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What Is Catholicism? - Definition, Beliefs & History

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  • 0:00 What Does 'Catholic' Mean?
  • 0:50 What Do Catholics Believe?
  • 1:49 Sacraments
  • 3:44 History of the Catholic Church
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Roman Catholic Church has a storied history that reaches back 2,000 years and touches all corners of the globe. That said, it has not been without its share of both internal and external conflict. In this lesson, we will define Catholicism and explore its beliefs and history.

What Does 'Catholic' Mean?

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the world's largest religious denominations, with 1.2 billion believers worldwide. This number makes it only slightly smaller than Islam (1.4 billion) and larger than any other religious group on the planet. From its spiritual center in Vatican City, the world's smallest independent country and the only country surrounded completely by a city (Rome), the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis I, guides the spiritual lives of entire nations.

Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome
St Peters in Rome

By definition, the word catholic means 'universal,' and from the earliest days following the Church's founding, it has pressed to be the universal faith of humanity. Often, this has caused conflicts with other religions that wish to be the universal faith, both within and outside of the Christian tradition.

What do Catholics Believe?

In addition to beliefs held by the majority of Christians about the divinity of Christ, the importance of charity, and the omnipotence of God, Catholics have a number of specific beliefs that set them apart from other Christians:

Unlike many Protestant traditions, especially Evangelical ones, the Catholic Church is highly liturgical, meaning they practice ceremonial worship. As a result, recitation is vital to the Catholic worship service, or mass. The Catholic Church has a strict hierarchy, or ranking according to authority, from parish priests to bishops and archbishops to the Pope himself. Catholics also hold the Virgin Mary, the biblical figure who gave birth to Jesus, in high regard, giving her the title 'Mother of God.' Catholics also believe in transubstantiation, which holds that the elements of the Eucharist, namely the bread and wine, become the actual body and blood of Christ at the moment of consecration by a priest.

Sacraments

Also crucial to the Catholic faith are the Seven Sacraments, or rituals, that are believed to have been instituted by Christ. As a general rule, a Catholic can aspire to receive six of the seven sacraments, as members of the clergy are not permitted to marry.

  1. Baptism is the first sacrament administered to someone, and it is symbolic of the individual being reborn in belief in Christ. It is often performed a few days after birth, but it is also open to adults who were not previously baptized.
  2. Confirmation is performed some time after baptism, but it can be performed immediately afterwards in special cases. The act itself reinforces the sacrament of baptism, and in the modern Church, acts as a validation of the belief of the individual in the tenets of the Church.
  3. The Eucharist, often called communion in other Christian traditions, refers to the act of consuming bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Jesus. As mentioned above, Catholicism mandates belief in transubstantiation.
  4. Penance, more commonly known as confession, is the requirement that Catholics confess their sins to a priest. Important to note is the fact that priests offer absolution, or forgiveness, often in the form of prayer.
  5. Extreme Unction, also known as Anointing of the Sick, is performed on those individuals facing imminent death. In addition to offering a last chance for confession, Extreme Unction offers the dying hope for entry into heaven.
  6. Marriage is more than a contract within Catholicism. Instead, it is a representation of Christ's relationship with the Church and is considered accordingly holy. Given the spiritual overtones, questions of validity can rise when both people are not Catholic.
  7. Holy Orders are only open to those individuals who do not enter into marriage, and refers primarily to the priests and bishops who administer the Church. Those who enter into a Holy Order are required to undergo considerable study.

Emblem of the Pope
Emblem of the Pope

History of the Catholic Church

From its establishment by St. Peter following the death of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church's history strongly mirrors that of the European countries that helped propagate it. While the West floundered in the face of Byzantine, eventually Eastern Orthodox, and Muslim challenges, the Church managed to maintain a substantial hold on the populations of Western Europe. The Roman Catholic Church officially split with the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054 as a result of the Great Schism.

However, as the Age of Exploration dawned, the Church found new life as missionaries spread its teachings around the world, most notably by the Spanish, French, and Portuguese in Latin America, Quebec, and beyond. Yet with these new opportunities came new challenges. Much of Northern Europe became embroiled in the Protestant Reformation, which despite beginning as an attempt to question some of the Church's teachings, soon became a full-fledged revolt against the authority of the Pope.

Following the Counter-Reformation, a series of events by the Catholic Church to counter the influence of Protestant groups, the Church's influence waned. This proved especially true as Italy was unified, meaning that the Catholic Church lost much of its political power. As a result, the Church began to use more soft power, especially in the latter half of the 20th century, seeking to focus more on building bridges with other people and other faiths as well.

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