Roman Catholic Church

From New World Encyclopedia
Church of the Primacy of St. Peter on the Sea of Galilee. The church is on the site where, according to Catholic tradition, the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples and established Peter's supreme jurisdiction.

The Roman Catholic Church or Catholic Church is the Christian Church in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, currently Pope Benedict XVI. It traces its origins to the original Christian community founded by Jesus Christ and led by the Twelve Apostles, in particular Saint Peter.

The Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church and the largest organized body of any world religion.[1] The majority of its membership is in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

As the oldest branch of Christianity, the history of the Catholic Church plays an integral part of the History of Christianity as a whole. Over time, schisms have disrupted the unity of Christianity. The major divisions occurred in 318 C.E. with Arianism, in 1054 with the East-West Schism with the Eastern Orthodox Church and in 1517 with the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church has been the moving force in some of the major events of world history including the evangelization of Europe and Latin America, the spreading of literacy and the foundation of the Universities, hospitals, monasticism, the development of Art, Music and Architecture, the Inquisition, the Crusades, an analytical philosophical method, and the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century.


Martyrdom of St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch appointed by Saint Peter.

Catholic (katholikos in Greek) with a small c means universal or not narrow-minded, partial, or bigoted. General usage, both within and outside the Church, is that Catholic with a capital C refers to that historical Christian church, continuous with the Apostles and currently centered in Rome. Catholics claim to be founded by Jesus the Christ and to be the authentic declaration of the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the centuries.

The Church is composed of eight distinct rites or traditions with the Pope as its leader. Each of these rites has its own set of customs, laws, ways of worship, doctrinal emphases, languages, and communal traditions. These are: the Armenian, Byzantine, Caldean (East Syrian), Coptic, Ethiopian, Marionite, Roman (Latin), and West Syrian. In general these reflect the Eastern Roman Empire which is composed of the rites acknowledging the Pope in Rome and Christian churches who do not acknowledge his full authority. The Roman or Latin Rite, which has its origins in the Western Roman Empire, is by far the largest and most well known of these traditions. Some mistake this Rite to be the only representative of the Catholic Church. This mistake is made because of its size and because it has the Bishop of Rome as both its Patriarch and its Pope. The adjective “Catholic” began to be used in reference to the Christian church by Ignatius of Antioch (second century). “Roman” was added to “Catholic” by many Christians as a result of two serious breaches of collegiality among the Christian Churches. The first breach was in the eleventh century between Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity centered in Constantinople and Western Christianity centered in Rome. The second in the sixteenth century among Western Christians – Protestant, mainly Northern Europe, and Catholic, Southern Europe. “Old” Catholics is a title given to Roman Catholics who refused to recognize the authority of the Council Vatican I (1870).

The Catholic Church is a currently a worldwide organization made up of one Latin Rite and 22 Eastern Rite particular Churches, all of which have the Holy See of Rome as their highest authority on earth. It is divided into jurisdictional areas, usually on a territorial basis. The standard territorial unit is called a diocese in the Latin Rite and an eparchy in the Eastern Rites, each of which is headed by a bishop.


For the first 250 years it was a martyrs' church; the persecutions were fueled by the refusal of Christians to worship the state and the Roman emperor. There were persecutions under Nero, Domitian, Trajan and the other Antonines, Maximin, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian and Galerius; Decius ordered the first official persecution in 250. In 313, Constantine I and Licinius announced toleration of Christianity in the Edict of Milan. In the East the church passed from persecution directly to imperial control inaugurated by Constantine, enshrined later in Justinian's laws. In the West the church remained independent because of the weakness of the emperor and the well-established authority of the bishop of Rome.

From the ninth century to 1520 the church was free for centuries from grave interference from civil rulers. Charlemagne was the exception. In the chaotic ninth and tenth centuries every part of the church organization, including the papacy, came under attack from the secular rulers.

The restoration of order began in monasteries; from Cluny a movement spread to reform Christian life. This pattern of decline of religion followed by reform is characteristic of the history of the Roman Catholic Church; the reform goals have varied, but they have included the revival of spiritual life in society and the monasteries, and the elimination of politics from the bishops' sphere and venality from the papal court. The next reform (eleventh century) was conducted by popes, notably Saint Gregory VII and Urban II. Part of this movement was to exclude civil rulers from making church appointments—the beginning of a 900-year battle between the church and the “Catholic princes.”

The twelfth century was a time of great intellectual beginnings. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians revived practical mystical prayer. Gratian founded the systematic study of the Canon Law, and medieval civil law began its development. This double study was to provide weapons to both sides in the duel between the extreme papal claims of Innocent III and Innocent IV, and the antipapal theories of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Also in the twelfth century, Peter Abelard and other thinkers pioneered the rationalist theology.

Oldest image of Saint Dominic (unknown author, fourteenth century) (Basilic of Saint Dominic, Bologna, Italy.

From early rationalist theology and from the teachings of Aristotle developed the philosophies and theologies of Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas. This was the work of the new thirteenth-century universities; to them, and to the friars—the Dominicans and Franciscans—who animated them, passed the intellectual leadership held by the monasteries. Saint Dominic's order was formed to preach against the Albigenses (a campaign that also produced the Inquisition). The vast popular movement of Saint Francis of Assisi was a spontaneous reform contemporary with the papal reform of the Fourth Lateran Council. The thirteenth century saw also the flowering of Gothic architecture.

The contest between church and state continued, ruining the Hohenstaufen dynasty and, in the contest between Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France, bringing the papacy to near ruin. Then came the Avignon residence—the so-called Babylonian captivity of the papacy (1309–1378), a time of good church administration, but of excessive French influence over papal policy. Except for isolated voices, such as that of Saint Catherine of Siena, the church seemed to lose energy, and a long period devoid of reform began. A long-enduring schism and a series of ambitious councils followed.

There were popular religious movements, characterized by revivalism and a tendency to minimize the sacraments (along with church authority); they encouraged private piety, and one group produced the inspirational Imitation ascribed to Thomas à Kempis. The popular tendencies were extreme in John Wycliffe, who developed an antisacramental, predestinarian theology emphasizing Bible study—a “protestant” movement 150 years before Protestantism.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The fifteenth-century councils did little for reform, and the popes, stripped of power, were unable to cope with the Protestant revolt of Martin Luther and John Calvin and the ensuing Protestant Reformation. The Protestants aimed to restore primitive Christianity (as described in the Bible), and they succeeded in weakening the hold of the church in all of Northern Europe, in Great Britain, and in parts of Central Europe and Switzerland. Politics and religion were completely intertwined (as in England, Scotland, and France).

