Christianity: Roman Catholicism

William J Collinge. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Overview

The term “catholic” is derived from a Greek word meaning “universal” or “worldwide,” and it was first applied to the church in the early second century C.E. It originally distinguished the “worldwide” church from various sectarian or splinter groups. The adjective “Roman” is not part of the name of the Catholic Church but identifies its distinguishing feature: acceptance of the supreme authority of the bishop of Rome (the pope). The matter is complicated by the fact that the Catholic Church comprises a variety of rites. The term “rite” here designates a distinct tradition in worship and church discipline. Most Catholics belong to the Latin (or Roman) Rite, but many, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, belong to Eastern Rites, chiefly the Byzantine, Alexandrian, Antiochene, Armenian, and Chaldaean Rites. These “Eastern Catholics” do not usually call themselves Roman Catholics but do accept the authority of the pope.

The Catholic Church does not regard itself as one denomination of Christians among others. According to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Church, in the sense of the entire community of those united and saved in Jesus Christ, “subsists in” the Catholic Church, and all baptized Christians not officially joined to the Catholic Church “have some real, though imperfect, communion with it.”

There are somewhat more than one billion Roman Catholics in the world. Of these, around 13 percent are in Africa, 21 percent in North and Central America, 29 percent in South America, 10 percent in Asia, 26 percent in Europe, and 1 percent in Oceania. The heaviest concentration of Catholics is in Central and South America, where they form approximately 85 percent of the population.

History

The Catholic Church claims it was founded by Jesus Christ (died in 30 or 33 C.E.) in his call for disciples, who were led by 12 apostles. It traces the pope’s authority to Jesus’ appointing Saint Peter as leader of the apostles (Matt. 16:18-19) and to the traditional link between Saint Peter and the church of Rome, where he is said to have been martyred. Saint Peter is considered to be the first pope of the Catholic Church.

After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the apostles assumed leadership of the new Christian community. Though the apostles had the primary authority in the churches they founded, they had to provide for local leadership; hence, leadership by bishops developed. By the second century the structure whereby each local church had a single bishop prevailed throughout the Christian world.

The authority of the bishop of Rome, or pope, developed slowly. In 95 C.E. the First Letter of Clement shows the church of Rome exercising supervision over the church of Corinth. Furthermore, the eminence of the church of Rome—as the church of Peter and Paul as well as the empire’s capital city—was recognized by early Christian writers. In 190 C.E., however, when the bishop of Rome sought to impose the Roman date for Easter on the churches of Asia Minor, he met with strenuous resistance. In the late fourth century the bishops of Rome began to speak as though they were the voice of Peter and to exercise formally judicial power over other churches. Papal authority was enhanced when the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.) accepted Pope Leo I’s solution to the problem of Jesus’ divinity and humanity. In western Europe papal power grew from the fifth century onward, when there was often no other effective civil authority.

For the first millennium of Christianity, the history of Catholicism almost coincides with that of Christianity generally, except for the churches that did not accept the Councils of Ephesus (431 C.E.) and Chalcedon. Those churches were the ancestors of today’s Assyrian Church of the East, as well as of the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syrian Orthodox, and Malankara Orthodox churches.

Among the churches that did accept the early councils, there was a gradual separation between the Eastern, primarily Greek-speaking churches (ancestors of today’s Eastern Orthodox churches) and the Western Catholic Church. The division was formalized by mutual anathemas (condemnations) in 1054 and was sealed by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when Western armies sacked Constantinople.

A further division occurred in the West with the Protestant Reformation, usually dated from 1517. Catholics and Protestants disagreed on the role of church authority and sacraments in mediating a Christian’s relation to God. Other issues involved the financial and political dealings of church leaders in western Europe. The Council of Trent (1545-63) restated church doctrines without much accommodation to Protestant concerns, but it also reformed church practices, ending many of the worst abuses. Seminaries were instituted to train the clergy, whose ignorance, even illiteracy, had been an embarrassment. Most of northern Europe became Protestant, while southern Europe (including France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy) remained Catholic. During the baroque period (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) a revival of Catholic spirituality and art took place in these countries.

The age of western European exploration and colonization—lasting from the late fifteenth century to the nineteenth century—spread Catholicism to the Americas, central and southern Africa, and Asia. Catholicism grew mainly in areas that were colonized by Spain, Portugal, and France.

