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It is common for many people to understand the word “Catholicism” to mean a particular denomination as distinguished, say, from Protestantism or Orthodoxy, within the larger world of Christianity. Thus, for example, Catholics say the rosary, revere the pope, go to mass on Sunday, and have a clergy that does not marry, and those characteristics, among many other things, distinguish Catholics from Protestants. Catholics are also said to reflect certain ethnic backgrounds: The Irish are Catholics but the Scots are Presbyterian; Italians are Catholics but Norwegians are Lutheran. In some places, Catholics are identified by class. In the USA a century ago, Catholics were considered mainly but not exclusively working class while some mainline Protestants were identified with the managerial class. In England, until very recently, that was also the case. These and similar stereotypes are very much a part of the popular culture, but they are stereotypes nonetheless. People are divided by denominational difference, and they frequently understand themselves through their inherited religious upbringing: To be Irish is to be Catholic. This popular conception of Catholicism, understood as a sociological category, is true of most large religious traditions. To belong to any or other religious tradition depends very much on where one lives and how one perceives oneself relative to the larger culture.
In that general sense, then, Catholicism can be considered as one Christian denomination among many but identifiable as having its own distinct culture, character, and sometimes dependent on ancestry and geographical location.
As we noted in the opening chapter of this book, Catholicism has always understood its universality as a call to reach all people. As a consequence, the Catholic Church has always manifested a strong missionary character as one of its defining characteristics. That missionary impulse means that it is a mandate to reach the Gospel everywhere and at all times. The universal character of Catholicism is both a fact and an urgent necessity.
That Christianity spread from its Jerusalem center rapidly after the earthly life of Jesus is a fact. Indeed, it is clear from the New Testament itself that the first Christians had a conviction that they were inspired by God to spread their faith universally. Catholics have always invoked the “great mandate” found in the Gospel of Matthew as their missionary watchword: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). According to the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples, shortly before the ascension of Jesus into the heavens, heard him stipulate something quite similar: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The English verb “to read” derives etymologically from the Middle English reden, which can mean, variously, to interpret, to inquire, as well as to read in the modern sense. We hearken back to the older senses of the word “read” when we “read the situation” or “read the look on her face,” etc. Similarly, there are many ways in which we can “read” Catholicism as we have insisted in this work. We can “read” its architecture, art, worship, holy persons, popes, prayer life, its sacraments and sacramentals, and so on. Each time we attempt to get a “read” on such things, we are confronted with implicit intentions (Why do Catholics build cathedrals?); symbols (Why does that painting include a crown on the head of the Virgin Mary?); usages (What are holy-water founts for at the entrance of Catholic churches?); and sheer puzzlement (What do monks have to do with the teachings of Jesus?); etc. Such a range of topics may help to explain why it is that when a person writes the words “Roman Catholicism” into a search engine on a computer, the “hits” number in the millions.
It has been the conviction of this work that Catholicism is fundamentally both simple (a way of following Jesus Christ and his teachings) and bafflingly complex. The complexity, of course, at least in part, is due to its long history and its tendency to treasure its traditions.
One of the persistent threads running through this book is the tension which may erupt between Catholicism's past and its present. It is always a challenge to rise up to the challenges of the legitimate need for reform while attempting to balance that need against the task of fidelity to the past. There is no doubt that the Catholic Church attempts to be faithful to its ancient Tradition; of fidelity to the apostolic teaching of which it claims to be a guardian just as it treasures many parts of its lesser traditions as they have come down to us over the centuries. The constant risk inherent in any ancient historical religious tradition is either to turn its reverence for Tradition and traditions into an ossified set of articulated beliefs and practices in the name of that tradition or, contrariwise, to quickly jettison the past in the name of some putative “relevance” for the present exigencies of life. In the former temptation, a religion runs the risk of becoming a museum in which practice and idea are trapped in amber or held onto because of nostalgia. Giving in to the latter temptation runs the risk of modishness by not remembering that today's relevance may be tomorrow's fading faddism.
As we have seen in detail when thinking about reform within the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church is always conscious of the fact that, until the end of time, the Church in this world is never at a state of perfection.
Catholic Christianity has always been aware that only the Church in Heaven will live in perfect harmony and in a state of predestined perfection. It knows that in this life, from its beginnings, the early followers of Jesus showed themselves imperfect and even, at moments, craven. It knows that in the life of the Church reflected in the early New Testament writings there were moral lapses, dissensions, and party strife. Catholicism has never understood itself as a perfectionist sect; it takes seriously the images left by Jesus to the effect that only at the Last Judgment would the Judge of all separate the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the weeds.
All that being said, the history of Catholicism also shows that in the recognition of the imperfect nature of the Church in this life, despite its equal conviction that the Church, as the rule of faith has it, is one, holy, catholic and universal, there was an equal determination to re-form the life of the Church, to cleanse it of its most conspicuous failings, and to call it back to its mandate to be the visible presence of Christ on this earth. It saw this as a duty given by its apostolic teaching. One way to say it is that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, but it can always be more unified, more holy, more universal, and more faithful to the apostolic preaching.
