History of the Roman Catholic Church

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The Roman Catholic Church , together with the Orthodox churches, sees itself as the Church of Jesus Christ in unbroken historical continuity since the 50th day after the resurrection ( Pentecost day ), on which, according to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit came over the apostles ( Acts 2, 1ff. ).

The founding day of the church:
The Pentecost miracle
“You are Peter” - Christ appoints Peter as the first Pope.

Her episcopate , like the Orthodox, Anglican and Old Catholic Churches , leads her back to the Apostle Peter through an uninterrupted "series of laying on of hands" - Apostolic Succession . According to the New Testament, Christ himself appointed him to lead the church: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the powers of the underworld will not overwhelm it." Mt 16:18  EU

Early church

The earliest known congregations were in Jerusalem ( Jerusalem's early church ) and Antioch, as well as those to whom the apostle Paul's letters were addressed (e.g. Rome , Corinth , Thessaloniki ). In these congregations, some of which were in correspondence with each other, offices were formed from around the end of the 1st century and the first half of the 2nd century, which ultimately resulted in a threefold structure in the course of the second century: Bishop ( Episkopos = Overseer), priest ( presbyter = elder) and deacon ( Diakonos = servant or messenger). This formation of the beginnings of a hierarchy can be explained primarily by divisions and disputes within the early churches, which involved both personal arguments and different doctrinal opinions. Already the first letter to the Corinthians of the apostle Paul knew about four different parties in the Corinthian church.

Dealing with different doctrines led to the need to create a leadership and teaching post. Gradually ( episkopos and presbyter were still used synonymously in the 2nd century ) a differentiated ecclesiastical hierarchy developed and the canon of biblical writings was established, the basis of which was established towards the end of the 2nd century. At the same time, the first approaches to a creed emerged, especially when dealing with the religious-philosophical gnosis .

If the first followers of Jesus Christ were still Jews , called Jewish Christians , with the mission of the Apostle Paul among the Gentiles on the one hand and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Temple (70 AD) on the other, Gentile Christianity emerged as the dominant trend. From the end of the Bar Kochba uprising in 132/133 AD, Jewish Christianity gradually disappeared or was absorbed into heterodox Jewish communities.

Persecutor of Christians, Emperor Nero

The Roman Empire , which dominated the Mediterranean region in the first three centuries AD, was generally religiously tolerant. However , the tendencies towards deification of the emperor, which emerged from the first emperor Augustus , sooner or later had to lead to a conflict between the government's decreed divinity of the ruler and the strict monotheism of Christianity adopted from Judaism . The first state persecution of Christians took place in Rome under Emperor Nero after the city fire of 64. This persecution did not yet focus on the religious aspect. Rather, the Christians were accused of arson. In the course of the Neronian persecution, numerous Christians, perhaps including the apostles Peter and Paul, were executed. Christianity only became an illegal religion ( religio illicita ) under Domitian (81–96).

However, this by no means led to extensive persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Christianity was initially a lower class religion of slaves and common people. Occasional news from upper-class Christians was the exception for the first 150 years, and lower-class religious beliefs only came into the focus of the authorities when they appeared to threaten public order (or the unity of the empire embodied in the person of the emperor). Nevertheless, there were increasingly systematic state persecutions (e.g. under Emperor Decius around the middle of the 3rd century and under Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century), but these were repeatedly interrupted by longer periods of relative peace.

The persecutions had serious effects on the congregations: on the one hand there were martyrs who joyfully went to their death in anticipation of paradise , on the other hand believers - including deacons, priests and bishops - swore their Christianity, delivered or procured holy books or utensils a certificate that they had fulfilled their obligation to make sacrifices in front of the emperor's altar, even just by bribery. After the persecution subsided, the question arose how to deal with these "fallen soldiers" ( lapsi ). Most of the time, the pragmatic line prevailed that the lapsi should be accepted back into the church community after long years of proper penance. However, this led to decades of division in the church. The tougher group called Novatians , "Novatians" after one of their exponents, the writer and second antipope (the first was Hippolytus at the beginning of the 3rd century ) , refused full re-admission to the Church for the fallen and only allowed them to live to penance. From this direction the group of Katharoi (“the pure”) developed in the east of the empire , from whose self-designation the term heretic is derived. Even in the west, the rigorous group did not disappear until around the fifth century; in the east it persisted much longer.

