ecumenical dictionary



WHERE ONE begins the history of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) is itself a matter of theological judgment, fraught with serious ecumenical implications. Is Roman Catholicism (RC) a post-Reformation phenomenon, or is it the original form of the church?* Is “early Catholicism” to be found already in the New Testament, or is it an entirely post-biblical development? Catholic scholars, even very liberal ones such as Hans Küng, insist that Catholicism is present from the beginning, that the history of the RCC has its starting point within the NT rather than in the post-Reformation period.

If, indeed, one holds that RC is not simply a denomination within Christianity but its original expression, how does one deal with the historical fact that the earliest community of disciples gathered in Jerusalem, not in Rome? Indeed, the see, or diocese, of Rome did not even exist at the very beginning, nor did the Roman primacy.*

For many Catholics, the adjective “Roman” tends to obscure rather than define the reality of Catholicism. For them, the history of the Catholic church begins with Jesus’ gathering of his disciples and with the eventual post-resurrection commissioning of Peter to be the chief shepherd and foundation of the church. Accordingly, it is not the Roman primacy that gives Catholicism its distinctive identity within the family of Christian churches but the Petrine primacy.

For the Catholic tradition, the classic primacy texts are Matt. 16:13-19, Luke 22:31-32 and John 21:15-19. Given their symbolism, the conferral of the power of the keys on Peter suggests an imposing measure of authority.* Yet this authority was not to be exercised in any absolute way, since from the beginning Peter is presented as consulting with the other apostles (see apostolicity) and even being sent by them (Acts 8:14), and he and John act almost as a team (Acts 3:1-11, 4:1-22, 8:14). Nevertheless, the biblical images concerning Peter (fisherman, shepherd, elder, proclaimer of faith in Jesus, rock) continued in the life of the church and were enriched by additional ones: missionary preacher, great visionary, destroyer of heretics, receiver of the new law, gatekeeper of heaven, helmsman of the ship of the church, co-teacher and co-martyr with Paul.

According to tradition Peter was martyred and buried in Rome, the centre of the empire and eventually the centre of the RCC. During the first five centuries the church of Rome gradually assumed pre-eminence among all the churches. It intervened in the life of distant churches, took sides in theological controversies, offered counsel to other bishops on doctrinal and pastoral questions and sent delegates to distant councils. The see of Rome came to be regarded as a kind of final court of appeal, as well as a focus of unity* for the worldwide (“ecumenical”) communion* of churches. The correlation between Peter and the bishop of Rome became fully explicit during the pontificate of Leo I (440-61), who claimed that Peter continued to speak to the whole church through the bishop of Rome.

In the view of some other Christian communities, the RCC has its origin in the Edict of Milan (in 312, also known as the Edict of Constantine), whereby the church, now free from persecution, came to enjoy the status of an imperially protected and favoured religion. Thus we have the term “Constantinian Catholicism”.

By the beginning of the 5th century, German tribes began migrating through Europe without effective control. This movement, somewhat inaccurately called the barbarian invasions, lasted some 600 years. It changed the institutional character of Roman Catholicism from a largely Graeco-Roman religion to a broader European religion. The influence of Germanic culture on Catholicism was especially pronounced in the areas of devotion, spirituality and organizational structure. Church office became more political than pastoral, and imagery for Christ, the church and its leaders became increasingly militaristic.

When, at the beginning of the 8th century, the Eastern emperor proved incapable of aiding the papacy against the Lombards in northern Italy, the pope turned for help to the Franks. This new alliance led to the creation of the holy Roman empire, which began dramatically in 800 with the crowning of Charlemagne. The line between church and state,* already blurred by the Edict of Milan, was now practically erased.

With the collapse of the Carolingian empire, however, the papacy fell into the hands of a corrupt Italian nobility. Only with the reformist pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-85) was the papacy’s reputation restored. Papal prestige was even more firmly enhanced during the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216), who fully exploited the Gregorian teaching that the pope has supreme, even absolute, power over the whole church.

