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Painting of Pope Pius X (1835–1914), c. 1903. The pope is the spiritual leader and highest-ranking member of the Roman Catholic Church. The Art Archive/Dagli Orti.
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Roman Catholic depiction of intercession, with Christ and the Virgin Mary kneeling before God, by Hans Balding Grun. Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

If the Christian Church were to be pictured as a river flowing from Jesus Christ down to the present day, Roman Catholicism would see itself as the main channel from which Orthodox and Protestant streams diverged. Catholics believe they practice apostolic succession, an unbroken line of leaders, now called popes, going back to the first Vicar of Christ, the apostle Peter. Matthew 16:13-21 tells how Jesus met with his disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi and asked them a penetrating question: Who did people say he was? The disciples gave all the current opinions: some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. But Jesus pressed them for their own opinion. It was Peter who gave him the answer he was waiting for, saying Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Although it may be overly simplistic to put it this way, with that declaration the papacy began. Roman Catholics believe Jesus' next words established Peter and all his appointed successors as Christ's Vicars, ruling bishops, leaders of the church forever. I tell you that you are Peter [Greek petros, or "stone"], and on this rock [Greek petra, or "boulder"] I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

These are the words Catholics believe give the church God's authority to rule, to "bind and loose," on Earth. They establish the church as Christ's body, led by Christ's appointed custodian of apostolic tradition, elected ever since the Middle Ages by a college of cardinals, to be the Holy Father, the pope.

The word "hierarchy" comes from Greek words meaning "sacred leadership." The Catholic Church's hierarchy consists of lay worshipers led by trained deacons who are supervised by ordained priests. The parish priests report to area bishops ("overseers"). The pope is the bishop of Rome and appoints, from the ranks of bishops and archbishops, a college of cardinals. The top of the hierarchy resides in and leads from the Vatican, the papal palace in Rome. Alongside this official chain of command are various religious orders of monks and nuns, organized around specific areas of worship or service, and countless lay organizations and charities.

Although known for its pageantry, Catholic worship varies from one extreme to the other. While a papal ceremony may involve columns of red-hatted cardinals in splendid vestments accompanied by choirs of men and boys chanting Latin plainsong, other services may consist of a few worshipers, led by a priest, meeting in a backward outpost. Some gatherings may feature organ music and orchestras; others, simple guitar music.

What binds the various forms of Catholic worship are the words of the Mass and the celebration of the Eucharist. When the priest says the words, "This is my body... this is my blood," and the sacred host is mysteriously transformed into Christ's body and blood (see Eucharist), believers who receive the sacrament know that wherever they may be in the world, their brothers and sisters are hearing the same words and participating in the same mystery.

Although much has changed in the Catholic Church (see Vatican Councils), much has remained the same. Contemporary Catholic doctrine stands at the end of a long tradition. A few key symbols and teachings strike the outsider right away.

The Crucifix

Ever since the sixth century, the image of Jesus nailed to the cross has been the central symbol of the Catholic Church. It has two primary historic meanings.

The first is the obvious reference to the sacrifice of Jesus as the "Lamb of God," the centerpiece of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. The crucifix is a visual reminder of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, received by the sinner during Mass.

The second refers to the eventual triumph of good over evil. When Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, they were cut off from the fruit of the tree of life. In the book of Revelation this tree is pictured again on Earth at the end of time. There it is declared, "the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (Revelation 22:2). But that is yet in the future. In the meantime, Jesus on the cross is the "tree of life," offering healing for the nations. In this reading of the symbol, the cross is not an implement of torture but a victorious sign of freedom.


"Sacrament" means "sacred secret" or "sacred mystery." The Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments, or means of grace, through which God imparts blessing to the believer: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, holy orders, matrimony, and final anointing (commonly called last rites). Usually these are administered only through an ordained priest.


Although all believers are called "saints," there have been special people throughout history who have exemplified what it means to be a Christian. Elevated through a long process to the position of sainthood, these saints intercede from heaven on behalf of those who pray to them. By following a calendar of saints' days throughout the year, Catholic families are constantly reminded to remember those who have gone before.

Male Hierarchy

Although the Catholic Church has been criticized, especially in the last few years, for refusing to even talk about ordaining women as priests, it is really not fair for them to bear the blame alone. Many Protestant traditions and denominations have done the same (see Baptist). They have just not been powerful enough to draw public scrutiny.

