The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian church in the world and the largest organized body of any religion with over a billion members worldwide. That makes up one-half of the two billion Christians on a planet of six billion people. The Catholic Church is one of the oldest religious institutions in the world and has played a prominent role in the history of Western civilization. In the United States, it is the largest single denomination with 68 million members representing 22 percent of the American population. Because of its size and scope, the Roman Catholic Church serves as a large umbrella covering a broad spectrum of ideas and opinion. The word catholic comes from the Greek word katholikos which means “universal” or “general,” and was first used to describe the early Christian church in the second century when its institutional form consisted of loosely connected bodies with diverse theologies.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that its bishops are direct successors of Christ’s “apostles” (a term applied to the disciples of Jesus after the Resurrection signifying that they had changed from being students to emissaries or messengers) and that the Pope (the bishop of Rome) is the direct successor of Saint Peter (traditionally held to be the chief disciple of Jesus) who died in that city, at least according to some second and third-century church historians. Called the ‘apostolic succession,’ this assertion of an unbroken chain of ordinations going back to Jesus is used to support the church’s authority. However, there is no real evidence of any direct linear link supporting this dubious but widespread claim which was first put forth by Augustine (354-430), the bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa.

a short history of catholic Christianity

The first one thousand years of the Roman Catholic Church is of course a shared history of all Christians. Two significant splits arose in 1054 and 1517 that gave rise to other expressions of the Christian faith.

By the early second century, about 100 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the small autonomous communities of the Christian movement began adopting a more structured hierarchy, with a central episkopos (overseer) or bishop in larger cities beginning to exercise oversight and authority over the local presbyteroi (elders) or priests. Beginning in the second century, these bishops often congregated in regional synods to resolve doctrinal and policy issues. Bishops in important cities of the empire exerted greater authority over bishops in surrounding cities. The churches in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome held the highest positions. By the third century, the bishop of Rome, the capital of the empire, had begun functioning as a court of appeals for problems that other bishops could not resolve.

Christianity was legalized in 313 CE under Constantine’s Edict of Milan and declared the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After its legalization, a number of doctrinal disputes led to the calling of ecumenical councils. The term ‘ecumenical’ stems from the Greek word oikoumene, which referred to the entire inhabited earth. So they were intended to be world-wide councils. The doctrinal formulations resulting from these ecumenical councils were pivotal in the history of Christianity.

The initial ecumenical council, the First Council of Nicaea, was convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325, to resolve theological disputes about the nature of Jesus. In order to briefly express the agreed-upon tenets of the developing faith, the council formulated a statement that became the basis of what is now known as the Nicene Creed, which was finalized in 381. They also determined a method for dating Easter. In addition, the council created administrative districts called dioceses, based on the administrative districts of the empire. It was at this point that the evolving catholic church became the Church of Rome—not the city, but the empire.

Six more ecumenical councils met from 381 to 787 to resolve additional theological disputes. They worked to reach a consensus on church orthodoxy and to establish a unified institution across the empire. These ecumenical councils came to be recognized as authoritative and infallible in resolving theological disputes. In 382, the Council of Rome, a “general” (not an ecumenical) council, established the first official biblical canon when it listed the accepted books of the Old and New Testament.


In the Middle Ages, an event known as the ‘Great Schism’ divided the Christian church into Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) branches. While he was sponsoring the consolidation of the Christian church, the emperor Constantine decided to move the capital of the empire from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. After six years of building, the new capital was dedicated in 330 with the name Konstantinoupolis, the “city of Constantine.” The empire was soon divided between an Eastern Greek-speaking half and a Western Latin-speaking half. The Western empire collapsed in 476 and with it the importance of Rome. During the Middle Ages, Constantinople became the largest and wealthiest city in Europe. In 1054, after centuries of political and ecclesiastical differences, the patriarch (the highest ranking bishop) of Constantinople refused to recognize the supremacy of the patriarch of Rome. The patriarchs denounced each other and the first major split occurred in Christianity—into Eastern and Western churches. It was about this time that the patriarch of Rome became officially known as the ‘pope,’ derived from the Greek pappas, a child’s term for ‘father.’ In the early centuries of Christianity, this title was applied to all bishops and other senior clergy. Later it was used in the Western church exclusively for the Bishop of Rome.

