Remembering the Early Church


Lately, I have been hearing a lot about how the primitive Church was not Roman Catholic. I don’t know why it is, but this information keeps bursting upon me in the most unlikely settings — a lunch party near the sand dunes, cocktails on the upper east side — where a kindly soul informs me between sips of Dubonnet that the Catholic Church really began as an episcopal conspiracy centuries after Christ.

My interlocutor has usually been reading a book by Garry Wills or Elaine Pagels, who view the events of sacred history as power plays by vested interests. If my weekend controversialist hasn’t been reading a heterodox best-seller, he or she has been taking one of those smartly put-together adult Bible classes in Manhattan, which let it be known that the Real Presence and the Sacrifice of the Mass, the papacy, and the episcopate are late Roman inventions.

How, over a glass of chardonnay, does one respond? How does one lightly utter the names of Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and the Didache? Or mention Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine, and other early witnesses to the fact that the Church in the first centuries was Roman Catholic?

Before there ever was a canon of the New Testament, there was a Church. And its paper trail is Catholic. In his two antipapal books, Garry Wills is dismissive of these early non-biblical documents, but they are well worth knowing about.

In 95 A.D., a three-man embassy with a letter from the fourth bishop of Rome arrived at Corinth, where there were dissensions in the local church. In that letter, Pope St. Clement speaks with authority, giving instructions with a tone of voice that expects to be obeyed. The interesting point is that the apostle John was still living in Ephesus, which is closer than Rome to Corinth. But it was the bishop of Rome (at the time, a smaller diocese) who dealt with the problem.

Then there are the seven letters of St. Ignatius, who was martyred in Rome in 106. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch (Peter had been the first) and a disciple of the apostle John. Because these letters, written en route to Rome, are so Catholic, their authenticity was long contested by Protestant scholars, but now they are almost universally accepted as genuine.

Ignatius was the first to call the Church “Catholic.” He writes to the Ephesians that “the bishops who have been appointed throughout the world are the will of Jesus Christ…. Let us be careful, then, if we would be submissive to God, not to oppose the bishop.” And his letter to the church at Smyrna attacks those who deny the Real Presence: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of Our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins….”

It is noteworthy that in addressing the Church at Rome — a less ancient see than Antioch — Ignatius’s tone changes entirely. He is deferential, praiseful: “You have envied no one; but others you have taught.”

There is also the Didache, which was a kind of catechism and liturgical manual written some time between 70 and 150. It is a short document that could be used in RCIA today without changing a syllable.

The Didache (which means “teaching”) begins with a number of prohibitions (including abortion). Then, after what is probably the text of an early eucharistic prayer, comes the money quote: “Let no one eat or drink of the Eucharist with you except those who have been baptized…. On the Lord’s day gather together, break bread and give thanks after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure…. For this is what was proclaimed by the Lord: ‘In every place and time let there be offered to me a clean sacrifice….'”

The last line is from Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, who talks about how God, displeased with the sacrifices of the people of Judah, will accept the “sacrifice… the clean oblation” offered everywhere among the Gentiles. Early Christians considered this passage an anticipation of the Sacrifice of the Mass.

What these documents reveal is a primitive church that is recognizably hierarchical and centered on the Eucharist. Catholics, of course, do not base their faith on these early literary scraps but on the living authority of the Church. Still, it can be fun to broach these ancient names while nibbling an hors d’oeuvre.


This column originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Crisis Magazine. Image: First Century Mosaic, Irene Lagan

George Sim Johnston


George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

  • Will

    What you do, is you stand up for JESUS Christ and his ONE TRUE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH!!!

  • Todd

    Well, some of it is theological lingo. Roman Christians and their bishops were highly regarded because of their orthodoxy in the face of horrific persecution. But did Clement get his title “Pope” in the first century or much later?

    The development of scholastic language with regard to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, didn’t happen until centuries after these early documents. The angelic doctor utilized Aristotle, not so much the Didache, which was lost until 1883. So were the Christians of present-day Greece, Lebanon, or Egypt “Roman Catholics,” with a pope, curia, and a Latin-language liturgy? I don’t think so.

