Roman Catholic Church Doctrine


Roman Catholic Church : Catholicism means a way of life, a personal commitment to God through Christ with ali the social and individual responsibilities that flow from this commitment. The doctrine or teaching of the Catholic church maps the Christian way of life, directs personal commitment, and reinforces Christian responsibilities. Thus the church has always stressed doctrine. It is appropriate, then, to begin a discussion of Catholicism with its doctrine.


The New Testament is full of Christ’s commands “to preach the gospel,” “to teach,” or, more precisely, “to make disciples of ali nations” (Matthew 28:1920), “to witness” (Acts 1:8). In his first letter to the Corinthians (9:16), St. Paul insists on the fulfillment of these commands: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” He further cautions the early Christians to accept and act upon only those teaehings which emanate from Christ himself.

Because Catholicism has understood itself to be a religion of revelation, it has emphasized belief in God’s revelation, especially as finally communicated by Christ. Indeed, Christ himself is God’s ultimate revelation to man; and Christ’s church is viewed as the mediator of God’s revelation. This view does not, however, create a dichotomy between the church’s role and Christ’s unique mediation, because Christ is “the one mediator.” (This point is made explicit in Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Church, section 9.)


“In order to keep the gospel forever whole and alive within the church, the apostles left bishops as their successors, handing over their own teaching authority to them” (Vatican Council II, Constitution on Divine Revelation, section 7). It is only because the apostles received their commission from Christ that the bishops, as their successors, possess the mission to teach all nations and to preach the gospel to every creature (Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Church, section 24). Thus when all the bishops of the world meet as a “college” in union with the pope, Peter’s successor and the bishop of Rome, they constitute the church’s most solemn teaching instrumentality—an ecumenical council (see Council). Although many councils have been held throughout the church’s history, the teaehings of these councils have been considered normative and final only when confirmed by the pope. An ecumenical council is as extraordinary and rare a means of communicating divine revelation, however, as is a papal pronouncement on matters of faith or morals. But before a pope exercises his unique teaching authority he always consults the bishops, and indeed the laity, since his role is within the college of bishops, not outside it; and, since both the pope and the college of bishops are protected by the same Holy Spirit, contradiction between them cannot occur.

Generally the church employs more ordinary means to communicate revelation: local councils, pastoral letters or decrees, preaching and catechetical instruction. The church frequently draws upon the Bible, the Word of God, given to the church for the fulfillment of its teaching ministry. Together with the Bible, though not nece^sarily separate from it, is sacred tradition. Basıcally, sacred tradition originated with the apostles, but it “develops in the church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (Constitution on Divine Revelation, section 8) and assumes many forms. The past declarations of the college of bishops and of its center, the pope, are part of tradition. So too are the teachings common to the ancient churchmen known as the “Fathers of the Church.” Even the consensus of theologians constitutes part of tradition, as does that of the whole body of the faithful. These various forms of tradition do not, however, have equal weight. For this reason, theologians have continued to expend much effort in attempting to deternıine the precise weight of any given teaching. A distinction is made, for example, between those teachings which are considered “solemn,” such as that on the Trinity, and those beliefs which are commonly held, such as the idea of guardian angels.

Although Catholics believe that divine revelation was complete at the death of the last apostle, they also believe that our understanding of revelation constantly deepens and grows. As human culture has developed, new insights into the meaning of revelation have also developed. In this way doctrinal development has advanced through the framework of Hebraic, Hellenic, medieval, and modern modes of thought, enabling each successive ecumenical council, as well as all the church’s other teaching instrumentalities, to enrich its understanding of basic dogmas without producing new revelation. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides and safeguards the teaching church in this process, so that it is infallible in its teaching on faith and morals. Infallibility does not, of course, involve sinlessness nor does it save the church from the need for constant reform. Stili less does it imply a complete understanding of the mysteries contained in revelation. These ultimately must remain beyond full human grasp.


Catholic doctrine deals principally with God’s saving action in human history; it is thus concerned with man, to whom God revealed himself. Not only is man God’s noble creature, but historically he is an innately frustrated noble creature. As originally created, man was perfectly integrated, in harmony with God, himself, and the universe. By an act of sin (which most theologians believe was basically that of pride), man destroyed this integrity: he lost his special harmony with God, with self, with creation. Human nature henceforth, in terms of God’s original design, became deficient. This is what is meant by original sin. It is called sin since it flowed from sin and leads to other sin. Although original sin is inherited and not personally committed, it is sin in a profound sense since it is the state of total alienation from God. Because man’s whole being is a dynamism toward God, alienation is the frustration of that dynamism. This means that man needs to be saved, to be reformed, so that his energy can reach its intended goal. See also Original Sin.

