Roman Catholicism is a worldwide religious tradition of some 1.1 billion members. It traces its history to Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant preacher in the area around Jerusalem during the period of Roman occupation, in the early 30s of the Common Era. Its members congregate in a communion of churches headed by bishops, whose role originated with the disciples of Jesus. For some decades after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the bishops spread out across the world to form a “universal” (Greek, katholikos) church, with the bishop of Rome (traced to the apostle Peter) holding primacy.
Today Vatican City — and specifically, Saint Peter’s Basilica — stands over the grave of Peter, and the pope is considered Peter’s successor. Catholic Christianity began as a persecuted religious community, illegal in the Roman Empire in its earliest days, but within some three hundred years and with the conversion of Emperor Constantine, it became legal and eventually was recognized as the official religion of the Empire. With the decline and fall of Rome in the 5th century, the Roman Church assumed both temporal and spiritual authority in the West; it thus had an enormous influence on the development of the art and culture of the western world through the Middle Ages. Today, its growth is fastest in Africa, South America, and Asia.
Catholics believe that our Lord Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church in the year 33. Jesus appointed the apostle Peter as the first vicar or pope. Matthew 16:18-19 are the scriptural references Catholics give to support this. “And I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shalt be loosed in heaven.” (KJV)
Around the year A.D. 45, Peter went to Rome and assumed control of the church. During the persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero, Peter was imprisoned and scourged. He gave his farewell blessing to all of his flock, and especially to Saint Paul, who was going to be beheaded the same day outside Rome. He was then led to the top of Vatican Mount to be executed by crucifixion. Deeming himself to be unworthy to die in the same position as our Lord, he asked to be crucified upside down. He received his eternal reward on June 29 in the year 67. Two hundred sixty-six popes have succeeded Peter since.
For the next 300 years, Rome would begin serious persecution against the truth. Christians began to meet behind closed doors and gradual changes were made. Elders of the church were known as bishops, and by the close of the third century; each congregation of any size had a bishop as its head, with a group of elders under him. No work was to be done on Sunday.
In 306, Constantine became the sole emperor of Rome. His mother Helena became a Christian and urged Constantine to ease up on the persecution of Christians. He decided that Christianity would now be the state religion. Finding much division in the church, he decided to call a meeting to be held in Nicaea in May 325 A.D. to discuss and unite over the issues that divided the church. Three hundred eighteen bishops assembled and established the Nicene Creed.
Several doctrines were decreed. (1) The Oneness of Deity (2) Easter to be celebrated on the same day (3) Preachers not to be married (4) Certain meats not to be eaten on Sunday by bishops (5) A greater recognition given to the bishops of Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Rome, and Jerusalem. These bishops would be patriarchs, and all authority would be under them.
In A.D. 606, Boniface III was given the title “universal bishop,” the pope of Rome. The word “pope” means father. This marked the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church. Today there are an estimated 1.038 billion Catholics in the world. They make up almost 18 percent of the world population. The pope still heads the church, and priests are urged to remain celibate.
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.
During this period, the Bible as it has come down to the 21st century was first officially laid out in Church Councils or Synods through the process of official canonization. Before these Councils or Synods, the Bible had already reached a form that was nearly identical to the form in which it is now found. According to some accounts, in 382 the Council of Rome first officially recognized the Biblical canon, listing the accepted books of the Old and New Testament, and in 391 the Vulgate Latin translation of the Bible was made.
For the first 280 years of Christian history, Christianity was banned by the Roman Empire, and Christians were persecuted. This changed after the “conversion” of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Constantine provided religious toleration with the Edict of Milan in AD 313, effectively lifting the ban on Christianity. Later, in AD 325, Constantine called the Council of Nicea in an attempt to unify Christianity. Constantine envisioned Christianity as a religion that could unite the Roman Empire, which at that time was beginning to fragment and divide. While this may have seemed to be a positive development for the Christian church, the results were anything but positive. Just as Constantine refused to fully embrace the Christian faith, but continued many of his pagan beliefs and practices, so the Christian church that Constantine promoted was a mixture of true Christianity and Roman paganism.
