The Catholic Church before the Dark Ages

The Catholic Church before the Dark Ages

Christians today are apt to envy those who were members of the early Church, imagining that there existed then a unity and a nearness to Christ which, they say, has sadly dwindled through twenty centuries of intellectual and material progress. To the nostalgically minded this theory is naturally attractive; but it is disconcerting contradicted by two facts.

First, instead of the lessening of Christ’s influence on mankind we find that during the last 150 years all records have been broken in the widespread growth of Catholicism, of Protestant and of new approaches towards a closer communion with Him. More and more thinkers realize that there must be fundamental qualities in the universe to account for the continual and growing longing of men for One Whose earthly mission lasted for three years. Nothing less, it would seem, can explain the strange history of His Church, apparently doomed again and again, but which has always answered each threat to its existence – whether from within or without – by rallying, attacking the enemy and winning yet more of the world for Christ.

Second, except in the essentials of the faith, there has never been unity among Christians, if by unity we mean an identical creed, discipline and liturgy. Even in the Churches founded by St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, St. James, St. Mark and St. Thomas, customs differed and various aspects of God’s nature, as revealed in His Son, were stressed according to the human personality of each apostle. The very creed taught in secret by the early presbyter-bishops to those preparing for baptism in the days of persecution varied in detail from church to church thought its structure was always the same. The earliest version we know was the Old Roman Creed, written when Greek was still the language of the Western Church. And so little have successive church councils tampered with it that our present Apostle’s Creed follows it almost word for word.

But in non-essentials differences were much more marked. Equally apostolic traditions as to when to keep the festival of Christ’s resurrection originated in Rome (where there were churches even before the arrival of Peter and Paul) and in Asia (now Asia Minor) where St. John, St. Paul and other apostles laboured so fruitfully that it early became the first wholly Christian province in the Roman Empire. In the first half of the second century we find St. John’s disciple Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, setting off to discuss the question of the date of Easter with Anicetus, bishop of Rome. “I adhere,” he maintains, “to the usage followed in Asia when I was with the apostle John.” As, after, St. Peter’s death, there was little sign of Petrine supremacy in the early Church, all bishops being considered equal (with the possible exception of the “bishop of bishops”, St. James of Jerusalem), Rome and Smyrna agreed amicably to differ; and as a mark of his respect to his Eastern colleague, Anicetus invited Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his church.

In the second half of the second century Irenaeus, disciple of Polycarp, came as a missionary from Asia to Celtic Gaul, bringing with him Eastern customs. Victor, bishop of an ever more powerful Roman Church, thought fit to excommunicate the Eastern Church for her adherence to St. John’s Jewish Easter, but Irenaeus, though himself in favour of the Western mode of calculation, went to Rome, fought the case, and had the ban lifted.

The Gnostics also he fought with vigour and success. Everywhere they threatened the Faith, teaching as they did that matter and suffering had nothing to do with God and also that salvation lay in knowledge rather than in moral change. But they proved a boon to the Catholic Church, as their claim to possess spiritual secrets told them mysteriously by the apostles themselves, forced Irenaeus and others to trace back the history of various churches to their apostolic founders to whom, they averred, Christ had entrusted His whole message and who in turn had likewise imparted it to successive bishops. As further weapons against the Gnostics, creed were composed and the Church’s written Bible was enlarged by the addition to the Old Testament of a final selection from those apostolic writings already read to the faithful and now called the New Testament. Various Latin versions were circulated among the faithful; and by the fifth century Christians of the Western Church had already begun to read a superb Latin translation by the great scholar Jerome of the whole Bible as we know it today.

