The Roman Catholic Church stood as the only official Christian church for centuries. With more than 1.2 billion followers, it is still the largest of the Christian denominations. The RCC is headed by the pope, who is seen as having divine-given power over the Church. The pope is seen as infallible when speaking ex cathedra on formal matters of faith or morals. (This isn’t as common as one thinks; the last ex cathedra proclamation was in 1950.) The tradition of the pope dates back to St. Peter, the founder of the Church at Jesus’ direction.
The Church suffered persecution for its first 300 years, but in 318 Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, making it the official religion of the Roman Empire. After that, the Church found itself on the opposite side of the fight, able to collect vast wealth and administer force. Today, the RCC still shows signs of it empire through Vatican City, a city-state situated within Rome.
The RCC is seeped in tradition and dogma. I’m going to try to go over the main points that differ from other Christian branches’ beliefs. The most obvious difference is the iconography and prayers to the Blessed Virgin and the saints. Catholics believe the saints, by being closer to God in heaven, can intercede in prayer and help pray for people on earth. Many Protestants see the images and prayers of the saints as idolatrous; however, Catholics do not worship the saints. For me, this belief really opens up a larger theological issue: the bridge between now and the afterlife. By asking saints for prayer as you would ask your neighbor for prayer, Catholics are asserting that those in heaven are able to keep their identities and are able to observe and communicate with earthly goings-on. The Christian community isn’t fractured between those on earth and those in heaven. While I find it very awkward to try to talk to some saint you never knew or rely on Mary to get prayers answered instead of going straight to God, I think the concept of the continuing community is quite beautiful and reflects the conquering of death by Christ.
There is a caveat in this idea. Catholics also believe in purgatory, a transition stage after death where those who aren’t condemned to hell must pay for their sins before entering heaven. I'm not sure how they know who is in heaven or purgatory. Yet while it seems like a dark idea, this one makes sense to me. To be in heaven, of course you need to be purified from your earthly self. As much as we try, we are never pure enough for heaven; we get in on grace. It’s like wiping your muddy boots before walking into the house.
But perhaps the most important distinction is the way the RCC views eucharist. Catholics believe in transubstantiation, or the belief that the essence of the communion elements is literally changed during the Mass, becoming the body of Christ. It is central to the worship service. While Protestantism recognizes two sacraments (baptism and communion), the RCC recognizes seven: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, confession, anointing the sick, holy orders, and marriage. Holy orders are the ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops. Catholic clergy must be men, and they are forbidden to marry. They administer the sacraments, including hearing confessions and giving absolution. I would find both having to listen to people's confessions and giving confessions to a priest very awkward. Like asking the saints for help, it's uncomfortable to me to use a middleman to talk to God.
Though there is a long history of rigid rules and excommunication for not following those rules, (and violence but I don’t have room for all that), Catholics don’t suppose themselves to be only Christians. The Second Vatican Council stated that all baptized Christians are "in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church." On the other hand, there are many Protestants that don’t recognize Catholics as fellow Christians. But I will get more into the rift between Catholics and Protestants when I cover the Reformation in a couple of weeks.
[Catholic churches have a crucifix instead of an empty cross. The image of the suffering Christ is to remind us of the painful sacrifice He underwent to pay for our sins. It also bears the letters INRI for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.]
Next Friday: Eastern Orthodoxy