The Catholic church
Catholics believe that the church was founded by Jesus Christ as part of the Father's plan for the salvation of the world. Christ's proclamation and inauguration of the kingdom of God led to the gathering of disciples. His death, resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit definitively established the church, with which he promised to remain until the end of time (cf. Matt. 28:20). Jesus entrusted to this community the mission of preaching the gospel and of "making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).
Because the church is, in God's hands, a means of bringing about the communion of all those who, with the help of God's grace, would accept the proclamation of the good news, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) taught that "the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race". (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium, paragraph 1). This constitution goes on to affirm that the whole community has an active role to play in proclaiming and handing on God's word, in worshipping and celebrating the sacraments and in serving the mission Jesus entrusted to it. As such, the church is a prophetic, priestly and kingly people (cf. Lumen gentium 9-13). Her source and summit are found in the celebration of the banquet of the kingdom, the eucharist (cf. Lumen gentium 10), which Jesus entrusted to his disciples at the last supper on the evening before his death. In the eucharist, through the power of the Holy Spirit the one sacrifice of Christ is made present, and the community is transformed into Christ's Body and is enabled to continue his saving mission.
Thus while Catholics see the church as deeply rooted in the will and saving action of God, guided by the Holy Spirit and led by Jesus Christ her head, they also recognize that the community of the faithful is marked by shadows and failures, as is shown by the many efforts at reform which have regularly arisen in the history of the church. Reforms have been initiated by church leaders at various levels of ecclesial order, even at the highest levels, such as in ecumenical councils; they have also been inspired by charismatic individuals or groups whom the Holy Spirit raised up within the church to promote deeper conversion throughout the community as a whole.
The word "catholic" is one of the four qualities attributed to the church in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It suggests a certain "inclusiveness", a holding together of communities, traits or ideas which need not and should not be separated because they are rooted in one and the same apostolic faith. Catholicity implies that diversity is not only to be tolerated but to be welcomed as a gift of God's abundant goodness. One expression of this within the Catholic Church is the variety of states of life and vocations in which the baptized laity, the ordained ministers and those persons who have professed the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, all in their respective ways, are called to discipleship (cf. Lumen gentium 18-38 and 43-47). The call to holiness is universal and common to all; at the same time it can take innumerable forms within the specific conditions of each individual life (cf. Lumen gentium 39-42).
This impetus to embrace the whole characterizes too the church's interaction with cultures; the languages, art and music of various peoples are considered ground into which the seed of the gospel is sown. The Catholic view of ecclesial communion maintains that, ultimately, no cultural, linguistic, historical, racial or other similar factor is of such importance that it should break the bonds of communion which hold together the body of Christ.
What are these bonds? They may be briefly summarized under the categories of faith, sacramental life and ministerial service. Faith is a defining element of Christian community, and the Catholic Church holds that the greatest care is needed not only in proclaiming the word of God which gives rise to faith (cf. Rom. 10:14-17) but in being watchful that the revealed truth is faithfully transmitted and that believers are informed about doctrinal or moral developments which are not in harmony with it. Catholics believe that the magisterium or teaching office of the church, exercised by the bishops in union with the bishop of Rome, is assisted by the Holy Spirit so that it will not fail to proclaim the truth handed down from the apostles and to guide the people of God with the authority of Christ. The magisterium is not above the word of God, but seeks to listen to it, conserve it, and understand it in greater depth and apply it to the existential questions which face contemporary human beings. In every age, the Catholic Church has seen the emergence of various "schools of theology"; outstanding thinkers have left an impressive heritage which provides fertile ground for continued theological reflection today on the sources of revealed truth as found in scripture and Tradition.
Catholics believe that the whole prophetic people of God is graced with the anointing of the Spirit which gives believers a supernatural sense of the faith (sensus fidei), equipping them to understand the word of God and to apply it in life.
The Catholic Church has developed a rich liturgical and sacramental tradition. Seven sacraments - baptism, confirmation, eucharist, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, ordination and marriage - provide moments in which an intense experience of grace is unfailingly possible for the properly disposed recipient. Catholics believe that, while their form and practice have undergone development, the sacraments ultimately find their origin in the ministry and command of Jesus himself and derive their efficacy from the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. The celebration of the sacraments is intimately related to the overall spiritual life of the priestly people of God (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9), called to mature in holiness after the image of Jesus by increasing in love for God and neighbour. In keeping with the faith and practice of the patristic period, Catholics see the essential apostolicity of ministry as conveyed through ordination by bishops whose own ordinations stand in a line of apostolic succession going back ultimately to the earliest Christian communities. Ordained ministry must be exercised as a service, a sacramental means by which Christ the prophet, priest and shepherd continues to guide his people. For Catholics, the selection of the twelve by Jesus himself and the special role played by Peter within that group, provide the point of departure for the development of the ministries of bishop and pope, which are considered essential and necessary for the church. From these roots, and by means of a process guided by the Holy Spirit, the ministry of bishops in succession to the apostles soon took the form which it fundamentally retains to the present day, with bishops leading the various local churches throughout the world and supporting one another in a way that has served the well-being not only of the communities assigned to each of them but also that of the "catholic" unity of the church as a whole.
Within this collegial and conciliar interaction between local churches and their bishops, the bishop of Rome, that city where Peter offered the final witness of his faith as a martyr, has a special duty to serve unity, in a way analogous to the role played by the apostle Peter in the New Testament. The contours of the "Petrine ministry" of the bishop of Rome, whom Catholics consider to be the successor of Peter, would develop in the course of time, but its specific purpose of serving the unity of the whole community is needed and willed by God not only for the first generation of the church's life but for its entire history. This service to universal unity can and has taken various forms. In light of the improved relations between divided Christian communities and the common search for unity, Pope John Paul II asked Christians not presently in full communion with the Catholic Church to seek - together, of course - the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned (cf. Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint, 95).
After decades of caution concerning the modern ecumenical movement, the Catholic Church, particularly through the Second Vatican Council, acknowledged that it is the Holy Spirit who has inspired contemporary efforts to arrive at greater Christian unity. The council set forth the ecclesiological basis for Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement by affirming that the many elements of sanctification and truth found in varying degrees in various Christian communities separated from one another constitute degrees of real, though imperfect, communion.
The Catholic Church sees the ecumenical movement as a multidimensional effort - through common prayer, witness, theological dialogue, promotion of the kingdom of God and any other suitable activities - to journey from that partial communion which now exists to the full communion which can one day be celebrated in a common eucharist. The council claimed that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, professed in the creed, "subsists in" the Catholic Church (Lumen gentium 8). By this phrase, the council wanted frankly to express the Catholic conviction that the fullness of the means of salvation with which Christ wished to endow his church can be found only in the Catholic Church. At the same time, by not simply equating Christ's church with the Catholic Church, the council intended to recognize the ecclesial nature and quality of other Christian communities, which the Holy Spirit employs as means for salvation. Catholics believe that the current divisions between Christians do not correspond to the will of Jesus Christ and hamper the more fruitful carrying out of the mission he has entrusted to the church: to make disciples of all nations. Therefore, greater unity must be sought. Not to do so is to contradict the will of Jesus Christ, the head of the church.
According to the Vatican's Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae of 2005, the Catholic Church numbered 1,085,557,000 persons, or 17.2 percent of the world's population. Of these, 13.2 percent of Catholics live in Africa, 49.8 percent in North and South America; 10.5 percent in Asia, 25.7 percent in Europe and 0.8 percent in Oceania.
The Catholic Church has never been a member of the World Council of Churches, but is actively participating in the ecumenical movement in different ways. Learn more