“While the apostles still lived,” wrote Jerome, “while Christ’s blood was still fresh in Judea, the Lord’s body was asserted to be but a phantasm.” Matter was indeed considered evil (and therefore to have no relation to Christ) by more than Gnostics among the heretics of the early Church. And with this hatred of the flesh there went so widespread a belief in the power of demons and of magic that Christians (who shared this belief) had perforce to be given guardian angels for their protection. Delivered from the fear of such invisible enemies and (though belief in the Resurrection) from the fear of death, till then the greatest enemy of all, converts grew freely in love and in moral stature, caring for the sick and the poor in such a manner that Irenaeus could write: “It is not possible to number the gifts our Church has received from Christ and which she exercises day by day.” Among the marvels which put mere magic to shame he mentions as everyday occurrences the driving out of devils and the healing of the sick by the laying on of hands.

But even in times of persecution, when only the most ardent lovers of Christ dared to join His Church, discipline proved necessary; and from the first, the bishops, presbyters and deacons decided that exclusion from the Eucharist, or excommunication, was the punishment to be given to those who lapsed from the high moral standards demanded of Christians. As the number of converts increased throughout the Roman Empire, so inevitably did their quality decrease, till, by about 220, so great was the disagreement among the numerous bishops concerning the Church’s power to forgive and to re-admit to communion idolators, murderers, adulterers and those who had lapsed from the Faith when threatened with death, that widespread schism resulted: and even in Rome – where Callistus had by then become the metropolitan of all Italy – a rival and stricter bishop was elected. This happened yet again thirty years later when Cornelius, like Callistus, upheld the Catholic doctrine that the Church has power to absolve all sins; while the rival bishop Novatian maintained, as did many another theologian, including the ascetic African Tertullian, that no bishop could remit murder or adultery committed by baptized Christians. For the next four centuries Novatianists continued to attract a large following who demanded the expulsion of the unworthy from the Church.

The Eastern Church of this early period produced two great thinkers who infused Greek philosophy into Christianity. The Greek Clement and the Egyptian Origen were both heads of the world-famous Christian school at Alexandria, still the intellectual capital of the Roman world and possessed of the world’s greatest library. There geometry, music, grammar and philosophy were studied by second and third-century men and women. A true Greek in spirit, Clement believed that all knowledge was good and should be used for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth. His disciple Origen tirelessly compared and criticized all available texts of the scriptures, for which treasures he combed the whole eastern world. He was prominent among those fathers of the Church who ridiculed the already popular image worship that was to be incorporated into Catholicism through its early adoption by the influential monasteries.

Those communities of would-be hermits first came into existence in Egypt at the beginning of the fourth-century through the work of two laymen, St. Anthony and St. Pachomius. Within a hundred years similar communities were to be found in all Christian lands from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, and for the next ten centuries monasticism was to prove the most characteristic manifestation of Christianity.

It has been said that this mass retreat of Christian men from the world was born of a desire to escape the increasing worldliness of the Church, which affliction had, however, beset the Church from the first whenever there was a lull in persecution, but which was in the fourth century, as always, offset by the spiritual leaven within her produced by her saints. Most certainly it was not because the fourth-century Church offered an easy and tolerant religion that Constantine adopted Christianity in 323. On the contrary, it was chosen for those astringent qualities of its strict moral code, alone powerful enough to heal the spiritual wounds of an over-grown, disintegrating and very weary Empire increasingly beset by barbarians.

Monasticism was rather the inevitable result of the Church’s conquest of the whole Empire. Now that the Emperor himself had become her patron, it no longer called for outstanding courage to be a Christian. Indeed many a noble envied the bishops their influence at court. As a protest against the Church’s new but inevitable alliance, those who wished to practise renunciation in imitation of Christ gathered together in disciplined groups to follow, under their abbot, a strenuous programme of prayer, fasting, learning and manual labour. Though this was essentially a lay movement, yet from the very first the finest bishops of the Catholic Church recognized its importance and gave it their support so that to them also, as well as to the countless monks who gave to Christ so single-hearted a devotion, we owe those amazing by-products of monasticism – the long line of scholars, artists, leaders and farmers that eventually made possible the formation of the marvellously integrated, because essentially Christian, culture of medieval Europe.

