Emmitsburg Council of Churches


History of the Church: Part I

Father John J. Lombardi & Stephen Quinn

Read History of the Church: Part II, Part III, Part IV

Ever hear the statements like: "How can the Catholic Church, which has done its own injustices, dare to condemn abortion!?", or: "The Crusades were really a fabrication of power-hungry popes to steal lands and valuables from peaceful Muslims while forcing their conversions." How do we as Catholics react to these when confronted with the so-called "sordid" history of our Church?

Well, not everyone thinks the facts of history paint the Catholic Church in such a bad light. In fact, the founders of the American nation and rulers of Europe were comprised of mainly white Anglo Saxon Protestants who failed to recognize the historical contributions from certain groups of people such as women, minority groups, and yes, Catholics. Are we guilty of not recognizing the contributions of others? Perhaps we are guilty of taking credit for works or deeds done by others or presenting our contributions in turn of others?

Historians such as Cardinal John Newman, Hilaire Belloc, and Matthew Arnold help us cut through the faulty journalism of modern revisionists responsible for certain public school text books and media bias with a specific agenda to provide an authentic roadmap free from bias.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen neatly divided the past 2000 years into four parts of 500 years, briefly highlighting central conflicts:

  1. The first 500 years saw arguments about the nature of God: How many natures?, how many persons in God? How many wills?
  2. The second 500 years saw arguments concerning the authority of the head of the Church on earth, namely the papacy. This caused the division we now refer to as the Eastern and Western Church…We could call this Man without the Authority of the Pope.
  3. The third 500 years saw arguments concerning the body of the Church. This period of history challenged the visible Church body as nonexistent and the sacrificial character of the priesthood and the sacraments…Man without the Church.
  4. The past 500 years provides the battleground for secularism versus the religion in general…Man without God.

Do we know our church history? Are we defenders of the Bride of Christ-the Holy Catholic Church--or do we "apologize" for the supposed "barbarism and evil" perpetrated by the Catholic Church? We can defend our Church and help others to understand the true history only by knowing it ourselves.

Combating heresies played a major role in the Church's development of her understanding of the mysteries of her Faith. Likewise today, combating false doctrine helps us to better understand our faith. St. Peter wrote, "There will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves" (2 Peter 2:1). Thus: People will distort the Truth of Christ and His Catholic Unity.

Even before the time of Christ, some people misunderstood or deliberately tried to change revealed truth. This fact should not surprise us, because we are fallen sinners who don't always cooperate with grace, and might be influenced by outside factors or interior sinfulness to twist God's revelation. The Old Testament Law dealt forwardly with people who did not want to obey it: "The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the Lord your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel" (Deuteronomy 17:8-12-19). St. Paul writes of the New Testament Church, "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Tim 4:3). For this reason, it is necessary to discuss a seemingly negative circumstance (of heresy) to illuminate the historical context in which the Church was called to action. Do we "Take heed unto thyself and unto thy doctrine for in doing so you will save yourself and those of them that hear you" (1 Timothy 4:16).

Realize: people will invent new kinds of beliefs (homosexuality and abortion are normal, o.k.; we don't need Jesus to forgive sins, etc.), and try to lead others astray from Jesus' Church and Way of Life.

We now need to ask, "What is a heresy?" The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him" (# 2089). With this definition in mind, let's briefly explore the first 500 years of the Church.

The First 500 Years:

As a matter of history, the first instance of heresy that required the pope to define doctrine can be found in the Bible (Acts 15) with a people called the Judaziers. They taught the Gentiles had to be circumcised in addition to baptism to enter the new covenant. Remember that circumcision was the old covenant method for entering the kingdom of God and ultimately receiving salvation. Paul's and Barnabas' mission included the power of God to heal (Acts 14:8), but they did not have authority to settle doctrinal debates. Such is the distribution of gifts and powers among the economy of God's salvation. Resultantly, the local church sent them to the church "in Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters" about this question (an implicit proof of the supremacy of the Pope and the visible Church magisterium. We are thankful for St. Peter's successor, Pope John Paul II, in helping us know and love Truth.)

"When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, as well as by the apostles and the presbyters," and Paul and Barnabas presented the doctrinal issue (Acts 15:4). The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter. After much debate had taken place, Peter, to whom Jesus had given the key to His Kingdom, arose and said to them, "My brothers, you are well aware that from the early days God has made His choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe" (Acts 15:6-6). Peter then says, "we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they. The whole assembly fell silent… After they had fallen silent, James responded, 'My brothers, listen to me, Symeon has described how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name;'"(Acts 15), thus supporting Peter's position.