When the editors of Cambridge University Press asked me to contribute a volume on Roman Catholicism for a series of books they were publishing on the religious traditions of Christianity I was both honored to have been asked and pleased to accept. Having worked on the book for some time, I now note ruefully that it was a task far more complicated than I had first imagined. To write about Catholicism encompassing its history, practice(s), and beliefs within the manageable framework of a single volume is not easy especially if the book is not to be a dreary litany of persons and ideas and a catalog of devotional practices, customs, and movements. Take a common term such as “Vatican” – a word that is often identified with Roman Catholicism. Vatican can refer to a specific place in Rome with a history that predates Christianity; it is the site of the purported burial place of the Apostle Peter; it is the location of a major basilica over the tomb of Saint Peter whose history goes back to the early fourth century; it has been the home of the popes since the late Middle Ages. Beyond those markers, it is also a shorthand term for the official administrative body assisting the pope (as in “The Vatican said yesterday …”), and those offices are often misidentified with the Vatican City State which is a sovereign state established in 1929 after the successful negotiations with the Italian government in a formal treaty known at the Lateran Treaty.
Every religious body has some kind of standard of belief that is frequently reducible to a core statement that attempts to capture the essence of what that body stands for. For Buddhism, it consists of the “Four Noble Truths” about suffering and its remedy, while for Jews it is the daily repeated prayer or act of faith, drawn from the Torah, known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4). In Islam, the basic creed is simplicity itself: “There is but one God (Allah), and Mohammad is his prophet.” Behind those simple formulas, of course, is a fuller body of doctrine that answers questions of inquiring minds: What does this or that phrase mean? Why should it be believed? How does it apply to our daily lives, etc? In other words, simple statements of belief cannot be seen in the abstract. They are uttered by real people in real circumstances and have behind them a complex of rites, convictions, ideas, and moral imperatives.
The earliest writings of the Christian community, the various letters that Saint Paul wrote to Church communities, already reflect disputes about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Did these followers have to follow the prescriptions of the Jewish law? Did they have to be circumcised if they were male?
Even though, as we saw in the first chapter, the adjective “Roman” added to Catholicism can be misunderstood, it is clear that it is the city of Rome in general and the bishop of Rome, known more familiarly as the “pope,” in particular that gives Catholicism its defining character. After all, unity with the bishop of Rome is the linchpin that guarantees the unity of Catholicism. More than anything else, the division of Orthodoxy and Catholicism is best exemplified by the fact that Orthodoxy is not in union with the bishop of Rome, the pope. Both the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Rite of the Catholic Church use the same liturgy ascribed to Saint John Chrysostom but the difference is that during the liturgy the Byzantines pray for the bishop of Rome and the Orthodox do not. At a more popular level, Catholicism is almost instinctively identified with the papacy. Even the popes themselves, in recent times, have acknowledged that the papacy is a stumbling block for other Christians.
It would be, however, the most naive idea to think that as Christianity developed there was already in place a full-blown papacy as we understand the papacy today. The papacy, with all of its claims of authority and the very central role that it plays in the Catholic Church today, is the result of a very long historical evolution.
The Vatican. The Inquisition. Contraception. Celibacy. Apparitions and miracles. Plots and scandals. The Catholic Church is seldom out of the news. But what do its one billion adherents really believe, and how do they put their beliefs into practice in worship, the family, and society? This down-to-earth account goes back to the early Christian creeds to uncover the roots of modern Catholic thinking. It avoids getting bogged down in theological technicalities, and throws light on aspects of the Church's institutional structure and liturgical practice that even Catholics can find baffling: why go to confession? How are people made saints? What is 'infallible' about the Pope? Topics addressed include:scripture and traditionsacraments and prayerpopular piety personal and social moralityreform, mission, and interreligious dialogueLawrence Cunningham, a theologian, prize-winning writer and university teacher, provides an overview of Catholicism today which will be indispensable for undergraduates and lay study groups.
The word “spirituality” in our own time has come to mean something quite vaguely attached to feelings – thus, one commonly hears the phrase “I am spiritual but not religious.” Historically, however, the term “spiritual” meant one who lived under the impulse of the Holy Spirit as a follower of Jesus Christ. The scriptural root for this usage derives from a classic passage in Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans (8:1–17) where Paul sharply distinguishes those who live “according to the flesh” from those who live according to the Spirit. For Paul, the contrast between “flesh” and “spirit” should not be confused with some kind of radical dualism, say, between, body and soul. For Paul, the word “flesh” (and Paul distinguishes “flesh” from “body”) means those carnal impulses that degrade a human person and are further identified with death. By contrast, those who live “according to the Spirit” are those who have the Spirit within them and are further identified to be, according to adoption, what Jesus is by nature: “Children of God” who are able to cry out and call God “Abba” (see Rom. 8:15ff; and Gal. 4:4–6).
A person who lives in the Spirit is one who is linked to Christ through participation in his death and resurrection through baptism, by partaking in his body and blood through the eucharist, by being a part of his body in union with all others who make up the assembly of Christian believers, who follow his word, and await his coming in the final resurrection.
Catholicism is not merely a belief system. While it is true, as we will develop at length in the next chapter, that there are criteria for the basic beliefs of the Church set out in the rule of faith, it is equally true that Catholicism is also a worshiping community and not simply a movement with a collection of ideas or concepts. The relationship between worship and belief is, in the Catholic understanding of things, symbiotic: What we believe is expressed in how we worship as a Church.
As we have already noted, the New Testament word for church – ekklesia – means a gathered congregation. The New Testament succinctly sets out the reasons for that coming together as an ekklesia: “They [i.e. the early Christian community] devoted themselves to the teachings of the Apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). In that terse description we see that the gathered community first received the apostolic preaching and teaching and, in the second place “broke the bread” and prayed, which is to say, they engaged in a form of ritual activity (“broke the bread” is a shorthand description in the New Testament for the eucharist), and they offered prayers to God.
This chapter will focus particularly on the formal worship of the Church, which frequently is referred to as the liturgy. The word “liturgy” comes from a Greek word leitourgia, which originally meant, roughly, a public work.