There are nearly 1.3 billion Catholics in the world as of 2017, so Catholicism is a bit of a big deal when it accounts for slightly more than half of all of Christendom worldwide and about 17% of the total world population! And, considering there are many different denominations of Christianity, there are plenty of misunderstandings between the original branches of Christianity and its offshoots. In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of Catholicism for beginners. Whether you are a non-Catholic or a Catholic that wants to brush up on the basics, this guide is for you!
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I am pursuing a Master of Divinity at Saint Joseph’s College, which places a very heavy focus on theology (take a peek at my ever-growing reading list), and I am converting to Catholicism this year (finally!), so having all of this information fresh in my mind means this is the perfect time to simplify Catholic beliefs for others to understand. Catholic websites I go to typically aren’t very accessible to those outside the faith, so I want to be that connecting bridge from outsider to understanding.
I’ve always had a strong love for studying religion; my favorites have been the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Wicca, ancient pagan religions, Baha’i, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism. My husband didn’t have much exposure to Christianity growing up, so this forces me even more to simplify such a complex belief system that I’m converting to!
How to Understand Catholicism
As with anything, approach Catholicism with an open mind. For many people, it may take a bit of a stretch of the imagination in order to understand both basic and complex beliefs, like transubstantiation.
I’ll liken understanding Catholicism to learning a new language: you have to clear your mind of your current language and understanding of language in order to fully grasp foreign concepts.
For example: I’ve been learning Russian for way too long, and it’s difficult for a variety of reasons:
- English and Russian come from completely opposite language branches.
- English has Latin characters.
- Russian has Cyrillic characters and would require transliteration into Latin characters if you wanted to “read the sounds of the letters.”
- America has customs of freedom, capitalism, individualism, plurality, so on and so forth.
- Russia has a Soviet, communist past, European and Asian influences, and spans eight different time zones.
Each country’s past and language development lends itself to different experiences and understanding of life, and thus influences language very differently. And don’t forget about different dialects! You can’t just say a simple phrase in English and expect it to translate perfectly into Russian because each language is so vastly different for so many reasons. Like, did you know the Russian language doesn’t have words for “boyfriend” or “girlfriend?” Try translating that!
So keep this in mind as you approach Catholicism.
Maybe you come from a Protestant background; you’ll have a difficult time understanding the infallibility of the Holy Father or why Mary is revered so heavily.
Maybe, like my husband, you have little exposure of Christianity and have no concept of Protestant or Catholic – you may have a slightly easier time understanding things, but secular American culture will probably have an influence over you to the point you may not “get” the sacramental worldview Catholics have.
Or, perhaps you’re an agnostic or atheist and think God sending his “one and only son” to earth to sacrifice himself through crucifixion and rising from the dead to save humanity from its sins that he himself created is, well, utterly idiotic. That’s fine – a part of me still thinks it’s really silly, too.
But that’s exactly why it’s so important to approach this with an open mind. Just like I can’t expect to understand the Russian case system in grammar perfectly because English doesn’t have such a system in its grammar, we can’t approach a new religion within the context of our own experience and expect to understand everything from the start. Just know I’m walking this journey with you and hope I can help simplify your journey to understanding Catholicism as best as possible.
Getting Started with Catholicism
This post is a great start! I include further resources throughout this post, but if you want a solid, one-stop resource you can flip through and is recommended by many priests, start with Catholicism for Dummies. No joke! It is very comprehensive and delves just deep enough to where you gain a general understanding of Catholicism, but also points you in the right direction if you want to learn more.
I refer a lot to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) throughout this post, which is required reading in learning about Catholicism, in my opinion! You can view an online version directly from the Vatican here, or an eBook version from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops here, or you can purchase your own copy on Amazon here. If you are Catholic, thinking about becoming Catholic, or simply enjoy researching and learning about religion, I highly recommend getting your own copy!
What is Catholicism?
Let’s get to the real basics here!
Catholicism is one of five main branches of Christianity. The Catholic Church maintains a stance of being the original Church Jesus Christ himself established, as well as being the only Church (alongside Eastern and Orthodox Churches) that maintains a legitimate Apostolic Succession.
