Created | Updated Feb 25, 2010
The word 'catholic' comes from the Greek word meaning 'universal'. It is part of the official title (or designation) given to the body of Christian Communities in union with the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). It was first used to describe the Church in 107 AD by St Ignatius, who said:
Wherever the Bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church.
While various other denominations, such as the Eastern Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Churches share the same roots as Catholicism, this entry pertains only to the Roman Catholic Church. As defined by the Nicene Creed in 381 AD, the Church must be 'one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic'. Catholics believe that only the Roman Catholic Church meets all those four criteria, and follows directly on from Jesus' appointing of Peter as Head of the Church when he said:
You are Peter and on this rock1 will I build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
- Matthew 16:18
Thus Peter became the first 'Pope', and, by the laying on of hands throughout the ages, an unbroken chain of apostolic succession has carried his heritage on to this day. This entry will examine what sets the Catholic Church apart from other Christian denominations, and aims to explain some of its teachings.
Distinctive Teachings of Catholicism
As a convert, or as a person looking at the Catholic Faith from the outside, there are a number of distinctive aspects that set it apart from the Protestant or other Reformed branches of the Christian Church.
The Use of Sacred Tradition in addition to the Bible
Unlike the Reformation cry of 'Sola Scriptura ('scripture alone', the Catholic Church has always held that there was a body of teaching, not written in the Bible, but which the Church preserved as the 'Deposit of Faith'. This is known as Tradition (note the capital 'T'), and is seen as complimenting Scripture so that together they 'make up a single Sacred Deposit of the Word of God which is entrusted to the Church'2.
Beliefs and practices which many Protestant denominations might condemn as 'unscriptural', such as many of the teachings regarding the Virgin Mary and the tradition of praying with the saints, are justified by the Church through this doctrine. The realisation that Catholicism includes things that are not explicitly stated in the Bible makes it easier to see how, and from where, a lot of the distinctive teachings of the Catholic Church are rooted.
The Church Structure and Authority
Church Hierarchy - The Catholic Church is traditionally based on a pyramid structure, with the Pope at the top, the Cardinals below that, followed by Archbishops. Bishops are responsible for a local area or 'diocese', and each diocese will then have local parish priests who report to the Bishop. At the bottom of this pyramid comes the 'regular folk', otherwise known as the laity. However, especially since the Ecumenical Council of Vatican II, the laity have been encouraged to take a much more active role in the Church, rather than being passive observers at Mass. Also part of the Church are those Religious, who have taken vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and have chosen to live as monks or nuns3. There are also religious priests who often serve in missionary capacities. There are numerous orders, all with their own emphasis, but the main priority of entering an order is to give your whole life to Christ. Nuns have often been referred to as 'Brides of Christ'.
The Pope - The title pope denotes the Bishop of Rome, who, in virtue of his position as apostolic successor of St Peter, is the chief pastor of the whole Church and the Vicar of Christ upon Earth. It originates from the word Papa, meaning 'father'. The Pope has 'supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he can always freely exercise'4. The Pope is elected by the college of Cardinals who sit in conclave, isolated from the outside world, and cast their votes by ballot until they reach a two thirds majority decision5. If the decision is not reached, the ballot papers are burned to produce black smoke. Once a new Pope has been chosen, the ballot papers are burned producing a white smoke, announcing to the world that a decision has been made. Traditionally this was done by burning straw along with the papers for the black smoke; recently, however, it has been done by chemical means.
Infallibility - The doctrine of Infallibility was defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870. It guarantees that the teachings of the Church will never be false - that the Church will never teach error. Papal infallibility applies only to pronouncements made by the Pope when he is speaking ex Cathedra, on a matter of doctrine that concerns the whole Church. The phrase ex Cathedra literally means 'from the Seat', indicating that the Pope has to be speaking in his official capacity as Bishop of Rome and Head of the Church. It does not apply to everything the Pope says, or writes, and nor does it mean that the Pope cannot sin. So far, only two doctrines have been defined through Papal Infallibility: the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Theoretically, infallibility also applies to the whole body of Bishops when, in moral unity, they solemnly teach a doctrine as true.
