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Origins of the Catholic Church

by Fr. Edward J. Berbusse, S.J.


Fr. Edward Berbusse uses specific examples from early Church history to support his thesis that the Pope has always been viewed as the final authority in matters of faith and morals. He also discusses Cardinal John Henry Newman's teaching on the development of doctrine.

Publisher & Date

Christendom Publications, 1984


+Christ is God: the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father; born in time of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, He is also Man (Lk. 1:26-35; Jn. 1:1-5, 14).

+ Christ founded His Church on the Apostles (Mt. 28:16-20; Jn. 20:19-23); and gave them His authority.

+ Peter was constituted the visible center of authority of an Apostolic College; and his successors, the popes, hold the "keys" of Peter (Mt. 16:13-20).

+ The Apostles, by Divine right, passed on their powers of teaching, sanctifying and ruling to their bishop-successors.

+ The New Testament, written by Divine inspiration, is part of the Revelation that was given, as a deposit of Faith, to the People of God. Its principal Author is God; its human, inspired authors were members of the Catholic Church.

+ The Catholic Church has given its Bible and its Tradition to all men. It alone has the power to teach the Word of God infallibly, as it unfolds an ever greater understanding of this same Word over time.

Jesus and the Church:

Jesus Christ is the Lord, our God. He came to His earth almost 2,000 years ago, being born of a Virgin Mother, Mary. At Christmas we honor His Birth. He preached to all men of prayer and penance. He said:

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Mt. 4:17). He drew great numbers of people about Him, saying to them:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God. (Mt. 5:3, 5, 7, 8)

He told them that they were to reflect His light in the world: "Let your light shine before men, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Mt 5:16). From morning to night He cured the sick and sorrowing; He raised the dead, and preached kindness, generosity, purity of heart and action. He taught men how to pray: "Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name" (Mt. 6:10). But while Jesus did these things as part of His extraordinary personal mission, it was not His plan to do everything alone.

When Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, fishermen; He said to them: "Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Mt. 4:18-19). Then, He drew into a special group of friends James and John, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James, son of Alpheus, Simon the Zealot, and Jude (Acts 1:13). He taught them to pray; and "with one mind they continued steadfastly in prayer with the women, and with Mary, the Mother of Jesus" (Acts 1:14).

Here was His first gathering of disciples, the Apostles, whom He sent out to teach the Word of God. He gave them "power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every kind of disease and infirmity" (Mt. 10:1). He said: "Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. Freely give of what you have freely received" (Mt 10:8). He promised to give them His Body and Blood as food and drink (Jn. 6:31-59); and so, at the Last Supper, instituted the Holy Eucharist (Mt. 26:26-29). But his last commission to them, before ascending to Heaven, was to preach and baptize: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold I am with you all days, even to the end of the world" (Mt. 28:18-20).

Here is the beginning of His Church, founded on the Apostles almost 2,000 years ago. Lest there be any confusion as to the center of authority, He gave His Divine commission to teach, rule and sanctify to the Apostles; and as the final court of appeal, He appointed Simon as His Vicar, naming him "Peter", which in Aramaic means rock. Then Jesus said: "Peter, you are the rock, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven" (Mt. 16:18-19).

Peter's Role

While most modern critics will accept that Jesus existed and intended that his mission would be carried on in some form, it is when we come to this matter of juridical authority and structure that some drift away from the historical record. Therefore, it is vital to understand the role of Peter among the first Christians.

The famous "rock" text from Matthew, cited above, has been the subject of dispute since the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. Some commentators have held that when Christ promised to build his Church upon the "rock," he was referring to the rock of Peter's faith, which Peter had professed in the preceding verse ("You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God"). But the entire passage makes clear that Christ simply used the occasion of Peter's profession to declare that Peter himself was the "rock," as is signified by Christ's telling and obviously deliberate choice of the name "Peter" for this Simon Barjona (Son of John): "Thou art Peter", which in Greek is a proper name formed from the word rock. Not without reason, therefore, do some translations read, "Thou art the Rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church." This interpretation is confirmed in St. John's Gospel where our Lord tells Simon that He is changing his name to Cephas, which is the Aramaic word for rock (Jn 1:42). What Jesus is doing here can only be compared to the name changes in the Old Testament which attend the appointment to positions of leadership over God's people (Abram-Abraham, Jacob-Israel), and in which the meaning of the new name always conveys something about the kind of role the leader is to play.

The giving of the keys has likewise been disputed, but with far less reason even than the "rock" text, the arguments revolving around whether Peter received the keys corporately or singularly. But in fact, he didn't receive them at all in this text (the future is used: "to you I will give the keys"), and the fulfillment of this promise comes logically after the Resurrection when Our Lord was preparing to return to the Father, in the dramatic threefold parallel to Peter's denial: "Do you love me, Peter? ... Feed my sheep." (Jn. 21:15-17). Likewise, Christ prayed especially for Peter so that he might "confirm his brethren" (Lk 22:32).

