The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church served not only as a form of self-inquisition; it also resulted in a dialogue with the non-Catholic world. The attention of men of all faiths everywhere was focused upon a tradition and an institution that numbers as adherents more than one sixth of the world’s population.
It is not possible in this article to deal with Catholicism in all its many facets, but some of its historical, theological, and cultural perspectives can be examined profitably. As with most institutions, it has had periods of infamy and greatness as it has played its historical and traditional role.
The Catholic tradition has insisted upon a divine founding and inspired a perpetuation, linking its beginning with the charge given to Peter in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew. Around the inside of the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome are inscribed these words: “Tu es petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam … et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum.” These are words spoken by Jesus directly to Peter and not to all the apostles as a quorum.
Many authors, interpreters, and translators have sought to determine from this text the original intent of the writer. However, we are not concerned with the writer but with the intent of the speaker, Jesus Christ. The best translation of this text in the Catholic version (the King James Version is practically the same) is, “… thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, … And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 16:18, 19, Douay Version.)
It is obvious that the position of the Catholic Church relative to the primacy of Peter rests upon this scripture. Both the doctrine of Petrine priority and the principle of Roman supremacy are derived either directly or by implication from this text. It was to Peter that the revelation was given: “… flesh and blood hath not revealed in unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17.)
The claim of the Catholic Church rests on the idea that the authority bestowed upon Peter has been perpetuated through the centuries in the papacy.
Latter-day Saints accept the presidency of Peter but take the position that the Church was to be built upon the rock of revelation—not on Peter. Further, the point at issue between Latter-day Saints and Catholics is whether there has been an inspired perpetuation and transmission of Petrine primacy or a deviation and departure from the spirit and intent of the conferred divine commission, as recorded in the New Testament.
According to Luke, the disciples of the brotherhood of Jesus were first called Christians in the city of Antioch. (See Acts 11:26.) And by coincidence, it was also in Antioch that the term catholic was first used by Bishop Ignatius in his epistle to the Smyrnaeans. About A.D. 107, he wrote with reference to the mainstream of Christianity, “Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. … Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; … even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church.” (Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 8.)
Before it formally became a part of the identifying label of the Christian Church, the word catholic was used as a descriptive, uncapitalized adjective meaning the universal or worldwide church, as opposed to a local or community branch or congregation.
With the gradual strengthening of the power of the bishops, there was a tendency, on the part of some at least, to look to Rome as the hub of the church. And there was a corresponding assertion by the bishop of Rome to assume the right of superintendence over the other bishops.
Before the close of the third century, the word Catholic, now capitalized, had become a recognized part of the identifying label for the bulk of Christianity. It also set it apart as being orthodox and official in contrast to any heretical or unorthodox movements.
An end to many decades of hostility and persecution, which had kept the Church underground, was finally reached in the early part of the fourth century A.D. when Emperor Constantine and his associates issued the edict of toleration.
Under imperial protection, but with some notable exceptions, the Catholic Church expanded rapidly throughout the period of the Roman Empire. It was an official act of Constantine in that same century, however, that laid the foundation for the traditional Roman Catholic Church as we know it, although it separated eventually from the Eastern or Greek church. By turning the imperial attention away from Rome and by moving the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (A.D. 330), Constantine left Rome to its bishop.
Over the centuries, with persistent but not unchallenged assertion of central authority, the Roman bishop acquired the title of papa or pope, father of fathers, father of bishops, and other secular and political titles. The traditional concept of the papacy as the supreme hierarchical authority of the Roman Catholic Church was well established in the early part of the Middle Ages.
The final split between the culturally incompatible Eastern and Roman churches did not come until the eleventh century. Notwithstanding recurrent periods of infamy within its hierarchical ranks, including an age of great worldliness, the Roman Catholic Church emerged from the Middle Ages as the all-embracing Christian establishment of Central and Western Europe. It had acquired a sacerdotal image consistent with the sacramentalism and ritual which made up a large part of its system.
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was directed mostly against that highly developed sacramentalism by protestors who wanted a return to early medieval emphasis upon salvation by grace and justification by faith. The protestors believed that man had a direct relationship to God, without the indirect channeling of grace from God to the individual through the sacraments and ordinances.
Despite the great inroads made by that Protestant Reformation and the resulting breakdown of the medieval monolithic church, Roman Catholicism experienced its own revival and reform. It eventually recovered some of the territory lost to Protestantism and, through renewed zeal and missionary effort, continued into our own time as the largest of all Christian denominations in the world.
With its headquarters at the Vatican, a city of 108 acres within the city of Rome, it has established dioceses (bishoprics) in every corner of the world where clergy and missionaries have had contact with people.
Historically it seems to have been able to gain adherents in one part of the world when there have been losses in other parts. Within the last three decades, the gradual or abrupt decline of influence in places such as Asia or in Eastern European countries has been offset in part by the rise of Catholic influence in America and other areas.
Outnumbering all other Christians combined, the world population of Roman Catholics exceeds 600 million. The individual Catholic keeps in touch with the hierarchy through an intricate episcopal and pastoral system that reaches down to him from the papacy to the local parish through a clerical chain of command.
