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Remembering the Early Church


Lately, I have been hearing a lot about how the primitive Church was not Roman Catholic.

Virgin and Child from the catacombs
Rome, 4th century

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 anti-papal 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."


What these documents reveal is a primitive church that is recognizably hierarchical and centered on the Eucharist. 


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.



George Sim Johnston. "Remembering the Early Church." Crisis (August 7, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of Crisis magazine.


The Author

johnstonGeorge Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City. He graduated from Harvard with a B. A. in English literature and was an investment banker with Salomon Brothers in the seventies and early eighties. Since then he has been a free-lance writer, publishing with The Wall Street Journal, Harper's, Commentary, Harvard Business Review, National Catholic Register, World Catholic Report, and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. He teaches marriage preparation and CCD for the Archdiocese of New York and is the author of Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution.

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