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8.1.2: Roman Catholic Christianity

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    Roman Catholic Christianity now predominates in parts of Europe (especially Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Ireland, Austria, Southern Germany, and Polandthough prior to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, it was the church of all of Western Europe, being, in short, Western Christianity), Latin America, other countries colonized by Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France, and may be found in significant numbers in North America and in still other countries throughout the world. By every measure, the Roman Catholic Church has more members by far than any other Christian tradition. It is known to its members as the Catholic Church (catholic meaning "universal, comprehensive, inclusive of all parts"), or simply "the Church." Giving credence to this conception is its supranational hierarchical structure, centered in the Pope (no other religious body of near comparable size is so centrally controlled) and, until the mid-1960s, its common use of Latin in worship, theological study, and formal Church business. Nevertheless, it has traditionally given considerable scope for variations in general practice and additional practices to develop in specific cultural locales and, therewith, a strong linkage between faith and ethnic identity. The supranational, centralized, and (until recently) linguistically homogeneous structure of the Roman Catholic Church, of course, keeps these vernacular tendencies in check. As has been the case for most Eastern Orthodox Christians, for most Roman Catholics being Roman Catholic has not been the result of an individual act of free affiliation. Thus, to be Irish or Italian, for many at least, is to be Catholic-though of course how seriously one takes one's Roman Catholic identity has always been a personal choice. Nevertheless, whether one is a member of the Roman Catholic Church or not is becoming more a matter of individual affiliation as societies become increasingly pluralistic.

    Like Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism considers itself to be carrying on original and authentic Christianity passed down in an unbroken line from the first Apostles. But for Roman Catholics this connection with its origin is conceived more as a continuous line of development than as an unchanging, timeless legacy. It considers the Eastern Church to have departed from itself, not the other way around. Several matters led to the split in 1054 and these matters remain controversial to the present. The relation between the two traditions in recent decades, however, is much more amicable than it has been at any time in the last nine and a half centuries, but major differences still divide them. The most important of these issues has been and remains the institution of the papacy. Orthodox dispute the whole idea that the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) has greater authority of an administrative or judicial nature than the other ancient patriarchates (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria), and they reject altogether that he has legislative authority to make declarations of doctrine or on any other matter of Christian essentials. Such authority for them belongs solely to an Ecumenical Church Council representing the whole Church everywhere. To the contrary, Roman Catholics have traditionally held that the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in these respects was authorized by Jesus, having made Peter (who ended up in Rome) chief among the Apostles. The Eastern Church declared itself separate from Roman Catholicism in 1054 because it refused to accept the Pope's administrative authority over them and his alleged legislative authority to make innovations in essential matters such as the Nicene Creed. For Roman Catholics, though, the hierarchy of the Church, represented by the Pope, is "the possessor, the guarantor and the interpreter of the tradition of Christ, including the scriptures."18 Somewhat like the U.S. judicial system culminating·in the Supreme Court, Roman Catholics have traditionally believed that its hierarchy culminating in the Pope has by Christ been given the authority to interpret what is divine law for Christians. In that sense, judicially (though probably most Roman Catholic theologians would not say legislatively) the Pope has the last word in declaring the limits of faith and morals. However, though the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) acknowledged the "infallibility" of the Pope in Council and when pronouncing on dogma, it is rare that such authority is ever invoked. In any case, the meaning, reference, and limits of papal "infallibility" are at present highly controversial issues among Roman Catholic theologians.

    This emphasis upon law, legal authority, and obedience to Christ's representative on earth that became characteristic of the Western Church may be traced as far back as the late fourth century when the Church fatefully entered into a marriage of convenience, so to speak, with the Roman state, with its sophisticated, hierarchical understanding of the rule of law and its highly developed legal and political institutions. Thereby Christianity (Eastern as well as Western) left behind its status as the religion of a persecuted minority (a church of martyrs) and became favored by the state (and thus by the wealthy and powerful). Not only embracing favored status, it took on the role of a legitimating ideology for the state and, with the state's power of enforcing uniformity, it assumed jurisdiction over the whole of society and all of its members (no longer just those who were Christian by voluntary association). It has taken a long time for the Church, Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, to come to realize that a society can function reasonably well without sameness of religious faith-not until the socalled radical wing of the Protestant Reformation that repudiated this "marriage" of church and state had come to leave its mark on subsequent Western culture.19 There are signs that significant parts of the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., in postCommunist Poland) and the Eastern Orthodox Church (e.g., in post-Communist Russia) are still reluctant to embrace the idea of church-state separation.

