My essay about the Catholic Church for my Introduction to Christianity class. The books I used are “Roman Catholic Church” by Richard P. McBrien, An Introduction to Christianity by Alister E. McGrath, and Roman Catholicism: The Basics by Michael Walsh.
There are over one billion people who identify themselves as being part of the Catholic Church throughout the world, about 17% of the world’s population (Walsh 24). It has the most adherents than any other denomination in Christianity, and is about half of its people. Catholicism is a religion that traces itself to beginnings almost 2,000 years ago and has a strong presence throughout the world that it has been able to maintain over that time and distance. To be Catholic means to believe in two things, the scriptures and tradition, as well as the giver of both, Jesus Christ.
Catholics believe that their authority has had apostolic succession back to Jesus’ disciple Peter (Walsh 51). The Vatican, where the Pope lives and works, is said to have been constructed on the burial site for St. Peter. Rome was the only Patriarchate in the West during the time of the early church, as the other four were in the East, in the Byzantine Empire headed by Constantinople. Over time, the East and West split with the Schism of 1054, causing the church in the East, the Orthodox Church, and the West, the Catholic Church, to lose communion (Walsh 167). The East only accepted the first seven ecumenical councils, councils where the whole church solved problems requiring attention, leaving the Catholics to go on without the Orthodox churches. Over time the Pope gained more authority in Rome to where he is the spiritual and authoritative leader for the church.
The two most important aspects for any Roman Catholic believer are the scriptures and tradition. The scriptures, or the Bible, are important for Catholics because it presents the life of Jesus as well as other divinely inspired writings and letters. Walsh points out, however, that although the scriptures are the focal point for Christianity, it causes the most conflicts, even within Christianity (Walsh 34). This is because every different sect within Christianity interprets the Bible differently, which was a reason why the Protestants split from the Catholic Church. Catholics use tradition to help study the scriptures and to understand God, something they are able to do due to their long line of existence. It is “an active process of reflection by which theological or spiritual insights are valued, assessed, and transmitted from one generation to another” (McGrath 184). In other words, tradition helps place the beliefs and actions of worship to God in the proper place of going back to Jesus. The Church is seen as the vehicle in which tradition is manifested. Cardinal Avery Dulles identified the different models of the Church as an institution having authority, a community with members being united, and sacramental as a worshipping community (Walsh 33). The structure of the Catholic Church is Priests watching over a parish, Bishops over a larger area, and so forth, with the Bishop of Rome or of other larger areas having more prominence. Catholics look up to the Bible, the words of God, and tradition, the way those words can and have been applied.
Liturgy, which is the public worship by the members of the Church, is important to Catholics as it is to all other denominations of Christianity. The goal for Catholics is to worship God, in which the Bible and tradition as mentioned above help achieve. Catholicism places a strong emphasis on formal rituals for its liturgy, of which outsiders think of when identifying the religion. Religious celebrations are observed, including Easter, Lent, Christmas, and those remembering different saints. The calendar celebrations are important because they give days to specific events, as Christians believe these events historically happened, and give believers a chance for feasts and fellowship (Walsh 101). Catholics emphasize the Virgin Mary, who is seen as eternally a virgin and free from sin as the bearer of Jesus Christ, and often pray for her intercession (McGrath 401). But apart from the special celebrations, Catholics are urged to go to mass weekly or as often as possible, which has liturgy for the people.
There are seven sacraments recognized by the Catholic Church: Baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, holy orders, anointing of the sick, and matrimony (McBrien 278). The first three, baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist, are rites of initiation into the church which new members must partake of. Baptism is done on infants for regeneration and receiving the Holy Spirit, and is also done on adults wishing to enter the church. Confirmation is done by the bishop, and the Eucharist is partaken of at every mass and starts on children aged seven. “For Roman Catholics, the supreme act of worship is the Eucharist, or mass.” (McBrien 278) The Eucharist is where members of the Church take the body and blood of Jesus in thanksgiving. Holy orders leads to the priests being ordained and the Church hierarchy leading up to the Pope, and anointing of the sick helps heal people physically and spiritually (Walsh 114).
Catholics today number over a billion people and due to their religious faith often have political or lifestyle differences than those around them. There are many current issues affecting the Church, such as anointing women clergy and contraception, just as there has always been. The Church has tried to stay truthful to the times of Jesus and his apostles, as well as modernizing and recognizing different laws and perspectives, as evident by changing the language of liturgy from Latin to the vernacular in the 20th century. The Catholic Church is very traditional, but is also keen on solving problems it faces, like those pertaining to Jesus Christ and his life, message, and relevance.