The Church through time has discovered new ways to explain its doctrines and teachings so that the people of God can have a better understanding. Christopher Bellitto presents ten ways that issues connected with the Catholic Church have changed and developed while the basic teachings of Christ have not: its organization, the laity, the papacy, doctrine, the Mass, the Sacraments, spirituality, religious orders, other faiths, and the greatest challenges the Church has faced.
Each chapter is divided according to time periods: early Church, ca. 30-461; first millennium, 461-1073; medieval, 1073-1467; Reformation, 1467-1648; early modern, 1648-1848; and modern, from 1848 through today. In the first chapter, Bellitto shows how the organizational aspect of the Church has developed over time. The original Church did not exist in today’s paradigm, with a clear-cut hierarchy, rules, and other things; it took the Church time to figure out how it should best be organized. At first there were not many members, but as the Church grew in size and sprawl, the followers of Christ realized they needed to organize themselves. Bellitto discusses how and what they decided to do and how this has changed through time.
The Church over time had to decide what the laity - that is, the non-ordained or non-clergy - could or could not do as ministry in the Church. At first the laity was very involved in the liturgy and other aspects of the Church. As time went on, though, the laity became less active in the liturgy, and many things needed to be done by the clergy or the religious. A three-class system of sorts developed in the Church: the clergy, the religious, and at the bottom, the laity. Vatican II sought to change this to make all equal but with distinct, proper roles.
The pope was not all that powerful in the Church’s beginnings; it was later when the Church grew that various parts sought a leader. They came to realize that the leader was chosen by Jesus in the person of St. Peter based on Matthew 16:13-20; the successor of Peter was the bishop of Rome. Rome was the site of the martyrdom and burial of St. Peter and St. Paul. Rome also had been the capital of the Roman Empire. When the Roman emperor moved to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the bishop of Rome - known as the Pope - filled the vacuum created by the emperor’s absence. Many popes, like Leo I and Gregory I, both called “the Great,” dealt with barbarians who wanted to sack Rome. Popes over time became monarchs; some wanted to be pope for temporal power reasons. The office was even fought over by opposing sides and families. Some popes were corrupt, but many more were holy men. Now the Pope rules the smallest nation in the world; he is recognized to have a power more spiritual than temporal and is respected for this.
Bellitto discuses the development of doctrine, which comprises the teachings of the Church; that does not mean that the essential aspects of a teaching or a teaching itself changes. As time passes, the Church comes to a better understanding and even discovers new topics that need to be dealt with. Some social teachings fit here.
Some have the erroneous idea that Jesus spoke Latin at the Last Supper, which was the first Mass; he more likely spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. The early Mass was not like today’s; there was no set liturgy except for the essential words of the consecration. The Mass - even its name - was different from region to region, which is still true today, although the Roman Rite is used the most due to the predominance of Roman Catholics compared to Maronite Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, or other rites. Bellitto shows how the Roman Rite Mass developed to what it is today.
The final number of Sacraments was not finally determined until the Council of Trent, which was held off and on from 1545 to 1563, and Bellitto gives a good historical presentation of the Sacraments. In Bellitto’s discussion of spirituality, he examines just what spirituality is and how different Catholic spiritualities developed.
Religious orders started with monasticism, which started historically in the Egyptian desert with St. Anthony and St. Pachomius. St. Benedict wrote a Rule in the 6th century that was acclaimed for its moderation and balance, and Charlemagne forced monks and nuns to follow this Rule. A reform of the Benedictines occurred with the creation of the Cistercians and others; later, it was the Cistercians who needed reform. As the population of the world grew, people wanted to join orders in the cities, but monasteries were usually in the rural areas. This led to the creation of the Franciscans and Dominicans; members of these orders did not stay in one monastery but were part of a larger order. To counter the Protestant Reformation, St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits. Other orders were started, too, for both men and women. The numbers of religious grew until Vatican II, when membership in religious orders began to decrease. Many realized they could do things that religious do yet still be married and have a family; the numbers involved in lay ministry and the permanent diaconate show this. Now religious orders are looking at different ways of existing; some orders will or have already died.
Bellitto examines other faiths and how the Church has existed with them through time. Catholics worked as missionaries to convert pagans in a peaceful way, but in some instances, members of the Church forced people to become Catholics. The Church gradually realized this was wrong and is now in dialogue with other denominations and religions.
In the early days, the Church was challenged by those who wanted to destroy it, and there still exist those who want to destroy the Church. The Church today combats secularism and other -isms.
Bellitto concludes the book with endnotes and a bibliography. This book is recommended to those interested in Church history, the development of the Church, and various topics connected with it; this book is also recommended by John L. Allen, Jr.
Christopher M. Bellitto is the co-author of Reforming the Church (2005) and Introducing Nicholas of Cusa (2004), author of The General Councils (2002), co-author of Nicholas of Cusa and His Age (2002), author of Renewing Christianity (2001) and Nicolas De Clamanges (2001), and has authored or co-authored additional books and articles.