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What Catholics Believe:
A Popular Overview of Catholic Teaching

by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.

If you are Catholic, this is post-Vatican II wrap-up and short catechism, and an invitation to deeper faith. If you are a no-longer-practicing Catholic, this is an invitation to take a fresh look at your old family. If you come from a different religious tradition, we welcome you to this overview of what Catholics stand for. If you have no religion, we hope this will be a new opening to God.

1. Who God is.

There is a sentence that sums up the whole Bible: "God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him" (1 John 4:16). God is spirit. God is not "he" or "she." God is mystery—not a puzzle, but the unfathomable being and love. God is not just another being, but the foundation of all being. We could figure out that someone had to start all this, but we would never had known that God is Father-Son-Spirit—one God, three persons—unless he had revealed his inner self through Jesus. Jesus brought the Good News ("gospel") that God loves every single individual on earth—sinful, saintly or lukewarm—and offers them eternal life. Jesus revealed that God is "Abba"—literally, "Dada," the name all little children give those warm people who hover over them. Jesus said, "When you pray, say 'Abba'!" (Luke 11:2).

2. What God did.

In a daring phrase, St. Paul said that God "emptied himself" (Philippians 2:7). The Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, abandoned his godness, as it were, and became a real human being, Jesus of Nazareth, one in flesh with the whole human race. God became forever joined to humanity.

3. Who Jesus is.

Jesus was born by virgin birth, of Mary. His not having a human father meant that a new creation was beginning. Jesus ate and drank, worked and bathed, laughed and cried. He was human—that is, he had to face reality, choose how to act, keep going in discouragement, tiredness and darkness. He dreaded pain and death like any human being: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup [death on the cross] pass me by. Still, let it be as you would have it, not as I" (Matthew 26:39). As man, he was the most perfect lover of the Father who ever existed. "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me" (John 4:34).

On earth, Jesus was still the Son of God, eternal God. Jesus is one Person with two natures—one human, one divine—perfectly joined, not mixed. He is just as truly man as he is truly God. We can always look at Jesus and say to him, about anything human except sin, "Jesus, you know how it is! Be with me."

Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) promised to the Jews, the Chosen People. He is a "sacrament" of God; that is, he makes visible who God is. "Philip," he said, "whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

4. What Jesus did.

Jesus grew to manhood in a little town in Israel. Around the age of 30, he began his "public" life. He went out to the ordinary people and told them, in many little stories called parables, about their Father-God's love for them, about the "Kingdom." He preached repentance: "Reform your lives! The kingdom of God is at hand!" (Matthew 4:17). That meant: Turn your life around, and let God give you a new life—forgiveness, love, eternal happiness.

Jesus' teaching turned worldly values upside down: If you "save" your life, that is, live for yourself alone, you will "lose" it. If you "lose" your life, that is, put it into God's hands absolutely, you will "save" it (see Matthew 16:25). He said the truly blessed were the poor who know and accept their total dependence on God, those who hunger for holiness, those persecuted for his sake. He said, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself [self-sufficiency], take up his cross [any sacrifice to be with him], and follow me" (Matthew 16:24).

He had power over sickness and death, sin and the devil. He performed many "signs" (miracles), not to dazzle people but to indicate his mission: to destroy evil, save his brothers and sisters, and give them his Father's love and life-grace.

He chose 12 men to be his lieutenants, the 12 apostles. He gave them his power: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation" (Mark 16:15). After he rose from the dead, he breathed on his "Twelve" and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20:22-23). At the head of the Twelve he named Peter: "...You are 'Rock,' and on this rock I will build my church—" (Matthew 16:18). Again to Peter: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32). This rudimentary structure continued through the bishops as successors of the Twelve, and through the pope ("Father," "papa"), the bishop of Rome, as the successor of St. Peter.

