Reporting on Catholicism

A painting of Mary and a young Jesus. Dreamstime photo
A painting of the Virgin Mary and a young Jesus. Photo by Sergieiev via Shutterstock

The Roman Catholic Church, established in the first century, is one of the oldest Christian traditions. One of the primary tenets of Catholicism is the belief in apostolic succession, which holds that the chosen successors of the Twelve Apostles have been granted spiritual authority passed down through the ages from Jesus Christ. This chain of power confers the pope with primacy and authority over church leaders and Catholic communities. Catholicism is the largest Christian tradition in the world. This site provides journalists with background information on Roman Catholicism and a brief guide to covering Roman Catholicism in the United States.



Catholicism grew out of the notion that an unbroken line of apostolic succession dating back to Jesus’ original disciples (in particular, the apostle Peter) grants legitimacy to the church’s bishops and priests, as well as authority to the pope. 

In 313 CE, the Emperor Constantine’s signing of the Edict of Milan — a letter proclaiming religious tolerance — and his subsequent conversion to Christianity officially gave rise to the church. The church then began to consolidate power, streamline beliefs and tax unincorporated pagan groups until some semblance of mainstream Christianity emerged. In 380, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Roman Catholicism didn’t emerge as a distinct brand of Christianity until Protestant denominations split off and developed their own distinctive beliefs and practices.

Detail of the monument to Roman emperor Contantine I, in front of San Lorenzo Maggiore Basilica. Image by Giovanni Dall’Orto

While the title of pope serves to identify the highest authoritative role in the Roman Catholic faith, the title pope is also used within another branch of Christianity — The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt.

Roman Catholics, American Catholics

During Pope John Paul II’s tenure from 1978 until his death in 2005, the number of Catholics in the United States grew about 30 percent, from just under 50 million to more than 65 million. That number had risen to 77 million by 2013. Despite these periods of growth, American Catholics continued to grow more restless, and even disillusioned. Experts say the early years of John Paul’s pontificate were marked by controversies and tensions with the American hierarchy and church leaders in the United States. Vatican efforts to rein in bishops and theologians who were seen as too liberal led to many headlines and books on the growing split between Rome and the United States. But experts say Pope John Paul’s great personal popularity largely overshadowed those conflicts for the average Catholic, and as he grew older American Catholics also tended to see him as an avuncular presence, more than as a taskmaster.

Pope John Paul II waves to the crowd fathered at Rio de Janeiro's Flamengo Embankment for the Conclusion of the Second World Meeting with Families in 1997.
Pope John Paul II waves to the crowd gathered at Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo Embankment for the Conclusion of the Second World Meeting with Families in 1997. Creative commons image by Jose Cruz

However, when the clergy sexual abuse scandal hit in 2002, the pope’s own popularity took a hit, as well as his track record. Several bishops were removed — including his point man in the United States, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston — and the American church he largely shaped suffered a major crisis of credibility. Experts say the abuse crisis not only tarnished John Paul’s image, but it also exposed pre-existing rifts between what the pope preached and how Catholics behaved on a wide variety of issues, from birth control to abortion to gay marriage and other matters. Moreover, they say the scandal and resulting disillusionment with the institutional church that John Paul championed also contributed to a sense that Catholics would continue to go their own way on moral questions.

Example coverage

“Pope’s U.S. visit a chance to mend fences with conservatives” — Jan. 16, 2015, Scott Malone, Reuters

Pope Francis has electrified Roman Catholics in the United States with the open, accepting tone he has brought to the role, and his first visit later this year is expected to draw more than a million followers eager to set eyes on him.

The leader of the 1.2 billion-member church will also face a challenge in improving relations with conservative U.S. Catholics, who have expressed dismay at his shift in focus away from issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, which the church has long opposed but Francis contends need not obsess about. — Read more.


Vatican II

Stemming from a long history of religious councils, the Second Vatican Council, commencing in 1962 and ending in 1965, is viewed as a historic modernization of the Roman Catholic Church. Traditionally called under times of crisis, this council of Vatican II was convened under Pope John XXIII in peace time not for the specific intention of changing doctrine, but for the hope of reflecting on how the Catholic Church related to the modern world. The council was closed by his successor, Pope Paul VI, following the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963.

Major changes made under Vatican II include the changing of Mass language from Latin to a country’s native language(s), the switching of the altar’s orientation so that a priest now faced his parishioners during the Eucharist, and the allowance of Catholics to pray with those of other faiths. The council was also known for its role in recognizing and exhibiting acceptance and tolerance towards other faiths — notably Judaism and Islam — as well as other Christian denominations outside of Catholicism. The four sessions of Vatican II resulted in 16 religious documents implementing changes.

While Vatican II was widely praised for its acceptance of the modern world and other faiths, critics voiced discontent with the council’s failing to reform the concentration of power within the Roman Curia and the pope.

Example coverage

“Pope Francis declares two new saints, plays up Vatican II” — April 27, 2014, Patrick J. McDonnell and Tom Kington, Los Angeles Times

Pope Francis proclaimed sainthood Sunday for a pair of former pontiffs, John Paul II and John XXIII, thrilling multitudes who gathered in St. Peter’s Square and elsewhere to witness the double canonization.

It was the first time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church that two ex-popes were canonized in the same event.

Although the focus was on the late pontiffs, the elaborate ceremony and the global attention it generated seemed likely to provide another boost for the soaring reputation of Francis. The Argentine pope, who was elected last year, has become extremely popular with the faithful. — Read more.


Saint Anthony the Great is considered the founder of Christian monasticism. He was born ca. 251 in Herakleopolis Magna, Egypt and died in 356. Public Domain image via IconAndLight
Saint Anthony the Great is considered the founder of Christian monasticism. He was born ca. 251 in Herakleopolis Magna, Egypt and died in 356. Public domain image via IconAndLight

Derived from the Greek word monos, meaning “single” or “alone,” monasticism is commonly associated with devotees living a religious life led in contemplative solitude. Today, monasticism can be found not only within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, but also in other branches of Christianity, as well as within Buddhism. Historically, Christian monasticism began in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts in the fourth century under Saint Anthony, who exemplified a hermit religious life. However, as monasticism began to grow and move west, different orders — communities of devotees who follow the specific teachings or rules of a particular theologian — began to place monasticism within both an urban and communal setting. Within Catholicism, the monastic life is open to both men and women. Men receive the title monk if the have made a solemn vow to poverty, chastity and obedience and are a priest or deacon, or if they are a religious brother  who has not been ordained. Women may be referred to as nuns when they have made a solemn vow and live in a confined “cloistered” life, while the title “sister” denotes a woman in a religious congregation that is not cloistered and takes simple vows, according to the Catholic Education Research Center.

As of 2012, there were approximately 55,045 sisters and 4,518 brothers (this does not include religious-order priests and deacons) in the United States and more than 500 religious orders, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2012 report. Notable Catholic orders include the Jesuit, Carmelite, Benedictine, Franciscan, Trappists and Dominican orders.

Example coverage

“Monastic life could make surprise comeback in age of Twitter, Pope Francis aide” — July 5, 2014, John Bingham, The Telegraph

Monasticism could make an unlikely comeback because of pace of life in the age of Twitter, a leading aide to Pope Francis has suggested.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Vatican’s evangelism department, said the constant presence of modern communications could make the ancient idea of a life of contemplation more attractive to people in the 21st Century than in the past.

The Archbishop was speaking as he arrived in Birmingham to join hundreds of young British Roman Catholics considering a call to a life as monks, nuns or priests at a weekend retreat to explore their vocation.

It follows signs of a revival of interest in the monastic life in recent years. — Read more.


What one businessman learned about success from Trappist monks

By Amanda Greene, Religion News Service

July 17, 2014

(RNS) Driving through the Spanish moss-draped gates of the Mepkin Abbey Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, S.C., businessman August Turak felt as if he had just lost a whole lot of weight.

Not physical weight, but the weight of emotional and spiritual burdens.

After a corporate career with companies like MTV, Turak sold two successful software companies for $150 million, but shattering his ankle in a skydiving accident “brought me face to face with my own mortality.”

“I was one of those people who was very successful but felt empty inside,” said Turak, who became a lecturer at Duke University.

One of his students suggested he might find a way to fill that void at Mepkin.

Something in him changed during that first visit 17 years ago, and he’s returned three or four times a year from his home in Raleigh, N.C., wearing a gray smock garment and working alongside the monks.

With each visit he became more fascinated with how the elderly monks conduct their businesses. This month, Turak released his book, “Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity.”

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What questions were you asking yourself as you watched the monks work?

A: I was thinking how do a couple of guys at the average age of 70 years old, who only work four hours a day and do so in silence, how do they manage to run 3,200 acres of land, a gift shop, library, conference center, an egg business, a timber business, a fertilizer business and a oyster mushroom business?

When people are passionately committed, they can do miraculous things. So I noticed that these guys are passionately committed to the high, overarching mission of selflessness, of something bigger than themselves.

Q: So can you share a few of the key secrets you learned?

A: Selflessness. When people feel like they’re on a mission from God, they accomplish incredible things and with a sense of satisfaction. We may think we want selfishness, but we’re happiest not when indulging but when we’re being selfless.

The real secret to the monks’ success was they were not in business at all. Great leaders are like that. The less I cared about making money, the more I make. Once people realize or sense that you’re not in it for yourself, they begin to trust and turn to you, and you have the power to achieve your goals and your mission. The amount of trust you gain is directly proportionate to how selfless you are in business.

The monks of Mepkin Abbey and a few monastic guests do a "Cloister Walk," where the abbot leads the community from the noon service over to the refectory for lunch. RNS photo courtesy of William C. Carter III
The monks of Mepkin Abbey and a few monastic guests do a “Cloister Walk,” where the abbot leads the community from the noon service over to the refectory for lunch. RNS photo courtesy of William C. Carter III

Q: You say the way the monks run things could apply to any business in America. Can you name a few that operate similarly?

A:  I have a problem with Nike’s mission, “Just do it.” There’s not a moral component to Nike’s mission. For me, a mission has got to be worthwhile. It’s got to be higher. What people today are looking for is a noble mission.

It’s not a trade-off that the more good you do, the less money you’ll make. What Warren Buffett proves, what the monks prove, is the more ethically you behave, the more you grow and better you do.

Q: Everyone talks about finding work/life balance. How do the monks do it?

A: The monks don’t worry about balancing work and prayer; they are equally important. Work is a form of prayer, and prayer is a form of work. I found that one of the best praying times I had was while I was at work, standing at an assembly life.

Your ordinary life is your spiritual life. Every single challenge can be an opportunity for transformation if you look at it in the right way. You serve God through work and serve God through prayer.

Q: How does this philosophy of integrating prayer with work compare with prosperity gospel?

A: To me, this is the thing I’m always fighting against. The problem is that most people think that if I help this old lady up the street, I better buy a lottery ticket because I’m sure to win. But that philosophy short-circuits grace. I’m a grace guy, not a luck guy.

You have to give because that’s where you get your true joy and pleasure. As long as you’re trying to use God like a lucky rabbit’s foot to make you better in business, you’re not going to make it.

Q: Did all of these trips make you want to become a monk?

A: I do not have a vocation to become a Trappist. I am not a contemplative. I like to teach and talk, and if I would stick with the Catholics, I would be a Jesuit. Teaching and working with other people is far more my calling than being a contemplative.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to find someone who wants to dedicate themselves to religious principles. They seem to get a decent amount of guys, but they stay a year or two and then leave. In our society, that kind of life is just too difficult for many people. They’re like a beacon shining on the hill for the rest of us. 

Core beliefs


Roman Catholics believe in Christ’s divinity, the Holy Trinity and the Bible. They also believe in the divine authority of the pope, the power of the saints to help believers, the concepts of Purgatory (an intermediate place of afterlife purification) and transubstantiation (the belief that blessed bread becomes Christ’s actual body during Eucharist).