Till the middle of the second century the church of each Christian community in the large city of Rome seems to have had its own presbyter-bishop; but thereafter, except in times of schism, only one bishop of Rome is mentioned and much is written of his claim to be the leader, not only of the Western Church but of the Eastern Church also. At the beginning of the third century, Callitus, bishop of Rome, when defending himself against the charges already noted of too readily readmitting sinners to communion (in his eyes the Church was a Noah’s Ark for the refuge of both clean and unclean beasts), bases his authority to absolve sin by quoting Christ’s words from Matthew xvi, 16. “Thou are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Today there are grave doubts among scholars as to the authority of the passage; but granting its validity it is worth noting the views held on its meaning by the early fathers, if only because their views would be well known to the leaders of the Celtic Church.

Till the third century, when the question of Rome’s supremacy arose, all writers treat Peter and Paul as equals. The rock they take to refer either to Christ Himself or to the faith in Him confessed to Peter as the representative of the apostles. Roman arrogance is deplored not only by the Church in Asia, but by the African Church also. Its great puritan spokesman Tertullian holds that the rock passage was spoken to Peter personally and that no bishop nor even the Church herself has the power to absolve sins committed by baptized Christians. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, also refuses to admit the personal primacy of the bishop of Rome. But because of Rome’s association with Peter he naturally appeals to her Bishop Cornelius when defending episcopacy against heretics. Though Peter’s Chair was revered by the whole West, yet so fierce was the controversy over the claims of its occupant that both Callistus and Cornelius lost their lives in defence of the right of the Roman bishop, as head of the Catholic Church, to define and uphold its doctrines on opposition to Novatianists. Indeed heretics of all kinds increased so alarmingly after Constantine put an end to persecution at the beginning of the fourth century, that the cause of Roman Catholic supremacy might well have been lost but for three factors.

The first was the salvation of the Catholic faith itself by St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He vindicated Christ’s divinity after a lifetime of persecution by the Arians, who denied it. So powerful were the Arians that at one time it seemed to onlookers to be Athanasius alone against the whole world.

The second factor was Constantine’s love of the East, where he chose to live in his new capital Constantinople. It is true that with the adoption of Christianity the Emperor finally lost his divinity: but from the beginning of the fourth century onwards it was he and not the bishops who called together the ever more frequent and important general church councils. His permission, too, had henceforth to be given even before a newly elected bishop of Rome might be enthroned. But an emperor in the East was a very different matter from one who shared the capital of the western world with his bishop. That bishop, sure of his support (for he had been appointed lord of appeal in all ecclesiastical disputes), yet free of his interference, inevitably took his place in Rome as head of the western world, and later, after the barbarians had finally triumphed, as the champion of Christian civilization.

The third factor did much to hasten the attainment of Roman supremacy among the churches. Though Constantine took an active part in all important church councils he was only baptized on his death bed, and then not by a Catholic but by one of the all too numerous Arian bishops who denied the divinity of Christ. But, through a forgery, it was for centuries believed by the whole Church that the Emperor had been baptized much earlier by the Catholic Bishop Silvester of Rome, who had in consequence not only been made by him ruler of that city and of all Italy, but had had the authority of himself and his successors over the whole Church finally recognized by the Emperor of all Western churches; but, though in the fourth century independent self-government was still the rule in each country, independence did not prevent all countries sending bishops to represent them as often as possible on the general councils that linked the Church together. At these councils the Church in Gaul several times showed her independence by defying Rome’s excommunication as successfully as St. Martin and St. Ambrose defied secular power as personified by emperors.