When Christ gave Peter the "Keys", this, according to long custom of the Jews and other peoples, symbolized the conferring of authority (cf Is. 22:22; Ap 3:7). He was given complete power to bind and to loose", which means to forbid and permit, and to do so in such a way that God's own authority is thereby committed. Thus Peter is called the Vicar of Christ, the one who visibly heads the Church in the name of Christ.

We note that Jesus first established His Church on the Apostles, and commissioned them to teach the Word of God to all nations. And this the Apostles did, immediately after Pentecost. Peter was the center of the united teaching. As we read in the Acts of the Apostles (2:14), "Peter, standing up with the Eleven, lifted up his voice and spoke out to them . . . Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (2:38). Then, we read that those "who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls" (2:41).

It was Peter who healed the man who was lame from his mother's womb, "at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful," saying: "in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk" (Acts, 3:6). Astounded by this miracle, the people ran after the Apostles; and it was Peter who preached Christ to them. Thereupon the officers, of the Jewish Temple arrested him; but the number of those who came to believe were five thousand (Acts, 4:4). People brought their sick into the streets and laid them on beds so that, "when Peter passed, his shadow at least might fall on some of them ... and they were all cured" (Acts 5:15-16). When the apostles were ordered by the heads of the Sanhedrin not to preach Christ, "Peter and the apostles said: We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

It was Peter who condemned Simon the Magician who had attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit saying, "Your money go to destruction with you, because you have thought that the gift of God can be purchased with money" (Acts 8:20). It was again Peter who, in visiting the churches in Judea, Galilee and Samaria, cured Aeneas, the paralytic; and raised Tabitha (Dorcas) from the dead (Acts 9:31-41). An angel of the Lord directed that Cornelius, a Roman centurion, go to Simon Peter in order to receive Baptism; and he was the first of the Gentiles to be brought to Christian belief (Acts, 10:1-48). In Peter's discourse on Jesus "who is the Lord of all," the Holy Spirit came upon all; and Peter "ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 10:36, 48).

Meanwhile, Paul was preaching the Word in Asia Minor; and also performing miracles in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. When the Judaizing Christians insisted that converts from paganism to Christianity should be subjected to the Law of Moses, Paul and Barnabas were sent from Antioch to Jerusalem, to consult "the apostles and presbyters at Jerusalem about this question" (Acts 15:2); and, after a long debate, Peter got up and said to them: "Brethren, you know that in early days God made choice among us, that through my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart, bore witness by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us.... Why then do you now try to test God by putting on the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are" (Acts 15:7-11). Then it was that "the whole meeting quieted down" (Acts 15:12).

Paul was the greatest of the Apostles among the Gentiles; but, after his Baptism (Acts 9:10-19) and a period of preparation for the ministry in Arabia (Gal 1:17), and after preaching in Damascus that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, he went to Jerusalem to see Peter (Gal 1:18), to pay his homage to the head of the Church. Again, fourteen years later, Paul went up to the mother church of Jerusalem, "as the result of a revelation." He wrote: "I laid before the leading men the Good News as I proclaim it among the pagans; I did so for fear the course I was adopting or had already adopted would not be allowed" (Gal 2:1-2). And so "James, Cephas (Peter) and John, these leaders, these pillars, gave me ... the right hand of fellowship." It is true that the great Paul came into conflict with the head of the Apostles, Peter, in Antioch, confronting him with the question: " If you, though a Jew, live like the Gentiles, and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like the Jews?" (Gal. 2:14). He charged Peter with dissembling, in the company of the Jews; and made clear the teaching of Christ:

We know that man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ. Hence we also believe in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the Law.... For I through the Law have died to the Law that I may live to God.... I do not cast away the grace of God. For if justice is by the Law, then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:16, 19, 21).

This text is often used to prove that Peter did not have a juridical primacy over Christ's Church. But it should be obvious that it proves the contrary. It tells of the correction of a personal weakness, not a juridical challenge. The controversy between the Judaizing Christians and those newly converted from paganism had been settled, at Paul's behest, in the Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 51). It was Peter who gave voice to that decision of the Council. The later weakness of Peter was not a change in the Church's teaching; nor was Paul's rebuke a challenge to Peter's authority, but a brotherly correction rendered urgent because of Peter's authority. The entire passage makes this clear. It begins, again, with Paul seeking Peter's formal approval for his course of action in the apostolate (Gal 2:2).

