History of Catholicism

Christianity became an accepted religious path when Constantine emerged as the political power of the Roman Empire. Constantine was sympathetic to the Christians because his mother was a member of the faith. It has been reported that Constantine himself experienced a conversion experience during a battle in A.D. 312 when he had a vision of a cross with the message “IHS,” meaning “by this sign” in Latin. Constantine was victorious in the battle after receiving this vision. His rise to power continued until A.D. 323, when he became emperor and established his seat of power in Byzantium, later known as Constantinople (now Istanbul).

As Christianity spread throughout the empire, theological interpretations began to differ in the East and West. Councils were held to establish orthodoxy and try to eliminate heresy. These councils became increasingly politicized. In 1054, the divide between Rome and the Eastern churches became permanent. The Eastern part became the Eastern Orthodox Church; the Western part became the Roman Catholic Church, with headquarters eventually in the Vatican in Rome, Italy.

The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches divided primarily for two reasons. One was over the issue of the authority of the papacy. When it came to doctrine, however, the most important disagreement was over the nature of Jesus Christ as both human and divine. The Eastern Church emphasized his divinity, while the Western church emphasized that plus his humanity.

Probably the most decisive era in the history of Roman Catholicism was during the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, the German priest and theology professor Martin Luther (1483–1546) tacked his famous Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany. Luther's bold act has come to symbolize the inception of the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant movement threw almost all of Europe into war throughout most of the sixteenth and much of the early seventeenth centuries. As it turned out, the final division of Protestant and Catholic was determined mainly by the religious affiliation of the individual princes and kings who emerged victorious. France, for instance, remained Catholic, and the numerous city-states of Germany formed a patchwork of Protestant and Catholic enclaves.

The historical development of the Catholic Church has been fraught with complicated dissension, not the least of which was the claim that it was the successor of the church started by the apostle Peter. However, the references to Peter in the New Testament and his identification with the Church of Rome show so many contradictions that even among scholars there is no consensus regarding his role in the early church.

There were political, economic, and moral factors that aided and abetted Luther's protests, notably the financial burdens imposed by Rome on outlying parishes, and clerical excesses — particularly the selling of so-called indulgences that helped citizens atone in advance for sins real and contemplated — aroused hostility toward the church.

The Roman Catholic Church conducted its liturgy in Latin well into the twentieth century; sweeping changes were made at the Second Vatican Council. Officially known as the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, it was announced by Pope John XX III on January 25, 1959. The work of the council continued under Pope Paul VI up until its completion on December 8, 1965. The council enacted sixteen documents detailing how the church would function going forward. One of the documents, titled “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today,” acknowledged the changes that had taken place and the requirement for the church to relate to the needs of a modern culture.

Major changes were authorized in another of the sixteen documents, the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” It allowed for church members' participation in the celebration of the Mass and sanctioned significant changes in the texts, forms, and language used in the celebration of the Mass and the administration of the sacraments.

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