Council of Trent in Santa Maria Maggiore church, ca. 1600, Museo Diocesiano Tridentino, Trento, Italy

Pope Paul III initiated the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform, and to address contentious issues such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses. The Council clearly rejected specific Protestant positions and upheld the basic structure of the Medieval Church, its sacramental system, religious orders, and doctrine. It rejected all compromise with the Protestants, restating basic tenets of the Catholic faith.

With the reign of Pope Paul IV (1555-1559), known for his resolute determination to eliminate Protestantism and the ineffectual institutional practices of the Church that contributed to its appeal, came the Counter-Reformation. Two of his key strategies were the Inquisition and censorship of prohibited books. The Papacy of Pius V (1566-1572), represented a strong effort not only to crack down against heretics and worldly abuses within the Church, but also to improve popular piety in a determined effort to stem the appeal of Protestantism. As pontiff he practiced the virtues of a monk and was known for daily meditations on bent knees.

Statue depicting Ignatius of Loyola trampling heresy in the Church of St. Johns in Vilnius, Lithuania.

From this effort to stem the tide of Protestantism came new religious orders. Orders such as the Capuchins, Ursulines, Theatines, the Barnabites, and especially the Jesuits strengthened rural parishes, improved popular piety, helped to curb corruption within the church, and set examples that would be a strong impetus for Catholic renewal.

The Jesuits, founded by the Spanish nobleman and ex-soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), were the most effective of the new Catholic orders. His Societas de Jesus was founded in 1534 and received papal authorization in 1540 under Paul III. Loyola's masterwork Spiritual Exercises reflected the emphasis of handbooks characteristic of the earlier generation of Catholic reformers before the Reformation. The efforts of the Jesuits are largely credited with stemming Protestantism in Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, southern Germany, France, and the Spanish Netherlands. They also strongly participated in the expansion of the Church in Latin America and Asia, conducting efforts in missionary activity that far outpaced even the aggressive Protestantism of the Calvinists.

In France, Catholicism found new life, beginning with Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Vincent de Paul. There, too, began the cult of the Sacred Heart (i.e., God's love for men), which would affect Catholic prayer everywhere. A contrary influence was Jansenism, an antisacramental middle-class movement.

The Seventeenth through Nineteenth Centuries

The seventeenth century saw an increase of state control over the church in all the Catholic countries, and in the eighteenth century the Bourbons began a course openly aimed at eliminating the papacy. The suppression of the Jesuits was part of the campaign, which reached a climax in the legislation of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. The revolutionary movement eventually destroyed the Catholic princes, and the church had to live with secular states, some anti-Catholic, some tolerant. The facts of the change were not clear at once, and for much of the nineteenth century the popes (and other Catholics) would look back to an idealized eighteenth-century golden age before “liberalistic” atheism and materialism. The last of these popes was Pius IX, who was forced to give up the Papal States. In denouncing the dogma of papal infallibility Pius did much to cement church unity.

In Pius's successor, Leo XIII, the church found new leadership; he and his successors worked and preached to urge Catholics to take part in modern life as Catholics, abandoning reactionary dreams and seeking some social reform. In some countries Catholic political parties were formed. Meanwhile oppressive conditions and the development of a mass socialist movement combined to detach much of the working class from the church. Otto von Bismarck (in Germany and “liberal” governments (in Italy, France, and Portugal) passed hostile measures, especially against religious orders.

The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Portrait of Leo XIII from the Vatican album of the Ecumenical Council (1898).

In the twentieth century the tensions between the church and national governments sometimes led to outright suppression of the church, as in the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe, Mexico, Spain, and China. Mussolini and Hitler also ruined as much of the church as they could. The 20th century was marked more noticeably, however, by new trends in the practice and outlook of the church. The encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891), was followed by the Quadrigesimo Anno (1931) of Pius XII, and the Mater et Magistra (1961) of John XXIII, the Progressio Populorum (1967) of Paul VI, and the Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centessimus Annus (1991) of John Paul II. The purpose of these was to fundamentally readjustment to the moral and social problems of modern life and a greater stress upon the role of the laity in the church. Linked with this was a movement for church “renewal” both by laity and the clergy. This was particularly strong in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States.

Another revival involved the restoration of relations between the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and various Protestant churches.

All of these “progressive” currents came together at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), which, under Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, initiated broad reforms in the areas of public worship, government, and ecumenism. The long-reigning John Paul II made the church more international and continued his predecessors ecumenical trends, but he affirmed (as the popes preceding him did) the church's traditional stands on marriage, abortion, homosexuality, and other doctrinal matters, opposed relaxing the rule of celibacy, and reemphasized the primacy of the Vatican in church government.

The church began the twenty-first century confronting a major crisis concerning sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests and a challenge by an archbishop to change their rules of celibacy for priests.

In May 2001 the former Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, of Zambia (age 71), was excommunicated when he married a Korean woman in a group wedding conducted by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.[2] After briefly leaving his wife and returning to the Vatican, Archbishop Milingo returned to her in 2006 and started a group known as Married Priests Now!, which calls for priests who are currently married, and all national and international married priest organizations to unite in an open call to the Roman Catholic Church to reconcile married priests to active service.[3]

In 2002 multiple revelations that some bishops had allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to remain in the priesthood and to continue to perform their duties in situations where abuse could and sometimes did recur sparked outrage in the United States; such cases were also not reported to civil authorities. Various dioceses faced civil lawsuits and criminal investigations, several bishops resigned after their involvement in sexual relationships was revealed, and Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston resigned because of criticism over his handling of sex abuse charges. The issue led to a meeting between American cardinals and the pope in Rome, and, after a meeting of American bishops and discussions with the Vatican, to the establishment of new policies that included barring a priest who has sexually abused a minor from any ministerial role and that committed the hierarchy to alert legal authorities to instances of abuse.


The history of Catholicism is the story of how Christianity began and developed until the present day. That history is written using the perspective of contemporary Catholicism to discern both authenticity and the historical strands that sustain that authenticity.

The spokespersons for this authenticity are the pope and bishops. Their most important statements are written in Latin. Not all statements have the same authority of claim to such authenticity. The historical reality is that those responsible for providing interpretation of the teachings have developed methods for distinguishing the most authoritative statements from the least authoritative. They have also developed methods for indicating what is called a “hierarchy of truths” so people know what are the most important doctrines.

The word Imprimatur (Let it be published) is found on materials dealing with matters of faith and morals. It is usually found on the first or second page of a book and indicates that the local bishop has given his approval that there is nothing in this book that is against what is stated as authoritative in matters of faith and morals for Catholics. Other terms such as imprimi potest (able to be printed) and nihil obstat (nothing hinders) may also be found. Again, indicating that there is nothing against Catholic faith and morals in this material.

