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Roman Catholic Church


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 an