Roman Catholic Church

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Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. The statue in the foreground is of Saint Peter, held by the Catholic Church to be the first Pope.

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious denomination of Christianity with over one billion members. It claims that it is both organizationally and doctrinally the original Christian Church, founded by Jesus Christ. It also claims unbroken Apostolic Succession from St. Peter and the other Apostles. The Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Church Lumen Gentium, 8,[1] ( 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, currently Pope Benedict XVI.

The Roman Catholic Church is also both the largest and the oldest continuously operating institution in existence. (For history see History of the Roman Catholic Church.)

It is a hierarchical organization in which ordained clergy are divided into the orders of bishops, priests and deacons. The world is divided into 2755 (at the end of 2004) bishoprics (more commonly called dioceses), each with a presiding bishop, responsible for the religious welfare of the believers in his geographical area. The principal bishopric is that of Rome, whose occupant is known as the Pope, considered to be the successor of Saint Peter, the chief of the Apostles.



Pope Benedict XVI, like all popes, is considered by Roman Catholics as the Vicar of Christ and therefore leader of all Christendom.
Pope Benedict XVI, like all popes, is considered by Roman Catholics as the Vicar of Christ and therefore leader of all Christendom.

The Roman Catholic Church has a membership in every country on Earth.The Church sees itself as instituted by Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls. It accomplishes this goal through teaching and through administration of sacraments, including baptism, communion, and forgiveness of sins, through which God grants grace to the believer. The teaching authority or magisterium of the Church bases its teachings on both Scripture and apostolic tradition. As well as ordained secular clergy, the Church encourages monasticism, and has many orders of monks, friars and nuns who live in celibacy, and devote their lives entirely to God. Other religious practices include fasting, prayer, penance, pilgrimage and meditation.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church's first purpose is "to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God." Thus the Church's "structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ's members." (Catechism of the Catholic Church 775, 773)


Since the term "Catholic Church" has multiple meanings (see Catholicism), this article uses the term "Roman Catholic Church", to avoid confusion. The relationship between the Western or Latin and the Eastern Churches within the Roman Catholic Church is dealt with below.

The choice of the phrase "Roman Catholic Church" should not be interpreted as opposition to the use, for this Church, of the simpler term "Catholic Church", which its members prefer. Indeed, the following extract from what St Augustine (AD 354-430) wrote in AD 397 still holds, in the twenty-first century, for the actual practice, as distinct from the theoretical position, of those who take a divergent stance on the importance of the link with the "seat of the Apostle Peter": when speaking formally, they may say "Roman Catholic Church" or employ a similar limiting phrase, but in ordinary everyday conversation they accept and may even themselves use the term "Catholic Church". (Note that in Augustine’s time Christians applied the word "priest" to bishops, but not to the lower rank of clergy that are today called "priests" in English.)

"In the Catholic Church ... there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep (Jn 21:15-19), down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the very name of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house."
Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, chapter 4: Proofs of the Catholic Faith[2] (


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Related faiths:
Abrahamic religions

The centre of the Roman 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. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Mass is the un-bloody renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary upon the altar, and the most perfect way to fulfill man's "four-fold duties" to God: adoration, thanksgiving, satisfaction for sins, and petition. 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. All priests and religious are obligated to pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily.


The Roman Catholic Church recognizes and administers seven sacraments, which are considered gifts of Christ through the Church which give Divine grace to those who receive them. All grace comes from the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, thus the sacraments are vehicles or channels of grace. The sacraments are listed here with reference to the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) that deals with each.


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The Crucifix, bearing the image of Jesus suffering on a cross, often serves as a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church.

In Roman Catholic theology, the Deposit of the Faith (all the dogmas and beliefs of the Church) comes from two sources: the Bible and Sacred Tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Jesus Christ transmitted the entire Catholic Faith to the apostles; a portion of this Faith was written down and is found in the Bible, and the other portion was orally handed down through the centuries.

The Roman 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" or "pre-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" [3] ( (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 Roman 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, whom Roman Catholics feel have broken continuity with the past, and the true teachings of the apostles, for the sake of what Protestants 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.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 85 states that authentic interpretation of the word of God is entrusted to the living Magisterium of the Church, namely the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter. Roman Catholic theology places the authoritative interpretation of scripture in the hands of the corporate judgment of the Church rather than the private judgment of the individual.