At the head of the church is the pope, who, as Bishop of Rome, claims direct apostolic succession from Peter as Vicar of Christ on earth, with full authority to preside over the whole of Christendom. He is elected to the office by the College of Cardinals assembled in conclave after the death of a pope.
The faithful Catholic refers to the pope as “Your Holiness” or “Holy Father,” but his official title is “Bishop of Rome, Governor of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Apostolic Prince, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome, Ruler of the Pontifical State.” Other officers of the church rank in relationship to him according to their assigned power in church government and the nature of their responsibilities.
In close proximity to the papacy stands the College of Cardinals. They have the responsibility of electing the new pope, advising and assisting him in matters of church government, and voting in ecumenical councils. Many cardinals are called to serve in the general governing council of the church known as the Curia Romana. In carrying out their respective duties for the church, they exercise authority and jurisdiction delegated to them by the pope.
The Curia is divided into three classifications of administrative or judicial bodies: the Sacred Congregations, the Roman Tribunals, and the Roman Offices. The Sacred Congregations are similar to general committees or councils, having jurisdiction over universities and seminaries, ceremonies, extraordinary ecclesiastical affairs, discipline, and studies of church clubs. The Roman Tribunals are comprised of three higher level courts to handle legal and canonical questions of appeal for the general church. The third type of governing body within the Curia consists of cabinet or secretariat dignitaries whose special assignments and responsibilities are known as the Roman Offices.
The next level of authority is the diocese or bishopric, which corresponds to the stake in the Latter-day Saint ecclesiastical system. It may be large in the territory it comprises or relatively small with a great number of members, depending on the density of Catholic population in the area.
The diocese is presided over by a bishop, who receives his jurisdiction directly from the pope. The diocese may comprise several or many local congregations or subdivisions known as parishes. The parish corresponds to the Latter-day Saint ward and is presided over by a pastor, who may be assisted by a curate or other parish priests.
At a very early time in the development period of Christianity, the practice of asceticism and institutional monasticism got a foothold. This religious way of life has been perpetuated by Roman Catholics with greater support and enthusiasm than by any other denomination in the Christian community. There are many orders representing various concepts of duty and devotion for both men (monks, friars, etc.) and women (nuns). The object and purposes of their founding and perpetuation range from devotion and meditation to education and charity.
A common misunderstanding among non-Catholics is the assumption that the religious or monastic way of life is necessarily identified with the priesthood and clerical responsibility. Monks and priests are not one and the same. Most monks or members of religious orders are not priests, although some are. The priesthood and preparation for it represent a discipline and training apart from the system of religious orders.
Strictly speaking, monasticism implies withdrawal from society or being cloistered or shut off in housing away from the world, but not all religious orders are monastic in this sense. Some are dedicated to a kind of charity or service, such as preaching, teaching, and caring for the sick and the orphaned, which requires being in the world.
The theology of Catholicism has developed around the doctrines that are either expressed or inferred from scripture and the tradition of the doctors or fathers of the Church. Eventually the scripture as a source of revelation was relied upon only indirectly, and more emphasis was given to tradition.
The development of authoritarian, sacramentarian theology logically followed the importance attached to priesthood and apostolic succession. Catholics believe that the sacraments are administered by the priesthood of the church as a means for the Lord to channel his grace to the faithful. Included among the seven recognized sacraments are baptism, confirmation, penance, the Lord’s Supper (mass), extreme unction, holy orders (ordination), and holy matrimony.
The first five of the sacraments plus one (but not usually both) of the last two are prescribed for all faithful Catholics. Those who enter the priesthood or one of the religious orders, with some exceptions, do not marry. Some who have been widowed or have formerly been married may eventually take religious vows and thus partake of all the sacraments, but this is the exception.
The following from the Baltimore Catechism indicates how the seven sacraments have the function of giving and sustaining grace in the individual:
“Baptism starts supernatural life in the soul, Confirmation strengthens it, Holy Eucharist nourishes it, Penance restores it, Extreme Unction protects it up to the end. Holy orders provide ministers for the Sacraments, and Matrimony sanctifies married life. Thus the Sacraments correspond to our temporal and spiritual welfare.” (Baltimore Catechism 3.)
As with most religious symbolism, some of the sacraments are identified in the experience of the individual with the most important of life’s events: baptism with the birth, confirmation with accountable age, matrimony with maturity sufficient to wed, and extreme unction with physical death.
Baptism is performed by the priest within one or two weeks after a child’s birth. In the presence of the parents and other family members, together with two sponsors, who are called the godfather and godmother, the priest pours a small amount of water on the forehead or face of the child and, while pouring, says, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
Although they are not necessary to make the baptism efficacious, certain other preparatory ceremonies are customarily performed. A new name is given. This is usually the name of a respected saint, whose name should remind the child as he grows up to imitate certain virtues. There is a ceremony of the casting out of the devil, the placing of salt in the mouth to symbolize protection against corruption, the signing with the cross to take possession in the name of Christ, the placing of a stole on the child to lead it into the church, the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by the godfather and godmother, the opening of the ears and nostrils with spit, the anointing of the breast and back to bear the burden of Christ, and the profession and promising of faith made by the sponsors as proxy for the child, who could make them for himself if he were old enough to reason.