In spite of original sin, man is stili man. His human powers are not destroyed, nor is he totally depraved. His mind can stili think and his will can stili produce some natural virtue. Harmony with nature or union with God is nevertheless beyond his human grasp. To attain his final goal, the full sharing of the divine life and total fulfillment in God, man needs divine help. This assistance is available in grace—God’s helpful presence—but man must respond to this help freely and humanly. Thus the good works man performs through Godgiven grace and faith enlarge his capacity for ultimate happiness with God. In confronting this option man is able freely and definitively to accept or reject God’s help. Utter refusal of grace is called damnation or hell.

And yet God wills the salvation of all (I Timothy 2:4). This salvation is not something spiritual for the soul alone. It is for the human person, both body and soul. Accordingly “resurrection of the body” has always been essential to the Christian creed. While the manner of this resurrection remains mysterious, it is held that after the last judgment of aall men “will come the time of the restoration of all things.” “The human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and achieves its purpose through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ.” (Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Church, section 48, paraphrasing Ephesians 1:10).

Catholic doctrine is, therefore, preeminently a doctrine of salvation. In the solemn words of Vatican Council II, God “did not abandon men after they had fallen in Adam, but ceaselessly offered them helps to salvation, in anticipation of Christ the Redeemer” (Constitution on the Church, section 2).


The chuıch teaches because it thinks with Christ and makes explicit the revelation of Christ. The church actively communicates the life of Christ and does this in symbolic signs, or sacraments. These are not merely dramatic presentations of abstract truths, but conveyers of living reality.

The sacraments are seven: Baptism, the symbol of death and resurrection to new life (through stylized immersion in water), makes one a member of the church. The Eucharist, the sacred meal, or Holy Communion, symbolizing and truly making present Christ as our food, reenacts bloodlessly His sacrifice. The Eucharistic Sacrifice, or the Mass, is the central act of Catholic worship. Through it the People of God, gathered in community, join themselves to Christ the High Priest, in his own act of total selfgiving to the Father. Confırmatiorı, the outward sign of which is anointing with strengthening oil, prepares one for a life of Christian responsibility and maturity. Matrimony, the symbol of the love of Christ and His church, binds together a man and a woman in human marriage. Holy Orders, the symbol of official dedication, empowers certain members of the mystical body to perform Christ’s priestly action for all. Penance, the symbol of the forgiving judgment of the church in the name of Christ, renews the life of grace in the souls of the faithful. Anointing of the Sick, or Extreme TJnction, the symbol of healing anointing, helps the Christian in serious illness or old age before he faces the ordeal of death. See also Section 3. Liturgy; and separate article Sacraments.


From a theological viewpoint some doctrines are more fundamental than others since the others are derived from them. First of all, and implicit in all doctrine, is the teaching that a tr^nscendental God exists (which is not to deny His immanence), who made personal contact with man in history. In the early written record of this contact, the Old Testament, His name was given: Yahweh, the living God. Though human reason is able to reach knowledge of his existence, human experience suggests that this is a precarious enterprise and that, in the practical order, man needs divine revelation. The Catholic Church, in claiming to be the “one true Church of Christ,” claims to be the Christfounded interpreter of divine revelation. At the same time the church recognizes that other Christian churches share much of God’s truth. Vatican Council II affirmed that “Catholics must joyfully acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren” (Vatican Council II, Decree on Ecumenism, section 4).

The First Principle. In its interpretation of divine revelation, the church views God as the first principle and ground of being. All things come from Him by way of creation. Stili, the notion of creation does not deny the theory of evolution, on which revelation sheds no direct light one way or the other. The Biblical account of the origin of the world is seen as a religious message rather than a scientific statement. Phrased in the imagery and literary forms of the time and situation of the writers, the Bible unfolds for us not the scientific history of the cosmos, but the religious meaning of the world’s birth, in whatever form it took place.

