History of the Catholic Church

Pentecost Sunday is a great time to start a new series for this blog on Church History.  I’ve been meaning to read James Hitchcock’s book for quite some time.  It’s an accessible one volume book on the history of the Catholic Church using the most recent scholarship.  If you’re interested, pick up your own copy, read along with me and offer your own feedback in the comments.  If you don’t have the time and do not mind my reflections, I welcome you to follow along on this blog series.

Isn’t it amazing, brothers and sisters, how the Catholic Church as an institution has always been threatened by heresy from within and hostility from without?  Any other institution suffering from such scandals or persecutions would have been wiped out long ago.  In fact, the only other group to have suffered just as much (if not more) are the Jewish people.  The fact that the Jewish people and the Catholic Church still exist makes me think that something supernatural — some divine power is at work in preserving us.

Studying Church history is important to the development of my faith because it allows me to see God’s continuous action through time up to the present day.  “The Catholic Church is the longest-enduring institution in the world, and her historical character is integral to her identity” (pg. 11).  Like Judaism, Christianity is a historical religion.  At a precise moment in history, God came to earth.  He lived, died and came back to life to eyewitnesses.  The Gospels have a historical feel because they provide concrete details to these circumstances around Christ’s time on earth.  With the exception of Judaism, from which Christianity takes its root, no other religion makes such truth claims in history.  The history of the Church is not myth-making: an attempt to add the divine to a man-made construct.  No, it’s the reverse.  Church history is the placement of humanity in the divine work of God.

Studying Church history also helps me see the development of church doctrine.  The life of a Catholic Christian is defined by his participation in the Sacraments.  Our Protestant brethren centers Christian life around studying the Bible.  This is because the Sacraments are not central to their worship (if they have them at all).  Doctrine is also not rooted in history for our separated brethren; it must be renewed with each generation of believers by studying the Bible.  So, it’s unsurprising to find certain Protestant denominations subscribing to heresies that were resolved as early as the fourth century.  “Heresy perhaps serves the divine purpose of forcing the Church to reflect more deeply on her beliefs, to understand them in ever more comprehensive and precise ways” (pg. 14).

Lastly, Christianity gives history a goal. Suffering is not meaningless.  Evil people do not triumph.  Evilness will have consequences.  The “cyclical view of that endless repetition that expressed a kind of despair, the sense that men were trapped in a process they cannot control” (pg. 16) was destroyed by Christianity.  “The Christian recognition of man’s freedom is the only resolution of the mystery of evil….  The action of God in history… [is] like a composer masterfully revising his music to overcome the inadequacies of the orchestra that plays it ” (pg. 17).

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