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3. Catholic |
The gradual evolution of the word

Catholic is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 65, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

It began as a Greek adjective meaning ‘universal,’ but by the 300s it became a noun and Christians disputed which beliefs were the Catholic ones

Catholic - The gradual evolution of the word ‘Catholic’

Catholic - The gradual evolution of the word ‘Catholic’
As did a number of Christian communities throughout the empire, this one constructed a building of substantial size for its assemblies. On this Lord’s Day gathering, the Christians stand (following the usual practice) to hear the homily or sermon of their bishop, seated at the ambo, a raised area. Though custom varied in local churches, this congregation is arranged loosely according to ministry: presbyters and deacons around the bishop, widows (in black) and virgins near the front of the church, and then the rest of the faithful.

Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.” When Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, wrote that sentence in Greek to the Christians at Smyrna (now Izmir on the shores of the Aegean in western Turkey, see map page 131, E3), he did not know he was introducing into the Christian vocabulary a term that would be used for the next nineteen hundred years. Neither did he know that the adjective “catholic” would become a noun as well, in fact a proper noun in virtually every human language. Finally, he would certainly never have guessed that for the last four hundred of those nineteen hundred years, this noun would evoke scorn in some Christians, deep respect and affection in others.

To Ignatius, the Greek word katholikos simply meant “general” or “universal,” originating from two other Greek words that together meant “whole” or “complete.” Aristotle had spoken of a “catholic rule,” meaning a general rule. Polybius wrote of a “catholic pronouncement,” meaning one that was intended to apply universally. Ignatius, for the first time, had applied the term to the whole Christian community, no doubt to emphasize that the church was one, and the church was everywhere; it was “universal.”

Ignatius wrote the sentence around the year 110, and thereafter the word katholikos gained ever-wider usage among Christians. In the mid-second century, Justin spoke of “the catholic resurrection” (meaning, the general resurrection), in the third, Tertullian had referred to “the catholic goodness of God” (meaning the universal goodness of God), while Irenaeus spoke of “the four catholic winds” (i.e., north, south, east and west). From the start, however, one problem had become both pressing and alarming. Christ’s flock could withstand the full fury of the Roman persecutors. But its real danger came from within, the problem of maintaining its unity. By the third century, Christians spoke of a “catholic” or universal church. The problem lay in determining who was and who was not “catholic,” and how Christians could decide.

In Alexandria, Carthage and Rome, there were periods of bitter division, with rival bishops each claiming to be the authentic one. Worse still, it was becoming more difficult to know what exactly a Christian was supposed to believe. He must believe in Jesus Christ, of course, all Christians replied. But then, who was Jesus Christ? The Son of God, just as it said in the Christian Gospels and Epistles, came the reply. But what did “Son of God” mean? How could God be both up in heaven and also a man on earth? Were there two Gods? Or three?

Here the answers conflicted. Most Christians insisted that Christ was one of the Three Divine Persons in whose name Christians were baptized. Wrong, said those who were called Modalists, God must be thought of as One Person, though he appeared in different “modes,” sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son, sometimes as the Holy Spirit. Wrong, said the Adoptionists, there were Three Persons all right, but the Second Person had actually been “adopted” by the First. Wrong, said the Subordinationists, there had been no such “adoption,” so the Second Person must be considered “subordinate” to the First.

All these versions had arisen by the third century. Meanwhile, some of the groups that had sprung into being in the second century over other doctrinal questions were still active, though rapidly declining in the third–like the Marcionites, who rejected the God of the Old Testament because they believed in a “God of love” (see earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, page 237); or the Docetists, who believed that Jesus merely reflected God and didn’t suffer crucifixion, some contending that Simon of Cyrene had switched places with him at the last minute.

Egypt was the birthplace of many dissident theories, some about the nature of God, many about other issues. Not all the dissidents proved obstinate, however. One third-century Egyptian bishop, for instance, a certain Nepos, became persuaded from the Book of Revelation that Jesus would imminently return and establish an earthly kingdom of sensual pleasures and luxury. After Nepos’s death, his followers were persuaded to abandon the theory and return to the “catholic” tradition.