God is not only the creator of the world, He is also its loving preserver and intelligent planner. At the end of time, human history will prove to have been directed by Providence, and the love and wisdom of God will be manifest.

The Trinity. The one God is triple by reason of three inner personal principles. These three persons are called the Father, Son (or Word), and Holy Spirit. This Trinity does not multiply God, who is one, but does put in the divine oneness three distinct intelligent principles of action. Even with faith the human mind can do little more than accept this truth as a mystery. See also Trinity.

The Incarnation. Salvation came to man by putting a richer humanity within his reach, and it came in an astounding but truly fitting way: one of the persons of the divine Trinity entered into salvation history as a man. This is known as the Incarnation. This truth is not some mythological expression of the fact that in all men there lies some “divine spark,” which, by eifort, can be fanned into flame. For the Catholic the Incarnation quite literally means that God became man so that one man, Jesus of Nazareth, was quite literally God. But not only was Jesus truly God; He was just as truly man. Nothing human was missing from Him except sin. Since He was God, He could not be alienated from God. Hence in Him there could be no sin, either original or personal.

The motive of Jesus, the Godman, in His earthly life was redemptive. That is to say, He wished to save man from his innate futility and frustration. He did this by presenting Himself to the Divinity as the proxy of all men and bore the penalty of all on His shoulders. He offered Himself in a sacrifîcial ordeal in order to enter into His divine heritage, and did this as man. He willingly accepted death on the cross. But death was only a passing from imperfect human life into a risen life in divine glory.

The meaning of Jesus’ work is man’s reorientation to God. Man can share in God because Christ shares in God. Man need only share in the humanity of the Christ (which title, literally, means God’s “anointed”), which is the common humanity of all men. Man cannot achieve this by his own effort, but God can make him a sharer. The Holy Spirit does this in a supreme gesture of love. To those who see Jesus as the Son of God and accept Him as Lord and Saviour, the Spirit communicates the humanity of Christ. This is a radical change for man, a rebirth, a new being, a new creation. God initiates it; and man, through faith and conversion, cooperates with God’s initiative. See also Grace of God.

Visible Body of Christ. Because of Christ’s redemption, there is a new humanity, a new People of God present in the world. Those who accept this gift of redemption form a visible body in the world. This body—the Body of Christ, the Mystical Body—is a visible community produced and upheld by the Holy Spirit. It is the church. For the Catholic, to share in the life of Christ, which is man’s salvation, is to be in the church.

Within the church there are two bodies: the body of bishops assisted by priests who share, though not fully, in the bishops’ priestly prerogatives; and the body of the faithfui, each of whom shares somehow in the priesthood of Christ. These latter, the laity, do not perform certain functions of the bishops and other clergy, but they “make up the body of Christ under one Head” and are “called to sanctity and have an equal privilege of faith” (Constitution on the Church).

The church recognizes also its links with those who are baptized but not in full unity with it. Similarly the church acknowledges a special relationship with those others, outside the Christian tradition, who “sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them” (Constitution on the Church, section 16). They are saved by their link, realized or not, with Christ.

Hierarchy. Catholic doctrine holds that the church is hierarchically structured. Its hierarchy makes it an institutional, organized, and visible community. The hierarchy, or ruling group, is the college, or collectivity, of bishops. In positing this, Catholics do not difîer greatly from the Orthodox Eastern churches or from AngloCatholics. Catholics may insist more than some others, however, that this element is not merely a historical accident, but depends on the will of Christ. The college of bishops perpetuates itself by conferring sacramental Orders on chosen Christians. The apostles were the first bishops, ordained by Christ, and it is only from them that other bishops receive their ordination. This is known as the apostolic succession, a basic teaching of Catholicism.

Primacy of Peter. All bishops are equally bishops. Together they form the college of bishops, which is not the sum of separate independent bishops but a single spiritual power in the church, which all bishops share equally. This power was given first to Peter (Matthew 16:1620) and then to the other apostles, who shared in the power of Peter. The power of the pope, then, is an episcopal, or bishop’s, power and not a totally different one. The Catholic view of hierarchy differs from other views by its insistence that the college of bishops is united not only inwardly by the action of the Holy Spirit, but outwardly. by a visible solidarity with the pope, who by reason of the direct succession of his powers from the first bishop of Rome, St. Peter, is the prime bishop. This is the doctrine of papal primacy. By it the bishop of Rome is acknowledged as the first among the bishops, not only in rank and dignity, but in pastoral authority as well. See also Papacy.

