Answers to common questions about the Roman Catholic Faith.
Q and A:
This section of the web site contains two groups of questions: the first giving answers to some common questions about the Catholic Faith, using a variety of sources, such as the Catholic Catechism and other Catholic web sites. The answers also provide a summary of some of the key Catholic doctrines discussed on this web site.
For the second set of questions, I am deeply indebted and grateful to Father John Flynn for taking the time to provide the answers. Father Flynn formely served as the Communications director for the Diocese of Salford.
What is Papal Infallibility?
This is the belief that the Pope, when defining a teaching on faith or morals that is to be held by the whole church is able to make such pronouncements without error.
First defined as a Dogma, or required belief by the First Vatican council in 1870, Papal Infallibility was used in 1950 to dogmatically define the Assumption of the Virgin Mary i.e. the view that she was taken directly into heaven at the end of her life.
Teachings made by the Pope in this manner are known as ex cathedra (Latin: ‘from the chair’). There is no definite list of infallible teachings, but apart from the 1950 defintion, the 1854 dogma of the Immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary is also considered infallible.
The teaching does not imply that the Pope is without sin (known as impeccability as opposed to infallibility) or unable to make errors of judgment, but acting with the authority as successor to Peter (Matthew 16:18), he is able, through the aid of the Holy Spirit, to pronounce infallibly. In addition, ex cathedra teachings are irrevocable and not subject to the consent of any other authority within the church.
The definition given at Vatican I is as follows:
….”we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.”
Finally, it should be noted that infallible teachings can also be made by ecumenical church councils (such as Vatican I) and not just directly by the Pope himself.
What are the Pope’s titles?
These are as follows:
- The Bishop of Rome.
- Vicar of Christ – This title emphasises the fact that the Pope is seen as the visible and supreme head of the church on earth and Vicar (‘Substitute’) of Christ.
- Successor of the Prince of the Apostles – That is, the successor to Peter, who was the leader of the Apostles and is also considered the first Pope.
- Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church – The original term used was Pontifex Maximus or High Priest.
- Primate (Archbishop) of Italy.
- Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province.
- Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City
- Servant of the Servants of God – A title first used by Pope Gregory the Great.
The title ‘Patriarch of the West’ is no longer used.
What is the Rosary?
Please view the article under Mary and the Saints.
Why are Catholic Priests required to be celibate?
Clerical celibacy is based on the idea that the state of being unmarried enables a person to more fully devote themselves to Christian service. A biblical argument for this view is given in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34:
“But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord: how he may please God. But he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world: how he may please his wife. And he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord: that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world: how she may please her husband.”
A further argument derives from the Catholic view of the priesthood as a ministry being aligned to that of Christ himself. Thus at each Mass, the priest stands “in the person of Christ” i.e. represents Christ to the people. In Luke 18:28-30, mention is made of those who give up all to follow Christ and in Matthew 19:12 we read of those who have “renounced marriage for the kingdom”.
Although celibacy is mandatory for all Catholic priests, there are two main exceptions:
- Priests who were married while part of another denomination such as Anglicanism or Eastern Orthodoxy and who subsequently convert to the Catholic faith are permitted to retain their married status. However, remarriage after widowhood would not be permitted.
- Eastern Rite Catholic churches (e.g. the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), who follow the Eastern liturgy, but are in full communion with the Catholic church in the West, are also allowed to ordain married priests, in keeping with their traditional practice. Marriage must take place before ordination.
For Bishops, both East and West require celibacy and this is also the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Bishops from other denominations who convert to the Catholic faith, would be re-ordained as Priests, while remaining married.
What is the Catholic View of non-Catholic Christians?
According to the Vatican II council, all Christians who have been validly baptised are placed into communion with the Catholic church. Vatican II also referred to non-Catholic Christians as “Separated Brethren” and acknowledged other churches as valid “ecclesial communities” and also as a “means of salvation”, while at the same repeating the traditional view that “… only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is the all-embracing means of salvation that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation…”
“The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation.”
Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio).
What is the significance of Baptism?
Baptism is regarded as a Sacrament, and in common with all other Sacraments, it conveys grace to those who receive it worthily. This Sacrament is necessary for salvation and has the following effects:
- It joins the recipient to the Church and is one of the Sacraments of initiation (the others are Confirmation and the Eucharist).
- It takes away all sin and thus confers sanctifying grace.
- It imparts an indelible mark upon the soul (known as a Sacramental Character) and cannot be repeated.
Why do Catholics confess their sins to a Priest?
The Church requires all who are able to do so, to go to confession at least once a year. Confession is also mandatory for all mortal sins, as these sins are the most serious and can result in loss of salvation.
Although the church does not deny forgiveness of sins can be obtained outside the confessional (for example by direct prayer), it encourages confession for the following reasons:
- Penance (now more commonly known as ‘Reconciliation’) is a Sacrament, and like all Sacraments, it is considered to be a channel of God’s grace. The Priest does not himself forgive sins, rather he is said to act in the person of Christ and with his authority provides absolution.
- Confession before a Priest enables the penitent to receive guidance and advice.
- A Penitent who make a good confession through an ‘Act of Contrition’ can receive assurance of forgiveness of sin.
Why are Catholic and Protestant Bibles different?
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, with some portions in Aramaic (a dialect which Jesus himself would have spoken). Around the 3rd century BC, work began on translating the text into Greek, which was a major language at the time and indeed the language used for the original New Testament text. The translation was known as the Septuagint or LXX (‘seventy’), from the tradition that around seventy scholars worked on the translation. The Septuagint included a number of books not in the original Hebrew text and these books gained some measure of acceptance in the early church. They were confirmed as being part of the list of authorised books, or canon of scripture, at the Council of Trent in 1546. For this reason, they are called deuterocanonical (literally: ‘second-canon’). At the Protestant reformation, the additional books were rejected as being non-inspired and termed Apocrypha or ‘hidden’.
The disputed books are the following:
- Additions to Esther
- Wisdom of Solomon
- Ben Sira, also called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus
- Baruch, including the Letter of Jeremiah (Additions to Jeremiah in the Septuagint)
- Additions to Daniel: Song of the Three Children, Story of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon
- 1 and 2 Maccabees
Note: The term ‘Apocrypha’ is also used by the Catholic church, but in a different manner to denote writings whose claimed authorship is unfounded. Examples include the Gospel of Judas and the Acts of Thomas. For that reason they are also sometimes called pseudepigrapha or ‘false writings’.
Why does the Church encourage prayer to saints?
Prayer to the saints (including the Blessed Virgin Mary) is based on the idea that just as people intercede on earth by offering prayers for each other, so it is appropriate to ask those who are in the presence of God to intercede on our behalf. In that sense, it is argued that it is more correct to talk of praying WITH the saints, rather than TO them.
Why doesn’t the Catholic Church ordain women as Priests?
The church does not ordain women for the following reasons:
- As Christ himself only ordained men as his apostles, so the church, which believes in the practice of apostolic succession, does likewise.
- When administering a sacrament, the priest is said to be acting in persona christi, i.e. in the person of Christ.
Pope Paul VI, quoted by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, wrote, “[The Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”
Additional Questions (Answered by Fr. Flynn)
What does the word ‘Catholic’ mean to you?
The term “Catholic”, whether or not the big ‘C’ is used, means, “universal”. The Church founded by Jesus Christ has always been “Catholic” because the mandate he gave to His followers was to, “Go and make disciples of all the nations and baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28,19) and so to, “proclaim the Good News to the whole world” (Mk 16,15).
The second reason why the Church is “Catholic” is because Christ is present in the Church. A well-known phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. c.107AD) is, “Where there is Jesus Christ, there is the Catholic Church”. Jesus assures us that he will be with us, “until the end of time” (Mt 28,20), and so it stands to reason that He is present in the Church He founded. Since Christ founded the Church on St Peter, the “Rock” on which “I will build my Church” (Mt 16,18), the term “Catholic” therefore refers specifically to those Christians who see the Pope as the visible successor of Peter.
The unity among Christians with the Pope (a unity which can indeed be seen as “Catholic”) is realised at the local level – in the “particular churches” (cfr Catechism of the Catholic Church, 834) which express their loyalty to and love for the Church at Rome, which has always “presided in charity” (cfr CCC 834). So although the universality of the Catholic Church stretches throughout the world, that same catholicity is expressed in different ways when she “puts down her roots” in different areas and cultures.
St Peter’s task – along with that of the other apostles, of St Paul and of the other members of the early Church – was to bring the message of salvation to the ends of the earth (St Paul, for example, went on three extensive missionary journeys). So we can say that the mission of the Catholic Church is to be “catholic” as well as “Catholic”.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church today?
The biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church, at least in the UK, is catechesis, without question. “Catechesis” means “echoing the teaching”. This implies that when someone gets to know about the faith, there should be a deep resonance at every level of his or her being – mind, heart, body – with the teachings of the Church. Fundamentally, we are talking about an echo of the most basic teaching of all: that Jesus Christ died and rose again, reconciling us with the Father and with one another in the power of the Holy Spirit, offering us the possibility of inheriting eternal life.
It is important to stress this “echo” for two reasons. First, because the echo, by its nature, echoes something the message of the Gospel. In fact we do more than announce a message. There is a person, Jesus Christ, “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14,6) that we are called to proclaim to others. In practice, this means that catechesis needs to be rooted firmly in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, and follow a method that encourages people to find the truth in Christ and His Church. It is important for people to re-learn the importance of the basic truths of the faith. Too much emphasis has been put, in recent years, on how we “feel” God is working. This leads to a very subjective and overly-personalised caricature of the deposit of faith.
Yet merely learning things by rote is not the answer. Secondly then, to be faithful to the tradition, we need a kind of “creative orthodoxy” that allows a sound formation of the mind and heart to take place. We have to try and understand, according to our own capacities, why they Church teaches what she does. We have to personalise the message, or, as Pope Benedict often reminds us, develop a friendship with Christ. This has an effect on our lives that will be deep and lasting if it is taken seriously.
The task of catechesis is most necessary in the family and schools. Children and adults need to get to know and love Christ. Of course it goes without saying that they should learn (by rote!) the Creed, what happens at Mass, key prayers, the ten commandments, what sacraments are, the precepts of the Church, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, how to make a good Confession, and so on. But the teaching of basic elements of the faith needs to be a true catechesis. That is, it needs to affect the whole person, transforming his or her life right to the core. If this task is successful, the passing-on and reception of the faith will be the “joyful” process which Saint Paul, for example, envisaged (cfr Phil. 4, 4-7). Adults and children in general need to be offered ways of re-engaging with the faith too so that this joy is passed on.
In short, the biggest challenge is to help people truly get to know Christ working in his Church.
What does the doctrine of ‘apostolic succession’ mean to you?
The doctrine of the Apostolic Succession teaches that the Pope is the successor of St Peter (Pope Benedict is the 265th Pope) and that the bishops in communion with the Pope are successors of the Apostles. Christ reminded His followers of His abiding presence in the Church (cfr Mt 28,20): this presence is evident most visibily in the Pope and bishops of the Church. Through the laying-on of hands, the Holy Spirit is conferred in a particular way on a new bishop. This process takes place at every episcopal ordination; the “apostolic succession” is thus assured and Christians are guaranteed that the presence of Christ is among them. We must indeed remember that, “The bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 20,2).
In a nutshell, outline your role as a Priest?
My role as a priest is to bring Christ to others in the sacraments and to preach the good news of salvation. This includes the daily celebration of Mass and other sacraments (sometimes called “the divine mysteries”), preaching, frequent confession, regular prayer and study. I have a duty to reflect Christ in a way that calls into account the nobility of the office of the priesthood. As St John Marie Vianney, patron saint of priests, said, “Oh, how great is a priest! The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in Heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love.”
Priests are distinct from the rest of the faithful because of their office. St Bernard once said that this distinction is marked in the priest, quid in natura, quis in persona, qualis in moribus (what he is in his nature, who he is in his person and how he is in his conduct). In his nature, a priest is like any other men, since “Every high priest taken from among men is ordained by men for the things that appertain to God” (Heb. 5,1). So a priest is born, lives and dies like any other. Yet in his person, a priest is “the apex of all things” (St Ignatius of Antioch) precisely because he deals directly with the divine mysteries and, more generally, those “things that appertain to God”. In a certain sense the priest becomes “another Christ when he celebrates the sacraments, since these sacraments are the very life of God. It is very important that a priest should recognise this personal dignity. Finally, the conduct of a priest must reflect this dignity in a virtuous life. Origen applies to the priest that test given to the prophet Jeremiah: “I sat not in the assembly of jesters … I sat alone” (Jer.15,17). The priest must in a sense “stand alone”. He does this not because he is better than others, but because his office bears a particular responsibility such that a deep personal fidelity to Christ enables him to minister faithfully to others.
We might reflect again on the words of St John Vianney: “the priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the Sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you. After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts”.
