A Concise History of the Roman Catholic Church

Retrace the Beginnings of One of the Oldest Branches of Christianity

The Vatican
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The Roman Catholic church based in the Vatican and led by the Pope, is the largest of all branches of Christianity, with about 1.3 billion followers worldwide. Roughly one in two Christians are Roman Catholics, and one out of every seven people worldwide. In the United States, about 22 percent of the population identifies Catholicism as their chosen religion. 

Origins of the Roman Catholic Church

Roman Catholicism itself maintains that the Roman Catholic Church was established by Christ when he gave direction to the Apostle Peter as the head of the church. This belief is based on Matthew 16:18, when Jesus Christ said to Peter:

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." (NIV).

According to The Moody Handbook of Theology, the official beginning of the Roman Catholic church occurred in 590 CE, with Pope Gregory I. This time marked the consolidated of lands controlled by authority of the pope, and thus the church's power, into what would later be known as "the Papal States." 

The Early Christian Church

After the ascension of Jesus Christ, as the apostles began to spread the gospel and make disciples, they provided the beginning structure for the early Christian Church. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the initial stages of the Roman Catholic Church from that of the early Christian church.

Simon Peter, one of Jesus' 12 disciples, became an influential leader in the Jewish Christian movement. Later James, most likely Jesus' brother, took over leadership. These followers of Christ viewed themselves as a reform movement within Judaism, yet they continued to follow many of the Jewish laws.

At this time Saul, originally one of the strongest persecutors of the early Jewish Christians, had a blinding vision of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and became a Christian. Adopting the name Paul, he became the greatest evangelist of the early Christian church. Paul's ministry, also called Pauline Christianity, was directed mainly to Gentiles. In subtle ways, the early church was already becoming divided.

Another belief system at this time was Gnostic Christianity, which taught that Jesus was a spirit being, sent by God to impart knowledge to humans so that they could escape the miseries of life on earth.

In addition to Gnostic, Jewish, and Pauline Christianity, many other versions of Christianity were starting to be taught. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jewish Christian movement was scattered. Pauline and Gnostic Christianity were left as the dominant groups.

The Roman Empire legally recognized Pauline Christianity as a valid religion in 313 AD. Later in that century, in 380 AD, Roman Catholicism became the official religion of the Roman Empire. During the following 1000 years, Catholics were the only people recognized as Christians.

In 1054 AD, a formal split occurred between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. This division remains in effect today.

The next major division occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation.

Those who remained faithful to Roman Catholicism believed that the central regulation of doctrine by church leaders was necessary to prevent confusion and division within the church and corruption of its beliefs.

Key Dates and Events in the History of Roman Catholicism

c. 33 to 100 CE: This period is known as the apostolic age, during which the early church was headed up by the 12 apostles of Jesus, who began missionary work to convert Jews to Christianity in various regions of the Mediterranean and Mideast. 

c. 60 CE: Apostle Paul returns to Rome after suffering persecution for attempting to convert Jews to Christianity. He is said to have worked with Peter. The reputation of Rome as the center of the Christian church may have begun during this period, although practices were conducted in a hidden manner due to the Roman opposition. Paul dies about 68 CE, probably executed by beheading upon order of emperor Nero. Apostle Peter is also crucified around this time. 

100 CE to 325 CE: Known as the Ante-Nicene period (before the Council of Nicene), this period marked the increasingly vigorous separation of the newly born Christian church from the Jewish culture, and the gradual spread of Christianity into western Europe, the Mediterranean region, and the near East. 

200 CE: Under the leadership of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, the basic structure of the Catholic church was in place. A system of governance of regional branches under absolute direction from Rome was established. The basic tenants of Catholicism were formalized, involving the absolute rule of faith.

313 CE: Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and in 330 moved the Roman capital to Constantinople, leaving the Christian church to be the central authority in Rome. 

325 CE: The First Council of Nicaea converged by Roman Emperor Constantine I. The Council attempted to structure church leadership around a model similar to that of the Roman system, and also formalized key articles of faith. 

551 CE: At the Council of Chalcedon, the head of the church in Constantinople was declared to be the head of the Eastern branch of the church, equal in authority to the Pope. This effectively was the start of the division of the church into the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches. 

590 CE: Pope Gregory I initiates his papacy, during which the Catholic Church engages in widespread efforts to convert pagan peoples to Catholicism. This begins a time of enormous political and military power controlled by Catholic popes. This date is marked by some as the beginning of the Catholic Church as we know it today. 

632 CE: Islamic prophet Mohammad dies. In the following years, the rise of Islam and broad conquests of much of Europe leads to brutal persecution of Christians and removal of all Catholic church heads except for those in Rome and Constantinople. A period of great conflict and long-lasting conflict between the Christian and Islamic faiths begins during these years. 

1054 CE: The great East-West schism marks the formal separation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of the Catholic Church. 

1250s CE: The Inquisition begins in the Catholic church—an attempt to suppress religious heretics and convert non-Christians. Various forms of the forceful inquisition would remain for several hundred years (until the early 1800s), eventually targeting Jewish and Muslim peoples for conversion as well as expelling heretics within the Catholic Church. 

1517 CE: Martin Luther publishes the 95 Theses, formalizing arguments against Roman Catholic Church doctrines and practices, and effectively marking the beginning of the Protestant separation from the Catholic Church.

1534 CE:  King Henry VIII of England declares himself to be supreme head of the Church of England, severing the Anglican Church from the Roman Catholic Church. 

1545-1563 CE: The Catholic Counter-Reformation begins, a period of resurgence in Catholic influence in response to the Protestant Reformation.

1870 CE: The First Vatican Council declares the policy of Papal infallibility, which holds that the Pope's decisions are beyond reproach—essentially considered the word of God. 

1960s CE: The Second Vatican Council in a series of meetings reaffirmed church policy and initiated several measures aimed at modernizing the Catholic Church. 

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Your Citation
Fairchild, Mary. "A Concise History of the Roman Catholic Church." Learn Religions, Sep. 3, 2021, learnreligions.com/roman-catholic-church-history-700528. Fairchild, Mary. (2021, September 3). A Concise History of the Roman Catholic Church. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/roman-catholic-church-history-700528 Fairchild, Mary. "A Concise History of the Roman Catholic Church." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/roman-catholic-church-history-700528 (accessed June 5, 2023).