Apostolic Authority and Its Transmission

Authority and structure among the first Christians would mean little for us unless it were carried on. Some argue that Apostolic authority, centered as it was on Peter, was not meant to be carried on but to be replaced by the authority of the New Testament, once it was all written. But the very words of the New Testament contradict this view. As Jn 21:25, 2 Thes. 2:15, and many other passages suggest, the New Testament was never written with the intention of being the primary and sufficient source of information on Christianity. It was written for readers already instructed, to recall, supplement and solve disputes which had arisen since their first instruction. As a life-changing revelation, having innumerable bearings both mystical and practical Christianity was an indivisible body of truth to be received from the teacher as he had received it, to be received on the authority of the teacher. This is Paul's way of teaching (1 Thes. 2:13; Gal 1:9; 2 Cor. 3:5-6); and it is the way of teaching of the Church for 2,000 years, in the face of innovators. As the historian Philip Hughes has written, "This primitive apostolic Christianity is a lesson to be learnt, articles of faith to be believed, moral precepts to be obeyed, a mystery accepted on the Divine authority which functions through the Apostle who is teaching."1 Thus a living structure of Apostolic authority is not something Christianity could "outgrow", lose or lay aside, without losing a part of its very essence. In some sense, it is a structure which was meant to live on. Let us therefore study it in more detail.

The organization of the primitive Church is clear from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul; it is a tradition that thrives within twenty years of the death of Christ. The foundation of the whole structure is the authority of the Apostles. They were personally commissioned by Christ; the Twelve exercised a general authority. As Hughes put it:

They are the center of all the subsequent development, the missionary activities for example, the institution of the order of deacons, the replacing of Judas; and it is to the Apostles that St. Paul submits his claim to be acknowledged as a thirteenth Apostle, 'one born out of due time' indeed but none the less of the true lineage.2

The apostles speak with authority, because they have received the Faith as a deposit, to be guarded; and to be handed on with the authority of a teacher (1 Tim. 6:20). A new people is constituted, in Christ and under Christ's vicars, the Apostles. But just as Christ did not plan to do everything alone, neither did His Apostles.

From Apostolic hands comes the transmitted authority to teach, rule and sanctify. We read, in the Acts of the Apostles, that Paul and Barnabas, his immediate subordinate, preached the Faith in Derbe, Lystra Iconium and Antioch in the region called Galatia of Asia Minor; and "they appointed presbyters for them in each church" (Acts 14:21-22). The possession of special gifts of the Holy Spirit (charismata)—tongues, miracles, prophecies or the like—gave no authority to its possessors. Authority only comes from designation by one already possessed of it; and so all authority in the Christian Faith must come from the Apostolic source (see also 1 Cor 12:25; 14:2). It is clear that the Apostles had a unique power; but to their authority, by their own transmission, there succeeded the new hierarchy of episcopoi and presbyteroi. These Greek names indicated the rulers of the local Church; and their powers were given to the bishop (episcopos) of the local Ecclesia, who was aided by his subordinates, the presbyteroi. The Apostles laid hands on men to whom they transmitted their priesthood and episcopacy, who, in their turn, taught and governed. St. Paul instructed Timothy to combat false teachers energetically and engage actively in the work of organizing the community. As a bishop, he is to be blameless and care for the Church of God (1 Tim. 3:2-5). Titus, who is addressed by St. Paul as "beloved son", was entrusted with the care of the Church in Crete and as bishop died there. He, like Timothy, was to be blameless, to exhort in sound doctrine and to confute opponents (Titus, 1:6,9).

It would be wrong to suggest that there are no interpretive problems with the New Testament documents on these offices. The terms "bishop" and "presbyter" tend to be used imprecisely at times, and, in any case, none of the New Testament books gives an extensive treatment of Church structure. This last point, however, becomes a strength, because "founding documents" typically address structures, and the relative silence of the New Testament on this point is actually an argument in favor of the contextual theory that the books presuppose an existing traditional structure from the first, as an unbiased reading of Acts and the Epistles will suggest. The treatment in this tract, therefore, emphasizes the historical argument: From the late apostolic age on forward, we have continuous documentation of the exercise of the authority of popes and bishops throughout the Church.

This transmitting of Apostolic authority is found in the early Church's exertion of the power of teaching, ruling and sanctifying. St. Clement I, who was the third Pope after Peter, ruling from 91 to 110, reminded the people of the Church in Corinth that they were to be guided by the fixed rule (canons) in doctrine, liturgy and in discipline. He wrote:

The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent from God. Christ, therefore, is from God and the Apostles are from Christ. Both, accordingly, came in proper order by the will of God. Receiving their orders, therefore, and being filled with confidence because of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and confirmed in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God that was about to come.... They appointed their first-fruits, after testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should believe. And this they did without innovation.4

St. Clement gave decision in the case of a dispute within the Church of Corinth, appealed to the rule of Apostolic succession, and upheld those who had been unjustly removed from office. He ruled:

Those who were appointed by the Apostles or afterwards by other eminent men [i.e., by the successors of the apostles], with the consent of the whole Church . . . we consider are not justly deposed from their ministry.5

He charged the dissenters with schism and rebelliousness; and exerted his special Apostolic authority, as successor to St. Peter and Vicar of Christ. He taught: "if some shall disobey the words which have been spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in no small transgression and danger."6 St. Clement spoke with full awareness of the special prerogatives of the See of Rome which he occupied.

