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This article considers Catholicism in the broadest ecclesiastical sense. See Catholicism (disambiguation) for alternative meanings

Catholicism has two main ecclesiastical meanings, described in Webster's Dictionary as: a) "the whole orthodox Christian church, or adherence thereto"; and b) "the doctrines or faith of the Roman Catholic church, or adherence thereto." 1 The term comes from the Greek adjective καθολικος (katholikos), meaning "general" or "universal", the feminine form of which is καθολικη.


"One, holy, catholic, and apostolic"

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch was the first to use the term "catholic church", referring to all Christians, in a letter to Christians in Smyrna, in about AD 107.

The word Catholic has been used ever since to describe the one, original church of Christ founded by Christ and the Apostles, and appears in the main Christian creeds (formal definitions of belief), notably the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. As such, many Christians claim entitlement to the designation "catholic". These fall into two groups: 1.) those like the Roman Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and the Ancient, Old, Liberal, and Anglican Catholic churches that claim Apostolic Succession from the early church; and 2.) those who believe that they are spiritual descendants of the Apostles neither retaining nor desiring organisational descent from the historic church. In general the term "catholic" is used more often by members of the first group to describe themselves. Members of the second group would not normally refer to themselves as catholics, even though they would insist that they remain somehow part of one invisible "catholic" church.

Christians of most denominations, including most Protestants, affirm their faith in "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church". For Protestants, most of whom consider themselves to be spiritual descendents (category 2, above), this affirmation refers to their belief in the ultimate unity of all churches under one God and one Saviour, rather than in one visibly unified church, i.e. the ideal meaning given above. In this usage catholic is sometimes written with a lower-case "c". The Nicene Creed, or the Apostles Creed, stating "I believe in...the holy catholic church..." is thus recited in Protestant worship services. 3.

Evolution of the term "Catholic"

There are thus several claimants to the title, Catholic Church, especially in the English language. The claimants have in common an assertion that they represent the ancient undivided Christian faith, while they differ on the practical meaning of "unity" within that faith.

Over the centuries, disputes about the truths of the Christian faith arose, and words such as "Catholic" and "Orthodox" developed connotations not evident in their basic meaning (universal and correct-doctrine respectively). "Catholic" now often refers to Christians who accept the leadership of the Pope (and whom others believe should properly be called 'Roman Catholic'), and "Orthodox" to those in dispute since the East-West Schism, attributing to the Roman see a primacy only of honour, not of authority. Most Protestants use the term "Catholic" in an ideal sense, applying it to the original Christian faith. For comparisons and contrasts, see Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodox Church, Christian Denominations, and Protestantism.

Brief organizational history of the Christian Church (some of which is disputed)

The early Christian Church came to be organized under five patriarchs, the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. The Bishop of Rome was at that time recognized as first among them, and doctrinal or procedural disputes were sometimes referred to Rome for an opinion. When the Imperial capital moved to Constantinople, Rome's influence was often challenged. While Rome claimed special authority and descent from St. Peter2 and St. Paul, who, all agreed, were martyred and buried in Rome, Constantinople had become the residence of the Emperor and the Senate, and the churches at Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria were all older than Rome. Antioch furthermore was considered to have been the see of St. Peter, before he went to Rome.

The first great rupture in the Church followed the Council of Ephesus (AD 431), which affirmed the Virgin Mary as Theotokos. The majority of those who refused to accept this Council were Persian Christians, a Church now known as the Assyrian Church of the East. The next major break was after the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). This Council repudiated Eutychian Monophysitism. The terms adopted by this Council were unacceptable to many Christians who preferred to use a Christology formulated primarily in Alexandria. These Christians are now often referred to in English as the Oriental Orthodox Communion, thus treating "Eastern" and "Oriental" as not synonymous). The next major rift within Catholicism was in the 11th century. Doctrinal disputes, including that about the Filioque clause, conflicts between methods of Church government, and perhaps the evolution of separate rites and practices, precipitated a split in AD 1054 that divided the Catholic Church once again, this time between a "West" and an "East". England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia, and much of the rest of Western Europe were in the Western camp, and Greece, Russia and many of other Slavic lands, Anatolia, and the Christians in Syria and Egypt who accepted the Council of Chalcedon made up the eastern camp. This division is called the East-West Schism. The most recent major split within the Catholic Church occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation, after which many parts of the Catholic Church rejected the leadership of Rome and reformed themselves, becoming Protestant.

