Monday, June 17, 2013

John Bugay on Catholicism: What was the ancient church in Rome like?

Some time ago, I spent some time summarizing what some of the major commentators have been saying about the people and the network of house churches found in early Rome in the first century. This is the Rome to which Peter supposedly traveled, where it is thought that he may have died (though historically, there is practically no mention of him at all being in Rome; when Irenaeus talks about “…the church that is greatest, most ancient, and known to all, founded and set up by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul at Rome …” this is the reality to which he was referring, and it is this reality of which we can say he was not an entirely accurate reporter of history).

There is a reason why I’m going into such detail on this. Recently, I’ve been citing from the James Puglisi work How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church? In that work, I’ve quoted Herman Pottmeyer saying that “anyone who wishes to come to an understanding of the papal ministry cannot avoid dealing with the history of this ministry. The historical facts are not disputed...” In an earlier article from that same work, John P. Meier, a leading Catholic Biblical scholar, pointed out, “A papacy that cannot give a credible historical account of its own origins can hardly hope to be a catalyst for unity among divided Christians.” So the implication is that, until this point, the papacy has not given a “credible historical account of its own origins.”

The recent book The End of Christianity begins (Chapter 1) with this little but bold proclamation:

The end of Christianity is not some far-off dream, nor is it on the verge of occurring. Instead, it happened two thousand years ago—in fact, Christianity never even began; it was stillborn….there is no such thing as the religion of Christianity; at best it is a multitude of related but distinct and often-enough opposed traditions, shifting and swaying with the windsof local culture and passing history … (Dr. David Eller, “Christianity Evolving: On the Origin of Christian Species”, Chapter 1 in Loftus, ed., ©2011“The End of Christianity”: Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pg. 23.)

There’s no need to fear Eller. With this statement he immediately shows himself to be a hack, given that the life of Christ and the origins of Christianity are extraordinarily well attested in history.

But on the other hand, it is the Roman Catholic church and its constant protestations of its own authority, which are extraordinarily poorly attested in history, which give individuals like Eller the kind of toe-hold they need to bloviate and sell books. Eller’s statement is true about Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism was stillborn. That’s what Eller and the others can attack freely; it’s the falseness of Roman Catholicism that gives people like Eller the opportunities they have to attack Christ and Christianity.

But again, the historical work that is being done on the earliest church is going to be immensely helpful in sorting out fact from fiction. This historical work is going to be like Trigonometry and Calculus: these things will always be taught, so long as the subject is taught. But the question going forward will be, will anyone care to understand them?

Introduction and Summary
The nonexistent early papacy
House Churches in the New Testament

Households in Ancient Rome
Part 1: Households in Ancient Rome: An Introduction
Part 2: Christians and Jews in First Century Rome
Part 3: Commerce and Household Communities
Part 4: Household Leadership as Church Leadership
Part 5: Patronage and Leadership

The People of Romans 16
Aquila, Priscilla, Acts 18:2 and the Edict of Claudius
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, διάκονον and προστάτις”
Andronikos and Junia, Part 1
Andronikos and Junia, Part 2

Moving forward, my hope is, Lord willing, to continue to expand on this list and this material, and to make it available in an easy to digest form. In the same way that the printing press aided Martin Luther and helped the Reformation sweep across Europe, the Internet and its ability to make accurate information available immediately around the world, is only going to help to clarify the misunderstandings about Christianity and what it means to have faith in Christ.

[An earlier version of this blog post appeared July 19, 2011]


  1. Just wondering: Which 20th Century catholic writers have you read? What author have you found most helpful for understanding catholicism? Cheers.

    1. I grew up in a parish, attended Mass every Sunday and as a young adult, quite frequently every day. My aunt was a big fan of the Baltimore Catechism, and when I stayed at her house, we said a decade of the rosary on our knees before dinner. I read a lot of the books that Karol Wojtyla wrote, before he was pope, and several biographies. I was very familiar with his life before George "I-had-dinner-with-the-holy-father" ever wrote about him. Neuhaus's "The Catholic Moment" and "Catholic Matters". I used to know Mike Aquilina, and read OSV all the time. I have 15 Ratzinger books on my shelf. Newman's "Theory". Scott Hahn's "Rome Sweet Home" was pretty pathetic. Are you intending to suggest I missed something? Cheers.