Infallibility. A word must be said about infallibility, both that of the pope and that of the college of bishops. Definition of doctrine is made rarely, usually only when there is danger of widespread misunderstanding of revelation. Not ali pronouncements of the college of bishops or of the pope are solemn definitions of revelation. Normally they are ordinary communications of revelation which, if necessary, can be reformed. Indeed, most episcopal and papal messages are directive norms rather than formal statements of doctrine. Because these messages are dignified by the teaching authority of the bishops, they demand acceptance. Even though acceptance of these messages may not be as absolute as that accorded solemn definitions, Catholics respond out of fidelity to Christ who acts through his representatives, the bishops.

Doctrine of Solidarity. The redemption brought by Christ involves the union of those who accept Christ with the visible body which He established for ali. This brings with it the concept of solidarity, the union of those in the visible church on earth and those who have passed on from earthly life. The “faithfui departed” are considered to be stili in Christunity and therefore in unity with the church. This doctrine is today called the “communion of saints,” although the phrase has had different meanings at various times.

Saints. The doctrine of solidarity in Christ implies a mutual influence of ali those in Christ. Those who have left the earthly Christsociety and have attained full unity with the risen Lord retain links with members stili on earth. This union is, in fact, “strengthened through the exchange of spiritual goods.” Furthermore, these departed members, having reached ultimate union, “are present to the Lord, and through Him and with Him and in Him they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us” (Constitution on the Church, section 49). Thus it is a family spirit that prompts Catholics to pray to their brothers who are with the Lord. When the Catholic prays to these brothers, the saints, he does not pray as he prays to God. Rather he simply asks that they pray to God for him. The saint is not some minor divinity but a holy member of Christ’s body joined to ali the other members. In and through the one Saviour the saint intercedes for those in union with him. Just as a person on earth may ask another to pray for him, the Catholic expands this common custom when he asks the saints to do the same. See also Intercession; Saint.

Mary. Of ali the saints saved by the Redeemer, Mary, His mother, is the most revered. Both Catholic and Orthodox traditions are at one in their devotion to Mary: God chose her to be the first point of contact between historical man and his salvation, which is Christ Jesus. It is in recognition of the peculiar unity between son and mother that she is so esteemed. Because she is the mother of Christ, who is God, Mary was conceived free of original sin ( a doctrine called the Immaculate Conception); and after her life on earth she was taken up, body and soul, into heaven (a doctrine known as the Assumption). Traditionally she is thought of as mother of ali Christians, who are incorporated into Christ through His human nature, and thus she is accorded the title “Mother of the Church.”

Catholic and Orthodox expressions of devotion to Mary can bewilder and even shock other Christians. The rhetoric sometimes used can be exalted, highly poetic, even flamboyant. Accordingly Vatican Council II cautions ali Catholics “to carefully and equally avoid the falsity of exaggeration oıı the one hand, and the excess of narrowmindedness on the other” (Constitution on the Church, section 67). At the same time the Council reminds the faithfui that “true devotion consists neither in fruitless and passing emotion, nor in a certain vain credulity, but it proceeds from true faith.”

Purgatory. The solidarity of the redeemed with Christ and with each other can again be seen in the Catholic teaching concerning purgatory. In her teaching the church first considers the two dimensions of sin: (1) the upset of God’s designed order and (2) the alienation of the sinner from God. In God’s act of pardon the second effect, alienation, disappears. But the disturbance of order remains. This disturbance consists in a person’s acceptance of his own pleasure as the norm of conduct without regard for God’s true norms.

Since sin produced this imbalance, balance can be achieved again only when man freely sacrifices his own pleasure to compensate for his overindulgence of it.

Those who die in God’s union (the state of grace) want to restore the balance upset by sin. Preparing for the state of full union with God, they are in a temporary state of purgation, or of righting the disorder they have caused. They wish to compensate for their lack of effort before death. This state, called purgatory, is not a hell but a vestibule of heaven. The church prays for the souls in purgatory, asking God to accept the merits of Christ to make up for the shortcomings of those who are in Christ.


