How does the Catholic Church today contrast with the Catholic Church when it first began? Can you give a short and sweet answer?
Essentially the same. The only authority was those people who were the episkopoi (overseers) and the presbyters (elders). Later, they officially declared which books were spiritually inspired; from that time the books on the canon (list) were recognized as inspired by God and thus authoritative. The Mass or consecration of bread and wine was always understood to be transubstantiation which means that the bread and wine changed substances to become the body and blood of Christ. These are things that the ancient Church and the Church of today have in common. The Church developed in a similar way throughout her history and throughout the world. Both ages of the Church had scholars and after a couple of centuries there were monks. People also lived in communities sharing duties and food in the early Church; today, outside of religious life, not so much but there are some communities who do. I hope that this is short enough and sweet enough!
I cannot give an answer that is either short, or sweet. I will answer, and it will be a long answer so you are free to ignore it (as you would be even if it did align with your request), but I firmly believe that any answer which attempts to dispense truth on such an important matter in the written equivalent to a soundbyte is of little use either to the investigator or others who happen upon it. So my answer will be lengthy, but I will attempt to make it illuminating as best I can.
Full disclosure: I am not a Catholic, and while I do believe that they are a true part of the body of Christ, I do not believe that they are His true Church. I have full respect for the Catholic faith and all the good that the Catholic Church does, and I do not deny their status as Christians. However my answer will come from a more critical position than if I were a practicing Roman Catholic.
The early "Catholic" Church looked very different indeed from the modern Church, doctrinally, theologically, structurally, and in its worship style. Nonetheless, given that the mechanisms for the development of doctrine and restructuring of worship and authority have remained the same, albeit with occasional lapses, the fact that it is the same "church" is not in doubt.
Starting at the assumptions, we must define the "Catholic Church." This is more difficult than you would think, at least from an historical perspective. The modern Catholic Church can be defined pretty well by saying that it is the body of believers in full communion with the Bishop of Rome and holding officially to all doctrines, dogmas, and historical claims by the Bishop of Rome and the teaching magisterium and institution over which he is president. That sums it up nicely, and while you could add complication to that definition, it offers what we need for a contextual answer. This is because as we go back further and further in history, the term "Catholic Church" departs further and further from the modern conceptualization.
Perhaps the most important part of that definition when attempting to nail down an historical idea of what the Catholic Church is, is that of the position of the Bishop of Rome, also called the Pope (from the Latin "PAPA"). At its core, the main separation between the Roman Church and the other Ecumenical church bodies has always been the status of the Pope. The official position of the modern Catholic Church is that the Papacy is an office established by Jesus with Peter holding the title and power first, and that it has been continuously present on Earth through succession over the course of two-thousand years. It is true that from the beginning there was a recognition of the Roman See (Church Body) as being the "first among equals," however before the fourth century we find no earnest claims to Papal supremacy which were not rejected by the other major Christian bishoprics.
For the first 500 years or so of Christian history, there were few claims by anyone in Rome for the special position of the Roman Bishop, and those which were put forth were speedily rejected; we even find a Pope being heavily rebuked by other Bishops when he overstepped his power and attempted to settle a dispute by excommunicating the churches of Eastern Asia. It is not until the mutual excommunication of 1054: after a series of stringent disagreements between the Patriarch of Constantinople (Michael) and Pope Leo IX, a delegation sent to Constantinople by the Pope (who actually died while his delegates were still travelling) resulted in an excommunication of said delegates by Patriarch Michael and a [legally questionable] excommunication of the Patriarch by the delegates in the name of Pope Leo IX. This marks, in hindsight though not at the time, the first major break between the Eastern Church, overseen by the Ecumenical Bishops as a Synod, and the Western Church, which was from this point on decidedly under the power and increasingly powerful Papal claimants (sometimes more than one at a time). Thus I think we should consider the eleventh century to be the start of the "Catholic Church" as a unified and recognizable body of believers (rather than just a theoretical group under the control of an ambitious Bishop) and go back no further in our comparisons to the "modern" Catholic Church.