What were the highlights of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI?
The Visit to the United Kingdom has been the highlight of the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI: The depth and clarity of the Pope’s vision in his public discourses are the highlight. In the 19,825 official words that Pope Benedict delivered he set out a plan. I detected three main areas:
1) We need “clear voices of faith” among the laity. It is only through individual witness that we can be a force for good. We do not blindly follow the teachings of the Church, but need to be creative, adopting an attitude of leadership, as the saints have done. At Bellahouston Park, the Pope told us that, “the evangelisation of culture is all the more important” today, with the “dictatorship of relativism” that besets modern man. “Clear voices” among the laity are what is needed. This is surely what Newman meant by being “links in a chain”.
2) Secondly, we need to be true teachers to one another, so that the Gospel can continue to be spread in a largely secular society. The Pope was very clear on this, particularly in his address to religious educators.
3) Thirdly, we must recognise that our work is united with Christ’s eternal sacrifice. We are not simply ‘do-gooders’, or followers of a moral code. Rather, all our work, all our prayer, all our sacrifice and suffering, play a part (even if only obliquely and in a mysterious way) in Christ’s work of redemption. The Pope’s words in Westminster Cathedral are extremely important in that regard: “Christ, our eternal high priest, daily unites our own sacrifices, our own sufferings, our own needs, hopes and aspirations, to the infinite merits of His sacrifice. Through him, with him, and in him, we lift up our own bodies as a sacrifice holy and acceptable to God. In this sense we are caught up in His eternal oblation, completing, as Saint Paul says, in our flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, the Church. In the life of the Church, in her trials and tribulations, Christ continues, in the stark phrase of Pascal, to be in agony until the end of the world”.
Overall the Pope brought with him a call for renewal in our lives. The starting-point is our own appreciation of the urgent task of personal holiness. The tremendous enthusiasm of the crowds and the Bishops was encouraging. It just needs to be followed up.
As well as the visit to the United Kingdom, there are other highlights: the Pope’s encyclical on hope, Spe salvi, the inroads he has made in promoting greater reverence in the liturgy, and his Wednesday catecheses on the saints all come to mind.
What elements of the Vatican II council’s teaching stand out most for you?
There are three elements of the council’s teaching that stand out for me:
1) The universal call to holiness: this element of the fruit of the Council is vastly important today. It is now 50 years since the Council, and her sense of the need for a holiness among the laity as well as with those who are consecrated to God in a more specific way has proved prophetic. The decline of morals and collapse of traditional structures such as the family, a guaranteed career, banking systems and school curricula, has left many questioning the very meaning of life. Universities nowadays are being tasked to provide an education that makes the young fit only for the workplace, to stimulate economic growth. This utilitarian approach is ultimately futile, since happiness does not come through money or economic well-being. That is why the universal call to holiness is so important: the Church is calling people to look more than ever at the real meaning of life. Despite our differences, we can all work towards creating a better humanity based not merely on a misplaced work-ethic but on a genuine openness to one another and to the question of God.
2) Liturgical renewal: the Council’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, set in motion a whole sequence of events that are still being played out today in the new translation of the Roman Missal. Coupled with the call to holiness, the appeal for a “noble simplicity” in the Church’s liturgical life has helped people realise that they are able to give what the Council calls a “full and active participation” in the public prayer of the Church. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) is an example of such a fruit of the Council. It has sought to show that Christian Initiation, and, by extension, the Christian life itself, flows from and back to the liturgy. The old saying, lex orandi, lex credendi (“what the Church prays the Church believes”) is ever-important. Religious practice must not be confined to a set of arcane rituals. Liturgy must affect the daily life of Catholics. The danger however, is that liturgy can be trivialised, and lose its sacred meaning. Poor translations and unfaithful practice of the rites has left many people somewhat perplexed and betrayed. However, when liturgy is conducted with the “noble simplicity” that the Council envisaged, then it always raises the mind and heart to God.
