Roman Catholicism

Roman Catholicism

The first question in defining the scope of Roman Catholicism has to do with the term itself. There are Catholics who object to the adjective Roman because the community encompassed by the designation "Roman Catholicism" includes those who do not regard themselves as Roman. These are the so-called Uniate Catholics, the name given to former Eastern Christian or Orthodox churches that have been received under the jurisdiction of the church of Rome and retain their own ritual, practice, and canon law. They are the Melchite Catholics, the Maronites, the Ruthenians, the Copts, and the Malabars, among which there are six liturgical rites: Chaldean, Syrian, Maronite, Coptic, Armenian, and Byzantine.

There are, on the other hand, Christians who consider themselves Catholic but who do not accept the primatial authority of the bishop of Rome. This group insists that the churches in communion with the see of Rome should call themselves Roman Catholic to distinguish them from those Catholic churches (Anglican, Orthodox, Oriental, and some Protestant) not in communion with Rome. For some Protestants in this group, the Roman Catholic church did not begin as a church until the time of the Reformation. Indeed, in their eyes, Roman Catholicism is no less a denomination than Presbyterianism or Methodism, for example.

Protestantism is usually defined negatively, as the form of Western Christianity that rejects obedience to the Roman papacy. But this definition encounters the same difficulty described above. There are also non-Roman Christians who reject the papacy but who consider themselves Catholic rather than Protestant. For that reason alone it would be inadequate to define Catholicism by its adherence to papal authority.

Roman Catholicism refers both to a church (or, more accurately, a college of churches that together constitute the universal Catholic church) and to a tradition. If one understands the body of Christ as the whole collectivity of Christian churches, then the Roman Catholic church is a church within the universal church. And if one understands Christian tradition to embrace the full range and pluralism of doctrinal, liturgical, theological, canonical, and spiritual traditions, then the Roman Catholic tradition is a tradition within the one Christian tradition. For Roman Catholicism, however, the Catholic church and the Catholic tradition are normative for other Christian churches and traditions (as expressed in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no. 14, issued by the Second Vatican Council).

As a church, Roman Catholicism exists at both the local level and the universal level. In the canon law of the Roman Catholic church, the term "local church" (more often rendered as "particular church") applies primarily to a diocese and secondarily to a parish. The term "local church" has a wider meaning in Catholic theology than in canon law. It may apply to provinces (regional clusters of dioceses within a country) and to national churches (all the dioceses within a country), as well as to parishes and individual dioceses. A diocese is a local church constituted by a union, or college, of other local churches known as parishes. Each diocese is presided over by a bishop, and each parish by a pastor. The universal Roman Catholic church, on the other hand, is constituted by a union, or college, of all the local Catholic churches throughout the world. There are more than one-half billion Catholics worldwide, by far the largest body of Christians. Apart from other important doctrinal, liturgical, theological, canonical, and spiritual links, what holds these various churches and individual members in solidarity is the bond each has with the diocese of Rome and with its bishop, the pope.

As a tradition Roman Catholicism is marked by several different doctrinal and theological emphases. These are its radically positive estimation of the created order, because everything comes from the hand of God, is providentially sustained by God, and is continually transformed and elevated by God's active presence within it; its concern for history, because God acts within history and is continually revealed through it; its respect for rationality, because faith must be consonant with reason and reason itself, fallen and redeemed, is a gift of God; its stress on mediation, because God, who is at once the First Cause and totally spiritual, can have an effect on us only by working through secondary causes and material instruments, for example, the humanity of Jesus Christ, the church, the sacraments, the things of the earth, other people; and, finally, its affirmation of the communal dimension of salvation and of every religious relationship with God, because God has created us a people, because we have fallen as a people, because we have been redeemed as a people, and because we are destined for eternal glory as a people.

The very word catholic means "universal." What is most directly opposed to Catholicism, therefore, is not Protestantism (which, in any case, has many Catholic elements within it) but sectarianism, the movement within Christianity that holds that the church is a community of true believers, a precinct of righteousness within and over against the unredeemed world of sin, pronouncing judgment upon it and calling it to repentance but never entering into dialogue with it, much less collaboration on matters of common social, political, or religious concern. For the sectarian, dialogue and collaboration are invitations to compromise.

The contrast between Catholicism and sectarianism is nowhere more sharply defined than in their respective approaches to the so-called social question. Catholic social doctrine acknowledges the presence and power of sin in the world, but insists that grace is stronger. Catholic social doctrine underlines the doctrines of creation, providence, the incarnation, redemption, and sanctification through the Holy Spirit. Christians are called to collaborate with God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring the entire fallen and redeemed world to the perfection of the kingdom of God, "a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace" (Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 39).


What are the origins of Roman Catholicism? What events and personalities have shaped it? How is it presently being transformed?

Peter and The Petrine Ministry

If one insists that Roman Catholicism is not a denomination within Christianity but is its original expression, one faces at the outset the historical fact that the earliest community of disciples gathered in Jerusalem and therefore was Palestinian rather than Roman. Indeed, the see, or diocese, of Rome did not exist at the very beginning, nor did the Roman primacy.

If, on the other hand, one holds that the adjective Roman obscures rather than defines the reality of Catholicism, Catholicism does begin at the beginning, that is, with Jesus' gathering of his disciples and with his eventual commissioning, probably following the resurrection, of Peter to be the chief shepherd and foundation of the church. Therefore, it is not the Roman primacy that gives Catholicism its distinctive identity within the community of Christian churches but the Petrine primacy.

Peter is listed first among the Twelve (Mk. 3:16–19, Mt. 10:1–4, Lk. 6:12–16) and is frequently their spokesman (Mk. 8:29, Mt. 18:21, Lk. 12:41, Jn. 6:67–69); he is the first apostolic witness of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:5, Lk. 24:34); he is prominent in the original Jerusalem community and is well known to many other churches (Acts 1:15–26, 2:14–40, 3:1–26, 4:8, 5:1–11, 5:29, 8:18–25, 9:32–43, 10:5, 12:17, 1 Pt. 2:11, 5:13). Peter's activities after the council of Jerusalem are not reported, but there is increasing agreement that he did go to Rome and was martyred there. Whether he actually served the church of Rome as bishop cannot be known with certainty from the evidence at hand.

For the Catholic tradition, the classic primacy texts are Matthew 16:13–19, Luke 22:31–32, and John 21:15–19. The fact that Jesus' naming of Peter as the Rock occurs in different contexts in these three gospels does raise a question about the original setting of the incident. Did it occur before the resurrection, or was it a postresurrection event, subsequently "retrojected" into the accounts of Jesus' earthly ministry? In any case, the conferral of the power of the keys clearly suggests an imposing measure of authority, given the symbolism of the keys as instruments for opening and shutting the gates of the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, special authority over others is not clearly attested, and indeed Peter is presented in the Acts of the Apostles as consulting with the other apostles and even being sent by them (8:14), and he and John act almost as a team (3:1–11, 4:1–22, 8:14).

But there seems to be a trajectory of images relating to Peter and his ministry that sets him apart within the original company of disciples and explains his ascendancy and that of his successors throughout the early history of the church. He is portrayed as the fisherman (Lk. 5:10, Jn. 21:1–14), as the shepherd of the sheep of Christ (Jn. 21:15–17), as an elder who addresses other elders (1 Pt. 5:1), as proclaimer of faith in Jesus, the Son of God (Mt. 16:16–17), as receiver of a special revelation (Acts 1:9–16), as one who can correct others for doctrinal misunderstanding (2 Pt. 3:15–16), and as the rock on which the church is to be built (Mt. 16:18).

The question to be posed on the basis of recent investigations of the New Testament is therefore whether the subsequent, postbiblical development of the Petrine office is consistent with the thrust of the New Testament. The Catholic church says "Yes." Some other Christian churches are beginning to say "Perhaps."

The biblical images concerning Peter continued in the life of the early church and were enriched by additional ones: missionary preacher, great visionary, destroyer of heretics, receiver of the new law, gatekeeper of heaven, helmsman of the ship of the church, co-teacher and co-martyr with Paul. By the latter half of the second century, the church had accommodated itself to the culture of the Greco-Roman world, particularly the organizational and administrative patterns that prevailed in areas of its missionary activity. Accordingly, the church adopted the organizational grid of the Roman empire: localities, dioceses, provinces. It also identified its own center with that of the empire, Rome. Moreover, there was attached to this city the tradition that Peter had founded the church there and that he and Paul were martyred and buried there.

In the controversy with Gnosticism, defenders of orthodoxy appealed to the faith of sees (local churches) founded by the apostles, and especially to the faith of the Roman church, which was so clearly associated with Peter and Paul. During the first five centuries, the church of Rome gradually assumed preeminence among all the churches. It intervened in the life of distant churches, took sides in theological controversies, was consulted by other bishops on doctrinal and moral questions, and sent delegates to distant councils. The see of Rome came to be regarded as a kind of final court of appeal as well as a focus of unity for the worldwide communion of churches. The correlation between Peter and the bishop of Rome became fully explicit during the pontificate of Leo I (440–461), who claimed that Peter continued to speak to the whole church through the bishop of Rome.

Constantine and Constantinian Catholicism

One of the major events during this early period was the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine I (306–337) in the year 312. Constantine subsequently pursued a vigorous campaign against pagan practices and lavished money and monuments upon the church. Roman law was modified to reflect Christian values more faithfully, and the clergy were accorded privileged status. For some, the conversion of Constantine provided the church with extraordinary opportunities for proclaiming the gospel to all nations and for bringing necessary order into the church's doctrinal and liturgical life. It also allowed the church to be less defensive about pagan culture and to learn from it and be enriched by it. For others, however, the event marked a dangerous turning point in the history of the church. For the first time, the church enjoyed a favored place in society. Christian commitment would no longer be tested by persecution, much less by death. The community of disciples was on the verge of being swallowed up by the secular, and therefore anti-Christian, values of the state and the society, which now embraced the church. Indeed, there is no word of greater opprobrium laid upon Catholic Christians by sectarian Christians than "Constantinian."


The first protest against Constantinianism, however, came not from sectarians but from Catholic monks. The new monastic movement had an almost immediate impact upon the church. Bishops were recruited from among those with some monastic training. For example, Athanasius (d. 373) was a disciple of Antony of Egypt (d. 355), generally regarded as the founder of monasticism. One historian has argued that the strong missionary impetus, the remarkable development of pastoral care, the effort to christianize the Roman state, and above all the theological work of the great councils of the fourth and fifth centuries would have been inconceivable without monasticism. On the other hand, when monks were appointed bishops they tended to bring with them some of their monastic mores, particularly celibacy and a certain reserve toward ordinary human experiences. As a result, there developed a separation between pastoral leaders and the laity, based not only upon the exercise of power and jurisdiction but also upon a diversity in spiritualities.

