Everyone has beliefs. The atheist or skeptic might prefer to call them presuppositions or axioms, but whatever term one wishes to use, beliefs form the foundation of any philosophy or worldview. Catholicism is no different. Indeed, if one accepts that belief is synonymous (or at least analogous) with faith, then belief is the sine qua non of Catholicism.
In the following article, I will examine what Catholics believe and what some of the misconceptions about Catholicism are. Before we begin, however, it pays to lay the groundwork of the topic by asking what belief is.
What is belief?
A quick note on language: I will use belief and faith as synonyms in this section.
In an age dominated by emotion, a belief is often defined as what one “feels” to be true or false. This is not what Catholicism means by belief. From the point of view of Catholic theology, belief is an assent or disagreement to a proposition. To believe means to have a good reason to believe something is true or false.
Religious belief (or faith) begins with reason. That is, one believes something to be true based on what one already knows and the evidence one finds. Belief is an inference based on reason. Believing is NOT accepting something you know to be false (which is epistemologically impossible) or accepting something without a cause.
Please note that faith begin with reason. It doesn’t end there, however. The explanation is due to the object of faith, which ultimately is God. Faith is suprarational because God cannot be fully understood by human reason. In other words, faith is an assent on the other side of reason.
Articles of faith
Any effort to articulate what Catholics believe must begin by examining the Creeds promulgated by the Catholic Church. Credo comes from Latin and means “I believe”. To codify what Catholics believe, the Catholic Church has developed three creeds. These are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. These Creeds not only stated the content of the Catholic faith, but often acted, and continue to act, as defenses against heresy.
Whichever creed one refers to, nine articles or statements of belief are fundamental:
1) Belief in a triune God. At the heart of the Catholic understanding of God is the Holy Trinity. The Trinity is the belief that three persons exist in the one essence which is God. To understand this, it helps to explain the difference between essence and existence.
Essence is the very nature or the nature of a thing. The essence of God is divinity. By comparison, we can say that the essence of the human being is his human nature. The existence of a thing is the way in which it manifests itself. God manifests himself through the three persons of the Holy Trinity.
The three persons are distinct but one in “substance, essence or nature” (Fourth Lateran Council quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church). They are the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. So, “Tri” means three, and “Unity” means one, Tri + Unity = Trinity. He recognizes what the Bible tells us about God, that God is still three “Person” who have the same deity essence.
2) Belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. Where the Father is the First Person of the Trinity, Catholics believe that Jesus is the Second Person of the one God. Catholicism affirms that God took upon himself a human form – the Incarnation – (Philippians 2:6-8) to save humanity by reconciling us to the Father so that we may know God’s love, to be our model of holiness and to make ourselves “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
While God became human in the form of Jesus, he did not lose his divine nature. Jesus is fully God and fully man; he possesses both a divine nature and a human nature.
3) Belief in the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity. Although distinct as a person, the Holy Spirit is consubstantial with the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit shares the same divine nature as the Father and the Son and is God.
Catholics believe the Holy Spirit predisposes us to accept Christ, and He teaches us who Jesus is and how we can be more like Him. This is significant when one understands that to be Catholic means to be a “little Christ”. Indeed, Catholicism affirms that the work of the Holy Spirit sanctifies us.
4) The belief that Jesus was crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. Catholics believe that Jesus was crucified to make atonement for the sins of all mankind. Catholics also believe that Jesus rose from the dead, thus overcoming the penalty of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23).
Catholics believe that forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven. There are two main reasons for Ascension. First, the Ascension signifies the final elevation of the human nature of Christ to the condition of divine glory. It is the final work of redemption. The Ascension of Christ is the archetype or model of our own Ascension into Heaven. It expresses the Catholic belief that in the human nature of Christ, the humanity we all share has entered into the inner life of God in a new way.
The second reason for the Ascension of Christ is that it is the necessary condition for Pentecost. In Jesus’ own words, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name – he will teach you everything and remind you of everything [I] I told you so.” (See John 14:26).
