Introduction to the Catholic Religion: Beliefs, Practices and History

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The Catholic religion was established in the Mediterranean region during the first century CE by a small group of Jewish men and women, one of several sects which were all bent on reforming the Jewish faith. The word "Catholic" (which means "embracing" or "universal") was first used to refer to the early Christian church by the bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch in the 1st century.

Key Takeaways: Catholic Religion

  • Catholicism is a Christian religion, a reformation of the Jewish faith that follows the teachings of its founder Jesus Christ.
  • Like other Christian religions as well as Judaism and Islam, it is also an Abrahamic religion, and Catholics consider Abraham as the ancient patriarch. 
  • The current head of the church is the Pope, who resides in Vatican City. 
  • There are 2.2 billion Catholics in the world today, 40 percent of whom live in Latin America. 

According to figures from the seat of the church, the Vatican in Rome, there are currently 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today: 40 percent of them live in Latin America.

What Catholics Believe

The Catholic religion is monotheistic, meaning that Catholics believe that there is only one supreme being, called God. The Catholic God has three aspects, known as the Trinity.

The Supreme Being is the creator, called God or God the Father, who resides in heaven and watches over and guides everything on earth. He is known as the lord of heaven and earth, and referred to as almighty, eternal, immeasurable, incomprehensible, and infinite in understanding, will, and perfection.

The Holy Trinity is made up of the Father (God), who has no origin and holds the sole power of creation; the Son (Jesus Christ) of God, who shares the wisdom of the Father; and the Holy Spirit, which is the personification of goodness and sanctity, arising from both the Father and Son.

The legendary Founder of the Catholic Church was a Jewish man named Jesus Christ who lived in Jerusalem and preached to a small group of followers. Catholics believe he was the "messiah," the son aspect of the Trinity, who was sent to Earth and born to redeem those who sin against the true religion. Christ is said to have had a human body and a human soul, identical to other humans except that he was without sin. Important religious events which are said to have occurred in the life of Christ are a virgin birth, miracles he performed during his life, martyrdom by crucifixion, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven.

Significant Historical Figures

None of the individuals named in the Catholic religion as significant or sanctified figures have powers of creation, and as such, they are not to be worshiped, but they can be appealed to for intercession in prayers.

Mary is the name of the human person who was the mother of Jesus Christ, a resident of Bethlehem and Nazareth. She was told by an archangel that she would give birth to Christ as a virgin, and would remain a virgin after the birth. On her death, her body went through the process known as "the assumption," becoming the Queen of Heaven.

The Apostles were the original 12 disciples of Christ: led by Peter, a Galilean fisherman who might have been a follower of John the Baptist first. The others are Andrew, James the Greater, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the Lesser, Jude, Simon, and Judas. After Judas committed suicide, he was replaced by Matthias.

Saints are people who lived an exceptionally holy life, including many martyrs from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, and afterward, are said to reside eternally with God in heaven.

The Pope is the supreme pastor for the Catholic church. The first pope was the apostle Peter, followed by Clement of Rome around the year 96.

Written Records and Authorities

The main religious document of the Catholic religion is the Judeo-Christian Bible, which Catholics believe to be the inspired word of God. The text includes the Old Testament of the Hebrew religion plus the canonical books of the New Testament as they were established in the 4th century CE. Parts of the Bible are to be read as literal truth; other parts are considered poetical expressions of faith and the church leaders define which parts are which.

Canonical law for Catholics emerged from Judaism in the 3rd century CE but did not become universal for the church until the 20th century. Three main works establishing the canon include Didache ("Teaching"), a Syrian document in Greek written between 90–100 CE; the Apostolic Tradition, a Greek manuscript written in either Rome or Egypt in the early 3rd century, and the Didaskalia Apostolorum ("The Teaching of the Apostles"), from northern Syria and written in the early 3rd century.

Commandments of the Church

There are several types of commandments—rules defining ethical behavior—that are included in Catholic dogma. The two major commandments of the Catholic religion are that believers must love God and keep his commandments. The Ten Commandments are the Jewish laws recorded in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy:

  1. I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.

In addition, there are six chief commandments of the Catholic church. A Catholic adhering to the laws of the church must:

  1. Attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
  2. Fast and abstain on appointed days.
  3. Confess sins once a year.
  4. Receive Holy Communion at Easter.
  5. Contribute to the support of the church.
  6. Observe the laws of the church concerning marriage.


The seven sacraments are ways in which bishops or priests intercede with or bring grace from God to ordinary people. These are the rites of baptism; confirmation; first Eucharist; penance or reconciliation; anointing of the sick; holy orders for ordained ministers (bishops, priests, and deacons); and marriage.

Prayer is an important aspect of Catholic life and there are five types of prayer performed by Catholics: blessing, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise. Prayers may be directed to God or to the saints, either individually or as a litany.

The main tenets of the Catholic religion are that 1) God is universal and loves everyone; 2) Jesus Christ came to save all the people; 3) not formally belonging to the Catholic church is objectively sinful, and 4) no one who is sinful makes it into heaven.

Creation Story

The Catholic creation story says that God created the universe out of the void, first starting with the angels. One of the angels (Satan or Lucifer) rebelled and took a legion of angels with him (called Demons) and formed the underworld (Hell). Heaven is where goodness resides; Hell is where evil resides, and Earth is where evil and good are at battle.

The world was created in seven days. On the first day, God created the heavens, earth, and light; the firmament on the second; the grass, herbs, and fruit trees on the third; the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth, the creatures of the air and sea on the fifth, and the creatures of the land (including the first human) on the sixth day. On the seventh day, God rested.