The principal sources of authentic Catholic doctrine are: Catechism of the Catholic Church, Code of Canon Law (Latin-English Edition), and The Rites of the Catholic Church. As official documents they were originally written in Latin. Latin has always been the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Originally it was the language of the Roman Empire but gradually, with the advent of the various vernaculars, it became the official language of the Catholic Church. Until the end of the 20th century all liturgical celebrations such as Sunday Mass, Baptisms, and Marriages used Latin. All clergy learned to read, speak, and write Latin as part of their training. Today it is still used in official documents although the majority of these were originally written in a modern language.

Today, these sources are the result of centuries of development updates and have been adjusted to current circumstances by the authority of the bishops and/or the pope. There are many other documents written by the pope, individual bishops, bishops gathered together in synod, members of the pope’s or a bishop’s curia.( A curia is a group of people who help a pope or bishop govern the people he leads.) Each document has only the authority given to it. For example the words of a pope in general audience, an encyclical, and a solemn pronouncement have different levels of authority.


Catholics believe that God shows us a common pattern of life that leads to a better world. This revelation is found in its purest form in the life, words and actions of Jesus who is both human and God. It may also be found in the Christian Bible, which is the principle touchstone of revelation after Jesus, as well as in the world around us and its natural laws. Our individual and communal understanding of this revelation is aided by the use of our minds, statements of the pope, the bishops, the lives of holy people, and experts of various kinds. God is one and therefore the truths about God should be one. The sources of revelation, Bible and tradition, and the interpretations of this revelation should agree in order to claim this is who God is and what God wishes.

Catholics share the following with all Christians who accept the Creeds of the early church: belief in the Trinity; in God as Creator of Heaven and Earth; of Jesus as redeemer, messiah, savior, both human and divine; of the Holy Spirit as God who loves us unconditionally; of Jesus as our judge. They share with many Christians the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is also the mother of God and that Jesus was born through virgin birth. They believe too that the Christian Bible is the central book of faith and that the Church is the community of God’s people on earth so much so that it may be called Jesus’ body (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 10:17).

There are several beliefs which, while not necessarily unique to Catholics, are identifying characteristics in the total pattern of the Catholic way of life. These are: the Church as mediator, doctrines and customs associated with Jesus’ mother Mary, purgatory, the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine at the Eucharistic celebration (transubstantiation), and the role of the pope.

The Church as Mediator

“Church” has five meanings: 1) a gathering of the baptized, 2) a gathering of those of the local Catholic community, 3) all the baptized throughout the world, 4) all the Catholics throughout the world, 5) the building where Christians/Catholics gather for worship. When Catholics say that the “Church” is the mediator between God and humanity they mean that these gatherings of Catholics are the bridge between God and the individuals in the church community as well as the church community and others. Certainly Jesus is the mediator between us and his Father. Indeed, with all Christians, Catholics say salvation comes to people through the grace of God but they emphasize the principle role the church plays in mediating that grace to people through the sacraments, through the community, and through those who teach in succession to the Apostles, the bishops – particularly the bishop of Rome, the Pope.

The saints, especially Mary, Jesus’ mother, play a role in placing us in contact with God. Mary and the saints are all human but they are the interlocutors between God and us, us and God. “The Communion of Saints” is a phrase which refers to this type of mediation. Mary, as the mother of God, plays a central role in this communion. Catholic churches, art, hymns, poetry, and stories are filled with Mary acting to help the others in this communion of saints – the church. Sometimes people mistake this devotion to Mary as treating her as a God or a fourth person in the Trinity. This is not so even though Catholic doctrine affirms Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption into heaven. The dogma of Immaculate Conception says that Mary began her life as a human without Original Sin and filled with God’s grace. Two theological metaphors many times provide the substrate of further discussion of this dogma: Original Sin as “stain,” and “grace” as an energizing fluid. Sometimes this dogma is confused with the “Virgin Birth” which is the belief that Jesus, not Mary, became human without a human father. The doctrine of the Incarnation also refers to Jesus, not Mary.


The doctrine of purgatory states simply that when a person dies with an imperfect relationship with God they are able to perfect that relationship through a purification/betterment of their personality. Usually this doctrine is presented within a pre-Copernican cosmology which places heaven above, hell below, and purgatory in between. It is also presented with the typical ancient Western philosophical distinction between body and soul, along with the theological metaphor of sin as a “stain” on this soul. Thus “purgatory” is a place where a person’s soul goes after death to be cleansed of the stain of sin so they can enjoy the “beatific vision” of God for all eternity in heaven.


Aside from the doctrines of “heaven” and “hell,” which they share with most Christians, and the doctrine of “purgatory” which they share with a few, many Catholics still retain an affirmation of another after life place, limbo, It is a place where the non-baptized dead can enjoy eternal happiness without God. The famous theologian St. Augustine ( d. 430 ) started with the premise that only the baptized can get to heaven, thus everyone else goes to hell. Other theologians had difficulty seeing how a good God who intended salvation for all could send all the non-baptized, including babies, to hell and developed the idea of limbo. Today it is seldom invoked and is not found in the Catechism. A ritual remnant of it may be found at times in Catholics baptizing a dead fetus or new born so, according to their view, they would enter heaven.


A priest administering the sacrament of the Eucharist to a communicant.

All Christians gather on Sunday to read the scriptures, sing, pray, reflect, eat and drink. Most Christians do all these things. Some only eat and drink once a month. Some names they give to what they are doing are: Worship, Lord’s Supper, Communion, Divine Liturgy, and Eucharist. Catholics generally call it “Mass “or “Holy Mass.” The Catholic Mass is divided into two parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In official documents the term Eucharistic Liturgy is used instead of Mass.

The Catholic Catechism states that The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (#1324) and The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. (#1325).

The focus of the first part is upon the readings from the Bible which are read according to a three year cycle. These readings are supplemented with song, prayer, and a homily. A homily is a sermon given, usually by the priest, reflecting and applying the readings to contemporary life. Catholics believe that Jesus is present in these readings. The readings from the Bible, usually called scriptures by Catholics, are understood to be God speaking to the people and Jesus “…present in his own word.” The focus in the second part, as a result of several historical developments, is upon the bread and the wine and in particular the bread. Catholics believe that Jesus is also present at Mass in the bread and in the wine. “Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ.” (#1377) Most Christians believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharistic celebration in many ways. So do Catholics. (#1374)

Transubstantiation is a term that has come to distinguish how Catholics understand Jesus’ unique presence in the Eucharistic species. Throughout the centuries Catholic theologians have sought to understand the reality this term suggests. That same reality is often misunderstood by both Catholics and non Catholics. Transubstantiation summarizes where the theologians and Church authorities were in this understanding in the sixteenth century. Whether it conveys the same meaning today as it did in past centuries is a matter of controversy. Part of this ancient way of thinking made a distinction between “substance,” what makes a thing to be what it is, and “accident” what provides the means through which the five senses may engage substance such as weight, smell, taste, and touch. Thus “trans” “substantiation” says that the substance of the bread and the wine are replaced by the substance of Jesus in both the bread and the wine while the accidents remain the same. It does not say that Jesus’ body is in the bread without his blood; nor his blood in the wine, without the body. Actually it’s saying that whatever makes Jesus to be who he is (substance) is in both the bread and the wine. Not his accidents. Remember too that the Jesus we are speaking about here is Jesus as he lives now, not as he lived in Jerusalem. The bottom line, without the philosophical language, is that Catholics point to the bread and the wine and say “Jesus” is really there, “real presence,” as they call it.