Another split occurred in the fourteenth century. It began with the ‘Avignon papacy.’ In 1305, a French archbishop was elected pope. Pope Clement V (1264-1314) declined to move to Rome and instead moved the papal court to the French city of Avignon. Eventually, seven French popes reigned at Avignon. The last of those, Pope Gregory XI (1329-1378), moved the court back to Rome in 1376. After his death two years later, a Roman mob surrounded the voting chamber of the College of Cardinals to force the election of an Italian Pope. The Italian chosen was Urban VI (1318-1389) of Naples. Soon after being elected, Urban—reportedly an arrogant, angry and violent man—began instituting reforms that alienated the cardinals. With the encouragement of the French king, the cardinals returned to Avignon and in 1378 elected another French pope, the ‘antipope’ Clement VII (1342-1394) who reestablished a papal court in Avignon. The conflicts quickly escalated from a church problem to a diplomatic crisis that divided Europe. Secular leaders had to choose which claimant they would recognize. Now called the ‘Western Schism,’ the division continued for nearly four decades. After being unable to get the two popes together to resolve the issue, the cardinals held a church council at Pisa in 1409 to find a solution to the dispute. However, it added to the problem by electing another ‘antipope,’ Alexander V (1339-1410). Now three popes vied for authority—one in Rome, one in Avignon, and one in Pisa. Finally in 1417, the Council of Constance accepted the resignation of the pope in Rome, deposed the pope in Pisa, excommunicated the pope in Avignon, and elected a Roman cardinal as Pope Martin V (1368-1431) essentially ending the schism and solidifying the papal court in Rome.

The third significant split in the Roman Catholic Church came in 1517 when Catholic priest Martin Luther nailed his “ninety-five theses” to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. These debating points protested key points of church doctrine and addressed the sale of indulgences (a strange concept which reduced the afterlife punishment for sins which were already forgiven), but Luther’s theses were also a response to the perceived immorality and corruption of the papacy. The resulting Protestant Reformation led to a series of religious and class wars that ravaged Europe for a century and led to the establishment of a number of new religious groups.

In response, the Roman Catholic Church began its own internal movement of reform and renewal known as the ‘Counter-Reformation’ from 1563 to 1648. But, as Andrew Greeley has noted, the church’s traditional attitude toward reform is “that the Church had not changed, would not change, and could not change.” At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the church reaffirmed its basic structure, its sacramental system, religious orders, and doctrine, and rejected any compromise with the Protestants. A number of new religious orders were created, including the Jesuits. It also spawned a series of ‘inquisitions’ that attempted to reinforce the church’s authority by weeding out heresies. To keep their hands clean, inquisition tribunals didn’t actually burn the heretics themselves, but instead handed them over to secular authorities in Catholic territories for condemnation and punishment.

Following the Reformation, the Latin Church began using the term “catholic” more frequently to those churches which were “in communion with the Bishop of Rome” to distinguish them from the various Protestant churches that had split off. The Greek Church in the East adopted the term ‘Orthodox’ which means ‘correct belief.’ Later the two bodies were referred to as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (or Orthodox Catholic) churches.

American Catholics

Catholicism arrived in North America during the earliest days of the European colonization of the Americas. The first Catholic missionaries were Spanish, having come with Christopher Columbus to the New World on his second voyage in 1493.

The number of Catholics has grown during the country’s history, at first slowly in the early nineteenth century through some immigration and through the acquisition of territories—formerly possessions of France, Spain, and Mexico—with predominately Catholic populations. In the mid-nineteenth century, a rapid influx of Irish and German immigrants made Catholicism the largest religion in the United States. This Roman Catholic increase was met by widespread prejudice and hostility, often resulting in riots and the burning of churches. The nativist “Know Nothing” party was founded in the early nineteenth century in an attempt to restrict Catholic immigration. They believed that the United States was essentially a Protestant nation and the influx of Catholics threatened its character and purity.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, approximately one-sixth of the population of the United States was Catholic. Additional Catholic immigrants came to the United States from the Philippines, Poland, Latin America, and Mexico. This multiculturalism and diversity has greatly impacted the flavor of Catholicism in the United States.

Still, the Protestant establishment looked down on Roman Catholics until after World War II. New respectability was gained when John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.
Since the 1960s, the percentage of Americans who are Catholic has stayed roughly the same, at around 25 percent, due in large part to increases in the Latino population over the same period. Today, the United States has the fourth largest Catholic population in the world, after Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Catholic social teaching

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Roman Catholic Church developed a stance in support of social justice and a respect for life that is opposed to all forms of killing, including abortion and capital punishment and an increasing opposition to war.

