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Western Christianity


Western Church/Roman Catholicism

Doctrines  The principal doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church are in many respects the same as those of the mainstream Protestant and Orthodox churches. These are based on the Nicene Creed of 325. God is understood as Trinity, existing in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God conceived through the Virgin Mary, through whose death and resurrection humanity is redeemed and reconciled with God.
Roman Catholicism differs from other branches of Christianity in its understanding of church hierarchy and the sources of doctrinal authority. The head of the church is the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, whose authority derives from the belief that he is in direct apostolic succession to St Peter, who is said to be the first Bishop of Rome.
As head of the Church the Pope possesses supreme power to declare Catholic doctrine. This is done through Church Councils which consist of meetings of the bishops of the whole church. If summoned by the Pope the decisions of these councils are considered infallible. Like the Eastern Orthodox Church, but unlike Protestantism, the Roman Catholic Church recognises seven sacraments. (A sacrament is a rite, or ceremony, understood as a channel of God's saving presence.) These are baptism, confession, eucharist, marriage, ordination, confirmation and anointing the sick. Only the priest can administer the sacraments.
The Virgin Mary has always had a central place in Roman Catholic devotional practices. Since the Council of Ephesus of 431 Mary has been formally ascribed the title Theotokos (Mother of God). Mary's status as Mother of God encouraged the development of the belief that she was born without any trace of original sin. This belief became part of Roman Catholic dogma through the promulgation of Immaculate Conception in 1854. In 1950 the widely held belief that Mary did not die but ascended into heaven became church dogma. This doctrine is known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

History The Roman Catholic Church claims continuity with the church of the New Testament. However, the term the Roman Catholic Church applies only to those churches that acknowledge the sole authority of Rome after the schism between eastern and western Christendom of 1054.
During the late Medieval period considerable advances were made in religious scholarship through the rediscovery of Aristotle and the application of logical method to theological questions. Such scholarship was sustained through the newly established monastic orders, particularly the Dominicans and the Franciscans.
At the same time, however, independent movements such as the Cathars and the Waldenses emerged which challenged the authority of the church. The crusades which had been launched to recover the holy lands for Christendom ended in failure. And rival papacies had been established in Rome and Avignon during the final years of the 14th and early years of the 15th centuries.
During the 16th centuries widespread demands for reform were made in the face of growing church corruption. At the forefront of those demanding reform were Luther, Calvin and Zwingli whose denunciation of papal authority led to the emergence of Protestantism. In response the Roman Catholic Church undertook a programme known as the Counter-Reformation whose decrees were formulated at the Council of Trent (1545-63).
The years following the Reformation saw the expansion of Roman Catholicism in the New World and Asia through the missions of newly established orders such as the Jesuits. However, in Europe the power of the Roman Catholic Church continued to decline. Attempts in the 16th and 17th centuries to win back Protestant regions through force were largely unsuccessful. During the 18th century the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was attacked by Enlightenment philosophers who argued that knowledge should be based upon reason rather than religious dogma.
These principles acquired political expression in the French revolution of 1789 whose leaders confiscated church lands and proclaimed the French state to be without religion. The French revolution inspired the growth of anti-clerical governments throughout Europe, considerably weakening the political authority of the Church. The Church's reaction was to take a stance against modernism and liberalism and to confirm tradition. In 1864 a syllabus of errors was prepared which condemned such practices as freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, non-church schools, and toleration of different religions. In 1870 the First Vatican Council affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Such decrees did little, if anything, to hold back the growing power of the modern state. The unification of Italy in 1870 resulted in the confiscation of papal territories. The dispute over these territories was resolved through the Lateran treaty of 1929 which created the state of the Vatican City, providing the papacy with a measure of political independence.
The second half of the 20th century has witnessed a greater willingness on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to engage with the modern world. The decisions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) illustrate this trend. Among the major changes to church practice were the reformation of the liturgy so that Mass is said in the local language rather than in Latin, a willingness to enter into ecumenical dialogue with other Christian traditions, and acceptance of modern methods of biblical interpretation.
In spite of such modernising trends the Church has remained conservative in other areas. In 1968 the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae was published. Humanae Vitae condemned artificial contraception as incompatible with natural law. In addition to condemning artificial contraception, the Church also proscribes abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. These issues continue to be a source of contention in the church today.

Symbols Central to Roman Catholic symbolism is the crucifix which represents the suffering of Christ for the world.
As in other Christian traditions water is used in baptism to cleanse believers of their sins. The sacraments of bread and wine are central to Roman Catholic devotional life. These elements commemorate Christ's Last Supper when he identified the bread which he broke and the wine which he poured with his body and blood. Roman Catholics believe that when the bread and wine is consecrated they are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

Adherents  There are some 1,042,501,000 Roman Catholics in the world today. Adherents by regions: Africa, 128,167,000; Asia, 130,102,000; Europe, 260,034,000; Latin America, 412,366,000; North America, 97,892,000; Oceania, 8,229,000; Former USSR, 5,711,000 (Famighetti 1994, 731).

Headquarters/
Main Centre
 The Vatican, 00120 Vatican City.