This belief in Jesus’ real presence had consequences in architecture, devotion, sacramental practice, and ritual procedures during the Mass. The belief says that Jesus is always in the bread and wine after certain words, called the “Words of Consecration,” are said. This belief was enhanced by certain cultural presuppositions that resulted in the consequences mentioned above. These were the presuppositions of Jesus as God, as King, and as principally present in the bread (host). These enhancements within the Medieval culture resulted in deemphasizing his humanity, brotherhood, service and his presence in the wine. Because Jesus was God mere humans could not touch the Eucharist, only special people such as the bishop or priest could do so after their hands were anointed with oil and blessed. To chew the host would allow one to chew God! Actually it became more important to see Jesus than to eat and drink the bread and wine, thus the priest would lift the bread and wine for all to see after the words of Consecration. Because Jesus was King his subjects should acknowledge his kingship as they did a human king by genuflections and other forms of kneeling. Because Jesus was in the host it should be available at all times for people to pray to him, see him, sing to him, acknowledge his Lordship and Kingship by long hours of adoration. Ceremonies such as 40 hours devotion, Benediction, prayers after and during Mass, and infrequent reception of Communion all resulted from this Medieval view of real presence so that when Popes in the twentieth century began to re-emphasize other things about the Eucharistic celebration such as its being a meal where people eat and drink, it took almost one hundred years for people to eat and drink at Mass. Even still few Catholics drink the wine at Mass.

Papal Primacy and Infallibility

The role of the bishop of Rome, the pope, has always been a matter of controversy in the Christian Church. Because both Saint Peter and Saint Paul were martyred in Rome, the Christian community in Rome was acknowledged by all Christians to have central importance in the Church. The Bishop of Rome was the successor to both these Apostles. The Bishop of Rome was, at least originally, also the Bishop of the Christian church in the most important city in the Roman Empire. Consequently he was important among the Christian community of Churches as well as politically as a spokesperson for Christianity at the center of political power. That, you might say, is how it all began in the first century: a small group of persecuted Christians gathered around their leader, the Bishop of Rome. Approximately nineteen hundred years later the Bishop of Rome is head of Vatican City and head of a church with over a billion members. The controversy is greatly influenced by cultural circumstances such as when there were multiple popes and when many of them lived scandalous lives. In the context of the 20th century two celebrity popes, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, put a warm, human, devout face on the papacy which strengthened their role, given by the media, as principle spokesperson of Christianity. While many non-Catholics remember the popes of the Middle Ages, contemporary Catholics remember the engaging spiritual countenance of popes projected around the world by television.

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.

There are many religious terms used to describe this role but two non-religious terms highlight the uniqueness of the papacy vis a vis other Christian churches: primacy and infallibility. Papal Primacy means that in addition to his moral leadership the pope has the coercive authority to rule the church. Papal Infallibility means that the pope’s statements, under certain conditions, do not contain error. Catholic doctrine also recognizes that the Church itself and all the bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, are infallible. Yet, it is the infallibility of the pope that has gained the most attention since Vatican Council I (1870). Primacy is authority: “Do this; don’t do that.” Infallibility is a truth claim: “Jesus is human.”

The Second Council of Lyons (1274) says it best “The holy Roman Church possesses the supreme and full primacy and authority over the universal Catholic Church which it recognizes in truth and humility to have received with fullness of power from the Lord himself in the person of Blessed Peter…” The Bishop of the Rome, therefore, possesses this jurisdictional power. Many Christian Churches recognize that the Bishop of Rome has the primacy of honor. No one recognizes it has jurisdictional authority. How this fits into the ancient views of the communion and collegiality of churches throughout the world is a constant source of friction within the Catholic Church as evidenced in its history and most recently at Vatican Council II (1962-65). Part of the friction, too, is caused by a type of ersatz Papal Primacy and Infallibility in which every word and action of the pope is seen to be that of God.

The doctrine of Papal Infallibility is often misunderstood because of this ersatz Papal infallibility. Only God is totally immune from error. Church documents are very clear about what Papal Infallibility is while many clerics and people are not. Here is what Vatican I (1870) declared regarding Papal Infallibility in the conclusion of the fourth chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Pastor Aeternus: We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema. (Denziger §1839). Note that infallibility is not defined but rather that the Pope has the infallibility that the Church has. Note too the conditions of ex cathedra (from the See): He speaks as head of the Church and invokes full authority. He speaks on faith or morals. He speaks to all believers. Infallibility does not mean that the pope is sinless, that the pope is omniscient, that the pope gets special revelations from God, or that he alone possesses infallibility. Actually the ability to exercise papal infallibility pertains to the office, not the person. If the person who is bishop of Rome resigns being that bishop, he can not longer make an infallible declaration.


Wrocław, Poland (2006): crowds of people visiting cemetery on All Saints holy day (November 1st)

Sundays are important to Roman Catholicism. Easter Sunday has always been of central importance in celebrating Jesus’ resurrection to new life after being crucified on Friday. Every Sunday of the year is a celebratory remembrance of his death and resurrection. The term “Paschal (Easter) Mystery” refers to this life-death event that Catholics’ believe they participate in together with Jesus. Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit among the first Christians and the beginning of the Church. Christmas has gradually grown as an important day of celebration over the centuries although for Eastern Rite Catholics Epiphany (January 6) is still more important than Christmas. The times of fast such as Advent, before Christmas, and Lent, before Easter are times set aside for interior spiritual renewal. There are other important “feast,” or celebratory, days called Holy Days of Obligation. These are days particular to each nation which are set aside for Eucharistic celebrations to commemorate significant saints or events in the Church’s life such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, All Saints and All Souls days. Catholics have a “liturgical calendar” which marks the “liturgical year.” “Liturgy” being the times of Eucharistic celebration and what person or event is important to remember on that day.

