Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
What Catholics Believe:
A Popular Overview of Catholic Teaching
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 mysterynot 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-Spiritone
God, three personsunless he had revealed his inner self through
Jesus. Jesus brought the Good News ("gospel") that God loves every
single individual on earthsinful, saintly or lukewarmand
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'!"
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 humanthat
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 naturesone human, one
divineperfectly 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
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 lifeforgiveness, love, eternal
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 deathsnailed 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 bodyhe
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 Fathertotal, 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
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 Churchthrough
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 babyany baby
or adultthe 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 naturaleven essentialwhen
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 teachingthat
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 imperfectand
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 abandonedeven
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 ChurchGod'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 loveloving.
praising, pleasing himand 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 alla mature and spiritually childlike
relationship to God in Jesus.
Knowledge is essential, but faith is not just in the
head. Faith is openness to Godwhatever 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 lovenot 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 gonethey 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 neighborthe
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 relationshipand to communicate with this loving
God. Prayer is consciously being in God's presencesilently
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 Fathermaking
visible the love of Godso 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 boringmuch of life can seem that way too. But this is
the heart of Catholic lifethe essential family gathering.
Other acts of God are made sacramental toothat
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-decisionmade
far ahead of time. Faith sees through the veil of death to the
resurrection with Jesus. Our bodiesour personswill
be raised to new lifereal, glorious, eternallike 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 creationheavenbe!
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.