Question #12 – Is it true that Emperor Constantine the Great established the Roman Catholic Church in A.D. 311 or 313?
Answer – No!!! Those imperial declarations of 311 A.D. and/or 313 A.D. as dates of establishment of the Roman Catholic Church are not based on historical facts!!! Check your church history books.
Let us make a brief background. Emperor Galerius ruled as Emperor on the Eastern side of the Roman Empire from 306-311 Anno Domini (A.D.) based in Rome. Constantius (Constantine the Great’s father) was the Roman leader in Spain, Britain, and France together with his wife Helena who was a Christian believer. (Note: This Helena is the Mother Helena in our Philippine May Flower Festival Zagala parade.) In 306 A.D., Constantine (son of Constantius) was proclaimed Emperor on the Western side of the Roman Empire. On the other hand, Galerius was recognized as Emperor from 306-311 in Rome, Italy. Galerius persecuted the Christians. Galerius became sick. A historian describes him this way: “His disease was dreadful and incurable. From his sickbed, which became his deathbed, he issued in the year 311 an edict which granted to the Christians permission to hold their assemblies again. He asked for their prayers on behalf of the emperor and the Empire.” (The Church in History, B.K.Kuiper, pp. 66-67) What Emperor Galerius decreed is called the Edict of Toleration. No bishop in the cities of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome has declared himself higher than the other at this time. The distinction between the Greek-speaking congregations and Latin speaking groups was insignificant. No division yet. So this Edict of Toleration issued in 311 A. D. did not establish the Roman Catholic Church. The Church started in 33 A.D. in Jerusalem as told in Acts 2. Congregations were independent and then slowly the most influential Elder or Bishop in one congregation became “The Bishop”. Much later the metropolitan bishoprics evolved in some sections. That is the “Bishop” in a big city was overall head in one province or one large land area where several congregations existed. Other practices foreign to the scriptures crept into some congregations.
After the death of Galerius, another strongman named Maxentius became the leader over Italy and North Africa and he showed hostility against Constantine the Great even destroying the statues of Constantine in the City of Rome. So Constantine the Great marched his army to Italy and Maxentius met him at the Melvian Bridge about 10 miles outside Rome in the north. Constantine worshipped Mithra, a Persian sun-god. On October 28, 312 A.D., the story goes, Constantine saw above the setting sun a cross with the Latin words “Hoc Signo Vinces” which means “In this Sign, Conquer.” It is said that Constantine ordered the change of the insignia in their banners from the eagle to the cross. Although the army of Constantine was about half smaller than Maxentius’ army, Constantine was the victor. The following year, 313 A.D., with the influence of that appearance of the cross in the cloud prior to the day of battle, and perhaps the influence of his mother Helena who was a Christian, Constantine became sympathetic to Christianity. While in the City of Milan, Italy, Constantine issued a decree which declared Christianity to be free and equal with other religions that were declared legal in the whole empire. This is called the Edict of Milan. It did not establish the Roman Catholic Church. What the persecuted Christians were before 313 A.D. remained as they were except that there was no more official imperial persecution. There was no declaration of who is the higher bishop among the big cities in the Roman Empire. There was no change of doctrine compared to the year 310 A.D. And Constantine still remained a practicing pagan. Constantine was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ about the year 336 A.D. when he had already moved the Roman Empire capital from Rome to a city of Byzantium in the East which later was called Constantinopolis (Constantinople). He was baptized by the Bishop of Constantinople who was named Eusebius sometime in 336 or 337 A.D.
Roman Catholicism slowly digressed from the truth revealed in the scriptures. These slow digressions are revealed in the writings of the so-called “Church Fathers.” New interpretations and practices like
- From a plurality of elders in one congregation, eventually, one became the highest as “bishop” and the others were simply Elders. And then the most important “bishop” in the big towns or cities became the Metropolitan Bishop ruling over a province. This development was a reaction to some new man-made ideas espoused by some enterprising teachers To keep unity, leaders relied on the bishops. “The truth is found in the Bishops,” they said.
- Adult believers were the ones immersed for the remission of sins. Some of the church leaders started to talk about inherited sin. So infants started to be baptized to remove the stain of that “inherited sin.”
- Monasticism started to be practiced and eventually, the priesthood sprang up so there became the separation of clergy and laity.
- Through the influence of the pagans who celebrated special events, the churches started to celebrate Resurrection Day as a special holiday. The Western section of the church through the influence of the Bishop of Rome favored Friday as the day of remembering Christ’s crucifixion and Sunday after Passover Day of the Jews as the annual date of resurrection which is called Easter Sunday. On the other hand, the Eastern churches celebrated the Crucifixion on the 14th Day of Nisan whether it is Monday or other days of the week. Resurrection Day is three days after the 14th of Nisan. This celebration became a big issue much later between the Latin speaking congregations and the Greek-speaking churches.
- Another big item was the introduction of images called “icons” inside the cathedrals and chapels. The Western churches favored this practice, while the eastern did not. This issue became known as the “Iconoclastic Controversy.”
- Other doctrinal issues came out like the controversy about the nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit and about the Virgin Mary which will contribute to the division between the Latin speaking churches in the west and the Greek-speaking churches in the east of the Roman Empire. Generally speaking there was a “Catholic Church, meaning a “universal church” centered on the belief about Jesus Christ. It was simply Catholic or Universal Church, neither Roman nor Greek.
The name “The Roman Catholic Apostolic Church” was not yet coined in the early centuries. This name will be invented much later as the official name of the Latin speaking congregations that recognized the Bishop of Rome as their head. The Greek-speaking churches in the East meanwhile maintained the authority of the Metropolitan Bishops of the Big Cities like Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, Athens, Caesarea who were popularly known as Patriarchs.