These celebrations are composed of rituals that have developed over the last two thousand years. The most important ones, for example, Holy Week (the week before Easter) retains customs and ways of acting from the earliest centuries of the Church. Although the Roman Church abandoned Latin as the universal language for its Roman Rite celebrations after 1970, that language is gradually seeping back into all its major celebrations. Roman Catholicism shares, with all Christians, the use of ancient Hebrew by proclaiming Amen or Alleluias, ancient Greek by using the title Christ(os) for Jesus, ancient Latin by speaking of the Seven Sacraments (sacramenta). The celebrations of any community retain the old while acknowledging the newness of the present. Catholicism is no different.


Today seven particular celebrations are of importance to all Catholics. These are the seven sacraments. What they mean and how they are celebrated today is the result of a long history of development. Today there are seven sacraments titled: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation/Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, Marriage.

Sacraments of Initiation

The first three Sacraments are generally titled The Sacraments of Christian Initiation because they provide a person’s full entry into communion with the Catholic community. The appropriate time for the celebration of Baptism is at the Easter Vigil Mass. Generally it is celebrated within Sunday Mass. A person’s age is not a restriction for baptism. Anyone may be baptized. If one is baptized as an infant one is required to become educated in the Catholic faith; if as an adult, one participates in a long process called The Christian Initiation of Adults. Catholics usually pour water over the person’s head or, less seldom, immerse the person in the water. Although there are many prayers said in the total celebration there is always included in some way “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Catholics believe that as a result of the baptismal celebration (sacrament) the individual is forgiven all their sins, born into a new life which includes their being adopted by God the Father as a daughter or son of the Father, a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit. “By this very fact the person baptized is incorporated in the Church, the body of Christ, and made a sharer in the priesthood of Christ.” (Catechism #1279).

St. James Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada (1923).

The ritual of Confirmation was always included with baptism in the early Church and still is today among Catholics of the Eastern Rites. Roman Rite Catholics separated the ritual of anointing from baptism early on in its history and reserved that anointing to the bishop. Today Catholics of the Latin rite are Confirmed by the local Bishop or his delegate usually around the time of Pentecost in a ceremony which always includes the laying of his hand on the person’s head and anointing that person with blessed oil saying “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Catechism #1300). Many Roman Rite Infants are also receiving Confirmation with Baptism. Eastern Catholics, usually anointing an infant, anoint forehead, eyes, nose, ears, lips, hand, and feet saying “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Confirmation emphasizes and deepens one’s life in the Holy Spirit as it completes Baptism. (Catechism #1316)

Catholics believe that God is present in and acts through these sacramental celebrations. As a consequence of God’s action the sacramental celebration changes things. We have already seen this in talking about transubstantiation. The term “Sacramental Character” (Greek: karakter, distinctive mark) is used to indicate that change in the person in three sacraments. The person has been changed by God. Thus there is no need to be re-Baptized or Confirmed again. Another sacrament, mentioned below, that has a Sacramental Character is Holy Orders.

The Eucharistic celebration is the final sacrament for those initiated into the Catholic church. At the same time it is a celebration that occurs every day and especially on Sunday. Every Sunday is a time for gathering and celebrating for Catholics in the Eucharistic celebration. Recently, however, in the industrialized West, for example the United States, some Catholics have a Communion Service where there is a liturgy of the Word and a service of communion but no Eucharistic liturgy. The reason is that only Priests may lead the Eucharistic liturgy and say the Words of Consecration. Because of a shortage of priests there are fewer Masses or Eucharistic celebrations.

Where there are Eucharistic celebrations they are composed, as already mentioned, of the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy. The Jewish roots of the Eucharistic celebration are still evident today in both the Liturgy of the Word using the general outline of ancient synagogue gatherings and the Eucharistic liturgy using the Jewish prayers of thanksgiving and praise (eucharistia in Greek) said by the head of the household at meals and at the Passover meal over the bread and the wine. The Holy Scriptures are the focus of the Liturgy of the Word; the bread and wine prayed over, eaten, and drunk are essential to the Liturgy of Eucharist.

Except where there is a dense clerical gathering most Catholic Masses will have many ordinary Catholics helping celebrate it. The priest is evident since he presides over the entire celebration from a special chair in the front of the assembled people and is vested, or dressed, differently than everyone else. Many others are present to help celebrate the Mass: the deacon and altar servers are also dressed differently, as is the choir sometimes. Of course there are the vast majority of Catholics who form the main body of celebrants. But there are also many “ministers” who greet you at the door, take up the collection, sing in the choir, direct the choir, help at the altar table, read the holy scriptures, and distribute communion. The bread is usually not leavened and the wine is in one or several chalices. Communion is the sharing of the bread and the wine by individual celebrants by forming a line so each receive a “host” (piece of bread) in their hand or placed on their tongue and offered the wine to drink from one of the chalices. Upon doing so they return to their seat. Catholics are asked to fast for one hour from solid food before receiving communion. For the most part all Catholics in good standing go to communion. This is a dramatic shift from the centuries old practice of not receiving that resulted from the, then, emphasis upon the Eucharistic celebration as sacrifice and producer of Jesus’ real presence in the bread. Since the early part of the twentieth century popes and then the bishops, by mid century, were emphasizing the many presences of Jesus at Mass as well as the memorial prayer of thanksgiving-praise (Eucharist) at the meal-sacrifice which necessitated the completion of the meal by eating the bread and drinking the wine.

Because of the many practical abuses consequent upon the Medieval concept of the Mass as sacrifice, the Protestant reformers refused to consider the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic celebration. A reconsideration of the early church’s view of the Eucharistic celebration as memorial has enabled many theologians of the original Protestant Churches and contemporary Catholics to join with the New Testament and early Church in recognizing the sacrificial nature of the Mass. Catholics believe that when they gather in Jesus’ name to remember what he has done he is really present. He is present as the one who sacrificed himself for all on the cross. It is this sacrificed Jesus, now resurrected, who celebrates with them at every Mass. (Catechism 1407-1410). Joined with this resurrected Jesus in memory, Eucharistic prayer, and eating and drinking the Catholic believes there is a deep communion between the individual celebrating the Mass with Jesus and with all other Christians present and not present. Resulting from the Mass is a deep communion of the baptized (saints) throughout time enabling them to petition God for help in every day matters, as well as for forgiveness of sin, as well as for a deeper unity among them in every day ecclesial affairs. The hope is that from this communion the Kingdom will come in which all will be able to enjoy the presence of Jesus “face to face” as Paul says.

