What reason do we have for believing that Catholic Tradition is rooted in the faith of the early church?
by Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D
MANY Fundamentalists who vehemently reject Catholic doctrine claim to be following what they term ‘the early Church’. By this they imply that early Christianity was some kind of ‘bible based’ Church and that it agrees with them in accepting only written tradition and rejecting Catholic oral tradition.
In fact, as is often the case, the truth lies elsewhere than with the Fundamentalists, some of whom distribute anonymous pamphlets like one sent recently to this office entitled ‘Popery’. Filled with historical inaccuracies, and the imaginings of misdirected religious zeal, ‘Popery’ is a hate-filled attack on the Catholic Church and Catholic doctrine that, according to its cowardly anonymous author, contradicts the clear teaching of God’s Holy Word, the Bible’.
Catholic Tradition arose in the early Church. Much of it arose before the New Testament was written, and most of it was certainly established before the Canon of the New Testament was fixed by Pope Gelasius in 382 A.D., and re-affirmed by Pope St Innocent I in 405 A.D.
We are fortunate to have irrefutable non-documentary evidence of the faith of the early Christian Church preserved for us in the Roman Catacombs or underground burial grounds — many of which may even today be visited by pilgrims to the Via Appia, or the Via Salaria, Via Ardeatina, Via Nomentana, Via Aurelia Vetus and Via Ostiense.
These burial grounds were used extensively by the Church of Rome from its very beginnings, throughout the persecutions which ran intermittently from 64 A.D. (under Nero) to 313 A.D. (under Diocletian). Even though burials ceased in them at the beginning of the fifth century (in 410 A.D. during the siege of Rome by Alaric) anniversary Masses continued to be said in the catacombs until well into the seventh century.
The most important of the Roman catacombs are those of St Callistus (with Papal crypt), Sts Praetextatus and Sebastian, St Domitilla, St Agnes, St Pancras, St Priscilla, St Vetus and St Commodilla.
Nine hundred miles of catacombs
The locations and names of more than forty Christian catacombs in Rome are well-known. In the first ages of persecution the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Christians who were put to death for their faith in Jesus were laid to rest in these subterranean passageways and chambers cut out of the relatively soft ‘tufa’ or volcanic rock. The galleries, sometimes on four levels, are long and narrow, being roughly eight feet high, and about 5 feet wide; they extend for miles underground. Every so often the tunnels open out into a more spacious chamber where large numbers of people could assemble. Here Mass was said, and mourners would assemble for prayers for the dead.
It has been estimated that if all the known Roman catacombs were put back to back they would extend for more than nine hundred miles, while the tombs enclosed about six million bodies of martyrs and Christian people interred there until the fifth century.
Most importantly for us, the catacombs are extant witnesses to the tradition of the Catholic Church from its earlier times — and on their walls, mortuary slabs and chapels, as well as in their sarcophagi, we find living proof of the antiquity of Catholic belief in the Primacy of Peter, the Sacraments of Baptism, Marriage, Penance, the Holy Eucharist, the veneration of Saints and Martyrs, especially of the Blessed Mother of God, Mary, Prayers for the dead, the Sacrifice of the Mass, Purgatory and so on.
Making so-called ‘bible Christianity’ conform to the faith of the catacombs is an impossible task; and fundamentalists should be challenged to prove that their sixteenth century doctrines that largely consist in denials of Catholic teaching, are in conformity not only with some vague ‘early Church’ that they imagine agrees with them, but also with the real ‘early’ church of the catacombs.
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