Other religious innovators would prove far less acquiescent. Out of Persia, for example, came the disciples of the prophet Mani early in the third century. From second-century Gnosticism and some of the teachings of Paul, Mani had constructed his own version of human salvation. Satan, he said, had stolen the particles of “light” with which God intended to illumine the world. He had imprisoned these particles in the minds of men. The mission of Buddha, the great prophets of Israel, Jesus, and Mani himself, was to liberate these particles, and the purpose of the whole physical universe was to enable this liberation to occur. By denying oneself the physical comforts of life, including the pleasure of eating meat, one could participate in this liberation process. By the fourth century, Manichaeanism, as it was called, had established a strong presence in Egypt, and was commanding much attention in Rome. It was viewed by the Christians as a serious threat and challenge.

To many Christians, this baffling diversity of theories and doctrines was inconsequential. They believed in Jesus, whoever he was, and that was enough for them. However, by the late third century, Christianity was beginning to intrigue people of considerable education. They saw in Jesus Christ truths that satisfied the soul. But their honest inquiries met with such a bewildering array of contradictory answers, that they were discouraged. The Christians realized that they could not refute these teachings unless there was some agreement on what Christians believed. In other words, there must be an agreed-upon “universal” Christian answer to the issues being raised. After all, Christ himself had not evaded the crucial issues of his day–paying taxes to caesar, healing on the Sabbath, knowing who would be greatest in his kingdom. He had met these challenges with a response. God had given human beings minds. He presumably expected men to use them.

Something else was evident. Though these dissident groups might command much local attention, many tended to be short-lived, or to change radically, or to fragment into a diversity of quarrelsome subgroups. Meanwhile, there clearly existed an amazing consistency of belief among nearly all the bishops and the vast majority of Christians. In the late second century, the pagan writer Celsus referred to this huge and growing body of adherents as “the Great Church.” To this “Great Church” the word “catholic” was increasingly applied. But catholic beliefs were specifically spelled out only in doctrinal statements adopted by churches regionally. There was no universal creed. The faithful recognized what was not Christian, even if they weren’t quite sure what was.

They knew that every Christian community had a “bishop,” which meant an “overseer.” The office of bishop went back to New Testament times, when Paul advised Timothy of a bishop’s qualifications–“blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, given to hospitality, apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2)–and by the dawn of the fourth century, the number of Christian communities, and therefore of bishops, ran to well over one thousand. The Didache, a manual of Christian behavior that dates from the early third century, portrays the bishop as successor to the office of “prophet,” a revered figure in early congregations, that survived in some up to the mid-third century.

The bishops saw themselves as the successors of the apostles. Upon the head of a bishop at his ordination had been laid the hands of other bishops, upon whose heads had been laid the hands of bishops earlier still. In this way, it was reasoned, there was a physical connection between themselves and the apostles, who had laid their hands on those they commissioned (Acts 13:3, and 1 Tim. 4:14). In the “consecration” of a bishop, not only was the Holy Spirit seen as conveyed from one generation to the next, but a body of teaching was viewed as similarly passed on.

While early bishops were chosen by the congregation, according to the Didache, a Christian bishop must also be “consecrated” by at least two other bishops, usually from the immediate area, all laying their hands on the head of the kneeling candidate and praying for the Holy Spirit to come upon him. This implied that the man chosen must have support from beyond his own community. One notable exception to this rule, however, was Alexandria, where the bishop was traditionally consecrated not by other bishops but by his own clergy, a custom that survived until the fourth century.

Within his diocese, the bishop’s powers were virtually incontestable. His authority was “almost unchallengeable,” writes historian W. H. C. Frend in The Rise of Christianity. “Being a representative of Christ, his authority was absolute,” says historian Henri Daniel-Rops in The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs. While he might take highly controversial matters before his clergy and laity, the ultimate decision was his alone. It was he who admitted new Christians and could expel the deviant. He ordained his own clergy, and could depose them; he controlled the congregation’s revenues and supervised the distribution of charitable funds. His flock, while they could elect him, could not depose him, though other bishops within his province, in extreme instances, had that power. The same Ignatius who introduced the word “catholic” to the Christian vocabulary also spelled out the monarchal role of the bishop. The bishop’s authority was that of God, he said, so that “he who honors the bishop has been honored by God.” However, as doctrinal and disciplinary questions arising from the persecutions became more pressing, bishops increasingly deferred to church synods and consultation with other bishops.1