After the French Revolution of 1789 overthrew Catholic power in France, the popes and much of the European church took a defensive stance against Protestantism, Enlightenment secular thought, and modern secular states. In the late nineteenth century new developments—notably, modern papal teaching on social issues—began to occur, culminating in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. Since that time the Catholic Church has actively taken part in Christian ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. It has also been preoccupied by how to adapt and become indigenous to non-Western cultures, thus becoming genuinely a world church. The anathemas of 1054 were lifted in 1965, but Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy remain divided; the pope’s authority is a principal divisive issue.

Central Doctrines

Like many Christians, the Catholic Church affirms the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. The Catholic Church teaches many other doctrines, a summary of which can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The doctrines taught most authoritatively are called dogmas. Dogmas must be accepted by all church members; to knowingly deny a dogma is heresy. A pope may proclaim a dogma of Catholic faith by proclaiming it ex cathedra—that is, with the explicit intention of invoking his supreme authority to define a doctrine to be believed by the whole church. When he does so, he is understood to teach infallibly (without error). An ecumenical council (a gathering of bishops and other leaders representing the worldwide Church) may, with the pope’s approval, define a dogma. Such definitions are also considered infallible.

The most distinctively Catholic doctrine is that of the supreme authority (primacy) of the pope, including his infallibility and his jurisdiction over the whole church (some other Christians would accept a primacy of the pope but not exactly as Catholics understand it). Doctrines about the Blessed Virgin Mary are also among those that distinguish the Catholic Church from many other Christian groups. These include the Assumption (Mary’s bodily ascent into heaven at the end of her life), Mary’s lifelong virginity, and her Immaculate Conception (her conception free from original sin). Mary is the first among the saints, holy people now enjoying eternal life with God. Catholics regard saints as intercessors who pray for the church on earth. Because the saints are saved by Jesus Christ, and their prayer is joined to his, the Catholic Church does not regard prayers addressed to saints as diminishing Jesus’ role as sole savior. Other Catholic doctrines are that there are seven sacraments (baptism, penance or reconciliation, the Eucharist, confirmation, matrimony, order, and anointing the sick) and that, after death, there is a temporary state of purification, called purgatory, through which many people must pass before entering heaven.

Moral Code of Conduct

The Catholic Church prescribes a traditional Christian code of conduct, often specified in terms of the biblical Ten Commandments. While some of the commandments are understood as God’s direct orders otherwise unknowable by humans, most are considered to be knowable by human reason without special divine revelation. Catholic teaching commonly follows medieval tradition, especially the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, in referring to moral principles knowable by reason as the natural law. Accordingly, the Catholic Church—in specifying conduct required of, permitted of, or forbidden to humans—makes greater use of philosophy than do many Christian churches. A body of Canon Law governs the internal life of the church.

Sacred Books

Catholics believe in the authority of the Bible. They accept 46 books of the Old Testament—the 39 from the Hebrew canon and the 7 deutercanonical books (which most Protestants call Apocrypha). Like most Christians, Catholics accept 27 books in the New Testament. The Catholic Church regards the entire Bible as the inspired word of God, free from error. It locates that freedom from error, however, not necessarily in the literal text but in the “truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wished the … text to contain” (according to the Second Vatican Council). Because God is understood to have worked through humans who were genuine authors, the biblical books may well contain what would be error when judged by the standards of modern history or science.

Sacred Symbols

Catholicism uses a wide range of symbols to signify the sacred. Most central is the cross, representing the crucifixion of Jesus. Catholics are more likely than many other Christians to employ the crucifix, a cross that bears the figure of the crucified Christ.

Early and Modern Leaders

Until the division between Eastern and Western Christianity, the leading figures in Catholicism were the same as the leading figures in Christianity, and up to the Protestant Reformation, the leading figures in Catholicism were the same as those in Western Christianity.

After the Reformation new religious orders, such as the Jesuits, founded by the Spaniard Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), and reformed orders, such as the Carmelites of the Spanish saints Teresa of Avila (1515-82) and John of the Cross (1542-91), helped to revitalize the life of the church. Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Saint Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1642), and Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) similarly revived spiritual life in France.

In the nineteenth century Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846-78) consolidated papal authority, culminating in the definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1870), while Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) inaugurated modern Catholic social teaching. The two dominant figures of the twentieth century were Pope John XXIII (1958-63) and Pope John Paul II (1978-2005). John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to reform and modernize the church. John Paul II had to strengthen internal church discipline while exercising leadership in world affairs. Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-97) won global admiration and a Nobel Peace Prize for her service to India’s poor, while Dorothy Day (1897-1980) combined service to the poor in the United States with an influential witness against war.

