Index Catholic Church Institutions and Doctrines

Institutions and Doctrines

During the earliest days, such as we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, Christianity spread through the missionary work of the Apostles, such as Paul and Barnabas. Once established, the local church would continue under the leadership of the 'elders' authorised by the Apostles to continue the work they had begun. By about the second or third generation, the church had begun to distinguish two levels of leadership: one word for 'elders', episkopoi, came to mean what we now call 'bishops', the other, presbyteroi, what we now call 'priests'. As time went on, the bishops of certain major cities came to enjoy a certain pre-eminence. These became what we now call 'patriarchs'. Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria were the main 'patriarchal sees' originally. Later on, Constantinople became prominent. Because of its association with St Peter and St Paul, Rome had a certain primacy and a particular authority even from the very early days, which later led to the institution of the Papacy as we now k now it.

One problem which faced the Church, right from the earliest days, was how to find the right words to express its faith in Christ. We can see this developing, even in the New Testament, from the earliest expressions such as 'Jesus is Lord' (1 Cor 12:3), to ones which speak more clearly of Christ as divine: 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God' (Mt 16:16), 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' (Jn 1:1) and 'My Lord and my God' (Jn 20:28). During the first few centuries there were many bitter controversies about the appropriate language to use about Christ. At crucial moments, the bishops gathered at an 'Ecumenical Council', in order to resolve particular disputes and to establish what was to become the orthodox position. The best-known result of these was the so-called Nicene Creed, which is said at Masses on Sundays and major feasts.

The purpose of a Council is not to define completely the truth about Christ (or any other aspect of religion). That simply isn't possible, because of the limitations of human language and understanding. The purpose is to determine the broad boundaries of Christian doctrine: to decide whether or not a particular way of talking about Jesus fits in with the Church's tradition. For example, it eventually became clear that if we are to do justice to the reality of Christ, we have to admit that he is both God and man. To rule out either one or the other would leave us with a distorted and inadequate picture of him -- even though we can never understand how the same person could be both human and divine.

Because of this emphasis on what we believe, it is often said that Christians (and Catholics in particular) are told what they have to think. This is understandable up to a point -- but it isn't quite as simple as that. If we believe in Christ, we have to accept what he taught -- and if we believe in the Church, we have to accept that it has the authority to interpret Christ's teaching, to decide what its implications are. There are varying degrees of importance in the doctrines taught by the Church. For example, the teaching on birth control isn't as fundamental as the doctrine of Christ's divinity. But if there is some fundamental point of the Church's teaching that we genuinely believe is wrong, then we have to follow our conscience rather than the Church. At the same time, though, we have to accept that we can no longer belong to the Church, because we are outside the range of beliefs that it upholds.

Although this is an emotive issue, it is logically no different to a vegetarian society excluding any meat-eaters from its membership; with the best will in the world, there is clearly no way that a meat-eater can be a vegetarian. The two things are completely incompatible. Similarly, a Christian is generally defined as someone who believes in the basic Christian doctrines, and a Catholic is further defined as one who accepts the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. No one is forced to accept this authority, but if he doesn't he can't call himself a Catholic.


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A parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark.
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