Despite their heavy authority, the bishops were generally revered by their flocks, and the Oxford historian C. H. Turner, writing in The Cambridge Medieval History, makes a touching portrait of their relationship: “His flock was small enough for him to carry out to the letter the pastoral metaphor, and to ‘call his sheep by name.’ Even though the ‘angel of the church’ in the Book of Revelation may not have been, in the mind of the author, at all intended to refer to the bishop, yet this quasi-identification of the community with its representative exactly expresses the ideal.”

The power of Christian worship lies in “the prayer of the bishop and the whole church,” writes Ignatius. Justin Martyr depicts “the brethren” with “the president” (i.e., the bishop) as the Christian congregation. A special chair or throne, called in Greek and Latin a cathedra, was reserved in the church for the bishop.2 On it was a white wool cushion, wool symbolizing the Earth and identifying the bishop as representing the church on Earth. Fourth-century Christian art often shows the bishop on a chair holding the Gospel book against his breast, his right hand stretched out in a gesture of blessing.

The territorial structure of the church naturally tended to follow that of the Roman Empire, so that a province of the empire came to be coterminous with a province of the church. Each bishop’s jurisdiction was known as a diocese, a term derived from the Roman imperial administration, or as a “see,” another term derived from the bishop’s official “chair,” this one from the Latin word for a seat, sedes. The English word “bishop” comes from an ancient Anglo-Saxon corruption of the Greek word for “overseer,” episcopos. The bishops, as a group, are known as “the episcopacy.” An action approved by a bishop is said to have “episcopal” authority.

By the early fourth century, there might be many sees within a province, and the bishop whose see was the province’s capital soon came to be regarded as holding senior rank, with the title of archbishop or metropolitan. Since by the fourth century there were 120 provinces in the empire, there were also a great many metropolitans. For bishops of the empire’s major cities–Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and, from the late fourth century onward, Constantinople–the more advanced title of patriarch gradually emerged. Bishops in major cities were usually assisted by auxiliary bishops.3 However, a diocese could also be very small. When Gregory the Wonderworker, biographer of Origen, became bishop of Neocaesarea, his diocese consisted of seventeen Christians.

Beneath the bishop there were, of course, other offices. Both bishops and deacons are mentioned in Paul’s letter to Philippi (Phil. 1:1) and in the pastoral epistles, First Timothy and Titus. The Book of Acts mentions the office of presbyter or elder (Acts 20:17), a term sometimes applied to the bishop as well, but soon designating another office below the rank of bishop and above that of deacon. The word presbyter originated from presbyteros, the word Greek-speaking Jews used to describe an elder of the synagogue. By the third century, seven gradations of clergy had been established below the bishop–presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes, readers, exorcists and doorkeepers.

As congregations grew in size and number, the presbyters assumed some of the functions of the bishop, celebrating the Eucharist or Communion and performing baptisms. By Tertullian’s time, mention is made of penitent Christians prostrating themselves before “confessors,” meaning Christians who had once been incarcerated, as well as before presbyters, to receive God’s forgiveness. Cyprian describes Christians approaching death as confessing their sins to either a presbyter or a deacon.

By the second century other terms for the clergy appeared; the Latin word sacerdos and the Greek word hiereus. Both had been used to describe a pagan priest or a priest in the old Jewish Temple who ritually slew animals in atonement for man’s sins. These new terms at first applied only to bishops, later to presbyters as well. They emphasized the bishop’s and later the presbyter’s role in the Communion, which is viewed by some as a recollection and by others as a more literal enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In English, French, Spanish and German the word for “priest” descends directly from the original term presbyteros.

