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Natural Law

What is natural law?

The Catholic Church teaches that natural law consists of those moral principles that are "written and engraved in the heart of each and every man" (Pope Leo XIII, Liberatis Praestantissimum, 1888).

As such, when the Church appeals to natural law, it is not appealing to moral principles that are only recognized by adherents of any particular religion, but rather, it is appealing to moral principles that all human beings have the potential to recognize as true, independent of their religious adherence.


What does the Catholic Church teach about the nature of morality?

Catholicism teaches that morality is objective — that is, there are absolute moral truths. Thus, certain actions can be said to be "intrinsically evil" — that is, morally wrong in all cases, regardless of the circumstances.

The Church rejects the notion of subjective morality, also called moral relativism or simply relativism, which asserts that moral truths are relative and depend, for instance, on the prevailing culture.

Original Sin

What is the Catholic doctrine of original sin?

In Catholicism, original sin can refer either to the first sin (which is attributed to Adam in the Book of Genesis), or to the consequences of that sin, the most severe of which is the loss of sanctifying grace. The Church teaches that all of Adam's descendants inherit these consequences — that is, they are conceived with original sin.

The Church teaches that a person is freed from original sin through the sacrament of Baptism.


What does the Catholic Church teach about Mary, the mother of Jesus? Do Catholics worship Mary?

The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus and remained a virgin throughout her life. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary was born without original sin. The doctrine of the Assumption teaches that at the end of her earthly life, Mary's body was assumed (that is, raised) into heaven.

Style notes:

Catholics do not worship Mary, since worship is reserved for God alone. However, they do venerate her, which means to honor her.

Catholics pray to Mary and other saints to request their intercession. The phrase "pray to," used in the Catholic sense, does not imply worship.

Titles commonly used to refer to Mary are "Our Lady," "the Blessed Mother" "the Blessed Virgin" and "the Virgin Mary."

Natural Family Planning

What is natural family planning? Is it synonymous with the rhythm method?

Natural family planning (NFP) refers to a number of family planning methods that are authorized by the Catholic Church.

Unlike artificial contraception, which actively renders the sexual act infertile, NFP involves abstinence from sexual activity during the fertile period of a woman's cycle (if the couple is attempting to avoid conception) or targeted sexual activity during the fertile period (if the couple is trying to conceive).

Style notes:

NFP is not synonymous with the rhythm method (also called the calendar method); the rhythm method is a form of NFP, but it has been largely replaced by more reliable methods, such as the Sympto-Thermal Method.


What is the Catholic Church's stance on contraception?

The Catholic Church teaches that any attempt to render the sexual act infertile is immoral.

Thus, artificial birth control methods such as condoms or the pill are not permissible.

However, the Church recognizes that there are sometimes well-grounded reasons for wanting to avoid conceiving a child. It therefore condones and recommends natural family planning methods, all of which involve abstaining from sexual activity during the fertile period of a woman's cycle.


What is the Catholic Church's stance on homosexuality?

The Catholic Church makes a distinction between homosexual acts and homosexual desires.

It teaches that homosexual acts are immoral, but that homosexual desires, like all temptations, are not immoral unless they are acted upon.

It further teaches that people with homosexual desires "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2358).

The Church teaches that people with homosexual desires, like all people, are called to practice chastity.

In 2005, the Vatican issued a directive that "the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to Holy Orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture.'"

Closed Communion

Does the Catholic Church practice closed communion?

Yes, the Catholic Church practices closed communion, which means that in general, one must be a member of the Catholic Church to receive Holy Communion.

For related reasons, Catholics are generally prohibited from receiving communion in other churches.

The Church's practice of closed communion is based on its belief that the Eucharist "not only manifests our personal communion with Jesus Christ, but also implies full communion with the Church" (Sacramentum Caritatis, 2007). Thus, non-Catholics and Catholics who are conscious of grave sin but have not received the sacrament of Reconciliation may not receive the Eucharist.


What is the Mass? What happens during it?

The Mass is the principle act of public worship in the Catholic Church, during which the sacrament of Holy Eucharist is celebrated.

The Mass primarily consists of two parts: the Liturgy of the Word, during which passages from the Bible are read, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, during which bread and wine are consecrated by a priest or bishop. Catholics believe that at consecration, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. (See "Transubstantiation" for an explanation of this doctrine.) The consecrated elements — called the Eucharist — are then distributed.

Catholics are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.

Style notes:

Always capitalize "Mass."

Mass is "celebrated," not "said."

The priest who celebrates Mass is called the "celebrant" or "presider." Note: There is some contention about whether the latter term should be used interchangeably with "celebrant" or whether it should only be used to refer to the main celebrant at a Mass with more than one priest concelebrating.