"In hoc signo vinces" -
The vision of the Emperor Constantine

After the persecution subsided, especially under the emperors Decius (249-251) and Valerian (253-260), a period of tolerance of Christianity came, which only ended with the Diocletian persecution (from 303). During this time, structures developed that became fundamental for the further history of the church. We know of councils in which up to 70 bishops took part in Africa. The liturgy and baptismal rite began to be standardized. The first disputes about the importance of the honorary primacy of the bishop of Rome also took place in the late 2nd and 3rd centuries (disputes about the date of Easter at the time of Victor I (189–199); disagreements between Popes Kalixt I (217–199) 222) or Stephan I (254-257) and the African bishops, represented in the so-called heretic controversy mainly by Cyprian of Carthage ). From the end of the 2nd century Christianity increasingly penetrated the Roman upper class: We know of consuls and officials of the imperial court who belonged to the church.

David Sloan Wilson sees the high growth rates of the first congregations, which have remained stable over the centuries, due to - in each case in comparison to the rest of the Roman Empire - the better position of women in early Christianity, the better cooperation (e.g. in caring for the sick) within the congregations , a less anti-reproductive attitude towards life and the skillfully implemented strategy of delimiting oneself as a group from outsiders, but accepting baptismal pagans relatively easily (for example in contrast to Judaism).

A turning point was the year 313, when the Western Roman Emperor Constantine the Great declared Christianity a legal religion after his victory at the Milvian Bridge with the Milan Agreement . According to legend, this was preceded by the “ miracle at the Milvian Bridge ”, whereby a sign of the cross that appeared in the sky announced the victory over his rival Maxentius to the emperor. Constantine's policy of tolerance and his increasing rapprochement with Christianity up to his baptism shortly before his death ushered in the rise of Christianity to the state religion in the Roman Empire. Christianity was officially declared the state religion in 380 with the so-called Three Emperor Edict.

middle Ages

In church history, the year 529 is often seen as the beginning of the Middle Ages (cf. Josef Pieper , Scholastik). In this year, Emperor Justinian I closed the Platonic Academy , and the same year is considered the year the first western monastery of Montecassino was founded by Benedict of Nursia . But other dates can also be seen as an expression of the turn to the Middle Ages, from the Edict of Tolerance of Emperor Constantine the Great in 313 to the death of Emperor Justinian I, whose empire fell apart shortly afterwards.

Three turning points are mentioned at this point, which ultimately decided how the time to come would develop. The Edict of Tolerance paved the way for Christianity away from a decision-making religion to a popular religion encompassing the entire population. The closure of the academy with the simultaneous establishment of Montecassino marked the shift of intellectuality and education to the monasteries , and the collapse of the Roman Empire after Justinian led to an almost complete dissolution of previous social structures and state order.

And so the period from the 6th to the 10th century is also the worst-documented time in church history. Literacy decreased rapidly during this time, and theological knowledge declined with it.

As a result, the empire of the Germanic Franks became the political pillar of the Catholic Church after it turned away from Arianism under Clovis . Pippin II and Fabianus the Great founded and secured the Papal State , whereby the Pope also became secular ruler.

The increasing theological, political and cultural alienation between the Roman and Eastern churches led to schisms in the 9th and 11th centuries, which, as a result of the sack of Constantinople, definitely became the Eastern schism .

The Middle Ages were characterized by the pursuit of a unified religious and political culture. The Germanic states that emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire saw themselves as Christian empires. Crusades against the advancing Islam and inquisitions against deviating faiths, sometimes pursued more passionately by kings than by bishops, were aimed at securing this sought-after unity. The Catholic rulers of Spain were also religiously motivated when they reversed the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the Reconquista .

The bipolarity of Pope and Emperor , which prevented the emergence of state churches , was decisive for the development of the West . The investiture controversy of the 12th century between the emperor and the pope was primarily about the power to appoint bishops (investiture), and ultimately about the primacy and limits of spiritual and secular power.

The scholasticism took the lost mental horizon of ancient times - partly mediated by Islamic narrators - with a Christian perspective on again. The initially formal and superficial Christianization of the population was deepened and found expression in architecture , art , poetry and music , in religious movements and the founding of orders, in numerous charitable institutions and initiatives as well as in people's festive and everyday life.