Major Theologians and Authors

The writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225/6-1274) shaped later Catholicism more than those of any other theologian; in 1878 his writings were granted official status. In the period after the Reformation, the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Francis de Sales, as well as those of Blaise Pascal (1623-62), the greatest French Catholic thinker of the time, helped develop a distinctively Catholic spirituality.

In the twentieth century there was a major revival of Catholic theology, culminating in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Among its principal figures were Henri de Lubac (French, 1896-1991), Yves Congar (French, 1904-95), Bernard Lonergan (Canadian, 1904-84), Karl Rahner (German, 1904-84), Hans Urs von Balthasar (Swiss, 1905-88), Edward Schillebeeckx (Dutch, born in 1914), and John Courtney Murray (American, 1904-67).

Organizational Structure

The pope exercises supreme power in the Catholic Church. The bishops share in this power. The Catholic Church is divided into mostly geographic districts, called dioceses (often called eparchies in the Eastern churches); a diocese is governed by a bishop. Bishops are usually organized into national or regional episcopal (or bishop’s) conferences. In some of the Eastern churches, a bishop called a patriarch is second in authority to the pope. The sacrament of order (ordination, holy orders) has three degrees: a bishop has the fullness of the sacrament, a priest holds the second rank, and a deacon the third. All ordinations must be performed by bishops, who are considered successors of the apostles. A diocese is divided into parishes, governed ordinarily by a priest called the pastor. Cardinals, who include all the patriarchs, are bishops who have authority to elect the pope. Men and women who make special commitments to poverty, chastity, and obedience are called religious. Some of the men are priests; the women (who are not ordained) are called sisters or nuns. People who are not ordained are laypersons or laity; often these terms are further restricted to those who are not “religious” in the above sense.

The pope governs the worldwide church through the Roman Curia, the central administrative offices in Vatican City (a sovereign state governed by the pope and located within the city of Rome).

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Catholic houses of worship are called churches. There is an altar at the front or center, along with a pulpit or lectern for reading and speaking. The most common structure is based on a type of Roman public building called a basilica; the term “basilica” is now used to indicate special honor for a church, regardless of structure. A diocese’s principal church is called the cathedral. Smaller churches or churches designated for particular communities (other than parishes) may be called chapels. A shrine is a place of prayer, especially a site for pilgrimages; it may be a church, a building, or another location, indoors or outdoors.

What is Sacred?

For Catholics most sacred objects are linked to the rituals called sacraments. After bread and wine have been consecrated in the Mass, they are held sacred as the body and blood of Christ (although still appearing as bread and wine). Also sacred are baptismal water, the oil (chrism) used in confirmation and ordination, and the oil of the sick, used for anointing. Some objects that are less centrally connected to a sacrament, such as wedding rings, are called sacramentals.

The church also venerates the relics (bodily remains or personal objects, such as clothing) of saints, who will share in the final bodily resurrection of the dead.

Holidays and Festivals

The Catholic Church divides the week and the year according to the liturgical calendar. The week centers on Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on Sunday and, to the extent possible, to observe it as a day of rest. The year centers on Easter, the annual feast of Jesus’ resurrection; it falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. A secondary focus is Christmas, 25 December. The Sacred Triduum celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus; it begins on Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) and continues through Good Friday (commemorating Jesus’ death), Holy Saturday, and the Easter Vigil (held on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday) to Easter Sunday.

Pentecost, which commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles after Jesus’ resurrection, is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Holy Days of Obligation—feasts on which Catholics are obligated to attend Mass—are Christmas and the feasts of Mary, Mother of God (1 January), Epiphany (6 January, unless moved to Sunday), Saint Joseph (19 March), Ascension (the fifth Thursday after Easter, unless moved to Sunday), the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi; the second Thursday after Pentecost, unless moved to Sunday), Saints Peter and Paul (29 June), the Assumption of Mary (15 August), All Saints (1 November), and the Immaculate Conception of Mary (8 December). Bishop’s conferences usually transfer some of these to Sunday and waive the obligation to attend Mass on some others.

Mode of Dress

The following vestments are worn by ministers in the church’s liturgy: alb, a full-length white robe; cincture, a cord that serves as a belt for the alb; stole, a scarflike garment worn by a priest or deacon; chasuble, a sleeveless outer garment worn by a priest; and dalmatic, a sleeved outer garment worn by a deacon. The colors of the stole, chasuble, and dalmatic vary with the liturgical season or with the nature of the feast. Liturgical vestments are based on the ordinary clothing of civil officials in the late Roman Empire. On public occasions outside of liturgy, a priest is expected to wear clerical dress, which in many countries means a black suit with a stiff white collar known as a Roman collar. Men and women religious sometimes wear habits, which are based on ordinary medieval clothing but which vary from one religious community to another. There is no distinctive dress for Catholic laity.