Jesus was rejected by most of the people, and so began to concentrate on training those who would carry on after his death. By fearlessly proclaiming the truth, he hit a nerve in the powers-that-be. They plotted against him, rigged a set of phony accusations and persuaded the Roman procurator, Pilate, to put him to death. Jesus was not "caught"—he walked boldly to Jerusalem knowing what was coming. He died the most shameful of criminal deaths—nailed to the cross.

Contrary to what his weak-willed followers expected, he rose from the dead on the third day (our Sunday) and showed himself to his friends. He had a new but real body—he was not a resuscitated corpse. Only those who believed in him experienced his presence. It was a real, person-to-person experience. He repeated his injunction to his followers that they go to the whole world and tell everyone that Good News of salvation. He was taken from their sight and resumed the glory of which he had "emptied" himself. Jesus' resurrection is our hope for resurrection. We believe that Mary, his mother, already had this gift (hence, the Assumption of Mary into heaven), just as she was given the grace of God from the moment of conception (her Immaculate Conception).

How does Jesus' death/resurrection save us? Not because God the Father was pleased with "punishing" Jesus. Rather, God gave his Son to enter the depths of human life, including its pain and death. While doing so, he maintained his perfect human love and trust in his Father—total, childlike, trusting obedience, even though this brought him to his death. This was precious not only as a human act: It was infinitely valuable as a divine act. So the human race, through its representative, Jesus, was permanently united with God. This is what we mean when we say that Jesus died for us. His brothers and sisters have only to accept the gift of union with Jesus and they share the eternal life of God. "Your attitude must be that of Christ" (Philippians 2:5).

5. Who the Spirit is.

Jesus promised his followers that after his death/resurrection he would send his Spirit to teach them, and remind them of all he had told them (see John 14:26). The Spirit would be their Comforter and Defender. By means of his Spirit, Jesus would be with his Church till the end.

Jesus also said he would return to end history and judge the living and the dead. His standard of judgment will be: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to see me." Therefore, "Come, you have my Father's blessing." For, "as often as you did it for one of the least brothers, you did it for me" (Matthew 25:35-36, 34, 40). Eternal condemnation will be the lot of those who do not do these things.

On Pentecost, 50 days after the Resurrection, the Spirit came in visible form and rested on the Church—through a visible/audible sacrament of something like fire and booming wind. Now Jesus' disciples, once timid and unfaithful, were filled with power and went out to preach the Good News boldly.

6. Who we are as Christ's Mystical Body.

Jesus said, "I am the Vine, you are the branches. He who lives in me and I in him, will produce abundantly, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). There is a flow of life between Jesus and his followers, a mystical union, forming the "inside" of the Church. It is called grace because it is totally gratis, a gift, unearnable. As a result of sharing God's own life, the love in Jesus' followers is actually God's love literally "indwelling" in them.

A new life. Thus Jesus spoke of our being "born again" by baptism in faith. In this new birth, "original sin" is destroyed. This is not our personal sin, but the fact of being born a member of the human race that cut itself off from God by sin. (A crude comparison: Through no fault of its own, a baby is born poor because its grandfather squandered the family fortune as a riverboat gambler.) But there is also what we might call "original love": God's love surrounds the baby more powerfully than anything else. "...[God] wills everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). Therefore, God will give this baby—any baby or adult—the opportunity to be saved. No one is lost but by his or her own choice.

7. Who we are as visible Church.

Human beings do something very natural—even essential—when they join together to form families, cities, nations. We need others. To be human is to be with. It is impossible to be a non-related human being, and it is sick to try to be. Now if this is already natural, it is even more a characteristic of Jesus' Mystical Body. At the Last Supper, Jesus prayed intensely that his followers would be one, not a multitude of isolationists. In fact, their visible love for each other would be the proof they were his.

So there is visible organization. For leadership, Jesus chose 12 apostles ("those sent"). "Whoever listens to you [plural], listens to me," he told them. "Whoever rejects you, rejects me" (Luke 10:16). He chose Peter, as we have seen, to be the "rock." Catholics honor the pope as the successor of Peter, to whom Jesus said: "I will entrust to you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).