3) The four main constitutions: the main documents of the Council provide the backdrop for the renewal of life in the Church. Sacrosanctum concilium was important because of its concern for a liturgy that would encourage people to bring their faith beyond the confines of the Church while encouraging a “noble simplicity” in the conduct of liturgy. Gaudium et spes encouraged the Church to “open the doors” and show the world that the message of the Gospel and Christ’s redeeming work are for everyone. Dei verbum, the constitution on the Word of God, is an extremely rich document that encourages people to use the Scriptures that never fail to satisfy when approached with the eye of faith. This document is significant because Catholics are traditionally not known for their knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures. The fact that most parishes have some sort of scripture-prayer group is a direct result of initiatives like Dei verbum. Finally, Lumen gentium, on the identity of the Church, has helped us realise that it is in the Church that our lives take on meaning, since Christ works in and through the Church that he established when conferring the keys to St Peter.
What future do you see for ecumenical dialogue?
The issues that surround the divisions between Catholics and Orthodox are multi-layered and complex. Some churchmen, such as Bishop Gerhard Muller, who works a lot in this field, sees Catholics and Orthodox as having reached 97% ecclesial unity. This is a bold statement, especially given the challenges of getting millions of Orthodox Christians to accept papal primacy and jurisdiction. What is needed is for us to love each other, for there to be a kind of ‘interior unity’, so that the Holy Spirit will work how and when he sees fit.
Again, the issues are complex. We saw a lot of good work in the Papal Visit to the UK, when the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope prayed together and spoke much of the need for ongoing unity. Again, the Holy Spirit needs to work, and, at a local level, meaningful dialogue is best achieved through prayer rather than through meetings that cover up differences and have the potential of leading to a false irenicism.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to the reunion of Christians?
The biggest obstacle to reunion will be a lack of charity from all parties. As Saint Paul reminds us, “If we live by the truth and in love, we shall grow in all ways into Christ, who is the head by whom the whole body is fitted and joined together, every joint adding its own strength, for each separate part to work according to its function. So the body grows until it has built itself up, in love” (Eph. 4, 15-16). Charity, being an infused virtue, is only something that can be given by God. If all parties pray for each other and pray for greater charity, then the truth will eventually come out. It has taken hundreds of years so far, but there is no reason to believe that God will not succeed in bringing about unity for His “little flock” (cfr Lk 12, 32). We must, however, pray for it.
In summary, what is the importance of Mariology for the church?
Mariology, or the study of Mary, is important in the life of the Church because it helps us remember how important the Mother of God is in the history of salvation. Mariology talks about the veneration (as opposed to the worship) that we give to Mary.
Many people, often of a generally-Protestant persuasion, do not see the veneration of Mary as important. Indeed some see it as offensive. The main reason for the perceived offence is because Mary is seen to detract from the divinity of her Son. He is the unique Mediator with the Father; He is the Saviour; He is the Redeemer. Why pray to anyone else?
The short answer to this question is that Our Lord asks us to have a relationship with His Mother. From the Cross, He tells St John, “Behold, this is your Mother”, after having told Mary to look after the Beloved disciple: “This is your son” (Jn 19,26-27). The Church has always believed that this is an encouragement for all of us to develop a relationship with Mary, conceived without sin.
From a purely psychological point of view it makes sense to venerate Mary. She is the Mother of God. Do we not trust mothers in general? Do not mothers listen to us, help us, direct us? Veneration of Mary is important because it helps us to remember that we are in a communion of trust and friendship not just with Christ, the unique Saviour of the world. He gives us the saints, of whom Mary is the greatest (being His Mother) to help us on our way. Just as we ask family and friends for help on life’s journey, so we seek the help of Mary and the saints to achieve our goal – the will of God and our own personal salvation.
Theologically it also makes sense to venerate Mary. Christ chose to be born of a woman “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4, 4). If we are to be like Christ, then we too need to develop a relationship with him, as “sons in the Son”. His Mother brought Him into the world. In a spiritual sense she brings many more spiritual sons into the world: Christians who want to follow Jesus the Son of Mary.
What steps could the church take to alleviate the shortage of priests?
We must remember that the Church is not a multi-national company with targets to meet and strategies to implement! The shortage of priests is an invitation to prayer for more vocations. The Holy Spirit is looking after the Church, even in the West! As well as prayer, seminaries should be real “seed beds” of formation (the term “seminary” means “seed bed”). A sound formation that involves a solid growth in the life of prayer, some extensive intellectual study in philosophy and theology, the opportunity to have practical experience and varied input to help with the demands of the priestly life, should be incorporated into all seminary programmes. Young people today want challenges. A degree of joyful austerity in the life of priests that they meet provides young men with good role models and perhaps the inspiration to pursue a possible priestly vocation.
Here is a selected series of links that will give more information:
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)