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Roman Catholic Church
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Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest of the Christian churches that profess the Catholic faith. It is also the largest single religious denomination in the world.

Table of contents
1 Structure and organization of the Roman Catholic Church
2 Beliefs and practices
3 Issues facing contemporary Catholicism
4 Notes
5 Additional reading
6 See also
7 External links

Structure and organization of the Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church is one of twenty-four sui juris churches, which together form the Catholic Communion. The particular churches of the Catholic Communion are united in full communion with each other and recognize the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, as the head of the communion. When distinguishing the Roman Catholic Church from the other Catholic churches, it often also known as the Latin Church or the Church of Rome.

The Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest and most visible of the twenty-four. In common speech, therefore, many Roman Catholics drop the "Roman" and say "Catholics" when they really are only refering to Roman Catholics. This is not proper usage, though, as there are other churches which claim to be Catholic that are not a part of the Catholic Communion and since there are churches in the Catholic Communion that are not Roman Catholic.

The Catholic Communion claims to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church or the "Church of Christ". The Second Vatican Council "Decree on Ecumenism" (Unitatis Redintegratio) is an effort by the Catholic Communion to restore unity of faith among all Christians, and states that "our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body". [1] Generally speaking, the Catholic Communion uses the term "Church of Christ" to refer to those churches that are in communion through the Roman Church. [1] Some of the other Christian Churches and denominations describe themselves as Catholic or catholic, or as part of the Universal or Catholic Church, despite not being a part of the Catholic Communion. (See Catholic).

Organization by office

The Roman Catholic Church, like the other patriarchal churches in the Catholic Communion, is organized on basically the same lines. There is the ordained clergy, which consists of deacons, priests, and bishops. There is also a patriarch functioning as head of the church, as well as a permanent synod and patriarchal curia. However, while the structures are the same, the interaction between them is very different in the Roman Catholic Church than in the other Catholic churches.

The Roman Catholic Church is essentially non-democratic. Structurally it is one of the world's most centralised religious faiths. The Patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope. He rules from the Vatican City, an independent state in the centre of Rome. His principal advisors are the Roman Curia and the College of Cardinals, his permanent synod, whose members make up most of the curia. The Pope alone selects and appoints all bishops in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as members of the College of Cardinals. All members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy are answerable to the Pope, in his capacity as patriarch, and his curia. The Pope with his curia are known collectively as the Holy See.

The Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals, generally from their own ranks (the papal election, held in Sistine Chapel, is called a Conclave). Each Pope continues in office until death or until he resigns (which has happened only twice, and never since the Middle Ages).

The Pope's Patriarchal authority (head of the Roman Catholic Church) and Papal authority (head of the Catholic Church communion) are not controversial. What is controversial is his claim to the head of the entire Church of Christ on Earth. This is known as his claim to Petrine Authority or Papal Primacy. Part of this claim is the exercise of what is called Papal Infallibility, that is the right to define definitive statements of teaching on matters of faith and morals binding on all Christians. In reality, since its declaration in the First Vatican Council in 1870, papal infallibility has only definitively been used once, by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s on the Assumption of Mary. Supporters of the Pope's Petrine authority offer several sources as justification. Paramount is the belief held that he is the lineal successor of St. Peter, and as such the Vicar of Christ on earth.

The Roman Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure of offices or titles, in descending order:

There are other offices in the Roman Church, but many of these are honorary or do not carry jurisdiction. Examples are the titles primate and monsignor.

Four other Roman Catholic bishops use the title Patriarch, the Patriarchs of Venice, Lisbon, and the West Indies, but they are not patriarchs in the strict sense, that is the head of a church, and are thus honorary patriarchs. The other churches in the Catholic Church have their own patriarchs, as do the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. These are patriarchs in the strict sense. Technically, in the precedence of the Catholic Church, patriarchs in the strict sense would outrank all other bishops except for the Pope. This of course is contested in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, as many see their patriarchs as equal to the Pope or even above him.

There are also several more minor offices: Lectors, Acolytes (since the Second Vatican Council, the office of Sub-deacon no longer exists). Religious orders have their own hierarchy and titles.