Constantine found that, with the Roman Empire being so vast, expansive, and diverse, not everyone would agree to forsake his or her religious beliefs to embrace Christianity. So, Constantine allowed and even promoted, the “Christianization” of pagan beliefs. Completely pagan and utterly unbiblical beliefs were given new “Christian” identities. Some clear examples of this are as follows:
The Cult of Isis, an Egyptian mother-goddess religion, was absorbed into Christianity by replacing Isis with Mary. Many of the titles that were used for Isis, such as “Queen of Heaven,” “Mother of God,” and theotokos (“God-bearer”) were attached to Mary. Mary was given an exalted role in the Christian faith, far beyond what the Bible ascribes to her, to attract Isis worshippers to a faith they would not otherwise embrace. Many temples to Isis were converted into temples dedicated to Mary. The first clear hints of Catholic Mariology occur in the writings of Origen, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, which happened to be the focal point of Isis worship.
Mithraism was a religion in the Roman Empire in the 1st through 5th centuries AD. It was very popular among the Romans, especially among Roman soldiers, and was possibly the religion of several Roman emperors. While Mithraism was never given “official” status in the Roman Empire, it was the de facto official religion until Constantine and succeeding Roman emperors replaced Mithraism with Christianity. One of the key features of Mithraism was a sacrificial meal, which involved eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a bull. Mithras, the god of Mithraism, was “present” in the flesh and blood of the bull, and when consumed, granted salvation to those who partook of the sacrificial meal (this is known as theophagy, the eating of one’s god). Mithraism also had seven “sacraments,” making the similarities between Mithraism and Roman Catholicism too many to ignore. Church leaders after Constantine found an easy substitute for the sacrificial meal of Mithraism in the concept of the Lord’s Supper/Christian communion. Even before Constantine, some early Christians had begun to attach mysticism to the Lord’s Supper, rejecting the biblical concept of a simple and worshipful remembrance of Christ’s death and shed blood. The Romanization of the Lord’s Supper made the transition to a sacrificial consumption of Jesus Christ, now known as the Catholic Mass/Eucharist, complete.
Most Roman emperors (and citizens) were henotheists. A henotheist believes in the existence of many gods, but focuses primarily on one particular god or considers one particular god supreme over the other gods. For example, the Roman god Jupiter was supreme over the Roman pantheon of gods. Roman sailors were often worshippers of Neptune, the god of the oceans. When the Catholic Church absorbed Roman paganism, it simply replaced the pantheon of gods with the saints. Just as the Roman pantheon of gods had a god of love, a god of peace, a god of war, a god of strength, a god of wisdom, etc., so the Catholic Church has a saint who is “in charge” over each of these, and many other categories. Just as many Roman cities had a god specific to the city, so the Catholic Church provided “patron saints” for the cities.
The supremacy of the Roman bishop (the papacy) was created with the support of the Roman emperors. With the city of Rome being the center of government for the Roman Empire, and with the Roman emperors living in Rome, the city of Rome rose to prominence in all facets of life. Constantine (AD 272–337) and his successors gave their support to the bishop of Rome as the supreme ruler of the church. Of course, it is best for the unity of the Roman Empire that the government and state religion be centralized. While most other bishops (and Christians) resisted the idea of the Roman bishop being supreme, the Roman bishop eventually rose to supremacy, due to the power and influence of the Roman emperors. When the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, the popes took on the title that had previously belonged to the Roman emperors—Pontifex Maximus. Pope Gregory I, ruling from 590–604, is usually considered the first bishop to truly wield papal authority.
The Creed which we recite on Sundays and holy days speak of one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As everybody knows, however, the Church referred to in this Creed is more commonly called just the Catholic Church. It is not, by the way, properly called the Roman Catholic Church, but simply the Catholic Church.
The term Roman Catholic is not used by the Church herself; it is a relatively modern term, and one, moreover, that is confined largely to the English language. The English-speaking bishops at the First Vatican Council in 1870 conducted a vigorous and successful campaign to ensure that the term Roman Catholic was nowhere included in any of the Council’s official documents about the Church herself, and the term was not included.
Similarly, nowhere in the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council will you find the term Roman Catholic. Pope Paul VI signed all the documents of the Second Vatican Council as “I, Paul. Bishop of the Catholic Church.” Simply that — Catholic Church. There are references to the Roman curia, the Roman missal, the Roman rite, etc., but when the adjective Roman is applied to the Church herself, it refers to the Diocese of Rome.
Cardinals, for example, are called cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, but that designation means that when they are named to be cardinals they have thereby become honorary clergy of the Holy Father’s home diocese, the Diocese of Rome. Each cardinal is given a titular church in Rome, and when the cardinals participate in the election of a new pope. they are participating in a process that in ancient times was carried out by the clergy of the Diocese of Rome.
Although the Diocese of Rome is central to the Catholic Church, this does not mean that the Roman rite, or, as is sometimes said, the Latin rite, is co-terminus with the Church as a whole; that would mean neglecting the Byzantine, Chaldean, Maronite or other Oriental rites which are all very much part of the Catholic Church today, as in the past.