Catholics form a community or society. This society has been structured partly by God, partly by man. The human part can be changed, but the part established by God cannot be. Catholics at the same time are members of a secular community or society, which also claims the allegiance of its members. In this respect Catholics are in the same situation as other religious citizens. Any religious person gives his allegiance first to God. If this allegiance were to conflict with his allegiance to the civic community, the second allegiance would be suspended. This situation has occurred on occasion throughout human history. Victims of religious persecution have always been regarded as noble and heroic souls, not traitors, though they were convicted by human laws.

The basic question is not how the believing community is related to the civic commonwealth, but rather what the relationship of transcendent faith is to the secular order. Catholic doctrine firmly recognizes the need of secular human society for the common good. Catholics consider this the law of nature. Hence Catholics, like everyone else, have an obligation to obey the secular authority. Both fellowship in Christ and fellowship in secular society are necessary. But the transcendent dimension of human destiny is unconditionally imperative, while its earthly counterpart is not.

Yet the religious claims on the believer cannot make him incapable of fulfilling his civic ® obligations, since both are ultimately from one God. “In their own spheres, the political community and the church are mutually independent and selfgoverning. Yet by a different title each serves the social and personal vocation of the human beings” (Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, section 75). Since the believer and citizen are a single person, there cannot be a total separation of the believer from the citizen. Thus, there are meanings of the phrase “separation of Church and State” that are too doctrinaire and totalistic to be acceptable.

The solution to possible problems of conflict between allegiances is along the lines of concord of the two communities. Each must act in harmony, respect, and collaboration with the other. This concord will vary historically according to the structures of different commonwealths, and must be worked out according to concrete sıtuations. Neither church nor state is to be thought of as a subservient instrument of the other. The principle of rendering “to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) recognizes the autonomy of the two communities. Vatican Council II’s

Constitution on the Church in the Modern World states explicidy that “the church does not lodge its hope in privileges conferred by civil authorities; indeed it stands ready to renounce the exercise of certain legitimately acquired rights if it becomes clear that their use raises doubts about the sincerity of its witness or new conditions of life demand some other arrangement.” In turn, it demands the right to “preach the faith with true freedom, to teach its social doctrine, and to discharge its duty among men without hindrance.” Further, it “consolidates peace among men, to God’s greater glory; for it is the Church’s task to uncover, cherish and ennoble ali that is true, good and beautiful in the human community.”


Christian morality is in general a reformulation of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, as St. Paul stated in his letter to the Galatians (5:1326) and his first letter to the Corinthians (5:913). Catholics believe that Christ fulfilled the Old Law and that life in Christ is their norm of action. In their love for Christ and their union with Him they aim to be Christlike, and this is their deepest law.

What differentiates Catholic morality from that of others is principally its formal source. Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Philosophers justify a code of ethics by argument and reason. The Catholic, too, may be a philosopher, and when he is he will follow the philosopher’s method. As a Catholic, however, he accepts Christ in faith as the norm and reason for his conduct. NonCatholic Christians generally hold the same position. However, the Catholic views his membership in the Body of Christ, which is the church, as his link to Christ. Hence moral guidance will be given authentically and definitively by the teaching chıırch, to which God has given the authority to interpret the natural law derived from man’s Godgiven nature.

Accordingly, there exists in Catholic morality the obligation to hear the church. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). The moral directives made by the church are, for the Catholic, not mere counsels but strict obligations, showing the will of God. This does not minimize the importance of conscience, which Vatican II calls “the most secret core and sanctuary of a human being” (Constitution on the Church, section 16); this is so because “authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image in man” and “man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice” (Constitution on the Church).

Here on earth man, even while a member of the church, is in a state of pilgrimage toward the fullness of restoration and revelation of the sons of God (Romans 8:1922). In his process of fulfillment in Christ he is confronted with many large and small choices. Whether the choices are in the personal or in the social realm he will follow his conscience as enlightened by Christ’s teaching in the concrete specifîcs of such choices. This does not emancipate him from personal or social responsibility but indeed makes his commitment to both more demanding and mansized. The role of the teaching church is not to diminish conscience but to help the Christian develop his conscience maturely so that he truly acts out of love and truth and not out of whim and egotism.

Thus faith, living through hope, charity, justice, and the other virtues, becomes something richer, more meaningful, and more absorbing than the initial intellectual assent. Morality, on the other hand, involves something higher and yet more intimate than a series of mere commands and prohibitions.

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