All of the preceding groups, including Protestants, consider themselves to be fully and completely Catholic. All of them claim to be either part of the Catholic Church or the only Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church

The largest by far of all groups that call themselves Catholic is the Roman Catholic Church. ("Roman Catholic" as a name for this Church is a misnomer in the opinion of those who, unlike the Church itself, apply the term instead to its Latin-rite component.) As indicated above, the term “Catholic” is often employed as synonymous with “Roman Catholic”, a usage some consider to be contentious. The word "Roman" is used in reference to the centrality for this Church of the Bishop of Rome, with whom Roman Catholics are by definition in full communion, as part either of the majority Latin (Western) Church or of her 20 smaller Eastern Churches, accepting his "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 882[1].)

For further information, see Roman Catholic Church.

Other Catholic groups

In Western Christianity the principal groups that regard themselves as "Catholic" without full communion with the Pope are the Ancient Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Church, the Liberal Catholic Church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, similar groups among Filipinos and Poles, and some elements of Anglicanism ("High Church Anglicans" or "Anglo-Catholics"). These groups hold spiritual beliefs and practice religious rituals similar to those of Roman Catholics of the Latin Rite from which they emerged, but reject the Pope's claimed status and authority. Some Traditional Catholic groups are in a similar position. The Liberal Catholic Church, founded when Charles W. Leadbeater, formerly a clergyman in the Church of England, and later one of the heads of the Theosophical Society, was ordained as a bishop in the Old Catholic Church, additionally incorporates significant elements of theosophy into its doctrinal faith.

The Anglican Communion is in practice divided into two wings, "High Church Anglicans" also called the Anglo-Catholics and "Low Church Anglicans" also known as the Evangelical wing. Though all elements within the Anglican Communion recite the same creeds, Low Church Anglicans regard the word Catholic in the ideal sense given above, while High Church Anglicans treat it as a name of Christ's church which they consider to embrace themselves together with the Roman Catholic and several Orthodox Churches.

Anglo-Catholicism maintains similarities to the Latin Rite of Roman Catholicism and related spirituality, including a belief in seven sacraments, Transubstantiation as opposed to Consubstantiation, devotion to the Virgin Mary and saints, the description of their ordained clergy as "priests" — addressed as "Father" — the wearing of vestments in church liturgy, sometimes even the description of their Eucharistic celebrations as "Mass". The development of the Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism occurred largely in the nineteenth century and is strongly associated with the Oxford Movement. Two of its leading lights, John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning, both ordained Anglican clergymen, ended up joining the Roman Catholic Church, becoming cardinals.

The several churches of Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy each consider themselves to be the universal and true Catholic Church, and typically regard the other of these families and the Western Catholics as heretical and as having left the One Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The patriarchs of these Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches are autocephalous hierarchs, which roughly means that each of them is independent of the direct oversight of another bishop (although still subject, according to their distinct traditions, either to the synod of bishops of each one’s jurisdiction, or only to a common decision of the patriarchs of their own communion). They are willing to concede a primacy of honor to the Bishop of Rome, but not to accept monarchical claims.

Distinctive beliefs and practices (i.e., Roman Catholicism)


Most of the Roman Catholic Churches share certain essential distinctive beliefs and practices. The Anglicans differ among themselves on these matters:

  • Direct and continuous organisational descent from the original church founded by Jesus (see e.g. Mt 16:18).
  • Possession of the "threefold ordained ministry" of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
  • All ministers are ordained by, and subject to, Bishops, who pass down sacramental authority by the "laying-on of hands", having themselves been ordained in a direct line of succession from the Apostles (see Apostolic Succession).
  • Their belief that the Church, not any one book, is the vessel and deposit of the fullness of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. This teaching is preserved in both written scripture and in written and oral church tradition. Neither is independent of the other.
  • A belief in the necessity of sacraments (although not necessarily seven in number).
  • The use of images, candles, vestments and music in worship.
  • The making of the Sign of the Cross in a variety of contexts.
  • Belief that the bread and wine of the eucharist really are Jesus's body, blood, soul, and divinity — not just "symbols".
  • Veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus as the Blessed Virgin Mary or Theotokos, and veneration of the saints.
  • A distinction among worship (latria) for God, and veneration (dulia) for saints, with the term hyperdulia used for a special veneration accorded to the Virgin Mary among Roman Catholics. This "hyperdulia" is not universal to all Catholics.
  • The usefulness of prayer on behalf of the dead.
  • Salvation through faith lived out through good works, rather than by faith alone.


