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Encyclopedia > Roman Catholicism

The Roman Catholic Church, most often spoken of simply as the Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with over one billion members.

Members generally prefer the term Catholic Church, but this term has multiple meanings (see Catholicism); the term Roman Catholic Church is used in this article to avoid confusion. The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Western or Latin and the Eastern Churches within it is dealt with below.

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Church Lumen Gentium, 8,[1] (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html) declared that "the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic" has a concrete realization (the Latin term is "subsistit") "in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him". "Successor of Peter" refers to the Pope.



Social teaching

Main article: Catholic social teaching

The Church holds that the teachings of Jesus call its members to act a particular way in their dealings with the rest of humanity. Among these teachings, as they have been elaborated in recent decades by Catholic thinkers, Bishops' statements and Papal encyclicals, are that every person has a right to life and to a decent minimum standard of living, that humanity's use of God's creation implies a responsibility to protect the environment, and that the range of circumstances under which military force is permissible is extremely limited.


The Catholic Church recognizes and administers seven sacraments, which are listed here with an indication of the sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) that deal with each.


The centre of the Catholic Church's life is the liturgical service of the Eucharist or Mass. On each Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation or on the evening before, Catholics have an obligation to participate in this celebration. For further information, see the article Mass (liturgy) and the references in that article.

Another especially important part of the Church's continual prayer is the Liturgy of the Hours, whose particular characteristic is to consecrate the course of day and night. Lauds and Vespers (morning and evening prayer) are the principal hours. To these are added one or three intermediate prayer periods (traditionally called Terce, Sext and None), another prayer period to end the day (Compline), and a special period at no fixed time devoted chiefly to readings from the Scriptures and ecclesiastical writers. The prayers consist principally of the Psalter or Book of Psalms. Like the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours has inspired great musical compositions. Earlier names for the Liturgy of the Hours were the Divine Office (a name still used as the title of one English translation), the Book of Hours, and the Breviary.


The Catholic Church attributes very high authority to 21 Ecumenical Councils: Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680-681), Nicaea II (787), Constantinople IV (869-870), Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311-1312), Constance (1414-1418), Florence (1438-1445), Lateran V (1512-1517), Trent (1545-1563), Vatican I (1869-1870), Vatican II (1962-1965).

Of these, the Orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition accept only the first seven, the family of "non-Chalcedonian" Churches only the first three, and the Christians of Nestorian tradition only the first two.

Dialogue has shown that even where the break with one of these ancient Churches occurred as far back as the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), long before the break with Constantinople (1054), the few doctrinal differences often concern terminology, not substance.

Emblematic is the "Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East" [2] (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_11111994_assyrian-church_en.html) (note the use in an inter-Church document of "Catholic Church" rather than "Roman Catholic Church"), signed by His Holiness John Paul II, Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church, and His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, on 11 November 1994. The division between the two Churches in question goes back to the disputes over the legitimacy of the expression "Mother of God" (as well as "Mother of Christ") for the Virgin Mary that came to a head at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Common Declaration recalls that the Assyrian Church of the East prays the Virgin Mary as "the Mother of Christ our God and Saviour", and the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as "the Mother of God" and also as "the Mother of Christ", fuller expressions by which each Church clearly acknowledges both the divinity and the humanity of Mary's son. The co-signers of the Common Declaration could thus state: "We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each Church in her liturgical life and piety."

Some, at least, of the most difficult questions in relations with the ancient Eastern Churches concern not so much doctrine as practical matters such as the concrete exercise of the claim to papal primacy and how to ensure that ecclesial union would not mean mere absorption of the smaller Churches by the Latin component of the much larger Catholic Church (the most numerous single religious denomination in the world), and the stifling or abandonment of their own rich theological, liturgical and cultural heritage.

There are much greater differences with the doctrinal views of Protestants who have broken continuity with the past for the sake of what they believe to be the true teaching of the apostles. But even with these groups, dialogue has on both sides clarified some misunderstandings of what the other believes.