A curious aspect of the Roman Catholic Church which is different from the other Catholic Churches is clerical celibacy. All Roman Catholic bishops and, with very few exceptions, priests are required by law to remain celibate. The other Catholic churches do not follow this practice, as most of their parish priests are married. On rare occasions married priests converting from other Christian groups have been permitted to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church as of recent has revived the married diaconate, where married men may be ordained deacons but they may not remarry if their spouse dies or if the marriage is annulled.

Global organisation

The Roman Catholic Church exists in virtually every nation on earth, and is the largest single religious body in the world.

It is organised in national hierarchies with diocesan bishops subject to archbishops. Colleges, or National Conferences, of bishops co-ordinate local policy within countries or within groups of countries.


The Roman Catholic Church practices seven sacraments (see also Catholic sacraments): Within the Catholic faith, sacraments are spiritual gifts of Christ that impart sanctifying grace on the receiver. Baptism is given to infants and to adult converts who have not previously been validly baptised (the baptism of most Christian denominations is accepted as valid by the Roman Catholic Church since the effect is thought to come straight from God regardless of the personal faith, but not intention, of the minister). Confession or reconciliation involves admitting sins to a priest and receiving penance (a task to complete in order to achieve absolution or forgiveness from God). The Eucharist (Communion), is the sacrifice of Christ, marked by partaking in the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ which are believed to replace in everything but appearance the bread and wine used in the ceremony. The Roman Catholic belief that bread and wine are turned into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is called transubstantiation. In the sacrament of Confirmation, the gift of the Holy Spirit conferred in baptism is "strengthened and deepened" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church para. 1303) by the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. This sacrament is presided over by a bishop, and takes place in early adulthood. Holy Orders is the entering into the clergy. The sacrament is given in three degrees corresponding to the three Holy Orders of clergy: deacons, priests, and bishops. Since the Second Vatican Council, prospective deacons may be married before ordination but may not become priests or bishops. For those that are unmarried, a promise of celibacy is required before ordination. Anointing of the Sick involves the anointing of a sick person with a holy oil blessed specifically for that purpose. It used to be known as "extreme unction" or the "last rites" but is no longer limited to the seriously ill or dying.

Organization by region

The fundamental geographical and organizational unit of the Roman Catholic Church is the diocese. This is generally a defined geographical area, centered on a principal city, headed by a bishop. The primary church of a diocese is known as a cathedral from the cathedra or chair of the bishop that is one of the main symbols of his office. Within a diocese, a bishop exercises what is known as ordinary, or primary administrative authority. (Houses of some religious orders are semi-independent of the dioceses they are in; the religious superior of that order exercises ordinary jurisdiction over them.) While the Pope appoints bishops and reviews their performance, and a variety of other institutions govern or supervise certain activities, a bishop has a great deal of independence in administering a diocese. Certain dioceses, generally centered around large and important cities, are called archdioceses and are headed by an archbishop. In large dioceses and archdioceses, the bishop is often assisted by auxiliary bishops, full bishops and members of the College of Bishops who do not head a diocese of their own. Archbishops, suffragan bishops (usually shortened to just "bishops"), and auxiliary bishops are equally bishops; the different titles indicate what type (if any) of ecclesiastical unit they head. Many countries have vicariates that support their militaries (see Military Ordinariate).

Almost all dioceses were organized into groups known as provinces, each of which is headed by a metropolitan archbishop. While provinces still exist, their role has largely been replaced by conferences of bishops, generally made up of all the dioceses of a particular country or countries. These groups handle a wide array of common functions, including supervision of liturgical texts and practices for the specific cultural and linguistic groups and relations with the governments in their area. The authority of these conferences to bind the actions of individual bishops is limited (traditional theologians consider this authority ultimately non-binding), however. Bishop's conferences started to appear early in the 20th century, and were officially recognized in the Second Vatican Council document Christus Dominus.

