A Short Introduction to the Catholic Church

In the introduction to his book, The Roman Catholic Church – An Illustrated History, Dr. Edward Norman, former Anglican canon chancellor of York Minster, and now a member of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (received October 7th 2012), has provided what I think one of the most sober, matter-of-fact, and uncontroversial accounts of what the Catholic Church is and how its authority operates in practice (as well as how it is understood in theory). In laying out the bare bones of the situation in so clear and restrained a fashion, I think it would be well worth presenting to any one holding distortions or misconceptions about papal authority and where it comes from, and so I have quoted the passage in full below (I also highly recommend the book itself – it is one of the most lucid and succinct accounts of the Church’s development and involvements with the world that I have come across):

There is a tendency for adherents of a religious institution to mistake what are in fact transient moments of development for permanent embodiments of its founding ideals. In reality, institutions adapt the deliverance of their message to changed circumstance, and their histories are characterised by processes of re-interpretation. The Catholic Church is organic: its truths are inseparable from the tradition of believers – unfolding sequences that extend from the apostles’ interpretation of the teaching of Christ to the present. It is actually remarkable for its degree of continuity, and this has always been a matter of conscious policy. In March 416, Pope Innocent I wrote: “Who does not know or observe that the Church order was delivered by Peter, the chief of the apostles, to the Roman church, and kept until now, and ought to be retained by all?” This sense of continuity seems remarkable only because continuity has disappeared in so many other institutions, and sometimes – usually, in fact – the institutions themselves have vanished. In traditional society an unbroken succession of ideas or practices was valued as a means of touching the past as one might touch the relics of a saint, and so receive the vitality of its message. 

            The survey that follows does not attempt an inclusive account of the past of the Catholic Church, nor is it ‘ecclesiastical history’ as conventionally understood. It is an analysis of the Church in the world, of how it related to the moral and political practises of each place in which Christians tried to live their faith, and of ways in which the Church and society, through dialectical exchange, encountered and tried to deal with the aspirations of successive generations. Despite the modern assumption that the privileges sometimes given to the Church by sympathetic political settlements of the past produced serene “Ages of Faith”, this is an account of much conflict. People who truly value their ideals are militant about them: hence conflict in religious ideology and in the relationships of Church and State. An overview presents seemingly recurrent occasions of threat to Catholic order, and it ha actually been like this from the beginning. “Unto these men of holy lives was gathered a vast multitude of the elect” as St Clement, third successor of St Peter in the see of Rome, noted in the year 95 or 96, “who through many indignities and tortures endured envy and set a fair example among us.” There were, throughout the history of the Church, internal dissensions over doctrine and order, attempts by secular authority to control religious institutions, and external assault by alien powers and ideas.

            The Catholic Church is a monarchy, whose King is Christ himself. His Vicar on earth exercises monarchical authority, which in many ages emulated the power of earthly sovereigns – and today looks strange in a world that has democratised its political structures. Yet it is the papacy that has determined how Catholicism has in large measure developed, and it is the papacy which will be inseparable, because of the nature of the office, from future developments. It is easy, in the writing of Catholic history, to refer to particular policies of Rome as those of individual named popes – and that is done here – but it is as well to remember that in the distant past, as today, pontiffs listen to their advisers, and the policies of Rome may represent the collective wisdom of curial officials. In major issues of doctrine and order the papacy has always consulted with the bishops of the world. There has been, indeed, much repetitive controversy as to the proper extent of collegiality, and this has even prompted schism. The papacy remains, however, the source of Catholic understanding of the mission of the Church, and the means by which doctrine is defined.

            The Church has never been static. Nor is this solely due to unavoidable shifts in the encompassing societies of the world. It derives from an internal dynamic as well. Revelation is conceived as progressive – Christ himself used the image of the mustard tree: from the smallest seed it grows into a large tree, different in shape but of the same nature. Doctrinal truths implicit at the foundation of the Church may over time “Develop” (the word is used technically by theologians) and receive explicit definition centuries after they were first evident to the faithful. The Immaculate Conception is an example: widely believed since the earliest centuries of Christianity but not defined as dogmatic teaching until 1854. Thus was secured as permanent teaching the special position of Mary, “by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God”, as having been born into the world “immune from all stain of original sin” in order to be the mother of Christ – the words of definition are those of Pius IX’s proclamation.

            The survey that follows is not an account of theological ideas and it does not recount, except marginally, the opinions of theologians. It is about the Church in human society. The account would be inauthentic, on the other hand, if it did not recognise that the institutional Church undergoes more or less permanent change. The affairs of religious bodies are conducted by humans, by people living in the societies of their day, and they adapt accordingly. It has been the duty of Catholic leaders, at all times, to see that these adaptations are measured and appropriate – that the division of essentials and inessentials is reasonably calculated. The Church believes that there is a hierarchy of truths, and that some religious ideas are not less true than others, in a given moment of history, but that some are less applicable in the context of the circumstances presented. The result is not as Delphic as it sounds; it means that the Church uses the materials of the world in relation to the strategy of faith.

            This account of such a large span of historical development cannot be even in treatment. Some episodes will perhaps seem to have received disproportionate space. This is intentional: details of what may appear rather obscure aspects of events can sometimes illustrate truly important trends, and are featured here in order to provide evidence of long-term shifts of emphasis in the Church’s self-understanding. The book begins with a few paragraphs on how Catholics understand the essentials of their Faith. This is, surely, itself essential in understanding something of the manner in which the Church has presented its priorities.

The Roman Catholic Church – An Illustrated History (2007), pp.7-9, Thames and Hudson Ltd.

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