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The Roman Catholic Church, or Catholic Church, is the Christian Church which is led by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, currently His Holiness Pope Francis I.

Formally, the Roman Catholic Church defines itself as the Church governed by the Pope - considered to be the "successor of Peter", and therefore charged with leadership of all Christians - and the bishops in communion with him. As such, it teaches that it is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus, and that it was instituted for the salvation of all people. It seeks to accomplish this through teaching, and the administration of seven sacraments. It bases its teachings on both Scripture and the traditions of the church, many of which it believes to have been passed down from the Twelve Apostles or from Jesus himself.

The Church is the largest Christian church, with a membership of more than 1.29 billion Christians worldwide.


The Church considered in this article uses many names to describe itself, none of which it has declared to be the name by which it should be known. However, when drawing up documents jointly with other Churches, it refers to itself either as the Catholic Church or as the Roman Catholic Church.

Divergent usages attach a certain ambiguity to each of these terms. Some apply the term Roman Catholic Church only to the Western or Latin Church, excluding the Eastern-Rite particular Churches that are in full communion with the Pope, and are part of the same Church, under the Pope, taken as a whole. As for the term Catholic Church, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Old-Catholic, and other Christians claim to be, or to be part of, the Catholic Church. For detailed discussions of various understandings of the term, see Catholicism, Catholic, and One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

For reasons of simplicity and clarity, the term "Catholic Church" is freely used within this article without suggesting acceptance of any claims thought to be implicit in that term, while "Roman Catholic Church" is used without endorsing the view that the Church in question is merely part of some larger "Catholic Church". Both terms are treated within this article simply as alternative names for the entire Church "which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him"


Small crucifix

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

The Catholic Church is a Christian church, and therefore shares core beliefs with the majority of other trinitarian groups generally considered to be Christian.

The Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed, which are accepted by most major Christian denominations, can be considered a fundamental core of the Catholic Church's beliefs. However some Christian denominations have developed a different understanding of many central issues concerning Christ's role in the Church and of the salvation of believers that vary greatly from the Church's historic teachings. The Catholic Church has published a detailed exposition of its beliefs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [1] [2].

The nature of God[]

Catholicism, as a branch of Christianity, is a monotheistic religion. Together with other Christian denominations, Judaism, Islam and some interpretations of Hinduism, it believes that there is a God (interpretations differ signifigantly between some of these religions) who is one, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing and omnipresent. God exists as distinct from and prior to his creation, that is, everything which is not God, and which depends directly on him for existence, and yet is still present intimately in his creation. Faith in God's existence is the most fundamental Catholic belief, and in the First Vatican Council the Church has taught that, while by the natural light of human reason God can be known in his works as origin and end of all created things (cf. Romans 1:20), God has also chosen to reveal himself and his will supernaturally in the ways indicated in the Letter to the Hebrews 1:1–2.

Catholicism is also a Trinitarian religion. It believes that, while God is one in nature, essence, and being, this one God exists in three divine persons (or forms or appearences of the same God), each identical with the one essence, whose only distinctions are in their relations to one another: the Father's relationship to the Son, the Son's relationship to the Father, and the relations of both to the Holy Spirit, constitute the one God as a Trinity.

A Catholic Christian is baptized in the name (singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit — not three gods, but One God subsisting in three Persons (forms of Itself). The faith of the Church and of the individual Christian is based on a relationship with these three Persons of the one God.

The Catholic Church believes that God has revealed himself to humanity as Father to his only-begotten Son, who is in an eternal relationship with the Father: "No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matthew 11:27).

Catholics believe that God the Son, the second of the three Persons of God, became incarnate as Jesus Christ, a human being, born of the Virgin Mary. He remained truly divine and was at the same time truly human. In what he said, and by how he lived, he taught us how to live, and revealed God as Love, the giver of unmerited favours or Graces.

After Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, his followers, foremost among them the Apostles, spread more and more extensively their faith in Jesus Christ with a vigour that they attributed to the Holy Spirit, the third of the three Persons of God, sent upon them by Jesus.

Humanity's separation from God[]

Human beings, in Catholic belief, were originally created to live in union with God. Through the disobedience of the first humans, that relationship was broken and sin and death came into the world (cf. Romans 5:12). Man's fall left him separated from his original state of intimacy with God which carried into death through the idea of the individual human soul being immortal. But when Jesus came into the world, being both God and man, he was able through his sacrifice to pay the penalty for all human sin and to reconcile humanity with God. By becoming one in Christ, through the Church, humanity was once again capable of intimacy with God but also offered a much more amazing gift: participation in the Divine Life, also called the Beatific Vision.

The Church[]

Section 8 of the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium [3] states that "the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic" subsists "in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him" (the term successor of Peter refers in Roman Catholic understanding to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope).

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. Catholic theology places the authoritative interpretation of scripture in the hands of the consistent judgment of the Church down the ages (what has always and everywhere been taught) rather than the private judgment of the individual. The Magisterium does, however, encourage its flock to read Sacred Scripture.

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).