Imported into the West from the East, monasticism reached its high point in the middle of the sixth century with the founding of Monte Cassino by Benedict of Nursia (d. 547). Monks were directly involved in the missionary expansion of the church in Ireland, Scotland, Gaul, and England between the fifth and the seventh century. This missionary enterprise was so successful that, in the eighth century, English missionaries had a prominent role in evangelizing the more pagan parts of Europe.

In spite of its simple purposes of work and prayer, Western monasticism would serve as the principal carrier of Western civilization during the Middle Ages. No other movement or institution had such social or intellectual influence. With the restoration of some political stability to Europe by the middle of the eleventh century, monks tended to withdraw from temporal and ecclesiastical affairs to return to their monasteries, and a renewal of monasticism followed. The foundings of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Cistercians, and Jesuits were among the major effects of this renewal, as were the rich theological and spiritual writings that emerged from these communities by, for example, Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) and Bonaventure (d. 1274).

Doctrinal Controversies

At the heart of the Catholic faith, as at the heart of every orthodox expression of Christian faith, is Jesus Christ. In the fourth and fifth centuries there was a preoccupation with dogmatic controversies about the relationship between the one God, the creator of all things, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God and redeemer of humankind, and then about the relationship of the Holy Spirit to both. Arianism (Christ was only a creature, greater than humans but less than God) was opposed by the Council of Nicaea (325); Apollinarianism (Christ had no human soul), by the First Council of Constantinople (381); Nestorianism (the man Jesus was separate from the divine Word, or Logos; the two were not united in one person), by the Council of Ephesus (431); and monophysitism (Christ's human nature was completely absorbed by the one divine person), by the Council of Chalcedon (451). Jesus is at once divine and human. The divine and the human are united in one person, "without confusion or change, without division or separation" (the definition of the Council of Chalcedon). This stress on theological and doctrinal balance has been an abiding feature of the Catholic tradition.

The same balance was preserved in the great Western debate about nature and grace. Pelagianism had argued that salvation is achieved through human effort alone. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) insisted on the priority of grace, without prejudice to human responsibility. Indeed, the church would later condemn quietism, Pelagianism's opposite, in the constitution Caelestis pastor of Innocent XI (d. 1689). Moral effort is essential to the spiritual life, although such effort is always prompted and sustained by grace. Grace, in turn, builds on nature, as the Scholastics would put it.

Structure and Law

By the beginning of the fifth century, German tribes began migrating through Europe without effective control. This movement has been called, somewhat inaccurately, the barbarian invasions. It was to last some six hundred years and was to change the institutional character of Catholicism from a largely Greco-Roman religion to a broader European religion. The strongly militaristic and feudal character of Germanic culture influenced Catholic devotion, spirituality, and organizational structure. Christ was portrayed as the most powerful of kings. The place of worship was described as God's fortress. Monks were perceived as warriors of Christ. The profession of faith was understood as an oath of fidelity to a kind of feudal lord. Church office became more political than pastoral. Eventually a dispute arose about the appointment of such officers. Should they be appointed by the church or by the state? This led to the so-called investiture struggle, which was resolved in favor of the church through the leadership of Gregory VII (d. 1085).

When, at the beginning of the eighth century, the Eastern emperor proved incapable of aiding the papacy against the Lombards in northern Italy, the pope turned for help to the Franks. This new alliance led eventually to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, climaxed in 800 with the crowning of Charlemagne (d. 814). The line between church and state, already blurred by Constantine's Edict of Milan some five hundred years earlier, was now practically erased. When the Carolingian empire collapsed, however, the papacy was left at the mercy of an essentially corrupt Roman nobility. The tenth and part of the eleventh centuries were its dark ages. Only with the reform of Gregory VII was the papacy's luster restored. Gregory attacked three major abuses: simony (the selling of spiritual goods), the alienation of church property (allowing it to pass from ecclesiastical hands to private hands), and lay investiture (granting the power of church appointment to secular authorities). Papal prestige was even more firmly enhanced during the pontificate of Innocent III (1198–1216), who fully exploited the Gregorian teaching that the pope has supreme, even absolute, power over the whole church.

Canon law was codified to support the new network of papal authority. The church became increasingly legalistic in its theology, moral life, and administration of the sacraments, especially marriage, which was regarded more as a contract than as a covenant based on mutual love. By the middle of the thirteenth century the classical papal-hierarchical concept of the church had been securely established. Newly elected popes were crowned like emperors, a practice observed for centuries until suddenly discontinued by John Paul I (d. 1978). Emphasis on the juridical aspects of the church did not subside until the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), which declared that the church is first and foremost the people of God and a mystery (i. e., a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God) before it is a hierarchical institution. Indeed, that principle must be kept firmly in mind, lest this historical overview be read only from the top down. The story of the Catholic church always remains the story of Catholic people.

Divisions in The Church

Through a series of unfortunate and complicated political and diplomatic maneuvers, the historical bond between the church of Rome and the church of Constantinople came apart. In 1054 the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularios (d. 1058), was excommunicated by papal legates, but it was the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) and the sack of Constantinople by Western knights that dealt the crucial blow to East-West unity.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, other events had introduced a period of further disintegration, reaching a climax in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. First, there was the confrontation between Boniface VIII (d. 1303) and Philip the Fair (d. 1314) over the latter's power to tax the church. The pope issued two bulls asserting his own final authority: Clericis laicos (1296) and Unam sanctam (1302), the latter having been described as the most theocratic doctrine ever formulated. But Philip arrested Boniface, and the pope died a prisoner.

Then there was the proliferation of financial abuses during the subsequent "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy at Avignon, France (1309–1378). There followed a rise in nationalism and anticlericalism in reaction to papal taxes. Theological challenges mounted against the recent canonical justifications of papal power, especially in the advocacy by Marsilius of Padua (d. 1343) of a conciliar rather than a monarchical concept of the church. The Western schism of 1378–1417—not to be confused with the East-West schism involving Rome and Constantinople—saw at one point three different claimants to the papal throne. Finally, the Council of Constance (1414) turned to the principle of conciliarism (i. e., a general council of the church, not the pope, is the highest ecclesiastical authority) and brought the schism to an end. The three claimants were set aside (one was deposed, a second resigned, and a third eventually died), and Martin V (d. 1431) was elected on Saint Martin's Day, 11 November 1417.

There were, of course, more immediate causes of the Reformation: the corruption of the Renaissance papacy of the fifteenth century; the divorce of piety from theology, and of theology from its biblical and patristic roots; the debilitating effects of the Western schism; the rise of the national state; the too-close connection between Western Catholicism and Western civilization; and the vision, experiences, and personalities of Luther (d. 1546), Zwingli (d. 1531), and Calvin (d. 1564).

The Reformation itself took different forms: on the right, it retained essential Catholic doctrine but changed certain canonical and structural forms (Lutheranism and Anglicanism); on the left, it repudiated much Catholic doctrine and sacramental life (Zwinglianism and the Anabaptist movement); nearer to the center, it modified both Catholic doctrine and practice but retained much of the old (Calvinism).

The Council of Trent and Post-Tridentine Catholicism

The Catholic response was belated but vigorous. Known as the Counter-Reformation, it began at the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and was conducted especially under the leadership of Paul III (1534–1549). The council, which was perhaps the single most important factor in the shaping of Catholicism from the time of the Reformation until the Second Vatican Council, a period of some four centuries, articulated Catholic doctrine on nature and grace, following a middle course concerning doctrines of salvation between Pelagianism, which emphasizes human effort, and Protestantism, which emphasizes God's initiative. The council also defined the seven sacraments, created the Index of Forbidden Books, and established seminaries for the education and formation of future priests. At the heart of the Catholic Counter-Reformation was the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the strongest single force in helping the church regain its lost initiative on the missionary, educational, and pastoral fronts.

By and large, the post-Tridentine Catholic church continued to emphasize those doctrines, devotions, and institutions that were most vehemently attacked by the Protestants: veneration of the saints, Marian piety, eucharistic adoration, the authority of the hierarchy, and the essential role of priests in the sacramental life of the church. Other important elements received less emphasis, perhaps because they were perceived as part of the Protestant agenda: the centrality of Christ in theology and spirituality, the communal nature of the Eucharist, and the responsibility of the laity in the life and mission of the church.

With the Reformation, Catholic missionary activity was reduced in those countries where Protestant churches began to flourish, but Catholicism was carried abroad by Spain and Portugal, who ruled the seas. New gains were sought to offset losses in Europe. Dominicans, Franciscans, and the newly formed Jesuits brought the Catholic faith to India, China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas. The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith was founded in 1622 to supervise these new missionary enterprises.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Catholic church faced yet another challenge from within: Jansenism, a movement in France that drew much of its inspiration from Augustine. Augustine had always stressed the priority of grace over nature, but Jansenism seemed to take his emphasis many steps further, portraying nature as totally corrupt and promoting a theory of predestination. From such principles there emerged a form of Catholic life that was exceedingly rigorous and even puritanical. When Rome moved against Jansenism, many in the French church saw Rome's action as a threat to the independence of French Catholicism. Gallicanism thus emerged as an essentially nationalistic rather than theological movement, asserting that a general council, not the pope, has supreme authority in the church. Consequently, all papal decrees would be subject to the consent of the entire church, as represented in a general council. Gallicanism was condemned by the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), which declared that infallible teachings of the pope are irreformable, that is, not subject to the consent of any higher ecclesiastical body or authority.

The Enlightenment

One cannot easily underestimate the impact of the Enlightenment on modern Catholicism, although it influenced Protestantism sooner and much more profoundly. Characterized by a supreme confidence in the power of reason, an optimistic view of human nature, and an almost inordinate reverence for freedom, the Enlightenment exhibited a correspondingly hostile attitude toward the supernatural, the notion of revelation, and authority of every kind, except that of reason itself. The Enlightenment affected Catholicism primarily in the Catholic states of Germany, where it stimulated advances in historical and exegetical methods, improvements in the education of the clergy, the struggle against superstition, liturgical and catechetical reform, and the promotion of popular education. However, much Catholic theology before the Second Vatican Council remained largely untouched by the Enlightenment.