As urban dioceses grew and became far too big for a bishop to administer, the Christians divided themselves into smaller assemblies, or parishes (from the Greek word paroikia, meaning a “district” or “neighborhood”). Eventually, each parish was under the care of a presbyter, or priest, who was responsible for the spiritual welfare of his flock and, on pain of excommunication, for the church’s property. However, the phenomenon of the “parish priest,” in existence at Alexandria by the late third century, was slow to develop elsewhere, and did not appear in Rome until the early sixth century, because bishops feared independent parishes could too easily become independent churches.

The office of deacon developed in a different way. The deacon began as the administrative assistant to the bishop, not to the presbyters. Where the presbyters or priests became the bishop’s assistants in spiritual matters, the deacons became his assistants in administrative affairs. The deacons were also responsible for the congregation’s ministry to the poor, and for keeping order during religious meals. At first, the deacons took little part in the liturgical services of the church. They became the church officials most closely known to the members of the parish.4

Due to the precedent set forth in the first church at Jerusalem, where seven deacons were appointed to assist the apostles (Acts 6:5—6), the number of deacons in many dioceses was restricted to seven. This gave rise to two other developments. As Christian congregations rapidly grew, the office of subdeacon was created, to permit the appointment of a greater number of men to the job, and also that of archdeacon, who reported directly to the bishop on behalf of them all.

Like the deacon, the deaconess makes her debut very early in the Christian story. In the earliest appearance of Christians in secular history, the Roman proconsul of Bithynia reports his torturing two deaconesses to get to the truth about this strange sect called Christian (see earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, page 45). Some biblical scholars believe that New Testament references to deacons apply to deaconesses as well, and that Clement of Alexandria and Origen drew the same conclusion. The Didache plainly regards the deacon as being either male or female.5

The deaconess was responsible for the care of the sick and infirm in the congregation, and was expected to report instances of illness and need to the bishop. She would also anoint women for baptism. The office was widely used in the Eastern church, where a form of ordination for deaconesses survives. In the West, it declined rapidly, and a church council at Nimes in 394 forbade further ordination of deaconesses.

The other offices of the church varied from century to century. Cornelius, bishop of Rome, writing in the mid-third century, shows the office of acolyte already in existence in the West, but it will not appear in the writings of the East for another 250 years. The duties of acolytes are obscure, though they seem to include attending to the lights of the church and procuring wine for the Communion service. Readers or lectors also appear first in North Africa as men designated to read the Scriptures before the celebration of the Eucharist. Cyprian speaks of the office as an apprenticeship to the clergy. Today, doorkeepers would be called janitors, men whose chief responsibility was maintaining the church’s property.

An intriguing office is that of exorcist, usually listed at or near the bottom of the hierarchy. Its rank, however, does not reflect the attention paid to its activity, which was fascinating. The Gospels report at least six instances in which Jesus performed exorcisms, and driving devils from people was a common task among the first Christians. The historian Eusebius calls it “an office of special labor,” conducted before the congregation, in which the devil, screaming abuse through the mouth of the possessed, is thrust out.

As the fourth century unfolded, all these orders began separating themselves from the laity (the “lay” people, from the Greek laos, “the people”–the worshipers, as distinguished from the clergy). A clerical career became a matter of climbing the clerical hierarchy. Typically, a man would start in his youth as a reader, then become an acolyte or subdeacon. At age thirty, says the historian Henri Daniel-Rops, he could become a deacon, at age thirty-five a priest, and at forty-five a bishop. Clerical garb came to be either black or white. The vestments that Christian clergy would use for the next seventeen hundred years were simply the dress-up clothing of late Roman aristocrats.

Such was the structure of the church that emerged from the Decian and Valerian persecutions in the mid-third century. Notwithstanding the imperial disfavor, Christian numbers grew steadily over the next forty years, while officialdom looked on alarmed. In Cyprian’s time, there were between 130 and 150 dioceses in North Africa. By the century’s end, this had grown to more than two hundred. Every church seemed to be acquiring property, and church buildings became common all over the empire, many of them packed and overflowing for the Sunday services. Large Christian centers became common on the outskirts of the major cities.

Biggest of all the Christian congregations was the one at Rome, where the bishop in 251 could count forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven subdeacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty exorcists and readers, several doorkeepers, and fifteen hundred widows and sick people being supported by the church, all numbers that would be dwarfed by the church in the imperial capital a century later.