The publication of Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) in 1891 marked the beginning of the development of a recognizable body of social teaching in the Catholic Church. Pope Leo believed that the industrial revolution had placed the working poor in the hands of an uncaring capitalist system dominated by compassionless employers and greedy competitors. His encyclical dealt with persons, systems, and structures—components of any church strategy to promote justice and peace. He believed that there was an inherent evil in both state socialism (centralized control by the state) and laissez-faire capitalism (control of the economy by a wealthy elite) in the equitable distribution of property and goods.  He called for a living wage, the right of employees to form unions, a six-day work week, and health safeguards in the workplace. He called on all governments to improve the conditions of workers and to protect the weak and the poor in society. Leo’s encyclical came just as the Progressive Era in the United States ws forming over similar concerns.

Forty years later in 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno (In the Fortieth Year) While Pope Leo had addressed the condition of workers, Pius XI discussed the ethical implications of the social and economic order. He described the major dangers for human freedom and dignity from both unrestrained capitalism and totalitarian communism. He called for the reconstruction of the social order based on the principle of solidarity and subsidiarity. He saw a need for solidarity between employers and employees through new forms of cooperation and communication. And in terms of centralized control of a society, he proposed “subsidiarity”—an organizing principle that functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible.

Thirty years later in 1961, Pope John XXIII released Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), subtitled “Christianity and Social Progress.” He explored the role of the church in efforts to achieve social progress and justice in the world. It expanded the church’s social doctrine to cover the relations between rich and poor nations, examining the obligation of rich countries to assist poor countries while respecting their particular cultures. It included an examination of the threat of global economic imbalances to world peace. In response to many voices that warned about the dangers of overpopulation and the need to limit procreation, Pope John professed confidence that God had provided nature with almost inexhaustible productive capacity, and that science and technology would give almost limitless promise for the future, making birth control unnecessary.

In 1963, Pope John expanded further on his social views in Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the first encyclical addressed to both Catholics and non-Catholics. In it, the Pope linked the establishment of world peace to the laying of a foundation consisting of proper rights and responsibilities between individuals, social groups, and states from the local to the international level. It held that there were a number of basic human rights: the right to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and necessary social services. This document, issued at the height of the Cold War, also included a denunciation of the nuclear arms race and a call for strengthening of the United Nations.

A year earlier in October 1962, John XXIII had convened a worldwide council of nearly 3,000 bishops to reform their ancient institution. The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II met for four annual sessions until closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965. Its announced purpose was spiritual renewal of the church and reconsideration of the position of the church in the modern world. When asked why the Second Vatican Council was needed, Pope John reportedly opened a window and said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” Remarkably, an invitation extended to Protestant and Orthodox Eastern churches to send observers to the council. During the last half-century, Catholicism has been shaped by Vatican II—either encouraged by its reforms, or in negative reaction to them.

The primary document from the Second Vatican Council concerning social teachings was Pope Paul VI’s 1965 encyclical Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World.” Unlike earlier documents, this was an expression of all the bishops, and covered a wide range of issues on social concerns and Christian action. At its core, the document asserted the fundamental dignity of each human being, and declared the church’s solidarity with those who suffer and those who comfort the suffering:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

Later church leaders would explain the Vatican II’s impact on the church’s mission to the poor of the world.

Through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor. When instituting public policy we must always keep the “preferential option for the poor” at the forefront of our minds. The moral test of any society is “how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.

At the same time that the Roman Catholic Church affirmed its commitment to social justice, it reaffirmed its traditional teachings regarding human sexuality. When the first oral contraceptives had appeared in 1960, some within the church called for changes in the church’s stance toward family planning, particularly in light of the population explosion in developing countries. But Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth,” re-affirmed the traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding married love, parenthood, and the prohibition of all forms of artificial birth control. It rejected arbitrary human decisions regarding family planning, in favor of divine providence, stating that marital partners had a divine obligation in their partnership with God the creator. Their role is to create the baby while God contributes the child’s soul. The encyclical held that the sexual act must always “retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Every action specifically intended to prevent procreation was forbidden, except in medically necessary circumstances. In addition, the encyclical reaffirmed the sanctity of life from conception to natural death and asserted a continued condemnation of both abortion and euthanasia as grave sins which were equivalent to murder.

Vatican II reforms

Vatican II opened the gates of the Catholic Church’s social activism, worship practices, a respect for all religions, and more freedom to the laity. It restored the importance of scripture, which had taken a back seat to church teachings. It allowed worshippers to celebrate the mass in their own language, with the priest facing them. In Africa, masses were celebrated with drums; in America, with guitars. Women no longer had to cover their heads in church. And nuns all over the world began wearing more contemporary apparel. Vatican II eventually put an end to meatless Fridays and long hours of fasting before receiving communion., and allowed lay people to hand out consecrated communion wafers, a job only a priest had been allowed to do.