The French Revolution

If the Enlightenment marked the beginning of the end of unhistorical, classicist Catholic theology, the French Revolution (1789) marked the definitive end of medieval Catholicism. The feudal, hierarchical society that had been so much a part of medieval Catholicism disappeared, but the French Revolution had other effects as well. It was so extreme that it provoked counterreaction among some European intellectuals, who returned with new enthusiasm to the basic principles of Catholicism (see "Romanticism," below). The Revolution also destroyed Gallicanism by uprooting the clerical system upon which it had been based. The clergy were compelled to look to Rome and the papacy for support and direction. Finally, the French Revolution gave the Catholic church the "grace of destitution." It no longer had much to lose, and so it was free once again to pursue the mission for which it was originally founded.


In France and Germany the French Revolution generated an opposite phenomenon, romanticism, which extolled Catholicism as the mother of art and the guardian of patriotism. Thousands who had been alienated from the Catholic church returned. With the notable exception of Cardinal John Henry Newman (d. 1890), theology at this time was restorative rather than progressive. What was restored, however, was not the witness and wisdom of sacred scripture and the ancient Christian writers but the literal content of a renewed scholastic philosophy and theology. There developed in France a rigid traditionalism, characterized by integralism and fideism, which was distrustful of all rational speculation and critical thinking in theology. The practitioners of such theology looked "beyond the mountains," the Alps, to Rome for papal direction (thus, the movement's name, ultramontanism). The popes of this day, Gregory XVI (d. 1846) and Pius IX (d. 1878), set themselves stubbornly against the winds of change and modernity. Nowhere was their defiant attitude more sharply formulated than in Pius's Syllabus of Errors (1864), which proclaimed that the pope "cannot and should not be reconciled and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization."

Although Pius IX successfully persuaded the First Vatican Council to define papal primacy and papal infallibility, he lost the Papal States (September 1870) and with them his remaining political power. Not until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 (renegotiated in 1983) were the pope's temporal rights to the Vatican territory acknowledged.

Catholic Social Doctrine

The nineteenth century also witnessed the rapid development of industrialism, and with it a host of new social problems, not least of which was the worsening condition of workers. Marxism stepped into the gap. The workers found themselves alienated not only from the fruits of their labor but from their Catholic heritage as well. The Catholic church responded, albeit belatedly, in 1891 with Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum, which defended the right of workers to unionize and to enjoy humane working conditions and a just wage.

Catholic social doctrine was further refined by Pius XI (d. 1939) in his Quadragesimo anno (1931); by Pius XII (d. 1958) in his various Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost messages; by John XXIII (d. 1963), in his Mater et magistra (1961) and Pacem in terris (1963); by the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, known also as Gaudium et spes (1965); by Paul VI (d. 1978), in his Populorum progressio (1967) and Octagesima adveniens (1971); by the Iustitia in mundo (1971) of the Third International Synod of Bishops; and by John Paul II's Redemptor ho-minis (1979) and Laborem exercens (1981). The twin pillars of Catholic social doctrine, as articulated in these documents, are the infinite dignity of each and every human person, and the responsibilities all persons, agencies, and nations have to the common good.


Just as the Catholic church could not ignore various social, economic, and political developments initiated in the nineteenth century, neither could it ignore corresponding intellectual developments. As these developments began to make some impact on Catholic scholars, there emerged a new ecclesiastical phenomenon known as modernism. Modernism was not a single movement but a complex of movements. It assumed many different forms, some orthodox and some unorthodox. But distinctions were rarely made, and the term modernist was usually employed in early-twentieth-century discussions as one of opprobrium.

Modernists were those who refused to adopt a safely conservative standpoint on all debatable matters pertaining to doctrine and theology. Modernism was condemned by Pius X (d. 1914) through the Holy Office decree Lamentabili (1907) and the encyclical Pascendi (1907). Much of pre-Vatican II twentieth-century Catholic theology was written under the shadow of modernism. Deviations from the main lines of neoscholastic theology during this period were regarded as reductively modernist. Theologians, pastors, and others were required to swear to an antimodernist oath.

Some of the positions once denounced as modernist, however, were later reflected in the teachings of Vatican II and even in certain decrees of the Curia Romana, for example, regarding the historical truth of sacred scripture and the development of dogma. The modernists had argued that dogmatic truths, as well as truths contained in sacred scripture, are not absolute and unchanging but are affected by historical conditions and circumstances. Official Catholic teaching at first condemned this view but gradually accommodated itself to it, particularly in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Mysterium ecclesiae (1973), which noted that "even though the truths which the Church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch and can be expressed without them, nevertheless it can sometimes happen that these truths may be enunciated by the Sacred Magisterium in terms that bear traces of such conceptions."

Between The World Wars (1918–1939)

The period before Vatican II was not without its progressive movements (otherwise Vatican II itself would be inexplicable). The liturgical movement bridged the gap between altar and congregation by emphasizing the nature of worship and by stressing the Thomistic principle that sacraments are signs of grace as well as causes of grace. As signs, sacraments must be understandable, in terms of both language and ritual. The biblical movement carried forward the work of critical interpretation without provoking additional papal condemnations. But Catholic biblical scholars labored under a cloud until Pius XII issued the so-called Magna Carta of Catholic biblical scholarship, Divino afflante Spiritu (1943). The social action movement continued to apply the teachings of the social encyclicals, particularly in support of the labor union movement. The lay apostolate movement under Pius XI and Pius XII sought to involve larger numbers of laity in the work of the church (a movement also known as Catholic Action). The ecumenical movement had a more difficult path, given the negative tone of Pius XI's encyclical Mortalium animos (1927), but pioneers like Yves Congar were preparing the way for Vatican II. Meanwhile, the missionary movement, which had experienced a major revival in the nineteenth century, with as many as 8 million converts, was increasingly liberated from undue colonial and European influence. Both Pius XI and Pius XII stressed the importance of establishing native clergies and native hierarchies in mission lands.

Pope John XXIII and The Second Vatican Council

No other persons or events have had so profound an impact on modern Catholicism as John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council he convoked. When elected in 1958, John insisted that his was "a very humble office of shepherd" and that he intended to pattern his ministry after that of Joseph in the Old Testament story, who greeted the brothers who had sold him into slavery with the compassionate and forgiving words, "I am Joseph, your brother." When the new pope ceremonially took possession of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, he reminded the congregation, which included cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and assorted ecclesiastical dignitaries, that he was not a prince surrounded by the outward signs of power but "a priest, a father, a shepherd." He visited the sick in the Roman hospitals, the elderly in old-age homes, the convicts at Regina Coeli prison.

John XXIII first announced his council on January 25, 1959 and officially convoked it on December 25, 1961. In his address at the council's solemn opening on October 11, 1962, he revealed again his spirit of fundamental hope. He complained openly about some of his closest advisers, who "though burning with zeal, are not endowed with much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin." He called them "prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand." He believed instead that "Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations." He had not called the council to preserve doctrine. "The substance of the ancient doctrine … is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another." This was not the time for negativism. The most effective way for the church to combat error would be by "demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations." The purpose of the council, therefore, would be the promotion of "concord, just peace and the brotherly unity of all."

Although John XXIII died between the first two sessions of the council, his successor, Paul VI, carried his program to fulfillment:

  1. Vatican II taught that the church is the people of God, a community of disciples. The hierarchy is part of the people of God, not separate from it. Authority is for service, not for domination. Bishops are not merely the delegates of the pope, and laity are not merely instruments of their bishops. (See the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.)
  2. The church must read the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the gospel. The church is part of the world, and its mission is to serve the whole human family in order to make the history of the human race more human. (See the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.)
  3. Christian unity requires renewal and reform. Both sides were to blame for the divisions of the Reformation; therefore both sides have to be open to change. The body of Christ embraces more than Catholics (Roman or otherwise). (See the Decree on Ecumenism.)
  4. The word of God is communicated through sacred scripture, sacred tradition, and the teaching authority of the church, all linked together and guided by the Holy Spirit. The sacred realities are always open in principle to a growth in understanding. (See the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.)
  5. The church proclaims the gospel not only in word but also in sacrament. Since the whole people of God must actively participate in this worship, the signs, that is, language and rituals, must be intelligible. (See the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.)
  6. No one is to be forced in any way to embrace the Christian or the Catholic faith. This principle is rooted in human dignity and the freedom of the act of faith. (See the Declaration on Religious Freedom.)
  7. God speaks also through other religions. The church should engage in dialogue and other collaborative efforts with them. The Jews have a special relationship to the church. They cannot be blamed as a people for the death of Jesus. (See the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.)

After four sessions the Second Vatican Council adjourned in December 1965. The story of Catholicism since the council—through the pontificates of Paul VI (1963–1978), John Paul I (1978), and John Paul II (1978–)—has been shaped largely, if not entirely, by the church's efforts to come to terms with the various challenges and opportunities which that council presented: specifically, how can the church remain faithful to its distinctively Catholic heritage even as it continues to affirm and assimilate such modern values as ecumenism, pluralism, and secularity?

Catholic Vision and Catholic Values

Catholicism is not an isolated reality. The word Catholic is not only a noun but also an adjective. As an adjective, it modifies the noun Christian. The word Christian, too, is both a noun and an adjective. As an adjective, it modifies religious. The word religious also functions as an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, it modifies the word human. Thus the Catholic church is a community of persons (the fundamentally human foundation of Catholic identity) who believe in and are committed to the reality of God and who shape their lives according to that belief and in fidelity to that commitment (the religious component of Catholicism). The church's belief in and commitment to the reality of God is focused in its fundamental attitude toward Jesus Christ (the Christian core). For Catholics, as for every Christian, the old order has passed away, and they are a "new creation" in Christ, for God has "reconciled us to himself through Christ" (2 Cor. 5:17, 5:19). "Catholic," therefore, is a qualification of "Christian," of "religious," and of the human. To be Catholic is to be a kind of human being, a kind of religious person, and a kind of Christian.

To be Catholic is, before all else, to be human. Catholicism is an understanding and affirmation of human existence before it is a corporate conviction about the pope, or the seven sacraments, or even about Jesus Christ. But Catholicism is also more than a corporate understanding and affirmation of what it means to be human. Catholicism answers the question of meaning in terms of ultimacy. With Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945), Catholicism confirms that there is more to life than meets the eye, that there is "a beyond in our midst." With Paul Tillich (d. 1975), Catholicism affirms that there is a ground of all being which is being itself. With Thomas Aquinas, Catholicism affirms that all reality is rooted in the creative, loving power of that which is most real (ens realissimum). Catholicism answers the question of meaning in terms of the reality of God. In brief, Catholicism is a religious perspective, and not simply a philosophical or anthropological one.