However, while the church at Rome was flourishing, Christianity in the Latin-speaking Western world still accounted for as little as a tenth of the population by the early fourth century. In the Greek-speaking East, the Christian proportion was much higher, though specific percentages are difficult to establish. This was due to the fact that Christian evangelism moved from East to West, from the Greek-speaking part of the empire, then to the Latin-speaking, so that the Eastern church had a full hundred-year head start.

In both East and West, soaring numbers of Christians made necessary greater administrative activity. Matters left to the grace of God in an earlier era must now be institutionalized, not necessarily because people prayed and believed less fervently, but as the inevitable consequence of growth. If the Christians did not competently count the money, maintain the properties, instruct the converts, organize the divine services, admonish the errant, and systematize the care of the needy, the result would be not greater holiness, but utter chaos. As with every human endeavor, whether economic, governmental, military or spiritual, the price of sustained success was bureaucracy. The “heroic age” must yield to the “administrative age.”

Historian Frend, a professor of archaeology at the University of Glasgow, views negatively what he sees as the emergence of a church in the fourth and fifth centuries, run almost totally by clergy. The losers, he writes in The Church of the Roman Empire, 313—600 (included in Town and Country in the Early Christian Centuries), were the laity, whose role in the church was severely diminished, so that the church appeared to outsiders more as an institution than as a way of life.

But historian Turner in the Cambridge Medieval History presents a different picture. To him, the losers were the bishops. He writes: “The necessity for new organization had to be met in some way which would preserve at all costs the oneness of the body and its head. It followed that the work and duties which the individual bishop could no longer perform in person, must be shared with, or deputed to, subordinate officials. As a result, new offices came into being in the course of the third century. This produced the clerus, or clergy, which gradually acquired during the fourth and fifth centuries the character of a hierarchy, nicely ordered by steps and degrees.” However, the origins of some of these offices went all the way back to the New Testament.

The bishop, particularly in the larger centers, soon lost immediate touch with his flock. When it consisted of several hundred he could know them all. When it became several thousand, this became impossible. Even his hitherto indispensable contact with his deacons was lost, for now they often reported not to him but to a single “archdeacon” who in turn reported to the bishop.

Much of the bishop’s former pastoral function was conferred upon the presbyters or priests. The priest became the celebrant of the Eucharist in the bishop’s stead. Historian Turner observes another subtle change. This priest’s role as the celebrant of the Eucharist was seen no longer as derived from the bishop, but rather from his priesthood. Another link had been broken. The deacons, meanwhile, usurped from the readers the role of lector, reading the Gospel in the church. Less and less was the deacon the bishop’s administrative assistant; more and more he was an assistant to the priest in the church’s liturgical services.

Most notable of all was the innovation of regular clerical salaries. The notion of fixed salaries for the clergy was considered an outrage in Rome and in Asia Minor as late as 200, writes the Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox in his Pagans and Christians. Fifty years later, however, we find Cyprian at Carthage concerned that his clergy be adequately paid. By then, the bishop of Rome had a salary of seventy-two hundred sesterces a year. Hardly munificent, notes Frend in The Rise of Christianity, since a mid-range governmental official or a professor of rhetoric in that day would have earned about one hundred thousand sesterces a year.

One loss to the laity was their role in electing the bishop. In the third century, it was the people who chose Cyprian over the voluble objection of the presbyters. In some instances, however, this lay voice continued to be heard. Ambrose of Milan in 373 and Nectarius of Constantinople in 384, both with strong popular support, were elevated from layman to bishop in less than a week. But again, the vast numbers made change necessary. A few score clergy could be easily assembled and their votes counted; a few thousand laity could not. So very soon, the choice of the bishop became a clerical prerogative.

As the clergy gained in responsibility and power, there developed a parallel movement to preclude them from marriage. The respect paid to celibacy went back a long way. The Princeton University historian Peter Brown notes in his The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity that near the Dead Sea in the first century, “the wilderness of Judea harbored sizeable settlements of disaffected males.” The Jews of the Essene community near Jerusalem were admired for resisting “the seductive wiles of women” by embracing celibacy. The Jewish philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus portray the Essenes as an all-male utopia, their denial of sexual inclination as embodying a “singleness of heart” toward God.

