Basic Tenets of Catholicism
The basic tenets of Catholicism are the fundamental beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church.
Are you looking for a quick & simple guide to basic Catholicism? Here’s a primer on Catholic Church doctrine — the essential tenets of Catholicism.
This page is intended as for those who are just starting out in the Catholic faith. It’s a quick-reference guide to Catholicism for beginners, perfect for those working on understanding Catholicism.
For lots more detail see the other articles here at beginningCatholic.com!
The scope of these
Tenets of Catholicism
The full content of the Catholic faith can be organized into four categories:
- Basic beliefs (the faith itself)
- How to live (morality)
- How Catholics worship (liturgy)
This page and its related articles covers the first of those points — the tenets of Catholicism are the basics beliefs of the faith.
Other articles here at beginningCatholic.com cover the other three categories of the Catholic faith, as well as provide more information that’s important to the beginning Catholic. You can also look to other reliable guides for learning the faith — see my suggestions at the end of this article.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains a full description of the tenets of Catholicism — the essential and basic beliefs in Catholicism. It defines the points of unity for Catholics. (Click here to read the tenets of Catholicism in the Vatican’s online Catechism.)
Every Catholic should have a copy of the Catechism. You may not read it cover to cover, but you’ll want to use it as a reference for learning about your faith. (It is pretty readable, though, and a lot of ordinary Catholics do read it to get a full understanding of the tenets of Catholicism.)
Still, the Catechism was written more as a definitive reference for Catholic Church doctrine. There are more readable sources available.
At the end of this article is a list of other reliable guides to the Catholic faith. I strongly encourage you to read some of them!
- Alan Schreck’s The Essential Catholic Catechism is my top recommendation for learning the basic beliefs in Catholicism.
- Leo Trese’s The Faith Explained is a very close second to Schreck’s book. In fact, you should read both if you can do so: they are very different and complement each other quite well.
- I’ve added detailed reviews of these books at the end of this article. Check them out!
The Catholic faith can be understood easily in its barest outline, yet it contains an rich and beautiful depth for anyone who wishes to explore it.
So explore it!
Creeds: Summary of the faith
From its earliest days, the Church used brief summaries to describe an outline of its most essential beliefs.
These summaries are called “creeds”, from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe.” They are also called “professions of faith,” since they summarize the faith that Christians profess.
The Catholic Church uses two very old creeds regularly as a part of its liturgy and other prayers. There are a number of other Catholic creeds as well.
The older Apostles Creed is brief and simple. It is considered to be a faithful summary of the Apostles’ teaching. It is the ancient baptismal symbol of the Church at Rome. (See Catechism, 194.)
The longer Catholic Nicene Creed contains some additional language explaining our belief in the Trinity.
Another ancient & traditional creed is commonly called the Athanasian Creed, since it was originally attributed to St. Athanasius, who died in 373 A.D. (This creed is no longer officially attributed to him.) It is also called the Quicumque vult, after its first words in Latin. This beautiful creed contains a detailed meditation on the nature of the Trinity.
Outline: tenets of Catholicism
Like the Catechism, we’ll use the articles of the Apostles Creed as our outline for describing the essential tenets of Catholicism. Of course, this short outline provides only the barest essentials of the Catholic Christian faith.
For your reference, I’ll add cross-references to the numbered paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for each point.
I believe in God
- God exists. There is only one God. He has revealed himself as “He who Is”. His very being is Truth and Love. Even though he has revealed himself, he remains a mystery beyond understanding (Catechism, 178, 199, 200, 230, 231)
- God is at the same time one, and three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the central mystery of Christianity. (178, 261)
- See the article on the Athanasian Creed & read that creed’s beautiful meditation on the nature of the Trinity.
- Man responds to God’s revelation by faith: believing God and adhering to his will. (176)
- Faith is necessary for salvation. (183)
- What God has revealed through Scripture and Sacred Catholic Tradition (what Christ taught to the Apostles) has been reliably written & handed down to us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (96 & 97)
the Father almighty
- God the Father is the first Person of the one God, the Trinity.
- We dare to call God Father only through the merits of Jesus. He taught us to call God Father. (2798, 322, 742)
- We can call God Father only because of our union with his Son, Jesus. Through union with Jesus, we become adopted sons and daughters of God the Father. This is called divine filiation, and is the essence of the Good News. (260, 422, 742, 1110, 1279, & Pope John Paul II, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”)
- God is Father because he is the first origin of all things, and because of his loving care for all of us as his children. (239)
- God is almighty because he is all powerful. The Catholic liturgy says, “God, you show your almighty power above all in your mercy and forgiveness” — by converting us from our sins and restoring us to his friendship by grace. (277)
creator of heaven and earth
- God created everything in existence, material & immaterial. (317, 320, 338)
- “The world was made for the glory of God.” He freely chose to create to show forth & communicate his “glory” — his unlimited love and goodness. (293)
- Heaven exists; it is the immaterial dwelling place of God. (326, 2802, 1023-5)
- God upholds & sustains creation, is actively involved in its unfolding and development in time, and is the loving master of the world and of its history. (301-5, 314)
- We can perceive God’s work of creation through the apparent order & design in the natural world. (286, 299)
- This belief in God as the first cause of all creation is compatible with various scientific theories and investigations of the secondary causes of development in the natural world. (283-4, 306-8)
- God deliberately created man, male and female, in his image and likeness and placed him at the summit of creation. Man alone was created for his own sake, and alone is called to share in God’s own life. We are not a product of blind chance. (295, 355-6)
- God created man as male & female: equal in value & dignity, different in nature, and complementary in purpose. (369-372)
- While the creation accounts in Genesis may use symbolic language, it teaches profound truths about creation, man, the fall, evil, and the promise of salvation. (289, 389-90)
- The devil, a fallen angel, is real. He is the ultimate source of all evil. (391-5, 413-15)
- Adam, as the first man, freely chose disobedience to God, resulting in the loss of man’s original holiness and justice, and brought about death. We call this state of deprivation original sin. (416-19)
- The victory of salvation won by Christ is greater than our loss due to sin. (420)
- The question of evil is a profound mystery. Every aspect of the Christian message is in part an answer to the question of evil. (309)
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
- Jesus is the second Person of the one God, the Trinity. (422-4, 468)
- Christ’s divine sonship is the center of the apostolic faith. (442)
- The title “Lord” indicates that Jesus is God himself. (446, 455)
- Jesus is the “Christ,” the Messiah prophesied about in Scripture in the Old Testament. His coming brought about the promised liberation of Israel and mankind from the bonds of evil and death. (422-4, 430-3, 436, 438-9)
- Christ is the perfect, full & definitive Revelation of God. After him, there will be no other public Revelation. (73)
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
- Jesus, the Word of God, became man to save us by reconciling us with the Father, so that we might know God’s love, to be our model of holiness, and to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). (457-60)
- Belief in the Incarnation (the Son of God come in human flesh) is the distinctive sign of the Christian faith. (463)
- Jesus assumed human form in the womb of the Virgin Mary, his mother. The conception of his human body was accomplished by the action of the Holy Spirit, and not by natural generation from man, although he is truly conceived of Mary’s flesh. (456, 466, 484-6, 488, 496-8)
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, as written in Scripture. (423)
- Jesus is fully God, and fully man. As God, he has always existed with the Father and the Holy Spirit. At a specific point in history, he assumed human form and became man. He retains both of these natures fully, even now in heaven. (464, 467, 469-70)
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.
- Through his suffering and death, Jesus redeemed man once & for all, freeing him from slavery to sin, evil, and death. It is for our sins that he died. (571-3, 619, 1019)
- “Jesus freely offered himself for our salvation. Beforehand, during the Last Supper, he both symbolized this offering and made it really present: ‘This is my body which is given for you.’” (621)
- As a true man, Jesus fully experienced death. (624-7, 629)
- Jesus did not abolish the Law of the Old Testament, but fulfilled it with perfection, revealing its ultimate meaning and redeeming the transgressions against it. (592)
- The phrase “descended into hell” means that, after dying, Jesus’s human soul united to his divine person descended to the “realm of the dead” to bring salvation to the souls of the just who had already died. This opened heaven to them. (636-7)
On the third day he rose again.
- The Resurrection was a real, historical event. It is the basis for our faith in all Jesus revealed to us. Jesus rose from the dead, body and soul, early on the Sunday morning after his death. He walked the earth for a brief time, and there were many witnesses of his appearances. (638-9)
- At the same time as the Resurrection was an historical event, it remains at the heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history. (647)
- After the Resurrection, Jesus’s authentic, real body also possesses new properties of a glorious body. (645)
- The Resurrection is the principle and source of our own future resurrection. (655)
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
- Christ’s Ascension into heaven is a definitive entrance of Jesus’s humanity into God’s heavenly domain. (665)
- The Ascension gives us hope that we, too, may enter into heaven, body and soul, and be united with Christ forever. (666)
- Jesus Christ, as the one true mediator between God and man, intercedes for us constantly before the Father and assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Holy Spirit. (667)
He will come again to judge the living and the dead
- There will be an end of time, and an end of this world. As the book of Revelation attests, it will come about after one final assault by the powers of evil before the final triumph of Christ’s kingdom. (680)
- At the end of time, Christ will return (the Second Coming) on Judgment Day where he will judge the living and the dead, each according to his works and according to his acceptance or refusal of grace. (681-2)
I believe in the Holy Spirit
- God the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one God, the Trinity. (685)
- The Holy Spirit has been working for our salvation with the Father and the Son from the beginning. But now, in these “end times” since the Incarnation, God can embody this divine plan in mankind “by the outpouring of the [Holy] Spirit: as the Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” (CCC 686)
- The Holy Spirit does not speak of himself or on his own. He simply reveals Christ to us and disposes us to welcome and receive Christ in faith. His mission is the same as that of the Son: to unite us to the Son so we may be adopted by the Father. (687, 689-90)
- “The Church, a communion living in the faith of the apostles which she transmits, is the place where we know the Holy Spirit.” We know him in the Church through the Scriptures he inspired, Tradition in which he acted, the Magisterium he assists, the liturgy & sacraments through which he acts to sanctify and bring us into communion with Christ, prayer as he intercedes for us, charisms he uses to build up the Church, the signs of apostolic life, and “in the witness of saints through whom he manifests his holiness and continues the work of salvation.” (688)
- “The Holy Spirit, whom Christ the head pours out on his members, builds, animates, and sanctifies the Church. She is the sacrament of the Holy Trinity’s communion with men.” (747)
the holy Catholic Church
- The Church is the place where the Spirit flourishes. (749)
- “‘The Church’ is the People that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s Body.” (752)
- Everything the Church is, it is only because of Christ. It depends entirely on Christ. It shows forth Christ’s light, spreads Christ’s Word, and continues Christ’s work. The Church Fathers used the moon as an image of the Church: all its light is reflected from the sun. (748)
- Christ instituted the Church to be the great sacrament of our salvation through Christ’s own continuing action. He gave the Church its definite structure, with Peter at its head, and conferred on it his own divine authority. He promised to remain with it until the end of time, and to send his Spirit to guide it and teach it in all truth. By all his actions, Christ prepared and built his Church. (775-6, 763-8)
- My article on Church authority takes a detailed look at the Scriptural basis for this.
- “The Church is in history, but at the same time she transcends it. It is only ‘with the eyes of faith’ that one can see her in her visible reality and at the same time in her spiritual reality as bearer of divine life.” (770)
- The union between Christ and his Church is that of the bridegroom and his bride, which is a great mystery. (772)
- The “four marks of the Church” are that it is one (through union in Christ), holy, catholic (she proclaims the fullness of the faith and is sent out to all peoples in all times), and apostolic (built on the foundation of the Apostles and is governed by Christ).
- Unity with the Bishop of Rome (the Pope, successor to Peter) is the point of our unity with the universal Church, and with Christ himself: Peter is “the rock” on which the Church is founded. (880-85, 896)
- As the one who through her faith & charity brought salvation into the world through her role as mother of Christ, Mary is the model of the Church. She is the spiritual mother of all members of Christ’s Body, the Church. This role is inseparable from her union with Christ and flows directly from it. (963-4, 967)
the communion of saints
- The communion of saints is the Church, past, present & future; living & dead; on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven. (946, 954-5)
- We are a communion in two related senses: a communion of holy persons (sancta) only because we have shared a communion of holy things (sancti), namely, the sacraments, and above all else, the Eucharist. (948, 950)
- As we pray for each other on earth, so continues the Church in heaven. Those saints in heaven, being more closely united to Christ, more effectively intercede for us. Thus we can ask the saints in heaven to pray for us, and we can also all pray for the holy souls being purified in Purgatory. (954-9)
- In this solidarity among all men, living & dead, every act done in charity will profit all, and every sin will harm the whole communion. (953)
the forgiveness of sins
- Only Christ forgives sins; the priests and sacraments are simply the means through which Christ acts to accomplish this. (987, 986)
- In the Apostles Creed, faith in the forgiveness of sins is linked to faith in the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the communion of saints. When Christ gave the Holy Spirit to his Apostles, at the same time he gave them the power to forgive sins. (976)
- “Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of the forgiveness of sins: it unites us to Christ, who died and rose, and gives us the Holy Spirit.” (985)
the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting
- This final pair of articles in the creed speaks of the complete fulfillment of our salvation at the end of time. Christ will raise our dead bodies, changed into a spiritual body like Christ’s own glorious body (after his Resurrection), and reunite them to our immortal souls. God created man as a unity of body & soul, and that is how we will live in eternity. (988-1001, 1052)
- Christian life is already a participation of our body & soul in Christ’s death and Resurrection, through baptism. This dignity demands that we respect our bodies & those of others. (1002, 1004)
- There are two judgments: the particular judgment of each person immediately when he dies, when the immortal soul receives its definitive reward or punishment. Then at the end of time, the Last Judgment will take place with all souls reunited with their glorified bodies. Then we will all know the ultimate meaning of creation and all of salvation, and will see our part in it, for good or ill, and receive the consequences of our own life’s work. (1038-41)
- After the Last Judgment, the righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body & soul. The universe itself will end & be renewed in a new creation, a great mystery that Scripture calls “a new heaven and a new earth.” This is the full and definitive reign of the Kingdom of God in the heavenly Jerusalem, where God will make his dwelling among men. (1042-44)
- Hell is real, a place of great suffering — especially in that those in hell are forever separated from God. Although God wants to save all men, he created us with free will out of love, and allows us to reject him and choose death instead of life. (1033-37)
- Amen is a Hebrew word related to the word for “believe”. It expresses solidity, trustworthiness, faithfulness. “Amen” expresses both God’s faithfulness towards us and our trust in him. (1062)
- “Thus the Creed’s final ‘Amen’ repeats and confirms its first words: ‘I believe.’ To believe is to say ‘Amen’ to God’s words, promises and commandments; to entrust oneself completely to him who is the ‘Amen’ of infinite love and perfect faithfulness. The Christian’s everyday life will then be the ‘Amen’ to the ‘I believe’ of our baptismal profession of faith: ‘May your Creed be for you as a mirror. Look at yourself in it, to see if you believe everything you say you believe. And rejoice in your faith each day.’” (1064)
- “Jesus Christ himself is the ‘Amen.’ He is the definitive ‘Amen’ of the Father’s love for us. He takes up and completes our ‘Amen’ to the Father: ‘For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God.’” (1065)
Further reading: reliable guides to
the Catholic faith
Remember that the above outline of the basic tenets of Catholicism is a minimal summary of the primary beliefs summarized in the Church’s creeds.
We Catholics must know our faith thoroughly — and in more detail than that minimal outline of the tenets of Catholicism!
The official Catechism is a great source, but there are a few terrific and very readable books that can make it very easy to learn your faith.
I have two favorite books for learning the basics of the faith and morality:
- Alan Schreck’s The Essential Catholic Catechism
- Leo Trese’s The Faith Explained
If you’re only going to read one, make it Schreck’s book. This is a very readable presentation of the fullness of the Catholic faith, complete enough to present all the basics without being overwhelming.
Schreck’s book is just the right mix (for me!) of explanation and reference to authoritative sources. His explanations are quite good, and his writing style makes the book very readable. The references to official sources are helpful when you want to look more into one of the tenets of Catholicism.
Schreck’s The Essential Catholic Catechism will give you a first-class grounding in the Catholic faith. He’s very faithful in presenting what the Church teaches, which is very important (see the importance of orthodoxy for more about this in general). He covers and explains all the necessary tenets of Catholicism, and makes it very accessible.
But Father Trese’s The Faith Explained is also outstanding. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read about the Catholic faith.
The strength of The Faith Explained lies in Fr. Trese’s clear and effective explanations. The book’s tone is conversational. It’s like having an expert sit down and patiently walk you through the faith, not by quoting the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, but by enthusiastic use of comparison and good, plain language to illuminate and convince.
Fr. Trese’s chapters on the Church are the best I’ve seen. They excel where many others fail: by clearly explaining the basic teachings, especially by showing the Scriptural & logical basis for those teachings.
There are two weaknesses of The Faith Explained, but they’re minor. Its first edition was written in 1965, long before the official Catechism. Although the book has been revised in subsequent editions, it contains no references to the Church’s Catechism or other recent Church documents.
This does not mean the book is out of date — all of the material is extremely solid & orthodox — but the book lacks cross-references for further reading. This isn’t much of a problem, though, as the Church’s Catechism itself is structured well enough for easy reference.
However, the second weakness in The Faith Explained does come from its age: it cannot address the many issues in morality that arose after the book was published.
There are numerous hot-button issues in the Church today that relate to morality (some of the tenets of Catholicism are under attack, too, but morality is the most serious area). Any contemporary attempt at teaching the faith (catechesis) needs to address those issues head on. By itself, The Faith Explained won’t form you well enough to withstand the contemporary attacks on conscience, natural law, and other foundations of morality.
This limitation of The Faith Explained is the only reason why I said to read Schreck’s The Essential Catholic Catechism if you’re going to read just one of those two books. Schreck addresses the issue of morality in terms that are desperately needed in our day & age.
But aside from that, I found that Fr. Trese’s book actually explained the basics of the faith in a better and more memorable way.
If you can read both, do so — they complement each other very well. And once you read them, you’ll have an excellent grounding in the basic tenets of Catholicism.
Every Catholic should know the faith!
You can return to our home page to see the other articles about the Catholic faith.