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 roots, for the rest of this article, the phrase 'Catholic Church' shall refer to the Roman Catholic Church only. The Church claims that she is the only True Church, as founded by Jesus Christ. The Church must be 'one, holy Catholic and Apostolic', as defined by the Nicene Creed in 381AD. 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 (Greek:Peter, Aramaic:kephas) and on this rock (Greek:petra, Aramaic:kephas) will I build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
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 article will examine what sets the Catholic Church apart from other Christian denominations, and aim 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 Protestantism, or other Reformed branches of the Christian Church. These will form the basis of this article, with some links for further reading at the end.
The Use of Sacred Tradition in addition to the Bible
Unlike the Reformation cry of 'Sola Scriptura' (Only Scripture), 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'1.
Things which Protestants would condemn as 'unscriptural', such as the teachings on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, Purgatory, praying to saints and so on, are justified by the Church through this teaching. It does not have to be explicitly in the Bible in order to be a part of the Catholic Faith. Accepting the validity of this as a starting point 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, most of them in some sort of community, as monks or nuns. There are many many different 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.2 Although, in theory, the Pope could be chosen from any male Catholic, the choice is now always made from the Cardinals. 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 decision. 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, thus 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; however, recently 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; i.e. that the Church will never teach error. Papal infallibility applies 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'; the Seat in question being that of Peter, 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. 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. Whilst not completely meeting the conditions for infallibility, more traditional elements of the Church teach that Catholics should obey their 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. They are called by the Pope, and, in the case of Ecumenical Councils, all the bishops of the world are required to attend. The first council was the council of Nicea in 325AD, from which came the Nicene Creed, the defending of the divinity of Jesus, and the calculating of the date for Easter; the most recent was the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), whose 2,800 members sat during the autumns of 1962-65. One of it's most obvious results was the changing of the language used during Mass from Latin into the local language used by the people. This went along with a greater inclusion for the laity in the life of the Church as part of the Body of Christ. 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 more as a book, was first published in France in 1992.
Canon law is the body of laws and regulations made by or adopted by ecclesiastical authority, for the government of the Christian organization and its members. The original Code of Canon Law contained 2,414 rules governing Church life; the current, revised version, promulgated in 1983, contains 1,752. It is a complex area, and there are many priests who devote their whole lives to its studying and application.
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 the birth process, and throughout her life afterwards. She had no sexual relations with Joseph, and the 'brothers' of Jesus referred to in the Gospels are, in fact, his cousins, there being no Aramaic word to distinguish the two.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is often misunderstood, and thought to refer to the conception of Jesus. The doctrine actually teaches that, from the moment of her conception in her mother's womb, Mary was kept free from the stain of Original Sin, which all human beings, since Adam, are born with3. This freeing from Original Sin is usually received at baptism: a major reason why Catholics baptise infants. Because God is outside of time, he could use the coming death and resurrection of Jesus to perform this miracle for Mary and prepare her to be the Mother of His Son. 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 crowned as Queen of Heaven by Jesus there. This Assumption is different from the Ascension of Jesus - Jesus ascended under His own power, 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
Rev 12:1-2, 14
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'4. Catholics read that as, symbolically, 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 Cana5. 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 Rosary6. 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 thee7
Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus8
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,
Teachings on the Eucharist
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 transubstantiation9. This belief that Christ is really, physically present in a consecrated Host is the reason for the great respect that Catholics show to the Tabernacle (the place in the Church where consecrated hosts are kept) - and for their kneeling and crossing themselves, or bowing (genuflecting) on entering and before leaving a church. If you were in the presence of God, it is only natural to show respect.
This is also the reason why Catholics insist 10 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 - i.e. not attached to sin, and having gone to confession if necessary.
