Sharing the Catholic faith with our separated brothers and sisters can be a challenge, especially when there isn’t a shared understanding of early Church history. Many still believe that the Catholic Church was actually created when the Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, making the Christian faith legal in the Roman Empire. The other common assertion is that the Catholic Church is just another sprout off of a common trunk established by Jesus and the Apostles. Finally, many make the claim there was no Pope until Constantine, but rather many independent “christian” churches which harbored hidden vestiges of today’s Protestant sects. Of course, none of these intertwined assertions is true. Please let me share four practical arguments (I’ll call them the Four Horsemen of Apologetics for dramatic effect) that are useful in dispelling these spurious claims.
The “Catholic” Church
Often the argument is made that because the word “Catholic” isn’t found in the Bible, it shouldn’t be used to describe the Church. That’s an interesting notion since the word “Bible” isn’t found in the Bible either. Neither is the word “Trinity.” But actually, the word “Catholic” is found in the Bible. It’s a transliteration of the Greek phrase kath oles, meaning “throughout all,” and Jesus begins describing the mission in those terms following his Great Commission in Matthew 28: 16-20. Specifically you can find kath oles in the original Greek scriptures in Luke 4:14, Luke 23:5, Acts 9:31, Acts 9;42, and Acts 10:37. A simple exercise illustrating how apparent the idea of the Catholic Church would have been to those reading and writing in the original Greek is to take the following Greek from Acts 9:31 and insert it into Google Translate. Just click the link to the left, then copy and paste the words below:
ἡ μεν ουν εκκλησια καθ᾽ὁλης της ιουδαιας και γαλιλαιας και σαμαρειας ειχεν ειρηνην οικοδομουμενη και πορευομενη τω φοβω του κυριου, και τη παρακλησει του ἁγιου πνευματος επληθυνοντο. Πράξεις τῶν Ἀποστόλων 9:31
The rough translation from Google is: “While the s catholic church of Judea and Galilee and Samaria eichen porefomeni peace is constructed and attached to the fear of the lord, and the entreaties of the Holy Spirit eplithynonto. Acts of the Apostles 9:31”
Interesting, eh? Of course other modern translations, especially those produced by Protestants, will never give that translation, despite those root words being right there in the Greek.
The earliest evidence of the word katholicos, which was derived from those passages in Scripture, is found in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. The most famous quote is from the Epistle to the Smyrneans from around 100–110 AD, just 70 years after Jesus ascended to Heaven.
“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
The response to this quote is often that Ignatius was referring to just his local Church, which had nothing to do with a Pope in Rome. This is a very interesting assertion, since several other notable early Fathers in several other local churches referred to this “universal Church” well before Constantine was on the scene.
“[A]ll the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 16:2, A.D. 155).
“…to be in honour however with the Catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline…one to the Laodicenes, another to the Alexandrians, both forged in Paul’s name to suit the heresy of Marcion, and several others, which cannot be received into the Catholic Church; for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. The Epistle of Jude no doubt, and the couple bearing the name of John, are accepted by the Catholic Church…But of Arsinous, called also Valentinus, or of Militiades we receive nothing at all.” (Muratorian Fragment, A.D. 177).
“[N]or does it consist in this, that he should again falsely imagine, as being above this [fancied being], a Pleroma at one time supposed to contain thirty, and at another time an innumerable tribe of Aeons, as these teachers who are destitute of truly divine wisdom maintain; while the Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world, as we have already said.” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:10, 3, A.D. 180).
“For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago, in the reign of Antoninus for the most part, and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherus, until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled.” (Tertullian, On the Prescription Against Heretics, 22,30, A.D. 200).