Particular Churches within the single Roman Catholic Church

Unlike "families" or "communions" of Churches that see themselves as distinct Churches, the Church of those who are in full communion with the Pope considers itself a single Church, not a federation of Churches. It has authoritatively expressed this self-understanding in, for instance, the 28 May 1992 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of the Church understood as communion, 9.[3] (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_28051992_communionis-notio_en.html)

Accordingly it has never adopted the usage of those who apply the term "Roman Catholic" to the Latin or Western Church alone, to the exclusion of the Eastern Churches that also are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. When it employs the term "Roman Catholic Church", which it rarely does except in its relations with other Churches, it means the whole Church "governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him", wherever they live and whether they are of Eastern or Western tradition. The only other meaning it would give to "Roman Catholic" is "a Catholic who lives in Rome", as a Catholic who lives in Warsaw could be called a Warsaw Catholic.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church attaches great importance to the particular Churches within it, whose theological significance the Second Vatican Council highlighted. Two categories of particular Churches are distinguished.

Particular Churches or Rites

The higher level of particular Churches is that of what the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 2[4] (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_orientalium-ecclesiarum_en.html) calls "particular Churches or rites". The long-established use of the term "rite" for these particular Churches is due to the central place that the Eucharist holds in the Catholic Church, making each particular Church's liturgy its most noted distinguishing mark.

However, the word "rite" is used not only of particular Churches but also of liturgical rites. Examples are the Ambrosian rite, the Mozarabic rite and the Roman rite, different liturgical rites used within the one Latin particular Church or Latin rite (singular). And terms such as "Byzantine rite" may refer to a liturgical rite used by more than one particular Church. To avoid the ambiguity to be found in the terms "particular Church" and "rite", the 1983 Code of Canon Law adopted instead the term "autonomous ritual Church" (in Latin, "Ecclesia ritualis sui iuris") for the same reality; and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches shortened this to "autonomous Church" (in Latin, "Ecclesia sui iuris").

The autonomy of each such Church, Eastern or Western, shows in its distinctive liturgy, canon law, theological tradition etc. The Latin or Western particular Church is governed by the Code of Canon Law, while the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches outlines the discipline that the Eastern particular Churches have in common.

The official yearly Vatican directory, Annuario Pontificio (Libreria Editrice Vaticana), gives the following list of rites (in the sense of particular Churches) within the Catholic Church:

A. Eastern rites of Alexandrian tradition: Coptic, Ethiopic (2).

B. Eastern rites of Antiochian tradition: Malankara, Maronite, Syrian (3).

C. Eastern rite of Armenian tradition: Armenian Church (1).

D. Eastern rites of Chaldaean or East-Syrian tradition: Chaldean, Malabar (2).

E. Eastern rites of Constantinopolitan or Byzantine tradition: Albanian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Greek, Greek-Melkite, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Romanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Slovak, Ukrainian (12).

F. Latin rite (1).

Particular or Local Churches

In Catholic teaching, each diocese too is a local or particular Church: "A diocese is a section of the People of God entrusted to a bishop to be guided by him with the assistance of his clergy so that, loyal to its pastor and formed by him into one community in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Eucharist, it constitutes one particular church in which the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active" (Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church Christus Dominus, 11[5] (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651028_christus-dominus_en.html)).

Theological significance

The particular Churches within the Catholic Church, whether rites or dioceses, are seen as not simply branches or sections of a larger body. Theologically, each is considered to be the embodiment in a particular place of the whole Catholic Church. "It is in these and formed out of them that the one and unique Catholic Church exists" (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Decree on the Church Lumen Gentium, 23.[6] (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html)).


The Pope

What most obviously distinguishes the Catholic Church from others is the link between its members and the Pope. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 882, quoting the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium, states: "The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’"[7] (http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p123a9p4.htm#I)

In certain circumstances, this papal primacy, which is referred to also as the Pope's Petrine authority or function, involves papal infallibility, i.e. the definitive character of the teaching on matters of faith and morals that he propounds solemnly as visible head of the Church. In any normal circumstances, exercise of this authority will involve previous consultation of all Catholic bishops.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 891 says: "’The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith – he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals... The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,’ above all in an Ecumenical Council."[8] (http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p123a9p4.htm#I)

The Pope lives in Vatican City, set up in 1929 as a minute, but symbolically important, independent state within the city of Rome. The body of officials that assist him in governance of the Church as a whole is known as the Roman curia. The term "Holy See" (i.e. of Rome) is generally used only of Pope and curia, because the Code of Canon Law, which concerns governance of the Latin Church as a whole and not internal affairs of the see (diocese) of Rome itself, necessarily uses the term in this technical sense.

The present rules governing the election of a pope are found in the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis.[9] (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_22021996_universi-dominici-gregis_en.html) This lays down that the cardinal electors are isolated from outside contact (in what is called a conclave) and continue their discussions and voting (held in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican) until at least a full two-thirds of those present agree on whom to choose. Practical requirements make it necessary to limit the number entering a conclave to cardinals under 80 years of age.

