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Catholicism refers generally to the denominations of Christianity that call themselves Catholic.

The word "catholic" comes from Greek katholikos (καθολικος), which means "general" or "universal." In the Christian creeds such as the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed, Christians of most denominations, including most Protestants, affirm their faith in "one holy catholic and apostolic Church." This belief refers to their belief in the ultimate unity of all churches under one God and one Saviour. As such, this belief is shared by most Christians, including those who belong to denominations that are not considered "Catholic."

Catholicism is the largest branch of the Christian religion. The main Catholic denomination is the Roman Catholic Church (so named because they are all in communion with the Pope and Bishop of Rome, and most parishes follow the Roman or Latin Rite in worship, although there are other rites). In casual usage, when people speak of "Catholics" or "Catholicism," they typically mean Roman Catholicism.

However, other Catholic groups exist, such as the Old Catholic Church, the Polish National Catholic Church[?], and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association[?]. There are also some in the Anglican church, Anglo-Catholics, that consider Anglicanism to be a branch of Catholicism. The several churches of Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy consider themselves to be the catholic church, in the general, universal sense of the word. The Orthodox churches generally see the Latin "Catholics" as being heretical schismatics who left the "true catholic and apostolic church" (See, Great Schism). The patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy are autocephalous bishops, which roughly means that each of them is independent of the direct oversight of another bishop; or, put another way, these Christians are not in communion with the Pope and do not recognise his claim to be the head of the universal church as an earthly institution. There are also Eastern Rite[?] Catholics whose liturgy is similar to that of the Orthodox, and also allow their priests to marry, but who recognize the Roman Pope as the head of their church.

Some groups call themselves Catholic but are questionably so: for instance the Liberal Catholic Church, which originated as a breakaway group from the Old Catholic Church, but incorporated so much theosophy that it had little doctrinally in common with Catholicism anymore.

Table of contents

History The early Christian church became organized under five patriarchs, the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. While Rome could claim an authority descending from St. Peter, Constantinople had become the residence of the Emperor and the Senate. The fact that the bishop of Rome did not recognise the supremacy of the emperor in ecclesiastical matters coupled with an estrangement due to the separate rites, led to the split in 1054 which divided the Church into the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East (Greece, Russia and much of the Slavic lands, Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, etc.); this is called the Great Schism. (Conversely, most Eastern Orthodox believe the split arose because the other patriarchs failed to recognize the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome in ecclesiastical matters, particularly regarding the addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed.) The next major split of the Catholic Church occurred in the 1500s in the Protestant Reformation, where many of the Protestant (protesting) denominations began.

Organization by Office The head of the Roman Catholic Church is known as the Pope and is believed to be the succesor of St. Peter and the highest spiritual authority on earth. The church has a hierarchical structure of offices or titles, in descending order:

  • Pope, which is the bishop of Rome and also Patriarch of the West. Those who assist and advise him in leading the whole church are the Cardinals;
  • Patriarchs, Archbishops, and Metropolitans[?] are the heads of Catholic Churches other than the Latin Church.
  • Bishop (Archbishop and Suffragan Bishop[?]): are the successors of the twelve apostles. They have recieved the fullness of sacramental orders.;
  • Priest (Monsignor is an honorary title for a priest, giving no extra sacramental powers); Initially there were no Priests per se. This position evolved from the suburban Bishops who were charged with distributing the sacraments but without full jurisidiction over the faithfull.
  • Deacon

There are also several more minor offices: Lector, Acolytes (Since the Second Vatican Council, the offices of Exorcist and Sub-deacon no longer exist). Religious orders have their own hierarchy and titles. These offices taken together constitute the clergy, and in the Western rite can only normally be occupied by unmarried men. However, in the Eastern rite married men are admitted to the priesthood, but not the office of bishop; and on rare occasions married priests converting from other Christian groups have been permitted to be ordained in the Western rite. The Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals (the process of election, held in Sistine Chapel, is called Conclave) and continues in office until death or until he resigns (which has happened only twice, and never since the Middle Ages).


