Paul in the first century. As it developed, it emphasized the central authority and primacy of the bishop of Rome, who became known as the Pope. By the eleventh century, the Catholic Church broke with the Byzantine Church of the East over issues of both authority and doctrine. Particularly in response to this division, several attempts were made to restore union and to heal the wounds of division between the Churches.
During the early 15th century, many in the Roman Church regarded the impending Turkish invasion of the Byzantine Empire as a “work of Providence” to bind divided Christianity together. In response, the Council of Florence envisioned union on a grandiose scale not only with the Greek Byzantine churches, but also with the Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians and Nestorians. Despite the presence of nearly 700 Eastern representatives and 360 Latin representatives and the energetic debates that ensued, reunion was not achieved.
Though disappointed with the failure of the Council of Florence, the Roman Church began to pursue an attractive alternative inspired by the unexpected union with the Maronite Church in the twelfth century. This alternative consisted in the creation of Uniate churches – Eastern in ritual and law but Roman in religious allegiance. Though the term “uniate” has some derogatory connotations, the reconciliation that this term signifies is an important historical development.
Meanwhile, the predominantly Roman church continued to develop strong traditions of monasticism that began with Benedict (480-550) who wrote the “Rule of St. Benedict” where he described the principles of prayer, work, and study essential to the monastic life. Even in the early 21st century, this document continues to be foundational for the life of Benedictine communities all over the world. Many of the missionaries of the church were monks, such as the Venerable Bede (673-735) who brought spiritual leadership to the early church in England and Boniface (680-754) who was the “apostle of Germany.” In the early Middle Ages, Benedictine monasteries became large landholders and powerful forces in the local economy. Through the chaos of the Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, they played an essential role in preserving the spiritual, artistic, and intellectual life of the church.
In the twelfth century, other orders developed that rejected the cloistered and sometimes wealthy life of the monastery, set apart from society, preferring more engaged models of Christian community. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and the Franciscan order emphasized both individual and communal poverty, simplicity, and service—not apart from the people, but among them. Dominic (1170-1221) and the Dominican order emphasized education, preaching, and teaching. Members of these orders were often reformers as well, calling for a renewal of monasticism and the church as a whole.
In the sixteenth century, one of those reformers, the Augustinian friar Martin Luther (1483-1546), broke with the church entirely and launched the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) followed with its own reform of corrupt practices within the Catholic Church. Part of a movement known as the “Catholic Reformation” or the “Counter-Reformation,” the Council of Trent reasserted the visible, hierarchical, and structured authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This period of Catholic renewal reinvigorated the educational and missionary zeal of the church with the establishment of the Society of Jesus, also called the Jesuits, founded by Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556). Especially with the colonization and conversion of Latin America and with its missions to Asia and Africa, the Roman Catholic Church became a worldwide church. Unfortunately, the strong reaction to the Protestant movement would have a negative impact upon the Eastern Catholic churches as conformity to the Roman standard became the norm. Only the Second Vatican Council would begin the process of correcting this mentality.
Today, the Catholic Communion is centered at the Vatican in Rome, but its synods, councils of bishops, and local parishes carry on the life and work of the church on every continent. More than half of the world’s Christians are Catholic. The Second Vatican Council considered seriously the new role of the church in the modern world. Among the many decisions of the Council was to abandon the predominantly Latin mass in favor of worship in the language and in the cultural forms of the local community. Another focus was on a new openness to other religious traditions as represented in the document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time). A third focus was on how the church should emphasize not only preaching and sacraments, but a vigorous mission to the poor and those in need.
This emphasis helped give rise to a movement known as “liberation theology” that began in Latin America in the 1970s and spread throughout many parts of the world. Liberation theologians such as the Peruvian Domincan Gustavo Gutiérrez were initially focused on economic injustices. He interpreted the Gospels as promoting a “preferential option for the poor” and declared structures of oppression that perpetuated cycles of poverty and despair as sinful. This movement spread throughout much of the global south and eventually inspired other emancipation theologies in the United States and elsewhere such as Black Liberation Theology, Feminist Liberation Theology, and Womanist Theology. These latter movements were often led by Protestants and included members from many other religious traditions (and none).
"Pope Francis," 2013, Catholic Church England, Flickr Creative Commons.
"Detail of Benedictine Monks," Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, Tuscany, Italy, Jacqueline Poggi, Flickr Creative Commons.
"Portrait Catholicism in Indonesia," Henri Ismail (2007), Flickr Creative Commons.