Traditional Western Roman Catholic practice consists of seven sacraments (see also Catholic sacraments). Among Catholics of Eastern traditions (especially the Orthodox), there is no fixed number, although all of the following are considered sacraments:

In Roman Catholic teaching, sacraments are gifts of Christ, performed through the office of the Church, that impart sanctifying grace to the receiver. Briefly: Baptism is given to infants and to adult converts who have not previously been validly baptised; the baptism of most Christian denominations is accepted as valid by most Catholic Churches since the effect is produced through the sacrament and is not dependent on the faith (or lack of faith) of the minister intending to administer the sacrament (Western doctrine) or the Church is empowered to fill the empty ritual with Grace without having to repeat that ritual (Eastern doctrine). In the sacrament of Confirmation, the gift of the Holy Spirit conferred in baptism is "strengthened and deepened" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church §1303) by the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. In the Latin rite of the majority Roman Catholic Church, this sacrament is most often administered by a bishop, but in certain circumstances is administered instead by a priest using oil blessed by the bishop. In the West, administration used to be postponed until the recipient’s early adulthood, but in view of the earlier age at which children are now admitted to reception of the Eucharist, it is more and more restored to the traditional order and administered before Holy Communion is given. In the East the sacrament is called Chrismation, and is ordinarily administered immediately after baptism by a priest using oil blessed by the bishop. Eucharist (Communion), is a partaking in the sacrifice of Christ, marked by sharing the Body and Blood of Christ, which are believed to replace the bread and wine used in the ceremony. The Roman Catholic belief that the bread and wine are transformed in all but appearance into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is known as transubstantiation. Confession or reconciliation involves admitting sins to a priest (in Latin-Church and appendant doctrine) or admitting them to Christ in the presence of a priest (in Orthodox doctrine). In Roman Catholic practice, the priest imposes a “penance”, an action or spiritual exercise for the penitent to perform, not to obtain absolution from sin, but to make some reparation and recover spiritual health (see Catechism of the Catholic Church §1459); under Orthodox doctrine too, one might be given a task to perform, not to "show repentance" or "achieve absolution", but as an ascetic "prescription" or an "exercise" to help strengthen oneself against further temptation. Anointing of the Sick involves the anointing of a sick person with oil blessed specifically for that purpose. In the Roman Catholic Church it is administered to those who are “seriously sick”; when “seriously sick” was taken to mean “in danger of death”, among the Roman Catholics the sacrament was known as "extreme unction", part of "the last rites", but it was never so limited among the Orthodox. Holy Orders is entry into the clergy in the three degrees of deacon, priest, and bishop.

The study of Catholicism

Catholicism is a religion, and is studied in contexts that include theology and philosophy.


  • 1 Webster's College Dictionary, 1991.
  • 2 St Peter is sometimes called “the first pope”. However, if “pope” is defined as “successor of St Peter”, St. Linus is the first pope. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the college of the bishops has succeeded, in the Church, to the group of the apostles, not that the bishops are apostles; and that, among the bishops, primacy belongs to the Bishop of Rome, as primacy among the apostles belonged to St Peter, not that the pope is on the same level as the Apostle Peter (‘’Catechism of the Catholic Church,’‘ 880-881).
  • 3 Methodist example


Additional reading

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church — English translation (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000). ISBN 1574551108 [2]
  • H. W. Crocker III, Triumph — The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church: A 2,000-Year History (Prima Publishing, 2001). ISBN 0761529241
  • Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale Nota Bene, 2002). ISBN 0300091656
  • K. O. Johnson, Why Do Catholics Do That? (Ballantine, 1994). ISBN 0345397266

See also

External links

Last updated: 10-19-2005 06:30:47
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