The Afterlife

Catholics believe that when a person dies, the soul lives on. Each soul faces a "particular judgment," that is to say, God determines whether she or he has lived a good life and where she or he should spend eternity. If a person has learned to perfectly love God, her soul will go straight to heaven to enjoy endless happiness. If a person loves God imperfectly, her soul will go to Purgatory, where she will be purified before (eventually) going to heaven. If a person has rejected God's love or commits a mortal sin and dies before repenting, he is condemned to the everlasting torments of hell.

Some doctrines state that there is a fourth state called "limbo" where resides a soul who has not been baptized but has not committed any personal sin.

End Times

The Catholic church believes that Christ will return to earth to save it again, announced by signs such as famine, pestilence, natural disasters, false prophets, wars, the renewed persecution of the church, and the fading of faith. The world will end with a revolt of Satan and his demons ("The Great Apostasy"), a time of great sorrows ("The Great Tribulation"), and the appearance of an Anti-Christ, who will deceive men into believing he is a man of peace and justice.

When Christ returns, the bodies of the dead will be resurrected and reunited with their souls, and Christ will make a final judgment on them. Satan and his Demons and sinning humans will be thrown into Hell; people who belong in Heaven will go there.

Feasts and Holy Days

From the earliest days of the Church, Easter has been considered the central Christian feast. Easter's date is calculated based on the phases of the moon and the spring equinox. Although there are no special rites other than going to church performed on Easter in the west, members of the Eastern Orthodox Church will often recite the Homily of St. John Chrysostom as well. Prior to Easter day is a 40-day period known as Lent, which has several important days and rites.

Next in importance are the festivals at Christmas, including Advent, the 40 days before the celebrated date for the birth of Jesus Christ, as well as events afterward.

Coming 50 days after Easter and 10 days after the Ascension, Pentecost marks the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. For that reason, it is often called the "the birthday of the Church."

History of the Founding of the Catholic Church

The Catholic church is traditionally said to have been founded on Pentecost, the 50th day after its founder Jesus Christ ascended to heaven. On that day, Christ's apostle Peter preached to the "multitudes," people assembled in Rome including Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya belonging to the Cyrenes. Peter baptized 3,000 new Christians and sent them back to their home countries to spread the word.

The period from the Pentecost until the death of the last Apostle is known as the Apostolic Era, and it was during that time that the church went underground because of Roman persecution. The first Christian martyr was Stephen in Jerusalem about 35 CE, about the same time Paul of Tarsus, who would become an important leader in the early church, was converted to Christianity while on the road to Damascus. Early church leaders met at the Council of Apostles and Elders in 49, to discuss how to modify the rules to allow new converts to be admitted, even if they were not Jews, such as lifting dietary and circumcision rules. Paul began his missionary work to Cyprus and Turkey, and he and Peter were executed in Rome.

The 2nd and 3rd centuries saw continuing persecution of Christians by the Romans, who also persecuted other sects including Jewish and Manichean religious groups. The heroic ideal of martyrdom was experienced by men and women, young and old, slaves and soldiers, wives and popes. Not all Roman emperors were uniformly brutal, and during the centuries after Christianity became the state religion, they too practiced persecution of other non-Christian groups.

Establishing Institutions

The first Pope was Peter, although the leaders of the church were not called "pope" until the sixth century—Peter was officially the Bishop of Rome. There is some evidence that after Peter died, a group of bishops supervised the church in Rome, but the second official Pope was Clement in 96. The idea of a monarchical Pope was developed in the eastern part of the church and spread into Rome by the second century. Within 100 years, the control of the Bishop in Rome included regions outside of the city and Italy, through the direct intervention of Pope Stephen I.

Stephen broke the church into regional precincts called dioceses and set up a three-tiered episcopate: the bishops of dioceses, the bishops of larger towns, and the bishops of the three major sees: Rome, Alexandria. and Antioch. Eventually, Constantinople and Jerusalem also became major sees.

Schisms and Change

The most significant changes to the church came after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion in 324 CE, bringing the Christians out of the underground. The Roman Empire was eventually broken up by barbarian invaders, invaders who in turn converted to Christianity. Evangelization and conversion of central and northern Europe spread Christianity into those regions.

Beginning in the early 7th century, the eastern church was threatened by the rise of Islam, although Muslim forces did not take Constantinople until 1453. Christians under the Islamic empire were a tolerated minority; eventually, a schism between eastern and western churches led to the separation of eastern (to be called Orthodox) and western (Catholic or Roman Catholic) churches.

The final great schism affecting the Catholic church was in 1571, when Martin Luther led the Reformation, dividing the church and leading to the emergence of Protestantism.

Difference Between Catholic and Protestant Religions

The differences between the Catholic and Protestant religions were one result of the 6th century Protestant Reformation of the church led by Martin Luther. Major changes Luther pushed for include the reduction in the number of sanctified and significant figures who should be prayed to, publishing the Bible in German (provided in Latin or Greek, it had been only accessible to educated authorities), and the marriage of priests. Luther was excommunicated for his beliefs.


  • Bokenkotter, Thomas. "A Concise History of the Catholic Church (Revised and Expanded)." New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2007. Print.
  • "How many Roman Catholics are there in the world?" BBC News. London, British Broadcasting Company 14 March 2013. 
  • Tanner, Norman. "New Short History of the Catholic Church." London: Burns and Oates, 2011. Print.
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ThoughtCo. "Introduction to the Catholic Religion: Beliefs, Practices and History." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, ThoughtCo. (2023, April 5). Introduction to the Catholic Religion: Beliefs, Practices and History. Retrieved from ThoughtCo. "Introduction to the Catholic Religion: Beliefs, Practices and History." Learn Religions. (accessed June 3, 2023).