Roman Catholicism: The Basics, 2nd Edition
Many books have Prefaces or Forewords. They are not, I suspect, widely consulted by readers eager to launch into the main body of the volume they have just downloaded, purchased or borrowed. But something has to be explained about the nature of this book because otherwise readers may be puzzled by parts of it. Hence I have called this section an Introduction, in the hope that people will not skip past it.This is the second edition of Roman Catholicism: The Basics, the first having been published in 2005. That same year Pope Benedict XVI succeeded Pope (now Saint) John Paul II, but during Benedict’s time as bishop of Rome very little changed that would have affected this book’s content. Then, early in 2013, he resigned the office, something which no pope had done entirely of their own accord since Celestine V in 1294 (Celestine V has also been declared a saint – less than two decades after his death – but under his given name of Peter rather than his papal title) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, was elected in his place. It was clear from the outset that there was much he wanted to change in the Church, a fact underlined by the choice of the title Francis, a name never before used by a Roman Pontiff. Remarks about the style of governance of Pope Francis can be read in the Appendix. Quite apart from that, however, he has set in train some more substantial changes. This second edition was commissioned just at the point when Francis was elected. It was delayed to see if any major changes would occur that might be included in the text. Change, however, comes slowly in the Catholic Church, and especially slowly, perhaps, in the Vatican bureaucracy, so in the end it was decided to go ahead with the new edition. Readers are warned, therefore, that the Church as described here may not entirely coincide with the structure of, say, the papal civil service (the ‘curia’) as may exist at the time the book is being read. The text may, in other words, have been overtaken by events. That said, the changes, although important enough to Roman Catholics, may seem less significant to those outside the Church, so this book can safely be used as a guide to the Roman Catholic Church.
WHAT THIS BOOK IS
This book is an attempt to lay out the basics of Roman Catholicism in a systematic and logical fashion. It is not easy to do so. The faith has developed as an organic whole. It is very difficult to discuss one bit of it without feeling constantly the need to cross-reference to other related bits. Cross-references do occur, but they have been kept to the minimum. The first part of the book deals with the structures of the Roman Catholic Church, the second part with beliefs and practises. There is also, throughout, an attempt to answer frequently asked questions about the Church.
The first chapter deals rather generally with the existence of the Church in today’s world, locating it within the wider body of Christianity. It discusses how many Catholics there are, and where, geographically, they are to be found. The next chapter asks the all-important question of what Catholics believe and the following chapter introduces the issue of why they believe what they do, on what grounds they commit themselves to the particular set of convictions that make them Roman Catholics as distinct from other branches of Christianity. As will be seen, it is a very large religion, so it is reasonable to ask what holds it together, what are the structures of authority within it: it is perhaps its somewhat centralised authority structure which most distinguishes it from other faiths.
The question then naturally arises, who exercises this authority, over whom and how? Chapter 4 discusses the various categories of people within the Church, from the pope to the people who turn up, Sunday after Sunday, for the religious service, the Mass. They are organised into parishes, dioceses, and so on, and these structures constitute the subject of Chapter 5. It has just been remarked that a distinguishing feature of Catholicism was the Church’s central authority – the popes and the Vatican bureaucracy. The Vatican and its workings are described in Chapter 6. However, to understand the papacy properly it is necessary to know something of its background and hence a potted history of the popes has been added to the book as an Appendix.
The papacy is one of the most prominent features of Roman Catholicism, especially since the accession of Pope St John Paul II in 1978. His extensive travels brought the centre of the Church, as it were, to the periphery. What Roman Catholics believe about the role of the papacy is considered in Chapters 5 and 6, as has been said. But like most Christians, perhaps like most religious people, Roman Catholics reflect less on what they believe and more on what they do: Chapters 7, 8 and 9 consider their beliefs in the context of how they practice their faith. Chapter 7 contains a long description of the central act of worship, the Mass, as well as the seven sacraments of the Church. There is in addition the formal prayer of the Church known as the Divine Office, to be said by all priests, monks and nuns. Some parts of it are also regularly recited by lay people as an act of devotion, and it is described in the following chapter, along with other, less formal, devotions. This section, Chapter 8, also discusses the role of ‘religious’, the monks and nuns (and others) just mentioned. Chapter 9 looks at the Church in the world, its ethical teaching on sexual morality as well as on justice and peace. New to this edition is a final chapter, ‘Unfinished business’, which looks at a number of disparate challenges the Church is currently facing, from the role of women to developments in governance.
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