Modern times

One of the most famous Catholic missionaries: The Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas

Due to the Reformation , the Catholic Church lost large areas of Northern and Central Europe . At the same time, the politically motivated separation of the Anglican Church took place , which subsequently joined the Reformation in a moderate manner.

The early modern age is shaped by conformism . The Thirty Years' War, which was partly religiously motivated, devastated Germany and weakened its political cohesion under the Empire. The absolutism in the Catholic countries of Europe led to the state church , which had a further weakening of the papacy result.

After the discovery of America, the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors were followed by Catholic missionaries. In Latin America - as well as in parts of Africa - strong local Catholic churches emerged, which, however, have not been able to completely abandon their interdependence in colonial structures. Rome was able to largely compensate for its loss of power in Europe through geographic expansion. The East Asia mission, however, was largely unsuccessful.

The Enlightenment and the French Revolution fundamentally changed the intellectual situation and the ecclesiastical order of Europe. The time of the ecclesiastical principalities in Germany ended.

In the 19th century, the Catholic Church stood on the side of political and social restoration as well as anti-modernism and anti-liberalism. She fought - in vain - over traditional domains such as influencing the education system. This positioning culminated on the one hand in the First Vatican Council with the dogmatization of the Pope's infallibility in questions of faith, their rejection and the like. a. led to the secession of the Old Catholic Church . On the other hand, it was precisely anti-modernism that led the Catholic Church to criticize the inhumane exploitation of the workers in the beginning industrialization and to the formulation of Catholic social teaching by Pope Leo XIII.

The 20th century is characterized by the confrontation of the church with the totalitarian systems of rule of National Socialism and Stalinism as well as with " modernity " in its ideological, moral, social and political dimensions. This dispute was led partly with compromises, partly with strict demarcation up to martyrdom. The Catholic Church was persecuted in the Soviet Union . To document the religious freedom violations which they gave Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church out.

During the First World War , Benedict XV tried . stay neutral. He did not support the peace offer made by the Central Powers on December 12, 1916. For this, on August 1, 1917, he sent his own peace note to the heads of state of the warring countries. The proposals contained therein were not unfavorable for Germany and failed mainly because of rejection by the Entente . But even within Germany they were sometimes suspicious of them. The Pope was not involved in the peace negotiations. He later campaigned against a continuation of the hunger blockade against the Central Powers and for the return of prisoners of war. German Catholicism was disappointed that the Vatican did not protest against the Treaty of Versailles . In the papal press, however, legal reports appeared against the extradition of the German emperor and the German army command ( Ludendorff , Paul von Hindenburg ). In order to clarify the question of war guilt , Benedict demanded the opening of all archives of the participating states. It is not unfounded to speak of a failure of the papacy in the First World War. At the same time, however, one must also see the immense difficulties which stood in the way of intervention by the Curia in the policy of the warring powers.

In the run-up to the Second World War , Pius XI. 1933 the Reich Concordat with the German Reich .

The Second Vatican Council marks a period of opening and modernization. The long pontificate of John Paul II (1978–2005) is characterized by the collapse of communism that he helped bring about and a strong political commitment to development and peace (e.g. in the 2003 Iraq war), but also by tendencies towards restoration within the church. In 1990 , as part of an apostolic trip to Africa in Yamoussoukro , he consecrated the largest church building in Christendom to the Holy Mother of God.

In the 1990s and 2000s, incidents of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church became public in a large number of countries and received widespread media coverage. In addition to the acts themselves, the cover-up of the cases within the church hierarchy was criticized. In the further course, the internal church guidelines for dealing with cases of abuse were tightened .

See also


See also the notes in the articles Church history , Old Church


  1. ^ David Sloan Wilson : Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. ISBN 0-226-90135-1 .
  2. Walther von Loewenich: The history of the church II - Reformation and modern times. 3. Edition. Siebenstern Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich / Hamburg 1969, pp. 192–193.
  3. Ireland's Catholics muck out . In: Spiegel online , December 17, 2009 ( online ).
  4. ^ Alois Glück - Press release of the ZdK, February 8, 2010 ( online ).
  5. Tagesschau February 22, 2010: “The Church has to work with the authorities”