The College of Cardinals is the collection of Roman Catholic (and some Eastern Catholic) bishops who are special advisors to the Pope. Any priest can be appointed Cardinal, provided he "excelled in belief, morals and piety". If a cardinal is elected Pope who has not yet been ordained bishop he subsequently has to receive episcopal ordination. (C.f. Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis[1]) All cardinals under the age of 80 have the right to elect a new pope upon the a pope's death; the cardinals who may elect are almost always members of the clergy; however, the Pope has sometimes in the past awarded outstanding members of the Catholic laity (e.g., theologians) with membership in the College after they have passed electing age. Each cardinal is given some church or chapel (thus, cardinal bishop, cardinal priest, and cardinal deacon) in Rome to make him a member of the clergy of Rome. Many cardinals serve in the curia, which assists the Pope in Church administration. Most of the other cardinals that are not resident in Rome are diocesan bishops.

Dioceses are divided into local districts called parishes. All Catholics are expected to attend and support their local parish church. While the Roman Catholic Church has developed an elaborate system of global governance, day to day Catholicism is lived in the local community, tied together in worship in the local parish. Local parishes are largely self supporting; a church, often in a growing or poor community, that is being supported by a diocese is known as a mission.

The Roman Catholic Church supports many orders (groups) of monks and nuns living lives specially devoted to serving God. These are people who have grouped together under a certain system for the purpose of the perfection of virtue. This sometimes involves separation from the world for meditation and sometimes exceptional participation in the world, often in medical or educational work. Almost universally the Monks and Nuns take vows of poverty (no or limited personal ownership of property and money), chastity (no use of the sexual mechanisms), and obedience (to the superiors).

Beliefs and practices

Distinctive doctrines

Catholics believe in the Trinity of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the divinity of Jesus, and the salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and through loving God above all things. Catholic views differ from Orthodox on several points, including the nature of the Petrine Ministry (the papacy), the nature of the Trinity and how that should be expressed in the Nicene Creed, and a juridical and relational understanding of salvation and repentance. Catholics differ from Protestants in several points, including the necessity of penance, the meaning of communion, the composition of the canon of scripture, purgatory, and the means of salvation: Protestants believe that salvation is by faith alone (sola fide), while Catholics believe that faith is exhibited in good works. Stereotypically, this has led to a conflict over the doctrine of justification (the Reformation taught that "we are justified by faith alone"). Modern ecumenical dialogue has led to a number of consensus statements on the doctrine of justification between Roman Catholics and Lutherans, Anglicans, and others.

Catholics hold as central that the Christian Church is one visible organisational body, founded by Jesus Christ on Saint Peter and the Apostles, and that this one church has existed continuously from that moment to the present day. That one church is the Catholic Church spanning Latin Rite and Eastern Rite sui iuris churches, whose pope at a given point in time is the direct successor to St Peter. The church has the duty of teaching and maintaining the truths handed down to it by the Apostles, and of administering the graces of the sacraments to the faithful. This ministry and its spiritual authority has been handed down directly and continuously from the Apostles by apostolic succession.

Catholics, like the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental and Coptic Churches, believe in the Communion of Saints, and the consequent efficacy of prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints' - who are accorded honour and praise, but not the worship of latria.

Liturgy and worship


The most important act of worship in the Roman Catholic Church is the Eucharistic liturgy, usually called the Mass. Mass is celebrated every Sunday morning in most Roman Catholic parishes; Catholics can however fulfill their Sunday obligation by attending a Mass on Saturday night. Catholics must also attend Mass on approximately ten additional days every year, known as the Holy Day of Obligation. Additional Masses can be celebrated on any day of the liturgical year except for Good Friday. Most churches have daily Mass. The contemporary Mass is composed of two major parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. During the Liturgy of the Word, one or more passages are read aloud from the Bible, this action is performed by a Lector (a member of the laity) or the priest/deacon. The priest or deacon always reads the Gospel reading(s) and may also read from other parts of the bible (during the first, second, third, etc. reading). The Lectionary (the book being read from) is standardly a larger print edition of the New American Bible designed for such purposes. After the readings are done a homily (like the Protestant sermon) is orated by a priest or deacon. At Masses on Sundays and feast days, the Nicene Creed, which states the orthodox beliefs of Catholicism, is professed by all Catholics present. The Liturgy of the Eucharist includes the presentation of the gifts of bread and wine, the Eucharistic Prayer, during which the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and the communion procession.