    The central and foremost approach to God in Christ for Roman Catholics is the Liturgy of the Eucharist (formerly called the Mass), especially as set within the annual liturgical cycle of holy days and seasons. The life cycle of Catholics is celebrated in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, personal and communal Confession (now called Reconciliation), Anointing for healing (formerly Extreme Unction), Marriage (if married), and Ordination (if ordained). Other rites pertaining to life changes, celebrations, and death are also an important part of religious life for all Roman Catholics.20 For those who join a religious order, an initiating ritual of Profession is celebrated within the Eucharistic liturgy. A ritual structuring of life is especially marked for those who are members of Roman Catholic religious communities, for their lives are lived out in a context set by a daily cycle of liturgical prayer, the Divine Office, which normally includes a celebration of the Eucharist.

    The way of sacred rite thus has primacy for all Roman Catholics, though more so for some than for others. Some participate daily in the Mass as well as perform other ritual observances. Pilgrimage to shrines and sacred places is a highly developed practice among Catholics. The Mass itself, in comparison with the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, has traditionally been simpler, less elaborate, less mysterious (or at least more effort has gone into explaining it), and for the most part more solemn. The traditional solemnity of the Latin Mass, however, has been significantly transformed through changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) into a much more joyful and communally participative liturgy. In any case, to participate fully and faithfully in the Mass is sacramentally to return to and enter into Christ's redemptive love, and come to be at-one with his sacrifice of himself, his death and resurrection, for the redemption of the world. So to participate is quite tangibly to receive his body and his blood in order that the community will be enabled to live in the contemporary world as the manifestation of the Body of Christ. Those who thus receive the Body affirm its power as they live the life God intends humans to live in relationship with God and all people, both now and in the world to come. The primary aim here is not an experiential (mystical) participation in God, though that is not at all ruled out. The primary aim is upon righteousness, on corning to be right with God in one's life in the world and conforming to his divine intention (integrating the ways of sacred rite with right action). Nowadays Catholics speak of this aim as the unity of a community whose love affirms what all human communities are intended to be, one in love.

    Roman Catholics have ministers specially ordained to transmit the sacramental grace of Christ. These are consecrated ritual specialists understood to be called by Christ and consecrated through Ordination to serve the people. Bishops, priests, and deacons are believed to be links of an unbroken chain of "apostolic succession" back to the original Apostles and therewith to Christ. Since the early Middle Ages priests and bishops have had to be celibate.

    Beyond common participation in sacred rite, there has been in the Roman Catholic tradition a broad acceptance of members being involved, and encouragement to become involved, in further aspects of religious life-specifically, in one or more of the different ways of being religious, with no expectation that participation in any, let alone all, is required. All that need be present is the deep motivation, the inner personal "calling," to do so, so lortg as it does not interfere with one's basic duties as a good Catholic. From time to time significant expressions of each of the ways of being religious has emerged and blossomed in the Roman Catholic Church. Though many persist over centuries to this day, many also have diminished and died. Often they have been associated with the formation of "a religious order." Traditionally, Roman Catholics have distinguished between "religious vocations" and "secular vocations." (One should bear in mind that the significance of this distinction has recently been undergoing considerable change and will likely turn out to be something very different from what it has been in the past. One general tendency of this largely secularizing development has been to minimize the difference between the two, especially as to the traditionally elevated, "sacred" or "holy" status of religious vocations. Protestantism rejected the distinction altogether.)

    The distinction between secular and religious vocations is complicated by the fact that it does not coincide with the distinction between ordained and nonordained Christians. There are, for example, "secular priests" and "women religious." "Religious vocations" are formally distinguished by virtue of persons undertaking religious vows (usually vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, though not always, and not always understood by all in the same sense) upon entering one of many "religious orders" of the Church (which are characterized by following a specific set of spiritual disciplines), and thereby taking upon themselves to live by Jesus' teachings in the New Testament Gospels ("the evangelical counsels"). "Secular" Christians have not been understood to be subject to such demanding expectations; they have only been expected to abide by basic moral guidelines such as the Ten Commandments--except for "secular clergy," who of course have special expectations relating to their liturgical responsibilities. In effect, to be "religious" in this sense is to become a monastic of a sort, yet most "religious" (in modern times at least) have not been connected with a monastery, least of all an enclosed ("cloistered") one. ("Women religious" are called "nuns" or "sisters." Nuns are cloistered, and engage in lives set apart from other people. Sisters engage in varieties of ministries, and live among the people in their communities. "Male religious" are called "brothers" or [upon ordination] "priests." "Monks" are brothers [and ordained brothers called priests] who live in monasteries with other monks.)