This letter of Pope Clement is a first appearance of the Roman Church Is intervention in the domestic affairs of another and distant Church, and it occurred during the lifetime of St. John the Evangelist who was alive at Ephesus (which was much closer to Corinth than Rome). Philip Hughes comments:

This First Letter of St. Clement of Rome witnesses to a general belief in the divine right of the hierarchy, in the divine origin of its power, and to the Roman Church's consciousness of its peculiar superiority. It takes these things as the facts of the situation, And it acts on the supposition that they are facts universally recognized, which do not call for proof.7

Clement's contemporary, St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was born in 60 A.D. and a disciple of St. John, bears witness to the same teaching. In letters to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, Smyrna, Rome and to St. Polycarp, he insists on internal peace and unity, a submission to the local hierarchy, because the bishop is in each church the representative of God. The true doctrine is that which had been handed down, a tradition that unifies the whole Church in all its parts. When writing to the Trallians, he exhorted them:

When you are obedient to the bishop as you would be to Jesus Christ, you are living, not in a human way, but according to Jesus Christ . . . You must continue then to do nothing apart from the bishop.8

In his Letter to the Romans, St. Ignatius acknowledges the primacy held by that Church: "the Church in the place of the country of the Romans which holds the primacy of the community of love, obedience to Christ's law, bearing the Father's name." In writing to the Philadelphians (Asia Minor), members to "be at one with the bishop he urges the members to "be at one with the bishop and with his priests and with the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ." He warns them of schism and heresies which are "wolves plausible enough to ensnare the pilgrims of God."9 Another letter (to the Smyrnaeans) warned against schisms and urged all to "follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the Apostles.... Apart from the bishop, let no one perform any of the functions that pertain to the Church." Then, turning to the Eucharist, he says:

Let that Eucharist be held valid which is offered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has committed this charge. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop.10

In all of these writings, we see the unity of the Church about the bishop; and we also begin to see the bishops holding special reverence and submission to the Apostolic See of Rome. There is one Church, founded by Christ on the Apostles and on the successors which they have appointed; their bond of union is in the See of Rome. And that Church is the universal (i.e. "Catholic") Church which has a universal apostolate, a oneness in teaching, sanctifying and in discipline; it is holy because its founder is Jesus Christ. The Roman Church is the final authoritative voice of Christ, because "it has taught the others." Of himself, St. Ignatius says: "I do not give you orders as Peter and Paul were wont to do; they were apostles." His teaching is for his diocese, but its authenticity depends on submission to the structure centered on the See of Peter. As he warned in his Letter to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna:

There are some who seem plausible enough, but who teach heretical doctrine. Do not let them disturb you. Stand firm like an anvil under the hammer.11

Papal Authority and the Roman Church

If from the first century, in a small and beleaguered Church, we find evidence of central control from Rome, the second century shows this traditional authority unmistakably in the defense of the Church against both internal and external attack. For example, St. Irenaeus, one of the first missionary bishops in the frontier diocese of Lyons (France), corrected the insidious errors of the Gnostics. These elite intellectuals attempted to remodel the Church's teaching by bringing it into accord with a "higher knowledge" and to transform the religion of the Church into a mystery cult of dreams and initiations. The Gnostics based all truth on the depth of their learning, while St. Irenaeus founded it on the teaching authority in the Church. In his book, Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), he refuted the subtleties and fantasies of the Gnostics. His argument is that "it is not human learning, not even the study of the admittedly Sacred Writings, which is the source of man's knowledge of the truths revealed. It is the teaching of the Roman Church."12 He said:

—The universal Church is essentially a religion of authority.

—Its Creed is constant and consistent.

—Our knowledge of God is partly contained in the divine Scriptures. But, since Holy Scripture is often obscure and offers difficulties in interpretation, there must be a "fixed, unchangeable rule of truth."

—The canon (rule) of truth was committed to the Church by the Apostles, as they received it from Christ, and has been preserved in its integrity by the universal Church.

—Every local Church must bring itself into line with the Roman Church, "because of that Church's surer guarantees."