But Catholicism is not some undifferentiated religious view. Catholicism's view of and commitment to God is radically shaped by its view of and commitment to Jesus Christ. For the Christian, the ultimate dimension of human experience is a triune God: a God who creates and sustains, a God who draws near to and identifies with the human historical condition, and a God who empowers people to live according to the vocation to which they have been called. More specifically, the God of Christians is the God of Jesus Christ.

But just as Jesus Christ gives access to God, so, for the Catholic, the church gives access to Jesus Christ. However, the church itself is composed of many churches, as noted above. The church universal is the communion of local churches, and the body of Christ is composed of denominations (for want of a better term). Thus the noun "church" is always modified: the Catholic church, the Methodist church, the Orthodox church, the Lutheran church, and so forth. Moreover, even those modifiers can themselves be modified: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Lutheran Church of America, the American Lutheran Church, and so forth.

There are many churches, but one body of Christ. Within the community of churches, however, there is one church that alone embodies and manifests all the institutional elements necessary for the integrity of the whole body. In Catholic doctrine and theology, that one church is the Catholic church. As ecumenical as the Second Vatican Council certainly was, it did not retreat from this fundamental Catholic conviction:

They are fully incorporated into the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and through union with her visible structure are joined to Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the Bishops. This joining is effected by the bonds of professed faith, of the sacraments, of ecclesiastical government, and of communion. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no. 14)

Since Vatican II, however, much has happened to suggest that the traditional lines of distinction have been blurred. It is more evident now that, in spite of the distinctiveness of the Catholic claims for the papal office, Catholic identity is rooted in much broader and richer theological values. Specifically, there is a configuration of characteristics within Catholicism that is not duplicated anywhere else in the community of Christian churches. This configuration of characteristics is expressed in Catholicism's systematic theology; its body of doctrines; its liturgical life, especially its Eucharist; its variety of spiritualities; its religious congregations and lay apostolates; its official teachings on justice, peace, and human rights; its exercise of collegiality; and, to be sure, its Petrine ministry.

Roman Catholicism is distinguished from other Christian traditions and churches in its understanding of, commitment to, and exercise of the principles of sacramentality, mediation, and communion. Differences between Catholic and non-Catholic (especially Protestant) approaches become clearer when measured according to these three principles.


In its classical (Augustinian) meaning, a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. Paul VI provided a more contemporary definition: "a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God." A sacramental perspective is one that "sees" the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the immanent, the eternal in the historical. Over against this sacramental vision is the view, strengthened by memories of past excesses in the sacramental vision, that God is so "totally other" that the divine reality can never be identified with the human, the transcendent with the immanent, the eternal with the historical, and so forth. The abiding Protestant fear is that Catholics take the sacramental principle to a point just short of, if not fully immersed in, idolatry.

The Catholic sacramental vision "sees" God in and through all things: other people, communities, movements, events, places, objects, the world at large, the whole cosmos. The visible, the tangible, the finite, the historical—all these are actual or potential carriers of the divine presence. Indeed, for the Catholic, it is only in and through these material realities that we can even encounter the invisible God. The great sacrament of our encounter with God, and of God's encounter with us, is Jesus Christ. The church, in turn, is the key sacrament of our encounter with Christ, and of Christ with us; and the sacraments, in turn, are the signs and instruments by which that ecclesial encounter with Christ is expressed, celebrated, and made effective for the glory of God and the salvation of men and women.

The Catholic, therefore, insists that grace (the divine presence) actually enters into and transforms nature (human life in its fullest context). The dichotomy between nature and grace is eliminated. Human existence is already graced existence. There is no merely natural end of human existence, with a supernatural end imposed from above. Human existence in its natural, historical condition is radically oriented toward God. The history of the world is, at the same time, the history of salvation.

This means, for the Catholic, that authentic human progress and the struggle for justice, peace, freedom, human rights, and so forth, is part of the movement of and toward the kingdom of God (Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 39). The Catholic, unlike Luther, espouses no doctrine of the two kingdoms. The vast body of Catholic social doctrine, from Leo XIII in 1891 to John Paul II a century later, is as characteristic of Catholic Christianity as any element can be. In virtue of the sacramental principle, Catholics affirm that God is indeed present to all human life and to history. To be involved in the transformation of the world is to be collaboratively involved in God's own revolutionary and transforming activity.

For the Catholic, the world is essentially good, though fallen, because it comes from the creative hand of God. And for the Catholic, the world, although fallen, is redeemable because of the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ. And for the Catholic, the world, although fractured and fragmented, is capable of ultimate unity because of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the "first fruits" of the final kingdom of God.


A kind of corollary of the principle of sacramentality is the principle of mediation. A sacrament not only signifies; it also causes what it signifies. Indeed, as the Council of Trent officially taught, sacraments cause grace precisely insofar as they signify it. If the church, therefore, is not a credible sign of God's and Christ's presence in the world, if the church is not obviously the "temple of the Holy Spirit," it cannot achieve its missionary purposes. It "causes" grace (i. e., effectively moves the world toward its final destiny in the kingdom of God) to the extent that it signifies the reality toward which it presumes to direct the world.

On the other hand, sacraments are not only signs of faith, as Protestants affirmed at the time of the Reformation. For the Catholic, God is not only present in the sacramental action; God actually achieves something in and through that action. Thus, created realities not only contain, reflect, or embody the presence of God, they also make that presence effective for those who avail themselves of these realities. Encounter with God does not occur solely in the inwardness of conscience or in the inner recesses of consciousness. Catholicism holds, on the contrary, that the encounter with God is a mediated experience, rooted in the historical and affirmed as real by the critical judgment that God is truly present and active here or there, in this event or that, in this person or that, in this object or that.

Again, the Protestant raises a word of caution. Just as the principle of sacramentality edges close to the brink of idolatry, so the principle of mediation moves one along the path toward magic. Just as there has been evidence of idolatry in some Roman Catholic piety, so there has been evidence of a magical view of the divine-human encounter in certain forms of Catholic devotional life. Some Catholics have assumed that if a certain practice were performed a given number of times in an unbroken sequence, their salvation would be guaranteed. A magical worldview, of course, is not a solely Catholic problem, but it is an inherent risk in Catholicism's constant stress on the principle of mediation.

Catholicism's commitment to the principle of mediation is evident, for example, in the importance it has always placed on the ordained ministry of the priest. God's dealings with us are not arbitrary or haphazard. God is present to all and works on behalf of all, but there are also moments and actions wherein God's presence is specially focused. The function of the priest, as mediator, is not to limit the encounter between God and the human person but to focus it more clearly for the sake of the person, and ultimately for the community at large.

The principle of mediation also explains Catholicism's historic emphasis on the place of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The Catholic accepts the role of Mary in salvation on the same ground that the Catholic accepts the role of Jesus Christ. God is present in, and redemptively works through, the humanity of Jesus. This is the principle of mediation in its classic expression. The Catholic understands that the invisible, spiritual God is present and available to us through the visible and the material, and that these are made holy by reason of that divine presence. The Catholic, therefore, readily engages in the veneration (not worship) of Mary, not because Catholicism perceives Mary as some kind of goddess or supercreature or rival of the Lord himself, but because she is a symbol or image of God. It is the God who is present in her and who fills her whole being that the Catholic grasps in the act of venerating yet another "sacrament" of the divine.


Finally, Catholicism affirms the principle of communion: the human way to God, and God's way to humankind, is not only a mediated but a communal way. Even when the divine-human encounter is most personal and individual, it is still communal, in that the encounter is made possible by the mediation of a community of faith. Thus there is not simply an individual personal relationship with God or Jesus Christ that is established and sustained by meditative reflection on sacred scripture, for the Bible itself is the church's book and the testimony of the church's original faith. There is no relationship with God, however intense, profound, or unique, that dispenses entirely with the communal context of every relationship with God.

And this is why, for Catholicism, the mystery of the church has always had so significant a place in its theology, doctrine, pastoral practice, moral vision, and devotion. Catholics have always emphasized the place of the church as the sacrament of Christ, which mediates salvation through sacraments, ministries, and other institutional elements and forms, and as the communion of saints and the people of God. It is here, at the point of Catholicism's understanding of itself as church, that one comes to the heart of the distinctively Catholic understanding and practice of Christian faith. For here, in Catholic ecclesiology, one finds the convergence of those three principles that have always been so characteristic of Catholicism: sacramentality, mediation, and communion.

The Protestant again raises a word of caution. If one emphasizes too much the principle of communion, do we not endanger the freedom of individuals? If sacramentality can lead to idolatry, and mediation to magic, the principle of communion can lead to a collectivism that suppresses individuality, and an authoritarianism that suppresses freedom of thought.

But stress on the individual also has its inherent weakness, just as there are inherent weaknesses in the historic Protestant insistences on the otherness of God (over against the Catholic sacramental principle) and on the immediacy of the divine-human encounter (over against the Catholic principle of mediation). Some important Protestant theologians like Paul Tillich and Langdon Gilkey have come to acknowledge these inherent problems in Protestantism and the corresponding truth of the Catholic sacramental vision. According to Gilkey, the Catholic principle of symbol or sacramentality "may provide the best entrance into a new synthesis of the Christian tradition with the vitalities as well as the relativities of contemporary existence" (Gilkey, 1975, p. 22).

Theology and Doctrine

The principles of sacramentality, mediation, and communion frame Catholic thinking and teaching about every significant theological question. The following is not an exhaustive list, and some overlapping with the above discussion is inevitable.

Revelation and Faith

Catholics share with other Christians the conviction that God has somehow communicated with humankind in the history of Israel; supremely in Jesus Christ, the Son of God; then through the apostles and evangelists; and, in a different way, through nature, human events, and personal relationships. Some Roman Catholics have tended to restrict revelation to the teachings of the church, just as some Protestants have tended to limit revelation to the Bible. But fundamentally, all Christians, conservative and liberal alike, are united in the belief that Jesus Christ, as both person and event, provides the fullest disclosure of God. Christian faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of the world and as the great sacrament of God's presence among us.

Roman Catholics, however, have always been insistent that such faith is reasonable, not arbitrary or blind. The First Vatican Council (1869–1870) taught that faith is "consonant with reason." Roman Catholics, therefore, exclude fideism, on the one hand, and rationalism, on the other. Faith is neither beyond intellectual support nor fully open to intellectual scrutiny. It is neither rational nor irrational. It is reasonable. That is, we can identify solid motives for believing, and we can show that one need not surrender intellectual integrity in order to be a Christian.