While several of the Christian apostles were almost certainly married, Paul declared celibacy a preferable condition in the strained circumstances of a world that many saw as soon to end. It was also true, of course, that the same Paul warns Timothy not to be deceived by teachings given by “men who are lying hypocrites,” men “who forbid marriage and command abstinence from foods–good things which God created to be thankfully enjoyed” (1 Tim. 4:1—5). Tertullian, happily married himself, nevertheless recommended celibacy as a mark of holiness. On the other hand, some senior bishops, like Demetrian of Antioch (251—261) were married. In fact, Demetrian was succeeded in that office by his son. Bishop Phileas of Thmuis in Egypt was urged by a judge to consider his family responsibilities before committing himself to martyrdom around 307. A century later, Hilary, an adult convert and married, was nevertheless made bishop of Poitiers in France, and a century after that, the Christian author Sidonius Apollinaris, likewise married, became bishop of Clermont.

Even so, pressure mounted at church councils from the early fourth century onward for a celibate clergy. The early fourth-century Spanish Council of Elvira (see map page 130, A3) imposed celibacy on all Spanish bishops, priests and deacons, and warned that if they continued to live with their wives and children, they would be deposed. In 314, the Council of Ancyra, held in the city that would one day become the capital of Turkey, ordered that deacons must choose between marriage and celibacy before they could be ordained. The Council of Neocaesarea, early in the fourth century, ruled that presbyters who marry after ordination must be deposed, while a council at Rome in 386 forbade married clergy to have intercourse with their wives, and a council in France in the fifth century required married clergy and their wives to swear they would refrain from sexual relations.

At the great Council of Nicea in 325, a resolution was advanced imposing celibacy on clergy throughout the church. It was defeated. However, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, a celibate clergy was the rule throughout the West from the time of Pope Leo the Great onward. Leo died in 461. In ensuing years, the rule would create numerous problems. At various periods, many clergy persistently cohabited with women who were not their wives. In other instances, men abandoned their families to offer themselves to the priesthood, a phenomenon so common that a Roman law was passed in 420 expressly prohibiting this.

In the East, however, married clergy continue to be permitted to the present day, though candidates must declare an intention to either marry or remain celibate before they’re ordained, and if they choose marriage, they must find a wife prior to their ordination. Eastern bishops are drawn only from the celibate clergy and are usually monks, though occasionally a widower will become a bishop.

While the development of clerical regulations enabled the Christians to cope much more effectively with the vast numbers now joining their ranks, it did not solve another problem, and even may have made it worse. That was the problem of belief. What exactly were Christians to believe as true? What rules should they observe concerning sex, marriage, military service, and heeding the religious requirements of a pagan government? And most important of all, who exactly did they believe Jesus to be? Was he God? Was he man? Was he both, and if so, how?

Questions like these would arise in different ways in different places, and the method that developed to deal with them was that of the regional synod or council. Like so much else in Christianity, the holding of a synod or council (the words in the early church meant the same thing)6 called by a bishop or several bishops from the same province to resolve a doctrinal or moral question, was not invented at any particular point. It simply evolved.

The first recorded council held by the Christians was the meeting of the apostles at Jerusalem, described in Acts 15, to authorize Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. A second-century synod was held in Asia Minor to deal with the Montanist question. Tertullian mentions a council that was called in Carthage to discuss whether the book called The Shepherd of Hermas should be included in the emerging New Testament. A series of councils was held at the end of the second century in the Eastern churches to discuss the conflict that had developed with the bishop of Rome over the date of Easter (see earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, page 280). Cyprian used the device of North African councils to resolve the host of problems that confronted his church.

But there had never been a council intended to represent the “civilized world” (meaning in that day the Roman Empire, from Britain to the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the Euphrates). If any really serious issue divided the Christians everywhere, it would have to be decided by such a council. However, in the years when Christianity was illegal, suspect and subject to periodic persecution, such a council was a practical impossibility.