Dietary Practices

Latin Rite Catholics are required to fast (reduce food consumption) on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent, a six-week period before Easter) and Good Friday. Canon Law also calls for Catholics to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays (although, since 1966, bishop’s conferences have been allowed to mitigate the last requirement, and in some areas, such as the United States, Friday abstinence has been confined to Lent). It is also required that Catholics abstain from all food and drink except water for one hour before receiving Communion (the Eucharist).

Rituals

The official public prayer of the Catholic Church is called the liturgy. The central act of the liturgy, commonly known as the Mass, is the celebration of the Eucharist. The Mass consists of the Liturgy of the Word, which includes readings from the Bible and preaching, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are understood to become the body and blood of Christ and are eaten in Communion. The Mass is celebrated every day except Good Friday.

The Eucharist is one of the seven sacraments of the church. The others are baptism, confirmation (a ritual ratification of baptism understood to bring about a special presence of the Holy Spirit in the person confirmed), penance or reconciliation (a ritual forgiveness of sins), marriage, order (holy orders or ordination), and anointing of the sick. There are also liturgies for funerals, church dedications, and other occasions. The Liturgy of the Hours consists of prayers (chiefly psalms) and readings at certain times of day, particularly morning and evening. Priests and religious must pray it, publicly or privately; laity may do so.

Nonliturgical prayers and rituals include the rosary, a prayer commemorating events in the lives of Jesus and Mary and consisting of repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and doxology; Stations of the Cross, which commemorate events from Jesus’ trial to his burial; pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, and shrines or other holy places; and processions on certain feasts of importance in particular localities. In a retreat an individual or group withdraws from ordinary activities to engage in an intensive period of prayer, often at a location set apart for such activities. Catholic private prayer takes a wide variety of forms; the most common prayers are the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”), the Hail Mary (based on the angel’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1), and the doxology (“Glory [be] to the Father …”).

Rites of Passage

Certain sacraments function as rites of passage for Catholics. Baptism is a ritual of entry into the church. It may be administered to infants or to adults; for adults it is preceded by a process of preparation called the catechumenate. Confirmation functions as a ritual of adolescence for many Catholics baptized as infants, though this is not the essential nature of the sacrament; for adults it is administered immediately after baptism, and in the Eastern churches infants receive confirmation immediately after baptism. Marriage and ordination are official recognitions of commitments typical of adulthood. The anointing of the sick is for those who are seriously ill, especially when in danger of death. Dying Catholics are to receive viaticum (Holy Communion), and there are special prayers for the “Commendation of the Dying” to the mercy of God. In funeral and burial rituals the community publicly entrusts the dead person to God’s mercy.

Membership

The Catholic Church welcomes new adult members, who are, ideally, to be received at the Easter Vigil, through baptism, confirmation, or a rite of reception, followed by the Eucharist. From the earliest days of the church, missionaries have used all available media to spread Jesus’ message. Especially after the Second Vatican Council, missionaries have accepted the plurality of human cultures and are careful to distinguish evangelization (the proclamation of Christian faith) from the spread of Western culture. Recognizing God’s presence outside the formal boundaries of the Catholic Church, they generally reject aggressive proselytizing and seek instead to embody Catholic faith and to practice in a way that is welcoming to those outside the church.

Religious Tolerance

The Catholic Church officially embraced religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council. The dignity of the human person, who possesses reason and free will, the council argued, requires that humans be free from coercion in matters of conscience. The church also endorsed the ecumenical movement (the pursuit of unity among Christians), and since that time it has participated actively in two-party and many-party dialogues. With the goal of mutual understanding, the Catholic Church has been actively engaged in dialogue with representatives of non-Christian religions.

Social Justice

Drawing upon earlier Catholic teaching, Pope Leo XIII in 1891 inaugurated modern Catholic social teaching with an encyclical (an authoritative statement), Rerum Novarum, addressing the oppression of working persons in modern industrial society. Since then popes and bishops have elaborated a substantial body of teaching. Principal themes are (1) the unique dignity of the human person, (2) the social nature of the person, (3) the dignity and rights of labor, (4) the right of all persons to participate in political and economic decisions, (5) justice in the distribution of the world’s goods, (6) peace and cooperation among nations, and (7) the need to protect the “integrity of creation” against environmental degradation.

