What is the history of the Roman Catholic Church as a denomination?

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This is a huge question (some 2000 years of history), but I will attempt to provide a very brief outline of Catholic history. I stress that this should be considered a starting point to understanding the history of Catholicism, but hopefully this will serve as an appropriate framework for beginning...

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This is a huge question (some 2000 years of history), but I will attempt to provide a very brief outline of Catholic history. I stress that this should be considered a starting point to understanding the history of Catholicism, but hopefully this will serve as an appropriate framework for beginning this.

The Apostolic Age

The Chuch, like any other Christian denomination, traces its origins ultimately to Jesus and the community that developed around him. However, during the early centuries of Christianity, it can be problematic and anachronistic to try to find any denominational origins in the beliefs and practices of Christians (at least in terms of the major modern divisions of the religion – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant). Eventually the type of Christianity that survived became the basis for much of Christianity today, including Catholicism.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils

Between 325 and 787, seven councils were held that helped determine the “official” version of Christianity. Today, both the Catholic and Orthodox churches hold these councils and their decisions to be valid, and to some extent Protestants share in this opinion. If you’re familiar with Christianity, you’ve probably heard of the Nicene Creed. This was (mostly) the product of the first council, the Council of Nicea, and was an attempt to summarize Christian belief in a single creed.

The Great Schism

In 1054, the Church as defined during the period of the ecumenical councils officially split into two separate entities, the East (Eastern Orthodox) and the West (Roman Catholic). Though Catholic doctrine and practices certainly precede this date, this can be seen as something of a starting point for the modern Catholic Church. There were many reasons for the schism, including geographical, political, and doctrinal – the split happened more or less along Roman (Catholic) and Byzantine (Orthodox) lines. The primacy of the Pope was a major point of contention for the Orthodox churches, and there was debate between the churches over the exact placement of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity (specifically whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone, as the Orthodox claimed, or from the Father and the Son, as the Catholics claimed).

The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation

In the 1500s, the Catholic Church was struck another blow by a group of reformers who protested (hence the name “Protestant”) certain practices and beliefs held by the Church. These reformers, led by men such as Martin Luther (father of Lutheranism) and John Calvin (father of Calvinism), took issue with the Church’s selling of indulgences (purchased to help speed up a loved one’s time in Purgatory), as well as other issues of doctrine and church authority. Eventually Protestants came to reject church authority on a number of fronts, claiming that faith, grace, and scripture were sufficient for the believer, without the role of the Church as a necessary part of salvation. The Catholic Church would eventually hold a council (The Council of Trent) to affirm its positions and condemn Protestant beliefs (the Counter-Reformation).  

Vatican II/The Modern Roman Catholic Church

In the 1960s, the Catholic Church held the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). Vatican II, very broadly speaking, was held to update and modernize the Church. It was during this time that the Church began to allow mass to be held in languages other than Latin. The Church affirmed the central role of scripture (still holding, if downplaying, the role of Church tradition as a valid source of revelation), and opened up a greater dialogue with other religions and with other Christian denominations. Most notably, the Church sough through Vatican II to become more open, transparent, and accessible than it had been throughout its history.

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