A well-meaning brother in Christ posted a comment for me refuting the claim of the Catholic Church to be an Apostolic Church. The answer to the question here is not straightforward but it is, by all means, provable. Were all early Christian Catholics?
Here is the comment I got:
The reason history can only record a Catholic Church and not others is because all other faiths had went underground and many were slaughtered including the Nazarenes […]
First of all it is important to clarify that the fact that any movement, religion or society becomes ‘underground’ does not prevent historistorians to trace them or document their existence. The Catholic Church itself was persecuted and had to go ‘underground’ during the Roman Empire, and in spite of this, we have records that indeed the Church already existed during that period. My response to this question, however, is that no-one is denying that others existed, at least I am not. The point here is whether or not it is possible to demonstrate that the Catholic Church is the Church that was initially led by Peter and the other Apostles.
I have posted some examples of early writings here, where the Apostles, as well as their disciples, refer to what they called sects, which they considered not to be true Christians, since they did not embrace the teachings of the Apostles ( who held the true teachings of the Lord, 1- because they heard it first hand, 2- because they were guided by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth Who they received at Pentecost).
If we look at history, there are numerous examples of breakages in Christianity, from the very early days this problem has existed. However, those churches were not proto-protestants, they were regarded as sects and not considered to be loyal to the Gospels. For this reason they didn’t resist time, and died out…
Refuting the Apostolic heritage of the Roman Catholic Church is something of a hard task; even very reputable historians throughout the centuries have not denied the fact that the Roman Catholic & Apostolic Church can be traced back to Peter, having Peter himself as our first overseer* – a word which in greek means episcopos, the root word for bishop in English.
“Why are you searching heavenward in search of my keys? Do you not understand, Jesus said, ‘I gave them to Peter. They are indeed the keys of heaven, but they are not found in heaven for I left them on earth.’” This is Jesus talking, “‘Peter’s mouth is my mouth, his tongue is my key case, his keys are my keys. They are an office.’” (Martin Luther, 1531)
Here is an excellent source for those who want to investigate further: Apostolic Succession of the Catholic Church
‘Catholic’ as an ecclesiastical word
Ignatius of Antioch – A disciple of the Apostle John
A letter written by Ignatius of Antioch to Christians in Smyrna around 106 AD is the earliest surviving witness to the use of the term Catholic Church (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8). By Catholic Church Ignatius designated the universal church. Ignatius considered that certain heretics of his time, who disavowed that Jesus was a material being who actually suffered and died, saying instead that “he only seemed to suffer” (Smyrnaeans, 2), were not really Christians. The term is also used in the Martyrdom of Polycarp in 155 and in the Muratorian fragment, about 177 .
Cyril of Jerusalem
Cyril of Jerusalem (circa 315-386 AD), venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion, urged those he was instructing in the Christian faith: “If ever thou art sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord’s House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens “houses of the Lord”), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God” (Catechetical Lectures, XVIII, 26).
The term Catholic Christians entered Roman Imperial law when Theodosius I, Emperor from 379 to 395, reserved that name for adherents of “that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff (Pope) Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria …as for the others, since in our judgement they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches.” This law of 27 February 380 was included in Book 16 of the Codex Theodosianus. It established Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Augustine of Hippo
The use of the term Catholic to distinguish the “true” church from heretical groups is found also in Augustine who wrote:
- “In the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep (Jn 21:15-19), down to the present episcopate (in Rome; here Augustine refers to the Petrine succession of the Pope).
- “And so, lastly, does the very name of “Catholic”, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.
- “Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should … With you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me… No one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion… For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”
- — St. Augustine (354–430 AD): Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, chapter 4: Proofs of the Catholic Faith.
St Vincent of Lerins
A contemporary of Augustine, St. Vincent of Lerins, wrote in 434 AD (under the pseudonym Peregrinus) a work known as the Commonitoria (“Memoranda”). While insisting that, like the human body, church doctrine develops while truly keeping its identity (sections 54-59, chapter XXIII), he stated: “In the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense ‘catholic,’ which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors” (section 6, end of chapter II) .