Apostolic Succession: the handing down of Sacred Tradition directly from the Apostles, the original followers of Jesus, in a valid line of successors known as bishops. Jesus named Peter the rock on which he will build his Church in Matthew 16:18; Apostolic Succession reflects the handing down of Tradition from Christ to Peter onward.
Foundational Beliefs of Catholicism
Speaking of Apostles – Catholics, like other Christians, believe what the Apostles’ Creed conveys, alongside the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Ten Commandments.
There are actually multiple Creeds from history: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed… but for the sake of clarity and brevity, the Apostles’ Creed covers all the basics for our purposes here. The Nicene Creed, however, delves more deeply with the Trinity and can be used in exchange with the Apostles’ Creed.
The Concept of Sin
The basis of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Sin is, in it’s most literal meaning, “missing the mark” with God. Basically, when we decide to follow our own will rather than God’s will, we sin against God. This is the basis of Original Sin where Adam and Eve chose to listen to the serpent in the Garden and eat from the Tree of Knowledge, even though God explicitly said “do not do this.”
Original Sin: “The sin by which the first human beings disobeyed the commandment of God, choosing to follow their own will rather than God’s will. As a consequence, they lost the grace of original holiness, and became subject to the law of death; sin became universally present in the world. Besides the personal sin of Adam and Eve, original sin describes the fallen state of human nature which affects every person born into the world, and from which Christ, the ‘new Adam,’ came to redeem us.” (CCC glossary)
The Church teaches that sin leads us farther away from God, similarly to how Original Sin got the first humans banished from the Garden and they were forced to wander the earth away from the direct presence of the Lord.
Grace & Justification
Using a popular motif found all throughout Christianity: God is our universal Father and one who doesn’t want to see his children stray away from him and fail. His will is the best groundwork laid out explicitly for humankind to follow and stay on the “straight and narrow” back to him, despite our shortcomings. He knew what he was doing when he created humanity; however, he gave us free will, which kind of throws a wrench into things! We have the free will to choose that straight and narrow, God-ordained path he laid out for humanity, and we also have the free will to do whatever we want. Like any good parent, he watches us carefully, but ultimately lets us make our own mistakes.
And, just as any good parent would, he is always there to receive us back into his good, forever free-flowing Grace when we fail and decide to follow or return to his path for us.
Grace: “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” (CCC 1996)
As you’ll notice from the above definition, grace and justification go hand-in-hand in Christian theology. This is where Catholicism and Protestantism have a schism.
Justification: Where our sins are washed away and we are declared righteous in God’s eyes through faith in Jesus Christ.
Protestants stop here; faith alone saves sinners. However, the Church expounds upon this that faith alongside daily conversion – constant renewal of baptismal vows to accept God’s divine love in faith through Jesus Christ and cooperating with God’s will – is necessary for justification. In other words, Catholics emphasize faith and good works in order to receive complete justification before God. Your actions sanctify your soul, and by doing Godly works you justify your life as Christ and the Holy Spirit being “the master[s]” of [your] interior life.” (CCC 1987-1995)
A note on the Catechism: you’ll notice as you go through any Catechism the massive amount of footnotes for a good majority of each explanation. These footnotes will refer to Scripture, Church documents, and even writings of the saints to help you see where these teachings come from and how to better understand it. We explore further below why Catholics don’t rely on the Bible only in regards to teachings and beliefs.
1. Do All Good People Go to Heaven?, Fr. Mike Schmitz of Ascension Presents
The Catholic Church celebrates Mass (church service) daily, but Catholics are obligated only to attend Sunday Mass. There is also a Saturday Vigil Mass offered, which is a reflection of Jewish tradition where the Sabbath is observed once the sun sets.
Vigil simply means a Mass that is celebrated the evening prior to the actual day
Catholics are also required to attend Mass for Holy Days of Obligation. These are principal feast days that celebrate important events or even doctrine like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.
Many Holy Days begin with “Solemnity,” which is almost interchangeable with “Holy Day.”
You’ll hear the word “liturgy” at times. The core of this word means “public work” and “In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in ‘the work of God'” (CCC 1069). Basically, liturgy refers to divine worship and charity (CCC 1070).
Sometimes you’ll hear Mass referred to as the Eucharist or the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; this is because the Mass is centered on the Eucharist, which is arguably the most important sacrament celebrated by the Church.
1. A Biblical Walk Through of the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy by Edward Sri (truly, a classic Catholic work!)