In the Eastern Catholic churches, the Mass is called the Divine Liturgy.

Canon Law

What is canon law? How is it different from civil law?

Canon law is the Catholic Church's body of ecclesiastical rules, regulations and procedures, called canons.

These canons are codified in the Church's Code of Canon Law.

Unlike civil law, which can prescribe penalties such as fines and imprisonment, canon law can only prescribe ecclesiastical penalties, such as excommunication.


Who is the pope? What authority does he have?

The pope is the bishop of Rome and the visible head of the Catholic Church. (Jesus Christ is considered to be the invisible head of the Church.)

The pope is also the head of state of Vatican City.

The Church holds that St. Peter the apostle was appointed the first pope by Christ, and that he and subsequent popes have been given the authority to definitively declare teachings of the Church. (See "Papal Infallibility" for more on this authority.)

Style notes:

The Associated Press stylebook says the term "pope" should be lowercase unless used as a title (e.g. Pope Benedict XVI).

The term "pontiff" can be used interchangeably with "pope."

The term "Holy Father" is also commonly used to refer to the pope.

The term "papacy" refers to the office of pope; the term "papal" is the adjectival form.

The term "papist" is a disparaging term for a Roman Catholic and should not be used.

Consecrated Life

What does the Church mean by the term "consecrated life"?

In the Catholic Church, consecrated life (also called religious life), typically refers to those who have joined religious orders (also called religious institutes, religious congregations or religious communities).

Members of these orders generally live in community under a common rule and take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Style notes:

Members of female religious orders are generally called sisters or nuns. There is a subtle difference between the two terms, so it is best to ask the members themselves whether one term or the other should be used.

Some members of male religious orders may be ordained priests, while others may not be. Various orders use names like "brother," "friar," or "monk" to describe their members; it is best to ask the members themselves which terms should be used.

Death Penalty

What is the Catholic Church's stance on the death penalty?

The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is permissible, but only if there is no other possible way to protect human lives from further harm.

However, Pope John Paul II noted in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae that "as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."


What is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?

The USCCB is a conference of all of the Catholic bishops in the United States and U.S. Virgin Islands.

Its mission is to support the ministry of the bishops, with an emphasis on evangelization.

Style notes:

Statements issued by the USCCB may ordinarily be treated as the official stance of the nation's Catholic bishops.

Eastern Rite

What are the Eastern Rite churches? Are they considered part of the Catholic Church?

The Catholic Church is made up of a number of largely autonomous churches (also called rites), all of which recognize the pope as their head.

These churches can be broadly divided into the Western church (also called the Latin church) and the various Eastern churches, most of which broke away from the Catholic Church around the time of the Great Schism but later ended their schism by recognizing the authority of the pope. Most Eastern Catholic churches have counterparts in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The rites (that is, liturgies and other methods of religious observance) of Eastern Catholic churches differ from those of the Western church.

While Eastern Catholic churches had their origins in specific geographic regions, various Eastern-rite parishes can be found worldwide, including in the United States.


What is chastity? Who is required to be chaste?

Chastity is a virtue that involves the moderation of the sexual appetite.

The Catholic Church teaches that all people are called to be chaste — meaning that they are called to moderate their sexual appetite in accordance with their state in life.

For unmarried people, chastity means not engaging in those sexual activities that are proper to marriage, such as intercourse.

For married people, chastity means that one may engage in sexual activities that are proper to marriage, but only with one's spouse.

Style notes:

Chastity should not be confused with celibacy. While only unmarried people can be celibate, both unmarried and married people can be chaste.


What is celibacy? Who in the Catholic Church is required to be celibate?

Celibacy is the state of being unmarried and chaste (that is, not engaging in sexual activity).

In the Catholic Church, the discipline of celibacy is practiced differently in the Latin/Western Church and in the Eastern Churches.

In the Latin Church, priests and bishops must be celibate. One notable except to this rule is a dispensation sometimes granted to married clergy in Protestant denominations who convert to Catholicism.

In most of the Eastern Churches, a man who is married may be ordained a priest; however, after ordination, a man may not marry (or remarry, in the case of widowers). Bishops are chosen from among celibate priests.

Priests, brothers, sisters and other members of religious orders are required to be celibate in both the Eastern and Western Churches.

Style notes:

Celibacy should not be confused with chastity. While only unmarried people can be celibate, both unmarried and married people can be chaste.

Holy Orders

What is the Sacrament of Holy Orders? Who may receive this sacrament?

Holy Orders is one of seven sacraments in the Catholic Church.

The Church teaches that only baptized men may receive Holy Orders. (For an explanation about why the Church does not confer this sacrament on women, see Women's Ordination.)