The Vatican council
In our day, much greater emphasis has been given to these “non-Roman” rites of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council devoted a special document, Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches), to the Eastern rites which belong to the Catholic Church, and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church similarly gives considerable attention to the distinctive traditions and spirituality of these Eastern rites.
So the proper name for the universal Church is not the Roman Catholic Church. That term caught on mostly in English-speaking countries; it was promoted mostly by Anglicans, supporters of the “branch theory” of the Church, namely, that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the creed was supposed to consist of three major branches, the Anglican, the Orthodox, and the so-called Roman Catholic. It was to avoid that kind of interpretation that the English-speaking bishops at the Vatican I succeeded in warning the Church away from ever using the term officially herself: It too easily could be misunderstood.
Today in an era of widespread dissent in the Church, and of equally widespread confusion regarding what authentic Catholic identity is supposed to consist of, many loyal Catholics have recently taken to using the term Roman Catholic to affirm their understanding that the Catholic Church of the Sunday creed is the same Church that is united with the Vicar of Christ in Rome, the Pope. This understanding of theirs is correct, but such Catholics should nevertheless beware of using the term, not only because of its dubious origins in Anglican circles intending to suggest that there just might be some other Catholic Church around somewhere besides the Roman one: but also because it often still is used today to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is something other and lesser than the Catholic Church of the creed. It is commonly used by some dissenting theologians, for example, who appear to be attempting to categorize the Roman Catholic Church as just another contemporary “Christian denomination”–not the body that is identical with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the creed.
The Roman Catholic Church contends that its origin is the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ in approximately AD 30. The Catholic Church proclaims itself to be the church that Jesus Christ died for, the church that was established and built by the apostles. On the contrary, a cursory reading of the New Testament will reveal that the Catholic Church does not have its origin in the teachings of Jesus or His apostles. In the New Testament, there is no mention of the papacy, worship/adoration of Mary, petitioning saints in heaven for their prayers, apostolic succession, the ordinances of the church functioning as sacraments, infant baptism, confession of sin to a priest, purgatory, indulgences, or the equal authority of church tradition and Scripture.
The origin of the Catholic Church is the tragic compromise of Christianity with the pagan religions that surrounded it. Instead of proclaiming the gospel and converting the pagans, the Catholic Church “Christianized” the pagan religions, and “paganized” Christianity. By blurring the differences and erasing the distinctions, yes, the Catholic Church made itself attractive to the people of the Roman Empire. One result was the Catholic Church becoming the supreme religion in the Roman world for centuries. However, another result was the most dominant form of Christianity apostatizing from the true gospel of Jesus Christ and the true proclamation of God’s Word.
Bokenkotter, A. Concise History of the Catholic Church. 2004.
Collins, M. and Price, Mathew A. The Story of Christianity. Dorling Kindersley, 1999.
Eckman, Jim. The Historical Development of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Issues in Perspective, August 2011.
Geisler,Norman L. The Historical Development of Roman Catholicism. Christian Apologetic. Spring, 2015.
Koschorke, A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 2007.
McManners, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. John McManners: Chapter 9 The Expansion of Christianity, 1990.
Miller, Dave. What the Bible Says about the Church of Christ. Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, 2007.
Nelson, Wilton M., ed. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible. Miami, FL: Editorial Caribe, 1985.
Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History. 2007.
Patheos. Roman Catholicism. Patheos: The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions, 2006.
Rhodes, Ron. Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics. Harvest House Publishers, 2000.
 Patheos. Roman Catholicism. (Patheos: The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions, 2006).
 Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History (2007), pp. 111–2
 Koschorke, A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (2007), pp. 31–2
 Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church (2004), p. 251.
 McManners, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. (John McManners: Chapter 9 The Expansion of Christianity, 1990), p. 318.
 Collins, Michael; Price, Mathew A. The Story of Christianity. (Dorling Kindersley, 1999), p.61.
 Rhodes, Ron. Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics. (Harvest House Publishers, 2000).
 Eckman, Jim. The Historical Development of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. (Issues in Perspective, August 2011).
 Geisler, Norman L. The Historical Development of Roman Catholicism. Christian Apologetic. Spring, 2015.
 Miller, Dave, What the Bible Says about the Church of Christ (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, 2007).
 Nelson, Wilton M., ed. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible [Diccionario Ilustrado de la Biblia] (Miami, FL: Editorial Caribe, 1985).