Social teaching

Main article: Catholic social teaching

The Church holds that the teachings of Jesus call on its members to act in a particular way in their dealings with the rest of humanity. While not endorsing any particular political agenda, the Church holds that this teaching applies in the public (political) realm, not only the private. 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 standards 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.

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.[4] (

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, since this Church has Rome as its centre. 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 Roman 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[5] ( 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 Roman 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 Roman 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, Belarusian, 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[6] (

Theological significance

The particular Churches within the Roman 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 Roman 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.[7] (


The Pope

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The Basilica of St John Lateran, cathedral of the diocese of Rome and so of the Pope

What most obviously distinguishes the Roman 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.’"[8] (

The Pope is referred to as the Vicar of Christ and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. Applying to him the term "absolute" would, however, give a false impression: he is not free (the word "absolute" etymologically means "loosed") to issue decrees at whim. Instead, his charge forces on him awareness that he, even more than other bishops, is "tied", bound, by an obligation of strictest fidelity to the teaching transmitted down the centuries in increasingly developed form within the Catholic Church.

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."[9] (

These are two ways, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 890 states, in which the pastors of the Church exercise the charism of infallibility with which Christ has endowed them for the purpose of guarding from deviation and decay the authentic faith of the definitive covenant that God has established in Christ with his people. In other words, they are two ways of ensuring that "the gates of Hell will not prevail" (Matthew 16:18) against the Church.

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.[10] ( This deals with the powers, from the death of a pope to the announcement of his successor’s election, of the cardinals and the departments of the Roman curia; with the funeral arrangements for the dead pope; and with the place, time and manner of voting of the meeting of the cardinal electors, a meeting known as a conclave. This word is derived from Latin com- (together) and clavis (key) and refers to the locking away of the participants from outside influences, a measure that was introduced first as a means instead of forcing them to reach a decision.

A pope has the option of resigning. (The term "abdicate" is not usually used of popes.) The two best known cases are those of Pope Celestine V in 1294 (who, though the poet Dante Alighieri pictured him 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.

The Cardinals

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.

In 1059, the right of electing the Pope was assigned exclusively to the principal clergy of Rome and the bishops of the seven "suburbicarian" 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 suburbicarian dioceses. Of these sees, the Dean of the College of Cardinals holds that of Ostia while keeping his preceding link with one of the other six sees. Traditionally, there have thus been only six cardinals who hold the rank of Cardinal Bishop, but when Eastern rite patriarchs are made cardinals, they too hold the rank of Cardinal Bishop, without being assigned a suburbicarian see, still less a church in Rome. The other cardinals have the rank either of Cardinal Priest or Cardinal Deacon.

Only a limited number (which has been set at a maximum of 120) can be admitted to a conclave. The rule has therefore been made that cardinals who have celebrated their eightieth birthday before the pope’s death may not join the conclave. Accordingly, no more than 120 ecclesiastics below the age of eighty may normally be made cardinals, but there may be any number over that age. This has enabled the Pope to confer the cardinalatial dignity on particularly worthy older clergy, such as theologians, or priests who have suffered long imprisonment under dictatorial regimes.

The colour associated with the robes of cardinals is a crimson red, while the red of bishops who are not cardinals (and of Apostolic Protonotaries and Honorary Prelates) is really a Roman purple, and that of the lowest class of monsignors (Chaplains of His Holiness) has a violet hue known as amarinthine red.

The hat and tassels of cardinals’ armorial bearings are red; those of bishops and lesser prelates are green.

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 may be conferred by the Pope upon a diocesan priest (not a member of a religious institute) at the request of the priest's bishop. The title goes with any of the following three awards:

  • Chaplain of His Holiness (called Papal Chamberlain until the reform of 31 March 1969 – see Acta Apostolicae Sedis of that year, pages 334-340, or this site (, the lowest level, distinguished by purple buttons and trim on the black cassock, with a purple sash.
  • Honorary Prelate (until 1969 called Domestic Prelate), the middle level, distinguished by red buttons and trim on the black cassock, with a purple sash, and by choir dress that includes a purple cassock.
  • Protonotary Apostolic, the highest level, with the same dress as that of an Honorary Prelate, except that the non-obligatory purple silk cape known as a ferraiuolo may be worn also.

