To belong to the church one must accept as factually true the gospel of Jesus as handed down in tradition and as interpreted by the bishops in union with the pope. Fundamental in this divine tradition is the Bible, its text determined and disseminated by the church. Adherents must also accept the church as possessing the fullness of revelation, and the church, according to the Roman Catholic catechism, is the only Christian body that is "one, holy, catholic [universal], and apostolic."
The doctrine of apostolic succession is one of the keystones of the Catholic faith; it holds that the pope (the vicar of Christ) and the bishops have in varying degrees the spiritual authority Jesus assigned to his apostles. The voice of the pope, either alone or in conjunction with his bishops in council, is regarded as infallible when speaking on matters of faith and morals taught in common with the bishops (see infallibility). Many features of the traditional teaching (dogma) have been analyzed and restated, by the councils and by great theologians (see council, ecumenical; creed; Thomas Aquinas, Saint; Trent, Council of; Vatican Council, First; Vatican Council, Second).
The chief teachings of the Catholic church are: God's objective existence; God's interest in individual human beings, who can enter into relations with God (through prayer); the Trinity; the divinity of Jesus; the immortality of the soul of each human being, each one being accountable at death for his or her actions in life, with the award of heaven or hell; the resurrection of the dead; the historicity of the Gospels; and the divine commission of the church. In addition the Roman Catholic Church stresses that since the members, living and dead, share in each other's merits, the Virgin Mary and other saints and the dead in purgatory are never forgotten (see church; saint).
The church is seen as having from God a system of conveying God's grace direct to humanity (see sacrament). The ordinary Catholic frequents the sacraments of penance (required at least once a year) and the Eucharist (required once every Easter time; see also sin). The Eucharist is the center of public worship, often embellished with solemn ceremony (see Mass).
Private prayer is also regarded as essential; contemplation is the ideal (see mysticism), and all believers are expected to devote some time to prayer that is more than requesting favors. Different methods of prayer are recommended (see rosary; Saint Ignatius of Loyola; Thomas à Kempis). Self-renunciation is a necessary part of prayer (see fasting; Lent).
The church teaches that the main motive for ethical behavior is the love of God. Nothing that God has created is evil in itself, but evil use may be made of it. The doctrine concerning persons not Catholic is that since God affords each human being light sufficient to attain salvation, all will be saved who persevere in what they believe to be good, regardless of ignorance. Only those will be damned who persist in what they know to be wrong; among these are persons who resist the church when they know it to be the one, true church.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.