Sacraments of Healing

Both the Kingdom of God and Salvation are for real people: body, soul, spirit. In a like manner “healing” is always wholistic: to “heal” body is to heal soul and spirit; to heal soul and spirit is to heal the body. Reconciliation emphasizes the spirit; Anointing of the Sick, the body.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, in New York City. Photograph by David Shankbone (2006)

The principle celebration of reconciliation with the community and God through forgiveness of sins in the Catholic church is called Confession, Penance, and/or Reconciliation. Each title emphasizing one aspect of this sacrament: the confessing of sins, the making up (satisfaction) for the sins committed (penance), the deepening of one’s life with God as a consequence of abandoning a life of sin (reconciliation). The twenty-first century witnesses several modes of celebrating this sacrament. Each of these necessitates the same elements of: sorrow for sin, asking for forgiveness, promising not to sin again, making up for the consequences of one’s sins, telling one’s sins to a representative of God and the Church (the priest), and a prayer of forgiveness. The manner of celebration may be individual, where the penitent comes into a special room and, in a counseling atmosphere, reviews one’s life with God and desire for conversion into a deeper life with God. The priest helps the person look more deeply into her or his life and offers means to do so which includes a penance for past sins along with a prayer of forgiveness. Sometimes the older, more secretive mode, of individual confession occurs where one enters into the narrow confines of a closet like structure, kneels, and, through a screen like window, tells the priest one’s sins, is given a penance, and is absolved of one’s sins. A communal form of penance is celebrated in may Catholic churches. One form is where through scripture readings, prayer, song, sermon, and examination of conscience one is invited to reflect on a sinful life. At the end of the ceremony you are invited to meet individually with a priest for absolution, the forgiveness of sins. There is also a form of communal celebration of reconciliation with general confession (one does not declare their individual sins aloud) and general absolution. This is usually had in a situation where it is impossible for all these people to go to an individual priest. (Catechism # 1480-1484)

As a result of these various types of celebration Catholics believe their sins are forgiven, God enters more deeply into their lives, their life is renewed to begin again the struggle to build the Kingdom and enter more deeply into God’s life.

Anointing of the Sick is celebrated sometimes individually with only a few people and at other times with a large number of people, usually in a church or hospital chapel. It is to ask God to heal, to provide energy and strength in the midst of illness, to forgive sins of the one anointed. It is done by the priest laying hands and, usually, anointing the head of the sick person. In large gatherings there are readings of scripture, song, homilies, and prayers that provide a context for the laying on of hands and anointing. For the last half of the second millennium this sacrament was called Extreme Unction because, over time, it became reserved for those near death, thus, “extreme,” or last; “unction,” or anointing. Vatican Council II returned to the more traditional, and scriptural, emphasis upon healing the sick. Often, when it was called Extreme Unction, it was mistaken as the Last Rite for Catholics near death. The last rite, celebration, or sacrament, is Eucharist, usually titled Viaticum when received near death in memory of Jesus’ statement in Saint John’s gospel …Who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. (Jn 6:54). The Last Rites are: Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, and Viaticum.

Sacraments of Service to Community

The means through which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop in the Roman Catholic Church is ordination. It is the means through which the person enters into the Holy Order of deacons, priests, bishops. An “order,” from the times of the Roman Empire, is a group of people so designated for governing the people. The fullness of the Sacrament is found in the bishop and secondarily in the priest or presbyter. The deacon’s role is to help them and the people they serve. The bishop is to serve the people of the local church and, in union with the other bishops, the entire church. The bishop is responsible for both local and universal church but primarily for the local church which responsibility of service he shares with priests and deacons. The priest is the co-worker with the bishop in the service of the sacraments, teaching, bringing the people together in and for peace and justice. Priests and Deacons in the Latin rite of the Roman Catholic church are to remain celibate throughout their lifetime of service. Deacons may be married. In the Eastern rites of the Roman Catholic Church priests may be married but the bishop may not be. Sometimes priests from other Christian churches become Roman Catholic. These priests many times are married and, while still married, function as priests in the Latin Rite Churches of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes that when a man and women marry each other in the presence of a priest they are married forever. They are bound to be community to each other. This marriage, in which each partner is a minister of the marriage to the other, is a reflection of God’s covenant love to each of them and to the world. In their own way this is joining in the Order of the married (Catechism #1631) For those who are physically able marriage is understood to be the foundation of family life and the natural place for the procreation and raising of children. The intricacy of Marriage law in the church is such that it is best to consult a Canon Lawyer as to whether, in a troubled relationship, counseling, civil divorce, ecclesial dispensation, or declarations of invalidity are necessary regarding that relationship. In the end each marriage is unique as the reflection of God’s covenant love that they embody.

Other types of Celebrations

Because God is found in all of nature and all living things there are special times, ritual words and actions that bridge this presence of God and humans, especially Catholics, who participate in them. Because of this, bells are anointed, animals blessed, prayers said before meals, sports events, and public meetings. All of these occasions, and many more, the Catholic church calls sacramentals because, as in the original Greek which the Latin word sacramentum imitates, mysterion, God evidences the depth and mystery of his love and plan for us through all things and people. Catholic life is full of these sacramentals and some find the uniqueness of this Church in its rosaries, holy cards, novenas, healing shrines, manifestations of Mary, and so much more.

Moral Life

The living of a moral life in imitation of Jesus and in struggling to bring about the Kingdom of God is a challenge for every Christian. The Catholic shares with all Christians in this imitation and struggle. Together with every Christian, the Catholic follows the public norms evident in the beatitudes, the command to love everyone, the natural and Christian virtues, and the twofold commandment to love set forth in the Ten Commandments. (Catechism #1697) The Catholic shares with every Christian the more personal challenge of shaping a unique spirituality to discover, enliven, and challenge his or her call to build the Kingdom of God in imitation of Jesus.

Greek Catholic church (now Orthodox church) in Turzańsk, Poland.

The way, or pattern of life, which is contemporary Catholicism evidences its two thousand history in all its manifestations but especially in its ways of discerning how to live a moral life. This discernment depends not only upon a sensitive reading of the Christian scriptures but also attendance to the human sciences as well as the individual needs of its members. The Catholic church has been slow in recognizing the importance and usefulness of the social sciences but it has a long history of engagement with various philosophies, especially those of ancient Rome and Greece. The results of this engagement influenced authoritative proclamations on marriage, procreation, war, the end and beginning of human life, and civil and workers’ rights. It starts with the presupposition that there are moral laws able to be derived from the use of reason that are applicable to all humans everywhere, at all times. These moral laws, if broken, will cause the disintegration of self and society. While most Catholic theologians saw significant weaknesses in natural law theory from the mid-twentieth century onward, it was only from the late twentieth century onward that the authorities in the Church began to see the necessity of using more biblical based arguments for discerning human morality.