In a word, the Christian religion does not rest on learning, but on Authority. Irenaeus built his exposition on the Rule of Faith and Apostolic succession, on the infallibility of the Church and a united episcopate which is secured by the special doctrinal authority of the Roman See.13

In the same second century, another error, named Montanism, mushroomed in the highlands of central Asia Minor. Montanus was a self-mutilated, onetime priest of the goddess Cybele. In a conversion to Christianity, he began to experience "ecstasies," marked by bizarre gesticulations, howlings and prophecies. This new sect prophesied the imminent end of the world; their source of knowledge, they said, was the Holy Spirit. The bishops of the Catholic Church exposed and denounced the sect, whereupon the Montanists followed their prophets rather than the bishops. According to Hughes, their innovation was a "desire to impose private revelations as a supplement to the deposit of faith, and to accredit them by ecstasies and convulsions." It continued for some centuries; but by the sixth century all trace of the Montanists had vanished.14

In the second century of Christianity forces from outside the Church sought to subvert its teachings by Gnostic infiltration; in the third century the conflict was between the authority of the bishops and certain theologians who attempted to impose their ideas on the Church, and were resisted. As Hughes comments, the troubles of the third century "throw a flood of light for us on the position, already traditional, of the Roman Church within the great whole."15 The disputes involved the liturgical calendar, explanations of the mysteries of the Faith, changes in sacramental discipline, and the relation of Peter's See to the other patriarchates and episcopates.

In matters of Faith the Church taught that God is one and that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God, distinct from the Father. Against this a certain Theodotus—an apostate in times of persecution—attempted to defend his conduct by denying that Jesus was God. He said that he had denied Christ but not God. he tried to establish his doctrine in Rome but was excommunicated in 190 by Pope Victor I—a clear demonstration of the wide acceptance of papal authority. Praxeas, at the end of the second century, denied the distinction of the Person of the Father and of the Son, and so was likewise condemned. Writing with great mastery in his De Praescriptione Haereticorum was the formidable but impetuous theologian, Tertullian. He argued for "the Eternal Divinity of the Logos [the Word], His origin from the substance of the Father, His unity of nature with the Father, and His real distinctness from the Father." Succinctly, he expressed the mystery: "Unity of Substance, Trinity of Persons"; this is the classic formula in which the traditional Faith finds reasoned expression.16 (Despite all his Latin logic, however, Tertullian also fell by the wayside, a victim of Montanist emotionalism).

At the mid-point of the third century, St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, became a very controversial figure who has ever intrigued historians. In his book, The Unity of the Church, he stressed the need for unity in each local church: "to leave the bishop (of the local church) is to leave the Church, and to leave the Church is to leave Christ." Of Rome he said that it was the principal Church (ecclesia principalis), and the "source from which the unity [of the whole Church] arises." St. Cyprian also appealed to the Pope to depose Marcion, Bishops of Arles, and to inform Cyprian of the appointee of the Pope. Cyprian had his differences with Rome, whereupon Pope St. Stephen I reminded him of the Law and the Tradition, and bade him obey it. The conflict subsided with the death of Stephen and the accession of Pope Sixtus II in 257, but the important fact here is that the Roman See ruled, and its interpretation became the Tradition: As Irenaeus of Lyons said: "For with this Church every other Church throughout the world must bring itself to agree."17

Two other outstanding personages of the third century, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, illustrate the principle that theological fame is insufficient to determine the Christian tradition without approval of the Church of Rome. Despite their learned and heroic lives, neither man is today invoked as a saint or enrolled among the doctors of the Church. Clement, a theologian who used his trained mind to develop the data of the traditional belief, was sound on many points. He even acknowledged Peter as "the chosen one, the elect, the first of the disciples" and held that, of all doctrines, the Church's is to be preferred. However he fell into errors when over-allegorising the meaning of Sacred Scripture, attempting to find the mystery of the Trinity in Plato, and holding the Platonic idea that the possession of knowledge adds, of itself, to moral perfection.18 Origen is famous for being the first of all Christian scholars to construct a vast synthesis in which the many-sided truths of the traditional faith are displayed in a related harmony. His encyclopedic learning, real holiness of life and constancy in persecution have never been denied. He said:

Make use of the Church's preaching handed down by the Apostles through the order of succession, which still to this day remains in the churches. That alone is to be believed as true, which, in every way, accords with the tradition of the Church and the Apostles.19

Despite his strong commitment to the Faith, however, Origen had some theories which have heterodox tendencies. For instance, he held a theory of eternal creation, and reasoned that these created beings were of the world of spirits, created equal and endowed with free will. From these original spirits some "became angels ...; others, the sun, moon and stars; others the souls of men; and others, the demons. No term has been set to this evolution, and according to their conduct it is in the power of all spirits to regain the height from which they have fallen." He also taught that in the end all God's intelligent creation will be reconciled to Him. As Philip Hughes remarked, "along with all the vast learning, and the deep thought [of Origen] . . . there is an amazing amount of rash conjecture and of unproved assertion."20 For these reasons, neither Origen nor Clement have won the approbation of Rome, and their personal theories have had little effect.