2. Catholic Mass for Dummies by John Trigilio, Kenneth Brighenti, and James Cafone
3. The Institution of the Mass, Catholic Answers
4. Is the Mass a Sacrifice?, Catholic Answers
The Eucharist is the bread and wine go through transubstantiation and become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In a sense, this is a memorial act of the Last Supper as instituted by Jesus himself:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Matthew 26:26-28, NABRE
I hear you already: “Doesn’t that make Catholics cannibals?!”
When you partake of the Eucharist, you are, in fact, consuming the actual Body and Blood of Christ. This is where a bit of apologetics steps in, though, to say that technically the Eucharist is not considered cannibalism. We’ll explore the Eucharist more in a later post, but for the time being, I recommend reading through the Other Resources links below.
I finally figured out the way to look at it to best understand it: you know the saying “You are what you eat”? Think of it this way. The Eucharist is the literal Body and Blood of God which provides nourishment for our souls with the promise of eternal life and helps us become more Christlike.
Pulling a direct quote from the article “Are Catholics Cannibals?“:
“One always has to be careful when applying terms and concepts to God. Many people miss the mark with regard to the faith because they make the mistake of applying terms in a human way to God who is infinite.”Tim Staples, “Are Catholics Cannibals?” Catholic Answers, 2014
Keeping this in mind for the entirety of the faith is incredibly important in order to understand any part of faith, and perhaps especially where the Eucharist is concerned. It’s a bizarre concept to humans, I know. However, this Sacrament was given to us directly from God for a reason and seeing as the saying “You are what you eat” holds true, that is to help us become more Christlike.
1. Transubstantiation for Beginners, Catholic Answers
2. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Catholic Encyclopedia
3. What Catholics Believe About John 6, Catholic Answers
4. Are Catholics Cannibals?, Catholic Answers
Catholics also believe in celebrating the seven Sacraments. Sacraments are outward, or visible, signs of God’s grace. Participating in the Sacraments allows us to experience God’s grace further in our earthly reality. The Sacraments were instituted by Christ for our sanctification – or, in layman’s terms, Sacraments are what help make us holy.
- The Sacrament of Baptism: infants and adults are formally received into the Church and pronounced children of God with the pouring of water over their heads or immersion while the priest says “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Jesus set the example for baptism by being baptized himself by John the Baptist in the Gospels.
- The Sacrament of Confirmation: the second part of Christian initiation. Where Baptism is with water, Confirmation is basically Baptism of the Spirit (as is commonly known in more Evangelical branches). The Gospels speak of Baptism by Water and by Spirit, and by Spirit is shown at what is called Pentecost where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles after the Resurrection of Christ.
- The Sacrament of Eucharist: the fullness of Christian initiation is realized within the reception of the Eucharist. As we covered above, the Eucharist is the “sacrifice of the Mass” memorializing Jesus’s institution of the Last Supper and his sacrifice on the Cross. Catholics are instructed to receive this Sacrament at least once per year.
- The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: this is the fun part! Catholics frequent (well… are supposed to) the confessional booth in their local church to confess their mortal sins, which are “sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (taken from John Paul II’s Reconciliatio et Paenitentea) at least once per year. Venial sins occur in less serious matters, or even in grave matters “but without full knowledge or complete consent” (CCC 1862), and are forgiven during Mass – so Catholics don’t have to go to confession every time they slip up and say a curse word!
- The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick: formerly referred to as “extreme unction” because it was more frequently used back in the day for the dying. Since then, the Church has urged the faithful to utilize this anointing when they are gravely ill (and not just for a sore throat, sorry!).
- The Sacrament of Holy Orders: this is where priests become priests and Apostolic Succession is at work, even today, in its continuation of the Apostolic Mission Christ himself enacted at the start of his Church. Roman Rite priests are required to remain celibate, whereas Eastern Rite while acknowledging great honor towards celibacy, allow their priests to marry per their tradition (CCC 1579-1580).
- The Sacrament of Matrimony: let’s have a wedding! As many know, the Church takes marriage very seriously – so seriously that it is its own Sacrament as designed by God from the beginning! As such, it should be noted that the Church considers this Sacrament valid through “which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, [and] is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (CCC 1601).
We will explore each Sacrament in their own dedicated posts – stay tuned!