There was a further problem with the councils. They represented, in fact, a federal system of government, and presented therefore, the usual problem of representation. If the formula of equality were adopted–one bishop, one vote–then huge dioceses with thousands of Christians would carry no more weight than tiny dioceses with only several hundred. This was to cause difficulties, though not as grave and enduring as one final problem.

If the power to decide doctrine and discipline was to lie with the councils, then what exactly was the authority of the bishop of Rome? From the earliest days, the other bishops had recognized Rome’s bishop as preeminent, because he was the successor of Peter and Paul. The reference to Paul was soon omitted, and the case founded solely upon Peter. For had not Jesus himself said, “Thou art Peter (a Greek word meaning a stone or rock), and upon this Rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18)? Had he not conferred upon Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”? Had he not endowed Peter with special authority–“whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19)?

Had not Clement, bishop of Rome,7 as early as the late first century, written to the Christians in Corinth, admonishing them for their misconduct, much as Paul had, and did this not early on give evidence of the Roman bishop’s exercise of Peter’s authority? Did not the great Irenaeus of Lyons describe Rome as the church to which all Christians must “conform”? Even dissidents like the Adoptionists had sought ratification of their views by contending they had once been the view of the church at Rome. And did not the record of Rome’s bishops testify to their faith? In the first three Christian centuries, in which Rome counted twenty-nine bishops in all, thirteen had assuredly been martyred, while deaths of six others could arguably be described as martyrdoms.

That the bishop of Rome was the successor of Peter, few fourth-century bishops would have questioned. But what precisely was Peter’s authority? Had he ever attempted to order the other apostles around? Indeed, it was Paul who had admonished Peter’s hesitation in approving the mission to the Gentiles. Some saw Rome’s bishop as “first among equals.” Some saw him as one of the great “patriarchs,” Eastern bishops describing him as “the patriarch of the West.”8

Had not Bishop Victor of Rome, in the late second century, attempted to impose a date for Easter on the churches in the East, and had they not successfully defied him (see earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, page 280)? And though Cyprian had affirmed Rome’s preeminence, he had also said that every bishop’s see was “the see of Peter,” and he had battled stubbornly against Rome’s Stephen over the question of rebaptism.

However, the concept of a supreme pontiff9 over all the other bishops was not specifically and determinedly advanced, observes the noted church historian Henry Chadwick in The Pelican History of the Church, until late in the fourth century. Even then, it was not universally accepted in the East, and never would be accepted there right through to the twentieth-first century. At that point, 455 million Protestant Christians did not accept the authority of the bishop of Rome, 130 million Eastern Orthodox Christians would still view Rome’s bishop as merely “the patriarch of the West,” while 890 million Roman Catholics view him and revere him as the “supreme pontiff” of Christianity.

As the fourth century unfolded, however, the issue of church authority did not lie between the councils and the bishop of Rome. A new and massive factor would soon be introduced, notably, the influence of the emperor. As long as the emperor was pagan, his dealings with the Christians were entirely centered on the question of whether he would tolerate them. But what would happen if the emperor himself became Christian? In the days of Decius and Valerian, such a prospect would have seemed too absurd to contemplate. However, that was soon to change.

Something else would change. In the late third century, what chiefly brought people into Christianity was neither its hierarchy nor its institutional structure, which some in the imperial bureaucracy envied. Rather, it was the recurrent instances of miracle, particularly miracles of healing, reported among its members. Almost as compelling were the unstinting works of charity in which the Christians engaged. By the third century, Christian charity extended well beyond the Christian community to those around it. Impoverished widows, wounded soldiers, the jobless and the chronically ill came to find help from the Christians that was available nowhere else. Philanthropy must be practiced generously and selflessly, wrote Dionysius the Great, and dispensing material goods was not enough. Personal service to the needy was also required. Even the distant and dreaded barbarians, frequently left starving on the fringes of the empire, became recipients of Christian food, clothing and money. Ancient society had never seen anything quite like this.

Should the emperor become Christian, however, there would emerge another reason for conversion. It could become a path to prestige and power. And that in turn would present the Christians with a very different set of problems.

This is the end of the Catholic category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 65, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Catholic from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at