The Church teaches that salvation to eternal life is God's will for all people, and that God grants it to sinners as a free gift, a grace, through the sacrifice of Christ. Man cannot, in the strict sense, merit anything from God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2007). It is God who justifies, that is, who frees from sin by a free gift of holiness (sanctifying grace, also known as habitual or deifying grace). Man can accept the gift God gives through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22) and through baptism (Romans 6:3–4). Man can also refuse the gift. Human cooperation is needed, in line with a new capacity to adhere to the divine will that God provides (cf. Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification, 2–3).[4] The faith of a Christian is not without works, otherwise it would be dead (cf. James 2:26). In this sense, "by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24 - RSV), and eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1987–2016.

The Christian Path[]

Following baptism, the Catholic Christian must endeavour to be a true disciple of Jesus. The believer must seek forgiveness of subsequent sins, and try to follow the example and teaching of Jesus. To help Christians, Jesus has provided seven sacraments (see below), which give Grace from God to the believer.

Catholics believe that God works actively in the world. Christians may grow in grace through prayer, good works, and spiritual disciplines such as fasting and pilgrimage. Prayer takes the form of praise, thanksgiving and supplication. Christians can and should pray for others, even for enemies and persecutors (Matthew 5:44). They may address their requests for the intercession of others not only to people still in earthly life, but also to those in heaven, in particular the Virgin Mary and the other Saints. As Mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary is also considered to be the spiritual mother of all Christians. Unless a Christian dies in unrepented mortal sin, which is normally remitted in Penance, that person has God's promise of inheriting eternal life. Before entering heaven, some undergo a purification, known as Purgatory. Catholic teachings include a stress on forgiveness, doing good to others, and on the sanctity of life. This is manifested in practical terms by opposing activities which Catholics see as destroying divinely created life, including euthanasia, eugenics, contraception, abortion, and capital punishment.

The social teaching of the Church is dealt with in Roman Catholic social teaching.

The Catholic Church maintains that, through the graces Jesus won for humanity by sacrificing himself on the cross, salvation is possible even for those outside the visible boundaries of the Church, whether non-Catholic Christians or non-Christians, if in life they respond positively to the grace and truth that God reveals to them. This may sometimes include awareness of an obligation to become part of the Catholic Church. In such cases, "they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it" (Second Vatican Council: Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 14).


San Pietro Basilica

Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. The statue in the foreground is of Saint Peter, whose successor, within the Catholic Church, the Pope is considered to be.

The Catholic Church sees the eucharistic liturgy, the celebration of the Mystery of Christ, in particular the Paschal Mystery of his death and resurrection, as the high point of its activity and the source of its life and strength.

As explained in greater detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its shorter Compendium, the liturgy is something that "the whole Christ", Head and Body, celebrates — Christ, the one High Priest, together with his Body, the Church in heaven and on earth. Involved in the heavenly liturgy are the angels and the saints of the Old Covenant and the New, in particular Mary, the Mother of God, the Apostles, the Martyrs and "a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Revelation 7:9). The Church on earth, "a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9), celebrates the liturgy in union with these: the baptized offering themselves as a spiritual sacrifice, the ordained ministers celebrating at the service of all the members of the Church in accordance with the order received, and bishops and priests acting in the person of Christ.

The Christian liturgy uses signs and symbols whose significance, based on nature or culture, has been made more precise through Old Testament events and has been fully revealed in the person and life of Christ. Some of these signs and symbols come from the world of creation (light, water, fire, bread, wine, oil), others from life in society (washing, anointing, breaking bread), others from Old Testament sacred history (the Passover rite, sacrifices, laying on of hands, consecrating persons and objects).

In the Christian liturgy these signs are closely linked with words. Though in a sense the signs speak for themselves, they need to be accompanied and vivified by the spoken word. Taken together, word and action indicate what the rite signifies and effects.

Singing and music are associated with the liturgy. So also are sacred images, which proclaim the same message as do the words of Sacred Scripture and which help to awaken and nourish faith.

The most important parts of the liturgy are the sacraments, which Roman Catholics believe were instituted by Christ (see below).

In addition there are many sacramentals, sacred signs (rituals or objects) that derive their power from the prayer of the Church. They involve prayer accompanied by the sign of the cross or other signs. Important examples are blessings (by which praise is given to God and his gifts are prayed for), consecrations of persons, and dedications of objects to the worship of God.

Popular devotions are not strictly part of the liturgy, but if they are judged to be authentic, the Church encourages them. They include veneration of relics of saints, visits to sacred shrines, pilgrimages, processions, the Stations of the Cross (also known as the Way of the Cross), and the Rosary.

Sunday, which commemorates the resurrection of Christ and has been celebrated by Christians from the earliest times (1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10; Ignatius of Antioch: Magn.9:1; Justin Martyr: I Apology 67:5), is the outstanding occasion for the liturgy; but no day, not even any hour, is excluded from celebrating the liturgy. The sole exception is on Good Friday, the day of Christ's crucifixion. There can be no Eucharistic celebration on Good Friday or on Saturday before the Easter Vigil.