The practice of the Catholic Church consists of seven sacraments (see also Catholic sacraments):

Sacraments are visible signs and words which were believed to be instituted by Jesus Christ, which are believed to impart sanctifying grace to those they given too. 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 Catholic Church since the effect is thought to come straight from God irregardless 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. In the majority Latin Rite church, this sacrament is presided over by a bishop, and takes place in early adulthood. In the Eastern Catholic Churches (see below) the sacrament is called chrismation, and is ordinarily performed immediately after baptism by a priest. Holy Orders is the entering into the priesthood and involves a vow of chastity; the sacrament of Holy Orders is given in three degrees: that of the deacon (since Vatican II a permanent deacon may be married before becoming a deacon), that of the priest, and that of the bishop. Anointing of the Sick is also known as "extreme unction" or the "last rites," and involves the anointing the seriously ill or dying with oil.

Rites The Catholic Church is actually a federation of 24 self-governing (sui juris) Churches in communion with each other under the leadership of the Pope. By far the largest Church is the Latin Church, popularly called the Roman Catholic Church. The other 23 Churches are in the collective called Eastern Catholic Churches. Each Eastern Catholic Church is led by a Patriarch, Major Archbishop, or Metropolitan (a chief Archbishop who does not hold the rank of Major Archbishop or Patriarch). The 24 Catholic Churches use among them six rites. The Roman rite is used only by the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church, and is used by the vast majority of Catholics (98%). There are also several Eastern Rites, which are used in parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and by Catholic communities in other parts of the world that originate from there. There are also two other small Western rites, other than the Latin rite, the Ambrosian rite[?] and the Mozarabic rite[?], which are used in a few places in Europe. In the Middle Ages there were many other Western rites, but almost all of them were replaced by the Latin rite by the Council of Trent. The Eastern rites originated with groups that left Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches to join the Roman Catholic church, but retained their own rites and traditions.

A listing of rites, with the Churches that use it, follows:


  • Latin
Constantinopolitan or Byzantine
  • Albanian
  • Belarussian
  • Bulgarian
  • Croatian
  • Georgian
  • Greek
  • Hungarian
  • Italo-Albanian (a.k.a. Italo-Greek)
  • Melkite
  • Romanian
  • Russian
  • Ruthenian
  • Slovak
  • Serbian
  • Ukrainian
West Syrian or Antiochene East Syrian or Chaldean Alexandrian Armenian

Historically, the church service in the Latin rite was conducted entirely in Latin, but local languages came into use with the Second Vatican Council (also called Vatican II), which occurred in 1962-5. Eastern rite Catholicism uses various languages, depending on the particular rite involved, such as Greek, Syriac, Coptic or Arabic.

Organization by Region The fundamental geographical and organizational unit of the Catholic Church is the diocese (in the Eastern Catholic Churches, the equivalent unit is called an eparchy). 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 eccleistical 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 an 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 ultamitely 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 bishops who are special advisors to the Pope. Any priest can be appointed Cardinal, provided he "excelled in believe, moral 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 (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_22021996_universi-dominici-gregis_en)) 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 oustanding 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. All cardinals who 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 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 who are mainly non-priests 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).

Doctrinal distinctives 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 role of the Pope as the central pillar of the Church, purgatory, the nature of the Trinity and how that should be expressed in the Nicene Creed, and a juridical versus 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.

Mass is celebrated every Sunday morning in every Roman Catholic parish. Additional Masses can be celebrated on any day of the liturgical year except for Good Friday. The contemporary Mass is composed of two major parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Word, readings from the Bible are done; and a homily (like the Protestant sermon) is spoken. In the Mass, the Nicene Creed, which states the orthodox beliefs of Catholicism, is professed by all Catholics present. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the series of prayers and statements said to prepare for communion itself.

The liturgical reform movement[?] has been responsible over the past forty years for a significant convergence of Roman Catholic worship practices with that of Protestant churches. One feature of the new liturgical views has been a "return to the sources" (ressourcement) resulting in 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, along with the de-clarification of the beliefs about the Mass peculiar to Roman Catholics (in an effort to foster unity with Protestants). The most visible feature of the reforms is the posture of the priest. In the past, the priest faced East, with the altar in front and the congregation behind. 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.

See also:

External links The most succinct and complete statement of Catholic teachings is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The complete text can be found at [1] (http://www.christusrex.org/www1/CDHN/ccc). A topical search engine for the Catechism can be found at [2] (http://www.ziplink.net/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/kerygma/a.pl).

See also:

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