However another typical Catholic part of the pattern enters into this picture of describing Catholic morality through authoritative eyes: the difficulty of admitting the evolution and or change of Catholic moral law, doctrine, or sacramental thought and celebration. In this instance many of the distinctive Catholic moral stances originally were founded on natural law theory. Once stated, however, they obtain a life of their own and become binding upon Catholics everywhere because of natural law theory. This is true without considering whether these binding statements are infallible or even if a pope can make infallible statements about moral actions.

Another unique part of the Catholic moral stance is its continual attention to individual moral actions and case theory. Until the middle of the twentieth century most authoritative Catholic moral statements were developed with the sacrament of penance in mind. Penitents were to tell the priest what sins they committed and how many. The priest would attempt, when necessary, to understand what circumstances surrounded the commitment of these sins so as to ascertain the penitent’s penance for them. Catholic moral theology developed around case studies: individual actions with specific intentions done under certain circumstances that broke divine or natural law. These actions were then judged by the priest as venial, mortal or no sin at all. This juridical nature of Catholic moral theology shaped both the theory and practice of Catholic moral life and authoritative decisions about it.

It is out of this mixture of divine and natural law used to judge individual actions that theologians argued about what should be done by Catholics and bishops and popes declared what was to be done. What follows suggests some of those decisions which make Catholic moral living unique within the general Christian mandate to love one another. We will concentrate on the three: Social Justice, Sex, and Life issues.

Social Justice

The work for peace and justice has become, from the official perspective, an identifying characteristic of Roman Catholicism. In particular the positions associated with the call for social justice are seen as essential to living a Catholic’s baptismal pledge to follow Jesus. From the end of the 19th century onward the Catholic Church began to wrestle with the real human problems consequent upon modern economics and globalization. The Catholic Catechism takes up some of these issues in its consideration of the seventh commandment, “Thou shall not steal.” It does so using all the tools tradition provides. The results of this work challenge how individuals and nations do business. It begins with certain presuppositions that contrast with many contemporary ideologies. Two of which are: that everything on this earth is destined for the good of all and that the human person is primarily social. This “common good,” should norm our relationships with each other and our communities.

Four themes provide a brief review of this essential characteristic of contemporary Catholicism.

1. A Catholic is one who works for justice. Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or - in other words - of the church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation. This means that, from the Catholic perspective, acting justly and acting to insure just societal structures is necessary for the Catholic Church to fulfill its destiny.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta; Catholicism's most famous social justice activist

2. Our Individual Humanity is Dependent upon Our Relationship with Each Other The documents affirm and argue that one is fully human only in community. People are able to enjoy full humanity only when they are committed to bringing about a just society. As the U.S. bishops state: “How we organize our society - in economics and politics, in law and policy - directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.” This commitment of society to each individual is expressed in the “rights” language of the U.S. bishops already quoted and in the charter document of modern Catholic thought The Church in the Modern World (1965): Let everyone consider it his sacred obligation to count social necessities among the primary duties of modern man and to pay heed to them. [What are these necessities?] … food, clothing, and shelter, the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family; the right to education, to employment, to a good activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and to rightfully freedom in matters religious too.

Such a recognition of rights leads to a corresponding social responsibility of guaranteeing these rights to everyone. The economic consequences of this logic are clear: if everyone has a primary right to the earth’s goods and riches for their survival, then private ownership is never an end in itself. Private ownership, while strongly defended by the bishops, is understood to be a means to the better stewardship of such goods, their development and distribution. Ownership and use are subordinate to the prior right to the earth’s goods for the fulfillment of everyone’s basic needs. This principle is a challenge to the foundation of economic liberalism and to current practices of international trade.

3. People Are More Important Than Things The relationship of the economy and the free market is dealt with in the context of the communal nature of human beings. The bishops’ position is that the economy is for humanity not humans for the economy: Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. For instance, the bishops of South America state: A business, in an authentically human economy, does not identify itself with the owners of capital because it is fundamentally a community of persons and a unit of work which is in need of capital to produce goods. A person or a group of persons cannot be the property of an individual, of a society, or of the state.

Workers must become the responsible subjects or masters of their activity. They should never be equated to a tool of production or to so much mechanical or marketable energy. Work is human as the worker is human. The rights of workers have priority over the maximization of profits, over growth of capital or the introduction of new technology to that end. Individuals, groups and citizenry must retain some real and reasonable control over the socio-economic order. It is to favor such freedom and responsibility that the Canadian bishops have encouraged worker-participation in management, shared ownership, profit-sharing, cooperatives of all kinds, and small to medium enterprises.

4. The Poor Are The Most Important People Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor.

Although the cry for social justice is rooted in ancient philosophies and modern economics it was planted in the Catholic culture by the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus who said we would be judged by how we treated the homeless, hungry, thirsty, and those in jail. How Catholics hear that cry in first world countries will determine the fate of both the Catholic Church and the economically well off.

Sexual Morality

The development of Catholic understanding of sexual morals is dependent upon natural law theory especially its understanding of the universality of such a law and its view of an end or purpose of marriage being reproduction. Natural law would say that organs of the body have certain ends. For example, the eye’s end is to see. One treats the eye appropriately by making sure it can see. Human reproductive organs’ end is to produce babies. One should do all they can to guarantee this end is fulfilled. The current declarations, against artificial birth control, homosexual marriage, masturbation, and premarital intercourse as inherently evil and personally sinful result from these centuries of development. It should be mentioned that current Catholic thought does not see the only end of marriage as having children but also admits other ends such as love.

Beginning and End of Life Issues

These issues are usually summarized in discussions surrounding abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, war, and capital punishment. In the United States the controversial nature of these stances about moral evil usually divide into two slogans: Right to Life, dealing with abortion, and Seamless Garment, demanding equal emphasis upon abortion, euthanasia, and the social justice issues.

The official Catholic position is both clear and nuanced. To deliberately, consciously, and directly kill a human is intrinsically evil and a sin. Such killing is discussed under the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” in the Catholic Catechism. Hidden within such a clear statement about killing are discussions about what is a human, when does a human exist or cease to exist, and what does it mean to deliberately, consciously, and directly kill someone? These discussions, as mentioned above, take place within a two thousand year discussion about birth, death, consciousness, free will, and the biology of humans. They will continue over the next thousands of years.

At present the official Catholic position is that doing certain things may be immoral - For example, killing an innocent child or an innocent dying adult. Your level of responsibility for doing that wrong is dependent upon many things. For example, your car’s brakes were defective because of the weather and you ran over a child in the street; you were drinking and ran over the child; you were trying to avoid killing a squirrel and lost control of your car and hit the child. Circumstances modify human responsibility for an action. What you intend to do may also influence your responsibility for the action. The famous distinction between killing and letting die is one of these distinctions, as well as that between ordinary and extraordinary means of sustaining life. Nuance in morality is as important as nuance in life; it may be the difference between prison and/or sin.