The reforms of Vatican II generated expectations for more reform. The newly empowered laity began to speak up, unleashing a host of hot-button issues that today remain subjects of fierce debate in the church: ordination of women, marriage for priests, same-sex marriage, and the use of contraception—all banned by the church hierarchy. The reaction to all this turmoil has been an attempt by church authorities to go back to the discipline imposed before the council. The Polish pope John Paul II attempted to slow the Vatican II movement by issuing conservative decrees and reaffirming Rome’s authority, which to some is a blessing and to others a disappointment. The German pope Benedict XVI has continued the increasingly reactionary efforts toward a restoration of the past.

liberation theology

In the 1960s, growing social awareness and politicization in the Latin American Church gave birth to liberation theology. The Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez, became it primary proponent and, in 1979, the bishops’ conference in Mexico officially declared the Latin American Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” Archbishop Óscar Romero, a supporter of the movement, became the region’s most famous contemporary martyr in 1980, when he was murdered while celebrating Mass by forces allied with the government. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) denounced the movement. The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff was twice ordered to cease publishing and teaching. While Pope John Paul II was criticized for his severity in dealing with proponents of the movement, he maintained that the church, in its efforts to champion the poor, should not do so by resorting to violence or partisan politics. The movement is still alive in Latin America today, though the Roman Catholic Church now faces the challenge of Pentecostal revival in much of the region.

contemporary divisions

The conservative retrenchment by the last two papacies has created a rift between a hierarchical church leadership who fear change and many religious and laity who desire more of it. As a result, a significant division has arisen over the past fifty years. Peter Steinfels, author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America and the former editor of the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal, divides Catholic opinion into four camps: ultraconservatives, moderate conservatives, liberals, and radicals.

In Steinfels’ view, the ultraconservatives believe that Vatican II was a fundamental mistake that needed to be reversed. At the far fringes of the ultraconservatives there are those who have returned to the Latin mass.

Moderate conservatives insist that Vatican II may have changed the style of the church but not traditional doctrine or morality. John Paul II, they say, had been correct to insist on the doctrinal authority of Rome and on upholding traditional teachings like the ban on contraception.

Steinfels says that liberals believe that the conservative strategies for a return to the past ignore the present culture both inside and outside parish halls. Eight out of ten Catholics disagree with the papal statement that “using artificial means of birth control is wrong.” Increasingly, liberal Catholics in the pews are rejecting papal dictates, creating a crisis in the contemporary church.

Finally, there are the radicals who are utterly opposed to the authoritarianism of the church, which may constitute the last absolute monarchy in the world. They hold that a democratic church would result in needed change.

Andrew Greeley also points to a generation of conservative young priests that is on the rise in the U.S. Church. These are newly ordained men who seem in many ways intent on restoring the pre-Vatican II Church, and who, reversing the classic generational roles, define themselves in direct opposition to the liberal priests who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

The all-male hierarchy of the church is not only increasingly divided from the laity, they are also finding themselves at odds with many Roman Catholic sisters who have faithfully served the church for many years. Lately, the bishops are putting pressure on nuns to back off from pushing an agenda of Catholic social teaching and to follow the bishops’ lead of focusing almost solely on sexual ethics, namely prohibition of contraceptive use, prohibition of abortion, and complete opposition to gay marriage.

Jim Wallis writes:

After an official investigation, the Vatican seems pretty upset with the Catholic sisters here in the United States. They have reprimanded the women for not sufficiently upholding the bishops’ teachings and doctrines and paying much more attention to issues like poverty and health care than to abortion, homosexuality, and male-only priesthood…

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest representative group of all the Catholic sisters’ orders, has now been put under the control of some bishops who are to “reform” them, change the group’s statutes and programs, and approve who will speak at their events.

The sisters may be the most positive face of the Catholic Church today, and they are keeping people in the Church who would have given up on the all-male hierarchy long ago. These women are often the ones at the core of Jesus’ ministry, building relationships with the poor and vulnerable, and most concretely offering the love of God. If you had a referendum on who the best faith and moral teachers are in many local communities and parishes around the country, it would likely be the women who are now under attack. That is the sad situation here and the serious mistake being made by the Vatican.



 evangelical Christianity