And Catholicism isn’t Catholicism without the Pope!
The Pope is the head of the Church on earth. He has a great variety of names from the Holy Father to Supreme Pontiff. This is the prime reflection of Apostolic Succession with the Pope as Peter’s most direct successor.
The Pope maintains the authority of interpreting the Word of God alongside bishops in communion with (recognized by) him. He also expounds upon teachings and understanding of Revelation, ultimately leading to his supreme power in the care of souls. He is the leader of God’s flock on earth!
Revelation: “God’s communication of himself, by which he makes known the mystery of his divine plan, a gift of self-communication which is realized by deeds and words over time, and most fully by sending us his own divine Son, Jesus Christ.” (CCC 50, glossary)
1. Origins of Peter as Pope, Catholic Answers
Categories on Guadalupe Faith Connection
You’ll notice on the GFC site there are three different sections we will explore here: Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and Spirituality. In particular, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition go hand-in-hand in Catholicism.
Sacred Scripture refers to the Bible, which is part of the Catholic equation.
Sacred Tradition fills in around the Bible because sola scriptura (Bible alone) is insufficient in considering the whole of Christianity. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture both inform each other, but Scripture alone is not the totality of God’s Revelation to humankind. Take for instance science: the Bible is not necessarily a scientific textbook, but God created the earth; certainly, he would reveal himself to his creation through Creation and not just the Bible alone! Also, consider the fact that biblical Canon – or what came to be known as the Bible we know today – was, firstly, not placed into writing until a number of years after the Resurrection, and, secondly, was not established as “the Bible” until 400 years later.
“The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.”CCC 83
After studying Judaism for many years, I know that Judaism has both the Tanakh (or Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament according to Christians) and Oral Tradition (also known as Oral Torah or Oral Law) that it relies on. Basically, no branch of Judaism relies solely on the Tanakh and perhaps relies even more heavily on Oral Tradition simply because it has been around so much longer than any biblical writing. Personally, it makes perfect sense to me to that Tradition in consideration with the Bible would continue into Christianity, even today.
Spirituality feels a little redundant, but with Catholicism absolutely steeped in a great number of different spiritual disciplines and traditions ranging from Ignatian to Franciscan and from the Holy Rosary to retreats, it’s definitely appropriate to dedicate a whole category to its own exploration!
Phew! That’s the bare bones of Catholicism right there. With that being said, though, there are plenty more misconceptions and misunderstandings about Catholicism – let’s explore some of the most common issues.
Common and Frequently Asked Questions About Catholicism
Are Catholics Christian?
Hopefully by covering the basics above you have seen that yes, indeed, Catholics are very much Christian!
1. Catholicism for Dummies by John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti
Do Catholics read the Bible?
Yes, they most certainly do! Catholics listen to Bible readings at every Mass, and the Church encourages daily study of Sacred Scripture. I grew up with my Catholic stepfather reading the Bible at least weekly during weekly Adoration, which he still does to this day!
Do Catholics worship statues?
No, absolutely not! Catholics venerate icons, images, and other of religious nature – in other words, Catholics greatly honor and respect these items and will treat them as such.
People frequently say the Catholic Church disregards the Second Commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” This is untrue simply because:
- As established, Catholics do not worship these items.
- There is a peculiarity in interpreting this passage of Scripture where images are allowed, however, worshipping said items obviously is not allowed. See “Catholics do not worship these items” above!
- Ready for this bomb? Jesus came down to earth, God as Man. Jesus himself was God in the form of a human image. With Revelation now known with an image, it kind of makes sense that preserving his image is to remind us of Christ and his sacrifice, right? Sometimes we all need a reminder of God and his love for us.
1. Do Catholics Worship Saints?, Fr. Mike Schmitz of Ascension Presents
2. Are Statues in Catholic Churches “Graven Images”?, Catholic Answers
3. Do Catholics Worship Statues?, Catholic Answers
4. Veneration of Images: History and Theory of the Veneration of Images, Catholic Answers
5. Graven Images: Altering the Commandments?, from Catholic News Agency
6. Why Do We Venerate Relics?, from EWTN
Do Catholics worship Mary or the saints?
No, absolutely not, again!