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[11] ( 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 episcopate (seen as a fuller form of priesthood than the presbyterate) 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, though special dispensation can be received for remarriage under extenuating circumstances.

The Roman 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." (John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotis [12] ( ) The Roman 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 and which states this only implicitly, 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.

Public consecrated life

Within the Catholic Church, there are those who publicly undertake to observe as obligations what the Christian gospel proposes as counsels rather than commands. Some Catholics, in particular hermits and consecrated virgins, do so individually. Others group together to form what are called religious institutes. The term "religious order", which in its strict sense refers only to a subset of these institutes, is commonly used also of all of them.

There is a great variety of religious institutes. Some have only lay members, others have both priests and lay members, others still may have only priests and men preparing for priesthood. Some date from the earliest centuries of Christianity, others spring up every year.

These groups normally begin as an association formed, with the consent of the diocesan bishop, for the purpose of becoming a religious institute. After time has provided proof of the rectitude, seriousness and durability of the group, the bishop, after consulting the Holy See, may formally set it up as a religious institute, for which he is responsible. Later, when it has grown in numbers, perhaps extending also into other dioceses, and further proved its worth, then the Holy See may grant it formal approval, bringing it under the Holy See's responsibility, rather than that of the bishops of the dioceses where it is present. For the good of institutes and to provide for the needs of their apostolate, the Holy See can exempt them from the governance of the local bishops, bringing them entirely under the authority of the Holy See itself or of someone else.

The oldest existing forms of such institutes are those of monks and nuns, such as the Benedictines of the West and the Basilians of the East, living in monasteries. Around the thirteenth century Mendicant Orders, such as of those of the Dominicans and Franciscans, arose. Unlike the monks and nuns, the members of these orders had their convents not in the country but in the towns, which were becoming increasingly important. One of the best known of those that appeared still later is the Society of Jesus, which today is the religious institute with the largest number of members (known as Jesuits).

Typically, members of religious institutes take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For some, the vow of stability in a monastery or to live according to a particular written rule is considered to include these vows. Other institutes add further vows. People wishing to join a religious institute may spend some time as postulants, then as novices, and then one or more periods with temporary vows, before committing themselves fully with perpetual vows.

Unless they are priests, male members of religious institutes are usually referred to as "Brother", while in female institutes most members are called "Sister", but the superior of the whole institute, or even of a single community, is usually called "Mother" or "Mother Superior".

Secular institutes are another form of consecrated life. They differ from religious institutes in that their members live their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world, either alone, in their families or in fraternal groups.

Somewhat similar are the societies of apostolic life, dedicated to pursuit of an apostolic purpose, such as educational or missionary work. They do not take religious vows, but live in common, striving for perfection through observing the "constitutions" of the society to which they belong.

Worldwide distribution

The total number of Catholics in the world is over one billion. They are found in nearly every country, though they are more concentrated in the Americas and Europe. They currently make up 63% of the population of North and South America, 40% of Europe, roughly 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa, and 3% of Asia [13] (

In Europe, Catholic majorities are found in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, as well as Northern Ireland, are about equally divided between Catholics and Protestants. In the Czech Republic, Roman Catholics make up 39% of the population. Catholics are a significant minority in Britain, where their faith underwent a revival in the 19th and early 20th Century after three centuries of relentless persecution.

Nearly all Latin American countries have large Catholic majorities, among them being such heavyweights as Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. Catholics in the United States of America are more numerous than any other single Church: as a result of massive immigration, mainly from countries like Italy, Ireland and Germany, their number grew from virtually nothing in 1790 to about a quarter of the total population by 1920, a proportion that remains today. Catholics are a majority in neighbouring Canada, where there has been a strong historical presence of France and much immigration from Catholic countries.

In Asia, the Philippines (once a Spanish colony) and East Timor have Catholic majorities, and most Christians in Lebanon are Roman Catholics, while a significant Catholic population has developed in South Korea.

Catholicism has spread relatively recently to some parts of the world. There are now some 115 million in Africa.

The number of Catholics in the world continues to increase, through population growth in developing countries and, to a lesser extent, spread to new areas. The increase between 1978 and 2000 was 288 million. Protestant evangelicals have succeeded in making inroads into parts of Latin America, but remain a small percentage of the population. In most industrialized countries, church attendance has decreased since the 19th century, though it remains higher than that of other "mainline" Churches.