When a man receives Holy Orders, he is said to be "ordained."

There are three orders to which a man can be ordained:

1) Episcopate. A person ordained to the episcopate is called a bishop.

2) Presbyterate. A person ordained to the presbyterate is called a priest.

3) Diaconate. A person ordained to the diaconate is called a deacon.

Only bishops may confer Holy Orders.

In the Latin/Western church, priests and bishops must be celibate. In the Eastern Churches, married men may be ordained priests, but priests may not marry after they have been ordained.

Style notes:

The Associated Press stylebook recommends referring to a priest as "the Rev. John Smith," rather than as "Father John Smith."

Similarly, it recommends referring to a bishop, archbishop, or cardinal either by capitalizing their title before their name (preferred) or by preceding their name with "the Most Rev."


Is the Catholic Church a hierarchical church?

Yes, it is.

In the Catholic Church's hierarchy, a priest is subject to the authority of his bishop, and both priests and bishops are subject to the authority of the pope.

Style notes:

Typically, references to "the hierarchy" or to "the institutional church" refer to higher-level Church officials and offices, such as those that comprise the Roman Curia, rather than lower-level Church officials such as parish priests.


What is Reconciliation?

Reconciliation, also called Confession or Penance, is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

During the sacrament, a person (called the penitent) confesses his or her sins to a priest. The priest (called the confessor) then gives the penitent a small penance to carry out and offers forgiveness (called absolution).

Priests are bound by the Seal of Confession to never reveal the contents of a person's confession, under penalty of excommunication, which can be removed only by the pope himself. Various civil governments recognize the confessor-penitent privilege, in the same way that they recognize an attorney-client privilege.

Style notes:

The terms "Reconciliation," "Confession," and "Sacrament of Penance" can all be used interchangeably when referring to this sacrament.


What is the rosary? How is it recited?

The rosary is a one of the best-known Catholic devotional prayers.

It involves the repeated recitation of common prayers, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Doxology ("Glory Be") while meditating on a series of Gospel events.

Traditionally, the rosary consists of a short series of opening prayers, followed by five decades of Hail Marys (10 per decade). Each decade is preceded by an Our Father and followed by a Doxology.

Style notes:

The term "rosary" can be used to refer either to the devotion itself or to the prayer beads that are used to help a person keep track of their progress.

The Associated Press Stylebook notes that the rosary is "recited" or "said," never "read." It is also acceptable to say the rosary is "prayed."


What is Roman Catholicism?

Roman Catholicism is a Christian religious denomination whose adherents believe that the pope, as the bishop of Rome, is the head of the universal Church instituted by Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church is made up of several largely autonomous churches, all of which recognize the authority of the pope.

The Western church, also known as the Latin church, is under the direct jurisdiction of the pope, and it is by far the largest church; the Eastern churches, which are almost exclusively former Orthodox churches that have reconciled with Rome, have their own liturgies and hierarchy, but they too ultimately answer to the pope.

Not all religious denominations that have the word "Catholic" in their name, however, are part of the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, the Independent Catholic and Old Catholic churches are not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.

Style notes:

The Associated Press recommends using the terms "Roman Catholic" or "Roman Catholicism" on first reference, and then using "Catholic" or "Catholicism" in subsequent references.

To avoid confusing readers, reporters should, when referring to denominations with "Catholic" in their names that are not part of the Roman Catholic Church, make it clear that those denominations are not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.


What is the sacrament of Baptism?

Baptism is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. It is the first sacrament a person receives, and the Church teaches that through this sacrament, a person becomes a Christian and enters the Catholic Church.

For the sacrament to be considered valid, the person conferring the sacrament (normally a priest or deacon) must pour water on the person's head and baptize him or her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (that is, the Trinity).

The Church teaches that "baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1257). As for those who die before having the opportunity to be baptized, the Church teaches that God's mercy inspires hope that they, too, may be saved — but it admits that it knows of no other means but baptism to be assured of salvation.

The practice of infant baptism has been practiced throughout Church history.


What is a sacrament?

From the Baltimore Catechism: "A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."

There are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church:

Holy Eucharist
• Confirmation
Holy Orders
• Matrimony
• Anointing of the Sick

Baptism, Holy Eucharist, and Confirmation are called the Sacraments of Initiation and are normally received all at once by adult converts. Yet even though all three are called Sacraments of Initiation, a person only needs to receive the sacrament of Baptism to be considered a full-fledged member of the Catholic Church.

The sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders can only be received once, since they are believed to leave an indelible mark on the person. Thus, when a person converts to Catholicism from another Christian religion after having already been baptized, the person is not re-baptized unless there is reason to believe that the original baptism was invalid.


