Roman Catholic Church

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The Roman Catholic Church is a denomination of Christianity. Roman Catholics believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God, and worship the God of Abraham. The Roman Catholic Church has a single leader, the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope. The current Pope is Benedict XVI. Present day governance of the Church is divided hierarchically into Dioceses overseen by a Diocesan Bishop, who in turn oversees Diocesan priests and deacons on the level of the individual Church.

Members believe that theirs is the oldest Christian denomination in the world. It is certainly the largest, with more than 1.3 billion officially baptized adherents, or 17.4% of the world's population; over 64 million of these are in the United States. In recent years growth has been greatest in Africa and Latin America, while the numbers and influence in Europe have declined.

The Roman Catholic Church asserts that the Pope is the divinely-chosen successor of St. Peter, believing him to be the 'rock' (Matthew 16:18) upon whom Jesus built his church. The Catholic Church consists of those Christians who are in full communion with the Pope, including "Uniate Catholics" in Eastern Europe who, strictly speaking, are not part of the "Roman" rite.

The Roman Catholic Church has suffered several schisms over its history; most notably that with the Church of the East following the First Ephesian Council, the several Oriental Orthodox churches following the Council of Chalcedon, the Eastern Orthodox Church following the Great Schism of 1054, and the various Reformations of the 16th century leading to the development of Protestantism.

While the theological disagreements leading to the earlier schisms are not very sharp, the Protestants made a more radical break. Two of the principal issues of contention between Catholics and Protestants are sola scriptura (the Protestant doctrine that the Bible alone is the final authority for Christians, which denies the infallibility of Sacred Tradition, the Pope, and the infallibility of ecumenical church councils) and sola fide (the doctrine, popularized by Martin Luther, that faith alone, as opposed to faith and good works both, is sufficient for salvation).

Catholics in the world.


The Pope and the the international leadership of the Church are based in Vatican City, a sovereign elective monarchy and an enclave of Rome established by the 1929 Lateran Treaty.

The Catholic Church has a complex hierarchy of clergy, including (in descending order of rank):

The key roles are played by the Pope and the bishops, and the question of whether secular governments should play a major role in ecclesiastical appointments has been a major issue for centuries. The Investiture Controversy in the Holy Roman Empire was over this question, as was the dispute between Gallicanism and ultramontanism in France.


Pope John Paul II reigned 1978-2005

The chief teachings of the Catholic church are set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in order to foster and promote the Profession of the Faith (first part), the Celebration of the Christian Mystery (second part), the Life in Christ (third part), and Christian Prayer (fourth part). They are:

  • God’s objective existence.
  • God’s interest in individual human beings, who can enter into relations with God through direct and intercessory prayer and through the intercession of a priest ordained by Holy Order.
  • The Holy Trinity and divinity of the person of Jesus Christ.
  • The immortality of the soul of each human being, each one being accountable at death for his or her actions in life, with the award of heaven or hell.
  • The resurrection of the dead.
  • The historicity of the Gospels.
  • The divine commission of the church and infallibility of revealed scriptural interpretation.

The Roman Catholic Church stresses that since the members, living and dead, share in each other’s merits, the Virgin Mary and other saints and the dead in purgatory are never forgotten,[1] may be addressed in prayer, and intercede with God on the behalf of the living. The very physical and spiritual body and blood of Christ are believed to be present in the Eucharist, the bread and wine being Jesus himself, replacing the material of bread and wine. The principal sources for the essential beliefs of the Catholic Church are the Sacred Scriptures (the Bible), Sacred Tradition, and the Living Magisterium of the Church.

The term "Catholic" is frequently applied as an adjective meaning, "pertaining to the Roman Catholic Church." Protestants sometimes take exception to this use, as the defined meaning of "catholic" (the adjective) is "universal" (from the Greek καθολικός, or katholikos, meaning "universal"). The Anglican Communion, and many Protestants also speak of themselves as part of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church."[2] The Orthodox Church understands herself to be the one universal Catholic Church and rejects the claims of Rome.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches respect for all human life. It opposes the practices of contraception, abortion,[3] euthanasia and (in most cases) capital punishment.[4] The Church is in favor of social justice and "the common good."[5] Some Catholics take this idea further, espousing a "consistent life ethic," under which all killing is said to be unlawful. This position entails pacifism and (in some cases) vegetarianism.


Early Church

The original Christian community was founded by Jesus Christ and led by the Apostles. St. Paul the Apostle was the most prolific contributor to the New Testament and the most notable of the Early Christian missionaries. Christians were subjected to persecution, first under Nero in A.D. 64 and again, more severely, under the emperors Domitian, Marcus Aurelius,Decius, and Diocletian, in the second and third centuries.