Confirmation is administered by the bishop to the child who has reached his eighth year. This is done by the imposition of hands and the anointing of the forehead as an outward sign of the strengthening of faith, the increase of sanctifying grace, and the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is conducted as the mass that, it is believed by Catholics, was first said by Jesus in the upper room. In the celebration of the mass, the priest repeats the words of the Lord, by which Catholics claim that transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is supernaturally accomplished: “… this is my body … this is my blood …” (Matt. 26:26, 28.) The offering then of the body of Christ upon the altar is the only sacrifice sanctioned by the Catholic covenant. The act of a Catholic in good faith and good standing accepting either the bread or wafer in similitude of the blood and flesh of Christ is called communion. The layman participates at a mass by repeating necessary prayers, by receiving communion, and by a genuine display of piety, respect, and devotion.
Until recently the prescribed formulas for public worship (the liturgy of the mass) were in Latin. Recommendations of the Second Vatican Council have resulted in a changeover to the local vernacular in some western countries.
Associated with the sacrament of penance is the confession. In a spirit of contrition, the faithful confess their sins to the priest in the confessional. Based on the statement of the Lord to the apostles, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:22, 23), Catholics believe that the priest has the power of absolving sins committed after baptism. He then assigns to the penitent a proper penance or penalty (acts of devotion, charity, or self-sacrifice) that will help to restore the spirituality of that person and discipline him in his character growth and development.
For centuries the extreme unction or last anointing has been customarily given by the priest only to those in danger of death. The last Vatican Council recommended a return to the former practice of anointing for the healing of the sick rather than reserving this ordinance only for the dying.
“‘Extreme Unction’ which may also and more fittingly be called ‘anointing of the sick’ is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Anointing of the sick is a much happier term than ‘Extreme Unction,’ since it does not suggest imminent death. This comforting sacrament should be given, not at the moment of death, but as soon as there is some danger of death from sickness or old age.” (Walter M. Abbott, S. J., The Documents of Vatican II [New York: Guild Press, 1966], pp. 161f.)
The priest also assists the sick or dying person in remembering his prayers and devotions and helps him to admit his need for mercy and compassion because of his sins.
The sacrament of holy matrimony is regarded as a very sacred covenant instituted by the Savior for those who marry. Believing that no human power can dissolve the bond of Christian marriage, the church therefore recognizes and grants no divorce. Husbands and wives are sometimes counseled to live apart in cases of extreme incompatibility, and the church sometimes declares a marriage invalid by affirming that there never actually was a bond of marriage sealed.
Holy virginity for those who do not marry because of devotion to religious duty is considered a holier state than that of matrimony.
The Catholic concept of God is found in the traditional trinitarian doctrine of the creeds. Without the help of God, through the arm of the priesthood and the church and through the grace that is channeled to him through the sacraments, man is incapable of accomplishing his own salvation.
Catholics believe that man is responsible for his own sins, both mortal (grievous) and venial (less serious), but that he is also born into the sinful state known as original sin. This is the depraved condition of the material world of flesh and corruption that has prevailed since Adam’s transgression. The condition of original sin can be overcome by the spiritual covenant made in baptism. For this reason, the advantages of baptism are given to the infant as soon as possible.
The doctrine of salvation includes the traditional place-and-condition concepts of heaven and hell. It also provides for a temporary, intermediate state of purgatory for the purification and cleansing, through suffering, of those who are yet to enjoy the blessings of heaven but who have not been penitent or have not prepared sufficiently in this life.
In addition to these more important commitments, the religious life of the Catholic layman might include the veneration of certain sacred relics, the use of the rosary in prayer devotion, and a special veneration or reverence for Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is sometimes misunderstood by non-Catholics to mean worship of Mary, but it is really an appeal to Mary or other departed members of the Church to pray for the one making the appeal or request. Mary is held in such high esteem that a recently promulgated doctrine declares that she has been wholly and bodily resurrected and is now in the presence of the Father and the Son, thus enjoying a special advantage as one who might intercede or petition in behalf of another.
In a day when world Christianity is in dire need of reform, there is still much of fundamentalism left in Catholicism. It is possible that the winds of change in the Catholic Church may incline toward those primary elements.
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, concluded after four annual sessions in December of 1965, might well have been a step toward that change. The many things examined or decided by the council and announced to the world in four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations include (1) a greater role for the ordinary lay member in church matters and greater participation in church functions; (2) a new look at Bible scholarship and study, with recommended regular reading of the scriptures not only in the Catholic version but in approved non-Catholic Bibles; (3) reference to the non-Catholic Christians as “our separated brethren”; (4) recognition of the holiness in other Christian bodies and the good in non-Christian religions; (5) a statement regarding freedom of religion that sounds strangely like the Latter-day Saint eleventh Article of Faith; (6) exoneration of the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus; (7) the possibility of eventually extending the sacrament of matrimony to some of the clergy; (8) and, finally, the policy of leaving the door open for further improvements.