In the beginning of the fifth century the Catholic Church in Africa forbade appeals to Rome on pain of excommunication, but being almost swamped by the ruthless Donatists, whose heretical bishops outnumbered her own, she had to appeal, for the first time in the history of the Church, to the State. The Donatists believed that consecrations, baptisms and even the sacraments were invalid unless administered by a worthy priest. But once again God used heretics to serve His Church; for the Donatists caused the brilliant St. Augustine of Hippo to rise in her defence and to define the Catholic doctrine that divine grace, coming as it does from God, cannot be deterred from its course by what is merely an unworthy human channel. Unfortunately, before his words took affect, many Donatists, who had themselves used violence in their efforts to purify the Church, perished in turn through the intervention of the State. It is worthy of note that though St. Augustine shows a due deference to the Chair of Peter he nevertheless appeals neither to the State nor to Rome, but always to the Church in his battles against the Donatists.

That man cannot attain salvation without divine grace is St. Augustine’s main theme, and one proclaimed in the story he told in his Confessions of his own remarkable life. His contemporary, the Celtic heretic Pelagius, however, denied the necessity for grace, holding (as many to today) that man inherits no tendency to sin and can therefore, if he wills, become perfect through his own efforts. St. Augustine worked tirelessly against the Pelagians, thus clarifying the Church’s doctrine on his point; though Pelegius himself he acknowledged to have a mind as keen as his own and to be a “man of holy life”.

Lastly, with Manicheism (like the rest of the early heresies it flourished today under a new name) St. Augustine had to contend with a fresh outburst of that deep-rooted hatred of matter that would divorce flesh and spirit and make a mockery of the Incarnation. It is true that in his City of God he would seem to divide, just as ruthlessly as any Manichee, the spiritually minded who lived by God’s law in contempt of self from the worldly minded who ignore God’s law for present convenience; yet he does not only contrast the Church with temporal Empires, but shows how Church and State should help each other, being interdependent while sharing the same world. St. Augustine had an enormous influence on contemporary Christians, and indeed it has been the most potent force in the history of the Western Church.

He lived at the beginning of what is known in Church history as the Age of Councils. Though the Emperor might interfere, the Church was still democratic and consisted of the whole body of the faithful, whose representatives met together when need arose to pass judgement or to define doctrines. Innocent I, bishop of Rome, had to knowledge this fact when, hoping to assert Roman supremacy, he intervened in an Eastern dispute, only to find the dispute at once referred to a general council. The Papacy, as distinct from the primacy of the Apostolic See, was not to become a reality through any movement within the Church. In 445, fifteen years after St. Augustine’s death, it was finally achieved through a degree of the Emperor Valentinian III making it illegal to disobey the Pope.

Leo the Great remained uncorrupted till his death in 461 by this enormous increase in his authority, because he himself based it on the promise to Peter, and held the theory that all Peter’s powers descended to the Pope. In an Empire falling to bits under the terrible onslaughts of wave after wave of barbarians, he stood as a symbol of unity. A proud Roman, he would none the less walk unarmed to plead with the approaching Huns: and by words alone he once prevented Attila from sacking Rome. Vigorously he began to centralize the Church, claiming authority in the East as well as in the West despite the fact that this was denied him in 451 by the Council of Chalcedon, which gave equal rights to the Patriarch of Constantinople. With a Pope and a Patriarch the Church was thus divided as the Empire itself had had to be divided under more than one Emperor since the days of Constantine. It will be observed that in this, as in the creation of monarchical bishops, the pattern of the Church simply followed the pattern of the State.

After Leo’s death progress towards the centralization of the Western Church was deferred for 150 years as his successors, till the accession of Gregory the great in 590, failed to rise above the level of mere vassals of Rome’s invaders. Throughout Europe the Dark Ages had set in.

It was during the Dark Ages that the Celtic church of the Far West shone brightest. Cut off from Europe for 150 years (roughly from 400-550) during which time only Ireland remained completely untouched by Anglo-Saxons invaders, the Celtic Church none the less continued to live and grow throughout the British Isles. Fifty years before Gregory the Great was ready to challenge the barbarians from his See in Rome, missionaries from Wales and Ireland had begun to carry the gospel back to the lawless, desolate Continent from whence, in happier days, it had originally been brought to them. To sixth-century Roman eyes Celtic Christianity seemed almost heretical, both because of its monasticism evolved to fit a tribal customs had been preserved which elsewhere were forgotten.

