As the apostles of Jesus Christ spread the gospel, they provided the beginning structure for the early Christian Church. It is impossible to separate the initial stages of the Roman Catholic church from that of the early Christian church.
After Jesus died, Simon Peter, one of Jesus' disciples, became a strong leader in the Jewish Christian movement. Later James, most likely Jesus' brother, took over leadership. These followers of Christ viewed themselves as a reform movement within Judaism yet they continued to follow many of the Jewish laws.
At this time Saul, originally one of the strongest persecutors of the early Jewish Christians, had a blinding vision of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, and became a Christian. Adopting the name Paul, he became the greatest evangelist of the early Christian church. Paul's ministry, also called Pauline Christianity, was directed mainly to Gentiles rather than Jews. In subtle ways, the early church was already becoming divided.
Another belief system at this time was Gnostic Christianity, which taught that Jesus was a spirit being, sent by God to impart knowledge to humans so that they could escape the miseries of life on earth.
In addition to Gnostic, Jewish, and Pauline Christianity, there were already many other versions of Christianity being taught. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jewish Christian movement was scattered. Pauline and Gnostic Christianity were left as the dominant groups.
The Roman Empire legally recognized Pauline Christianity as a valid religion in 313 AD. Later in that century, in 380 AD, Roman Catholicism became the official religion of the Roman Empire. During the following 1000 years, Catholics were the only people recognized as Christians.
In 1054 AD, a formal split occurred between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. This division remains in effect today.
The next major division occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation.
Those who remained faithful to Roman Catholicism believed that the central regulation of doctrine by church leaders was necessary to prevent confusion and division within the church and corruption of its beliefs.
• Learn more about the History of the Catholic Church.
(Sources: ReligiousTolerance.org, ReligionFacts.com, AllRefer.com, and the Religious Movements Web site of the University of Virginia.)