Social ministry and action is carried out by the church on all official levels, from the Vatican to local parishes (for instance, Catholic Relief Services, sponsored by the U.S. bishops, is one of the largest nongovernmental relief and development agencies in the world). It is also carried out by Catholic groups that do not have official status, though they may have official approval.

Liberation theology originated in the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960s. Defined by Gustavo Gutiérrez (born in 1928) of Peru as “critical reflection on Christian praxis in the light of the Word (of God)”—where “praxis” primarily means action to transform oppressive structures—liberation theology gained great prominence in Latin America and spread from there to other continents and social contexts. It has been criticized by the church for its reliance on Marxist social analysis and for excessive politicization of faith, but some of its emphases have found their way into official church social teaching. Two examples are “social sin” (sin that is embedded in unjust social structures and that thus leads to individual sin) and the “option for the poor” (the notion that the church should give priority to the viewpoint of the poor and powerless in its socioeconomic teaching and action).

Social Aspects

The Catholic Church regards the family as the fundamental unit of society, and hence it opposes both public policies and social conditions (such as poverty and excessive hours of labor) that it perceives to threaten the family. Without prejudice against “extended families,” the church sees the core of the family as a marriage between a man and a woman. For centuries the primary good of marriage was understood to be procreation; today Catholic teaching gives equal emphasis to the love and support between the partners.

Since the twelfth century marriage has been considered a sacrament; this applies even to many non-Catholic marriages, since the ministers of the sacrament are understood to be the couple themselves. Marriage is permanent and indissoluble; hence, the church forbids remarriage after divorce. Many marriages, however, lack some condition necessary to be “sacramentally valid”—that is, truly to be a sacrament—and in such cases an annulment, a declaration that the marriage is sacramentally (not civilly) invalid, may be issued by the church. People whose marriages have been annulled are free to marry again.

Controversial Issues

Issues of human life and sexuality are controversial both within the Catholic Church and between the church and the larger society. The Catholic Church teaches that the dignity and sanctity of human life begins at (or probably at) conception and continues to the end of life. Hence, it forbids abortion, infanticide, suicide, and euthanasia. Killing in selfdefense is permitted, and, because they are somewhat analogous to self-defense, war and capital punishment have been allowed under some circumstances. Catholic teaching since the late twentieth century, however, has limited those circumstances (in the case of capital punishment, to near zero), and it has been increasingly negative toward modern war.

The church holds that sexual activity is reserved for marriage and must be of such a sort that the possibility of procreation is not deliberately foreclosed. On the basis of these principles, premarital and extramarital sex are forbidden, as are nonprocreative sexual acts such as homosexual relations and masturbation, as well as the use of most forms of birth control within marriage. Natural family planning, which regulates family size by timing sexual intercourse for periods when the woman is probably infertile, is allowed.

Two other highly controversial issues are clerical celibacy and the ordination of women. Priests in the Latin Rite must be celibate; that is, they are forbidden to be married (or to engage in other sexual relationships). Married men may be ordained deacons, and some married men, previously ministers in other Christian churches, have been ordained as Catholic priests. Many Eastern Rite priests are married. Women may not be ordained as deacons, priests, or bishops. Official church teaching recognizes the requirement of celibacy to be a changeable matter of church discipline but regards the restriction of priesthood to men as a matter of the essence of priesthood. The status of the rule against women deacons is less clear, as there were women deacons (possibly not equivalent to male deacons) in the early centuries of the church.

Cultural Impact

The Catholic Church has long promoted the arts, “so that,” as Vatican II says, “the things that form part of liturgical worship”—such as church architecture, decoration, and music—”can be … signs and symbols of the things above.” The church has also been a patron of religious art outside the immediate context of worship. Though it has sometimes been accused of idolatry, it has sought to distinguish the derivative veneration owed to images from the veneration owed to that which they represent.

The history of the visual and performing arts in Catholicism from the late Roman Empire up to the Protestant Reformation almost coincides with the history of the arts in the West. The great cathedrals of Europe, Gregorian chant in music, the Divine Comedy of Dante, and the paintings and sculptures of the Italian Renaissance, for instance, are all treasures of the Catholic Church and of Western culture generally. Since the Reformation the church has sponsored art, architecture, and music in the baroque and modern styles. It has made use of newer art forms, such as film, and it has been increasingly making use of non-Western art forms and traditions.