Saint John Chrysostom best explains this exchange citing the authority of Peter as well: "This (James) was bishop, as they say, and therefore he speaks last, and herein is fulfilled that saying, "In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (Deut. 17:6; Matt. 18:16). But observe the discretion shown by him also, in making his argument good from the prophets, both new and old. For he had no acts of his own to declare, as Peter had and Paul. And indeed it is wisely ordered that this (the active) part is assigned to those, as not intended to be locally fixed in Jerusalem, whereas (James) here, who performs the part of teacher, is no way responsible for what has been done, while however he is not divided from them in opinion. 'Men and brethren,' he says, 'hearken unto me.' Great is the moderation of the man. His also is a more complete oration, as indeed it puts completion to the matter under discussion."

Although the argument of the Judaziers has been settled for years, the early heresy of Gnosticism has resurfaced in various religions such as Jehovah's Witnesses and others who would add requirements to Jesus' teachings on salvation and oppose the Catholic Church.

You may remember from a couple weeks ago, we talked about a book that has been on the New York's best sellers list for 10 weeks called "The DaVince Code" by Dan Brown. In it, Brown brings back several Gnostic ideas from the 2nd century heresy of Gnosticism. St. Ireaneas wrote many letters against the heresy and is held as great a defender of the true faith. Are we defenders of the true faith?

Gnostics' false doctrines typically sprang from a general denial that things are what they seem. They held that the Bible's doctrines were simply a cover for "secret knowledge" that only the clever could know. For instance, one strand of Gnosticism held that matter was evil, and that salvation came from severe asceticism, which included denying marriage and sex. All strands of Gnosticism denied the Incarnation, and said that Jesus wasn't really one in Being with the Father and Holy Spirit. How would we combat these false notions?

Let's summarize:

  • "Lex orandi, lex credendi"-means the law of prayer is the source of belief. Catholics always believed Jesus is God (unlike gsnostics), with two wills (one divine, one human-unlike monothelitists-who thought He had only one will), and that God was a Trinity of Divine Persons (Arians believed Jesus was not God). The Church usually prays what she believes and then codifies it once it has been documented and verified. Let's thank our spiritual friends of the past who preserved this connection between prayer and belief and pass on the right beliefs to others.
  • The Catholic Church preserved-even codified (chapter and verse)-the Bible as we know it. The Church defended authentic Scripture against wrongful scriptures. St Paul instructed the earliest Christians to follow the traditions of the apostles (I Cor. 11:2; 2 Th 2:15). Thus, if the Catholic unity established by Jesus had not continued, authenticated by the Holy Spirit's guidance, many in early Christianity would have become heretical or "spiritually sick" from bad doctrine. Instead of believing the Catholic Church is non-biblical or biblically illiterate, perhaps we can focus on the fact that she actually gave us the Bible (as we discussed in last week's bulletin)-and be grateful?
  • The Church read both the Scriptures and other holy writings to discern Jesus Christ's true nature-both true God and true Man. The Church, early on, thru her "reading of the Old Testament and Jesus' sayings and extent gospel writings, gained the ability to truly define Jesus in the right way (as we believe today). Saints died as martyrs to bring us these truths… are we grateful in our hearts? How can you believe even more Jesus Christ's true nature, and the need of the Catholic Church to teach in the right ways?
  • What is essential and what is not: The early Church discerned (thru St Paul) that circumcision was not essential to the Faith; but belief in a Trinitarian God, and Christ's divinity was. We can sometimes confuse the essentials of Christianity with secondary customs. We can also extrematize and throw out all seemingly secondary things. How can you both believe in, and practice, the essentials (love God and neighbor) while not throwing out other, secondary things, like fasting and praying in certain ways? We need the Church's wisdom and guidance in these matters lest we become Pharisees (legalists) or modernists (minimalists).

-Read the Bible with the "analogy of Faith"-with the whole of our Church history and helps-the saints and holy teachers-at your side. Don't neglect the organic and Holy Spirit-guided interpretations which have gone before you.

-Know the Bible and the Church go together: don't try to separate them or use them apart. They are twin fonts of revelation and we should rely on them.

Read History of the Church: Part II, Part III, Part IV

Briefly Noted

Grotto Story: Sister Pierre, Administrator of St. Joseph's Hospital, was commissioned to find a suitable piece of property on which to build a new hospital. The one property which matched the needs of the sisters was owned by a woman who was not disposed to sell her land for "Catholic purposes." Sister Pierre made a pilgrimage of petition to the Grotto of Lourdes in Emmitsburg. When she emerged from the car, she tripped and rolled down an embankment, some 25 feet, and landed in a patch of poison ivy. This was about 3 o'clock. She proceeded to the Grotto and laid her petitions as the feet of the virgin. When she arrived back in Baltimore, at St. Joseph's Hospital, she found much to her delight, that exactly at 3 o'clock the reluctant seller called and finally agreed to sell the property. Sometimes God humbles us right before He exalts us!

Walk with Jesus and Mary: Sat., Oct. 25---9:30 am meet at Seton Shrine (you may park at Grotto and ride shuttle van to Seton Shrine); 10 am Rosary Walk to Grotto; 11 am Marian music by Mark Forrest; 12:15 am Mass.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi