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Catholicism is a vast term for the body of the Catholic faith, its theologies, it's liturgical, ethical, spiritual, and behavioral characteristics, and religious people as a whole. It can refer to the Roman Catholic Church, namely the Christians living in communion with the See of Rome. More broadly, it refers to many churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and others that are not in communion with it, claiming continuity with the Catholic Church before the separation into Greek and Eastern, or Latin and Western. Churches that claim this continuity include the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Old Catholic churches and churches of the Anglican Communion.

These claims of continuity are based on Apostolic Succession, particularly in conjunction with adherence to the Nicene Creed. Some interpret Catholicism to follow the traditional beliefs that Protestant Reformers denied. Catholicism is distinguished from other forms of Christianity by its commitment to tradition, sacraments, mediation between God, and communion. Catholicism sometimes includes a monastic life, religious orders, a religious appreciation of the arts, an understanding of sin and redemption, missionary activity, and, for the Roman Catholic Church, papacy.

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Brief Organizational History of the Church

According to the theory of Pentarchy, the early Catholic Church was organized under the three patriarchs of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, later to which were added the patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem. The Bishop of Rome was at the time recognized as first among them, as is stated, in canon 3 of the First Council of Constantinople (381)—many believe "first" to mean here first among equals—and doctrinal or disputation was often referred to Rome, by St Athanasius against the decision of the Council of Tyre (335), Pope Julius I, who said these appeals were customary, annulled the action of the council and restored Athanasius and Marcellus of Ancyra to their sees. The Bishop of Rome also was considered to have the right to convene ecumenical councils. When the Imperial capital changed to Constantinople, the influence of Rome was sometimes challenged. Regardless, Rome claimed special authority because of its connection with Saint Peter and Saint Paul, who were martyred and buried in Rome, and also because the Bishop of Rome saw himself as the successor of Saint Peter.

Catholic Crucifix

The 431 Council of Ephesus, the Third Ecumenical Council, was concerned with Nestorianism, which gave priority to the distinction between the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, and taught that, in giving birth to Christ, the Virgin Mary could not be spoken of as giving birth to God. The Council rejected Nestorianism and came to the conclusion that, as humanity and divinity are inseparable in the one person of Jesus Christ, therefore his mother, the Virgin Mary, is thus Theotokos, or God-bearer, Mother of God. The first great break in the Church followed this Council. Those who would not accept the Council's ruling were largely Persian and represont represent the Assyrian Church of the East and related Churches today, which, however, do not hold a "Nestorian" theology anymore. They are often called Ancient Oriental Churches. The next break occured after the Council of Chalcedon (451). This Council repudiated Eutychian Monophysitism that stated that divine nature completely subsumed human nature in Christ. This Council stated that Christ, though one person, showed two natures "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation" and therefore is both fully God and fully human. The Alexandrian Church refusused the terms adopted by this Council, and the Christian Churches that follow the tradition of non-acceptance of the Council—they are not Monophysite in doctrine—are known as Pre-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox Churches.

The next great rupture within Christianity was during the 11th century. Ongoing doctrinal disputes, as well as conflicts between methods of Church government, and the evolution of separate rites and practices, resulted in a split in 1054 that divided the Church, this time between a "West" and an "East". England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, Bohemia, Slovakia, Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, and Western Europe inl were in the Western camp, and Greece, Romania, Russia and many 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 known as the East-West Schism.

The fourth major division of the Church happened in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation, followin which many parts of the Western Church either entirely rejected the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and became known as "Reformed" or "Protestant", or else repudiated Roman papal authority and followed decisions by the civil ruler in all religious matters.

A less extensive rupture occurred when, after the Roman Catholic Church's First Vatican Council, in which it officially proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility, clusters of Catholics in the Netherlands and in German-speaking countries created the Old-Catholic (Altkatholische) Church.

Distinctive Beliefs and Practices

Due to the many interpretations of the word "Catholicism," any listing of beliefs and practices that seperate Catholicism from other forms of Christianity must always be preceded by an indication of the sense employed. When Catholicism is understood as the Roman Catholic Church understands it, determination of beliefs is relatively easy, though the preferred expressions of the beliefs vary, especially between the Latin Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches of Greek tradition, and the other Eastern Catholic Churches. Most liturgical and canonical practices vary between all these particular Churches constituting the Roman Catholic Church.

In understanding another Church that identifies Catholicism with itself, such as the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, clear identification of beliefs sometimes is more difficult, because of a lack of a central authority that is prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, their practices are more uniform. For instance, in the single liturgical rite employed, in various languages, within the Eastern Orthodox Church, as opposed to the variety of liturgical rites in the Roman Catholic Church.

In these cases the beliefs and practices of Catholicism would be identical with the beliefs and practices of the Church in question. If Catholicism extended to cover all who consider themselves spiritual descendants of the Apostles, a search for beliefs and practices that distinguish it from other forms of Christianity would be meaningless.

Catholic Statue of St. Peter

Only if Catholicism is understood in the sense given to the word by those who use it to distinguish their position from a Calvinistic or Puritan form of Protestantism is it meaningful to attempt to draw up a list of common beliefs and practices of Catholicism. With this interpretation, evidently by no means shared by all, Catholicism includes the Roman Catholic Church, the various Churches of Eastern Christianity, the Old Catholic Church, Anglicanism, and at least some of the "independent Catholic Churches".

The beliefs and practices of Catholicism, as thus understood, include:

  • Direct and continuous organizational descent from the original church founded by Jesus Matthew 16:18, who, according to tradition, designated the Apostle Peter as its first leader.
  • Belief that Jesus Christ is Divine, a doctrine officially clarified in the First Council of Nicea and expressed in the Nicene Creed.
  • Belief that the Eucharist is really, truly, and objectively the Body and Blood of Christ, through the Real Presence. Many Catholics additionally believe that adoration and worship is due to the Eucharist, as the body and blood of Christ.
  • 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).
  • Belief that the Church is the vessel and deposit of the fullness of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles from which the Scriptures were formed. This teaching is preserved in both written scripture and in unwritten tradition, neither being independent of the other.
  • A belief in the necessity and efficacy of sacraments.
  • The use of sacred images, candles, vestments and music, and often incense and water, in worship.
  • Veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus as the Blessed Virgin Mary or Theotokos (i.e., "God-bearer" or "Mother of God"), and veneration of the saints.
  • A distinction between adoration (latria) for God, and veneration (dulia) for saints. The term hyperdulia is used for a special veneration accorded to the Virgin Mary among the saints.
  • The use of prayer for the dead.
  • Requests to the departed saints for intercessory prayers.

Sacraments or Sacred Mysteries

Catholic tradition administers seven sacraments or "sacred mysteries": Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony." In some of the Catholic churches this number is considered as a convention only.

In Catholicism, the sacrament is considered an efficacious visible sign of God's invisible grace. The sacraments include:

  • Baptism - the first sacrament of Christian initiation, the basis for all the other sacraments. Churches in the Catholic tradition consider baptism conferred in most Christian denominations "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (cf. Matthew 28:19) to be valid, since the effect is produced through the sacrament, independently of the faith of the minister, though not of the minister's intention. This is not necessarily the case in other churches. As stated in the Nicene Creed, Baptism is "for the forgiveness of sins", not only personal sins, but also of original sin, which it remits even in infants who have committed no actual sins. Expressed positively, forgiveness of sins means bestowal of the sanctifying grace by which the baptized person shares the life of God. The initiate "puts on Christ" (Galatians 3:27), and is "buried with him in baptism ... also raised with him through faith in the working of God" (Colossians 2:12).
Catholic Cathedral

  • Confirmation or Chrismation - the second sacrament of Christian initiation, the means by which the gift of the Holy Spirit conferred in baptism is "strengthened and deepened" by a sealing. In the Western tradition it is usually a separate rite from baptism, bestowed, following a period of education called catechesis, on those who have at least reached the age of discretion (about 7) and sometimes postponed until an age when the person is considered capable of making a mature independent profession of faith. It is considered to be of a nature distinct from the anointing with chrism (also called myrrh) that is usually part of the rite of baptism and that is not seen as a separate sacrament. In the Eastern tradition it is usually conferred in conjunction with baptism, as its completion, but is sometimes administered separately to converts or those who return to Orthodoxy. Some theologies consider this to be the outward sign of the inner "Baptism of the Holy Spirit," the special gifts (or charismata) of which may remain latent or become manifest over time according to God's will. Its "originating" minister is a validly consecrated bishop; if a priest (a "presbyter") confers the sacrament (as is permitted in some Catholic churches) the link with the higher order is indicated by the use of chrism blessed by a bishop. (In an Eastern Orthodox Church, this is customarily, although not necessarily, done by the primate of the local autocephalous church.)
  • Eucharist - the sacrament (the third of Christian initiation) by which the faithful receive their ultimate "daily bread," or "bread for the journey," by partaking of and in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and being participants in Christ's one eternal sacrifice. The bread and wine used in the rite are, according to Catholic faith, in the mystical action of the Holy Spirit, transformed to be Christ's Body and Blood—his Real Presence. This transformation is interpreted by some as transubstantiation or metousiosis, by others as consubstantiation or Sacramental Union.
  • Penance (also called Confession and Reconciliation) - the first of the two sacraments of healing. It is also called the sacrament of conversion, of forgiveness, and of absolution. It is the sacrament of spiritual healing of a baptized person from the distancing from God involved in actual sins committed. It involves the penitent's contrition for sin (without which the rite does not have its effect), confession (which in highly exceptional circumstances can take the form of a corporate general confession) to a minister who has the faculty to exercise the power to absolve the penitent, and absolution by the minister. In some traditions (such as the Roman Catholic), the rite involves a fourth element — satisfaction — which is defined as signs of repentance imposed by the minister. In early Christian centuries, the fourth element was quite onerous and generally preceded absolution, but now it usually involves a simple task (in some traditions called a "penance") for the penitent to perform, to make some reparation and as a medicinal means of strengthening against further sinning.
  • Anointing of the Sick (or Unction) - the second sacrament of healing. In it those who are suffering an illness are anointed by a priest with oil consecrated by a bishop specifically for that purpose. In past centuries, when such a restrictive interpretation was customary, the sacrament came to be known as "Extreme Unction", i.e. "Final Anointing", as it still is among traditionalist Catholics. It was then conferred only as one of the "Last Rites". The other "Last Rites" are Penance (if the dying person is physically unable to confess, at least absolution, conditional on the existence of contrition, is given), and the Eucharist, which, when administered to the dying, is known as "Viaticum", a word whose original meaning in Latin was "provision for a journey".
  • The Sacrament of Holy Orders - that which integrates someone into the Holy Orders of bishops, priests (presbyters), and deacons, the threefold order of "administrators of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1), giving the person the mission to teach, sanctify, and govern. Only a bishop may administer this sacrament, as only a bishop holds the fullness of the Apostolic Ministry. Ordination as a bishop makes one a member of the body that has succeeded to that of the Apostles. Ordination as a priest configures a person to Christ the Head of the Church and the one essential Priest, empowering that person, as the bishops' assistant and vicar, to preside at the celebration of divine worship, and in particular to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist, acting "in persona Christi" (in the person of Christ). Ordination as a deacon configures the person to Christ the Servant of All, placing the deacon at the service of the Church, especially in the fields of the ministry of the Word, service in divine worship, pastoral guidance and charity. Deacons may later be further ordained to the priesthood, but only if they do not have a wife. In some traditions (such as those of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches), while married men may be ordained, ordained men may not marry. In others (such as the Anglican), clerical marriage is permissible as is the ordination of women and active homosexuals to the priesthood and episcopacy.
  • Marriage (or Holy Matrimony) - is the sacrament of joining a man and a woman (according to the churches' doctrines) for mutual help and love (the unitive purpose), consecrating them for their particular mission of building up the Church and the world, and providing grace for accomplishing that mission. Western tradition sees the sacrament as conferred by the canonically expressed mutual consent of the partners in marriage; Eastern and some recent Western theologians not in communion with the see of Rome view the blessing by a priest as constituting the sacramental action.

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