What Is Catholicism Like Today?

Article ID: DC170-1 | By: Kenneth R. Samples

The following is an excerpt from article DC170-1, “What Think Ye of Rome?”, from the Christian Research Journal. The full PDF can be viewed by following the link below the article.


Catholicism Today- UNDERSTANDING TODAY’S CATHOLICISM

Some of the more striking features of Catholicism include its imposing size, its vast sphere of influence, its unity, and its contrasting diversity. Gaining an appreciation of each of these characteristics can help us better understand contemporary Catholicism. Size. The size of the Roman church is astounding. Just less than eighteen percent (17.7) of the entire world population is Roman Catholic (a whopping total of over 928 million people, soon to be a billion).2 Additionally, the church is truly universal in scope, having parishes in virtually every major part of the world. There is a significant Catholic presence on every continent, with the possible exception of Asia. The following are some percentages of Catholics in the world: Africa, 13.9; North America, 24.2; Middle (central) America, 86.6; South America, 88.9; Europe, 39.9; Oceania, 26.5; and Asia, 2.7.3 In terms of other religious bodies, the Roman Catholic population is larger than the other two main branches of historic Christianity combined (Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism). There are approximately the same number of Catholics in the world as there are Muslims. The Catholic population in the United States is presently well over 55 million (approximately 22 percent of the U.S. population),4 and by some Gallup estimates may actually be significantly higher.5 By comparison, the second largest Christian denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptists with approximately 14 million members. Catholicism Today- Sphere of Influence. The influence that the Catholic church has had on the world is incalculable. One of Western civilization’s greatest influences has undoubtedly been Roman Catholicism. In many respects, European culture has been directly shaped and molded by events surrounding the Vatican. From the fourth century to the present, Roman Catholic thought has had a momentous influence in the areas of politics, economics, history, science, education, theology, philosophy, literature, art, and numerous other areas of culture. The church has wielded great power over the centuries, often spreading enlightenment and benevolence among humanity, but at some points corruption and tyranny.6 While modern-day Catholicism does not exert the kind of control over Western culture that it did in the high Middle Ages, it is still, as the great Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan put it, “the most formidable religious institution in the history of America and of the world.”7 Evangelicals should be interested in the study of Catholicism if for no other reason than its immense size and vast sphere of influence. This broadly based system of religious and philosophical thought has captured the hearts and minds of untold millions through most of Christian history. Catholicism Today- Unity. The unity of the church is of central importance within Catholicism. The Catholic church is understood to be a union. This oneness is spoken of when Catholics refer to the “four marks of the church”: (1) one, (2) holy, (3) catholic, and (4) apostolic. Ideally, this essential oneness is to be expressed in many aspects within the church: doctrine, ethical teaching, authority, the visible and concrete institution, historical continuity, and sacraments.8 Unquestionably, one of Catholicism’s greatest strengths over the centuries has been its sense of unity and historical continuity. Many converts to Catholicism identify this as their central reason for considering the claims of the Roman church. Catholic apologists frequently try to marshal the argument that it is this oneness that identifies the Roman church as the one true and authentic church of Jesus Christ. And in certain respects the Catholic church has fared better in terms of unity than its rival — Protestantism. However, the Protestant evangelical rejoinder is that they, rather than Rome, are more faithfully unified in authentic apostolic doctrine. Additionally, if we are to take the Catholic argument seriously, then it could be pointed out that the Eastern Orthodox church has remained more consistently unified in certain respects than has the Roman church. Regardless, this strong emphasis on unity within Catholicism has left many non-Catholics with the impression that Catholicism is in actuality a monolith — a church completely uniform in belief and practice and marching to the same tune. Catholicism Today- Diversity. Catholicism has probably never been the strict monolith that outsiders have perceived it to be. However, even 50 years ago it still carried many of the unyielding and inflexible characteristics associated with a monolithic structure. In many respects this era of seeming invariability and immutability came to an end with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). This council truly revolutionized the church.9 It was not so much a revolution in doctrine as in perspective. Vatican II allowed the “wind of change to blow through the church.” This change created an environment that allowed for greater freedom in theology and practice — and a greater tolerance of diversity.10 In times past the measure of being Catholic was submission to the teaching and discipline of the magisterium (official teaching office). Since Vatican II, however, being Catholic may mean many different things. Today the Catholic church is incredibly divergent. Its diversity is actually on the level of that within Protestantism. This diversity is evidenced in the various types of Catholics one finds in the church. While the genus (class) remains Catholic, there are several different species (varieties). Evangelical theologian Kenneth Kantzer calls it “the Catholic montage.”