What Catholics believe
Half a century ago on June 30, 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued the Credo of the People of God. The document, which restated in plain language and amplified contextually what Catholics have held since the time of the Apostles, called upon the faithful to proclaim their beliefs.
The world has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, indeed in the last five. Many things that would have seemed unremarkable to a young person then will appear incomprehensible now. It remains a salutary exercise for Catholics to declare what they believe. I will attempt to provide a sketch.
We believe in one God who is three persons: the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. We believe that He is the creator of heaven and Earth alike, of all things visible — bacteria, mice, the Himalayas — and invisible (e.g., angels). We believe that He made all of these things for no very good reason save that it was His pleasure to do so, the way that a great conductor who is also a virtuoso perfectly capable of playing beautiful music entirely by himself — indeed, who will almost inevitably be disappointed by the shortcomings even of His best pupils, to say nothing of the willfully tone-deaf — wishes to have an orchestra to conduct and to play with.
We believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God born of the Father before there was such a thing as time (before even the event scientists call the Big Bang). He is the eternal logos, the underlying principle of order that we detect everywhere in the physical universe and about which physicists, chemists, and biologists are telling us more every day. We believe, moreover, that out of love for the entire human race, for all 7.6 billion people now living on this planet and the countless billions who have died before us and the untold number who will come to be born, in the hope that they might share with Him in eternal life, He came down from heaven and became a man. We believe that by the power of the Holy Ghost He was born to a woman — a teenager, really, we would say today — in Palestine during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. This woman was a virgin. She did not at any time in her life have what we would now call sexual relations with anyone, including her husband, a Jewish carpenter who was very likely many years her senior, named Joseph. We believe that later this woman, after spending what must have been many sad decades without her son, was bodily assumed into heaven.
We believe that her son was the victim of Roman judicial murder, killed under conditions of such inhumane savagery that they are almost unthinkable now. It is very difficult to convey what it means to say that He — the eternal word, the ground of being itself — consented to be tortured and killed by His creations; it is like saying that photosynthesis was killed by a stray abscised leaf or that hydrogen dioxide — not some unimaginably vast quantity of it or even every known molecule in the universe but the very physical constants that allow such a chemical bond to be formed at all — was happily murdered by something infinitesimally less than an eye-dropper full of water.
We believe that He suffered these extraordinary pains, that the universe underwent this almost unthinkable cataclysm, and died a natural death — no beating heart, no brain activity, but, as the coroner put it in The Wizard of Oz, "really most sincerely dead" — and that after three days He rose from the dead, not like a patient who has been resuscitated or returned to his senses after a long spell on life support, but alive, having previously been a mass of dead tissue interred in a sepulcher and in the process of decomposition, capable of speech and movement and maintaining basic homeostatic functions.
We believe that He did this in fulfillment of a promise recorded long ago by various men, taken down originally in Hebrew. We derive this information concerning His life from records made by, respectively, a kind of proto-IRS agent called Matthew who held roughly the degree of esteem among his peers that his modern counterparts tend to hold, a disciple called Mark who later traveled to Egypt, a medical doctor called Luke who wrote rather in the spirit of Dr. Watson in A Study in Scarlet of all the marvelous facts relevant to the case, including those he had not himself witnessed, and another man called John who was held in such esteem by his former teacher that He entrusted him with the care of His mother.
We believe that after His glorious resurrection He appeared to those who had been His friends on Earth and to His mother for a time before ascending into heaven, where He sits at the right hand of His Father. We believe that He will return again to judge the quick and the dead, all those who are now living, have lived, and will ever live. We believe that afterwards He shall establish a kingdom — not a democracy or a glorious people's republic or a crowd-founded minarchist seastedding colony, mind you, but an absolute monarchy — that shall have no end. Think of any measure of time you like: a thousand years, a million years, a billion, a trillion, a google of years will be but a nanosecond of unimaginable bliss in this symphony which will have an infinite number of movements.
We believe in the Holy Ghost or Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son and with them is lauded and glorified equally. We believe that He inspired a number of men in antiquity to write books about the history of the Jewish people’s unique relationship with the Father and about the coming of the Son.
We believe in the Church, a church that is holy, catholic — which is to say, universal, for all people — and apostolic, descended in unbroken succession from Peter himself, a poor and not always reliable fisherman whom Our Lord chose to found this body, and 11 other men, one of whom helped to arrange His murder for a small fee, down to the present day, through millions of bishops and priests and lay people, some of them pious and charitable, some venal and worldly. We believe that this body is unlike any other body that has ever existed or ever will exist and that what we see of it on Earth is but a shadow of what it is in heaven.
We believe that when a priest — or in certain extraordinary circumstances any layperson — repeats in any language a literal translation the formula "Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti" ("I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost") while touching the forehead of a person with water that this person is changed indelibly. The change we believe in is the removal of a condition we call original sin, into which the human race entered when the first two human beings, who lived in a part of what is now Iraq or perhaps in Tanzania, disobeyed God for the first time. There is a medieval Taoist fable about a poor fisherman who once happened upon a kingdom where there was neither famine nor war and everyone ate peaches of sweetness beyond description; after dwelling there in bliss for many years he left in the hope of bringing his family, but no matter how long he searched he could never find it again. We believe that the entire human race is in the position of this fisherman, and that the map, so to speak, pointing the way to the Peach Blossom Kingdom is the sacramental life of the Church, into which one enters upon baptism.
We believe all of these things and we also look forward to something — to a time when, despite the fact that all the atoms that composed the earthly bodies of all the people who have ever lived are scattered across the planet and disbursed among new organisms, every man and woman who has ever been begotten, born, and died will rise again from the dead. We look forward also to the new life that awaits us in the world — perhaps it would be clearer to say the universe or the multiverse or another scientific term — that is thence to come. We confess that we do not really know what this will look like, but we suspect that everyone has had some glimpse of it while experiencing the beauty of the natural world or listening to a certain piece of music or in a quiet moment of reverie prompted by something (seemingly) insignificant. One man, the last of the friends of the Lord, wrote a book about it, which we call the Apocalypse or Revelation, and had this to say in a passage that, if we are being honest, cannot be read by some of us without our eyes welling up with tears:
And I saw a new heaven and a new Earth: for the first heaven and the first Earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. [The Bible]
We believe all of these things, fantastical as they may sound, and we believe them for what we consider good reasons, well attested by history, consistent with the most exacting standards of logic. We will profess them in this place of wrath and tears until the extraordinary event referenced above, for which men and women have hoped and prayed for nearly 2,000 years, comes to pass.