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. Unlike the Anglican/Episcopal churches, which recognise only two sacraments11, the Catholic Church has seven. These are:
- Baptism - Most commonly carried out on infants, Baptism removes 'original sin' - the Sin of Adam, which all humans are born with. If an adult convert to Catholicism is baptised, all sin that they have committed up until that point is also removed. If a convert has been baptised into another branch of the Christian faith, as long as their baptism was in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church recognises that baptism as valid, and they cannot be rebaptised.
- Confirmation - Usually carried out by the local Bishop, often at around aged thirteen to fifteen, confirmation represents the baptised child making their own choice to continue as a member of the church. The person is annointed with oil, and sealed with the Holy Spirit.
- Eucharist - or Holy Communion. See paragraph above.
- Reconciliation, or Penance, or Confession. The practice of confessing your sins to God, through a priest, and receiving forgiveness, or absolution, along with some form of penance to do. This is often in the form of certain prayers to say. See also the paragraph below, under 'Other Teachings' on Confession.
- Matrimony Marriage. Marriage in the Catholic Church is for life - the Church does not recognise divorce, although, in certain circumstances, a marriage can be annulled. Marriage to non-Catholics is discouraged, and referred to as a 'mixed marriage', and the Catholic must promise to bring any children up in the Catholic Faith.
- Holy Orders - this sacrament dedicates a person to full time religious service. This can either be as a monk or a nun, in which case it is as part of a Religious Order. The most well known Orders are those of the Jesuits, the Benedictines (who follow the Rule of St Benedict), or the Franciscans (who follow the teachings of St Francis). The other form of Holy Orders the person is sworn to the Church herself, firstly as a deacon, and then, later, a priest. Monks who are also priests are referred to as 'Father'; monks who are not priests are called 'Brother'.
- Annnointing 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 ill. The person is annointed with oil by a priest, who prays for their healing and forgiveness of their sins.
As a minor aside point of interest, as priests take vows of celibacy, the only Catholics who can receive all seven of the sacraments are married men who then apply to join the permanent Deaconate, and become Deacons in the Church. However, once they have been ordained to the Deaconate, they cannot then marry.
There's already a great article in the Guide that talks about Cool Patron Saints and describes the Catholic practice of asking Saints to pray for you. Other popular saints that are called upon by Catholics include Saint Anthony, patron of lost objects; Saint Therese of Lisieux, the 'Little Flower', and Saint Francis of Assisi.
The issue 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 teaching still remains. After death, if a soul is not completely made perfect, then God graciously allows it some 'time'12 in Purgatory, where any lingering sin, and attachment to sin and this world is burned away. This is because only that which is perfect can enter Heaven. The souls in Purgatory are supposedly joyful, because they know that at the end of their suffering there, they will be admitted to Heaven. Those still on Earth can pray for the souls in Purgatory, and have Masses said on their behalf.
Indulgences can still be obtained - for instance, in the Jubilee year of 2000, a plenary indulgence (remission of all sins committed) could be obtained, either for yourself or for a deceased person, by entering certain cathedrals, saying a set prayer, receiving Eucharist and praying for the Pope. Various other ways of obtaining full or partial indulgences exist, although it tends to be certain more traditional churches who focus upon them.
Confession is a Sacrament to Catholics - i.e. it is a channel by which God's grace is received. These days, since the Vatican II Council, it has become known as 'Reconciliation' and many churches have replaced the dark confession booths with Reconciliation Rooms, where 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 'set prayers', and the penitant is encouraged to talk to God in their own words. One priest has described the process as 'whispering in the ear of God', with the priest there as a representative of Jesus, and speaking as the Lord when he says the words of absolution, forgiving the person their sin. Actually hearing this spoken aloud can be extremely reassuring.
There are many sites on the Web that will give more information about the Catholic Church and its teachings:
- The Vatican Find out what the Pope's up to thse days.
- Catholic Net - a good starting point for surfing.
- As is Catholic.org
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church - the full whack of what the Church teaches, online to peruse.
- The Catholic Encyclopedia Completed in 1918, so not including any of the more recent developments, this is still an incredible resource of information.