Why Does the Catholic Church Use a Crucifix?

by Marion Lougheed

Non-Catholics (and some Catholics) sometimes wonder why the Catholic Church chooses to emphasize the death of Jesus Christ by using a crucifix instead of a simple cross or another symbol. Many other denominations prefer to focus on the resurrection rather than the suffering. However, for Catholics, the crucifix represents both of these acts.

Crucifix vs. Cross

The cross is one of the simplest geometric forms in existence. Evidence shows that it has been around for a long time, with varying significance. To draw what is called the Latin cross, the vertical line will be longer than the horizontal line. This version of the cross is most common in Catholic and other churches. Instead of the cross on its own, the Catholic church began over time to use the image of the emaciated body of Jesus being crucified. Hence the term "crucifix."

Symbolism of the Crucifix

In his article "Why Do Catholics Have Crucifixes?" published at PilotCatholicNews.com, Patrick Madrid notes, "Christ’s supreme act was to die on the cross as atonement for our sins. His resurrection was proof that what he did on the cross worked -- he conquered death...The crucifixion was the act that changed history. The resurrection demonstrated of the efficacy of that act." According to this interpretation, the crucifix represents both Jesus' death and his resurrection. In that case, the symbol does not call attention solely to the fact that Jesus suffered, but also to the meaning behind that suffering.

Origins of the Catholic Crucifix

Until the Ninth Century, the Christian Church did not depict Jesus dying on the cross. Instead, the cross stood alone or, in some cases, included a lamb above the cross, as explained by Royal Institute of Philosophy member Nwaocha Ogechukwu in his book, "The Secret Behind the Cross and Crucifix." His research shows that the church later adopted the carved image of a living Christ on the cross. In Catholicism, the now-familiar depiction of Jesus suffering and dying on the cross eventually replaced the previous symbols.

The Cross in Architecture

Catholic archictectcs traditionally use the Latin cross for church buildings. The longer stem, leading up to the altar, is called the nave. Behind the altar, you will see a rounded space, known as the apse. This is the top of the cross. The shorter branches form the transept and the place where they intersect the nave is referred to as the crossing. Thus, although the crucifix appears more often than the cross in Catholic painting, sculpture, and jewelry, the church does incorporate the basic shape into its architecture.

About the Author

Marion Lougheed is a world citizen with a B.A. (Hons.) in social and cultural anthropology. She also holds a diploma in professional writing. She has visited or lived in more than 12 countries since the age of seven.

Photo Credits

  • Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images