Where does the Church get its teaching? From the apostles, ultimately from Jesus. Through various writers, it expressed its faith in the Gospels and Letters of the New Testament. Note that the Church existed before they wrote this part of the Bible, just as the Jewish people existed before they wrote the Old Testament. The Church stands under the judgment of the faith it expressed through the Bible, but the Church's consciousness is wider than that of the Bible: It has living memory, experience in the Spirit over the ages, a growing and deepening awareness of what the Spirit says. This is Tradition, capital T.

As successor of Peter, the pope is the first teacher in the Church. His job is to guard and pass on the authentic faith, to illumine modern questions with the light of Scripture. Catholics need not follow the pope's private opinions: He can write a book about them and be right or wrong, like anyone. But Catholics are called to follow his ordinary official teaching—that is, what he proposes as the authentic implications of the Gospel.

There are some teachings, however, whereby incontrovertible revealed truth is expressed (for example, the divinity of Jesus, the truth of the body and blood of Jesus at Mass). When the pope "defines" such things, either by himself or in union with the bishops, declaring them to be God's revelation, and declaring that he is using his teaching authority at its highest level, then and only then is the pope held by Catholics to be infallible. For any decision, of course, the pope is bound, like anyone else, to seek all input necessary for a prudent judgment.

Bishops, as successors of the apostles, are heads of individual churches called dioceses; for example, the Diocese of Orlando. In union with the pope, a bishop is the official teacher and spiritual ruler in his diocese. Within a diocese, individual congregations are called parishes. A priest is usually designated as pastor, sometimes helped by a deacon. Today, with a shortage of priests, non-ordained laypersons are sometimes appointed to administer the parish, although they cannot exercise the ministerial priesthood in Mass or the Sacrament of Penance.

The Church, like any organization, has laws. These bind the consciences of Catholics in varying degrees of seriousness, according to the matter legislated.

This "outside" of the Church obviously can be imperfect—and has been, through history. There have been times when it seemed that Jesus was asleep in the boat (see Matthew 8:25) and the boat going down. There have been "bad" popes, though relatively few. There have been autocratic bishops and scandalous priests and parishes almost without faith. But this must not obscure the fact that there have been millions of holy people, generous love, heroic work for the sick and poor, the oppressed and abandoned—even martyrdom for Christ.

8. What we are called to do as followers of Jesus.

Vatican II reminded us that there is only one holiness in the Church—God's. "They are really made holy...All the faithful of Christ, of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #40). There are to be no second-class citizens in the Church, as if clergy and religious were an elite. A regular Joe or Mary is called to receive God's holiness just as strongly as a Carmelite nun.

What does God ask us to do? Simply to be wholeheartedly centered on responding to his initiative of love—loving. praising, pleasing him—and showing this love by the way we treat others. Our task, like that of Jesus, is to help bring God's salvation, healing, peace and wholeness to the human family, setting all men and women, especially the neediest, free of sin, oppression and injustice of every kind and removing the barriers to their development as God's children. Our responsibility is itself a gift. We are to be as consciously dependent on God as a little child on its mother and father. We are to be as trustful of God as the lilies of the field. We are to be single-minded. There is one value above all—a mature and spiritually childlike relationship to God in Jesus.

Knowledge is essential, but faith is not just in the head. Faith is openness to God—whatever he asks. It is surrender to God in both heart and mind, a way of life. It includes hope, the absolute certainty that God is and will be with us. The response of faith is love—not just any love, but the love of our neighbor that is as generous as our love for ourselves.

This is a fearful task, therefore possible only as God-given. Its opposite, sin, is the response of refusing to accept God's call and empowerment to do the loving thing here and now. If we persist in this refusal, our sinfulness can deepen to one big fatal way of life: We can destroy our relationship with God by "mortal" (fatal) sin.