Christianity first reached Britain very early in the history of the Church: but exactly how early is a matter for conjecture. There are those who believe in the truth of the beautiful legend of Joseph of Arimathea’s arrival at Glastonbury. Certainly by the end of the second century Christians were to be found in Britain, and if these were not so directly linked with the Eastern Church as the legend would have it, they were none the less linked to the Church in Asia through their fellow Christians in Celtic Gaul. During the persecution of Irenaeus’ Church at Lyons by Marcus Aurelius in 177 many Celtic Christians fled northwards, and of those who reached Celtic Britain some may have been disciples of Irenaeus and thus, through his master Polycarp, have formed living links with the church founded by St. John at Ephesus.

The British Church may have derived originally from converts among the Roman colonists, from Roman soldiers, or from visiting foreign traders; but be that as it may, it was from the first in close touch with the Church in Gaul, and in 314 we know that three bishops from Britain attended the successful council called by Constantine at Arles. Among the decisions reached by the assembled bishops none was more important than that the newly elected Catholic bishop of Carthage, whom the Donatists denounced as unworthy, should remain, in spite of them, at his post. From then on, till the British Church was cut off by the fall of Rome in 410, there is evidence to show that British bishops took part in most general councils, even attending one which took place as far from home as Rimini on the east coast of Italy. Therefore by the time the British Church was forced into isolation she was as well aware of the developments in Catholic doctrine as of the heresies which called them forth. Being a healthy offshoot of the Church in Gaul she had adopted many of those Eastern customs which gave to Gallican Christianity a slightly different flavour from that derived from Rome.

Studying the differences between the early Roman, Eastern and Gallican liturgies (until the tenth century variants of the Gallican liturgy were in use all over Europe with the exception of Rome), we are surprised to learn that of the three the Roman rite is by far the shortest and soberest. Much that is sensuous, colourful, and symbolic about the modern Mass, Rome borrowed bit by bit from the more elaborate and dramatic Gallican rite before she finally suppressed it.

But though they varied in detail, all three liturgies were based on the same structure. The Sunday service – the Greek in both West and East till the fourth century, when Latin took its place in the West – was formed, from New Testament times onward, of a combination of the worship of the Jewish Synagogue with the sacramental experience of the Upper Room: every Sunday men and women prayed and read the scriptures as a preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist by all those baptized. According to Justin Martyr, writing in Rome about 150, services were startling like many held today: while of the Eucharist itself he says that the bread and wine are received by the faithful as the Body and Blood of Christ in accordance with the gospels, which doctrine was held by the whole Catholic Church. Catholics in Britain and Asia alike took communion in both kinds. The bread was given them by the celebrant who, except in Celtic lands, stood behind the altar facing the people, while in all churches they received the cup from the deacon. From the first the sacraments were everywhere reserved, when necessary, for the sick: and in all Catholic churches prayers were said for the dead and the prayers of the Church’s saints in heaven were invoked. In the West the Creed did not form part of the Sunday service till the end of the sixth century though it early took its place as part of the service of baptism.

The following are three of the non-Roman customs of the Gallican and Eastern Churches adopted by the monastic Celtic Church. When several priests happened to be present at the Eucharist they all celebrated it together – indeed in a gathering of priests, only a bishop had the right to celebrate alone. When the blessing was given, the Celtic bishop or priest held up the first, third and fourth fingers to represent the Trinity, not the thumb, first and second as at Rome. moreover the blessing was given, not as at Rome at the end of the communion service, but before communion and soon after the breaking of the bread.

Fully choral services were also common from the first to Eastern, Gallican and Celtic Churches and the people’s active share in worship was made possible by the fact that the deacons were not merely assistants to the officiating priest, as their function soon came to be at Rome, but they led the congregation in prayers, responses, psalms and hymns. In all churches it was the chief deacon who read the Gospel while the people stood reverently. His function as a link between the priest and the people was the vital in Celtic and Eastern Churches where solid screens often took the place of the curtain which generally divided the chancel from the nave.