The most celebrated Roman Catholic exponent and practitioner of this view has been Thomas Aquinas. For centuries Thomism and Catholicism have been identified in many minds. Accordingly, some Protestants have thought that Catholics are too analytical and too rational about their faith. And some Catholics have assumed that the "truth" of Roman Catholic claims is so demonstrably clear that any open-minded person would have to accept them once he or she examined the "evidence."

While Roman Catholic apologetics has moved away from its earlier rational, almost rationalistic, orientation, it remains committed to the notion that Christian faith does have a "content," that it is, for example, more than the personal acceptance of Jesus Christ or a feeling of absolute dependence upon God.

Creation and Original Sin

Roman Catholics adhere to the ancient Christian creeds, which professed their belief in one God, the Almighty Creator, who made the heavens and the earth, and all things visible and invisible. And they adhere as well to the later councils of the church, which added that God freely created the world from nothing at the beginning of time in order to share his own goodness, to manifest his own glory, and to sanctify humankind. Jesus Christ is not only the head of the whole human race but also is himself the summit of all creation. He is the Second Adam through whom all else came into being (Col. 1:15). Because of their understanding of creation, Roman Catholics have always had an essentially positive attitude toward the world.

But the specific origins of men and women have posed a more thorny problem. The councils of the church (specifically Lateran IV in 1215 and Vatican I in 1869–1870) had taught that all people owe their existence to the creative action of God. Although humankind was specially favored by God in the beginning, we sinned and thereby suffered both physical and spiritual losses (Council of Trent, 1545–1563). But how exactly did this original sin occur, and who "committed" it? Present Catholic scholarship, both biblical and theological, argues that there is no necessary connection between monogenism (the theory that the whole human race sprang from one set of parents) and the integrity of Catholic doctrine. What is clearly maintained is that humankind comes from the creative hand of God. This creative action, however, could have been an evolutionary process just as likely as a one-time event. And so, too, the entrance of human sin could have been evolutionary in character. Some would argue, therefore, that sin gradually spread through the human race until it became truly universal in the sin that was the rejection of Christ. But there are problems with this view, and many Catholic theologians continue to insist that the original sin be traced to a primal fault that immediately affected the entire race.

Nonetheless, original sin has a meaning that goes beyond the personal decisions of Adam and Eve. It is the state in which all people are born precisely because they are members of the human race. As such, we are situated in a sinful history that affects our capacity to love God above all and to become the kind of people God destined us to be. What is important to remember, Catholics insist, is that we came forth from the hand of God essentially good, not essentially evil. Sin has rendered our condition ambiguous, at best and at worst. Unlike some Protestants, Roman Catholics have been less inclined to paint the human scene in dark and ominous colors, several examples to the contrary notwithstanding. Humankind is redeemable because men and women are radically good.

Nature and Grace

The question of grace raises one of the sharpest issues that have historically divided Protestant from Roman Catholic. How is humankind justified and eventually saved? By our own efforts? By God's alone? Or by a combination of both? Appearances to the contrary, Roman Catholics have never endorsed the view that people are saved by their own power. That position, known as Pelagianism, has been condemned consistently by the councils of the church, especially by Trent, and by Augustine in particular. Catholics, however, regard the second view as equally objectionable, namely, that human beings contribute nothing at all to salvation, because it is so totally the work of God. Such a belief, Catholics have always argued, undermines human freedom and human responsibility and encourages a passive, quietist approach to the Christian life. We are saved neither by faith alone nor by works alone, but by a living faith that overflows in works befitting a "new creature" in Christ (Gal. 6:15).

To be in the state of grace means to be open to the presence of God, and of the Holy Spirit in particular. This indwelling of the Spirit really transforms us. Our sins are not merely "covered over." They are obliterated by an act of divine forgiveness and generosity, on the sole condition that we are truly sorry for having offended God in the first place. The graced person is still liable to sin, of course, and so in this sense he or she may be said to be both just and sinful (simul iustus et peccator). But that gives a different meaning to the expression than some of the reformers assigned it. They would have been less prepared than Catholics to stress the internal transformation by grace.

Jesus Christ and Redemption

Roman Catholics share with other Christians the central conviction of Christian faith that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord of history (Phil. 2:5–11), that he was crucified for our sins, was raised from the dead on the third day, was exalted as Lord of all, is present to history now in and through the church.

Jesus Christ is both human and divine in nature, yet one person. "Born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4), he is like us in all things save sin (Heb. 4:15). At the same time, he is of the very being of God, Son of the Father, the light of God in the world. He is, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, "the key, the focal point, and the goal of all human history" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 10).

While Roman Catholic piety has often emphasized the divinity of Christ at the expense of the humanity ("God" died on the cross; "God" dwells in the tabernacle, etc.), Roman Catholics have sometimes suspected some Protestants of reversing the emphasis in favor of Jesus' humanity. Whatever the exaggerations on either side of the Reformation divide, official Roman Catholic doctrine has always maintained a balance, without confusion, between the human and divine natures.

Roman Catholics believe, of course, in the centrality and absolute necessity of Jesus Christ for personal salvation and the salvation of all the world, but they do not believe that one must be an explicit Christian, confessing the lordship of Jesus, before one can be saved. People of good will who lead exemplary lives are just as likely to enter the heavenly banquet as professed Christians. Catholics have called this "baptism by desire." Conversely, Roman Catholics also acknowledge that professed Christians can be damned, their fervent appeal to the lordship of Jesus notwithstanding. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 7:21).

Neither do Roman Catholics readily identify with the evangelical Protestant stress on the propitiatory nature of the crucifixion of Jesus, even though this view has durable roots in history, particularly in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109). Jesus did not die in order to pay off a debt coldly demanded by his Father. He was executed because his person and his message were threatening to the political and religious establishments of his day. By accepting death, he demonstrated that love and freedom are more powerful than apathy and fear. The crucifixion was the will of God in the sense that God wills the personal fulfillment of every man and woman, and specifically God willed that Jesus should confront and challenge the network of sin in human society even though such a confrontation and challenge would surely polarize all the forces of sin against him.

In any case, for Catholics the redemption was accomplished by the whole paschal mystery, that is, Christ's passing over to his Father through a life of suffering servanthood, his obedient death on the cross, and his resurrection, ascension, and exaltation at the right hand of God. The redemptive act is not limited to the crucifixion alone.

Holy Spirit and Trinity

The Holy Spirit is God's self-communication as love and as the power of healing, reconciliation, and new life. The divinity of the Holy Spirit was defined by the First Council of Constantinople in 381. The Spirit has the same divine essence as the Father and the Son and yet is distinct from them both. Within the Trinity, the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. Despite the bitter East-West dispute on this point, the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–1440) did allow for the preposition "through" as a legitimate alternative to the preferred conjunction "and." The God who created us, who sustains us, who will judge us, and who will give us eternal life is not a God infinitely removed from us (i. e., God the Father). On the contrary, God is a God of absolute proximity: a God who is communicated truly in the flesh, in history, within the human family (i. e., God the Son), and a God who is present in the spiritual depths of human existence as well as in the core of unfolding human history, as the source of enlightenment and community (i. e., God the Holy Spirit). The mystery and doctrine of the Trinity is the beginning, the end, and the center of all Christian and, therefore, all Catholic theology.


Whatever the popular exaggerations in the past, Roman Catholic doctrine does not say that Mary is coequal with Christ. However, she is the mother of Jesus, and her motherhood is what roots Christ in our humanity. Indeed, Mary's name was involved in the earliest christological controversies. If Jesus was not divine, then of course it would have been wrong to call her the Mother of God. But the Council of Ephesus condemned the Nestorians in 431, and Mary was proclaimed theotokos (Mother of God)—which effectively meant that Jesus was proclaimed as true God as well as true man.

Controversy has continued to surround Mary, especially since the middle of the nineteenth century: first in 1854 with the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (that she was conceived without original sin), then in 1950 with the dogma of the Assumption (that she was taken up bodily into heaven after her death). Mary has also been called the Mediatrix of all graces (i. e., by the will of Christ, all the grace he earned for us is channeled through her), co-Redemptrix (i. e., she shares somehow in the redemptive work of her Son, without prejudice to the supreme saving power of his own death and resurrection), and Mother of the church (i. e., she has a certain priority in the church, as chief among the saints, and is the prototype of the church, a sign of the church's call to obedience and fidelity to God's word). Controversy has been rekindled, too, in the matter of the Virgin Birth (i. e., Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit alone, without benefit of a human partner), while reports of Marian appearances in Guadalupe (1531), Lourdes (1858), and Fatima (1917) have generated both skepticism and fervor.

Devotion to Mary is a characteristically Catholic phenomenon in that it expresses the three fundamental principles of Catholic theology and practice:

  1. The principle of sacramentality, which affirms that the invisible and spiritual God is present through the visible and the material, and that these are in turn made holy by that presence. This includes Mary, in whom God is very specially present.
  2. The principle of mediation, which affirms that grace is a mediated reality, first through Christ and secondarily through the church and other human instruments, including Mary.
  3. The principle of communion, which affirms that the saving encounter with God occurs not only personally and individually but also corporately and ecclesially. To be in the church, that is, to be in communion with other Christians, is to be in and with Christ. Mary is the preeminent member of this communion of saints. Our unity with her is an expression of our unity in and with Christ.

Church, Kingdom of God, and Sacraments

For the Catholic, the church is the whole body, or congregation, of persons who are called by God the Father to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus, the Son, in word, in sacrament, in witness, and in service, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to collaborate with Jesus' historic mission for the sake of the kingdom of God. The mission of the church, as also Jesus' mission, is focused on the kingdom of God. By kingdom of God is meant the redemptive presence of God actualized through the power of God's reconciling Spirit. Literally, the kingdom of God is the reign, or rule, of God. The kingdom happens whenever and wherever the will of God is fulfilled, for God rules where God's will is at work. And since God's will is applicable to the cosmos, to nature, to objects, to history, to institutions, to groups as well as overarching as the claims and scope of the divine will itself.

The mission of the church is unintelligible apart from the kingdom of God. The church is called, first, to proclaim in word and in sacrament the definitive arrival of the kingdom of God in Jesus of Nazareth; second, to offer itself as a test case or sign of its own proclamation, that is, to be a people transformed by the Holy Spirit into a community of faith, hope, love, freedom, and truthfulness; and third, to enable and facilitate the coming of the reign of God through service within the community of faith and in the world at large.