Finally, in the eventful third century—a time of persecution of the Church by the Roman Emperors, and of heterodox teaching by certain bishops and theologians—the Popes were ever the touchstone of orthodox doctrine. For instance, Bishop Denis of Alexandria appealed to Pope Denis (259-268) in vindication of his teaching. In reply the Pontiff objected to certain words used by the Bishop of Alexandria (e.g. his use of the word "creature" in describing God the son; and his reluctance to use the word, consubstantial (homoousios) to describe the likeness of Father to Son in the Trinity. In all of this the Pope declined to philosophize. As Hughes said:

Rome stands by the tradition, condemns the innovation by reference to the tradition, and as dispassionately criticizes—again by reference to the tradition—the theory which the Catholic has constructed to defend the tradition. The procedure is already traditional, and it throws a great deal of light on the practical working of the potentior principalitas of the Roman Church.21

There were many heresies and schisms that sought to rend Christian unity in doctrine, liturgy and discipline. Some of these derived from the Gnostics, who attempted to make of pagan and Christian beliefs a synthesis that was of their own intellectual fashioning. Others were the labor of intellectuals within the Church who imagined that the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Church depended on the elite theologians, and not on the college of bishops who were in union with the Pontiff. Throughout, the Roman Church and the teaching authority of the popes maintained the unity of the whole.

Development of Doctrine

To this point, the exposition of the key elements of Christian faith and practice from earliest times, elements which point so clearly to the authenticity of the Catholic Church and of her concept of teaching authority—has relied chiefly on raw historical data. However, a final stumbling block for those uncertain of the apostolic character of later Catholicism is the highly developed body of doctrine taught by Church authority side by side with the older Scriptural texts. This brings us to a final issue in defense of the authentic tradition—the issue of the development of doctrine. This issue, necessarily theological in character, is best seen by using material dating from the later portion of what are commonly regarded as the early centuries of Christianity, for it was only after Christianity was freed from persecution in the fourth century that the great theologians had a reasonable opportunity to clarify Our Lord's teaching in the face of confusing questions which had slowly developed since the close of the apostolic age.

As we have seen, St. Irenaeus himself emphasized the idea of continuity of Church teaching, with a potentiality for ever greater understanding of its content. This growth in understanding was ever threatened by the distortions of the Gnostics who presumed to have a higher knowledge of the Faith than the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church. It was the constant task of the Church to clarify the difference between private learning and divinely committed authority. Catholic doctrine is an ever-deepening development of our understanding of the deposit of the Faith; this deposit has been given by Christ to the Church's custody and interpretation. It is not "change." Rather, it is development, an unfolding of the inner meaning of the revealed truths. "Change" is a confusing distortion or abolition of the essential teaching.

We are now fortunate that in the last century the great study of John Henry Newman—then a nonCatholic—provides us with an analysis of the nature of doctrinal development which can here replace many specific examples. Newman examined the origins of the Catholic Church believing that the locus for the development of doctrine must be in the historical seats of Apostolic teaching. He reasoned:

From the first age of Christianity, its teaching looked towards those ecclesiastical dogmas, afterwards recognized and defined with ... more or less determinate advance in the direction of them; till at length that advance became so pronounced as to justify their definition.22

He saw a "converging evidence in favor of certain doctrines (that) may, under circumstances, be as clear a proof of their Apostolical origin as can be reached practically from the Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus" (the rule of what has been held always, everywhere, and by all). Here Newman was appealing to (and refining) a dictum of St. Vincent of Lerins, who taught that there is and must ever be a continuity with Apostolic teaching.

To take just a few of Newman's examples of this consistent development, we may cite the Nicene Creed of 325, as "a natural key for interpreting the body of Antenicene theology." It stressed the relation of Son to Father and Holy Spirit to prevent a denial of the distinction of Persons in the Trinity. Similarly, the Athanasian Creed of 359 stressed the absolute perfections of our Lord. Again, the concurrent Monophysite heresy which held that at least virtually our Lord was not man had the developing effect, in the teaching of the Church Fathers, of interpreting His 'manhood texts.'23

In the Council of Ephesus of 431, the Christian's understanding of another aspect of Christ's nature was developed, formally decided, and defined as a dogma of Faith. In order to defend the true doctrine of the Incarnation, "in order to secure a right faith in the manhood of the Eternal Son, the Council of Ephesus determined the Blessed Virgin to be the Mother of God." This decision was a formalizing of the traditional "sensus fidei" of Christians; from primitive times, the title theotokos (Mother of God) was recognized and used by Christians.24 What was given in the deposit of Revelation was discovered and developed through study, prayer, and resistance to heresy. It was in the spontaneous and traditional sense of Faith of Christians from the beginning; it was through the Councils and Papal teaching that a definite form was given, and true, irreformable doctrine proclaimed.