After almost 300 years of persecution against the Church failed to stop the growth of Christianity, the Emperor Constantine I had a religious experience and, by the Edict of Milan issued in the early fourth century, legalized Christianity. Going to war with the co-Emperor of the east Lucinius over his continued persecution of Christians, Constantine won and became sole Emperor. The age of persecution was over.


Fathers of the Church

Other important early theologians include St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan from 374 to 397, and especially St. Augustine.

Barbarians converted

Until the early fourth century AD Christianity enjoyed a mixed reception in the Roman Empire and Christians were frequently subject to persecution. After its legalization, the Christian church became increasingly powerful in the Roman Empire, although Arianism remained strong. In 380 AD, Theodosius I established the Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire and proscribed the former pagan practices. There was a brief pagan revival in the West under the usurper Eugenius, but that was brought to an end with his death. While the Empire continued to decline, Christianity continued to grow both among those directly under the Empire and among the barbarians, until the time that Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410. Alaric was an Arian Christian.

After the collapse of the Western Empire, the Catholic Church became the most powerful political and religious force in Latin-speaking Europe, and by the 8th century it had achieved near total religious dominance.

Aggressive missionary activities accomplished the conversion of almost all the pagan tribes in Europe by the year 1000 AD. The last pagan country in Europe to be converted was Lithuania, in 1387.

Great Schism

Numerous disputes between the eastern and western churches became more pronounced from the ninth century onwards. The Church experienced the Great Schism in 1054 that divided it into a Western (Latin) branch, which has been called the Catholic Church, and an Eastern branch, which has become known as the Eastern Orthodox Church. Both traced their roots to the time of Jesus, but the Eastern Orthodox Church did not acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope, being only willing to recognize him as "first among equals."

The schism's causes were not purely religious, but cultural and geographic elements also played a role. Later attempts at reconciliation occurred, such as at the Council of Basel, but the two remain separate to this day despite accepting the same sacraments.

Late Middle Ages

The Crusades, a series of religious wars instigated by the Church against the Muslims and other groups in the Holy Land, began in 1092 and continued until the end of the 13th century. Despite the focus on regaining the Holy Land from Muslim control, the Crusaders also massacred Jews and sacked the Christian city of Constantinople.

During this time period, the Inquisitions started and would continue through the time of the Protestant Reformation. The medieval inquisition focused on rooting out Cathars, while the later inquisitions, such as the Spanish Inquisition, focused on people who were believed to be secretly practicing Judaism or Islam following the legally mandated conversion to Christianity of all Jews and Muslims remaining in Spain.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation

In 1517, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation with a public protest against the sale of indulgences. It grew into a movement that covered a wider variety of issues. Eventually, Protestants rejected the notions of saintly intercession, the authority of the pope, and all sacraments except Baptism and Communion. This eventually led to a series of religious wars in Europe, and the Protestant-Catholic split became one of the dominant themes in European events until modern times.

1815 to 1914


After 1800 the Papacy became the center of conservatism in Europe in reaction against the socialism of the French Revolution and its supporters. Pius VII (1800-23) was stripped of powers by Napoleon but made a striking comeback after Napoleon's fall in 1815. His unusually able Secretary of State Cardinal Consalvi won the restoration to the Pope of most of the territories in Italy which Napoleon had seized. He reinvigorated numerous monastic orders and helped create new societies for men and women, especially those engaged in teaching and missionary work. Most important was the restoration of the Jesuits in 1814. They grew more numerous and even more influential in the 19th century.

The Papacy recognized that throughout Europe millions of peasants and poor folk were devoted to the saints and traditions of the Church; the Popes responded energetically by promoting new Marian devotions (such as the rosary). Rome had fallen into disrepair, and Pius VII began the restoration of the city's artistic glories, an enterprise that continues into the 21st century. [6]

Ultramontane vs Gallican

The "ultramontane" tendency in the Church centralized more power and authority in the Papacy. It was opposed by the "Gallican" tendency, especially in France, to give national churches more control over their affairs. The ultramontine forces generally won out, especially with the promulgation of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. The ultramontane forces cited the old doctrines of Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and Francisco de Suárez (1548-1617) to bolster the papal claim to absolute power in spiritual matters.

Gallicanism in France was damaged by the rise of ultramontanism in the 1850s and the devotional revolution that shifted piety to devotions sponsored by Rome. Gallicanism was officially suppressed by the First Vatican Council in 1870, which established the paramount authority of the pope as a matter of dogma. However informal manifestations of Gallicanism continue in some countries, especially China. In Canada, the Irish clergy fought for ultramontanism against the French clergy, who were Gallican. The Irish won out with the support of the Vatican.