For the Catholic, the church does God's work because God is present and at work within it. To speak of the church as the presence and instrument of God is to speak of it sacramentally. Just as Christ is the sacrament of God, so the church is the sacrament of Christ. Because the church is a sacrament, it acts sacramentally. In the course of its history, the Catholic church has identified seven specific acts as sacraments in the strictest sense of the term: baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist (which together constitute the rite of Christian initiation), and marriage, holy orders, reconciliation (or penance), and the anointing of the sick. The sacraments, individually and collectively, are signs of faith, causes of grace, acts of worship, and signs and instruments of the unity of the church and of Christ's presence in the world.

The relationship between sign and cause, however, has provoked the most serious sacramental controversy, particularly at the time of the Reformation. The Council of Trent rejected two extreme notions of causality: the one that reduced sacraments to magical actions, and the other that robbed sacraments of their inner spiritual reality and efficacy. The sacraments cause grace, not because of the faith of the recipient but because of the working of God within the sacraments themselves (ex opere operato). On the other hand, God does not force the human will. Faithfully reflecting the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent recognized that the recipient must have the right disposition if the sacrament is to be spiritually fruitful: interior conversion, faith, and devotion. Finally, the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the holiness of the minister, although some sacraments can be validly celebrated only by certain authorized ministers (bishops in the case of holy orders; bishops and delegated priests in the case of confirmation; priests in the case of the Eucharist, the anointing of the sick, and penance; priests and deacons in the case of the sacrament of marriage, which the couple themselves administer to each other; and a priest or deacon in the case of baptism, although in principle anyone can administer baptism.

Catholic Morality

For Catholicism, morality is a matter of thinking and acting in accordance with the person and the community one has become in Christ. It is therefore a matter not only of obeying the rules but also of being faithful to the spirit as well as to the letter of the gospel. Since human agents are free to accept or reject Christ and his gospel, Catholicism contends with the reality of sin. But the church's moral vision and its approach to the moral demands of Christian life are qualified always by its confidence in the power of grace and by its readiness to expect and understand the weaknesses and failures rooted in original sin. And so Catholicism is a moral universe of laws but also dispensations, of rules but also exceptions, of respect for authority but also freedom of conscience, of high ideals but also minimal requirements, of penalties but also indulgences, of censures and excommunications but also absolution and reconciliation.

Catholic morality, therefore, is characterized by a both/and rather than an either/or approach. It is not nature or grace, but graced nature; not reason or faith, but reason illumined by faith; not law or gospel, but law inspired by the gospel; not scripture or tradition, but normative tradition within scripture; not faith or works, but faith issuing in works and works as expressions of faith; not authority or freedom, but authority in the service of freedom; not the past versus the present, but the present in continuity with the past; not stability or change, but change in fidelity to stable principle, and principle fashioned and refined in response to change; not unity or diversity, but unity in diversity, and diversity that prevents uniformity, the antithesis of unity.

This both/and approach to morality also explains the so-called seamless-garment approach of U. S. Catholic bishops to contemporary issues such as nuclear warfare, capital punishment, aid to the handicapped, abortion, human rights, and the like. And the Catholic church's beliefs about the universality of grace and the capacity of all persons, Catholic or not, to come to an understanding of the law of God written in every human heart (Rom. 2:15) explains its conviction that Catholic moral teachings about such matters as nuclear warfare and abortion are also universally applicable, and not restricted to Catholics alone.

The Last Things

Catholic teaching and belief about life after death applies to individuals, the church, and the human community as a whole. Everyone and everything is destined for the kingdom of God, but there is no guarantee of universal salvation. The separation of the sheep and the goats (Mt. 25) will occur at both the general judgment (i. e., at the end of human history) and at the particular judgment (i. e., at the end of each individual's life). Some will join God forever in heaven; some may be separated eternally from God in hell; others may find themselves in a state of merely natural happiness in limbo; and others will suffer in purgatory some temporary "punishment" still required of sins that have already been forgiven. Such "punishments" can be partially or fully remitted through the application of indulgences.

Each individual is destined for the beatific vision (heaven, eternal life) and the resurrection of the body. Purgatory is an intermediate state between heaven and hell, reserved for those who, at the moment of death, are not yet ready to see God "face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). Catholic tradition holds that it is possible for the living (the church militant) spiritually to aid "the souls in purgatory" (the church suffering). All members of the church, living and dead, are bound together as a communion of saints. Just as the prayers of the living may benefit those in purgatory, so the prayers of the saints in heaven (the church triumphant) may benefit those on earth who make intercession to them.

Although the church has defined that certain persons are in heaven (canonized saints), it has never defined that anyone is actually in hell. Thus, a Catholic is required to believe in hell as a real possibility for those who utterly reject the grace of God, but the Catholic is not required to believe that anyone has actually been consigned to hell. The destiny of the unbaptized infant or young child, on the other hand, has, since the Middle Ages, been linked with a state called limbo, a condition of "natural happiness," where the individual is free of punishment but deprived of the vision of God. However, belief in limbo and teaching about limbo has declined as the hope of universal salvation has gradually increased since the Second Vatican Council.


According to its own official teachings, the Roman Catholic church is neither a monarchy nor an oligarchy nor a democracy. Its governance is of a unique kind because the church has a "unique essence" (Rahner and Ratzinger, The Episcopate and the Primacy, 1962, p. 33). The universal church is a college of local churches. The supreme jurisdictional power of this universal church is vested at one and the same time in the pope and in an ecumenical council, over which the pope presides and of which he too is a member. Indeed, the universal church is itself a kind of ecumenical council convoked by some human agent (today the pope, in the past popes and emperors alike). The papacy is the highest pastoral office in the Roman Catholic church because of the pope's status as bishop of the diocese of Rome. As such, he is head of the college of bishops, and is called the Vicar of Christ (more accurately, the Vicar of Peter) and pastor of the universal church on earth.

According to the legal tradition of the Roman Catholic church, however, the church seems closer to an absolute monarchy. The Code of Canon Law accords the pope "supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he can always freely exercise" (canon 331). Therefore, there is "neither appeal nor recourse against a decision or decree of the Roman Pontiff" (canon 333, no. 3). The only way a pope can lose such authority is through death or resignation.

Just as the universal church is composed of an international college of local churches, so the universality of the church is expressed through the collegial relationship of the bishops, one to another. The bishop of Rome serves as the head and center of this collegial network. Even the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic church acknowledges that the church is not a strict monarchy, for the college of bishops, which always includes the pope, "is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church" (canon 336), a power that it exercises solemnly in an ecumenical council. Bishops also participate in the governance of the church through synods. A synod of bishops is a group of bishops who have been chosen from the different regions of the world to discuss matters of general interest to the church and to make recommendations for pastoral action. Since the Second Vatican Council, international synods of bishops have met in Rome every two, and then every three, years. An extraordinary synod of bishops was called by John Paul II in 1985.

The college of cardinals constitutes a special college of bishops within the larger episcopal college. There were lay cardinals until 1918, when the Code of Canon Law specified that all cardinals must be priests. Pope John XXIII decreed in 1962 that all cardinals must be bishops. The responsibility of the college of cardinals is to provide for the election of a new pope and to advise the pope when and if he seeks its counsel on matters pertaining to the governance of the universal church. In its present form, the college of cardinals dates from the twelfth century. Earlier the title had been bestowed on deacons and priests of the leading churches of Rome and on bishops of neighboring dioceses. The title was limited, however, to members of the college in 1567. The number of cardinals was set at seventy in 1586 by Sixtus V, and that limit remained in force until the pontificate of John XXIII, who gradually increased it. Paul VI limited the number of cardinals eligible to vote in papal elections to 120.

The Curia Romana is the administrative arm of the papacy. It consists of the Secretariat of State, the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church, and various congregations, tribunals, and other institutions, whose structure and competency are defined in special law. There are ten congregations (Doctrine of the Faith, Oriental Churches, Bishops, Discipline of the Sacraments, Divine Worship, Causes of Saints, Clergy, Religious and Secular Institutes, Catholic Education, and the Evangelization of Peoples, or Propagation of the Faith); three tribunals (Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary, Apostolic Signatura, and the Sacred Roman Rota); three secretariats (one for Christian Unity, one for Non-Christians, and one for Non-Believers); and a complex of commissions, councils, and offices, which administer church affairs at the central executive level (e.g., Theological Commission, Council of the Laity, and Central Statistics Office). The terms apostolic see or holy see apply not only to the pope but also to the Secretariat of State, the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church, and other institutions of the Curia.

The Code of Canon Law also stipulates that the pope "possesses the innate and independent right to nominate, send, transfer and recall his own legates to particular churches in various nations or regions, to states and to public authorities; the norms of international law are to be observed concerning the sending and the recalling of legates appointed to states" (canon 362). These legates are usually called nuncios and have ambassadorial rank. Those without full ambassadorial rank are called apostolic delegates.

The polity of the Roman Catholic church is not limited to the organizational structure and operation of its Rome base. In Eastern-rite churches that are in union with the Holy See, there are patriarchs and patriarchates that have "existed in the Church from the earliest times and [were] recognized by the first ecumenical synods" (Vatican Council II, Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches, no. 7). A patriarch is a bishop who has jurisdiction over all bishops, clergy, and people of his own territory or rite. "The Patriarchs with their synods constitute the superior authority for all affairs of the patriarchate, including the right to establish new eparchies [dioceses] and to nominate bishops of their rite within the territorial bounds of the patriarchate, without prejudice to the inalienable right of the Roman Pontiff to intervene in individual cases" (no. 9).

At the diocesan level there are bishops, auxiliary bishops, vicars general, chancellors, marriage courts, diocesan pastoral councils, and the like. At the parish level there are pastors, associate pastors, pastoral ministers, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, parish councils, and the like. The Second Vatican Council substantially expanded the participation of the laity in the governance of the church, particularly through its teaching that the church is the people of God (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, nos. 30–33).

Spirituality and Ethos

As the name itself suggests, Catholicism is characterized by a radical openness to all truth and to every authentic human and spiritual value. One finds in it, in varying degrees, all the theological, doctrinal, spiritual, liturgical, canonical, structural, and social diversity and richness that are constitutive of Christianity as a whole. Catholicism is the very antithesis of a sect, and it is not inextricably linked with the culture of a particular nation or region of the world. It is in principle as Asian as it is European, as Slavic as it is Latin, as Mexican as it is Nigerian, as Irish as it is Polish.