5) Believe that the Catholic Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Christ established the Catholic Church as an extension and continuation of the Incarnation.
Saint Paul speaks of all Christians as members of Christ, therefore they form with Him one single Mystical Body. “You are the Body of Christ, member for member” (1 Corinthians 12:27), and of Christ: “the Head of His Body, the Church” (Colossians 1:18).
Christ instituted the Church as the great sacrament of our salvation through the continuing action of Christ. He gave the Church its definitive structure, with Peter at its head, and conferred on it his divine authority. Moreover, Jesus promised to stay with her until the end of time and to send his Spirit to guide and teach her in all truth.
6) Belief in the Communion of Saints. In a sense, the communion of saints is an extension of the mystical body of Christ. It is a mystical bond that unites Catholics on earth, in Purgatory and in Heaven.
Saint Paul writes: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. (See Romans 8:35, 37-39).
It may help to think of the Catholic Church as having three states. The first estate is made up of those who are alive on earth and who make a pilgrimage to their heavenly home. The second state is that of Catholics who are purified in purgatory. Finally, the third state is that of the presence of God in Heaven. Thus understood, the communion of saints is nothing other than the bond between the righteous of Christ.
seven) Belief that all mankind is subject to original sin and in need of salvation. It is the assertion of the Catholic Church that human nature is defiled or contaminated by original sin. David writes:Behold, I was formed in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.Saint Paul echoes this view. “Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin death, and so death came to all.”
This defilement of original sin has, among its effects, led human beings to move away from or separate themselves from God. Because sin is an act against the will of the eternal God, human beings need a savior to reconcile man and God. This savior is Jesus Christ.
8) Belief in the second coming of Christ. It is the belief of Catholics that Jesus will return. This is known as the Second Coming and is based on Jesus’ own words. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.” (See Matthew 25:31-46).
At the second coming, Christ will judge all souls and the righteous will be reunited with their glorified bodies. The universe will be renewed in a new creation, a great mystery that Scripture calls “a new heaven and a new earth.” It is the full and definitive reign of the Kingdom of God in the heavenly Jerusalem, where God will make his dwelling among men.
9) Belief in the Real Presence.
Belief in the real presence refers to the Catholic assertion that Christ is “in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist [and] truly, really, and substantially contains the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Council of Trent).
To understand the Eucharist, it is necessary to explain transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is the change of the substance of a thing.
In the context of the Eucharist, transubstantiation is the changing of the form of bread into the body of Jesus and the form of wine into the blood of Jesus. This process is done without changing the material of either the bread or the wine. That is to say, during the Eucharistic prayer, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus while retaining the appearance of bread and wine.
Although this is a complex subject, the Catholic Church takes Jesus at his word when he said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in memory of me. So also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25).
After trying to articulate the core beliefs of Catholicism, I want to address two misconceptions about what Catholics believe.
The first and perhaps most common misconception is that Catholics worship Mary. The cause of this error is caused by not understanding the difference between worship and prayer and how Catholic theology distinguishes the two.
Worship or Latria (in Latin) is an act of adoration due to God (Holy Trinity) alone (this is what Catholics do during Holy Mass). Hyperdulia is a particular veneration due to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Finally, there is Dulia, which is the honor given to angels and saints as friends of God.
The second misconception I will address is the role of the pope. To understand the role of the Pope, it is necessary to understand apostolic succession. In summary, apostolic succession is the unbroken line of bishops that goes back to St. Peter. Jesus founded his Church and made Peter the first pope (Matthew 16:18). The Pope is the head of the visible or earthly Church that Jesus founded.
In the previous book, I have endeavored to provide an introduction to the Articles of Faith of the Catholic Church. I have identified and explained nine articles that I believe are fundamental to understanding what Catholics believe. Finally, I touched on two common misconceptions about the Catholic faith.