What is the Eucharist?

Holy Eucharist, also called Holy Communion or the Blessed Sacrament, is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Catholics believe that during Mass, when the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest, they become the body and blood of Jesus Christ (see Transubstantiation for an explanation about this change).

The consecrated elements, either together or separately, are called the Eucharist -- from the Greek word for "thanksgiving."

Style notes:

Catholics may take offense to the Eucharist being referred to as mere bread and wine. It is preferable to use phrasing such as, "the consecrated bread and wine, which Catholics believe become the body and blood of Jesus."

Similarly, Catholics may take offense to the term "wafer" when it is used to refer to what they believe is the body of Christ. It is preferable to use the term "host." However, "communion wafer" is generally unobjectionable when referring to the bread that has not yet been consecrated.


What is the doctrine of transubstantiation?

The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation holds that when the bread and wine are consecrated during the Mass, their entire substance is changed into the body and blood of Christ; however, the appearance (that is, the shape, color, taste, and chemical properties) of bread and wine remains.

These consecrated elements are jointly called the Eucharist, although typically, when the term Eucharist is used, it refers to the host (which Catholics believe is the body of Christ).

Once transubstantiation occurs, the consecrated elements remain the body and blood of Christ even after Mass has ended, for as long as they maintain the appearance of bread and wine.

Women's Ordination

Can women be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church?

No, women cannot be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church.

Several Church documents — for instance, Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Pope Paul VI's 1976 Declaration Inter Insigniores — outline the reasons why the Church does not consider itself authorized to ordain women.

In brief, the documents say that Jesus freely and intentionally chose only men to be Apostles, and that the Church, throughout its history, has considered itself obliged to follow this example by ordaining only men to the ministerial priesthood.

Style notes:

Reporters should be careful to explain, in stories about purported Catholic women's ordination ceremonies, or when referring to women who say they have been ordained as Catholic priests, that the Catholic Church considers such ordinations invalid.

Assuming the publication you're writing for allows each church to be the final authority on who is and who isn't ordained in that church, you likely will want to avoid identifying any woman as a "Catholic priest"; rather, you should use a phrase such as "self-described Catholic priest" that makes it clear that the Catholic Church rejects that description.


What does it mean when a priest is laicized?

Laicization, also called "defrocking," is the permanent removal of priestly responsibilities from someone who has been ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

A priest who has been laicized may no longer licitly represent himself as a priest, say Mass or perform the other sacraments, except in the case of emergencies — such as hearing a dying person's confession.

Laicization should not be equated with "firing" the priest. Priests can be fired — that is, removed from pastoral ministry — without being laicized, and likewise, priests can request laicization for reasons that have nothing to do with misconduct (for instance, to marry).

Style notes:

"Laicize" and "defrock" can be used interchangeably.

Papal Infallibility

Do Catholics believe that the pope is infallible?

Catholics do not believe that the pope's every word or action is infallible. However, in very limited (and, in practice, very rare) circumstances, the Catholic Church teaches that a pope can declare a doctrine to be infallible.

In order for such a papal declaration to be considered infallible, it must be spoken "ex cathedra" — that is, in the official capacity as pope; it must define a doctrine having to do with faith and morals; and the doctrine must be declared definitive and binding on the entire Church.

The Church teaches that ecumenical councils can also declare doctrines infallibly.

Two examples of doctrines that have declared infallible are Pope Pius IX's definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 and Pope Pius XII's definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in 1950.


What is the Magisterium?

The term "Magisterium" refers to the official teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

This authority is exercised by the pope and the Roman Curia, the official administrative body of the Catholic Church.

Style notes

The term "the Vatican" can generally be used in place of "the Magisterium" when referring to the source of an official teaching of the Catholic Church.

Holy See

What is the Holy See?

The Holy See is the official name (in both an ecclesiastic and diplomatic sense) of the Vatican.

In the Catholic Church, a "see" is the particular geographic jurisdiction of a bishop. The term "Holy See" refers to the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome (that is, the pope).

Style notes:

The term "the Vatican" can usually be used in place of "the Holy See."

L'Osservatore Romano

What is L'Osservatore Romano?

L'Osservatore Romano is a newspaper published by the Holy See.

Although it sometimes features editorials by Church officials and publishes Church documents after they are released, L'Osservatore Romano is not synonymous with "the Vatican" — a term that is generally assumed to refer to the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

Style notes:

Reporters (and headline writers) should identify content published in L'Osservatore Romano as from "the Vatican newspaper" rather than simply "the Vatican," and they should make clear somewhere in the story that the content and editorial opinions of L'Osservatore Romano do not necessarily reflect that of the Magisterium.
Reporter's notebook photo by Enrevanche