    Let’s be cautious about bringing too much of the modern era with us when we revisit the first centuries of Christianity. It was many empires, several centuries, and at least two whole worldviews ago. Not to mention for us Americans, half a world away.

  • Bob G

    What does it matter when the bishop of Rome was first called “Pope” if that bishop was always considered the head of the Church? If he hadn’t been called “Pope” until 1925, would that change anything?

    And, yes, “scholastic” language appeared with the scholastics. But does that mean no one before them understood that the Eucharist was the body of Christ? And if there was no “curia” before, say, 1400, does that mean the earlier Church was not “Roman Catholic” as we understand that term today? Such “arguments” are farcical.

    The point is that on all the essential issues the earliest church of which we know understood these matters exactly as the “Roman Catholic” Church understands them today.

  • Don L

    Adding names later to an existing entity doesn’t mean that the began at the time of being named, anymore than pretending that a baby is really not a living human being until after its born and is giving a name. The Roman Church and the Early Church are one and the same.

  • Bob

    We have many writings from the early church fathers(Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, etc.) stating the Catholic position on the Real Prescence in the eucharist. And George is correct, Clement received his teaching on the faith directly from Peter and Paul, Ignatius and Polycarp from John. Interestingly, you can’t find one document from the first three centuries showing that church leaders, through apostolic succession, were taught otherwise, that the Eucharist is only symbolic, or just spiritual. No documents exist supporting Protestant arguments on the Eucharist. Many Protestants change the meaning of the word “catholic” from the Apostles Creed, to mean “universal” in the sense that it is inclusive with all Christian faiths, whether they are in union with Rome or not. The writers of the Creed did not intend it to be interpreted that way, but to only include (as there were even heretical Chrisitian faiths back then) those churches alinged properly with Rome and with Apostolic succession.

  • pammie

    I just had this very conversation recently with a fundamentalist friend who cheerfully told me that The RC Church was nothing like the early Church, the inference being that hers was. Not being a scholar in such things the only thing I could think of to say was this: Unless her church members met in its members’ houses, were afraid of the wrath of the Jews, had an Apostle or his direct disciple as a teacher, and conducted their liturgies in Aramaic, Latin or Greek, then neither was hers. That more or less ended the discussion.

  • jb

    Sports Fans . . .

    Terminology and history are very much intertwined in the life of the Church.

    The Church is catholic–?????????–universal–not because Ignatius first said so, but because, at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus HIMSELF said so. To imply that “protestants” (what is meant by that term in the RC lectionary is always ambiguous) “changed” the meaning of the word ????????? in the creed cannot be supported by anything except opinion. And many Reformation era Christians understand that fact far better than does Rome. I might add that St. Paul–fairly “apostolic” by most accounts, told the “Romans” in 1:8 that Christ’s Gospel was indeed, “universal.”

    Interestingly, Jesus never once defended clerical hierarchy nor tradition as the guarantors of the faith, but instead, faithfulness to what HE taught. Try as I might, I cannot find much in the way of Jesus uttering any positive about religious hierarchy, nor “tradition.”

    The Eastern Church understands all that, and they understand Greek a bit better than Rome, to be sure. And when Rome decided to arbitrarily change the Creed in the Filioque controversy, it was Constantinople who held firm to the faith delivered to the saints, not Rome. Interesting–when JPII met with the Patriarch, he recited the original Nicene Creed.

    But both the East and West succumbed to the “bishop” mentality anyway. I don’t mean to advocate any sort or version of “fundamentalism” as it is known, because fundamentalism has nothing to advocate. However, using it as a straw man to prop up historical inaccuracies is neither fair nor true.

    That the ???????n Church, much broader and wider than most imagine, must come to terms with its failure to appreciate history, and its failures within history, goes without saying. This is all about Christ, the Anointed One, not bishops nor opinions nor tradition. It is in the God in the Flesh, Whose Body and Blood we consume, that we find life.

    Otherwise, we have merely finessed the arguments of the Pharisees and Sadducees. And that, I motion, is death.