The writings of the Pope are known as 'Encyclicals', and are traditionally written in Latin and then translated and distributed throughout the Church. These cover matters of doctrine or moral issues for the Faithful. While not completely meeting the conditions for infallibility, more traditional elements of the Church teach that Catholics should obey these directives as if they were infallible.
Church Councils - Church Councils are convened to define a matter of doctrine, or to address matters of concern to the Universal Church. These meetings are called by the Pope; in the case of Ecumenical Councils, all the bishops of the world are required to attend. The first council was the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, from which came the Nicene Creed, which defended of the divinity of Jesus and the calculated the date for Easter. The most recent was the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), whose 2800 members sat during the autumns of 1962-65. One of the most obvious results of Vatican II was the changing of the language used during Mass from Latin into the local language used by the people. This was part of a movement towards greater inclusion of the laity in the life of the Church. Some Catholics feel that the Church has become much more liberal as a result of this Council, and still others feel that it did not go far enough.
Definition of doctrine - The tenets of the Catholic faith are defined and explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism is designed to help priests teach people about Catholicism. The old Catechism, known as the Baltimore Catechism, was phrased as a series of questions and answers that had to be memorised. The current form, which is written as a book, was first published in France in 1992.
Canon law - The body of laws and regulations made by or adopted by ecclesiastical authority, for the government of the Christian organisation and its members are referred to as Canon Law. The original Code of Canon Law contained 2414 rules governing Church life; the current, revised version, developed in 1983, contains 1752 rules. It is a complex area, and there are many priests who devote their whole lives to the analysis of Canon Law.
Teachings on Mary, Mother of God
All of the major Christian denominations believe that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and bore Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. However, only the Catholic Faith teaches that she remained a Virgin throughout her life afterwards. The Church teaches that she had no sexual relations with Joseph6.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is often misunderstood, and thought to refer to the conception of Jesus. The doctrine actually teaches that Mary was kept free from the stain of Original Sin from the moment of her conception in her mother's womb. Catholics believe that Mary remained sinless throughout her life.
Catholics also teach that, at the end of her earthly life, Mary was assumed into Heaven and was there crowned as Queen of Heaven by Jesus. This Assumption is different from the Ascension of Jesus - Jesus ascended under His own power, whereas Mary was taken up by the desire and power of God. The scriptural references for this are taken from the verses in Revelation which speak of:
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head...the woman gave birth to a male child.
- Revelation 12:1-2, 14
Mary is mentioned several times in the gospels as an important figure in the life and mission of Jesus. John's gospel reports how Jesus, on the cross, handed the care of Mary to the beloved disciple, (traditionally assumed to be John himself) saying 'this is your mother'7. Catholics symbolically read that as Jesus giving Mary to all of us as our Mother. John also reports how Mary was behind the first miracle Jesus performed: turning the water into wine at a wedding in Cana8. Jesus performed the miracle at Mary's request, despite him saying that 'my time has not yet come'. Mary's words to the servants, 'Do whatever He tells you' are also interpreted as her instructions to us, and her ability to intercede with her son to obtain grace.
The 'Hail Mary' is the most popular of all Catholic prayers, and forms a major part of the Rosary. The first half of the prayer is taken from Scripture, and the second half asks Mary to pray for us. The words are:
Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee9
Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus10
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
A sacrament is a visible rite or ceremony, which signifies and confers grace. Thus baptism is a visible rite, and the pouring of the water signifies the cleansing of the soul by the grace it gives. The Catholic Church recognises seven sacraments. These are:
Baptism - Most commonly performed on infants today, baptism has several purposes: it is seen as a removal of 'original sin'11, and as an adoption of the child by Christ and by the Church. Adult converts to Catholicism are often baptised as well; if, however, the adult had previously been baptised in another Christian denomination, the Catholic Church recognises that baptism as valid as long as their baptism was in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Confirmation - Usually performed by the local Bishop on an adolescent, confirmation represents the independent choice of the baptised child to continue as a member of the church. The person is anointed with oil, and sealed with the Holy Spirit.