Recent scandals involving pedophilia and active sexuality among priests and seminarians who have taken vows of celibacy, however, have focused media attention on the longstanding tradition of allowing only men to be ordained and to administer the sacraments in public worship. Although for years voices have been raised calling for equal standing for women, no action toward reform in this area has yet been officially discussed.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the principal branches (along with Orthodoxy and Protestantism) of Christianity. According to the official data of the Catholic Church (obviously exaggerated) there were 614 million Catholics in the world in 1970 (including 250 million in Europe, 226 million in Latin America, 55 million in the USA, 47.8 million in Asia, and 32 million in Africa). There is an especially large number of practicing Catholics (in proportion to the total population) in Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Austria, and the Latin American countries. Within the socialist countries among the believing part of the population Catholics predominate in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Cuba. In the USSR there are Catholics in the Baltic area, mainly in Lithuania, as well as the western regions of Byelorussia and of the Ukraine.

The emergence of the Catholic Church as a distinct entity within Christianity began in the third to the fifth centuries with the increase in economic, political, and cultural differences between the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire, especially after its division into the Western Roman and Eastern Roman Empires in 395. The principal cause of the splitting up of the universal Christian church into a western (Roman Catholic) and an eastern (Eastern Catholic or Greek Orthodox) group was the rivalry between the Roman popes and the Constantinople patriarchs for leadership within the Christian world. The first split took place around 867 (it was repaired at the turn of the tenth century); a second occurred in 1054 and became final with the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 (when the patriarch of Constantinople was forced to leave the city).

Since it is one form of the Christian religion, Catholicism does acknowledge the basic dogmas and rituals of Christianity, at the same time it has a number of unique features in its doctrine, worship, and organization.

The Catholic Church’s organization is marked by strict centralization and a monarchical and hierarchical character. According to Catholic doctrine, the pope (who is also the primate of Rome) is the visible head of the church, the successor of the apostle Peter, and the true representative of Christ on earth; his authority is above that of the ecumenical councils. These tenets, which were especially clearly formulated at the turn of the 13th century during the reign of Pope Innocent III, were confirmed by the First Vatican Council (1869–70). This same council proclaimed the dogma of the pope’s infallibility (an idea first set forth during the 11th century by Pope Gregory VII) when he acts in the role of supreme pontiff, performing the duties of the pastor and teacher of all Christians (speaking ex cathedra); thus it is he who determines what will become doctrine in questions of faith and morals.

The Catholic Church (in contrast to Protestantism) acknowledges not only the “holy scriptures”—that is, the Bible—as the source of its doctrine but also “sacred tradition.” Moreover, within this tradition Catholicism includes, in addition to ancient oral tradition, the decrees passed by the seven ecumenical councils (as do also the Orthodox), the resolutions of succeeding church councils, and papal messages. This has facilitated the exaltation of the papacy, and it has also permitted the Catholic Church to adapt itself more flexibly to changing historical conditions.

In the Catholic dogma concerning the trinity the “holy spirit” proceeds not only from god the father (as in the “Creed,” which is acknowledged by Orthodoxy) but also from the son (filio-que)

Catholicism makes a sharp distinction between clergy and laity. This is expressed in a number of institutions that are absent from the Orthodox Church, including celibacy, or the obligation of the clergy not to marry (within Orthodoxy only monks vow not to marry), and communion in bread and wine only by the clergy and in bread alone by the laity (now in certain instances they are also allowed to partake of wine). The Catholic Church forbids a person to leave his spiritual vocation. The privileges of the Catholic clergy are based to a considerable degree on the church doctrine of the superabundant treasure-house of grace (which does not exist in Orthodoxy): the acts of Christ, the apostles, the mother of god, and the saints, as well as the heroic exploits of pious Christians above what was required of them, have created a “reserve” of good deeds and “grace,” on account of which the church has the right to remit sins, granting pardon to the sinners. (This was used by the Catholic Church as the basis for the trade in indulgences that began in the 12th century.)

Only in Catholicism is there a dogma concerning purgatory— an intermediate stage between hell and paradise, where the souls of those who have died and are awaiting their final judgment can be purged of sins that were not redeemed by them during their lifetime by proceeding through various kinds of trials, as well as with the aid of prayers on their behalf and “good deeds” by their friends and relatives on earth; the clergy has the power to cut short the time that a person must spend in purgatory. This was finally confirmed by the Council of Trent during the 16th century.

The Catholic as well as the Orthodox Church recognizes the seven sacraments, but in dispensing them there are certain differences. Thus, the Catholics do not baptize by immersion but by sprinkling; anointing (confirmation) is carried out not at the same time as baptism but on children who are at least eight years old and, as a rule, by a bishop. The bread used for communion among Catholics is unleavened rather than leavened (as among the Orthodox). Marriage between lay people is indissoluble, even if one of the spouses is found guilty of adultery.

A particular characteristic of Catholicism is a widespread, exalted worship of the mother of god (the madonna). In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary (rejected by the Orthodox Church); in 1950 the Catholic Church proclaimed the dogma of her bodily ascension into heaven.