After Vatican II, 1962-65, the multiple and often confused controversy among Catholics over papal authority and infallibility largely ended, though some significant degree of opposition to it remains,[7][8][9]

This dissent is mainly manifested in disagreement with Roman Catholic teaching on birth control and abortion.[10] [11]

Facing Modernity

In the 19th century, the Church escaped irrelevance by using the same means as emerging nation-states: establishing more administrative and doctrinal centralization (in Rome); establishing a homogeneous culture, aided especially by universal use of Latin; promoting new rites and folk devotions, especially those focused on Mary and other favored saints; promoting pilgrimages to holy sites; encouraging clergy to endorse and lead regional nationalist movements that focused on historic languages and cultures; creating many new teaching orders and schools; supporting intellectuals and publishing houses; and cultivating an image of theological, canonical, and moral superiority. Of special importance was the missionary activity, based especially in Germany, that was in competition with Protestant missions in China, India, Africa and other non-Christian lands. The Jesuits proved highly adept at promoting the Papal cause. The Pope thereby became less of a figurehead and more of a true ruler.

There was internal dissent among some Catholic intellectuals, such as historian Lord Acton in Britain and theologian Ignaz von Döllinger in Germany, who opposed the declaration of the dogma of papal infallibility. This also caused further schisms, with breakaway groups centering around the Archbishop of Utrecht to form the Old Catholic Church.

Syllabus of Errors

The Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX in 1864 rejected the liberal doctrines of the modern world.[12] It denounced pantheism, naturalism, nationalism, indifferentism, socialism, communism, freemasonry, theological rationalism, separation of church and state, removal of public schools from Church control, and other modern views. The Pope claimed for the Catholic Church total control over science and culture. Liberals viewed this as a declaration of war by the Church on modern civilization. Opponents stressed the Papacy had become intolerant and medieval and largely political in nature.[13]

Facing Liberalism

Burns (1990) took a sociological perspective on the Papacy's long battle with liberalism, showing how the papacy gradually reformulated Catholic ideology to subordinate social and political issues to more purely religious and moral ones.

In Germany in the 1840s the ultramontane movement used mass meetings and pilgrimages to combat the growth of liberalism and modernism. However, the anti-clerical press attacked these mass meetings, and in response a large number of Catholic newspapers emerged in Germany starting in the 1840s. To ensure their own survival, these newspapers championed the liberal idea of press freedom. In addition, local clubs were established to mobilize the Catholic working class. These clubs tried to end discrimination against ordinary Catholics by advocating freedom of religion and freedom of thought and by entering the electoral process. With the unification of Germany in 1870, the new nation faced the problems of consolidation, one of which was secularization. The laws dealing with secularization opened a political battle between Chancellor Bismark and the Catholics, which struggle is called the "Kulturkampf." The Catholics organized their own political parties and protected their interests by voting as a bloc into the 1930s, when the Nazis closed down all other parties.


Freemasonry is a secret society that was, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, politically active in numerous countries. The Catholic Church opposed Freemasonry and forbade its members to belong to Masonic lodges. This was partially because Masons were often aligned with popular uprisings that had the objective of replacing traditional monarchism and class privilege with national independence and voting rights. A large number of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence had been Freemasons, for example.

The Papacy coordinated attacks against Masonry in countries such as Brazil, where the religious question in the 1870s centered on Masonry and the struggle between regalist and ultramontane forces. One method of Catholic action was to found Catholic universities. Ignace Bourget, second bishop of Montreal, Canada, founded Laval University, saying that the university would be the principal instrument for "wresting the elite from the clutches of liberalism." At the time, political Liberalism was closely associated with national liberation and democracy.


A spiritual revolution took place in the 19th century, moving individuals to a renewed interest in personal piety. There was a new emphasis on the role of Mary, and a greatly increased involvement of women in the life of the Church. The number of sisters and nuns increased from 20,000 to 400,000 between 1815 and 1914.

Camp (1990) traced the treatment of women. In the late 19th century, the papacy began to revise its public teachings about the proper role of women in the Church and society. From Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) to Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), papal social pronouncements revealed an evolution in attitudes from the view that women are passive subordinates to men in all spheres of life to the current teaching that lay and clerical women are equal but complementary partners with men in religious, political, economic, and social endeavors. Nevertheless, the papacy has remained firm in the conviction that ordination to the priesthood is for men only.

Social changes

Urbanization brought millions of peasants out of the villages to industrial cities, where church facilities were few.


Cerro de los Angeles, Madrid, Spain.

The arts provided a refuge from modernity in the form of a nostalgic aesthetic. Church architecture saw the revival of the medieval Gothic style. Romantic literature, for example by Chateaubriand, helped inspire a Catholic revival. In music, Catholic churchgoers were likely to be exposed to an officially sponsored revival of a cappella singing in the manner of Palestrina. The rapid development of symphonic and operatic forms affected sacred music, resulting in many masses, requiems, and te deums for large orchestra and chorus, sometimes even composed by skeptics such as Berlioz and Verdi.


