The Origins of the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church traces its foundation to Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. It sees the bishops of the Church as the successors of the apostles and the pope in particular as the successors of Peter, the leader of the apostles. Catholics cite Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew to support this view: “… you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church … I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” According to Catholic belief, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in an event known by Christians as Pentecost brought this promised “church” fully into the world.

Scholars like Edward Norman note that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus and that the historical record confirms that it was considered a Christian doctrinal authority from its beginning. John McManners, among other leading scholars, cites a letter from Pope Clement I to the church in Corinth (c. 95) as evidence of a presiding Roman cleric who exercised authority over other churches. Others, like Eamon Duffy, acknowledge the existence of a Christian community in Rome and that Peter and Paul “lived, preached and died” there but doubt that there was a ruling bishop in the Roman church in the first century, and question the concept of apostolic succession. Duffy described the second-century list of popes by Irenaeus as “suspiciously tidy”, and stated that “There is no sure way to settle on a date by which the office of ruling bishop had emerged in Rome, and so to name the first pope, but the process was certainly complete by the time of Anicetus in the mid-150s, when Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna, visited Rome, and he and Anicetus debated amicably the question of the date of Easter”.

The Church believes that its mission is founded upon Jesus’ command to his followers to spread the faith across the world: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you: and Lo, I am with you always, until the close of the age”. Pope Benedict XVI summarized the Church’s mission as a threefold responsibility to proclaim the word of God, celebrate the sacraments, and exercise the ministry of charity. He has stated that these duties presuppose each other and are thus inseparable. As part of its ministry of charity the Church runs Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, Caritas Internationalis, Catholic schools, universities, hospitals, shelters and ministries to the poor, as well as ministries to families, the elderly and the marginalized. Through these programs the Church applies the tenets of Catholic social teaching and tends to the corporal and spiritual needs of human beings.

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