Nobody Followed the Pope Back Then
The second assertion that naturally follows is that there was no Pope presiding over these various “catholic” Churches. Of course, we certainly see the primacy of Peter plainly in scripture as he influences other Apostles, Presbyters and Bishops. Some of this is addressed in the opening paragraph of an earlier article I wrote. Other examples include the sheer number of times he is referenced (far, far more than the others), and nearly always first, in the list of Apostles. He is the one who presided at the first Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, where issues of Gentiles entering the Church were reviewed, and St. Paul sought his acceptance. And it was he who Jesus charged to “feed my sheep” three times after the Resurrection.
But if that wasn’t clear enough, history speaks loudly in lesser known episodes. We can see as early as Pope St. Clement, who is actually mentioned in the New Testament, that as the Bishop of Rome he was directing the Church at Corinth. To cite several more examples, all written before the third century.
“The church of God which sojourns at Rome to the church of God which sojourns at Corinth…. But if any disobey the words spoken by him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger.” (Pope St. Clement, 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, c. A.D. 96).
“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High God the Father, and of Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is sanctified and enlightened by the will of God, who formed all things that are according to the faith and love of Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour; the Church which presides in the place of the region of the Romans, and which is worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of credit, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love….” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans, Prologue, A.D. 110).
“There is extant also another epistle written by Dionysius to the Romans, and addressed to Soter, who was bishop at that time. We cannot do better than to subjoin some passages from this epistle…. In this same epistle he makes mention also of Clement’s epistle to the Corinthians, showing that it had been the custom from the beginning to read it in the church. His words are as follows: Today we have passed the Lord’s holy day, in which we have read your epistle. From it, whenever we read it, we shall always be able to draw advice, as also from the former epistle, which was written to us through Clement.'” (Dionysius of Corinth to Pope Soter, A.D. 171).
Who Founded Your Church?
The question could then be turned to our separated friends, asking if obviously the Catholic Church existed from the beginning, and those local bishops were looking to Rome for direction, then who exactly founded your Church? The answer to that question might be startling. Take a close look at who founded the Protestant sects. The first, Lutheranism, was founded by Father Martin Luther, a baptized Catholic and an Augustinian priest. Later, the “Reform” or Calvinist movement was started by theologian John Calvin, a baptized Catholic, followed by the movement created by Ulrich Zwingli, another baptized Catholic. Following that, the Anglican Church was established by King Henry VIII (over a question of divorce and civil remarriage), a baptized Catholic who was once known as a great defender of the Catholic faith. Later movements such as Presbyterianism, Baptists, Methodistism, etc., all spun off from these original Protestant Churches. The historical record shows that the Catholic Church not only evangelized and converted pagan Europe (and the rest of the world), but delivered the faith into which the original Protestant reformers were baptized. Startling, indeed.
The Holy Land
One might point out a couple of other interesting facts. Firstly, throughout the Holy Land, and indeed the Middle East where Jesus and the Apostles preached and founded those early local Christian communities, that the only 2,000-year old churches there are Catholic. Our brothers the Orthodox, who are also apostolic, have 2,000-year old bishoprics and patriarchies, but when they were founded the Church was entirely Catholic. In fact, one can look at the Catholic Church and see that not only is there the Western Church, but the Eastern Church (23 particular churches) each sharing among them the same doctrine, and 15 liturgical rites which were passed down from the Apostles themselves. There are ZERO 2,000-year old Protestant Churches in the Holy Land (or anywhere else).
Secondly, one may also observe the location of the mortal remains of the Apostles. Of course, their followers lovingly enshrined their bodies in special places of rest. It just so happens that their followers were Catholic and each and every Apostle is buried in a Catholic Church. This did not happen by accident, or some later act of grave robbery. The Catholic Church really is that authentic and really is that old.
In conclusion, there are many very sound and very powerful practical arguments and observations that can be used to demonstrate the historicity and authenticity of the Catholic Church. Each of the arguments proposed above are very hard to dispute, and one may find that they are simply dismissed wholesale rather than being addressed point by point. Nonetheless, they should always be presented as a part of a larger evangelical approach, a venture of charity in which these facts can be used to underscore a point, justify an invitation, or challenge further reading and investigation.