    Traditionally at least, a Roman Catholic who was really serious about her or his faith-that is, who passionately sought at-onement with God and felt called by God to follow a more disciplined way of life-would be called "a religious" and could be recognized as such by the official Church through an act of Profession. Most of these would be encouraged to join with others in an already established community and "rule of life." It has always been possible for new religious orders to come into being, however, which typically first began with the "calling" of a single person who then came to gather others around him or her.21 There are also persons who might become lay associates of some order, as in Third Order Franciscans or Benedictine Oblates.

    Roman Catholics who are drawn to the way of right action have found support and have been encouraged from earliest times in the Church.22 Above all, this has happened by way of attempts to put directly into practice Jesus' teachings (which summon one to go far beyond the call of common moral duty) and especially to feed, clothe, and otherwise care for the poor, the sick, and the destitute. Such actions are typically engaged in out of the conviction that as it is done to the least of these persons it is done (simultaneously) to Jesus (Matthew 25:40) and that such actions, done in the right frame of mind, are a way that Jesus carries on his redemptive work in the world in and through the lives of his followers. Traditionally, this has been especially true of Roman Catholics who, upon entering a "religious order," thereby place themselves under the "evangelical counsels" (i.e., Jesus' Gospel admonitions), in comparison to those who, remaining in "secular life," were only expected to follow general ethical guidelines. Because the distinction between "religious" and "secular" vocations has been blurred somewhat in recent years, many contemporary Roman Catholics not under formal vows are seeking to live out their lives with this vision. In any case, within every generation such efforts have been carried on, sometimes in a more organized way, sometimes in a quiet, individualized way. Many (in terms of sheer numbers, probably most) Catholic religious orders have been oriented to one or another form of active service. In addition to charitable work, education, social work, pastoral work, and missionary work should be counted here as well. Furthermore, most communal Catholic religious orders from the beginning have sought to realize a countercultural form of life, characterized by mutual love, absence of competition, life pared down to simple essentials, and communal property.

    Since the middle of the twentieth century, there has developed an especially strong sensibility toward matters of social justice among most Roman Catholics.23 In the Third World, this has found expression in the movement known as Liberation Theology, which interprets the Gospel in terms of its implications for social change and rectification of social inequities. Most of the persons who have been identified as saints in the history of the Church are persons whose lives have been occupied with extraordinary charitable work. (This is true in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as well.) Among the best contemporary examples of this way of being religious in the Roman Catholic tradition are Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her Sisters and Brothers of Charity, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, Edwina Gately, and the pastoral martyrs of El Salvador, male and female. 24

    Those who are motivated in the direction of the way of reasoned inquiry have likewise almost always found strong encouragement and support in the Roman Catholic tradition.25 This is in large measure due to the Roman Catholic conception of their own understanding of the revelation of God in Christ. They conceive that understanding to be something that gradually unfolds and develops over time as Church theologians rethink its nature and implications within each new generation under the guidance of the Spirit of God. Theological reflection, then, within the Roman Catholic tradition is supposed to be a way that the Spirit of God guides and maintains the faithful in the unfolding truth of the Gospel. The work of the theologian is regarded as a very high calling among Roman Catholics, placing the way of reasoned inquiry, perhaps, as a close second to sacred ritetraditionally even higher in priority of emphasis than right action. Consequently, theological literacy has as high if not a higher priority among Roman Catholics as any other Christian tradition. A very strong theological and philosophical component to Catholic education in the liberal arts and to seminary curricula for Catholic priests remains characteristic to this day, much stronger than that found in nonRoman Catholic Christian institutions of higher education.

