Roman Catholic Church: History, doctrines, and beliefs

Catholic cathedral

The Roman Catholic Church is a historic religious institution, with a total membership of over a billion and a worldwide distribution. It is the largest Christian church community. Therefore, it is especially important to study the history and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church in depth.

Where did the Roman Catholic Church come from?

Originally originating in apostolic times, the Roman Church, which later became the Roman Catholic Church, was established on the basis of the early Christian communities in Rome, although the exact details of the original missions are unknown. St Paul wrote an epistle to the Roman church, and the Book of Acts also mentions his actions in Rome. Early Christian writers testified to St Peter's ministry in Rome, where, according to legend, he became the first bishop. Because of their association with Peter and Paul, and Rome's status as the capital of the western Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome gained prominence among Christian leaders, and his authority was recognised by other church leaders. After the legalisation of Christianity, the pope and his representatives played a key role in doctrinal decisions. The Roman Church pursued a conservative policy and avoided theological controversy, often differentiating itself from the Eastern Churches. The pope's increasing influence paralleled the decay of the Roman Empire, with the Western Church occupying empty institutional positions. Claims to power by subsequent popes deepened the schism between the Western and Eastern churches.

The Great Schism of 1054

The Great Schism of 1054 led to the division of the Christian Church into the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Eastern Eastern Orthodox Church due to disagreements over important doctrinal issues. The disputes centred on the role and authority of the pope and also included the issue of filioque in the Nicene Creed. The Western tradition of Catholicism holds that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, whereas the Orthodox faith emphasises that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father.

The divide in the Roman Catholic Church was repeated during the Reformation some five hundred years later. Protestant reformers such as Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians, as well as radical reformers like the Anabaptists, disagreed with the Pope and his supporters on issues of authority, interpretation of Scripture, doctrine of salvation, and sacramental practice. In addition, Protestants favoured translating worship services and the Bible into the language of the people, while the Roman Catholic Church insisted on retaining the Latin language.

Great Schism

Catholic and Protestant biblical canon

Roman Catholic versions of the Bible include all the books present in Protestant editions, but also recognise the apocryphal books as part of the canonical texts. Protestants, on the other hand, regard these books only as historical and teaching materials.

Important central Catholic beliefs to know

Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants share many of the core beliefs of Christianity, especially regarding the Trinity and the Incarnation as defined in ancient ecumenical councils. Roman Catholics, however, have several key differences.

  • Firstly, they believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church. This is due to the belief that the Pope occupies the throne of Peter and is the only substitute for Christ on earth. This status has meaningful implications for their views on pastoral leadership, politics, sacramental ministry, and Scripture.
  • Roman Catholic theologians uphold the universality of their church's doctrine in several ways. They adhere to an ancient oral tradition that existed alongside the written tradition of Scripture. The two traditions interacted together, with the oral tradition providing the definitive interpretation and application of biblical texts. Roman Catholics believe that Scripture alone is not sufficient guidance and authority in matters of salvation.
  • In addition, Roman Catholics believe in purgatory, an afterlife state in which a Christian's sins are purified through suffering. This involves punishment for sins committed during earthly life and signifies a process of sanctification that continues after death until perfect holiness is achieved. Eventually all those in purgatory ascend to heaven.
  • Roman Catholics hold to the doctrine of a ‘treasury of merit’ where the spiritual goods attained by Jesus Christ and the saints are stored. It is a kind of spiritual ‘bank’ to which one can turn for help. They do not regard themselves as worshippers of the saints, but offer them veneration (dulia), while retaining worship of God alone (latria). Protestants often regard this with distrust. During the Reformation, one of the controversies was the claim of the popes that they had special access to the treasury of merit. They offered indulgences, which they claimed could reduce the temporary punishment for sins and even temporarily shorten the time in purgatory. Although indulgences are not sold now as they once were, they are still given out.
  • In addition, the Roman Catholic Church requires clergy to be celibate, as decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). The same council made private confession to a priest at least once a year and annual communion mandatory.
  • Transubstantiation, a doctrine approved by the same council, asserts that during the Eucharist the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, retaining only the incidental characteristics of bread and wine.
  • Roman Catholics also believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and her bodily Assumption. They believe that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life and that her body was taken to heaven after her demise.