Having shown the consistent teaching of the Church on the nature of Christ, with its explication through developing understanding and teaching, Newman proceeded to study the evidence which "is adducible in the first five centuries in behalf of the supremacy of the Holy See."25 In the period immediately following the Apostles, all acknowledged the Sacramentum Unitatis: "Christians knew that they must live in unity, and they were in unity." Then,

when the Church was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred.

St. Peter's prerogative remained only a letter until there came a need to invoke it; and no doctrine is defined until it is violated. Besides, Newman states that there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict Papal supremacy as part of Christianity. He finds that "doctrine cannot but develop as time proceeds and need arises, and that its developments are parts of the Divine system." Accordingly, he reasons that it is "necessary to interpret the words and deeds of the earlier Church by the determinate teaching of the later." Newman views this as a "general probability. "26

Newman further pointed out that the Church, moreover, by its very nature needs a monarchical power; and so this becomes the ground for anticipating it:

If the whole of Christendom is to form one Kingdom, one head is essential; at least this is the experience of eighteen hundred years. As the Church grew into form, so did the power of the Pope develop; and wherever the Pope has been renounced, decay and division have been the consequence. We know of no other way of preserving the Sacramentum Unitatis but a centre of unity.

Thus, in the fourth century, St. Jerome wrote to Pope St. Damasus in obedience:

I speak with the successor of the fisherman and the disciple of the Cross. I, following no one as my chief but Christ, am associated in communion with your blessedness, that is, with the See of Peter. I know that on that rock the Church is built. Whosoever shall eat the Lamb outside this House is profane.

Lastly, popes themselves testified to their role in early times, who, such as St. Siricius in 385, said: "We bear the burden of all who are laden; yea, rather the Blessed Peter bears them in us, who, as we trust, in all things protects and defends us the heirs of his government."27 In an even more extensive treatment, Newman proves that an historical study of both faithful and heretics reveals their acknowledging of the Papal See in Rome as "the school of the Apostles."

It has been stated that the first centuries of the Church were those of free opinion, and that the great theological decisions did not commence until the fourth. Newman replies that "the principle of dogmatism develops into Councils in the course of time; but it was active, nay sovereign, from the first, in every part of Christendom." The deposit of faith was regarded as one, a trust; it was to be guarded, transmitted and defended. Councils and Popes, said Newman "are the guardians and instruments of the dogmatic principles; ... they presuppose the principle; they are summoned into action at the call of the principle." What conscience is to the individual mind, the dogmatic principle is for the Church. As the conscience demands that the right be followed, so the early Church was a time of martyrs, of action; in the succeeding period of peace, the Doctors formulated the doctrines according to the principles that were the roots of the Church from the beginning.28

Through the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has continued to define the true Christian teaching, and to expose the errors of the heresiarchs as they rose to power. In the expression of the Church's teaching, there is a continuous application of the unchangeable principles; the dogmatic definitions give clarity and explicitness to this teaching. The theology of the Church "is no random combination of various opinions, but a diligent, patient working out of one doctrine from many materials." Under attack, the Church's teaching has been committed to a continuous development of its dogmas, and with a chronic vigor. Were it a corruption of Christianity, it would have been lost. It is, rather, still living; it is, in Newman's words,

vigorous, energetic, persuasive, progressive . . . it grows and is not overgrown; it spreads out, yet is not enfeebled; it is ever germination, yet ever consistent with itself.

An instance of the hazards confronting the Church in its history was the early converts who entered with mixed motives and confused opinions. They kept the Church in labor to prevent paganism from being entrenched within her walls. Delicate problems were met and overcome in the development of Catholic ritual. For example, veneration of the many saints resembled the polytheism which it supplanted, but dogmatic teaching fostered true development and rejected error. Mystics who have "boasted of their possession of reformed truth, and have rejected what they called the corruptions of Catholicism," have fallen into error in doctrine and excess in conduct. Both from within and from without the spirit of the world has attacked the Church, has seemed to be triumphing over her. But wonderful is her revival from attack, "a further evidence of the absence of corruption in the system of doctrine and worship into which she has developed." The Church rises from the attack with all things in place and ready for action. In the barque of Peter, "doctrine is where it was, and usage, and precedence, and principle, and policy; there may be changes, but they are consolidations or adaptations; all is unequivocal and determinate, with an identity which there is no disputing."29

In this masterful treatment of the development of doctrine within the Church, Newman, before putting down his pen, recalled his prayer that the "Most Merciful would not despise the work of His own Hands, nor leave him to himself." Reason, he said, must be "content to be a little Child, and to follow where faith guides it." He prayed to the Father of Lights that, in his use of reason, he would ever be obedient to Faith, "for the edification of Holy Jerusalem, His Church."30 Thus it was that he joined the Church of Rome, becoming a Catholic in 1845.