The service of worship in Catholicism is characterized by a particularly showy, theatrical divine liturgy, which is supposed to have an effect upon the imagination and the senses of the believers. In addition to singing, use is made of instrumental music (the organ) and churches are decorated with sculptures and paintings. The worship of all kinds of relics has been developed to an extreme degree, as has the cult of martyrs, saints, and the blessed. The Catholic divine service of worship used to be conducted only in Latin. However, the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65 authorized services to be held in the modern national languages as well. Many holy days in Catholicism appeared after the schism of the churches, including the holy days of Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, and the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

Prior to the 13th century Catholic theology was based to a considerable extent upon the teaching of Augustine (fourth and fifth centuries). Subsequently in Catholic philosophy there occurred a departure from Augustinian Platonism. During the 13th century Thomas Aquinas revised the theological system of Catholicism; he made use of Aristotle’s philosophy, adapting it to Catholic dogmas. In 1879 an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII (“Aeterni patris”) proclaimed the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas to be the official philosophical doctrine of Catholicism; the conceptions of this medieval theologian were subjected to a unique kind of renovation and adaptation to the modern level of civilization.

Over many centuries Catholicism was the predominant ideology in the countries of Western Europe. The role of the Catholic Church was especially great during the epoch of feudalism. “By means of its feudal organization,” wrote F. Engels, “the church provided a religious sanctification to the secular state structure, which was based on feudal principles…. Church dogma was the point of departure and the basis of all thought” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 495). During the Middle Ages, because the Catholic Church was a large landowner, it managed to exert considerable political influence in the feudal world. The papacy strove to subordinate the secular authority to itself (especially from the 11th through the 13th century); it came out with claims to worldwide domination, and in order to extend the sphere of its influence (beyond the borders of Western Europe), it organized the Crusades. The anticlerical movements that had come into being and the heresies that began to multiply in the 11th century were harshly suppressed by the Catholic Church; the church resorted to excommunications and interdicts, waged wars (for example, the Albigensian Wars), and established the Inquisition.

With the formation of centralized states, tendencies arose within the Catholic Church toward the autonomy of national churches (the doctrine of Wycliffe, Gallicanism, and so forth). From the 14th and 15th centuries there was constantly increasing resistance to the autocratic power of the popes; the council movement came into being, which demanded the supremacy of the ecumenical councils over the popes.

During the period of the formation of bourgeois society the Catholic Church, which was marked by extreme conservatism and reaction, was dealt a very serious blow. As a result of the Reformation (16th century) in a number of European countries Catholicism was supplanted by Protestantism. The position of Catholicism was somewhat strengthened by the Counter-Reformation (16th and 17th centuries), which was headed by the papacy. In struggling for domination over minds the Catholic Church cruelly persecuted progressive scholarly thought (the trials of G. Bruno, G. C. Vanini, Galileo, for example). Up to the middle of the 19th century the Catholic Church continued to be a bulwark of feudal-monarchical forces.

With the establishment of the political supremacy of the bourgeoisie, however, there began a process of rapprochement between the Catholic Church and reactionary bourgeois circles, based for the most part on the joint struggle against the workers’ movement and Marxism. This process culminated in the period of imperialism, when the Catholic Church itself became a major owner of capital. The principal social purpose of Catholicism has become the sanctification of the capitalist order by the authority of the church. This defense of the basic foundations of capitalism is constantly waged under the plausible mask of protecting “higher Christian values” and “natural law.” Moreover, illusions are being demagogically disseminated concerning the possibility of “Christianizing” capitalism and improving it.

The Catholic Church of today is a major religious, political, and ideological organization, the center of which is the papal state of the Vatican (the permanent residential seat of the church’s head—the pope). The central organs for the administration of the Catholic Church are the institutions that make up the Roman Curia, which are subordinate to the pope. In bourgeois countries where Catholicism is widespread the pope has diplomatic representatives, including nuncios and internuncios. After the pope the highest ecclesiastical figures are the cardinals, his closest advisers and aides in administering the church. Also belonging to the higher levels in the church hierarchy are the archbishops (who administer the church provinces, which are divided into dioceses) and bishops (who administer these dioceses). Subordinate to the bishops are the parish priests. In bourgeois states the Catholic Church has a developed network of mass organizations. The entire church apparatus, with its enormous army of priests (in 1970, more than 400, 000) subject to strict discipline, with numerous monastic orders (about 1, 400, 000 monks and nuns) and missionary organizations, and with its charitable and other kinds of institutions, is utilized for religious influence on the popular masses. In its social work the Catholic Church uses the press, films, radio, and television; it has its own Catholic universities as well as other educational institutions. To a considerable degree the Catholic Church relies on Catholic parties (the Christian Democratic Party in Italy, the People’s Party in Austria, the Social Christian Party in Belgium, etc.), Catholic trade unions, and rural, youth, women’s, and many other kinds of organizations. Most of the secular Catholic social organizations are combined into the system called Catholic Action.

