The Roman Catholic Church is an ancient religious institution boasting over a billion members worldwide. As such, it is the largest Christian ecclesiastical body in the world. Because of this alone, it is important to accurately understand the Roman Catholic Church’s history and beliefs.

Where did the Roman Catholic Church come from?

The Church at Rome, which would later develop into what we know as Roman Catholicism, was started in the apostolic times (circa AD 30-95). Although we do not have records of the first Christian missionaries to Rome, it is evident that a church existed there as the New Testament Scriptures were being written. St. Paul himself wrote an epistle to the church in Rome, and the Book of Acts records some of his dealings there. St. Clement of Rome (ca. 35-99), St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-108), and St. Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202) all speak as if St. Simon Peter ministered in Rome, serving as its first bishop (the term “bishop” is an English contraction of the biblical Greek word episkopos, often translated as “overseer” in modern Protestant translations of the New Testament). Tertullian (ca. 155-240) reported that Peter died in the same place as Paul, and it is commonly believed that Paul was martyred in Rome. Since both Peter and Paul were such important and prominent apostles, Rome became an important pilgrimage site for Christians who wanted to visit their graves and worship near where they were buried.

Because of the tie to Peter and Paul (as well as the fact that Rome was the capital city of the western portion of the Roman Empire), the bishop of Rome became the most prominent of the western Christian ecclesiastical leaders, and he received deference from church leaders from other parts of the Empire as well. After Christianity was legalized and the Church continued to fight heresies in various councils and synods, the Pope and his emissaries weighed in on very important doctrinal issues. The Church at Rome kept meticulous records and was often further removed from the theological innovations and conflicts that erupted in the East in important cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople. Therefore, her witness on theological matters carried much weight, and the Roman church was given the greatest prerogative of honor, as declared in the third canon of the First Council of Constantinople.

The Pope gained more influence and authority in his jurisdiction as the western Roman Empire continued to deteriorate and crumble. As the imperial structures and systems decayed and transformed, the western Church filled in the institutional power vacuum. Succeeding popes continued to make more ambitious claims to authority. This soured relations between western and eastern Christians.

The Great Schism of 1054

The Church was split in two by the Great Schism of 1054, dividing Christians between the western, Latin-speaking Roman Catholic Church and the eastern, Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox Church. This schism was precipitated over two main doctrinal disagreements. One was obviously the role and authority of the Pope. The other was the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed. Western Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, while Eastern Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father.

The Roman Catholic Church experienced another rupture about five hundred years later during the Reformations. The Protestant reformers (Lutherans, Anglicans, and the Reformed) and the Radical Reformers (Anabaptists) disagreed with the Pope and his allies over issues of authority, Scripture, soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), and sacramental theology (the doctrines surrounding Holy Baptism and Holy Communion). At the time, Protestants also fought to translate the liturgy and the Bible into the language of the people. In contrast, the Roman Catholic leadership maintained that both should remain in Latin.

Catholic vs. Protestant Biblical Canon

Roman Catholic Bibles contain all the books one would find in Protestant editions. However, Catholicism also recognizes the collection of books called the Apocrypha to be within the canon of Holy Scripture. Protestants, on the other hand, read these books only for examples of life and instruction of manners. You can read more about how the Bible was finalized in these articles:

Important Central Catholic Beliefs to Know.

Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants share many core Christian beliefs, particularly with regard to the Trinity and the Incarnation, especially as they are addressed in the ancient ecumenical councils. That being said, faithful Roman Catholics hold to several key distinctions.

One is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church.

This connects with the view that the Pope occupies the episcopal seat of Peter and is the sole vicar of Christ upon earth. This vicarious status holds several ramifications for Roman Catholic views of pastoral authority, politics, sacramental ministry, and Scripture.

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