Key Ideas in Catholicism

by frankbeswick

To understand Catholicism it is helpful to grasp some key ideas about sacrament, truth and ethics.

The Catholic Church has endured for two thousand years, despite several efforts to destroy it, it has a world-wide reach and over a billion members of varying degrees of knowledge and commitment. Some are nominal Catholics, whilst others are deeply committed. To do justice to the profound depths of Catholic thought in a single article is not possible, but I will single out a few key ideas which will aid the readers' understanding of the Catholic faith.

Image courtesy of Geralt

Sacrament and Community

To understand Catholicism it is necessary to realize that the Church takes the resurrection seriously. Christ is not a dead,but much loved teacher whose ideas remain, but a living Lord who has through the power of God overcome his death on the cross, which paid for the sins of humankind. The church believes that he was the incarnate Son of God, and that through the resurrection the incarnation is not a past event now over, but an ongoing divine presence in the world. 

But it is critically important to realize that for Catholics Christ lives on within his community, the Church, and is present in his people's lives through the Holy Spirit. Thus the church is not just a secular organization, one voluntary group among many, but a sacred reality composed not only of its living members, but of the dead who have gone before us. This belief we call "the communion of saints." 

Today, as usual for Sundays, I went to mass. I listened to the readings and the sermon, but more than this, I did not see my attendance as merely listening to a lecture, but as participation in a mystery. My attending mass was taking part in the Catholic community's coming together as a unity with each other, with and in Christ and in union with the whole church living and dead. When I received Holy Communion I saw it as my making an act of loving communion with the Risen Lord and accepting Him intimately into my life. Saying that you are a Catholic, but never attending mass is to say that you are in  a club without taking part in its shared activities.   

This takes us to sacrament. The Eucharist, Holy Communion, is one sacrament among the seven, but what is a sacrament? The church believes that there are seven important rituals, which Catholics call sacraments,  through which the power and presence of the Risen Lord is mediated to the church  But many people fail to realize that the whole church is a sacrament, for it is the community in which the Risen Lord dwells and through which he works in the world.

Thus when the church acts in the world it is mediating the presence and power of God through its action, and this goes for the work of individual Catholics as well. Furthermore, as the church is God's instrument in the world, it has a duty to speak the truth as revealed to it. This is the basis of the church's teaching authority. You should not, however, think that Catholics believe that the pope has a hotline to God, for discerning the truth and applying it in human situations requires scholarship, discernment and much hard work, along with dialogue within the church and with other churches. 

Sadly, what I have said is the ideal, for as we all know individuals do not always live up to the high ideal that I have outlined, but the falling away does not detract from the ideal. There is scandal in the church, which mars the church's witness, but there is much holiness as well.. 


The Catholic Spirit.

Humanists often make a major error in that they regard Catholic [and Christian] ethics as humanism with God and a few extras grafted on. This is seriously incorrect, for while Catholics and humanist ethics might overlap  in that they agree on some matters, for example rape, theft, murder and injustice, they diverge in other ways and more significantly aim for different goals. Significantly all Christians, including Catholics, believe that there is a God who is active in the world and who is in a relationship with his people. Thus God is not a distant figure, but one who is intimately near to us and involved in his people's lives. Thus He is not a figure entitled to once a week devotion, but forgotten for the remaining six days, but a figure of supreme, overriding significance who has an interest in how we live our daily lives and sets standards for them.

Catholics [and other Christians] are God-centred people. The Christian life [be it Catholic or others] is governed by the two great commandments, firstly to love God and secondly to love neighbour.This means that the Catholic  relationship with God is not merely a master-servant relationship, but one in which love flourishes. It is a personal relationship expressed in prayer and loving service.

But love involves a transformation of the individual spirit, and it is the case that as one grows in Catholic devotion one internalizes the Catholic ethos and so develop a genuinely Catholic spirit. Thus the Catholic response to ethical issues comes from our having  a heart different from  a humanist one. The implication of this is that we feel differently about ethical issues than Humanists do, and one of these issues is abortion. Catholics have a horror of abortion that arises not from a set of rules but from the Spirit that fills the Catholic  life.

Committed Catholics realize that there are no areas of their life where their Catholicism is not relevant, for the Catholic faith is an all-embracing, whole life commitment. Thus you cannot leave your Catholic commitment at home when you go to work or politics, for you cannot leave your soul behind you.