However, the change in the balance of power in the world after World War II (1939–45) in favor of socialism, the national liberation movement, and scientific progress have led to a crisis in Catholicism. The Catholic Church at the beginning of the 20th century officially condemned the advocates of modernism (a trend that came into being at the end of the 19th century and proposed as its goal the adaptation of the doctrines of the faith to modern times); however, during the second half of the 20th century, when threatened by loss of its control over the diminishing flock, the church was itself compelled to take the path of modernizing its ideology and politics. Such are the reasons for the process of changing the dogma, worship, organization, and politics of the Catholic Church that began to take place in the 1960’s. Such a renewal, which was clearly manifested at the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65 and in the subsequent resolutions of the church, was expressed in an attempt to simplify the church canons and the rituals of worship, to achieve the maximum mobility of all parts of the church, and to “democratize” their administration. A policy of ecumenism has been actively promoted. Questions concerning the church hierarchy and the prerogatives of the bishops have been raised anew within Catholicism. Dissatisfied with the overzealous supervision by the bureaucratic institutions of the Vatican, the bishops have been increasingly insistent in their demands for more independence. Pope Paul VI created a synod of bishops, which is convoked periodically by the pope in Rome. (It has purely advisory and informational functions.) A break with the historical tradition of the Catholic Church, the reform has been carried out for the purpose of attracting a larger number of people into the administration of church organizations, and the reorganization of the structure of the church apparatus has proceeded on all levels. Within the dioceses, councils of clergymen have been organized to assist the bishops in the administration of the diocese, as well as councils of the lay apostolate, in which not only the clergy are represented but also the laity. In many countries conferences of bishops are regularly convened; they are empowered to resolve a number of problems connected with the implementation of decrees by the council and the Vatican leadership.

The essence of the most important changes in the Catholic Church’s social policy amounts to the church’s sanction of those concessions to the workers that have already been “recognized” in the developed capitalist countries by bourgeois democracy and that have been achieved by the workers through intense class conflicts. Thus, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” which was adopted at the Second Vatican Council, recognizes the right of workers to join together as well as the legality (to be sure, with a number of reservations) of the strike as a means of defending rights, and it emphasizes the value of labor. Although the Catholic Church remains an opponent of socialism, nonetheless, in attempting to adapt itself to the modern situation, to “survive” through all political changes in a given country, and to “root itself” in any system, including the socialist systems that have been established in one-third of the world, the church has declared the social universality of Catholicism. In the same constitution of the Second Vatican Council it is stated that the church does not link itself “with any sort of special form of human culture or political, economic, or social system.”

The social reform movement evoked a bitter struggle of trends and opinions in various units and at various levels of Catholic lay and ecclesiastical organizations.

The philosophical doctrine of Catholicism has also been subjected to a reevaluation, and discussions have been held between “traditionalists,” who insist upon their unchanging preference for the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and “innovators,” who consider it impossible in our time to be limited by the positions of Neo-Thomism. The innovators are turning more frequently to the philosophical system of P. Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who attempted to replace the dogmatic medieval positions, which do not correspond to the psychological and intellectual makeup of modern man, with religious principles based on the humanistic ideas and data of 20th-century science.

There has been a considerable increase in the participation of practicing Catholics in class and general democratic movements. There is a deepening stratification among the members of Catholic organizations; left-wing groups have begun to appear that oppose reactionary clericalism and demand the implementation of democratic social reforms and a deepening of the dialogue with the Marxists and that call for unity of action among all anti-imperialist forces. This, in essence, is a revision both of the official ideology and of the social practice of the Catholic Church.

The Marxist-Leninist parties operating in capitalist countries, while defending their scientific atheistic position, are at the same time establishing contact by all the means at their disposal with Catholic workers and advocate unity of action among the entire working class and all antimonopolistic forces. They do so in order both to defend social progress and to oppose the antipopular policies of the monopolies and the threats of war and fascism.


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Berzin, E. O. Katolicheskaia tserkov’ v Iugo-Vostochnoi Azii. Moscow, 1966.
Babosov, E. M. Nauchno-teknicheskaia revoliutsiia i modernizatsiia katolitsizma. Minsk, 1971.
Adam, K. Das Wesen des Katholizismus, 13th ed. Düsseldorf, 1957.
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Landis, B. J. The Roman Catholic Church in the United States. New York, 1966.
Aranguren, J. L. L. La crisis del catolicismo, 2nd ed. Madrid, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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