Therefore, we are called to continuous conversation. The weeds are never gone—they must be uprooted every morning. We must "repent and believe the Good News" again and again.

Hence the Commandments. We must not only honor God (the first three commandments), but we must also love our neighbor—the other seven. Family life must be protected (fourth). We do not kill life, but protect and nourish it (fifth). We must not abuse God's gift of sexuality by perverting it to selfishness and the using of another person (sixth). We must honor the goods of others, both their work and its true value, and their property as sacred possession (seventh). We must respect truth, no matter where it leads (eighth). And we realize (ninth, tenth) that sin and virtue are first of all in the mind and the heart.

The commandments of Jesus are found in the Gospels. They go far beyond the Ten Commandments. They are ways (like the Ten) in which we live out our relationship with God. To be a follower of Jesus and a child of the Father is to be aware of this relationship—and to communicate with this loving God. Prayer is consciously being in God's presence—silently or verbally, alone or with others, or in the liturgy. It is a conscious moment or hour with "Abba," with Jesus, with the gentle, ever-present Spirit.

Finally, Jesus' followers can expect the same treatment he received. "If you find that the world hates you, know it has hated me before you" (John 15:18). All through history Jesus' friends have been beaten, jailed, crucified. It is an honor to suffer with him, provided it is because of him.

9. What we do as the whole Church.

The Church is called to be a "sacrament" of Jesus. That is, just as Jesus was a sacrament of the Father—making visible the love of God—so Jesus' followers are called to be a "sacrament" of Jesus. The Church has the fearful burden of knowing that it must show Jesus to the world, nothing less.

The greatest action we perform as Church is to celebrate the death/resurrection of Jesus, which is made present in the Eucharist, the sacrifice/meal we call "Mass." It is not just the living body and blood of Jesus replacing the bread and wine: The actual death/resurrection of Jesus is made present for us to enter into. The "outside" of the Mass may sometimes be dull and boring—much of life can seem that way too. But this is the heart of Catholic life—the essential family gathering.

Other acts of God are made sacramental too—that is, visible, assured, "provable." These, with the Eucharist, form the seven great sacraments (there are many little sacraments). Baptism in faith is the sign that God raises us to new life and that our old selfish self is "drowned." Confirmation completes Baptism and is the assurance that the Spirit of God is in us, so that we can be witnesses of Jesus. If we die by mortal sinfulness, the Sacrament of Reconciliation ("confession") is God's assurance that he does forgive us through the Church, which readmits us to the community. The Anointing of the Sick is the visible continuation of Jesus' concern for the suffering. Marriage and priesthood are God's seal on two essential functions in the Church.

10. 'As we wait in joyful hope...'

Like Jesus, we each have our passion, death and resurrection. Faith sees death as the summing up of our great life-decision—made far ahead of time. Faith sees through the veil of death to the resurrection with Jesus. Our bodies—our persons—will be raised to new life—real, glorious, eternal—like that of the risen Jesus.

Heaven is being with God forever, face-to-face. We can only say, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9). If God has created earthly ecstasies, what must his greatest creation—heaven—be! On the other hand, hell is the condition of those who choose spiritual death with complete awareness and freedom, and remain in the attitude as they die. Finally, Catholics believe that those who die in God's grace but with some lingering self-centeredness will be purified before they will see God face-to-face.

This has been a feeble attempt to express in human words what cannot be described, because it is partly divine: God in his Church. Running the risk of oversimplification, we might say that our faith is this: God came visibly in Jesus to save all of us from our selfishness, isolation, brokenness, sin. Jesus gathers around himself a Body that is both spiritual and visible, whose main characteristic ought to be unity and love. We fail, day by day. But mercy prevails.

Leonard Foley, O.F.M., is the author of the best-selling catechism of St. Anthony Messenger Press, Believing in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith. Father Foley is also the author of Saint of the Day and numerous other books and articles. He has many years experience as editor, retreat master, and parish priest.

 
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