Furthermore, along with other Christians the goal of Catholic ethics differs from the goal of Humanist, secular ethics. Do not think that Catholics only focus on the afterlife, though you might be excused for thinking this if you listen to some people speaking, for Catholics think that life in this world matters, though they are aware that they will one day leave it. So the church is committed to justice for all humankind and has a strong and comprehensive social teaching, but it is aware that we need to be ultimately directed to eternal life, which for each of us draws ever closer all the time. Catholics are aware that they will be judged by God and that they must meet God's standards. 



The Church's Mission

The word Catholic means universal, and it was chosen to signify that the church is open to all humankind, whatever their colour, race, sex, class, intelligence or talent, on an equal basis. By baptism the pope and I are equals, though he has a job far more  responsible than mine and a great deal harder. People have different roles within the church, but these differences are not considered to make anyone more of a Catholic than anyone else. Thus the pope is no more of a Catholic than any ordinary worshipper in a parish church.

 Moreover, the church exists for forgiveness, and no one is deemed unforgivable. At the end of the war the Catholic  Church accepted back some ex-Nazis. The state still insisted on executing them, but the church restored them to fellowship. Obviously, when someone becomes a Catholic they may have to make adjustments to their lifestyle, but  the church will be aware of this and will forgive their  errors as long as they are genuinely penitent and making an effort. 

But the church does not simply exist for saving souls, but for doing God's work in the world, transforming the world into the place that God wants it to be, being the instrument through which Christ works.Thus educational, medical and pastoral work are the daily work of the church. In certain parts of the world it is the church that provides most of the educational and medical services, such as parts of Africa. Cafod is the Catholic Church's relief arm, providing emergency and development aid in areas  where it is needed. In recent years the Catholic Church has committed itself against human trafficking and there are many brave nuns who work with trafficked women. This work is deliberately kept low key for the protection of all involved, but we all know that it goes on. 

Work for peace is a vital part of the church's role. In 1945 Pope Pius the Twelfth ordered the papal diplomatic service to commit itself to working to prevent war, especially nuclear war, and this has been happening ever since, with Vatican diplomats trying to mediate between warring parties. Over the last few centuries the popes have developed a comprehensive Catholic social teaching that attempts to do justice to society as a whole, not merely to favoured or privileged sections of it, and this development still goes on, with Pope Francis intervention in the global warming debate through his encyclical letter, Laudato Sii.

The church is essentially a missionary church, whose mission stretches to the whole human race and will continue until the second coming of Christ.Mission does not just mean  going abroad, for it can be anywhere. Currently I am chairman of my parish refugee project, using my experience as a chair to run meetings. This at the moment is what I can do for the refugees, that's part of my mission, just as gardening, writing articles and exam marking are. Maureen, my wife, wants to come in later to help the refugees with educational issues. This work will be her  mission at the right time.

I have given the ideal, but it must be acknowledged that the church is  a lamp with stains on it that sully its light. I hope that you can see that the ideal is high, but we fall away from it at times, all of us, but we try and we pick  ourselves up with God's help and carry on. 

Updated: 09/25/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/13/2020

Stains are the sins that sully Christian witness, abuse for instance. What can be done? The remedy, Derdriu,is twofold. Firstly,it is up to each Christian to avoid sin, but also the church must expurgate offenders from positions of authority within the church. Improving the spiritual health and education of church members will also help to avoid sin.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/13/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the photo, practicalities and products.
It particularly intrigues me in the next-to-last sentence where you describe the Church as "a lamp with stains on it that sully its light." What may be done about de-sullying that light, and what might those stains be?

Veronica on 09/26/2017

What a lovely comment BSG
" we are also called to help future generations " that sums up or humanity o man, Beautifully stated.

blackspanielgallery on 09/25/2017

The comment section is a great place to have added information.

frankbeswick on 09/25/2017

Yes, I agree. As I did not want to go beyond about fifteen hundred words, which would be about right for a wizzley article, there was much that I had to leave out. Two thousand years of history, theology and philosophy are a large subject. I thought that I might elaborate some points when I receive the inevitable comments

blackspanielgallery on 09/25/2017

Well said. I know you will agree that we as Catholics do not have a monopoly on good works, as other religions also reach out to many, and in many circumstances. While doctrine may be why we humans are part of different religions, we often share humanistic duties.
I might add that we are also called to help future generations, hence preserve the Earth as a habitable place. The reach of moral duties is so vast one cannot include everything.

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