In politics, as democracy and popular government spread, religious motivations moved people into one party or the other. In Catholic countries such as France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, sharp confrontations emerged between clericals and anti-clericals; in countries with mixed Catholic and Protestant populations such as Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain and the U.S., political splits occurred along confessional lines. In the U.S. the great majority of the Catholics became Democrats. In Germany the Catholics formed their own Center party to fight off attacks from the Protestants, as during the Kulturkampf.

The British attempt to impose Protestantism on Ireland not only fueled the Catholic revival there but also contributed to its spread via emigration to the U.S. and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and England itself, all of which increased the Catholic population. The Irish often took control of the Church in each of these countries. The Poles, having lost their nation state in the 1790s, turned to an intense religiosity that preserved national identity and which they carried with them to industrial centers in the U.S. and Germany. In the U.S., some Poles, frustrated with the Irish control of the Church, founded the Polish National Catholic Church.

20th century

Vatican II

Pope John XXIII reigned 1958-63

The "Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican" (called Vatican II), was called by Pope John XXIII and was in session from 1962 to 1965. It dramatically modernized and transformed church policies, with major changes to official theology and liturgy. Liturgical changes included the introduction Mass in local languages instead of Latin. Theologically, the council deemphasized the centrality of Mary while also adding a new emphasis on individual and personal holiness. It asserted the Church's support for freedom of religion, declared that the Jews were not guilty of deicide, and recognized the possibility of salvation for Jews, Muslims, and Protestants.

Reactions among Catholics to Vatican II fall into three camps. "Liberal" Catholics, drawing on the established Catholic belief in the "journeying" nature of the Church, see Vatican II and the new period that it marked in Catholic history as representing a significant advancement in man's understanding of the Gospels, which in turn justifies changes in Catholic belief and practice. "Conservative" Catholics (including the most recent popes) hold that the decrees of the Council, properly understood, are wholly in line with the historic Catholic faith, and that they should not be used as an excuse for unwarranted innovations. "Traditional" (or "traditionalist") Catholics regard the teachings of Vatican II as problematic, or even as heretical. Some created churches which use the old liturgies.

See also

External links

Virgin Mary and Child

Further reading

  • Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity 200-1000 AD (2002), 640pp
  • Chadwick, Owen. A History of the Popes, 1830-1914. (1998), 616pp; a standard recent history. online edition,
  • Coppa, Frank J. The Modern Papacy since 1789. Longman, 1998. 296 pp.
  • Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Church in the Eighteenth Century (1964)
  • Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Church in an Age of Revolution (1965).
  • Holland, Joe. Modern Catholic Social Teaching: The Popes Confront the Industrial Age 1740-1958. Paulist Press, 2003. 404 pp.
  • Kung, Hans. The Catholic Church: A Short History (2003), by a leading Catholic scholar excerpt and text search
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries 5 Vol (1958), a detailed history of Christianity 1800-1950 by a fair-minded Protestant scholar. vol 1 online edition
  • Logan, F. Donald. A History of the Church in the Middle Ages. 2002. online edition
  • Mullett, Michael A. The Catholic Reformation, (1999), online edition
  • O'Toole, James M. The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Pastor, Ludwig von. History of the Popes From the Close of the Middle Ages, (1894-1930), 16 vol, older Catholic history online from
  • Ullmann, Walter. A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages, (2002), 393pp, online edition
  • Schreck, Alan. The Compact History of the Catholic Church (2009)
  • Vidmar, John. The Catholic Church through the Ages: A History (2005) excerpt and text search


  • New Catholic 'Encyclopedia (1967), complete coverage of all topics by Catholic scholars
  • Catholic Encyclopedia, (1913) online edition complete coverage by Catholic scholars; the articles were written about 100 years ago
  • Coppa, Frank J., ed. Great Popes through History: An Encyclopedia. (2002). 600 pp.
  • Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1988). 349pp; scholarly short biographies; online edition


  1. The Columbia Encyclopedia
  3. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1968)
  4. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (1995)
  5. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (2009)
  6. Kelly (1999); Duffy (2006); Latourette (1958) vol 1.
  7. such as by historian Garry Wills, author of Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Sophia Institute Press, 2003), and liberal theologian Hans Kung, author of Infallible?: An inquiry (1970)
  8. David Carlin, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America,‎ appendix 2
  9. Raymond Taouk, What are Catholics to think of Vatican II?
  10. John M. Swomley, Infallibility in Ethical Perspective Christian Ethics Today, Issue 014 Volume 4 No 1 February 1996
  11. 56% of U.S. Catholics said that the pope is not infallible "when he teaches on matters of morals, such as birth control and abortion"; 80% of Catholics believed it is possible to disagree with the pope on official positions on morality and still be a good Catholic. Time/CNN nationwide poll of 1,000 adults, conducted by Yankelovich Partners, Sept. 27-28, 1995
  12. see text at [1]
  13. Latourette (1958) vol 1 ch. 6