There is no list of Catholic fathers or mothers that does not include the great figures of the period before as well as after the division of East and West and the divisions within the West. Gregory of Nyssa is as much a Catholic father as is Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. Nor are there schools of theology that Catholicism excludes. Catholicism embraces Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius and Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux, Abelard and Hugh of Saint Victor, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, Roberto Bellarmino and Johann Adam Möhler, Karl Rahner and Charles Journet, as well as John and Luke, Peter and Paul. Nor are there spiritualities that Catholicism excludes. It is open to The Cloud of Unknowing and the Introduction to the Devout Life, to the way of Francis of Assisi and that of Antony of Egypt, to Ignatius Loyola and John of the Cross, to Abbott Marmion and Thomas Merton, to Catherine of Siena and Dorothy Day, to Teresa of Ávila and Mother Teresa.

Catholicism is not just a collection of beliefs and practices but a community of persons. Catholicism is, and has been, composed of martyrs and ascetics, pilgrims and warriors, mystics and theologians, artists and humanists, activists and outsiders, pastors and saints. Catholicism is in Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Blaise Pascal, Erasmus, Joan of Arc, Julian of Norwich, Thomas More, Thérèse of Lisieux, and many others. "The splendour of saints, the glory of cathedrals, the courage of reformers, the strangeness of myth and marvel, the soaring ecstasies of mystics and the sorrows of the poor—all these are the home of the Catholic enterprise" (Haughton, 1979, p. 249).


Adam, Karl. Das Wesen des Katholizismus. Tübingen, 1924. Translated by Justin McCann as The Spirit of Catholicism (New York, 1954). Translated into many languages, including Chinese and Japanese, this work represents the best of pre-Vatican II Catholic theology, formulated in reaction to a prevailing neoscholasticism that tended to reduce Catholicism to a system of doctrines and laws. On the other hand, the text does reflect the exegetical, ecumenical, and ecclesiological limitations of its time.

Cunningham, Lawrence S. The Catholic Heritage. New York, 1983. Conveys the heart of Catholicism through certain ideal types, for example, martyrs, mystics, and humanists, including "outsiders" like James Joyce and Simone Weil.

Delaney, John, ed. Why Catholic? Garden City, N. Y., 1979. A collection of essays by various American Catholic figures on their understanding of the meaning of Catholicism and on their own personal appropriation of that meaning. Contributors include Andrew Greeley, Abigail McCarthy, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

Gilkey, Langdon. Catholicism Confronts Modernity: A Protestant View. New York, 1975. Chapter 1, "The Nature of the Crisis," is particularly useful because it identifies what the author regards as the essentially positive characteristics of Catholicism: sacramentality, rationality, tradition, and peoplehood.

Happel, Stephen, and David Tracy. A Catholic Vision. Philadelphia, 1984. The approach is historical and the thesis is that Catholicism emerges progressively and processively as it encounters new forms of life that it constantly attempts to understand and transform. Jointly authored, the book may lack the necessary clarity and coherence that a less sophisticated inquirer would require.

Haughton, Rosemary. The Catholic Thing. Springfield, Ill., 1979. An original approach that portrays Catholicism as a reality shaped by an enduring conflict between what the author calls "Mother Church" (the more traditional, institutional side) and "Sophia" (the more unpredictable, communal side). In this regard, the book is similar to Cunningham's (above).

Hellwig, Monika K. Understanding Catholicism. New York, 1981. Covers some of the doctrinal and theological territory treated in my more comprehensive Catholicism (below), but without so much attention to historical and documentary detail.

Lubac, Henri de. Catholicisme. Paris, 1938. Translated by Lancelot C. Sheppard as Catholicism: A Study of the Corporate Destiny of Mankind (New York, 1958). As its English subtitle suggests, the book underlines the essentially social nature of Catholicism—in its creeds and doctrines, in its sacramental life, and in its vision of history. It draws heavily on patristic and medieval sources, excerpts of which are provided in an appendix.

McBrien, Richard P. Catholicism. Rev. ed. 2 vols. in 1. Minneapolis, 1981. The most comprehensive, up-to-date exposition of Catholic history, theology, and doctrine available. Its main lines are reflected in this article.

Rahner, Karl, and Joseph Ratzinger. Episkopat und Primat. Freiburg im Bresgau, 1962. Translated by Kenneth Barker and others as The Episcopate and the Primacy (New York, 1962). An important corrective to exaggerated notions of papal authority, and at the same time a significant contribution to the literature on the meaning of collegiality. Its ideas, written before Vatican II, were essentially adopted by the council.

Richard P. Mcbrien (1987)

ROMAN CATHOLICISM [FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS] A significant theme recurs in Roman Catholic studies at the turn of the twenty-first century: before nominally indicating a church or adjectivally describing a belief, Roman Catholicism denotes action. It is what people do with spiritual sensibilities redolent of the Christian God and tutored in traditions of Roman Catholic memory. Terrence Tilley's 2000 study of Roman Catholicism as a religious tradition is representative, illustrating Roman Catholicism as the act of handing something on (traditio) as much as the things (tradita) passed down.

This focus on human action belies the oversimplified image of Roman Catholicism as a hierarchical, authoritarian church of immutable beliefs and acquiescent believers. It reveals a much more complex phenomenon: a church hierarchical in form, yet materially diverse in its religious actions and insights. Roman Catholics variably control and contest the practice of their religious sensibilities; practices formed as much by aesthetic sensibilities as by dogmatic pronouncement. What emerges from this scholarship is a Christianity not reckoned by a plurality, but expressive of a surprising pluralism. Sociologists of religion such as Kevin Christiano strike a common note: "many people—not excluding Catholics themselves—think that the Catholic Church is unitary in addition to universal, monolithic as well as monumental, and immutable as much as it is inimitable. Nothing could be farther [sic] from the truth (2002)."

Attending to what Roman Catholics do, contemporary research mines the everyday world of time and space. Uncovered in such work are previously unrecognized changes in Roman Catholicism over time, as well as locally distinct religious practices shaped by the geographic and social spaces within which Roman Catholics find themselves. Eamon Duffy's 1992 work The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400–c.1580 illustrates this trend. Duffy scrutinizes daily life in late medieval England and discovers lay Roman Catholic religious practices that are surprisingly vibrant and changing. Overturning the standard view of the period, Duffy unearths a popular religiosity that seems scarcely moribund or decadent enough to seed an English Reformation.

Other historical investigations apply this method to spaces beyond the Eurocentric limits of earlier Roman Catholic scholarship. Gauvin Bailey (1999), for example, analyzes art on the Jesuit missions in Asia and South America from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

Kathleen Myers and Amanda Powell (1999) edit and translate the seventeenth-century journal of Mexican nun Madre María de San Jose. Austen Ivereigh (2000) edits essays on Roman Catholic religious politics in nineteenth-century Central and South America. These and more examinations outside Europe further disclose the variable impact of time and space on lived Roman Catholicism.

Regard for historicity and contextuality also marks present Roman Catholic theology. Ethnically and regionally focused theologies have proliferated, drawing on Roman Catholic behaviors and convictions particular to nearly every region of the world. There are African and Asian Catholic theologies, European-American, Hispanic-American, and African American Catholic theologies, as well as theologies differentiating many national cultures of Central and South America. Robert Schreiter summarizes this development in his 1985 book Constructing Local Theologies: "there is now a realization that all theologies have contexts, interests, relationships of power, special concerns—and to pretend that this is not the case is to be blind."

Allied to this fascination with action in time and space is scholarly concentration on Roman Catholic group activity. Between the microscopic level of personal religious practice and the macroscopic level of hierarchical church authority lies a "mesoscopic" layer of group and organizational action. From parish ladies' guilds and food-drive committees, through regional ethnic associations and right-to-life groups, across diocesan social justice offices and marriage preparation conferences, to national lay organizations and Marian devotion assemblies, Roman Catholicism is replete with mesoscopic religious action. In his historical-analytical investigation of this fact, Ad Leys (1995) observes both the practical ubiquity of Roman Catholic group life and the theoretical expression it is given in the social-moral principle of subsidiarity.

Recent explorations attend to important, but previously unexamined, groups and organizations. Especially poignant are studies of women's religious orders, the unheralded creators of vast school, orphanage, poorhouse, hospital, and social service networks around the world since the early nineteenth century. Like the African American Oblate Sisters of Providence described by Diane Batts Morrow (2002), many of these heroic women's groups struggled against not only social discrimination, but also the disregard of their own church leadership. To this day, a push-pull relationship with church authority persists for some women's religious orders. Characteristic of Roman Catholicism, two national organizations of women religious, representing contrasting responses to this relationship, evolved in the United States after the Second Vatican Council (1961–1965): the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

Heightened strain on the quality and funding of public schools at the end of the twentieth century has called attention to another previously neglected mesoscopic organization: the Catholic school. Though many schools have closed and enrollment has declined over the past twenty-five years, the remaining 120,000 Roman Catholic elementary and secondary schools and their fifty million students around the world still play a vital role in many societies. Analysts Anthony Bryk, et al. (1993) and Gerald Grace (2002) are particularly fascinated with the loose federation, relative autonomy, and commitment to inner-city, non-Catholic children that is emblematic of many Roman Catholic schools—organizations ironically nested within their church's centralized, authoritarian structure.

Bryk observes another irony in the operation of Roman Catholic high schools. Teachers and students still grant the (typically lay) Roman Catholic school principal a greater degree of power and deference than is generally given principals in public schools. But today, this vestige of religious order, authoritarian empowerment, is used as much for encouraging parental involvement and local, decentralized school control as for maintaining discipline. From an international perspective, Grace (2003) explains how schools employ this power in relation to church authority, from those that are largely compliant (e.g., in Australia and Ireland), through moderately challenging (e.g., in England, Scotland, and the United States), to boldly resistive (e.g., in Brazil, Chile, and South Africa).

Research on women religious orders and Catholic schools parallels the new scholarly concentration on the parish, the place where the micro-, meso-, and macroscopic levels of religious life intersect for most Roman Catholics. Andrew Greeley captures this reality when he writes that "it is the parish where people do their living and dying, their loving and their quarreling, their doubting and their believing, their mourning and their rejoicing, their worrying and their praying" (1990). James Davidson, et al., communicate the point statistically: 78 percent of parish-affiliated Roman Catholics in the United States consider parishes "very important" organizations, as do 50 percent of those no longer affiliated with a parish (1997).

While a Roman Catholic's sacramental life cycle surely accounts for much of this affiliation, Mark Kowalewski's research offers an additional reason. As a member of a church with largely distant, ostensibly unchanging authority, a lay Roman Catholic's typical contact with approachable and flexible religious leadership is the parish priest. When such person-to-person leadership is effective, Roman Catholics receive help not only in managing their sacramental lives through the upheavals of contemporary economic, familial, and cultural existence, but also in coping with these hard realities on a day-to-day basis. Parish priests, says Kowalewski, are "not simply bearers of the official directives of the organization, they also exercise their ministry in the context of individual pastoral experience—an experience which often calls for compromise and negotiation" (1993).