In its two thousand years of existence, the Roman Catholic Church has gathered criticisms for numerous reasons. (Many particular controversies are discussed in separate articles.)

Pope John Paul II acknowledged publicly that the Roman Catholic Church (and its members) has been involved in questionable activities, and asked God to forgive its sins, both in action and omission.

Historical Criticism

Historically, the Church's response to heresy through the Inquisition and its association with witchhunts have brought criticism. The Church has also been accused of hostility to democracy, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. It has been accused of supporting absolute monarchy and, later, Fascism and Falangism. However, others have credited the Church for contributions to many of western society's fundamental principles of human rights.

Enlightenment philosophers perceived the Church's doctrines as superstitious and hindering the progress of civilization. Many thinkers and academics criticized it for opposing scientific advancement. The trial of Galileo Galilei is an infamous example of the Church's advocacy of Ptolemaic geocentrism. The Church has, however, made many contributions to philosophy, art, music, engineering and architecture.

Contemporary Criticism

The Church's stance on issues such as artificial birth control, homosexuality, abortion and embryonic stem cell research, have drawn substantial criticism. The Church's opposition to the use of condoms as a strategy to prevent the spread of AIDS has come under fire; the Church argues that encouraging the belief that non-monogamous sexual patterns can safely be maintained with the aid of condoms actually makes matters worse.

The actions of bishops and 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. Some bishops have supported denying the Eucharist to politicians who oppose the Church's teaching on controversial issues. The sex abuse scandal and the subsequent reforms in Church policy have also drawn strong criticism.


Throughout history accusations of anti-Semitism have resounded against the Church. However, Church leadership has repeatedly stated that anti-Semitism has no place in authentic Catholicism. It is certainly true that some of the leaders and members of the Catholic Church, both now and in the past, have made anti-Semitic statements and engaged in acts of anti-Semitism. The Jewish people have throughout history been blamed for the death of Jesus, and have suffered greatly at the hands of Christians of many traditions because of this mistaken belief. However, the Second Vatican Council's declaration Nostra tate [14] ( specifically refutes the claim that the death of Jesus is the fault of the Jewish people:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.
Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.
Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows. (Emphasis added)

From attempts to convert the Jewish people to Christianity to outright acts of anti-Semitic prejudice, the Church's relationship with the Jewish people has at times been a stormy one. However, it remains the official policy of the Catholic Church to oppose anti-Semitism in all forms, wherever it occurs. The pontificate of John Paul II in particular was marked with groundbreaking acts, particularly in the area of reconciliation with the Jewish people. See Christian Opposition to Anti-Semitism for more on this topic.

Traditionalist Catholics

Traditionalist Catholics tend to see the Church's efforts at reformed teaching and practice, in particular the Second Vatican Council, as having betrayed core values of Catholicism. Some groups, such as the Society of St. Pius X, do not question the legitimacy of the present leadership, though they disagree with its decisions. A few go so far as to characterize the current leaders as heretics. There are also several groups, known as sedevacantists, who claim that the current Pope is not legitimate, and a handful of these groups have appointed a papal replacement. The full list of these "popes" (or "antipopes") is constantly changing.

Additional reading

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church - English translation (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000). ISBN 1574551108 [15] (
  • 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


  • Vatican: the Holy See (
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia ( Resource concerning Catholic history and doctrine as well as related matters of philosophy.
  • Catholic Answers ( Catholic apologetics and evangelization organization in North America
  • Mass Times ( A directory of Mass times, parish locations, directions and phone numbers for traveling Catholics
  • CATHworld Search Engine ( Resource for finding Catholic information and sites.
  • Catholic Apologetics of America ( A large, award winning Catholic blog with several articles and links.
  • Catholic Blogs and Resources (
  • Catholic Culture Sites Review ( A categorized, reviewed, searchable collection of links to orthodox Roman Catholic links. Ratings for fidelity, resources and useability.
  • About Catholics ( Catholic evangelization and information about specific beliefs
  • Truly Open Directory ( A categorized collection of links on Roman Catholicism
  • Catholic Exchange ( non-profit evangelist charity

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