    The Christian pursuit of at-onement with God through serious and sustained theological (and philosophical) inquiry received early on a powerful model in the life and writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430).26 Augustine set the precedent for one of two major strands of theological-philosophical inquiry in the Western Church-one that is suffused with a passionate love of truth, where inquiry is a personal quest to come more deeply into rapport with it, and which seeks to culminate in a mystical union with it. In that sense it is a path that combines or fuses the way of reasoned inquiry with that of mystical quest. For Augustine and this strand of theological thinking, all intellectual inquiry at its profoundest is a dialogue with God, who is the ultimate truth and the light of all understanding. Salvation in Christ serves to transform the heart of a person, reorienting it from self-gratification to love of truth for its own sake-a reorientation requisite for full knowledge of truth in any field, according to Augustinian thinking. This strand came to be particularly linked with the Benedictine monastic tradition in the West, founded by Benedict of Nursia (480-550), which placed a high priority on education and theological study yet encouraged them as aspects of a spiritual quest.27 It has sometimes been called "monastic theology"

    The other major strand came to fullest expression in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the rise of the secular universities (secular in the sense that enrollment did not entail religious vows or obedience to a religious rule of life)namely, "scholastic theology." 28 The most famous exemplar of this second strand is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Scholastic theology, in contrast to monastic theology, has sought, through strictly rational argumentation, to develop a comprehensive system of theological truths that harmonizes apparent divergences among the voices that convey divine revelation (including scripture) and the conclusions of natural reason and extends their implications to issues of vital contemporary concern. Here, too, participants in the tradition of scholastic theological inquiry understand and experience the elaboration of systematic theology as an awesome drawing near to the omniscient wisdom of God. For Aquinas, every act of comprehension, every valid and true judgment, exercises the "nobler" element of the mind (lumen intellectus agentis, the "light of the active intellect") by which human beings participate in God's knowledge of things and fulfill their true end of exercising likeness to God. Every such act and judgment thus is not only an expansion of the knower's own being but also an expanding participation in God's nature and, by virtue of the analogy of being between creation and Creator, a distant and imperfect but nonetheless genuine and positive knowledge of God.

    Catholics who feel called to pursue the way of mystical quest, at least since the beginnings of communal monasticism in the fourth-century deserts of Egypt and Syria, have generally found acceptance if not always encouragement in the Roman Catholic tradition29: "If you feel the call, then go right ahead and God be with you!-as long as it doesn't lead you into conflict with Church authority." The Church fairly early on encouraged the organization and regularization of those called to a monastic mode of life. Once monasticism became an accepted social institution, by no means all of those who entered monastic life could be supposed to be committed to the mystical quest. Nevertheless, the setting was of a contemplative nature that largely supported the would-be mystic, some monastic institutions more so than others.30 Though there are many well known individual mystics within the Western Church up to the time of the Protestant Reformation-for example, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1327), John Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c.1413)-and a good many within the Roman Catholic Church since-for example, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), John of the Cross (1542-1591), Jeanne-Marie Guyon (1648-1717), and Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)-for the most part they have not been regarded as exemplifying a way of being religious for all Christians.

    A mystical experience of God has rarely been regarded as the birthright, so to speak, of the Christian in Western Christianity that it has been in Eastern Christianity. Instead, mystics and mystical experiences have tended to be regarded (officially at least) as unique products of the miraculous and unpredictable sovereign intervention of God, not on a continuum with other ordinary folk and ordinary experiences. In consequence, although there have been many books written by major Western Christian mystics in the attempt to provide guidelines for persons called to the mystical quest, several traditions of meditational prayer (e.g., Franciscan, Ignatian, Sulpician), several monastic religious orders explicitly identified as contemplative (e.g., Cistercian, Carmelite), and long-standing traditions of spiritual direction,31 the Roman Catholic tradition by and large has shied away from identifying (or encouraging the idea oD a definite path at the end of which is to be found, in this life at least, a mystical union with God. Theologically, it has seemed that this prospect would threaten the idea of the sovereignty of divine grace that has been strongly emphasized in the Western Church. The practical implication, according to Roman Catholic teaching, is that deep mystical experience is regarded as the culmination of a path for which one has been individually called and gifted by God and not a result of following some general prescription or recipe. More contemporary Catholic approaches to mysticism stress the variety of forms that may beckon any serious believer to quest for the mystery of God's presence within oneself and in all things.32 Persons drawn to this quest are encouraged to study the great mystics, engage a trustworthy spiritual advisor, and become aware of stages through which mystics typically have passed and of the dangers they have encountered.