Cardinals are appointed by the pope, generally from the ranks of his assistants in the curia and bishops of important sees, Latin or Eastern, throughout the world. However, the rule about the 80-year age limit for entering a conclave has enabled the pope to give the cardinalatial dignity to older clergy particularly worthy of such recognition, such as theologians, or some who have suffered long imprisonment under dictatorial regimes.

In 1059, the right of electing the Pope was assigned exclusively to the principal clergy of Rome and the bishops of the "suburbican" sees. Because of their resulting importance, the term "cardinal" (from Latin "cardo", meaning "hinge") was applied to them. In the twelfth century the practice of appointing ecclesiastics from outside Rome as cardinals began. Each cardinal is still assigned a church in Rome as his "titular church" or is linked with one of the suburbican sees. Of these, the Dean of the College of Cardinals holds that with Ostia together with his preceding link with one of the other six sees.

Popes may resign. There have been several cases, but the two best known are those of Pope Celestine V in 1294 (who, though the poet Dante pictured him as condemned to hell for this action, was canonized in 1313) and Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 to help end the Great Western Schism. These are also the most recent cases.

The Bishops

Bishops are the successors of the apostles in the governance of the Church. The Pope himself is a bishop and traditionally uses the title "Venerable Brother" when writing formally to another bishop. The typical role of a bishop is to provide pastoral governance for a diocese. Bishops who fulfill this function are known as diocesan ordinaries, because they have what canon law calls ordinary (i.e. not delegated) authority for a diocese. Other bishops may be appointed to assist them (auxiliary and coadjutor bishops) or to carry out a function in a broader field of service to the Church. Even when a bishop retires from his active service, he remains a bishop, since the ontological effect of the sacrament of holy orders is permanent.

On the other hand, titles such as archbishop or patriarch imply no ontological alteration, but are generally associated with special authority. Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches are headed by a patriarch. (A few bishops in the Latin Church also have the title of patriarch, but in their case the title is merely honorary.) Two Eastern Churches are headed by a major archbishop, a bishop who has practically all the powers of a patriarch, but without the title. Smaller Eastern Churches (consisting however of at least two dioceses or, to use the Eastern term, two eparchies) are headed by a metropolitan. Within the Latin Church too, dioceses are normally grouped together as ecclesiastical provinces, in which the bishop of a particular see has the title of metropolitan archbishop, with some very limited authority for the other dioceses, which are known as suffragan sees. However, almost all the authority of a metropolitan archbishop to intervene in case of necessity with regard to a suffragan see belongs, in the case of the metropolitan see itself, to the senior suffragan bishop. (In some Eastern Churches, the term "metropolitan bishop" corresponds instead to "diocesan ordinary" in the Latin Church; and an Anglican usage of "suffragan" corresponds to Catholic "auxiliary bishop.") The Latin-Church title of primate is now merely honorary.

Bishops of a country or region form an episcopal conference and meet periodically to discuss common problems. Decisions in certain fields, notably liturgy, fall within the exclusive competence of these conferences. But the decisions are binding on the individual bishops only if agreed to by at least two-thirds of the membership and confirmed by the Holy See.

Other Clergy

Bishops are assisted by priests and deacons. Parishes, whether territorial or person-based, within a diocese are normally in the charge of a priest, known as the parish priest or the pastor. Dioceses too, though normally territorial, may be person-based (as, for instance, a military ordinariate).

The honorary title of Monsignor is conferred on some priests. It corresponds to a knighthood or similar honour for a lay person.

In the Latin Church only celibate men, as a rule, are ordained as priests, while the Eastern Catholic Churches also ordain married men. Both sides maintain the tradition of holding it impossible for a priest to marry. Even a married priest whose wife dies may not then marry.