Eucharist (Holy Communion) - The Catholic Church teaches that when the priest says the words of consecration during the Eucharistic prayer at Mass
This is my body which will be broken for you, do this in remembrance of me... This is my blood, which will be shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven; do this in memory of me.... the wafer (host) and the wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ. The change affects, not the outward appearance or form of the wafer and wine, but their actual substance, thus giving rise to the term transubstantiation12. This belief that Christ is really, physically present in a consecrated Host is the reason for the great respect that Catholics show to the Tabernacle13, and is also why many Catholics kneel or bow and cross themselves on entering and leaving a church. The belief in transubstantiation is also the reason why the Church insists that only those who have been received into the Catholic Church can receive Communion, and that those receiving are supposed to be in a state of grace. 'State of grace' refers to the state of not being attached to sin, and having gone to confession if necessary.
Reconciliation (Penance or Confession) - This sacrament involves the practice of confessing your sins to God through a priest and receiving forgiveness (absolution) along with some form of penance. Since the Vatican II Council, many churches have replaced the dark confession booths with Reconciliation Rooms. Reconciliation today is often a time when the person can sit face to face with the priest, and talk over any difficulties or problems they may be having. There is less emphasis on memorized prayers, and the penitent is encouraged to talk to God in their own words. Many Catholics find that the act of actually speaking aloud about their sins to another person helps them to be more sincere in their penitence, that the priest often provides useful counseling on avoiding sin in the future, and that hearing the words of absolution spoken aloud can be extremely reassuring.
Matrimony (Marriage) - Marriage in the Catholic Church is for life - the Church does not recognise divorce, although in certain circumstances a marriage can be annulled14. Today, most Catholic parishes require premarital counselling before the sacrament of matrimony. When marriages between a Catholic and a non-Catholic are involved, this counseling includes discussions on how the couple will deal with their differences in faith, as well as how they will raise their children.
Holy Orders - The sacrament in which a person is dedicated to full time religious service is called Holy Orders. There are three degrees of Holy Orders, and through this sacrament men may become bishops, priests, or deacons. Deacons are men who make a permanent vow to help the priests and bishops. Men who are married may become ordained as deacons, but men who have already been ordained as deacons cannot later marry.
Anointing of the Sick (Formerly known as 'Last Rites' or 'Extreme Unction') - This sacrament was previously reserved for those who were on their deathbeds; now it is more commonly administered to anyone who is severely ill or undergoing surgery. The person is anointed with oil by a priest, who prays for their healing and forgiveness of their sins.
Other Controversial Issues
Praying with Saints
The Catholic Church refers to those who have died and are now in heaven as saints. In some instances, those who have lived lives as a sort of 'holy role model' are later canonized by the church. So, just as we now have a Saint Francis of Assisi, so Mother Theresa may one day be a saint. Contrary to popular belief, Catholics do not pray to saints; rather, they ask the saints to pray with them. Just as people of many Christian denominations ask their friends and family to pray with them, so do Catholics ask those in heaven to pray with them. The Catholic Church often refers to those in heaven as the 'holy dead'.
An indulgence is the 'remission before God of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned'15. One of the big issues that started the Reformation - the Church's selling of indulgences for 'time off' purgatory is nowadays acknowledged by the Catholic Church to have been a dark period, and one where the Church was wrong in its practices. However, the core teachings regarding purgatory and indulgences remain.
The teaching of purgatory states that after death, if a soul is not completely in union with God, then God graciously allows it some 'time' in purgatory. It is there in purgatory that any lingering sins, as well as attachment to sin and this world, are burned away. This is because only that which is perfect can enter Heaven. Those still on Earth can pray for the souls in purgatory, and have Masses said on their behalf. The souls in purgatory are supposedly joyful, because they know that they will be eventually admitted to Heaven. Of course, being part of eternity, Purgatory is actually outside time as we on earth experience it. Some priests and theological scholars envision purgatory as an instantaneous moment in which, after death, we come to fully realize the many ways in which we have separated ourselves from God during our earthly life; at this point, the soul needs to 'purge' itself of these sins in order to prepare itself for full communion in Heaven.
Indulgences can still be obtained, although it is not the cut and dry transaction it was once corrupted into. As the Church sees sin as something that distances the individual from God, the requirements for an indulgence force an individual to rekindle and strengthen their connection to God.
Websites with more detailed information about the Catholic faith and its believers include:
- Catholic Net
- The Catholic Encyclopedia - This was written in 1918; while not including any of the more recent developments in the Church, it is still an incredible resource of information.
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