    Though somewhat different accounts are given by different mystics, the development undergone by Christian mystics is generally held to involve a comprehensive inward transformation prompted and governed by divine grace (purgation), a bestowal of mystical knowledge and insight (illumination), and ultimately a mystical at-onement with God in Christ (union), particularly in terms of an identification with Christ's passion and sufferings.33 The process generally is spoken of in language that intimates more passivity or surrender to the mystical graces of God than activity or cooperation on the part of the mystic, in contrast to the language of synergistic cooperation that characterizes Eastern Orthodox spirituality.34

    Those motivated toward the way of devotion in Roman Catholicism have generally found much encouragement over the centuries, particularly in terms of private or at least more personal devotional practices that supplement or complement participation in the sacramental life of the Church (as opposed to ones that might compete with sacramental participation).35 Some of these practices were directly related to sacramental life, such as Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Others stemmed from pastoral guidance and advice given in connection with the sacrament of Confession. Some blended with other ways of being religious such as shamanic mediation and sacred rite-as in devotional practices oriented to one or another of the saints, especially the Virgin Mary, pilgrimage to shrines, or veneration of relics; some in relation to mystical quest-as in the prayer of the Rosary; and some in connection with right action. Private devotional prayer has always been encouraged, even when it is done in connection with the more formal liturgy of worship.

    Devotional practice and a personalized devotion to Jesus or Mary, then, is pervasive in Roman Catholicism, but, as with ways of being religious other than sacred rite, it is deemed by most to be more an option than an essential. Until recently, it was rare to find in Roman Catholicism the conviction (a sense that is pervasive in traditional Protestantism) that a vital devotional life and a personal, devotional relationship to Jesus are the heart of what it means to be Christianwith at least one important and major exception. In the late Middle Ages, prior to, but laying an important precedent for, the Protestant Reformation, a movement called the Devotio Moderna became widespread throughout Europe.36 The most well known of its lasting legacies is the classic devotional work, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas aKempis (c. 1380-1471). It is interesting to find this stress on a vital devotional relationship to Jesus very strong among contemporary Charismatic Catholics, which movement will be explained later.

    Persons who are attracted to the way of shamanic mediation in Catholicism have generally been accorded a place but not always a welcome reception and hardly ever an active encouragement. The Church's hierarchy has for the most part been wary of spontaneous, charismatic phenomena of a shamanic sort (as have most established churches in Protestantism), especially anything that might prove recalcitrant to clerical authority, and has sought to ascertain its genuineness before according its endorsement. By their very nature, such phenomena are not subject to external mundane control. Moreover, the Church has always held that not all shamanic phenomena are the work of the Spirit of God, that some are due to evil forces that must be carefully guarded against and counteracted. Nevertheless, at the level of popular piety, there has always been widespread belief in the possibility of divine intervention on behalf of ordinary people's pressing needs and that people who are deemed close to God are likely able to bring about or influence such intervention. This is certainly a large part of what lies behind the so-called cult of the saints in Roman Catholicism.37 It also lies behind the widespread belief in visionary experiences, such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, Guadalupe, and Medjugorje, around which so many miracles are alleged to happen.38

    Since medieval times it has been commonly assumed in Roman Catholicism that, to be genuine, a saint must actually perform publicly attestable miracles either during her lifetime or after her death for those who call upon her aid. The stories of saints throughout the ages are filled with accounts of miraculous cures, rescues, and supernatural interventions of one sort or another.39 This is particularly true of the earliest years of Christianity as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. And according to the New Testament Gospels, Jesus himself demonstrated shamanic powers throughout his public career. But since the early centuries of the Church, the Christian way of shamanic mediation has played no central role. Like mystical experience, the Western Church has largely considered the miraculous "gifts of the Holy Spirit" to be not the "birthright" of each Christian but the result of the unpredictable sovereign intervention of God: when it occurs, handle it as best you can, but don't expect it, least of all in yourself.

    Nevertheless, in the middle of the twentieth century a remarkable phenomenon known as the Charismatic Movement took hold among a group of Catholics in the United States, partly through the influence of certain Pentecostal Protestant groups, which has since become a major movement throughout the world, largely ignoring Christian denominationallines.40 Though it clearly includes significant aspects of the way of devotion (akin to those of Evangelical Protestantism), it centers upon the experience of supernatural empowerment by the Holy Spirit ("Baptism in the Holy Spirit") believed available for each Christian, to live the Christian life and carry on the supernatural ministry of Christ in the world-that is, upon a peculiarly Christian form of the way of shamanic mediation. Despite continuing suspicions by many Catholics, it has had a largely positive, renewing effect upon Catholic parishes throughout the world and has even received the blessing of the Pope.

    This page titled 8.1.2: Roman Catholic Christianity is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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