Father Jason Lody baptizes a young member of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Fairfax, Va. RNS photo courtesy of St. Anthony of Padua
Father Jason Lody baptizes a young member of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Fairfax, Va. RNS photo courtesy of St. Anthony of Padua

Catholics celebrate Eucharist weekly in a formal liturgy called Mass. Unlike Protestant and Orthodox ministers, Catholic priests take vows of celibacy, which are rooted in the early monastic orders. Other distinctive Catholic practices include the observance of seven sacraments (religious rituals), the veneration of saints and the use of rosary beads in prayer.


The Roman Catholic Church celebrates seven sacraments that serve as sacred ceremonies of recognizing God’s presence within a believer’s life. While some sacraments form core rites of passage within the Catholic faith, such as baptism or confirmation, others, such as the sacraments of holy orders or anointing of the sick, are received by only some believers depending on life experience. Moreover, while some sacraments, such as baptism or reconciliation generally occur at a particular age and in a particular sacramental order, other sacraments may be received at any stage of life. 

The seven sacraments are:


Baptism marks a believer’s welcoming into the Catholic Church and is signified through blessing by water and holy oil. Baptism is the first sacrament received, and for most Catholics, baptism occurs at infancy. This rite signifies the absolution of original sin and membership into the church.


Also identified as “penance” or “confession,” this sacrament marks the oral acknowledgement of sins and request for forgiveness made by a believer to a priest. As believers confess their faults, priests are able to abolish these sins, serving as voice of Christ’s infinite forgiveness.


The Eucharist is celebrated in recognition of Jesus’s Last Supper in which Catholics receive the body and blood of Christ transformed from the bread and wine brought to the alter at every Mass. Dissimilar to other Christians, Catholics believe that in this sacrament, they receive the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The eucharist and wine sits in the back of the church at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. RNS image by Sally Morrow
The eucharist and wine sits in the back of the church at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. RNS image by Sally Morrow


The sacrament of confirmation marks the renewing of commitment and deepening of a relationship with God experienced at baptism. Celebrated by matured Catholics generally prior to adulthood, confirmation signifies the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit – one entity of the Holy Trinity – in a believer’s life.


The sacrament of holy matrimony marks a believer’s formal and public union to a spouse. The sacrament celebrates the love a husband and wife offer one another, which Catholics believe mirrors the selfless love of God.


The sacrament of holy orders marks the commitment of one’s devote service to the Catholic Church through ordination as a bishop, priest or deacon.


Previously called last rites or extreme unction, the sacrament of anointing of the sick offers healing to those experiencing grave physical, mental or spiritual sickness.

Example coverage

“Catholic Parish located in Cy-Fair will use Latin sacraments” — Jan. 20, 2015, Lindsay Peyton, Houston Chronicle

Designs are in the final phases for a new Catholic parish in the Cy-Fair area devoted exclusively to the traditional Latin rite sacraments from the pre-Vatican II 1962 missal.

Regina Caeli or “Queen in Heaven,” Parish, will be the first such parish in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in more than 40 years.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Dec. 20, and after the celebration, the first phase of construction began – preparing the 40-acre tract of rural property in northwest Houston near Fairbanks North Houston Road. — Read more.

Holy days of obligation

A Holy Day of Obligation is a feast day particularly honoring God, the Blessed Virgin Mary or additional saints, that Catholics are duty-bound to celebrate through attending Mass and observing the feast day as a day of rest. Honored in a similar capacity as Sunday — the Sabbath — Holy Days are often celebrated throughout the week. 

While church law has identified 10 Holy Days of Obligation, observation of these Holy Days varies from country to country as set by the country’s conference of bishops in agreement with the Holy See. 

The United States recognizes six Holy Days of Obligation: Solemnity of Mary (Jan. 1), Solemnity of the Ascension (Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter), Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Aug. 15), Solemnity of All Saints (Nov. 1), Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) and the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Dec. 25).


While sin is a common word in Christian vernacular, within the Catholic tradition, sin is believed to be the transgression of God’s laws, disconnecting believers from God’s love and existing in differing severity. Catholics recognizes two types of sin, signifying the gravity of the fault — mortal sin and venial sin. 

Mortal sin is the graver violation of God’s law and includes three aspects: a believer must have defied one or more of the Ten Commandments, he or she must have done so in full awareness and done so with deliberate intention. Examples may include murder, adultery or slander. 

Venial sin is a slighter sin that hurts a believer’s relationship to God but may have been performed out of habit or without conscientiousness. Examples may include petty gossip, fighting with a relative or laziness. Both mortal and venial sins may be absolved through the sacrament of reconciliation. Catholics believe that a believer is unable to receive the sacrament of communion if they contain unconfessed mortal sins.

Example coverage

“Pope Francis defends church’s opposition to artificial contraception” — Jan. 16, 2015, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, The Guardian

Pope Francis issued a condemnation of liberal views on sexuality and birth control on Friday, telling an audience in the Philippines that today’s families were under threat from efforts to “redefine family” and a culture that lacked “openness to life”.

In advance of a vast rally on Sunday that could draw as many as 6 million people, the pope called on families to be “sanctuaries for respect for life”, and praised the church for maintaining its opposition to modern birth control, even if all Catholics could not live by such rules. — Read more.

3 ways the Vatican could allow divorced Catholics back to Communion

By David Gibson, Religion News Service

Oct. 13, 2013

(RNS) While the first months of Pope Francis’ pontificate have been marked by his attention to the poor and his “Who am I to judge” attitude on homosexuality, his pledge to tackle the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics could have the biggest impact for Catholics in the pews, especially in the U.S.

The current policy has caused what some call a “silent schism,” and bishops around the world concede that the ban has alienated untold numbers of Catholics and their families.

“I think this is the moment for mercy,” Francis told reporters when asked about remarried Catholics during a wide-ranging news conference on the plane back to Rome from Brazil in July.

Like the gay issue, Francis seems to favor a more pastoral approach to the equally perplexing  question of “invalid” marriages — couples who remarry outside the church without getting an annulment, or those who do not get married in church in the first place.

In both cases, those Catholics are ineligible to receive Communion, which is the central sacrament of Catholic practice. For years, efforts have tried to convince Rome to try something new — appeals that the new pope seems ready to heed.

“We are on the way towards a deeper matrimonial pastoral care,” Francis said. “This is a problem for many people.”

In the U.S. alone, out of a total of nearly 30 million married Catholics, some 4.5 million are divorced and remarried without an annulment, according to Mark Gray at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Moreover, the number of Catholics marrying in the church and the number of annulments are steadily declining, which means that a growing number of Catholics are in “irregular” marriages and are technically barred from receiving Communion.

In North America and Europe, in particular, bishops have pushed the Vatican to at least discuss some reforms, but they have always been rebuffed. Some dioceses have initiated their own reforms. In the latest effort, the German Archdiocese of Freiburg recently announced policies aimed at allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion after prayer and consultation with a priest.

But when the Vatican announced in early October that Francis was calling hundreds of bishops to Rome next fall to discuss this issue and others related to the family, it also asked that individual dioceses not freelance their own solutions in order to avoid “generating confusion.”

So can this knotty problem finally be resolved? And how? Here are three possibilities that have emerged:

One: The “Orthodox Option”

Francis himself cited the practice in Eastern Orthodox churches of allowing, for various reasons, a second or even third marriage — and thus access to Communion — while still considering the first marriage sacramentally valid. Adopting that practice would require a change in Catholic practice but it could help avoid what is now a pastoral roadblock.

“There would be a sympathetic view among most laity, clergy and bishops for something like that,” Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton told The Times of London.

Two: Let your conscience be your guide

Catholics have always had recourse to what is called the “internal forum,” that is, following their conscience on whether they are eligible to receive Communion even if they’re in an “irregular” marriage.

The number of Catholic weddings in the U.S. has declined during the past several decades. About 29.9 million married Catholics lived in the United States in 2013. Four and a half million had been remarried without an annulment, and only about 0.4 million Catholics were granted an annulment, according to statistics.
The number of Catholic weddings in the U.S. has declined during the past several decades. About 29.9 million married Catholics lived in the United States in 2013. Four and a half million had been remarried without an annulment, and only about 0.4 million Catholics were granted an annulment, according to statistics.

This is not intended as a “get out of jail free” card and should involve “a moral judgment of conscience that calls for serious personal reflection over a period of time,” as the Rev. James A. Coriden, a canon lawyer at the Washington Theological Union, put it in a detailed analysisin Commonweal magazine last year.

But if next October’s Vatican synod highlighted the “internal forum” option, church experts say it could go a long way toward teaching Catholics how an appeal to conscience can work, and could help remarried Catholics take part in church life without feeling like second-class citizens.

Three: Streamline the annulments process

Annulling a marriage in a church court can be a tortuous and expensive process that varies so widely from country to country that it raises questions of basic fairness. Indeed, two-thirds of the nearly 55,000 annulments granted by church tribunals around the world each year are in the U.S., even though American Catholics account for just 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population.

As Francis himself said, the process for annulments must be reviewed “because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient.”

While the bishops who gather next fall could choose to adopt one or more of these three solutions, there are also powerful currents for maintaining the status quo.

For example, Roman officials have for years been trying to rein in annulments, not expand them, saying that tribunals — especially in the U.S. — are too quick to grant them.

Another warning sign: Amid rising speculation that change is coming, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, published a lengthy article in the Vatican newspaper on Oct. 22 that cast serious doubt on any prospects for reform.

Even an appeal to mercy for remarried Catholics — which Francis explicitly advocated — “misses the mark,” Mueller wrote in unusually direct language.

Given this pushback, said longtime Vatican watcher John Thavis, “it’s legitimate to wonder where the church is really headed: substantial change or another dead-end debate.” 

Notes on coverage


Catholicism is a hierarchical religion, with authority vested in the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests and deacons. Information is relatively easy to find because everything is interrelated. That said, there are also dozens of Catholic organizations that are not officially part of the church. They include a range of Catholic charities, advocacy groups, and dissenting organizations.

Titles are particularly important in hierarchical religions and getting them right conveys a writer’s grasp of the church’s traditions. For example, don’t refer to a bishop or diocese when archbishop and archdiocese are the proper names.

Many issues in Catholicism are related to authority. Get a good understanding of what’s authoritative and what’s not. For example, a document issued by the Vatican may be considered binding on all Catholics, or it may not, depending on its purpose and who issued it. Authority is a sensitive issue that also affects whether people are labeled as dissenters who are violating church teaching or people who are working for change within the church.


Father Ernie Davis carries the Bible up to the alter during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. RNS image by Sally Morrow

The U.S. Catholic Bishops use the New American Bible translation. Many Catholics also use the Catholic Study Bible or the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition. 

The Catholic Church includes books of the Apocrypha in the biblical canon. (The Apocrypha, from the Greek word that means “things hidden,” is made up of religious writings included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but not the Hebrew Bible. Roman Catholics and Orthodox accept them as divinely inspired, but Protestants do not.)

Example coverage

When Catholic schools fire gay teachers, laity push back

By Lauren Markoe, Religion News Service

Oct. 7, 2013

(RNS) They taught English, gym, music and fifth grade, and are typically described as “beloved” by their students.

But that didn’t stop the Catholic schools where they worked from firing these teachers for their same-sex relationships, or, in one woman’s case, for admitting that she privately disagreed with church teaching on gay marriage.

A recent spate of sackings at Catholic institutions — about eight in the past two years — is wrenching for dioceses and Catholic schools, where some deem these decisions required and righteous, and others see them as unnecessary and prejudicial.

“Your typical Catholic school does have a mission and asks their teachers to be exemplars of what the schools are trying to do,” said Richard Garnett, a University of Notre Dame law professor who writes about religious freedom. “They’re trying to teach the church’s values about sexual ethics and morality.”

While the Catholic Church’s catechism requires Catholics to treat gays and lesbians with “respect” and “compassion,” it calls homosexual acts a “grave depravity,” and the church has been unequivocal in its rejection of gay marriage.

But among the signers of a petition to reinstate a gay teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora, Calif., are alumni who say their school imparted other Catholic values that speak against the firing of Ken Bencomo. The head of the English department lost his job after 17 years at St. Lucy’s, after photos of his wedding appeared in a local newspaper.

“We all come from different backgrounds, different experiences, but I think a lot of people will agree when I say St. Lucy’s taught us to love each other and accept each other,” petitioner Allyssa DenDekker wrote. “John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the WORLD…’”

It’s not news that gay teachers and other employees of Catholic institutions lose their jobs over a same-sex relationship. Nor is it news that priests have sometimes quietly resisted pressure to fire gay employees. What’s different in recent years is a growing acceptance of gay marriage among Catholics, and gay people’s increasing ability to marry and unwillingness to hide their relationships.

The consequence, from a vocal swath of the laity, is a public pushback against Catholic institutions that fire gay employees who get married. Among the recent cases that rankled lay Catholics:

  • Kristen Ostendorf, an English and religion teacher at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn., for 18 years. She lost her job this summer after acknowledging her lesbian relationship at a faculty meeting.
  • Trish Cameron, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Moorhead, Minn., for 11 years. The school fired her in June 2012 after she told school officials that she supports gay marriage, though she keeps her views out of the classroom.
  • Al Fischer, who taught music at St. Ann Catholic School in St. Louis for four years. St. Ann dismissed him in February 2012 after school officials learned of his plans to marry another man.

This summer, dozens of former students rallied outside St. Lucy’s and 75,000 people signed the petition to reinstate Bencomo; petitions are circulating in support of other teachers and lay leaders who faced similar fates.

One on behalf of Carla Hale garnered 100,000 signatures. Hale taught physical education at an Ohio Catholic school for 18 years and was fired in March after her mother’s obituary disclosed that Hale had a female partner. Hundreds of people called Bishop Watterson High School to protest Hale’s termination.

Supporters of Fischer decried his firing inletters to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Bloggers railed against the termination of Cameron.

Such firings — once the private affairs of Catholic schools, whispered about in the teachers’ lounge — now air on the nightly news and circulate on Facebook. Some progressive Catholics are hopeful that the public activism will help the church conclude that employing a gay person in a same-sex marriage comports with Catholic teaching.

Ken Bencomo, 45, right, and his partner of 10 years, Christopher Persky, 32, left, both of Rancho Cucamonga, get married at the San Bernardino County Hall of Records in San Bernardino on July 1, 2013. Bencomo was fired from his teaching position at a St. Lucy's Catholic School days after he married his fiancé in this San Bernardino civil ceremony. RNS photo courtesy of Rachel Luna
Ken Bencomo, 45, right, and his partner of 10 years, Christopher Persky, 32, left, both of Rancho Cucamonga, get married at the San Bernardino County Hall of Records in San Bernardino on July 1, 2013. Bencomo was fired from his teaching position at a St. Lucy’s Catholic School days after he married his fiancé in this San Bernardino civil ceremony. RNS photo courtesy of Rachel Luna

“What we know, what everyone knows, Catholic and non-Catholic, is that the younger generation is much more supportive of marriage equality than older generations, which is the indicator that it is the future,” said Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a pro-gay Catholic group.

“I’m heartened by it not only because they’re young but because a lot of them have discussed their support for the teacher in terms of Catholic principles,” he said. “It’s a good case of the church hierarchy undone by their highest ideals.”

But the precarious situation of gay Catholic schoolteachers who marry is not likely to be undone soon, despite the laity’s support for gay marriage and Pope Francis’ increasingly warm comments about gay people.

The reality is that when churches and church schools terminate employees in same-sex relationships, they stand on firm legal ground. Religious institutions have a right, grounded in the First Amendment, to hire people who support their religious tenets and fire those who don’t.

It’s not just religious institutions where gay peoples’ jobs are vulnerable. Nationwide, 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, with exemptions for religious institutions. Elsewhere, it’s perfectly legal to fire someone based on sexual orientation.

Still, bishops, priests and Catholic school principals are often reluctant to publicly defend decisions to fire gay teachers who have married. Those who do describe these decisions as painful but necessary.

After Hale lost her teaching job, Bishop Frederick Campbell spoke to The Columbus Dispatch about why she had to go: It’s his responsibility to maintain the Catholic identity of institutions he oversees, he said.

“We do this in an atmosphere of care, of calm consideration, but yet out of the realization that at particular times we have to make particular decisions,” Campbell said. “And they are difficult sometimes, but they do flow from what we believe, who we are and how we are to live.”

The Rev. Bill Kempf, pastor of the school from which music teacher Fischer was fired, explained to The Associated Press that Fischer’s union “opposes Roman Catholic teaching as it cannot realize the full potential a marital relationship is meant to express.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an organization of gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics, hopes a different religious argument will someday make it OK for a person in a same-sex relationship to work openly in a Catholic school.

“The bishops’ hands are not tied,” she said. “You follow a man who died on a cross. And you’re promised resurrection — that’s the hallmark of our faith. If we can’t live that in our professional lives, how do we dare call ourselves Catholic?” 

International sources


  • Gregory Baum

    Gregory Baum is a professor emeritus in the religious studies department at McGill University in Montreal. His expertise is in social ethics and the sociology of religion. Catholicism is one area of focus within these topics.

  • Lorna Bowman

    Lorna Bowman is a professor of religious studies at Brescia University in London, Ontario, Canada. Her research focuses on the intersection of religion and education, with an emphasis on Catholicism.

  • Daniel Cere

    Daniel Cere is a professor of religious studies at McGill University in Montreal. He specializes in Catholic social thought and marriage and family. He is the author of “Marriage, Subordination and the Development of Christian Doctrine” from Does Christianity Teach Male Headship?

  • Terence J. Fay

    Terence J. Fay is a lecturer on the History of Religion at the University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada. He is an expert on the history of Catholicism.

  • Scott Kline

    Scott Kline is an associate professor of religion at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. His research interests include Catholic social thought, political theology and Christian ethics. He co-wrote a chapter for Religion and Conflict Resolution called “Catholic  Peacemaking and Pax Christi.”

  • Geraldine Mossière

    Geraldine Mossière is a professor of theology and religious studies at the Université de Montréal in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She studies the anthropology of religion, religion and healing, new practices of Christianity in Quebec and religious mobility, among other topics. Her publications include “Quebec’s Catholicism through the Convert’s Eyes: why Islam is so much more attractive” published by the Association for the Sociology of Religion and “Critics of Catholicism in the Narratives of Quebecers Converts to Islam” published by the International Sociological Association Forum.

  • Tim Perry

    Tim Perry was an associate professor of theology at Providence College and Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada. He is the author of Mary for Evangelicals, Pope John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment, Blessed Is She and Radical Difference: A Defense of Hendrik Kraemer’s Theology of Religions.

  • Megan Shore

    Megan Shore is a professor of religious studies at King’s University College in London, Ontario, Canada. Her research focuses on Catholic social thought and on religion and conflict. With Scott Kline, she is co-writing a book titled Catholic Approaches to Just Peacemaking.

  • St. Francis Xavier University

    St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada has a Catholic Studies department. It offers a major and a minor, as well as a variety of elective courses.

United Kingdom

  • Archdiocese of Glasgow

    The Archdiocese of Glasgow is the center of Catholic religious life in Glasgow. Rev. Philip Tartaglia is the archbishop.

  • Eileen Barker

    Eileen Barker is a professor emeritus in the sociology department at the University of London. She studies minority religions, including cults, sects and New Religious Movements, and relevant social conditions.

  • Stephen Bullivant

    Stephen Bullivant directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University in London, where he also teaches the theology and sociology of religion. He previously served as co-director of the international Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

  • Mark D. Chapman

    Mark D. Chapman teaches church history, Catholicism, ecclesiology and Anglicanism at the University of Oxford. Chapman researches Anglican theology and church history.

  • Julie Clague

    Julie Clague is a lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on Catholic moral and social thought and Christian approaches to public policy issues. She co-edits the journals Political Theology and Feminist Theology. She wrote the article “Christian conscience, Catholic teaching and lay participation in public life” in the International Journal of Public Theology.

  • David Fergusson

    David Fergusson is a professor of divinity at the University of Edinburgh. His is director of the Scottish Journal of Theology. His research focuses on the relationship between church and society, Christian doctrine, and Christian history, with an emphasis on the history of Catholic and Reformed theology.

  • David Fincham

    David Fincham is the director of theology and ethics at St. Mary’s University College in London. He is an expert on Catholic education and his publications include PSHCE in Catholic secondary schools: Stakeholders’ views and “Pastoral care in Catholic Schools,” which was published in The Pastoral Review.

  • David Grumett

    David Grumett is Chancellor’s Fellow of Christian ethics and practical theology at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on French Catholic theology. He is the author of De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed.


  • Archdiocesi di Firenze

    The Archiocesi di Firenze (Archdiocese of Florence) covers over 322 parishes and almost 840,000 Catholics. Giuseppe Betori is the archbishop.

  • Archdiocese of Prague

    The Archdiocese of Prague is the administrative branch of the Catholic Church in Prague.

  • Catholic Church in the Czech Republic

    The Catholic Church in the Czech Republic is the center of Catholic religious life in the Czech Republic. It is based in Prague.

  • Philippe Chenaux

    Philippe Chenaux is a professor of church history and theology at Pontificia Universita Lateranense in Rome. His research interests include the history of the papacy, the history of the Vatican and the history of modern Catholic thought.

  • Barbiero Fernanda

    Barbiero Fernanda is a professor of independent theology at Pontificia Universita Urbaniana in Rome. He teaches courses comparing Catholicism and Christian Orthodoxy and a course on the Trinitarian mystery.

  • Uto Meier

    Uto Meier is a professor of religious education at Katholische Universitat Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Germany. His research focuses on Catholic religious education.

  • Giovanni Tangorra

    Giovanni Tangorra is a teacher of Ecclesiology and Mariology theology at Pontificia Universita Lateranense in Rome. His is also a priest of the Diocese of Palestrina. He collaborates frequently with Italian Catholic magazines.

Middle East


Latin America

  • Luiz Eduardo Waldemarin Wanderley

    He is a sociology professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo. His research interests include the study of religions and ideologies. His authored works include Educate to Transform – Popular Education, The Catholic Church and Politics in the Basic Education Movement and Catholic Church and Politics in Brazil.

  • Eliane Muniz

    Eliane Muniz is the press secretary for the National Council of Brazilian Bishops, which acts as the public voice of the Catholic Church in Brazil.

U.S. sources & resources

Major organizations

  • The Vatican

    The official website of the Holy See.

  • U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has raised concerns about a range of freedom of conscience questions related to protection of life issues and supports including conscience provisions in proposed funding bills.

Faith media

Other sources

Related source guides

A statue depicting Mary holding Jesus after his death, is displayed at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Kansas City, Mo. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Style guide

The practice of ritual washing in a religious rite to cleanse a person of sin or disease, to purify, or to signify humility or service to others. In Christianity, baptism and foot-washing are both forms of ablution. In liturgical churches, ablution can refer to purifying fingers or vessels related to the Eucharist. In Islam, ablution is ritual washing, known as wudu, before prayer. In Judaism, immersion in a mikvah is a form of ablution.
When choosing terms to describe a person’s stance on abortion, journalists should remember that abortion is a nuanced issue, with many people supporting or opposing abortion in some, but not all, circumstances. Take care to describe a person’s view rather than relying on terms popularized in the heated public debate. For example, journalists should use pro-abortion rights or a similar description instead of pro-choice, and opposed to abortion or against abortion rights instead of pro-life. The AP Stylebook advises using anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.
In Catholicism, a priest grants absolution to a confessed sinner as part of the sacrament of penance. The concept of absolution also exists in Lutheranism, Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodox denominations.
In Western Christianity, it is the season before Christmas and opens the liturgical year of the Latin church; Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day (the Sunday nearest Nov. 30) and ends on Christmas Eve (Dec. 24). In Eastern Catholic churches, Advent begins Nov. 14, the feast of St. Philip the Apostle. Advent anticipates Jesus Christ’s birth as well as his Second Coming. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not observe Advent. Instead there is a period of fasting 40 days before Christmas.
Agnus Dei
The “Lamb of God” prayer said three times at Catholic Mass during the breaking of bread. It is also a sacramental tablet of wax stamped with a representation of Jesus as a lamb bearing a cross.
All Saints’ Day
Celebrated on Nov. 1 by most Roman Catholics, All Saints’ Day honors those in heaven, specifically those who have not been canonized and have no special feast day. It is a holy day of obligation, and all Catholics are expected to attend Mass.
All Souls’ Day
Celebrated Nov. 2 predominantly by Roman Catholics, it commemorates the faithful departed with special prayers.
annul, annulment
A divorced person who wishes to remarry in the Catholic Church can apply to a church court for an annulment or “declaration of nullity.” This means that the sacramental bond of matrimony never existed in the earlier marriage because at least one of the parties was unwilling or unable to make and keep a promise of permanent, faithful, self-sacrificial marriage in which he or she modeled the love of Christ toward a spouse. A declaration that the sacrament did not exist does not mean that a loving marriage relationship never existed, and it does not make children illegitimate in the eyes of the church or civil law.
Pronounced “uh-PAHK-ruh-fuh.” The Apocrypha are Jewish writings that are included in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Old Testaments but excluded from most Protestant ones. Some Protestant Bibles include the Apocrypha as noncanonical writings, though, at the end of the Old Testament or in a separate section. (Note: Apocrypha is not a term used by Catholics for these texts. Instead, both Roman Catholics and the Orthodox generally refer to them as deuterocanonical books.) The additional books, which are not part of the Hebrew Bible, come from the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Orthodox regard them as occupying a lesser place than the rest of the Old Testament. The Orthodox also include several texts that are not part of the Catholic collection. The word apocryphal (Greek for “things hidden”) is generally used to describe many early Christian and Gnostic works, such as the gospel of Thomas, that were never included in the official canon of Scripture. The New Testament canon is the same for all Christians.  
Apostles, apostles
The most common Christian reference is to Jesus’ 12 disciples after he commissioned them to go and preach the gospel to the world. However, some churches have other usages. Some charismatic groups refer to certain powerful leaders who oversee groups of congregations as apostles. Among evangelicals, the word can be a generic term for any Christian who is commissioned by the church to accomplish a certain mission in the world. Uppercase when referring individually or collectively to Jesus’ Twelve Apostles, as in Peter was known as Simon before he became an Apostle. Although not one of the original 12, this applies to the Apostle Paul as well. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refers to its highest-ranking members as apostles. They belong to what is called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Capitalize apostle when using as an LDS title before a name. The senior, or longest-serving, apostle becomes the church president and is then referred to by that title; capitalize president before his name but lowercase otherwise.
Apostles’ Creed
A profession of Christian faith that is accepted in the Roman Catholic Church as an official creed and has similar standing in many Protestant churches. Various sources trace its origins and evolution from between the first and seventh centuries. The core of the Apostles’ Creed is believed to pre-date the Nicene Creed, a slightly longer formula that was elaborated by church fathers at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The Nicene Creed is usually recited collectively at Catholic Masses.
Generally refers back to Jesus’ Twelve Apostles, or the time when they lived, their beliefs or their successors, the bishops. In Catholicism, the term usually refers to acts carried out by the pope as the successor of the Apostle Peter. Most New Testament scholars consider Paul an Apostle, although he was not one of the original 12.
apostolic administrator
The priest or auxiliary bishop chosen by the pope to lead a Catholic diocese between the time one bishop retires or dies and the appointment of a new bishop.
apostolic blessing
In the Roman Catholic Church, a diocesan bishop gives this blessing three times a year and the pope may give it at any time. The pope always gives the apostolic blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) at Christmas and Easter and immediately after his election to the papacy.
Apostolic Camera
The Roman Curia office headed by the chamberlain of the Roman Catholic Church.
apostolic delegate
A Roman Catholic diplomat chosen by the pope as his envoy to the church in a nation that does not have formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican. See papal nuncio.
The highest-ranking clergy person in a hierarchical religious jurisdiction. The distinction between a Catholic bishop and an archbishop is an honorary one, and an archbishop has no power to tell the bishop of a neighboring diocese how to run his churches. In some Eastern churches, the corresponding title is metropolitan. In the Anglican Communion, the title archbishop also is used. Capitalize only when used as a formal title before a name, such as Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl. (See exception in archbishop of Canterbury.) On second reference, use only the last name. Lowercase archbishop when it stands alone.
The largest administrative unit of some churches with an episcopal government. It is generally overseen by an archbishop. Capitalize as part of a proper name. Lowercase when it stands alone.
Pronounced “ark-EP-ahr-kee.” The Eastern Catholic term for an archdiocese.
Ash Wednesday
In the Western Christian church, the seventh Wednesday before Easter marks the beginning of the Lenten season. The name is taken from a practice of putting ashes on the foreheads of penitent believers as a reminder of their physical return to dust (“ashes to ashes”). The practice is common among Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopalians, and many Lutherans. It is also becoming more popular among other Protestant churches.
See B.C.
A Christian sacrament, ordinance or ceremony marked by ritual use of water and admitting the recipient to the Christian community. Christians practice three forms of baptism: immersion, where the believer is totally submerged in water; sprinkling, where the believer is sprayed with water; and affusion, where the believer has water poured on his head at a font. There may be variations within a tradition: Roman Catholics are generally baptized by affusion, though some modern fonts allow a candidate for baptism to stand partially immersed. Different Christian bodies have very different ideas about what baptism accomplishes in the person who receives it. Some see it as a symbolic way of publicly proclaiming faith in Christ; others see it as necessary for salvation. They vary on whether it is required for membership. Many Christian traditions, particularly Baptists, consider baptism a ceremony or ordinance instead of a sacrament. Some Christian traditions insist that candidates for baptism be accountable adults who have personally professed faith in Christ. The Catholic Church and others that accept or practice infant baptism may object to the term believer’s baptism because it implies that baptized infants are not believers. These churches prefer the term adult baptism. Baptism is considered one of the three sacraments of initiation, along with confirmation and the Eucharist, by Catholic and Orthodox churches. The term baptism also is used by some non-Christians to describe ritual purification using water.
A church to which special privileges have been given by the pope. A few of special importance are called major basilicas. Among these are St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls, all in Rome. Many basilicas, including St. Peter’s, are not cathedrals (the seat of a diocesan bishop). Capitalize basilica only when used as part of a proper name.
See canonization.
Beatitude, Beatitudes
Beatitude is a formal title of respect for a Catholic patriarch or an Orthodox metropolitan. It should not be used except when it appears in quotations. The Beatitudes is the name given to a well-known portion of the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (5: 2-12) and Luke (6: 20-23). In this section, Jesus describes the qualities of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Capitalize when used as a title or when referring to the Beatitudes, but lowercase in other forms of reference. Beatitude means “blessed” but can also be translated as “happy.”
Blessing. Capitalize when referring to a Catholic religious service with prayers, hymns and the adoration of the displayed Eucharist. Lowercase when referring to other rites or acts of blessing.
Capitalize when referring to the Scriptures in the Old Testament or the New Testament. The Bible is a collection of writings compiled through centuries and authorized by various church councils, rather than a single book. The Old Testament is a Christian designation for the Hebrew Bible. The term Hebrew Bible should be used in articles dealing solely with Judaism. Lowercase biblical in all uses and bible as a nonreligious term. When citing biblical verses, use AP style for numbering chapter and verse, as in Luke 21: 1-13. In Protestant Bibles, Old Testament books, in order, are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Hebrew Bibles contain the same books but in different order. Roman Catholic Bibles follow a different order, use some different names and contain seven additional, or deuterocanonical, Old Testament books (called the Apocrypha by Protestants): Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch. The books of the New Testament, in order, are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation (in Catholicism, the traditional name for this last book is Apocalypse, but the Catholic News Service advises using Revelation except in direct quotations). See Apocrypha.
In Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches and some Protestant denominations that have an episcopal or hierarchical form of government, bishop is the highest order of ordained ministry. The distinction between a Catholic bishop and an archbishop is an honorary one, and an archbishop has no authority over a neighboring diocese. Some groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Amish and some Pentecostals, use the title bishop for someone who is the pastor of a congregation. Capitalize when used as a formal title before a name. On second reference, use only the cleric’s last name. Lowercase bishop in other uses.
Capitalize when used as a title before a name, as in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. In Roman Catholicism, the title applies when a person is one step away from canonization as a saint.
Blessed Virgin
See Virgin Mary.
Theologically, all Christians claim to be born-again through the saving work of Jesus Christ; they just disagree over how it occurs. Catholics and Orthodox, for instance, say it occurs in the sacrament of baptism, which frequently takes place when the baptized person is too young to recall it. Evangelical Protestants emphasize being born-again as a personal, transformational experience that involves a deliberate commitment to follow Christ. Because the term tends to associate someone with a particular religious tradition, do not label someone a born-again Christian. Rather let the person label themselves, as in, who calls herself a born-again Christian.
bread and wine
Primary elements of the Christian service of Holy Communion. This is based on Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, in which he blessed bread and wine, saying, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Some Christians, especially Catholics and Orthodox, believe that the consecrated bread and wine are literally transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ, although they continue to look and taste like bread and wine (known as the doctrine of transubstantiation). Other groups believe the representation is purely symbolic, while many take a middle course, believing that Jesus is somehow spiritually present in the blessed bread and wine (known as the doctrine of consubstantiation). Never use the word symbol in reference to the bread and wine unless you know that the church you are covering uses that word. In situations involving Catholics, you can refer to the bread as the host, the consecrated wine as the cup, and to either or both elements simply as Communion. See Communion and Eucharist.
A man who has taken vows in a Christian religious, particularly Catholic or Anglican, order but is not ordained. Also, a monk or friar who is in seminary preparing for priesthood is called brother if he has taken his vows. In many traditions, especially evangelical, brother is used as a generic, friendly title. Capitalize before a name but not otherwise. On first reference, generally identify the religious community, for example Franciscan Brother John Smith. On second reference, use the first name if the person is known that way, such as Brother John. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference.
Byzantine Rite
A term for one of the five main ritual groupings into which the Eastern Catholic churches are divided. The label still has some currency, but the churches stopped referring to themselves as “rites” in the 1980s. See Eastern Catholic churches.
See A.D.
According to the New Testament, the hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus Christ was crucified. The location is also known as Golgotha, or the place of the skull. A common error is misspelling Calvary as cavalry.
The process in the Roman Catholic Church by which an individual is declared a saint. When a cause for canonization (as the process is known) is opened, the candidate is formally known as a “Servant of God,” such as Servant of God John Paul II. Three major steps follow: a declaration of heroic virtues, beatification and canonization. Candidates in those stages are called by the titles, respectively, of “Venerable,” “Blessed” and “Saint,” all uppercase, as in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. The Catholic Church says that all those in heaven are saints. Canonization is a solemn affirmation by the church to the faithful that a particular person is in heaven and that that person’s life and virtues are especially worthy of emulation and veneration. Canonization is also practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
A title of honor given to certain Catholics, nearly always archbishops, who are chosen as special advisers to the pope. Their primary function in today’s church is to elect a new pope, but they are assigned to serve as advisers to important offices in the Vatican bureaucracy. Some have a great deal of behind-the-scenes influence. Most cardinals are archbishops of “cardinalatial sees” — archdioceses that traditionally have a cardinal. However, the heads of important Vatican offices are usually also named cardinals, and occasionally the pope will name a respected theologian who is past 80 and thus ineligible to vote for a new pope. Cardinals are not required to be archbishops, bishops or even priests. In the U.S., Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles is not a bishop. Cardinals should be referred to conventionally, as in Cardinal Avery Dulles, not Avery Cardinal Dulles. On second reference use only the cardinal’s last name.
A Roman Catholic contemplative order founded by hermits at Mount Carmel in Palestine in the 12th century. It is associated with St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, two mystics who lived in 16th-century Spain. The order’s reformed branch, the Discalced Carmelites, included St. Theresa of Lisieux. Carmelites disavow ownership of personal or communal property.
The central church of a diocese in a denomination with an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican churches. It serves as the seat of the bishop.
Catholic, catholic
When capitalized, the word refers specifically to that branch of Christianity headed by the pope, the Roman Catholic Church. In lowercase, the word is a synonym for universal or worldwide, as in the catholic church. Most Roman Catholics are Western or Latin Catholics, meaning they follow church practice as it was formulated in Rome. But the Roman Catholic Church also includes 22 Eastern Catholic churches, whose practices closely resemble those of the Eastern Orthodox, including venerating icons, allowing a married priesthood and giving the three sacraments of initiation – baptism, First Communion and confirmation – to infants. Never refer to Eastern Catholics as Orthodox or vice versa. Use Roman Catholic if a distinction is being made between the church and members of other denominations who often describe themselves as Catholic, such as some high-church Episcopalians and members of some national Catholic churches that have broken with Rome (for example, the Polish National Catholic Church and the Lithuanian National Catholic Church).
One who conducts a religious rite, especially a Christian priest.
Chaldean Catholic Church
Pronounced “kal-DEE-uhn.”  An Eastern church retaining autonomy within the Catholic Church while remaining in full communion with the pope in Rome. Chaldeans are found primarily in Iraq. There has been a large migration of Chaldeans to the United States, particularly to Michigan.
A cup used by a priest or clergy member to serve Communion wine.
charismatic Christianity
A form of Christianity that emphasizes supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues and healing. Branches of mainline Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches have absorbed charismatic teachings. See Pentecostalism.
The word means anointed one or messiah in Greek. For that reason, Christians refer to Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus Christ or simply Christ.
Western Christians celebrate Christmas, which marks the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, on Dec. 25. Most Orthodox Christians, using the Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. Armenian Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6, except in Jerusalem, where it is celebrated on Jan. 19. Never abbreviate Christmas to Xmas or any other form.
Has multiple meanings. It can mean a building, a gathering of people, a civilly incorporated body, the sum total of all Christians on the planet, or an idea in the mind of God. When reading formal documents of the Catholic Church, it is especially important to figure out which one of these definitions is operative. Capitalize as part of the formal name of a building. Lowercase in phrases where the church is used in an institutional sense, as in separation of church and state.
College of Cardinals
The collective term for Roman Catholic cardinals when they meet to advise the pope or to elect a new pope. See cardinal.
Most frequently refers to the commemoration of the meal that, according to the New Testament, was instituted by Jesus on the night before the Crucifixion. Other terms include Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper and Eucharist, the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Eucharist is commonly used by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and High-Church Anglicans, though some Protestants use it as well. Belief and practice vary widely. Catholics and Orthodox Christians uniformly see the Eucharist as the central rite of Christian worship, and it is celebrated at least in every Sunday service. Some Protestants also celebrate at least weekly; others do so every other week, monthly, quarterly or less frequently. Catholics and the Orthodox, as well as some Anglicans, believe that the consecrated bread and wine themselves become the body and blood of Christ. They speak of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist. Catholics and other Western Christians refer to this teaching as transubstantiation. Most Orthodox do not use the term because they believe it reflects Western ways of thinking that are foreign to Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, even some Protestants who do not believe in transubstantiation nonetheless speak of Christ’s “real presence.” Many others see the Lord’s Supper as a simple memorial meal in which bread and wine (or grape juice) remain unchanged and are no more than symbols. Do not use the word symbol to refer to the bread or wine unless you are sure that the church you are writing about considers Communion a purely symbolic act. When in doubt, use Communion, a term that has currency in just about every Christian tradition. Mass is the usual Roman Catholic term for a Eucharistic service. Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox typically speak of the Divine Liturgy. Some Protestant churches do not use the term sacrament and may rather refer to the Lord’s Supper (as well as baptism) as an ordinance. Communion also can refer to a grouping of churches that share the same beliefs and practices, as in the Anglican Communion. For this usage, capitalize on first reference as part of the full name, but lowercase the word when used alone on subsequent references. Lowercase the phrase communion of saints.  
In the Roman Catholic Church, when members of the College of Cardinals gather to elect a new pope.
confess, confessed, confession
An integral part of historic Christian practice. Confession can mean either to admit one’s sins or to profess the Christian faith. In the Roman Catholic Church, individual confession is part of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, in which a baptized person admits his or her sins to a priest, who can then absolve the person in the name of Christ through the power conferred through ordination. Absolution is granted if a penitent displays genuine remorse and a commitment not to repeat the sin. A penitential act may be attached to the absolution, such as an exhortation to pray or do good works. Anglicans confess their sins communally in church, and a private rite is available to them. In Eastern Orthodoxy, individuals confess their sin to God before an icon and a priest; however, the priest does not act as an intermediary to God. A confession also refers to a statement of faith, such as the Westminster Confession. In Nazi Germany, the Confessing Church was an underground church that resisted Adolf Hitler, and its name has been taken by a wide variety of Protestant groups since then, often when they are in opposition to their own denomination’s policies.
A reaffirming of faith in Christ. It is a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church, typically conferred in the early teens, although it may be received as young as 7. Eastern Catholics confer it with infant baptism. Other churches, particularly those that practice infant baptism, consider it a formal rite of passage that includes education in the faith. Some Protestant churches, particularly those that require believer’s baptism, do not practice confirmation.
A movement to reaffirm, reform and clarify the doctrine and structure of the Catholic Church that climaxed with the decisions at the Council of Trent. The Counter-Reformation was partly in reaction to the growth of Protestantism, but there is evidence that it began before Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. The Counter-Reformation was aimed at protecting Catholic institutions and practices from heresy and Protestantism. But it also was committed to reforming the church from within to stem the growing appeal of Protestantism.
In the United States, creationism usually refers to the belief that the Bible’s account of creation is literally true and accurate. That generally means Genesis 1-2:4a, where God creates the Earth and all its life forms in six consecutive 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago. (Genesis also tells a second creation story, in 2:4b-24, in which man is created before the Earth’s vegetation, and specific days are not described.) See intelligent design.
A statement of religious belief or faith that encapsulates official teaching. Most have developed over time amid religious and political debates. The word creed is based on the Latin word credo, which means I believe. The most common creeds in Christianity are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
A universal sign of Christianity associated with Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion by the Romans. Making the sign of the cross with the hands is a ritual of Christian devotion for Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans and some Methodists and Presbyterians. A cross is different from a crucifix, which has an image of the crucified Jesus.
Shortened and acceptable form for the Roman Curia, the Roman Catholic Church’s central administrative offices. Also used for diocesan administrative offices. Capitalize when used as part of a formal name for diocesan offices. Lowercase in other uses.
Daily Office
Set times of daily Christian prayer dating to ancient days. Various forms of the Daily Office are observed widely in the liturgical traditions, especially Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism.
In liturgical churches, such as the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican, a deacon is ordained and operates as a subordinate and assistant to priests or ministers. In other churches, deacons are drawn from the laity to carry out worship and/or administrative duties. Uppercase before a name. The Catholic Church reconstituted its diaconate as a permanent order at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The office had a significant role in the early church but gradually fell out of use in Western Christianity. Permanent deacons, as they are known, are not lay people. They can celebrate the so-called “life-cycle” sacraments, such as baptism, marriage and funerals. They cannot celebrate the Eucharist, as a priest can, or hear confessions. In contrast to permanent deacons, transitional deacons are in the process of becoming a priest.
In Catholicism, the beads of the rosary are separated into five groups of 10, called decades. Each decade represents a mystery or event in the life of Jesus Christ. There are four sets of mysteries for a total of 20. See rosary.
Another name for the Ten Commandments, which is the preferred term. See Ten Commandments.
A word that can be applied to any Christian body, though some traditions object strongly to its use. For example, the Catholic and Orthodox churches object to its underlying philosophical assumption that they are just various brand names for a single Christian tradition. Baptists (especially Independent Baptists), the Churches of Christ and some strongly congregational groups strenuously object to the notion that they are in any way an organized bureaucracy. They like to think of themselves as “fellowships.” Christian bodies can be substituted to avoid any potential controversy.
The word devil is lowercase, but capitalize Satan.
diocesan bishop
A diocesan bishop has jurisdiction over a diocese and is sometimes known as the Ordinary. This person may be assisted by other bishops, known as bishops suffragan. In addition, bishops who retire or resign from their diocese may assist in another diocese in some capacity; the church variously refers to them as assistant bishops, bishops assisting or assisting bishops.
diocese, diocesan
An administrative unit of the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox church. It is overseen by a bishop and usually covers a defined geographical area. Capitalize diocese when part of a proper name. See archdiocese.
Divine Liturgy
The Eucharistic service in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. It consists of three parts: the Prayers of Preparation; the Liturgy for the Catechumens, or those preparing for baptism; and the Liturgy of the Faithful.
In religions such as Christianity and Islam, dogmas are considered core principles that must be adhered to by followers. In Roman Catholicism it is a truth proclaimed by the church as being divinely revealed. Dogma must be based in Scripture or tradition; to deny it is heresy.
A Roman Catholic order of priests founded by St. Dominic in Spain in the early 13th century. They focus on preaching and teaching and take vows of poverty. There is also an order of Dominican nuns.
The major Christian holy day. It marks Jesus Christ’s Resurrection from the dead three days after his Crucifixion. Western Christian churches and Orthodox Christian churches usually celebrate Easter on different dates, sometimes as much as five weeks apart. Both observe Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox. However, the Western church uses the Gregorian calendar and the Orthodox church and many Eastern Catholic churches use the Julian calendar. They also use different definitions of a full moon and an equinox. The two Easters are observed on the same day about a quarter of the time. Orthodox Christians refer to Easter as Pascha, derived from the Hebrew word for Passover.
Eastern Catholic churches
Eastern Catholic churches are self-governing churches within the Roman Catholic Church. They have their own codes of canon law. They stopped referring to themselves as “rites” in the 1980s. In their traditional lands in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, married men are ordained to the Eastern Catholic priesthood, but in 1929 the Latin bishops of the United States persuaded the pope to forbid the ordination of married men for Eastern Catholic churches in North America. Several Eastern Catholic churches in the U.S. are trying to persuade Rome to re-establish the married priesthood, and some send married candidates overseas to be ordained. There are five major groupings of Eastern Catholic churches: Alexandrian, Antiochene, Armenian, Byzantine and Chaldean.
A modern theological and social term referring to the effort to promote understanding and cooperation among diverse Christian groups. The adjective, ecumenical, refers to interaction between Christians of different traditions. It is also linked to a 20th-century religious movement to bring a variety of denominations under a single Christian umbrella, such as the World Council of Churches.
Literally a “circular letter,” an enyclical is generally addressed to the whole church by the pope on matters of moral, doctrinal or disciplinary concern. Since Pope John XXIII (who died in 1963), popes have periodically addressed encyclicals to all people “of good will.” An encyclical does not carry the weight of an infallible or ex cathedra statement, but it is the most common use of a pope’s ordinary authority. As such, Catholics are expected to assent to its teachings, even though there can be debate on exactly how the teachings in an encyclical are to be applied. The title of an encyclical, which is almost always written in Latin, comes from the letter’s opening words, which describe its theme. The first encyclical of John Paul II was Redemptor hominis, “On the Redeemer of Man.” A new pope often issues an encyclical within a year of his election, and it is sets the tone of the pontificate. There are several other types of papal documents of lesser authority, such as an apostolic exhortation or a motu proprio, which is Latin for “on his own (the pope’s) initiative.” Such documents can be newsworthy but tend to address a more specific matter than an encyclical.
end times
Lowercase. Generally refers to the time of tribulation preceding the Second Coming of Jesus, though it has parallels and roots in all three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Sometimes also called the “End of Days.”
episcopal, episcopacy
A form of church government in which bishops have some kind of authority over clergy and/or congregations. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal, Methodist and some Lutheran churches are all episcopal in this sense
Pronounced “es-kuh-TAH-lah-gee.” The theological study of end times, when the fate of individual souls and all of creation will be decided. It is often associated with doomsday predictions, but Christian eschatology also focuses on eternity, paradise, resurrection of the dead and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Book of Revelation and the prophecy of Daniel are considered eschatological or apocalyptic.
A term commonly used by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians and High-Church Anglicans for Communion, but some Protestants use it as well. In the Holy Eucharist, the Lord Christ is contained, offered, and received in the form or presentation of bread and wine. See Communion.
The act of conveying the gospel message of Jesus Christ. The word evangelism is derived from the Greek evangelion, which means “gospel” or “good news.” Styles of evangelism vary from direct appeals at large public meetings to practical deeds done in the name of Christ.
A Christian whose particular mission is to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ through preaching and teaching. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the purported authors of the Gospels of the New Testament — are called the four Evangelists. Capitalize when referring to them, but lowercase in all other references.
ex cathedra
Latin for “from the chair,” in reference to the chair or throne of a bishop that sits near the altar of his principal church (known as a cathedral). It is from this chair that bishops in the early church would issue solemn teachings or decisions. In modern times the phrase is generally confined to papal pronouncements of the highest authority. Thus the term ex cathedra is in practice used in the same context as papal infallibility and faces the same high threshold of application. Used by itself, the noun cathedra can refer to the bishop’s throne in any cathedral. See papal infallibility.
The movement, mostly found in conservative Christianity, that purports to change the sexual orientation of people from same-sex attraction to opposite-sex. It is also referred to as reparative or conversion therapy. It is highly controversial. Several major medical associations have rejected such therapy when it views homosexuality as a mental disorder or sickness, or assumes that homosexuals’ sexual orientation is something that must be changed. Ex-gay should never be used without explaining the term and the controversy associated with it. See gay.
exorcise, exorcism
The ritual of ridding a supposedly possessed person or thing of demons. Popularly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, which has a formal exorcism ritual, with each diocese allowed to designate a priest as an exorcist. However, the church’s use of the ritual has diminished due to a greater understanding of medicine and psychology. Some Christian churches, such as Pentecostals, also perform exorcisms, although the rituals are not as elaborate and formal as the Roman Catholic ritual. Islam also has traditions that speak of exorcisms.
One who performs exorcisms.
Use the Rev. in first reference before the names of Episcopal, Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name. Use Father before a name only in direct quotations.
Fathers of the Church
Important teachers and theologians from the first few centuries of Christianity whose writings came too late to be included in the canon of the New Testament.
Term used to describe men who are sexually attracted to other men. For women, lesbian is the preferred term. When referring to both, say gay men and lesbians, though gay is acceptable for referring to both in headlines. Avoid references to a gay, homosexual or alternative “lifestyle.”
Gnosticism, Gnostics
It has become a blanket term for various, mostly mystical religions and sects. Comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. Also refers to pre- and early-Christian teachings that there is a higher understanding that can be possessed by only a few. Generally, Gnostics believed that all matter was evil, but that humans carried a divine spark that fell from the Source from which all things came. Through esoteric or secret knowledge, the divine spark could be reunited with the Source. There is debate among biblical scholars about how much influence Gnosticism had on the New Testament. In 1945, a cache of fourth-century Gnostic texts was discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.
Capitalize in reference to all monotheistic religions. Also capitalize such references as God the Father, Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit. However, lowercase personal pronouns, such as him and he. Many Christians consider God to be beyond gender, so be sensitive to the context of the story and avoid gender-defining pronouns when appropriate. Orthodox Jews write G-d to avert the sin of erasing or defacing God’s name. Journalists should respect these Jews’ practice by using G-d in quotes of written material, but otherwise should refer to God.
Gospel, gospel
The word derives from the Old English word Godspell, or “good news.” It is a translation of the Greek word evangelion. This refers to the “good news” that Jesus Christ came as the Messiah, was crucified for the sins of humanity, died and then rose from the grave to triumph over death. Of the many gospels written in antiquity, four came to be accepted as part of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Capitalize when referring to each or all of the first four books of the New Testament. Lowercase in all other references.
Generically it means “free gift.” In Christianity, grace is the unmerited love and favor of God toward mankind, but different traditions sometimes use the word differently, which can lead to confusion. Evangelicals tend to equate grace with salvation. Catholics often use the plural, graces, to refer to any gift that they believe God has endowed the church with — including saints, bishops, the pope and the sacrament of penance. Thus, when Catholics say that other Christian traditions are lacking in grace, they do not mean that they are outside salvation. Grace also refers to a prayer of thanks before a meal.
Great Commission
Jesus’ instruction to his disciples (as told in Matthew 28:16-20) to “go and make disciples of all nations.” This exhortation has provided the motivation and justification for Christianity’s missionary activities around the world from the time of the early church.
Lowercase in all references.
Lowercase in all references.
Holy Bible
See Bible.
Holy Communion
See Communion, Eucharist and sacrament.
Holy Father
Refers to the pope. However, the preferred form is the pope or the pontiff, or to give the individual’s name. Use Holy Father only as part of a quotation.
Holy Ghost
See Holy Spirit.
holy orders
See sacrament.
Holy See
A term of reverence for the Diocese of Rome, it is used to refer to the pope and his Curia, the Roman Catholic Church’s administrative offices, when official church actions are taken. The Holy See refers to an entity that is distinct from the city-state of the Vatican, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.
Holy Spirit
The third entity of the Christian Trinity of God, Son and Holy Spirit. Christians believe the Holy Spirit leads people to belief in Jesus and dwells in each Christian. The Holy Spirit is depicted in Christian art as an ascending dove bathed in light or as a flame. Once called the Holy Ghost, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the term Holy Spirit came into use. It is now the preferred term.
Holy Thursday
The day before Good Friday, when Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples, washed their feet and instituted Holy Communion. In the Catholic Church, Lent ends whenever the Holy Thursday service begins in any given parish. Also called Maundy Thursday.
Holy Week
In Christianity, the week that begins with Palm Sunday and concludes with Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and Easter commemorates his rising from the dead. Also includes Holy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper (Jesus’ final meal with his disciples), and Good Friday, the day of Christ’s Crucifixion. The Roman Catholic Church has redesignated the period as Passion Week, but Holy Week is still the generally used and preferred term.
Pronounced “hah-muh-LET-iks.” The art or study of delivering sermons or homilies.
Immaculate Conception
The Roman Catholic dogma that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was conceived without original sin. Do not confuse it with the virgin birth of Christ.
A term applied to an interpretation of the Bible that holds that every word is accurate, error-free and literally true.
intelligent design
The belief that some aspects of life forms are so complex that they must reflect the design of a conscious, rational intelligence. Proponents do not identify the designer, but most people involved in the debate assume that intelligent design refers to God. Many supporters of intelligent design reject the theory of evolution and support the idea of creationism. Most intelligent design supporters do not believe that life forms share a common ancestor, although some do.
Formally known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits were founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, a Basque nobleman and soldier. They moved to the forefront of the Catholic Church in missionary work and have also been deeply involved in higher education and social service. Their early work as reformers within the church led to jealous opposition by some other religious orders, including complaints that the Jesuits inappropriately adapted the Catholic liturgy to Chinese culture during their successful 18th-century missionary work in China. Consequently, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits in 1773. The order was restored in 1814 but continued to encounter pockets of opposition from inside and outside the church through much of its history.
just war
A doctrine with roots in Christianity that posits that governments sometimes – but not always — have a morally justified reason for using mass political violence. It has three parts, known by their Latin names: jus ad bellum, which considers the justice of the cause for going to war; jus in bello, which concerns justice within the conduct of war; and jus post bellum, which concerns the justice of peace agreements and the termination of war.
A formal proceeding at the Vatican in which a priest is “returned to the lay state.” This means he is free to marry and is no longer required – or permitted – to say Mass, although in an emergency he can give final sacraments to a dying person. Technically, he remains a priest, but only in the eyes of God, because the Catholic Church believes that ordination leaves an indelible mark on the soul. Most laicizations are done at the request of the priest, though some are carried out involuntarily as punishment for serious offenses. Even voluntarily laicized priests are restricted from certain activities open to other lay Catholics, such as serving as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, also known as a lay Eucharistic minister. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. Although this is colloquially known as “defrocking,” the Catholic Church does not use that word, and it fails to distinguish between laicization and a variety of lesser measures in which a priest can be forbidden to wear clerical garb.
Las Posadas
A traditional Mexican festival in which Joseph and Mary’s search for an inn is re-enacted on the evenings from Dec. 16 to 24. It generally moves from home to home in neighborhoods, but as the Hispanic population in the U.S. grows, it is increasingly staged as a community celebration that is both social and religious.
Last Supper
In Christianity, the Last Supper was the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. The meal is discussed in all four Gospels of the New Testament. Christians believe it took place on a Thursday night, Holy Thursday, before Jesus was crucified on Friday, observed as Good Friday. See Communion.
The period of penance and fasting preceding Easter, the Christian celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection. Lenten observances are most common in the liturgical traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. The observance of Lent developed through the centuries and sometimes varied in its focus and length. Especially for Western Christians, the currently accepted Lenten period recalls Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert and the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land. Lent was originally to prepare those being initiated into the church at Easter and was then broadened to include various days of fasting and penance by all believers. In most of the Catholic Church, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday. Sundays are not counted as days of Lent. Some, still using the old liturgical calendar, count from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Since 1969, when the document known as the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar was released, the Roman Catholic Church has said that Lent ends at the beginning of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. During Lent, able-bodied Catholics over 14 and under 65 are called on to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (that is, to go without a main meal during the day) and to abstain from meat on Fridays. Fish is often substituted. The observance of Lent within Protestantism varies from denomination to denomination, church to church, believer to believer. In recent years, even some nonliturgical Protestants, on their own or through their churches, have taken to observing the Lenten season through fasting and penance.
liturgical vestments
Special garments that a priest, minister, deacon or other clergy wears in worship. Liturgical vestments are especially characteristic of the liturgical churches, such as the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican. In some traditions, the colors of vestments change with the seasons of the church year.
Has two sets of meanings, one for Western Christians and the other for Eastern Christians. Among Roman Catholics and Protestants, lowercase liturgy means a standard set of prayers and practices for public worship. It can also be used as a synonym for the service of worship in churches that use such forms – most commonly the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran. With reference to Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics, uppercase Liturgy; avoid the lowercase use of the word with their churches. Churches that tend to vary their services each week, such as most Baptist, Pentecostal and independent churches, are often called nonliturgical.
Always capitalize when referring to God in a monotheistic faith, as in Lord Jesus or in Lord Krishna.
Lord’s Prayer
The New Testament describes Jesus teaching his followers this prayer, the most commonly recited in Christianity. It is found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.
Lord’s Supper
See Communion.
In Christianity, the proper name St. Jerome gave to Satan. Lowercase devil but uppercase Lucifer.
An area of Christian theology dealing with the life and veneration of the Virgin Mary.
Mary Magdalene
One of Jesus’ female disciples, although she was not counted among the Twelve Apostles. All four Gospels make her the first witness to the Resurrection – alone or with others. For that reason early Christian writers gave her the title “Apostle to the Apostles.” Due to the frequency of the name Mary in the New Testament, and also of significant unnamed women, for many centuries Catholic tradition attributed stories about other Marys and some unnamed women – including a repentant sinner and the woman caught in adultery – to Mary Magdalene. The result was that she was erroneously depicted as a repentant adulteress and later, based on early Protestant preaching, as a reformed prostitute. The Catholic Church officially corrected this depiction of Mary Magdalene in 1968, when her feast day on the church calendar was separated from that of the other Marys, and the readings were changed from those about a sinful woman to her witnessing of the Resurrection.
Mary, mother of Jesus
According to the New Testament, Mary was a virgin when she miraculously conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit. She then married Joseph. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that she remained a perpetual virgin and that biblical references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters mean either Joseph’s children by an earlier marriage or cousins. Most Protestants believe that Mary and Joseph had children. Mary was present at Jesus’ Crucifixion and was among the disciples gathered when the New Testament says they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. According to one tradition, she went to live with the Apostle John in Ephesus, Greece (in modern-day Turkey), after Jesus’ Crucifixion. Other traditions hold that she lived out her days near Jerusalem. Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant Christians give her the title Mother of God. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that her prayers for them are especially powerful because she has such a close relationship to Jesus. Catholics alone believe that Mary’s parents conceived her without transmitting original sin to her – a dogma known as the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is often confused with the Virgin Birth, which refers to the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary. Catholics refer to her as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that she was drawn up bodily into heaven at the end of her life. The Orthodox call this the Dormition of the Theotokos (Theotokos [theh-oh-TOH-kohs] is the usual Orthodox term for Mother of God) and believe that it happened after she died. Catholics call it the Assumption and have never officially resolved whether she died. Mary is also revered by Muslims, and there is a chapter in the Quran named after her. Veneration is the term that characterizes Catholic devotion to Mary and other saints; only God is worshipped. Marian veneration, along with the entire tradition of devotion to saints, was historically one of the principal divides between Catholics and most Protestants, although many Protestants are rethinking their traditional views of the mother of Jesus.
A term used by Latin Catholics and some high-church Anglicans for a worship service that includes the celebration of Holy Communion. The term cannot be used for services that do not include Communion, including those in which someone distributes Communion hosts that were consecrated outside of that service. Catholic sources say a Mass is celebrated or said; however, The Associated Press accepts only celebrated. Capitalize when referring to the celebration of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. Lowercase any preceding adjectives, as in funeral Mass. Orthodox Christians call their Eucharistic service the Divine Liturgy.
Maundy Thursday
See Holy Thursday.
Generally defined as a Christian church that has a weekly sustained attendance of 2,000 or more. Although megachurches existed in some form in the United States throughout the 20th century, in recent decades they have flourished. Megachurches are often Protestant, evangelical, Catholic or Pentecostal, and many are theologically conservative. Many are nondenominational or Southern Baptist.
messiah, Messiah
A Hebrew term meaning “the anointed one.” For Christians, the one and only Messiah is Jesus Christ. Jews await the coming of the Messiah. Capitalize in religious uses and lowercase in secular cases.
A term often applied to any man in a religious order, it should be restricted to members of contemplative orders, such as Benedictines, Cistercians and Carthusians. Friar is the name given to members of the mendicant orders, such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites, which are pledged to live on free-will offerings. Brother is a title given to laymen who take vows as members of religious communities. Monks and friars can be, but often are not, ordained priests. Brothers remain in the lay state but as vowed members of the community. All monks, friars and brothers who are not ordained can be addressed as Brother in conversation and on first reference, such as Brother John Doe. On second reference, continue to use Brother and the first name if the person is known that way, such as Brother John. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference.
An honorary title given to some diocesan priests by the pope. Capitalize before the name on first reference. Do not use the abbreviation Msgr. or the titles the Very Rev. or the Rt. Rev. Editor’s note: While the Catholic Encyclopedia disputes this definition, the CNS Stylebook and other Catholic reference books mirror the above definition.
neo-Pentecostal, charismatic
These terms apply to a movement that developed in the 1960s and 1970s within mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. It is characterized by emotional expressiveness in worship, speaking or praying in “tongues” and healing. Unlike the Pentecostal movement of the early part of the 20th century, the new movement did not result in the creation of new denominations. Instead, its adherents operate within their original denominations.
New Testament
The part of the Christian Bible written after the death of Jesus Christ. The name traces back to the Greek term meaning new covenant. There are 27 books in the New Testament, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the letters of the Apostles and early church leaders.
Nicene Creed
The profession of the Christian faith shared by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic churches and most Protestant churches. Its earliest form was first agreed on by the overwhelming majority of hundreds of bishops who met in Nicaea in what is now Turkey in 325, and later expanded upon in 381 in Constantinople and confirmed in Chalcedon in 451. The councils were called to resolve the question of how to understand the divinity of Christ. The creed states that Christ was of one substance (consubstantial) with God the Father and was begotten, not created (made).
A woman belonging to a religious order, typically Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Nuns are also found in the Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran and Buddhist traditions. In Catholicism, nuns are cloistered, meaning they live a life of secluded prayer, while sisters are more likely to be engaged in ministry outside the convent. However, the terms have become interchangeable in everyday language. Catholics commonly refer to nuns and brothers as “religious,” as in women and men religious, but that term is often confusing to general readers. Nuns and sisters are not ordained; they are lay people who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the superior (leader) of their community. The superiors of some orders are referred to as Mother. Some nuns and sisters continue to use a surname, while others do not. On first reference, follow the appropriate conventions, as in Sister Jane Doe or Mother Teresa. On second reference, continue to use Sister or Mother and the first name if the person is known that way, such as Mother Teresa. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference. See sister.
Old Testament
Also known as the Hebrew Scriptures or Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament makes up the first part of the Christian Bible. Jews do not use this term, and many consider it disrespectful because it implies that the Hebrew Bible is “old” and unnecessary compared with the Christian Scriptures. Use Hebrew Bible in stories solely involving Judaism. It is divided into categories of law, history, poetry and prophecy. All of the books were written before the birth of Jesus. The canonical books used differ among Jews, Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, although there is much overlap. Old Testament is capitalized in all references. See Apocrypha.
Opus Dei
A Roman Catholic organization founded in 1928 in Madrid by Josemaría Escrívá de Balaguer, who was proclaimed a saint in 2002, to help Catholic lay people experience God in their daily work. It is not a religious order, although it has priests as members; ninety-eight percent of its members are lay people. In 1982, Pope John Paul II made it a personal prelature, meaning that it functions a bit like a global diocese, with members of Opus Dei under the authority of a bishop who governs the group. It is formally known as the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei. It has been the subject of criticism by former members who found it too authoritarian and by conspiracy theorists who accused it of involvement in right-wing politics in Spain and Latin America. Opus Dei has gained further notoriety in recent years due to its depiction in the popular and controversial novel The Da Vinci Code. Opus Dei is one of what are known as ecclesial movements, that is, grass-roots organizations, usually among lay people, that transcend parishes and dioceses by attracting members drawn to the movement’s particular focus. These movements have become popular in recent decades. They have often started in Europe but spread internationally. Other well-known ecclesial movements include Communion and Liberation, the Neocatechumenal Way and the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Pronounced “oh-REE-shah.” In the Santeria religion, it is an emissary of God who rules over human life.
Palm Sunday
The sixth Sunday in Lent and the beginning of the Christian Holy Week before Easter. Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The day gets its name from the biblical reference to crowds throwing palm fronds before Jesus as he entered the city. Also known as Passion Sunday, though Palm Sunday is the preferred term.
papal infallibility
The doctrine that the pope can make a pronouncement, under special circumstances, on a matter of faith that must be definitively accepted by all the faithful. This is one of the most misunderstood concepts among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and one whose exact meaning and exercise remain a matter of much debate within the church. The Catholic faith teaches that only God is infallible, and that God ensures that the church — rather than its members or leaders — will be free from error. A pope is not personally infallible. He is only able to make special declarations that are affirming a sacred truth that always existed. Papal infallibility was first formally defined in 1870, and it has only been invoked once since then – in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared as dogma that the Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her life. Pope Pius IX’s affirmation, in 1854, of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin) is the only other instance in modern history in which papal infallibility has been invoked. Theologians continue to debate whether and what other teachings might be considered infallible.
papal nuncio
A Vatican diplomat with the rank of ambassador to a country that has official ties with the Vatican. Papal nuncios normally have a crucial role in the selection of bishops for the country to which they are sent. Lowercase the title and do not use as a formal title before a name. Papal nuncios should be identified formally on first reference by their religious rank, usually archbishop. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name.
A Christian organization outside traditional church structures and hierarchies. Examples are organizations devoted to evangelism, missionary work, moral reform and education. They are particularly common among evangelicals. Parachurch is used most often as an adjective but is also used as a noun.
Originally this referred to a geographic territory whose residents were all to go to the one church within that territory. That is still essentially how it functions within Roman Catholicism. In the 1960s theEpiscopal Church allowed its members to attend any parish they chose, eliminating the geographic use of the term. Today, a growing minority of Catholics also attend the parish of their choice, and there is no sanction involved. In some heavily Catholic parts of the nation, particularly Louisiana and Philadelphia, counties or neighborhoods are still known as parishes. Capitalize as part of the formal name. Lowercase when standing alone.
A member of a parish. It is best used only in reference to Catholic, Episcopal and Orthodox Christians. It should not be used for non-Christians or members of nonhierarchical Protestant denominations.
Generally, the head minister or priest of a Christian church, although in some denominations any ordained minister is called pastor. It means shepherd and is also used in reference to bishops and to the pope.
The Greek term for the first five books in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for the same books is Torah.
A Christian feast held on the seventh Sunday after Easter that marks the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus Christ.
An alternative name for pope. The word derives from Latin and means bridge builder. Do not use as a formal title or capitalize.
Most commonly refers to the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but Coptic Orthodox Christians also are led by a pope. Capitalize only when used as a formal title before a name.
Lowercase this term.
The term used for ordained clergy of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopal faith. Priest also is used by Wiccans and for some clergy in Buddhism and Hinduism. It is not a formal title and is not capitalized. Avoid the term minister when referring to Catholic priests. Also, while every priest has pastoral duties toward the baptized, the term pastor refers to the priest (and in rare cases, laymen or laywomen) charged by the bishop with overseeing a parish. A pastor may have one or more assistant pastors. Most Catholic priests in the United States are diocesan clergy, ordained by and for a particular diocese. They make promises of celibacy and obedience, but although they are expected to adhere to a modest lifestyle, they do not take vows of poverty and can own a home, for example, or a car. The term religious priests refers to priests who belong to a religious order, such as the Jesuits, and hold possessions in common.
A term used to describe people who oppose abortion. Abortion, however, is a more nuanced issue, with many people opposing abortion rights in most, but not all, circumstances. Journalists should instead use a description of their views, such as opposed to abortion or against abortion rights. See abortion, pro-choice.
In Christian eschatology, a term used to describe the sudden transportation of true Christians into heaven before other events associated with the end of the world take place. See premillennial dispensationalism.
religious habit
The traditional garment worn by members of religious orders, the habit is analogous to the cassock worn by diocesan clergy. Each order has a distinctive style. Franciscans, for example, wear a simple brown habit with a hood, along with sandals, similar to that worn by the order’s founder, St. Francis. The habit generally has its origins in contemporary dress of the period the order was founded. The habits of many sisters and nuns resemble clothing worn by widows in ancient times, for example. Wearing the habit used to be compulsory, but the regulations were relaxed after the Second Vatican Council, and many religious, men and women, wear regular street clothes.
religious orders
Religious orders are communities that live by a particular “rule” that guides their daily communal prayer and work lives. Members profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These rules are usually set forth by the founder of the order. For example, the Benedictines live by the Rule of St. Benedict, composed by the sixth-century monk who is considered the founder of Western monasticism. Franciscans, another well-known order, live according to the precepts and principles — especially service to the poor — set out by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic, are known for their vigorous preaching. Many orders have communities of men and communities of women. Men’s religious orders often have priests, who are ordained, and brothers, who have taken vows but are considered lay people. The Jesuits, the largest Catholic order today, is all-male, with priests and brothers. There are many manifestations of vowed religious life in Catholicism, and each order often has different communities that live according to reforms instituted through the centuries. Some religious communities are contemplative or cloistered, meaning their days are spent apart from the world and largely in prayer. Religious life is believed to have originated with desert monks and hermits whose ascetic practices were brought to Europe in the early centuries of Christianity. In the United States, many religious orders operate schools and universities, in addition to running some parishes. (Most parishes are overseen by diocesan priests.) Orders are under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop, but they have a great deal of autonomy. Members of religious orders have initials after their names that indicate the official title of their order. For example, the best-known group of Franciscans is known as the Order of Friars Minor, and its members have O.F.M. after their names. Similarly, the formal name for the Jesuits is the Society of Jesus, denoted by S.J. Accepted style does not include the initials, but rather names the person’s order as part of the identifier. For example, “C.S.J.” stands for “Congregation of St. Joseph,” but in referring to a member of that order one would write: Sister Helen Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, works for the abolition of the death penalty.
religious references
In general, follow AP’s guidelines on religious references. deities: Capitalize the proper names of the deities from monotheistic religions — God, Allah, the Father, the Son, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit. Lowercase pronouns referring to the deities. When referring to the deities of polytheistic religions, lowercase the words god and gods, but capitalize the proper name of a specific deity, such as Zeus or Odin. life of Christ: Capitalize the names of major events in Jesus Christ’s life, such as the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Nativity, the Resurrection. Crucifixion and Resurrection should always be capitalized when referring to Jesus — a departure from AP style. rites: Capitalize proper names for rites commemorating the Last Supper or that signify a belief in Christ’s presence, such as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Holy Eucharist. The word communion alone is lowercase. Lowercase the names of other sacraments. Capitalize Benediction when referring to the Catholic religious service with that name, but not when referring to other rites or acts of blessing. Capitalize Mass, but lowercase preceding adjectives, such as funeral Mass. holy days: Capitalize the names of holy days. other references: Lowercase heaven, hell and devil. Capitalize Hades and Satan. Lowercase angel unless it precedes a name, such as the Angel Gabriel. Lowercase apostle unless it precedes the name of one of the original Twelve Apostles or of Paul, or refers to those Apostles collectively.
revelation, Revelation
In monotheistic religions, revelation is the process through which God reveals or communicates truths about God’s self or will. Uppercase when referring to the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. (Note that Revelation is singular.)
Reverend, the
An attributive form of address given to many but not all ordained Christian and Buddhist clergy. Do not use this honorific form unless you are sure that the particular denomination accepts its use. Follow AP style of using the article the to precede the abbreviation Rev. Never use the Rev. Dr. together before a name. See religious titles for guidance.
Roman Catholic Church
It is the largest Christian community in the world and in the U.S. The Roman Catholic Church considers itself to be the one, true, and full expression of the church founded by Jesus Christ. (The word catholic means “universal.”) It traces its origins to the Church of Rome, which was one of several pre-eminent churches in the apostolic age of the first century. (Others were in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and elsewhere.) The Catholic Church believes that through St. Peter — considered the first bishop of Rome, where he was martyred — the Church of Rome early on exercised a primacy and authority over the other churches. That authority continued to be exercised under the successors to Peter, bishops who later came to be known by the title of pope. The Catholic Church says the basis of the Petrine and papal authority starts with Jesus’ commission to Peter in Matthew 16:18. The assertion and its practice were always matters of dispute. The first major fracture came in the 11th century, when Western, Latin-Rite Christianity under the bishop of Rome split with the patriarchs of the Orthodox churches in the East, based in Constantinople. The Catholic Church still considers Eastern Orthodoxy a true church with which it has few significant doctrinal differences — the authority of the pope being one of them. Rome characterizes much of Protestantism as not comprising true churches but rather “ecclesial communities.” The Roman Catholic Church was known simply as the Catholic Church until the Protestant Reformation, when the authority of the pope became a source of contention. Catholics began to use the Roman appellation to reinforce their unity under the pope, and the primacy of the papacy has become one of the distinguishing marks of modern Catholicism. Catholic belief and practice are ordered around seven sacraments — Holy Eucharist, baptism, confirmation, penance (confession), matrimony, holy orders (ordination) and the sacrament of the sick. The pope’s seat of power is the Holy See at the Vatican. He selects bishops and members of the College of Cardinals. Cardinals usually are bishops, but that is not a requirement. When a new pope must be chosen, the cardinals gather in a conclave to select him. Outside of Rome, the church’s principal organizational units are archdioceses, headed by archbishops, and dioceses, headed by bishops. Both report directly to Rome. The highest office in the Catholic Church is that of bishop; the pope is the bishop of Rome. In reality, the hierarchical structure among ordained clergy is pope, cardinal, archbishop, bishop, monsignor, priest and deacon. Women are barred from holy orders.
A form of repetitive prayer and meditation used by Roman Catholics. The beads of the rosary are separated into five decades, with each decade representing a mystery or event in the life of Jesus Christ. The Apostles’ Creed is said while holding the rosary’s crucifix; the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) is said on each of the large beads; the Hail Mary is said on each of the small beads; the Glory Be is said after the three Hail Marys at the beginning of the rosary and after each decade of small beads. In 2002, Pope John Paul II made the unprecedented move of introducing a fourth, optional set of mysteries. The rosary is recited or said, not read. Always lowercase rosary.
A Christian rite than confers grace and serves as a visible form of it. The Orthodox, Roman Catholic and certain Episcopal churches believe there are seven sacraments: Eucharist or Communion, baptism, confirmation, penance (often called confession), anointing of the ill, marriage and ordination (holy orders). Most Protestant churches recognize only two sacraments, baptism and Communion. Lowercase sacrament, but capitalize when using the proper names for sacramental rites that commemorate the life of Christ or signify a belief in his presence, such as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion and Holy Eucharist. Lowercase the other sacraments.
In Catholicism, a saint is anyone who is judged to have lived a holy life, to be in heaven and to be a model Christian worthy of public veneration. Canonization is the process in the Catholic Church by which a deceased person is officially recognized as having joined the “communion of saints” in heaven and therefore able to intercede with God in a special way for people on earth. Capitalize and abbreviate as St. when referring to names of saints, cities and other places. Follow the AP exceptions for the cities of Saint John in New Brunswick and Sault Ste. Marie. See canonization.
The term was first coined by the Spanish to describe the way West African slaves combined Roman Catholic traditions with aboriginal religious rites. The faith focuses on trances for communicating with ancestors and often involves animal sacrifice. Santeria is practiced in the Caribbean and in some major American cities with significant Caribbean populations. It shares some characteristics with Voodoo, another syncretistic religion in the Caribbean that also traces its roots to West Africa. Santeria is known by several other names, including Lukumi. The name Santeria is actually considered a pejorative by some but has come into common usage, even among some followers, and is acceptable to use. Uppercase Santeria in all references.
In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is depicted as an angel used by God to test man. In the New Testament, Satan is a fallen angel who is the ultimate evil and enemy of God and man. In Islam, Satan was the head jinn or genie until he angered God by refusing to accept man’s superiority. Uppercase in all references, but always lowercase devil.
Always capitalize when referring to Jesus Christ.
scripture, scriptures
The sacred writings of a religious group. Capitalize when referring to writings from the Holy Bible but not otherwise.
Second Coming
Always capitalize when referring to the return of Jesus that is prophesied in the Bible.
Second Vatican Council
See Vatican II.
A bishop’s official seat or center of authority.
seven deadly sins
Pope Gregory the Great is credited with devising this list in the sixth century of the worst human vices: pride, envy, greed, anger, sloth, lust and gluttony.
A member of a religious order of women. Uppercase when used as a title before a name. On second reference, continue to use Sister and the first name if the person is known that way, such as Sister Joan. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference. Anglican orders for women may include both lay and ordained members.
A small, close-fitting headpiece worn in some religious traditions, particularly by men. Other names for it include yarmulke or kippa (worn by Jews), zucchetto (worn by Roman Catholic prelates) and kufi (worn by Muslims).
A council, usually in a Christian church, convened to decide a doctrinal or administrative issue. Uppercase in formal names.
A Greek word, meaning “to view together,” used to refer to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which tell many of the same stories of Jesus’ life and can be compared side-by-side. The Gospel of John tells different stories in a different sequence.
Pronounced “TEH-zay.” A Christian worship service known for silence, simple music, candle lighting, prayer and meditation. It is drawn from the practices of a monastic community founded in the Burgundy region of France during World War II. Taizé emphasizes Christian unity. People from Roman Catholic, Protestant and other traditions from all over the world flock to Taizé to take part in worship, service and reflection.
Ten Commandments
The biblical edicts handed to Moses by God atop Mount Sinai. They are the basis of Mosaic law. They are found in Exodus 20:2-17, 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21; Exodus 20 is the most commonly quoted version. The commandments are numbered differently by Jews and by different Christian traditions, including Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Christians. The different numbering and wording (according to the biblical translation chosen) is one factor that has made public posting of the Ten Commandments controversial.
The doctrine that the bread and wine are physically transformed into the body and blood of Christ when consecrated in the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches believe in transubstantiation. See consubstantiation.
This key doctrine in Christianity says that God, the Son and the Holy Spirit together make up the one Godhead. The exact nature and definition of the Trinity were central in the split between the Eastern and Western Christian churches.
Twelve Apostles
See Apostles.
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
The official governing body of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, it is made up of bishops, archbishops and cardinals. The USCCB adopted this name in 2001; note that U.S. is abbreviated, not spelled out. USCCB is used on second reference.
Vatican bank
Do not capitalize bank. The formal name is actually the Institute for Religious Works, or IOR, for Istituto per le Opere di Religione.
Vatican II
The common name for the Second Vatican Council, a council of all the world’s bishops opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965. Vatican II ushered in major reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, such as changes in biblical studies, and encouraged bishops and clergy to deal with the challenges of the modern world. It also recognized the importance of the laity in the church and signaled a greater openness to other Christians and non-Christians, including a reconsideration of the church’s attitude toward Judaism. Popularly, Vatican II is perhaps best-known for leading to the saying of Mass in the vernacular, rather than exclusively in Latin. Councils are infrequent — the previous council was Vatican I (1869-70) — and are convened in times of crisis or to resolve especially difficult questions. There is some debate as to whether a council wields greater authority than the pope.
Vatican, Vatican City
The pope and his administrative clergy live in this 108-acre city-state that is the temporal headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican City is an independent state in the center of Rome. The cathedral of the pope — the bishop of Rome — is the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the other side of Rome. In recent centuries popes have resided more often at the Vatican, which is built around St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s Basilica sits above the tomb where the remains of St. Peter, who Catholic tradition regards as the first pope and bishop of Rome, are believed to rest. The popes were for centuries temporal rulers of a large swath of central Italy. But when Italy was united as a single nation in 1860, the Papal States became part of the new secular government, and the pope’s kingdom was reduced to the city of Rome. In 1870 Italian troops defeated the last papal forces and took Rome as the nation’s capital. The pope refused to recognize the new situation and became a self-declared “prisoner of the Vatican” until 1929, when the Vatican and the government of Benito Mussolini resolved the impasse in a concordat. The Vatican was given a sum of money as compensation for the confiscation of its holdings, and Vatican City was recognized as a legal governing entity. Popes were also allowed to travel outside the Vatican’s confines. The Vatican has its own flag, coins, postage stamps, media, train station and police, as well as the ceremonial troops known as the Swiss Guard. Vatican City includes St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo, the Vatican Museums and other priceless works of art. Vatican City stands alone in datelines.
Ordained monks and nuns in Theravada Buddhism are given the honorific Venerable before their names. In Roman Catholicism, the term is applied posthumously when a pope has approved the first stage in a person’s official cause for canonization, as in Venerable Fulton Sheen.  Also, in the Episcopal Church, archdeacons are addressed with the honorific the Venerable, as in the Venerable Jill Smith. See religious titles.
Virgin Birth
The Christian belief that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. It should not be confused with the Immaculate Conception, which is a Catholic dogma that the Virgin Mary was conceived free from original sin.
Virgin Mary
The mother of Jesus Christ. See Mary, Mother of Jesus.
Word of God
Capitalize when referring to the Bible.
Do not use this shortened form of the word Christmas.
A skullcap sometimes worn by Roman Catholic prelates.