By the middle of the 13th century the classic papal-hierarchical concept of the church had been securely established, and the pope’s power was said to embrace both church and state alike (the so-called two-swords theory). Newly elected popes were crowned like emperors, a practice that endured until suddenly discontinued by Pope John Paul I in 1978. Emphasis on the juridical, over against the communal, aspects of the church did not significantly subside, however, until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The historical bond between the church of Rome and the church of Constantinople came apart through a series of gravely unfortunate and exceedingly complex political and diplomatic manoeuvres, starting with the excommunication* of Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, and culminating in the fourth crusade (1202-1204) and the sack of Constantinople by Western knights. Two attempts at bringing the two sides back together - at the councils of Lyons in 1274 and of Florence in 1439 - did not have lasting results. Indeed, the climate began to change for the better only with the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958, with the Second Vatican Council and then with the historic pilgrimage of Pope Paul VI in 1964 to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem,* the mother church of all churches.

By the beginning of the 14th century, other events had introduced a period of further disintegration of unity, reaching a tragic climax in the Protestant Reformation* of the 16th century (see Protestantism). The confrontation between Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair over the latter’s power to tax the church opened a wide breach between the papacy and the imperial authority. Then there were the scandalous financial abuses during the subsequent Babylonian Captivity of the papacy at Avignon, France (1309-78). There followed a rise in nationalism and anti-clericalism in reaction to papal taxes, and then papal authority itself came to be challenged on theological grounds by Marsilius of Padua and others. Conciliarism rose as a challenge to the prevailing monarchical concept of the church.

The Western schism* of 1378-1417 (not to be confused with the more serious and more enduring East-West schism between Rome and Constantinople) produced at one point three different claimants to the papal throne. The council of Constance (1414) turned to the new principle of conciliarism to end the schism, by asserting that a general council, not the pope, is the highest ecclesiastical authority. One claimant was deposed, a second resigned, and a third eventually died. Martin V was elected on St Martin’s Day, 11 November 1417.

There were other, more immediate causes of the Reformation of the 16th century: the corruption of the Renaissance papacy of the 15th century, the divorce of piety from theology and of theology from its biblical and patristic roots, the negative effects of the Western schism and the rise of the national state - not to mention the powerful personalities of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. The Reformation itself took different forms, so different that one should perhaps speak more precisely of reformations in the plural. The reformers of the right (Lutherans and Anglicans) retained essential Catholic doctrine but changed certain canonical and structural forms. The reformers of the left (followers of Zwingli and the Anabaptists) repudiated much of Catholic doctrine and sacramental life. The reformers nearer to the centre (Calvinists) modified both Catholic doctrine and practice but retained much of the old.

The Roman Catholic response, belated but vigorous, was given at the council of Trent* (1545-63), which was itself part of a broader movement known as the Counter-Reformation, conducted principally under the leadership of Pope Paul III (1534-49). The council proved to be the single most important event in the history of the RCC during the four centuries between the Reformation and the Second Vatican Council. By and large, the post-Tridentine RCC emphasized the doctrines, devotions and institutions that were most directly attacked by the Protestants: veneration of the saints,* Marian piety, eucharistic adoration, the authority of the pope and the bishops (see episcopacy) and the essential role of ordained priests in the sacramental life of the church (see priesthood, sacraments). Other important elements tended to be downplayed precisely because of their favourable emphasis by the Protestants: the centrality of Christ in theology and spirituality; the communal, participatory nature of the eucharist* (“priesthood of all believers”) and the responsibility of the laity* in the life and mission* of the church.

Because of the Reformation, Catholic missionary activity was reduced in those countries where Protestantism began to flourish, but Catholicism was carried abroad by Spain and Portugal, who ruled the seas and who sought new gains for the church to offset losses throughout Europe. Religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits were instrumental in bringing the Roman Catholic faith to India, China, Japan, Africa and the Americas. The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith was established in 1622 to supervise all of these new missionary undertakings.