Official Catholic policy, for example, supports hospice in its purpose of making the last moments of a person as physically, mentally, and spiritually comfortable. It does so because it does not advocate using every means possible to sustain life. But should the killing of another result in your own death, capitol punishment, or in the death of many others, war? These two moral dilemmas have undergone, and are undergoing, significant modifications in contemporary Catholicism. Perhaps the following quote from the Catholic Catechism summarizes best the current state of affairs: If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. (#2267)

The Catholic response to contemporary life reflects its struggle to adhere to the gospel of Jesus as it has been preached through the centuries. It shares with many people of good will and many Christians the general principles of compassion for one’s neighbor necessary to live in a global environment, while supporting specific means to bring these principles into action. It is the support of these means that provide the identity of the Roman Catholic Church today.

Thy Kingdom Come on Earth

Historians of the early Catholic church say that the room to house goods gathered for the poor many times was larger than the church itself. The origins of hospitals, education, and service to the needy are found in the churches and orders of religious men and women who tended to those in need. Only recently, in the historical scale of things, has service to the needy separated out from its religious origins. The Catholic church in many countries, but especially in the United States, supports large networks of care for the needy. The Catholic Church in the United States supports one of the largest health care networks, educational systems, and the charity services in the country. It must be remembered, however, that all of these networks, systems, and services are not coordinated but rather each is part of a diocese or order of religious men and women. What is important, however, is the fact that the Catholic church, as every Christian church, is not only concerned with God’s will and truth but also in God’s command to help those in need. A substantial part of every Catholic church’s budget goes to helping those in need as well as striving to bring peace and justice to our world.


The index of the Catholic Catechism has no references to spirituality. Yet over seven thousand offers are made on and over five thousand books on the Barnes and Noble website. The world and its billion Catholics obviously are seeking something beyond what the Catechism offers. At the same time the Roman Catholic church is rich with thousands of years of exploring and developing spiritualities. Most of the current spiritualities, while aware of the wonders of the past, are revealing new ways of encountering God, living the life of the Spirit, and advancing the Kingdom of God on earth.

Toward the end of the 20th century numerous factors intersected resulting in the burgeoning spiritualities’ movement among Catholics. Catholics involved in contemporary movements such as Charismatic renewal, the retreat movement, the House of Prayer movement, Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, Renew, and Peace and Justice, found that they were experiencing something their Religious Education did not prepare them for. At the same time theological education began to emphasize the role of experience in contemporary theological methods. When Catholics looked to the myriad Catholic spiritualities available to them, none met their needs. While aware of what the spiritualities suggested for dealing with religious experience, they tested new methods for how to live these new found experiences in the present. Meanwhile the entire Western Culture seemed to become involved in what was titled spirituality.

The result was that “Spirituality” is used in so many ways in contemporary speech that it is difficult to give it a precise meaning or get a general sense of where it is going. In general Catholics would agree with Elizabeth Dreyer’s description of Christian spirituality as … the daily, communal, lived expression of one’s ultimate beliefs characterized by openness to the self-transcending love of god, self, neighbor, and the world through Jesus Christ and in the Power of the Spirit.

Catholic spiritualities

A few tested Catholic practices have proven beneficial to the development of these new spiritualities: The discernment of spirits, A spiritual director, sensitivity to types of spirituality, and modes of spiritual development.

The discernment of spirits is a method offered by many traditional spiritualities. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) is one of the most prevalent today. Generally it occurs over a thirty day period with the aid of a spiritual director enabling one to discover how to live their life in the light of Gospel values. All traditional spiritualities have means of discerning spirits.

The practice of spiritual direction by one learned and experienced in the ways of the Spirit goes back to the first centuries of the Church’s existence. Most spiritual directors in modern society would be practiced in mental health counseling as well as in the discernment of spirits. One meets regularly with one’s spiritual director. By discussing one’s prayer and life experiences one comes to a mutual understanding of their meaning and the direction they indicate one should take in leading one’s life.

Two important types of spirituality are the ktaphatic and the apophatic. A katephatic spirituality will provide the means of discerning God’s presence in all created things; whereas apophatic spirituality attempts to transcend creation to discover God in the silence of God’s total otherness. Most traditional spiritualities were apophatic, oriented to monks and nuns, leading one out of the ordinary and everydayness of life to find God in the extraordinary. Most new spiritualities are katephatic, engaged in the everydayness of life’s experience enabling one to find God in the ordinary. Realistically speaking no one develops a totally kataphatic or apophatic spirituality. Since we are a mixture of body, mind, and spirit our spiritual life is our body, our mind, and our spirit life.

This mixture may be described as a wholistic approach to spiritual life. Most traditional spiritualities divided spiritual development into three stages: purgation, illumination, and perfection. Purgation is getting rid of sins and replacing them with virtues. Illumination is our getting to know God and God’s will for us. Perfection is getting to know God in a very personal way as one whose warm and loving presence we sense at special moments in life and many times for very long periods of our life. It is close to, if not identical with, a mystical experience. The Dark Night of the Soul, is a negative experience for those in the illuminative or perfect stage. It is the experience of the total absence of God’s presence and a sense that all one is doing is useless. Many contemporary spiritualities begin with a positive experience of God in nature, in a person, and/or some action. Out of this positive experience one realizes the God one wishes to be with and the distance one needs to travel to be with that God. Out of this total experience one seeks spiritual direction and begins the road to God and God’s Kingdom.

Choices for the Future

In a church with a two thousand year history, a discovery of past traditions for future development is both necessary and challenging. Necessary because of the claim of continuity of that pattern of religious life called Catholicism; challenging, because individuals and groups may discover false historical claims as well as basis for new historical claims. The Liturgical Movement which developed during the late nineteenth century gave birth to the liturgical reforms of the twentieth century, looked to the first thousand years of tradition to support significant changes in the way Catholics celebrated the sacraments and the Mass. Catholic women look to the New Testament, the first two hundred years of the church, and the Middle Ages, to present a challenging picture of Christian equality, jurisdictional power of Abbesses, and diaconal service of women to demand changes in the role of women in the Catholic church. Histories of contraception, usury, ensoulment, and pacifism remind Church authorities that the moral law has undergone significant changes over the years. Even the evolution of ecclesial authority and its exercise by pope and bishops provides many new avenues of choice for the future development of the Catholic church. Various dialogues among theologians from Protestant and Catholic churches, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic church, Jews and Catholics, and Muslims and Catholics have found a great deal of agreement upon doctrines and practices which were once the cause of bloodshed among these communities.


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ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • McBrien, Richard P. (ed.). 101 Questions and Answers on the Church. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003. ISBN 0809142503
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External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2022.


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