Catholics venerate Mary as Theotokos, or Mother of God. I mean, she literally gave birth to the Son of God – that’s kind of mega important, right? If it weren’t for Mary’s willingness to accept God’s will as her own, things would have turned out much differently. Not only is Mary the Mother of God in his human form, but she led her life as a perfect example for all Christians:
Similarly, Catholics venerate the saints as wonderful examples of how to lead a devoted Christian life. In the video linked below, Father Mike likens saints as our older brothers and sisters we look to as examples in faith and inspiration for us to become more saintlike and, ultimately, more Christlike!
1. Do Catholics Worship Saints?, Fr. Mike Schmitz of Ascension Presents
2. Mary: Mother of God, Catholic Answers
3. Saint Worship?, Catholic Answers
4. 5 Facts to Ignore Before Accusing Catholics of “Mary Worship”, Catholic Exchange
The Bible says we can get to God only through Jesus. So, why do Catholics pray to Mary and the saints? And why do Catholics confess their sins to priests for forgiveness?
Just as it is perfectly acceptable to ask a friend to pray for you, Catholics simply ask for Mary and the saints to pray for them, as well. In the “5 Facts” article referenced above, it is fully acknowledged and taught in the Catholic Church that Christ is the one and only, sole mediator between God and humankind (CCC 2634). But, that doesn’t mean we and the people who have preceded us are not allowed to pray for each other!
When it comes to penance, it is still held true in the Church that only God can forgive sins – there’s no argument there. However – and this might be a big however, especially for Protestants – Christ endowed those carrying on his earthly priesthood with a similar power. This is based on John 20:21-23:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
1. Isn’t Christ the Only Mediator Between God and Man?, Catholic Answers
2. Prayer to the Saints, Catholic Answers
3. The Intercession of the Saints, Catholic Answers
4. The Forgiveness of Sins, Catholic Answers
5. How Can a Priest Forgive Sin?, Catholic Answers
Why do Catholics use a different Bible?
To be historically correct: Protestants actually use a different Bible.
The Catholic Church developed the Bible over many, many, many years into what is known as Canon. The Church established Canon through discernment of the Holy Spirit to determine what books were divinely revealed to ultimately create what we now know as Canon.
The Bible many people are familiar with today is a product of the Protestant Reformation: books in the Old Testament that weren’t originally written in Hebrew and books in the New Testament that weren’t originally written in Greek were both taken out of Canon. The Old Testament editing was due to the status of acceptance in Judaism; basically, if it wasn’t in Hebrew, it wasn’t Canon for them, either. This is a problem because of the amount of Diaspora the Jews have experienced over millennia. Not all Jews spoke Hebrew as their first language, so there were plenty of manuscripts found in Aramaic, Syriac, and more. The same thing occurred with the New Testament: Christianity spread far and wide (it’s how Christianity became based in Rome, after all!), so it doesn’t make much sense to confine what is considered Sacred Scripture to just these two languages when Judaism and Christianity both spread across lands that did not share the same languages.
Martin Luther (no, not MLK, but the father of the Reformation) actually kept these books in a separate section of his personal Bible for meditation and reflection. Later on, though, these books were determined by Calvinists (Protestants later down the line from the Reformation) to not establish doctrine of any kind, so they were ultimately taken out. These books that were removed are commonly known as the Apocrypha.
This means the Catholic Bible has 73 books total, whereas the Protestant Bible has 66.
Fun fact: the Orthodox Church has a commonly-held Canon of 79 books!
The Last Thing You Need to Know About Catholicism
Catholicism has been the bearer of the Christian faith for centuries, leading to it retaining many documents that expound on the many teachings found in the Bible and through Tradition, both of which contain Revelation from God. Things haven’t always been peachy throughout the Church’s history; there’s plenty more going on underneath these bare bones.
If you made it through this entire guide, thanks for hanging in there! Hopefully, this clarified the basics of Catholicism for you. This post is definitely just a skimming (if you could even call it that at this point!) of the bare, bare bones of Catholicism. But this isn’t the last of what you’ll hear about it all – Guadalupe Faith Connection is here to explore Catholicism in its fullness. There’s just so much to it, and so little time!
Maybe something in particular caught your eye in this post and you’d like to know more. Let me know below in the comments! We’ll be exploring plenty about the Catholic faith, so I probably already have another post in mind to further explore questions you may have. 🙂
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