By the beginning of the 17th century, the church faced another crisis from within. Jansenism, an Augustinian-inspired movement in France that emphasized the corruption of human nature, generated a new form of Catholic life that was excessively rigorous, even puritanical. When Rome moved against Jansenism, many in France saw Rome’s action as a threat to the independence of French Catholicism. Gallicanism, by which this nationalistic reaction was to be known, held that all papal decrees are subject to the consent of the entire church, as represented in a general council. This view was later condemned by the First Vatican Council (1869-70), which declared, against Gallicanism, that the infallible teachings of the pope are irreformable, that is, not subject to the subsequent consent and approval of any other ecclesiastical body or authority, including a national church.

In the 18th century the Enlightenment offered the next challenge to the RCC. Exalting reason at the expense of authority and the natural at the expense of the supernatural, the Enlightenment touched RC primarily in the Catholic states of Germany, stimulating advances in historical and exegetical methods (see exegesis, methods of) and catechetical reform and promoting popular education for clergy and laity alike. Although the Enlightenment did not influence Catholicism (so much of which flourished in southern Europe) as early or as profoundly as it did Protestantism, it did mark the beginning of the end of an unhistorical, classicist Roman Catholic theology.

The French revolution (1789) had a much more immediate and decisive impact on the RCC, bringing about the definitive end of medieval Catholicism. The feudal, hierarchical society of the middle ages was simply swept away. And so was Gallicanism, as the Enlightenment uprooted the clerical system upon which it had been based.

In France and Germany the Enlightenment produced a counter-reaction in the form of Romanticism, a movement that extolled RC as the mother of art and the guardian of patriotism. Thousands of European intellectuals returned to the church with new enthusiasm. With few exceptions (Cardinal Newman’s work being a shining one), RC theology at this time was restorative rather than progressive - restorative not of the biblical and patristic witnesses but of a scholasticism of a generally decadent kind. A rigid traditionalism arose in France, the forerunner of the post-Vatican II movement led by the excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The practitioners and partisans of traditionalist theology were said to look “beyond the mountains” (the Alps) to Rome for papal direction and support, hence the name “Ultramontanism”. The popes of these decades, Gregory XVI and Pius IX, were entirely sympathetic with this new reactionary trend, and nowhere was this papal defiance of modern developments more sharply stated than in the latter pope’s Syllabus of Errors (1864).

The 19th century also witnessed the rapid development of industrialism and of concomitant social problems. Marxism provided one answer to the new challenge, taking advantage of the growing alienation of the workers not only from the fruits of their labour but also from their RC heritage. The church’s response, however belated, came in an encyclical* letter of Pope Leo XIII in 1891, Rerum Novarum, which defended the rights of workers to unionize, to receive a just wage and to work under humane conditions (see encyclicals, social).

By the first years of the 20th century, the RCC faced yet another major problem. A new ecclesiastical movement known as modernism proposed that dogmatic truths (see dogma), as well as truths contained in the Bible, are neither absolute nor unchanging but are affected and shaped by historical conditions and circumstances. Pius XI condemned modernism in 1907, an action that profoundly affected Catholic biblical and theological scholarship until just before the Second Vatican Council. The anti-modernist spirit in the RCC intimidated particularly seminary faculties, but not even bishops were immune from unsympathetic scrutiny. Some of the positions that had once been denounced as modernist, however, were later embodied in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and even in certain decrees of the Roman curia* as they touched upon such controverted topics as the historical truth of sacred scripture and the development of dogma.

The period between the two world wars was especially important for RC, if only because many of the developments occurring then were to find fruition at Vatican II: the liturgical movement,* the biblical movement, the social action movement, the lay apostolate movement, the missionary movement and, finally, the ecumenical movement. The last, however, had the most difficult path to follow, given the negative tone of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Mortalium Animos (1928) and assorted curial directives against any kind of participation by Catholics in ecumenical conferences. But even against this official resistance, pioneering Catholic theologians were ecumenically alive, such as, for example, Yves Congar (see RCC and pre-Vatican II ecumenism).