Dr. Maxwell holds that in the rites of the Eastern Church we have the most authentic expression of the Church’s original liturgical tradition. Through Gaul, as we have seen, the Celtic Church came to share in this tradition, Celtic woman going veiled to services, where Celtic bishops officiated in gold or silver crowns instead of mitres, and wore vestments of truly oriental splendour. The short symbolic staffs they held were also of eastern origin and were for long unknown to the Roman Church. The brevity of Roman services contrasted favourably with the excessive length of Eastern, Gallican and Celtic services. In all Celtic lands what was known at Rome as the Mass (a word derived from missa, the Latin word for dismissal) was called by Celtic versions of the Greek name still used in the Eastern Church – the Offering, though in writing, the word missa is often used. For, unlike many branches of the Eastern Church, the Celtic Church never thought of translating her liturgy and Bible, but held fast to Latin as being the language in which almost all the world’s learning and literature was written.

The Celtic Church was not unique in having a married priesthood. There are allusions to married bishops, presbyters and deacons in inscriptions in the Catacombs at Rome which show to have been the custom on the early Church. Only monks took the vow of celibacy; and in Britain, though Gildas the sixth-century historian railed against any monk who broke his vow, he actually praises a secular bishop who confines himself to one wife. Yet by the preservation of a secular, married priesthood in some places right on the twelfth century, together with an early Eastern tonsure and computation of Easter, the Celtic Church grew to seem heretical to the Roman Church.

For the Celtic Church was at the same time original and intensely conservative. Her priests seem to have been the first to face the altar; and in no other Church were bishops under the authority of abbots. In her monastic church, too, confession was not obligatory but was voluntary, and was made either in public or to a chosen soul-friend. Nor did absolution follow it immediately as in other Churches. It was only given after the accomplishment of penances sometimes lasting years. But those are very small deviations compared with the immense amount of tradition that was conserved in the Far West through one hundred and fifty years of almost uninterrupted solitude.

By the time the Teutonic invaders cut off the Celtic Church from the main body of Christendom the chief festivals and seasons of the Church as we know them today were everywhere observed. The first date to be kept was that of Easter, though it was not till the eighth century that all churches were agreed as to when, exactly, it should be celebrated. Rome often changed her mode of calculation, but finally adopted that of the Gallican Church derived from a mathematician of Alexandria. It was at Easter that grown-up catechumens were baptized and received their first communion. Lent grew out of the forty days of spiritual discipline they practised in preparation for their reception into the Church. Whit-Sunday, the next date to be observed, was fixed fifty days later Easter, to celebrate the coming of the Holy Ghost. The date of Christmas, however, was not finally decided in the West till about the fourth century, when the 25th December was chosen, most probably that Christmas might take the place of the long-established pagan feast of the Sun’s birthday. Like Easter, Christmas soon evolved its own period of preparation known as Advent; while further landmarks in the Christian year were the days chosen by the whole Church for the festivals of the apostles. St. Polycarp was martyred at Symrna in 150, and thereafter the date of his death, like the deaths of many other saints, was observed locally every year, great veneration being shown to his relics.

Gradually, as the number of saints increased, Kalendars were drawn up so that, as far as possible, saints’ days might be the same throughout Christendom. Today the Roman Martyrology alone contains the names of more than 5,000 saints, among whom there are none more worthy of our love and admiration than the great saints who made the Celtic Church.



A Short History of the Christian Church. C.P.S. Clarke.

An Outline of Christian Worship. W.D. Maxwell.

The Early History of the Church. Duchesne.

Expansion of Christianity in the first three centuries. Harnack.

From Christ to Constantine. James Mackinnon.

Five Centuries of Religion. G.C. Coulton.

Anno Domini. Latourette.

The Conflicts of the Early Church. W.D. Niven.