Our study ends with the fourth century, a time in which the Church was able to rise from the catacombs and to speak publicly. The fourth century for the Church, began with the Peace of Constantine (312 A.D.), and contained the great Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) and the First Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.) The Councils spoke out against the powerful and virulent heresy of Arianism. The Arians held with much subtlety and evasive formulas that Christ, the Word, was the first of the creatures of the Father; and this Son (the Word) was the creator of all other creatures. And so they held that God adopted the Son, and the Son created the Holy Spirit and all other creatures. Arianism was advanced by a variety of bishops and priest theologians, and was sustained by the persecutions of some of the Roman Emperors. The Popes always rejected it; the Councils exposed its errors; and all of the Ecumenical Councils had their teaching approved by the Pope. it was again Peter's See of Rome that was the hallmark of orthodoxy, even if other bishops of other sees, such as the great Athanasius of Alexandria, took a more prominent role in the battle.

Every century has seen physical and intellectual persecution of the Church; but against such storms it has, by Divine predilection, ridden the waves. The Catholic Church has, in many centuries—especially in the ages of modern history—been destined by modern secularist prophets for destruction. This has not and never can happen, since Christ has promised that He would be with the one Church that He established, until the end of time (Mt 28:29).

It has ever been and is the teaching of the Church that the care of all the Churches was given to Peter and his successors (Jn 21:15-17). In the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, reaffirmed the constant and unchanging doctrine of the Catholic Church:

The Roman Pontiff, as the Successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of unity in his particular Church, fashioned after the model of the universal Church. In and from such individual Churches there comes into being the one and only Catholic Church. For this reason each individual bishop represents his own Church, but all of them together in union with the Pope represent the entire Church joined in the bond of peace, love and unity.31

In a recent address to the Bishops of the Chaldean Rite, Pope John Paul II said: "It was in this illustrious city of Rome that the Prince of Apostles shed his blood. And his martyrdom made this same city the See of the Church which presides over Charity and the Chair of Truth destined to strengthen other Brothers."32

We have studied the Christian Church from its institution by Jesus Christ until the end of the fourth century; and have recognized in that study nothing less than the self-same Catholic Church of today, identical in authority and doctrine. As Cardinal Newman has said:

If the whole of Christendom is to form one Kingdom, one head is essential; at least this is the experience of eighteen hundred years. As the Church grew into form, so did the power of the Pope develop; and wherever the Pope has been renounced, decay and division have been the consequence. We know of no other way of preserving the Sacramentum Unitatis but a centre of unity.33

In these final decades of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church numbers over eight hundred million members from all the nations of the earth. At her center is Pope John Paul II, the 264th successor of St. Peter, Vicar of Christ. This Pope does what Peter and every pope must: unify and confirm the brethren. And in every area of the world are bishops who are successors of the Apostles. They, too, are drawn into the unity of Christ's Church by a bond of union with the Pontiff. As we read in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, in the Second Vatican Council: "Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they [the bishops] have supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff."34 And so it is that Christ has willed that His Church should remain, both indefectible and infallible: "Behold I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world." (Mt 28:20).


1 Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1949), I, 48.

2 Ibid., 48.

3 Ibid., 49.

4 Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, in Ludwig Schopp, (ed.), The Fathers of the Church, (New York: Cima Publ. Co., 1946) I, 42.

5 Ibid., 43.

6 Ibid., 54.

7 Hughes, History, I, 54.

8 Epistle of Ignatius of Antioch to the Trallians, in Schopp, I, 102.

9 Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, in Schopp, I, 113.

10 Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, in Schopp, I, 121.

11 Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp, in Schopp, I, 125.

12 Hughes, History, I, 92.

13 Ibid., 90-91.

14 Ibid., 94-95.

15 Ibid., 97.

16 Ibid., 105.

17 Quoted in Ibid., 112-117.

18 Ibid., 120-122.

19 Ibid., 123-125.

20 Ibid., 128.

21 Ibid., 133.

22 John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, (New York: Image, 1960), 133-36.

23 Ibid., 137-38, 145-49.

24 Ibid., 151-56.

25 Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Edition of 1845 (Canada: Penguin, 1973), 207. N.B. Unless indicated as the edition of 1845, I will quote only from the 1878 edition, as published by Image, 1960.

26 Newman, Development, 183-189.

27 Ibid., 164-68.

28 Ibid., 338-42.

29 Ibid., 346-60.

30 Newman, "Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine," in Fifteen Sermons, etc., Longmans, 1909, as in Vincent Blehl, S.J., Essential Newman, 155.

31 Austin Flannery, (ed.) Vatican Council II, N.Y.: Costello Publ. Co., 1975, 376. It is the statement of the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, no. 23.

32 John Paul II to Bishops of the Chaldean Rite, Oct. 7, 1980, in L'Osservatore Romano, Nov. 17, 1980.

33 John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 163.

34 Austin Flannery, O.P. (ed.), Vatican Council II, p. 375 (no. 22).

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