No other person or event more profoundly affected modern RC, however, than Pope John XXIII (pope 1958-63) and the Second Vatican Council that he conceived and called. His first major encyclical was devoted to the problem of unity, Ad Petri Cathedram (1959), in which he greeted non-Catholics as “separated brethren”, and his last, Pacem in Terris (April 1963), addressed “to all people of good will”, advocated human dignity and freedom as a basis for a world order of peace and justice.

The Second Vatican Council taught, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on Ecumenism,* that the church is the whole people of God* and that it includes non-Catholic Christians as well as Catholics, all united by a common baptism* and a common faith in Jesus Christ and his gospel. Christian unity requires on the part of all sides renewal and reform, both institutional and spiritual. Indeed, the disintegration of Christian unity was a tragedy for which all involved parties must accept blame.

The Council’s landmark Declaration on Religious Freedom declared that no one is to be forced in any way to embrace the Christian or the Catholic faith (see religious liberty), and the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions insisted that God speaks and works also through other religions. The church, therefore, should engage in dialogue and other collaborative efforts with them (see dialogue, interfaith). The Jews, finally, have a special relationship to the church, one that should not be soured by the false belief that the Jewish people bear blame for the death of Jesus (see antisemitism).

Vatican II adjourned in December 1965. The history of the RCC since the Council - through the pontificates of Paul VI (1963-78), John Paul I (1978) and John Paul II (1978-) - has been a story of the church’s efforts to come to terms with the various challenges, opportunities and crises that the Council generated, directly or indirectly. The principal challenge remains the same as it has always been: How can the church be faithful to its historic identity and mission and at the same time adapt itself to each new social, political and cultural milieu?

At the end of the second millennium, the RCC numbered 1045 million persons, or 17% of the world’s population (Annuario Pontificio 2000). Of these millions, 11.4% were in Africa, 10.5% in Asia, 27.8% in Europe, 49.5% in North and South America and 0.8% in Oceania.

As the name “catholic” itself suggests, the RCC is characterized in principle by a radical openness to all truth and to every authentic value (see catholicity). It is comprehensive and all-embracing. It is not linked with any one culture, nation or region. It is as African as it is European, as Slavic as it is Latin, as Mexican as it is Irish.

Every list of “Catholic fathers” or “Catholic mothers” includes the great theological and spiritual writers of the period before, as well as after, the division of East and West and then the divisions within the West. Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa are as much Cathlic fathers as are Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Catholics continue to read Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius and Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux, Abelard and Hugh of St Victor, Aquinas and Bonaventure, Robert Bellarmine and John Henry Newman, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The RCC is open to The Cloud of Unknowing and the Introduction to the Devout Life, to the way of Francis of Assisi and of Bernard of Clairvaux, to Ignatius Loyola and John of the Cross, to Abbot Marmion and Thomas Merton. Catholics are guided as much by the council of Nicea* as by Vatican I, as much by Chalcedon* as by Lateran IV, as much by Trent as by Vatican II. They read Gregory the Great as well as Paul VI, Clement of Rome as well as Leo XIII, Pius XII as well as John XXIII.

The RCC is characterized by a both/and rather than an either/or approach. For the Roman Catholic tradition, it is not nature* or grace* but graced nature; not reason or faith* but reason illumined by faith; not law* or gospel but law inspired by the gospel; not scripture* or Tradition* but scripture as both the product and norm of Tradition; not faith or works but faith issuing in works and works as an expression of faith; not authority or freedom but authority in the service of freedom; not unity or diversity but unity in diversity. Holding this tradition together in creative theological tension are three central Roman Catholic principles: sacramentality, mediation and communion.

