With adherents worldwide, Catholicism is one of the world's major religions. It has had a profound impact on Western civilization for two millennia. It is, in a sense, the original form of Christianity, a tree from which the many branches of the Protestant denominations have grown.
Catholicism has had a huge impact on the world. As it has acquired millions of converts, it has also developed doctrines, dogmas, devotions, and a fairly rigid organizational structure. The Church as an institution became a dominant force. Popes and other clergy influenced nations and politics, and politics, in turn, had an impact on the Church.
Catholicism was the religion of medieval Europe, and it influenced the development of European art, architecture, education, and social structures. Though much good came from the Church, it sometimes abused its powers and dominance. The horrors of the Inquisition were visited on dissenters. Religious offices were bought and sold. Superstition and faith grew side by side.
The separation of the Eastern church and the rise of Protestantism as a reaction against abuses in the Church brought many changes, and the Catholic Church also undertook its own reforms. But the Catholic faith continued to grow in the midst of these upheavals. Catholicism spread to other continents and to the New World, where missionaries joined early explorers to bring the faith to all indigenous peoples.
In the last couple of centuries, the Catholic Church has struggled with the sweeping social changes wrought by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of democracy, and a move toward individualism — developments that have, for good or for ill, run counter to Catholic ideology.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Church has resolved to modernize, look outward, reform itself from within, and find more common ground with other Christian faiths. Its emphasis has shifted from hierarchy to community, but the hierarchy still holds firm. The primary dogmas and doctrines remain unchanged, though the atmosphere is more open to healthy debate.
To the Church's credit, it has tried over the past fifty years to look at itself honestly. Recently, it has apologized for some of its past policies and transgressions. The Church also faces ongoing crises in religious vocations and in allegations of sexual abuse among its priests. How it deals with these challenges will influence how it changes in the twenty-first century. If its history is any indication, the current crises will certainly challenge the Church, but they will not damage the bedrock faith of its community.
Why is it important to learn about Catholicism? A working knowledge of this major religion is important for everyone, no matter what his or her religious background. Learning about other religions helps promote respect, tolerance, and cross-cultural and interfaith understanding. Understanding Catholicism means gaining a grasp of the Catholic belief system as well as a deeper insight into world history and modern Western society.
Anyone raised in a Catholic home knows the truth of the saying, “You can take the man out of the Catholic Church, but you can't take the Catholic Church out of the man.” Embodying a theological view of the universe, a belief system, prayers and practices, and a veritable world outlook, Catholicism makes an indelible impression on anyone raised in the faith. The importance of good works, God's immensity, and the mercy of Jesus remain even with those no longer practicing their religion. Many who do lapse return to the Church at critical times in their lives.
For members of the Church, students of the Catholic faith or history, and those contemplating conversion, this book is a user-friendly guide to the essentials of Catholicism — the origins, history, doctrine, sacraments, liturgies, devotional practices, and organizational structure of this major world religion.