Liturgy of the Hours

Also important in the Catholic liturgy is the daily common prayer of the psalter, which is called Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office (see also Breviary). It consists of psalms, canticles and hymns to be sung (or read) at different hours of the day and night. The most important hours are morning and evening (called Lauds and Vespers respectively) and at the end of the day (Compieta or Compline). Over the course of centuries the Divine Office gave impetus to the development of major musical compostions, from the ancient and medieval Gregorian Chant to Renaissance and Baroque era music. It is regarded as the expression of the duty of the Church to offer praises to God in the form of public prayer (SC §83–101). There is a primary text typically available as a one- or four-volume set of books, yet other approved texts akin to the official Divine Office are considered equivalent, such as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The liturgical reform movement

The liturgical reform movement has been responsible over the past forty years for a significant convergence of Latin Rite worship practices with that of Protestant churches, and away from the other non-Latin Catholic rites. One feature of the new liturgical views has been a "return to the sources" (ressourcement), claimed to result from the rediscovery of ancient liturgical texts and practices, along with many new practices. The post-conciliar (post-Vatican II) reforms of the liturgy included the use of the vernacular (local) language, a greater emphasis on the Liturgy of the Word, and the clarification of symbolism. The most visible feature of the reforms is the posture of the priest. In the past, the priest usually faced the altar, with his back to the congregation. The reforms have turned the priest to face the people, with the altar between. This symbolises the desire for the Mass to become more people centered. Critics however have complained about the nature of the post-Vatican II Mass (known sometimes as the Novus Ordo Missae). In 2003, it was revealed that the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass was again being celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica (though not on the main altar) and that Pope John Paul II had begun celebrating Tridentine Masses in his private chapel in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

Issues facing contemporary Catholicism

The Catholic Church, like most Christian faiths, has experienced a steep decline in its worldwide influence in western society in the late 20th century; its male leadership structure and strict doctrinal beliefs on matters to do with human sexuality have less appeal to some in a more secular western world where diversity in sexual practices and gender equality are often the norm. The church itself has generally accepted some of the ideas of secularism and attempted to increase its separation from the state. In places where it once played a primary role, such as Quebec, Ireland, and Spain, it holds only a fraction of its former influence. At the same time, however, Roman Catholicism is experiencing a dramatic rise in membership in Africa and parts of Asia. While western missionaries once served as priests in African churches, by the late 20th century a growing number of western nations began to recruit African priests to balance their dwindling numbers of local clergy.

Pressure on traditional mores and practices

Ordination of women

The historic Roman Catholic position (as well as that of the Orthodox and other ancient churches), is that women cannot be priests or bishops, because priests and bishops are successors to the Apostles, and that in the sacrifice of the Eucharist the priest acts in representation of Christ.

Opposition to birth control

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his landmark encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (Latin, "Human Life"), which reemphasized the Church’s constant teaching that it is always intrinsically wrong to use artificial birth control—contraception—to prevent new human beings from coming into existence.

Artificial birth control is "any action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [sexual intercourse], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" (Humanae Vitae 14). This includes sterilization, condoms and other barrier methods, spermicides, coitus interruptus (withdrawal method), the Pill, and all other methods of artificial contraception.


The Church is criticized by some for not announcing what are seen by detractors to be mistakes. Some claim that it has not taken sufficient responsibility for its alleged (but strongly denied) "complacency" in the Holocaust, "persecution" of Galileo Galilei, or for the - hotly debated - nature of the Inquisition.

The Church response is that these incidents have frequently been misconstrued or exaggerated, often for polemical reasons. Catholic apologists often note that in 2,000 years of Church history there may well have been some wrongs committed by Church members, but that these evils have too-often been overemphasized, at the expense of the good that has been done in terms of preserving learning, establishing education and health care, charity, scientific and technical advancement and providing a moral basis for Western law and society.

Abuse scandals

In 2002, a scandal arose in the U.S. Catholic Church when various allegations were made of priests sexually abusing children. Reports that some bishops had failed to effectively put a stop to the abuses contributed to popular dissatisfaction. One apparent result of the scandal was the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law from the Boston archdiocese.


1 Early lists of popes stated that the first pope was St. Linus. Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale Nota Bene, 2002) Appendix A.

2 ibid.

Additional reading

See also

External links