To explain this tradition, one theory[10] (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_chisto_en.html) holds that, in early practice, married men who became priests – they were often older men, "elders" – were expected to refrain permanently from sexual relations with their wives, perhaps because they, as priests representing Christ, were treated as the Church's spouse. When at a later stage it was clear that not all did refrain, the Western reaction was to ordain only celibates, while the Eastern Churches relaxed the rule, so that Eastern Orthodox Churches now require their married clergy to abstain from sexual relations only for a limited period before celebrating the Eucharist. The Church in Persia, which in the fifth century became separated from the Church described as Orthodox or Catholic, decided at the end of that century to abolish the rule of continence and allow priests to marry, but recognized that it was abrogating an ancient tradition. The Coptic and Ethiopic Churches, whose separation came slightly later, allow deacons (who are ordained when they are boys) to marry, but not priests. The theory in question, if true, helps explain why all the ancient Christian Churches of both East and West, with the one exception mentioned, exclude marriage after priestly ordination, and why all reserve the full exercise of priesthood (the episcopate) for the celibate.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Latin Church admits married men of mature age to ordination as deacons, but not if they intend to advance to priestly ordination. Ordination even to the diaconate is an impediment to a later marriage.

The Catholic Church and the other ancient Christian Churches see priestly ordination as a sacrament effecting an ontological change, not as the deputizing of someone to perform a function or as the admission of someone to a profession such as that of medicine or law. They also consider that priestly ordination can be conferred only on males. In the face of continued questioning, Pope John Paul II felt obliged to confirm the existing teaching that the Church is not empowered to change this practice: "In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." [11] (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_22051994_ordinatio-sacerdotalis_en.html) The Catholic Church thus holds this teaching as irrevocable and as having the character of infallibility, not in virtue of the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis itself, from which this quotation is taken, but because the teaching "has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium ."

What in the Latin Church were called minor orders have, since the Second Vatican Council been reduced to two, lectors and acolytes. These are now called "instituted ministries", and those on whom they are conferred are no longer classified as members of the clergy.


Throughout the centuries of its existence, the Catholic Church has met with criticism for various reasons. The particular controversies are discussed in separate articles.

Historically, the Church's response to heresy and witchcraft through the Inquisition and its association with witchhunts are subjects of criticism. The Church is also accused of being hostile to democracy, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, and of supporting absolute monarchy and, later, Fascism and Falangism. The Church came under fire from the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, who perceived the Church's doctrines as superstitious and hindering the progress of civilisation. Other thinkers and academics criticised it for being anti-science for clinging to Ptolemaic geocentrism and for the famous trial of Galileo Galilei.

Contemporary criticism concerns the Church’s stance on issues such as artificial birth control, homosexuality, abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Actions by bishops or other officials have aroused controversy, with some praising them for upholding Catholic teaching on faith and morals, and others condemning what they see as heavy-handed attempts to limit a right of conscience, as when it was stated that the Eucharist should not be given to politicians who oppose legislation limiting access to abortion or support broadening access. Another issue given wide coverage has been the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal that broke towards the end of the twentieth century.

Additional reading

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church - English translation (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000). ISBN 1574551108 [12] (http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/ccc_toc.htm)
  • H. W. Crocker III, Triumph - The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church: A 2,000-Year History (Prima Publishing, 2001). ISBN 0761529241
  • Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale Nota Bene, 2002). ISBN 0300091656
  • K. O. Johnson, Why Do Catholics Do That? (Ballantine, 1994). ISBN 0345397266

See also

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Roman Catholic Church
  • Vatican website (http://www.vatican.va)
  • Catholic Culture Sites Review (http://www.catholicculture.org/sites/sites.cfm) A categorized, reviewed, searchable collection of links to orthodox Roman Catholic links. Ratings for Fidelity, Resources and Useability
  • About Catholics (http://www.aboutcatholics.com/) -- Catholic evangelization and information about specific beliefs
  • Truly Open Directory (http://www.trulyopendirectory.com/Religion_And_Spirituality_-_Christianity_-_Denominations_-_Catholicism) A categorised collection of links on Roman Catholicism
  • Call To Action (http://www.cta-usa.org)Independent Catholic movement working for equality and justice in the Church and society.
  • New Advent (http://newadvent.org)
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm) better search engine
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/index.htm)
  • Catholic Culture (http://CatholicCulture.org)
  • Catholic Exchange (http://www.catholicexchange.com/) non-profit evangelist charity
  • Catholic Answers (http://www.catholic.com/) largest Catholic apologetics and evangelization organization in North America
  • Catholic Hierarchy (http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/) information on Catholic bishops and dioceses
  • Catholics United for the Faith (http://CUF.org)
  • Summa Theologica (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/)
  • EWTN (http://ewtn.com) Catholic ministries. View their TV broadcast live streaming in English and Spanish.
  • Frequently Asked Question About the Catholic Church (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/a/faq-cc.html)
  • Catholic Church in the Turks & Caicos Islands (http://www.catholic.tc/)

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