Modern Catholics will recognize that doctrine develops. This is something which such notable people as the Cardinal Henry Newman have written extensively about (interestingly, Cardinal Newman was against the definition of Papal infallibility in the late 19th century), and it is pretty much an accepted fact. So we find that hindsight is the Catholic scholar's best friend, because he or she can say, for instance, that the church can be brought to a new understanding of a doctrine which was not known before and still have that doctrine be a part of apostolic tradition because the seeds were planted in scripture and tradition and only later, through the guidance of the spirit, did a fuller understanding enable the Church to look back at the former tradition and see the root of the new dogma. For instance, before the twelfth century we do not see any official teaching on the existence of purgatory. The majority of early Christians did not believe in Purgatory, though we do find reference to post-mortem cleansing in a couple of the church fathers' writings (such as in Augustine's The City of God 21:13) and it is not until Pope Gregory in the sixth century do we see teachings coming from the Vatican concerning the doctrine of purification after death. Once the Council of Trent officially defined the dogma in the sixteenth century ("Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar") Catholic thinkers were able to look back to verses such as Matthew 5:21–26 and see Purgatory where previously no such idea had been considered. This was to them a gift of the Spirit.
This recognition of Doctrinal development is important in comparing the Ancient Catholic Church to the modern. Here are a few dogmas which must be believed in order to be in good standing with the Church:
- Purification after death of mortal sins; i.e. purgatory
- The Immaculate Conception of Mary
- The deathless assumption of Mary
- Papal infallibility
- A treasury of excess unused merit left by the Saints and Christ
These are all well-known Catholic doctrines, a belief in which is necessary to be a "good Catholic." Which is interesting when one considers that not a single one was believed by those present at the Councils of Nicea or Constantinople. Many Catholics will dispute this, or argue that even though none of them are ever explicitly taught by early Church Fathers (or the fact that many are refuted by early Church Father) and they are free to do so, but the majority of modern Catholic scholars will argue that the seeds of the doctrines were present, just not fully understood or expressed yet. My point here is not to attack Catholicism, understand, but to point out the differences between the current state of the Catholic Church and its ancient reality. Nevertheless, Nicea was in 325 and Constantinople was 381, far earlier than our period of comparison. So which of these were official or even widely-believed doctrine for the Christians at the turn of the eleventh century, when the Catholic Church "began"? (Catholics will argue that the Catholic Church is the true continuation of the early Church. As stated above, I am arguing from a period of general Western acceptance of the Pope as the "Vicar of Christ" and a cultural movement toward the institutionalization of Western Christianity with a view of itself as The singular and distinct Church of Christ)
The answer is, two, maybe three. The Treasury of Merit is the earliest dogma of the five to develop official recognition, if not definition, around 1095 with the Papacy of Urban II and the onset of the first crusade. The idea had been floating around for a while, but now it was beginning its journey to codification. The idea of purgatory was not official yet but it was widely believed that there was some form of purification that must take place after death for the temporal consequences of your mortal sin. The Bible does, after all, mention two types of sin (1 John 5:17). Not that any Peasants could read the Bible, but the idea filtered down to the masses through recognized traditions, such as prayers for the dead. Though the Treasury of Merit is the first of the five to gain official representation, the idea of purgatory beats it unofficially by several hundred years. The idea of transubstantiation was being debated during this time. The real presence of Christ in the bread and wine goes back to the Patristic period, with Justin Martyr writing "Now it is evident, that in this prophecy [allusion is made] to the bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks." It wouldn't be conceptualized in Aristotelian terms by a Church council until 1215 and then the actual mechanism of transfiguration wouldn't be considered until Thomas Aquinas came along. So from 1054 through 1250, the "beginning" and early period of the Catholic Church, many of the now imperative Catholic doctrines were in their infancy, years away from fullness and centuries from definition (the act by which a Pope and the Magisterium set doctrine). Even the theological infallibility of the Pope when he defines doctrine was not yet officially defined, and in fact would not be until the late 1800's.
One must ask oneself: if one were to walk into a church building and find a body of believers who did not believe in the immaculate conception of Mary, her sinless life, or her Assumption; did not hold that the Pope was infallible; did not believe in Purgatory or further purification after death, or that prayers for the dead did much good; and did not know for sure if the body and blood of Jesus were physically present in the Eucharist, would you believe that you had walked into a Catholic church? And yet if you walked into a Western Church in the twelfth or thirteenth century that may well be what you would find, depending on where you are and just when you happened to wander in. And yet it would still have been a church under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Pope, it would still have had its priests appointed by the Church hierarchy (depending during what point the Investiture Controversy was at your visit), and it would still hold its Mass in Latin, even as far North as Britain.
