The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world, with about one billion adherents.  The Roman Catholic Church consists of those Christians in full communion with the Bishop of Rome (more commonly called the Pope). The Church traces the papal authority as the leader of Christianity to the first Bishop of Rome, the apostle Peter. Unlike many Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church does not follow the doctrine of sola scriptura or sola fides. The Church believes that both faith and works are necessary for salvation and that tradition and reason should be used to aid interpretation of the Bible. The church has a complex hierachy of clergy involving The Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
The Catholic Church traces its authority to Jesus through the apostle Peter. The Church sees the Bishops as the natural successors to the apostles, and reasons that since Peter was the leader of the apostles, Peter's succesors should lead the Bishops and hence all of Christianity.
Catholic Growth in the Imperial Decline
Until the early fourth century AD Christianity enjoyed mixed reception in the Roman Empire and Christians were frequently subject to persecution. In the 310s Christianity became legalized and shortly thereafter became officially recognized by Constantine. In the following years Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular became increasingly powerful in the Roman Empire, although Arianism remained strong. In 380 AD, Theodosius I established the Catholic Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire. As the Empire continued to decline Catholicism and Christianity continued to grow both among those under directly under the Empire and among the barbarians. When Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410, Alaric was an Arian Christian. After the collaspse of the Empire, the Catholic Church became the most powerful political and religious force in Europe and by the 8th century had achieved near total religious dominance with the removal of the last significant arian groups.
During the 11th century, the Great Schism between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity occured. This schism occured over a variety of issues, especially those dealing with how much authority the Pope had. The causes were not purely religious, but cultural and geographic elements also played a role. Although later attempts at reconcilliation occured, such as Council of Basel, the two remain separate to this day although both accept many of each others sacraments.
Late Middle Ages
Beginning in 1092 and continuing until the end of the 13th century, the Crusades occured. These were a series of religious wars instigated by the Church against various other groups, especially the Muslims. Despite the focus on removing Islamic control of the Holy Land, the Crusaders massacred Jews and sacked Constantinople.
During this time period, the Inquisitions started and would continue through the Protestant Reformation. The medieval inquisition focused on rooting out Cathars, while the later inquistions such as the Spanish Inquistion focused on people who were believed to be secretly practicing Judaism or Islam.
In 1517, Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation which initially focused on the giving of indulgences but eventually grew to have a wide variety of different causes and issues. Eventually Protestants rejected the notions of saintly intercession, the authority of the pope and many of the sacraments. This eventually led to a series of religious wars in Europe the Protestant-Catholic split became one of the dominant themes in European events until modern times.
In the early 1960s, the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (commonly called Vatican II) made major changes to official Catholic theology and liturgy over the course of three years. Liturgical changes included the ability to incorporate local languages into the liturgy and not have services completely in the traditional Latin. Theologically, the council continued the importance of Mary while also adding a new emphasis on individual and personal holiness. Most controversially, the council opened the possibility of salvation for Jews, Muslims and Protestants. Many Catholics reacted negatively to Vatican II and the Church is still dealing with its repercussions.
Notes and references
- Which sacraments are recognized is one of the important distinctions between the theology of different Christian denominations. Many Protestant denominations follow Luther and recognize only Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance.