The process of studying a particular thing often entails analysis. To correctly analyze a thing, one seeks to reduce it to its various components. Once this is done, one can study the individual parts more closely.
In analyzing the Catholic Church, it is possible to identify four parts or pillars. These four pillars – theology, morality, public liturgy, and private prayer – comprise the Church’s constituent parts. The four pillars are essential to understanding Catholicism.
Literally, the science of God, theology within the context of Catholicism, is the “reasoning or discourse about the divinity [God].” (Saint Augustine).
Saint Thomas Aquinas referred to theology as the queen of the sciences, and this lofty view of theology was prevalent for most of human history. Undoubtedly, the concept of theology as a science, let alone the preeminent science, will strike most modern people as strange. The reason why it strikes us moderns as odd is that we have an Enlightenment view of science. Starting with Rene Descartes’ “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences” in 1637, science was limited to the physical or natural world.
However, prior to the Enlightenment, the domain of science encompassed many more diverse subjects. In his Posterior Analytics, Aristotle defined science as “knowledge of a body of organized necessary truths that arise from the study of causes.” (See Aristotle. Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. 1850).
For Aristotle, as for Aquinas, the study of causes necessarily includes the study of the uncaused first cause, God. Since the first cause is the most important, it is understandable that Aquinas viewed the study of God (theology) as the queen of the sciences.
Finally, theology can be categorized as supernatural and natural. Supernatural theology is primarily concerned with knowledge that is derived from Divine Revelation. It is considered supernatural because the knowledge derived from Divine Revelation cannot be obtained by human reason alone. An example would be knowledge of the Holy Trinity. The fact that God is one Divine essence in three Persons could not be known to humans if not for Divine Revelation.
On the other hand, natural theology is truths about God that can be drawn from reason and experience. An example of natural theology would include the cosmological argument for the existence of God.
Human reason can observe that everything that begins to exist requires an extrinsic cause. We have also come to know that the universe came into existence. Therefore, we can infer that the universe requires an extrinsic cause for its existence. Moreover, there cannot be an infinite regress of causes since that would eliminate a first cause. Without a first cause, there would be no effects. This would mean that nothing exists, which is patently false.
Catholic moral teaching concerns itself with the conformity of a human act with the moral standard. An act is considered good if it conforms with the standard and wrong (or evil) if it does not.
For morality to be more than an opinion or a dictate of the Government, the standard for right and wrong must be independent of human beings. For this reason, objective morality must be within the purview of God.
This fact leads to the question, if the moral standard exists independently of human beings, how can we know what the moral standard requires? The answer lies in realizing that there are actually three levels or types of law that condition morality.
The highest level is the eternal law which is the mind of God. It is the reason (Logos) which orders all of creation. The second level is natural law. As it pertains to morality, natural law presupposes that God has endowed human beings with certain rights, that these rights are universal, inviolable, and can be discovered using reason. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas asserts that natural law is the manifestation of the eternal law. Said differently, natural law allows humans to know (albeit limitedly) the mind of God. From this knowledge is derived the third type of law, known as positive or man-made law.
Liturgy encompasses those practices and rituals performed publicly for the purpose of worship. While it is common to restrict the definition of liturgy to the duties and obligations of priests as they relate to worship, a more accurate definition of liturgy is the people of God doing the work of God. As such, the participation of the laity is of great importance to Catholic public liturgy.
Specifically, within Catholicism, the public liturgy is centered on the Eucharist. Public liturgy extends to the administration of the other sacraments as well, however. As such, sacraments such as baptism and reconciliation are under the umbrella of the definition of the liturgy.
When performing his duties within the context of the liturgy, the priest acts in the person of Christ. From a theological perspective, the liturgy is the exercise on earth of Christ’s priestly office. Christ performs this priestly office as Head of his Mystical Body, so the Head and members offer the sacred liturgy together. In doing so, the liturgy fulfills the function of giving honor and praise to God, which is worship, and to obtain blessings for the human race, which is sanctification.
The last “pillar” to discuss is private prayer. If prayer is, as the Catechism defines it, the “raising of the heart and mind to God,” then private prayer is foundational to one’s spiritual life.
Private prayers are those recited by the individual that are not a part of the Mass. These are prayers often recited during the course of one’s day. Examples of private prayer and worship include prayers to the Holy Spirit, reciting formal prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Rosary, Scripture readings and reflections, meditation, and contemplation. Additionally, private prayers can involve the creation of a sacred space in one’s home.
The practice of private prayer is strongly advocated in Scripture. Saint Paul advises that we “pray without ceasing.” That is, to consciously seek to do the will of God in our daily lives. And Jesus tells us to go into our room and pray in secret. (See Matthew 6:6).
In seeking to analyze the Catholic Church, I have delineated four “pillars” that are essential. Theology is that discipline concerned with the study of the nature of God. Catholic morality seeks to align human actions with the objective standard made manifest by natural law. Public liturgy is the cooperative work of the clergy and laity in performing the work of God. Finally, private prayer involves the prayers and acts of worship done by individuals outside the domain of the public liturgy.