What is the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

A Catechism is a text that briefly explains or expounds the basic principles of Christian doctrine, often used in teaching. The Catholic Catechism (CCC), released in 1992 under Pope John Paul II, is an important reference for understanding the current official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. It has undergone several updates and revisions, including Pope Francis' 2018 revision of the paragraph on the death penalty, which has generated much discussion.

What the Pope does

How leadership is organised in the Catholic Church

As in other Christian denominations, the governance of the Roman Catholic Church is based on the episcopal model, which recognises three levels of pastoral ministry: bishops, priests and deacons. Bishops have special authority and oversight, especially over other clergy. The hierarchy in the church is particularly centralised, and of course the Pope is the highest bishop.

Roman Catholics hold to the doctrine of papal infallibility, which was officially declared in 1870. According to this doctrine, the pope is infallible in matters of doctrine and morals every time he speaks ex cathedra. Such instances are quite rare, and this does not mean that Catholics believe that everything the pope says is infallible. He is considered infallible only when he speaks as the universal shepherd of God's Church.

The word ‘Catholic’ literally means ‘respecting the whole’ and refers to the universal Church - all Christians who are part of the Body of Christ. The term is usually used to describe common Christian beliefs. The term ‘Roman Catholic’ indicates a more specific tradition and structure of the church.

  • The Roman Catholic Church is known for its social positions, especially regarding the family. It is strictly against abortion and the use of artificial contraceptives. Instead, couples are encouraged to follow natural family planning (NFP).
  • Roman Catholicism recognises seven sacraments that are considered important means to the Christian life. These sacraments include baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation (penance), anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination.
  • Traditional Roman Catholic theology distinguishes between mortal and venial sins. Venial sins are considered mild sins that do not lead to separation from God, while mortal sins are considered grave and can lead to hell if not forgiven before death.
  • As in other Christian traditions, in the Roman Catholic Church, men and women are allowed to enter monasticism. There are several orders of monks, nuns, and sisters who fulfil various important functions in the life of the church.
  • Throughout history, the Roman Catholic Church has had different political positions and approaches. The tone of official documents can vary greatly depending on when they were written. Sometimes the pope makes loud statements about his political authority, at other times the church is more modest in its actions and relationship to civil authority.

Protestants, Anabaptists, and Eastern Orthodox Christians may have different views of Roman Catholicism. In relation to the Trinity, the Incarnation and Christian morality, they may recognise the importance of and similarities with Roman Catholic doctrine. However, some believe that Roman Catholic doctrine on grace, salvation, and authority may contain errors that are divisive.

Early Protestant documents included ‘anti-Christ’ language regarding the Pope, particularly because of disagreements on matters of faith and authority. However, it is helpful for any Christian to know the doctrine and history of the Roman Catholic Church, as it has played a significant role in the history of Christianity and has a significant influence in the world.


Q: When and where did the Roman Catholic Church originate?
A: The Roman Catholic Church originated in the 1st century AD in Rome, based on early Christian communities.

Q: How does the Great Schism of 1054 distinguish the Roman Catholic Church?
A: The Great Schism of 1054 led to the division of the Christian Church into the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church due to disagreements over doctrinal issues, including the role of the Pope and filioque in the Nicene Creed.

Q: What are the basic doctrines held by the Roman Catholic Church?
A: Roman Catholics believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, salvation through faith and grace, and the seven sacraments: baptism, eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation (penance), anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination.

Q: What is papal infallibility?
A: Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church which states that the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals.

Q: What are the main differences between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism?
A: Roman Catholics and Protestants share many common beliefs, but differ in their views on the role of the Pope, the authority of tradition, salvation, and the sacraments.


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