That's another important distinction. Up to this point we have discussed only the theological and dogmatic aspects of early Catholicism, but despite the modern focus on "right belief" Early Christians and early Catholics, even up to the highest positions, were usually concerned less with right belief than with right practice. This is still often the way it is in Eastern Orthodox Churches which, though sharing their history, love of beauty and grandeur, and even most of their doctrine with the Roman Catholic Church (save unique Catholic doctrines such as the five given previously) are more concerned with Christian life than with Christians belief. Though they have been just as concerned historically with heresy, of course, as have been Western Christians.
Christians until the 16th century or so were far less concerned with theology. Christian religious life was viewed as one long practice of liturgy. Imagine a life-long dance, a constant action and reaction with God. That was Christianity. It was experienced with the emotion and with the senses. That's why you have "smells and bells." Incense, stained glass windows, long Latin prayers, hymns and songs, standing, kneeling, sitting, repetitions, the sign of the cross, holy water, the bread and wine (often just the bread, actually, at this point), vestments, altar cloths, Christ candles, fire and smoke, cheek kissing, baptisms, confessions...all of these were just movements in the dance that you spent your entire life swaying along with. It was considered less important to know the details of how transubstantiation worked than to let yourself be carried by the beauty of the Eucharistic service and the flavor of the bread in your mouth. So while we've focused almost entirely on theological comparison, let us also consider the liturgy.
The modern Catholic Church is liturgical. I would personally say that it has the second most complex liturgy, after that of the Eastern Orthodox Church(es). The liturgy of early Catholic churches, though, was very different from the modern order of service. What is practiced in modern Catholic Mass is the Novus Ordo, or New Order. It was the service developed during Vatican II. It's an update from the previously universal service, which was called the Tridentine Mass, instituted in 1570. The differences are numerous: Novus Ordo is done in the local tongue, with the priest facing the congregation. The Bible readings come from multiple translations, the repetitions and prayers are different, and the service of the word is about half the length of the Extraordinary Service, another name for the Tridentine Mass.
The order of the Mass was not codified, however, at the beginning of the Catholic Church. There were general rules - the service was in Latin and included the elevation of the host and usually scriptural readings - which were universally or near-universally followed, but overall the direction of the service was up to the individual Bishop in each respective diocese. There were about fourteen services in the fifteenth century, each vying for universal recognition. Many of the different orders of service went on to become the different rites of the Modern Catholic Church; the Byzantine Rite, for example, is much closer to the Divine Liturgy of an Eastern Orthodox Church than to the Tridentine Mass or Novus Ordo. It is interesting to note that, unlike modern churches, most ancient churches did not have seats; instead, as with many Eastern churches today, the congregants stood for the entire service.
So if you walked into a modern Catholic Church, what will you find? Probably fifty to two hundred people participating through their local dialect in the services of the Word and of the Eucharist. They will universally affirm, at least publicly and officially, the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope, the previously-mentioned Marian dogmas (some will even say she is a co-redemptrix with Christ, though that is not the official Church teaching), the existence and necessity of Purgatory, the importance of merit, and the universal nature of their church. Walk into a Church near the beginning of Roman Catholicism, however, and the results would not be nearly so clear, nor so universal.
The Roman Catholic Church has changed a lot, sometimes through the necessity of theological and liturgical evolution, and sometimes by a choice made in the top ranks of the hierarchy and pushed down the rope to the parishioners on the ground floor. Whatever the case, in its most important aspects, the Church is what it has always been: a group of men and women who follow Christ through what they believe to be the true institutional Church founded on Peter by Jesus Christ, and following the lead of great historical men who've built their authority upon that legacy. The modern Church is not very much like the earlier Church. But then, how could you expect it to be? Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) Humans, on the other hand, need much more time to divine God's plan and truths.
God bless, brother.
The original Catholic Church was a socialist cult living together and sharing everything. Prayers were extemporaneous. The language was Aramaic, later Greek. There were no priests, only bishops and deacons.
Now people live separately except those in convents or monasteries. Prayers are written down. Readings are taken from the lectionary. Language varies by country.
Short and sweet and funny:
The Catholic church today has all the same teachings it did when it was founded plus thousands of documents to clarify what they originally taught to all the legalistic people who misunderstood the essence of the faith.
It's much larger, geographically and in mebership. It serves millions of more people through its charitable ministries. it has brought BILLIONS of people to the love of Christ.