The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest Christian denomination. While many schisms and divisions have given birth to other streams of belief, Catholic teaching has remained more or less consistent for hundreds of years.
The essential beliefs of Catholicism begin with the ancient creeds of the Church. Two creeds, the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, express core Catholic beliefs. Together, they affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, the belief that God is one God in three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They describe the virgin birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The creeds proclaim that Christ will come again and that he will judge both the living and the dead. Baptism, communion, the forgiveness of sins and the unity of the Church are also represented in the creeds.
Catholics believe human beings are born sinful and need to be saved in order to escape eternal punishment for sin in hell. Christ's work on the cross and subsequent resurrection provide the opportunity for Catholics to be saved. Unlike some other streams of Christianity, however, Catholics don't view salvation as an instantaneous event. Instead, salvation occurs throughout the life of faith. It starts at conversion, is expressed through the life of faith and participating in good works and will culminate after death in heaven.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments, administered by the Church and intended as vehicles of God's grace. Baptism is the initiatory rite through which a convert enters the faith. Confirmation recognizes that the Catholic has been taught Christian doctrine and is committed to the Roman Catholic Church. The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, observes the death of Christ by receiving bread and wine. Penance, or Confession, is a process where the Catholic admits to sins before God, repents of that sin, makes restitution or penance and receives absolution or forgiveness from God through the Church. Marriage is the union of a man and woman in the eyes of God. Holy Orders refer to the vows taken by priests, nuns, monks and other clergy. Extreme Unction or Anointing of the Sick is the final rite a Catholic experiences before death.
The institutional Church is the means by which God communicates his grace to humanity in Catholic thought. The Church consists of all baptized Catholics everywhere in the world, as well as those Catholics who have already passed away. Local priests teach and administer the sacraments at a local level. Bishops oversee the activities of the Church in a geographic region. Archbishops and Cardinals minister over greater areas. At the top of the hierarchy is the pope, the Bishop of Rome. Catholics believe the pope is Christ's representative on earth, the head of the Catholic Church and may on occasion speak "ex cathedra," or infallibly.
The Church recognizes the contributions of certain individuals to the advancement of Christianity after their deaths. Catholics believe these saints live now in heaven, and can hear the prayers and watch the activities of the living. Catholics often pray with the saints, asking them to petition God to meet certain needs. Saints aren't worshiped, but rather venerated or honored. Certain saints are associated with specific concerns represented by their earthly ministries. For example, because of his love of creation, Saint Francis is the patron saint of ecology. There are literally hundreds of saints, most of whom were recognized simply by popular acceptance over the centuries. In modern times, saints go through a vetting process called "canonization" before being formally recognized by the Church.
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