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Encyclopedia > Catholic Communion

This article deals with the legal structure of the sui juris particular churches of the Roman Catholic Church, and will soon be merged with that article.

The Roman Catholic Communion is a communion of twenty-four separate sui juris churches following the tenets of Roman Catholicism. This body of churches makes up the largest body of Christians in the world. Its leader is the Bishop of Rome, the Catholic in their title mean that they belong to this communion. There are notable exceptions. See Catholicism (disambiguation).

This article deals with the structure of the communion. For its belief system, see Roman Catholicism.


Government of the communion as a whole

The Papacy

The Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is the leader of the communion and is the communion's most senior bishop.

explain further role of pope as opposed to his patriarchal role in the Latin-rite Church

The College of Bishops

The College of Bishops is the ultimate governing authority of the communion. It consists of all the bishops of the communion from all the churches. It solemnly gathers in what is called a general synod. The general synod has met infrequently throughout history, as evidenced by there being only twenty_one synods in the history of the communion. The churches of the communion believe that all these synods are in fact ecumenical councils; however, this is disputed by the rest of Christianity.

explain what the college of bishops does besides the general synod/council and how there can be two supreme authorities in the communion

The churches in the communion and rites

The sui juris churches have varying levels of autonomy, depending on whether they are led by a patriarch, major archbishop, or a metropolitan archbishop. The largest of these sui juris churches is the Latin Rite Church. The rest of the sui juris churches are known collectively as the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Each of the sui iuris Churches uses one of the six major liturgical traditions (emanating from traditional Sees of historical importance), called a rite. The major rites are the Alexandrian Rite, the Antiochene Rite, the Armenian Rite, the Byzantine Rite, the Chaldean Rite, and the Latin Rite. The Latin Rite is dominant throughout most of the world, being used by the vast majority of Roman Catholics (approx. 98 per cent.). There were formerly many lesser rites in the Latin Rite Church, but these were replaced by the Roman Rite by the Council of Trent's liturgical reforms. Now there are only three minor rites which make up the Latin Rite: the Ambrosian Rite, the Mozarabic Rite, and the Roman Rite.

Historically, the Eucharistic liturgy in the Latin Rite, the Mass, was conducted entirely in Ecclesiastical Latin. This Mass was known as the Tridentine Mass. Since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, a new version of the Mass has been promulgated (Novus Ordo Missae), which is usually celebrated in the vernacular, or local languages.

The corresponding liturgy in the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Divine Liturgy, is conducted in various liturgical languages depending on the rite the church follows and the church itself. For instance, the churches following the Byzantine Rite use any one of Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, Romanian and Georgian. The other churches usually use only one or two, such as the churches following the Antiochene and Chaldean Rites, which use Syriac; the churches following the Armenian Rite, which use Armenian; and the churches following the Alexandrian Rite, which use either Coptic or Ge'ez.

Patriarchal churches

Each of the patriarchal churches has a similar governmental structure. The leader and most senior bishop of the church is the Patriarch, so called because his see descends from one of the patriarchates or catholicates of the ancient church. These sees were the most influential churches of the ancient world and are often associated with a particular apostle as its founder.

Aiding him in the exercise of his office is the patriarchal curia, which consists of the church officials that run the church, and the permanent synod, which consists of the senior bishops of the church that are his principal advisors. Even the Roman Catholic Church has these structures, since the Pope is its patriarch and is advised by the Roman Curia and the College of Cardinals, and so is a patriarchal church.

Patriarchal churches enjoy the fullest autonomy of the sui juris churches. The church freely chooses its own bishops and patriarch according to its rules and creates its own laws. There are two restrictions on this autonomy, though:

  • A newly elected patriarch is to seek ecclesial communion from all the other patriarchs before exercising his office.
  • The election of any other bishop requires confirmation by the Pope.

All the bishops of the patriarchal church can gather together in what is called the patriarchal synod. This usually meets when it is necessary to elect a new patriarch or a new bishop, but depending on the church's laws it can meet at regular intervals. The most notable exception to this rule is the Roman Catholic Church, where the permanent synod elects the new patriarch and the patriarch does all the appointing of bishops.

The patriarchal churches with their corresponding rites are the following:

Major archiepiscopal churches

Major archiepiscopal churches are basically the same as the patriarchal churches, except that for historical reasons the leader of the church does not have the title patriarch. Instead, the leader of the church has the title Major Archbishop and these bishops rank in precedence immediately after the patriarchs.

Another difference between the two kinds of sui juris church is that the major archbishop-elect must ask the Pope to approve his election before he can take office, as opposed to the patriarch who simply transmits communion and asks for it in return from all the patriarchs, including the Pope. In all other governmental respects, though, the major archiepiscopal church is identical to the patriarchal church.

There are only two major archiepiscopal churches. Their names and rites are:

Metropolitan churches

Metropolitan churches have a very different governmental structure than the other two kinds of church. The leader of a metropolitan church takes the title Metropolitan Archbishop. The metropolitan church does not have a curia, though, and its synod of bishops is called the Council of Hierarchs.

These churches have limited autonomy in comparison with the patriarchal and major archiepiscopal churches. The restrictions mainly affect election of bishops and legislation.

  • The Metropolitan is not elected by the church. Instead, he is appointed by the Pope.
  • When a new bishop is needed, the council of hierarchs comes up with three candidates from among whom the Pope chooses.
  • New laws created by the council of hierarchs need to be received by the Pope before promulgation.

There are four metropolitan sui juris churches. They are:

Other churches

There are also other sui juris churches which are not attached to a patriarch, major archbishop, or metropolitan. These churches could be full eparchies, in which case their leader is an Eparchial Bishop, or they could be led by some other hierarch.

Since the church is not attached to any ecclesiastical province, the Pope appoints another hierarch to function like a metropolitan for the unattached church. Otherwise, the sui juris church depends entirely on the Holy See.

All of these other sui juris churches follow the Byzantine Rite. The other sui juris churches are the following:


  • Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1992.

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