Name: Roman Catholicism

The Founding: The apostles of Jesus Christ formed the beginnings of the Christian Church. They helped spread the Gospel and provided structure for the early Church. It is hard to differentiate the beginnings of the Roman Catholic church from that of the early Christian church. 1 The apostle, Peter, also known as Simon, was of central importance. The Church was organized and presided over by Peter. According to the Scriptures, Matthew 16:13- 19, Christ said to Peter: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." 2 In 313, the Roman Catholic Church was legally recognized by the Roman Emperor Constantine, and, in 380 it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. 3

Sacred or Revered Texts: The Bible. Different from the Protestant Bible, the Roman Catholic Bible contains the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha consists of books contained in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), but not included in the Hebrew Scriptures. 4 In addition, many theological writings are included in the church doctrine. These include the writings of people such as Thomas Aquinas. 5 The Canon Law is a collection of rules and regulations that form the basic law of the Roman Catholic Church. 6

Size of Group: Today, Roman Catholics make up the largest branch of Christianity. There are over one billion followers of Roman Catholicism worldwide. 7 A large number of these followers live in Central and Southern Europe, Latin America, and Ireland. 8 See for a list of the largest Catholic communities in the United States and worldwide.

World Religion : Roman Catholicism is a world religion. According to Huston Smith, "Every religion mixes universal principles with local peculiarities. The former, when lifted out and made clear, speak to what is generically human in us all. The latter, rich compounds of rites and legends, are not easy for outsiders to comprehend." In studying world religions, we benefitand grow from being able to see the world through different perspectives. 9

Cult or Sect : Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.


After the Church became the Roman Empire's official religion in 380, it remained united until 1054. At this time, the Eastern Orthodox Church separated from the Roman Catholic Church, which from that point on would be identified as the western Church. 10 There were many reasons for the schism, but the major issue concerned the Pope's claim of primacy. 11 The next schism that occurred in the Roman Catholic Church was in the sixteenth century, with the Protestant Reformation. 12 Roman Catholics, however, "regard the [Roman Catholic] Church under the successor of Peter as the one, universal Church; other Christians are held to be 'in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.'" 13 Said differently, "for Roman Catholicism . . . the Catholic church and the Catholic tradition are normative for other Christian churches and traditions." 14 The Roman Catholic Church has held three councils since the Reformation -- the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Vatican I Council (1869-1870), and the Vatican II Council (1962-1965). These three councils, in addition to the pope, defined the Church's beliefs.

The Council of Trent began the Counter-Reformation and differentiated between the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church from those of the Reformers. 15 Trent "articulated Catholic doctrine on nature and grace . . . defined the seven sacraments, created the Index of Forbidden Books, and established seminaries for the education and formation of future priests." 16

The next council, Vatican I, asserted the infallibility and primacy of the pope, declaring that the "infallible teachings of the people are irreformable, that is, not subject to the consent of any higher ecclesiastical body or authority." 17

And finally, Vatican II brought forth "drastic changes, such as the use of the vernacular in the church, greater participation of the laity in worship, and a new ecumenical spirit of cooperation with Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy." 18

Organization and Structure

The Roman Catholic Church is organized as an authoritative hierarchy. At the head of the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope, who is said to be a successor of Peter. The Pope resides in Rome at the Vatican. The current Pope, John Paul II, is the 265th successor. For a chronological list of all of the popes see . 17 Authority in the Roman Catholic Church is described as apostolic, "'because she is founded on the apostles,' and 'continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles . . . through their successors.'" 20 When a pope dies, the College of Cardinals elect his successor. Cardinals are appointed by the Pope and make up the advisory board of the church. 21 The Church is divided into Dioceses, which are the "fundamental unit[s] of organization in the Roman Catholic Church," and are each headed by a bishop named by the Pope. 22 The bishops' duties include administering the sacraments of Holy Orders and Confirmation and controlling his assigned diocese. Archdioceses are similar to dioceses, without the special jurisdiction of nearby bishops. Each of the dioceses are divided into Parishes which are headed by a priest. 23


A summary of the basic beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church can be found by reading the Nicene Creed, as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Throughhim all things were made. For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became a man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures; he ascended intoheaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen. 25

In addition to the beliefs specific to the Roman Catholic Church, Roman Catholics believe in many basic Christian traditions, including the Trinity of God. As spoken in the Nicene Creed, the trinity consists of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Roman Catholicism is based on the idea of faith, "what moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe 'because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.'" 26 The beliefs of Roman Catholics are defined by the Pope, who, when he speaks on these beliefs and morals, is considered infallible. Official church doctrines emanating from the teaching of the Pope are called encyclicals.

Roman Catholicism states that because of original sin, man is inherently sinful and needs to be saved. This original sin is described in the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Jesus Christ died on the cross as atonement for Adam's failure and assures Roman Catholics eternal life with God in Heaven. Salvation may only be achieved through God's grace; the Sacraments are a means by which to sustain that grace. 27

The seven Sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Marriage. The Eucharist, also referred to as the Holy Mass, is the center of the Church's life. During mass, Catholics believe that the bread and wine that they consume has been changed into the body and blood of Christ. The Mass is the center of Catholic worship. 28

Easter and Christmas are the two most important high holy days celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church. Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholicism also recognizes holy days celebrating the Saints, especially Mary, the Virgin mother of Jesus Christ. 29