History of the Catholic Church

January 26, 2021 · updated February 15, 2022

Roman Catholicism traces its history to the biblical apostles, especially the Apostle Peter. St. Peter is considered the first pope and every pope since him is regarded as his spiritual successor. This gives the leader of the Church spiritual authority and provides a means for resolving disputes that could cause divisions. Through early challenges like persecution and heresy, the notion that the church leadership represents the continuation of an unbroken line from the apostles and their teachings ("apostolic succession") is thought to have contributed to the survival of Christianity.

It was not until several centuries after Christ that the church began to develop into the "Roman Catholic Church" as we think of it today, with its particular doctrines, practices, and hierarchical system of authority. From the Catholic perspective, the early church is faithfully continued in the developments of later centuries, while non-Catholics tend to regard the church as having corrupted the original message of Christianity.

The Roman bishop Leo I (440-461) is considered the first pope by historians, as he was the first to claim ultimate authority over all of Christendom. In his writings one can find all the traditional arguments for papal authority, most notably that which asserts Christ had designated Peter and his successors the "rock" on which the church would be built. See History of the Papacy for more details.