Sacramentality. In its classic (Augustinian) meaning, a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. Pope Paul VI provided a more contemporary definition: “a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God”. A sacramental perspective is one that sees the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the immanent, the eternal in the historical. God is present to people, communities, movements, events, places, objects, the world at large, the whole cosmos. The visible, the tangible, the finite, the historical - all these realms are actual or potential carriers of the divine presence. Indeed, for the Roman Catholic it is only in and through these material realities that God can even be encountered. The great sacrament of encounter with God is Jesus Christ,* and the church is the sacrament of encounter with Christ.

For the Roman Catholic the world is essentially good, though fallen, because it comes from the creative hand of God (see creation), and it continues to be sustained by God’s providential presence (see providence). The world, though fallen, is redeemable because of the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ (see redemption). The world, though fractured and fragmented, is capable of ultimate unity because of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.*

Over against this sacramental vision is the view, strengthened by memories of past excesses, that God is so “totally other” that the divine reality can never be identified with the human, the transcendent with the immanent, the eternal with the historical. The abiding Protestant fear is that Catholics take the sacramental principle to the point where they are just short of, if not actually immersed in, idolatry.

Mediation. A kind of corollary of the principle of sacramentality is the principle of mediation. A sacrament not only signifies but also causes what it signifies. For the Catholic, God is not only present in the sacramental action, as an object of faith, but actually achieves something in and through that action (ex opere operato, the council of Trent taught). Thus, created realities not only embody the presence of God, they make that presence effective for others. The encounter with God is a mediated encounter.

Catholicism’s commitment to the principle of mediation is evident, for example, in the importance it has always placed on the ministry of the ordained priest and on the intercessory role of the saints, especially of Mary, mother of Jesus. Again, the Protestant raises a word of caution. Just as the principle of sacramentality edges close to the brink of idolatry, so the principle of mediation moves one along the path towards magic.

Communion. Finally, the RCC affirms the principle of communion: our way to God, and God’s way to us, is not only a mediated but a communal way. The encounter with God is a communal encounter. For the Christian, it is an ecclesial encounter. The word is proclaimed by the church, and we respond within the church.

For this reason the mystery of the church has always had a significant place in RC theology, doctrine, pastoral practice, moral vision and devotional life. The church is the sacrament of Christ, mediating saving grace through sacraments and various ministries. It is the people of God and the Body of Christ, an integral part of the communion of saints. Indeed, it is here, at the point of RC’s understanding of itself as church, that one comes to the heart of the distinctively RC understanding and practice of Christian faith. For in ecclesiology we find the convergence of sacramentality, mediation and communion, which have always been so characteristic of the RCC.

The Protestant again raises a word of caution. If we emphasize too much the principle of communion, we run the risk of endangering the freedom of the individual. If sacramentality can lead to idolatry, and mediation to magic, the principle of communion can lead to a collectivism that suppresses individuality and an authoritarianism that suppresses freedom of thought.

The ecumenical encounter addresses all such concerns. Only through dialogue based on mutual respect can each tradition, including the Roman Catholic, come to know itself better, purify itself of imperfections and distortions, and contribute finally to the fullness of unity for which Jesus prayed.


W. Beinert & F. Schüssler Fiorenza, Handbook of Catholic Theology, New York, Crossroad, 1995 ¦ R.A. Burns, Roman Catholicism after Vatican II, Washington DC, Georgetown UP, 2001 ¦ R.A. Burns, Roman Catholicism after Vatican II, Washington DC, Georgetown UP, 2001 ¦ L. Gilkey, Catholicism Confronts Modernity: A Protestant View, New York, Seabury, 1975 ¦ A. Hastings ed., Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After, New York, Oxford UP, 1991 ¦ M.F. Kohmescher, Catholicism Today: A Survey of Catholic Belief and Practice, New York, Paulist, 1999 ¦ G.A. Lindbeck, The Future of Roman Catholic Theology, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1970 ¦ R.P. McBrien, Catholicism, 2nd ed., San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1995 ¦ R.P. McBrien ed., The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1995 ¦ B. Sesboüé ed., Histoire des dogmes, Paris, Desclée, 1995.

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