As they do with school principals, Roman Catholics frequently defer to their parish priests. The common result is a parish milieu mirroring the priest's style of response toward church authority. Today, Roman Catholics worldwide popularly categorize parishes as conservative, liberal, or radical.

In the United States, however, the prerogatives granted to parish priests have come under intense scrutiny, ever since numerous disclosures of clerical sexual abuse of children occurred in the 1980s and subsequent decades. This priest-pedophilia tragedy has been compounded immeasurably by the delinquency of church authority. Schooled in habits of hierarchical, authoritarian arrogance, few bishops initially felt compelled to respond compassionately to the victims of past abuse or to safeguard potential future victims. Instead, their first instincts were to protect predator priests, by reassigning them to other parishes without notice or simply by denying that the abuse ever took place. Not surprisingly, lay Roman Catholics have reacted by creating multiple protest groups. The Voice of the Faithful collaborates with bishops on church reform, while the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is less inclined to participate in such collaboration.

These examples display the plural, mesoscopic ways in which Roman Catholics practice and perceive their everyday religiosity, and how they relate this religiosity to the power and instruction issued from hierarchical church authority. Scholars regularly model this relationship on a conservative, liberal, and radical scale. Mary Jo Weaver and Scott Appleby (1995) add further complexities to this scale. At each point, a Roman Catholic congregation may articulate comparatively "right" and "left" orientations, approaches that are often additionally nuanced by a group's unique regional history.

This complex combination affects the many Roman Catholic groups in the Americas that are devoted to improving society. Responding to prevailing public policies, as well as to church authority, groups on the conservative-right, such as Catholics United for the Faith, exist alongside those on the conservative-left, such as the North American neoconservative movement. Simultaneously, liberal-right groups like the St. Egidio communities work differently from liberal-left organizations such as the social-justice lobby, Network. Added to this mix are radical-right groups, such as those sustaining Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker legacy, and radical-left groups, such as those inspired by the earlier Latin American comunidades eclesiales de base movement.

Some Roman Catholics deride this variety as the undesirable byproduct of "cafeteria Catholics"—people who select only those items in Roman Catholicism they like and pass over items they dislike. If this phenomenon did not exist, critics argue, Roman Catholic thought and action would more uniformly replicate the instruction of hierarchical church authority. But as Dean Hoge points out, "Catholicism includes an amazing collection of teachings, symbols, rituals, devotions, and practices, which has grown up over the centuries." Accordingly, it is not transparently obvious to Roman Catholics which elements are core and which are peripheral. "Catholics today are faced with the question," says Hoge, "of sorting out core and periphery in their rich, many-stranded tradition." Hence, "everyone is, to some degree, a cafeteria Catholic" (2002).

This is not a new phenomenon. Thomas Bokenkotter (1998), Marvin Krier Mich (1998), Paul Misner (1991), and others map an analogous range of Roman Catholic dispositions dating as far back as the French Revolution. Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century conservative Catholics include the autocratic caudillos in South America on the right and German romantic traditionalists like Adam Müller on the left. Liberal Catholics can be found supporting Frédéric Ozanam's St. Vincent de Paul societies on the right and Félicité Lamennais' L'Avenir republicanism on the left. Similarly, some radical-right Catholics support communitarian experiments inspired by the earlier Jesuit reductions in Paraguay, while other radical-left Catholics embrace Philippe Buchez's Christian socialism.

Frank recognition of Roman Catholic pluralism, past and present, invites assessment of how this compound Christian religiosity sustains itself over time. Drawing on the thought of Félix Guattari, Renée de la Torre offers a "transversalized institution" model. In such institutions, multiple horizontal axes of popular practice intersect a single vertical axis of hierarchical authority. As in Roman Catholicism, this vertical axis of objective law meets multiple, horizontal "group aspirations and strategies which cross it from different points—within and without, above and below." As these lateral activities crisscross the axis of the hierarchical authority, "spaces of conflict that traverse and penetrate the institution" are produced (2002).

In transversalized institutions, therefore, vertical and horizontal axes operate in tensive, but mutually beneficial, ways. This model suggests that Roman Catholicism persists in its formal religious structure and dizzying array of material religiosity by "the continuance, rather than the dissolution, of contradictions" (2002). For de la Torre, Roman Catholicism not only is, but also must be, a site of religious contestation.

The functionality of this control-contest interaction can be further elucidated using Paul Connerton's (1989) and Ann Swidler's (2001) investigations of social memory. With its protracted and geographically diffuse history, Roman Catholicism possesses more religious memory than it can express at any given time. By selecting and communicating a manageable portion of this memory, church authorities perform an important control function for a Roman Catholic's religious identity.

But Roman Catholic lay people contribute to corporate identity formation as well. They also select and communicate religious memory, primarily to meet the practical challenges of day-to-day economic, familial, and cultural life. Church authority tutors most, but not all, of this lay religious memory. Some religious memories may include personally and locally cherished practices and perceptions that were never known, long forgotten, or once silenced by church authority. Other memories may recall searing family crises resolved by untutored, customized religious insights unavailable or even contrary to the letter of formal church teaching.

Sometimes, the institutionally unknown, novel, and contested religious memories alive in 98 percent of the Roman Catholic population rejuvenate the 2 percent of Catholics who exercise church authority. Though such memories may first appear divisive to church leaders, often their long-term effect is to lessen, if not prevent, arthritis in the vertical axis.

Thomas Reese's (1989, 1992, 1996) in-depth research on the structures and processes of Roman Catholic church authority indicates that religious ressourcement may also originate within the vertical axis itself. Reese tracks the often covert interplay of control and contest among popes, cardinals, and bishops. Though infrequent, inside reform may sometimes be overt, as in Pope John XXIII's 1959 call for an ecumenical council.

Michael McCallion and David Maines (1999) explore intra-institutional transformation in Roman Catholicism by taking up sociological "frame analysis" and social movement research. In particular, they look at change in religious liturgy. Since the Second Vatican Council, a class of professional liturgists has appeared; these practitioners are committed to a relatively egalitarian "People of God" theology inspired by conciliar documents. Through variously inserting this ideological "frame" into patterns of worship, these "oppositional insiders" press against the formally asymmetric relationship between priest and people.

The seemingly impressive power of adaptation detailed in these examinations has not sheltered Roman Catholicism from defection of worshippers, however. Statistical surveys in Europe and the Americas demonstrate that Mass attendance has not noticeably rebounded from the precipitous decline during the 1960s and 1970s. More Roman Catholics have converted to evangelical forms of Protestant Christianity. Fewer young people get married in the Roman Catholic Church, and an even smaller number become priests or nuns. The large population of divorced Roman Catholics typically leaves the church, alienated by what they perceive to be an arcane, duplicitous annulment process.

Disaffection with church authority also registers high in survey research. As more and more people around the world expect and demand operational transparency from the institutions that affect their lives, the procedures of the Roman Catholic hierarchy remain shrouded in secrecy. At a time when official church teaching encourages democratic forms of participation and oversight in worldwide political and cultural institutions, no formal structure allows lay people to check and balance the hierarchical, authoritarian power of their leadership. Coincidentally, these same church leaders use secular rational-legal systems to protect their own clergy—and themselves—from civil lawsuits.

Despite all this, most Roman Catholics stay in their church. Michele Dillon (1999) cites this seeming anomaly in her discussion of women. As profound as the work of women's religious orders has been, nothing matches the contribution women have made to the practical, day-to-day survival of Roman Catholic Christianity. From quietly praying with newborns and herding families to Mass, through organizing liturgies and planning parish fund-raisers, from handing out food baskets and editing church bulletins, to laundering altar linens and making coffee after Mass, women perform most of the practices which preserve everyday, local Roman Catholicism. Yet women continue to be excluded from priestly ordination and are largely prevented from holding positions of decision-making power in parishes and dioceses.

The glue Dillon finds securing women—whether conservative, liberal, or radical—to Roman Catholicism is the rich melange of symbols, stories, devotions, and rituals they claim as their own. When linked to memory, says Dillon in a 1998 book, these traditions remind most women that "their genealogy is entwined with a historically continuous church rather than a history of sectlike divisions. There is a disposition therefore to stay, rather than to leave, and to work towards transformation from within the tradition."

Dillon's observation touches on a growing theme in contemporary Roman Catholic research: the centrality of aesthetic resources for the understanding and exercise of Roman Catholic religiosity. Important to this renewed theological interest in beauty has been the English translations of Hans Urs von Balthasar's five-volume theological aesthetics, The Glory of the Lord. Critical too has been increased theological focus on culture. Works such as Roberto S. Goizueta's Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (1995) show how attention to aesthetics discloses heretofore hidden theological resources in the cultural practices of the Roman Catholic laity.

Greeley points this out in terms of narrative when he insists that "religion is story before it is anything else and after it is everything else" (2000). Writtings such as John Shea's popular Stories of Faith (1980) have highlighted the role narrative plays in Roman Catholic religiosity.

Greeley signals another topic of current exploration when he observes that "religious sensibility is passed on by storytellers, most of whom are not aware that they are telling stories because their narratives reside more in who they are and what they do than in what they say" (2000). Several Roman Catholic investigations today probe the transmission of religiosity through such aesthetic embodiment, correcting for an earlier overemphasis on religious faith as a predominantly cognitive matter. Characteristically, Aidan Nichols comments that "nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses" (1996).

Interest in aesthetics and bodily senses has likewise created interest in the role of affectivity in the play of Roman Catholic Christianity. Important advances have been made, for example, in understanding how affections influence the moral life, as William C. Spohn explains in Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (2000). This focus has also added novel twists to the much-explored field of Roman Catholic sacramentality. In Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (1998), Susan Ross creatively enjoins these dynamics, inviting one to consider the sacramentality of such actions as giving birth, cooking meals, mediating conflicts, and tending to the sick.

With this attention to Roman Catholicism as action, this overview of Roman Catholic studies returns to where it began. The focus on action in Roman Catholic research has lead scholars in many fresh directions, only a few of which have been outlined here. The overall effect of this quarter century of research has been to heighten appreciation for the rich complexity of Roman Catholicism. As its population center continues to shift from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, away from the comforts of middle-class existence to the soul-testing conditions of hunger and disease, the challenges confronting this multifaceted religious community will continue to be great indeed.


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