The Liturgy of the Hours consecrates to God the whole 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 prayer period called the Office of Readings (formerly known as Matins) at no fixed time, devoted chiefly to readings from the Scriptures and ecclesiastical writers. The Second Vatican Council suppressed an additional 'hour' called Prime. The prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours consist principally of the Psalter or Book of Psalms. Like the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours has inspired great musical compositions. An earlier name for the Liturgy of the Hours and for the books that contained the texts was the Divine Office (a name still used as the title of one English translation), the Book of Hours, and the Breviary. Bishops, priests, deacons and members of religious institutes are obliged to pray at least some parts of the Liturgy of the Hours daily, an obligation that applied also to subdeacons.

New Testament worship "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24) is not linked exclusively with any particular place or places, since Christ is seen as the true temple of God, and through him Christians too and the whole Church become, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, a temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16). Nevertheless the earthly condition of the Church on earth makes it necessary to have certain places in which to celebrate the liturgy. Within these churches, chapels and oratories, Catholics put particular emphasis on the altar, the tabernacle, the place in which chrism and other holy oils are kept ('ambry'), the seat of the bishop ('cathedra') or priest, and the baptismal font.

The richness of the Mystery of Christ cannot be exhausted by any one liturgical tradition and has from the beginning found varied complementary expressions characteristic of different peoples and cultures. As catholic or universal, the Church believes it can and should hold within its unity the true riches of these peoples and cultures.

There are in the liturgy, specifically in the sacraments, elements that cannot be changed, because they are of divine institution. These the Church must guard carefully. Other elements may be changed, and the Church has the power, and sometimes the duty, to adapt them to the different cultures of peoples and times. Also, individual Catholics may privately pray in many different ways because of the great variety of Catholic Spirituality.


The Roman Catholic Church, like other ancient Christian Churches such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, recognizes and administers seven sacraments as gifts from Christ to his Church. These signs perceptible to the senses are seen as means by which Christ gives the particular grace indicated by the sign aspect of the sacrament in question, helping the individual to advance in holiness, and contributing to the Church' s growth in charity and in giving witness. Not every individual receives every sacrament, but the Church sees the sacraments as necessary means of salvation, conferring each sacrament' s special graces, forgiveness of sins, adoption as children of God, conformation to Christ, and membership of the Church. The effect of the sacraments comes ex opere operato (by the very fact of being administered): through them, regardless of the minister' s personal holiness, Christ provides the graces of which they are signs. However, a recipient' s own lack of proper dispositions can block their effectiveness in that person. The sacraments presuppose faith; and, in addition, their words and ritual elements nourish, strengthen and give expression to faith.

List of the seven sacraments, with references to the sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) that deal with each:

What follows is an account, again largely based on the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, of how the Catholic Church views each of these sacraments.

Baptism is the first and basic sacrament of Christian initiation. It is administered by immersing the recipient in water or by pouring (not just sprinkling) water on the person's head "in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (cf. Matthew 28:19). The ordinary minister of the sacrament is a bishop or priest, or (in the Western Church, but not in the Eastern Churches) a deacon. In case of necessity, anyone intending to do what the Church does, even if that person is not a Christian, can baptize. Baptism frees from original sin and all personal sins and from the punishment due to them, and makes the baptized person share in the Trinitarian life of God through "sanctifying grace" (the grace of justification that incorporates the person in Christ and his Church). It makes the person a sharer too in the priesthood of Christ and is the foundation of communion between all Christians. It imparts the "theological" virtues (faith, hope and charity) and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It marks the baptized person with a spiritual seal or character that indicates permanent belonging to Christ.

Confirmation or Chrismation is the second sacrament of Christian initiation. It is conferred by anointing with chrism, an oil into which balm has been mixed, giving it a special perfume, together with a special prayer that refers, in both its Western and Eastern variants, to a gift of the Holy Spirit that marks the recipient as with a seal. Through the sacrament the grace given in baptism is "strengthened and deepened" (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1303). Like baptism, confirmation may be received only once, and the recipient must be in a state of grace (meaning free from any known unconfessed mortal sin) in order to receive its effects. The "originating" minister of the sacrament is a validly consecrated bishop; if a priest (a "presbyter") confers the sacrament — as is done ordinarily in the Eastern Churches and in special cases in the Latin-Rite Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1312–1313) — the link with the higher order is indicated by the use of oil blessed by a bishop. In the East the sacrament is administered immediately after baptism. In the West administration came to be postponed until the recipient's early adulthood; but in view of the earlier age at which children are now admitted to reception of the Eucharist, it is more and more restored to the traditional order and administered before giving the third sacrament of Christian initiation.

The Eucharist is the sacrament (the third of Christian initiation) by which Catholics partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and participate in his one sacrifice. The first of these two aspects of the sacrament is also called Holy Communion. The bread and wine used in the Eucharistic rite are, in Catholic faith, believed to be transformed in all but appearance into the Body and Blood of Christ, a change that is commonly called transubstantiation. Only a bishop or priest is enabled to be a minister of the Eucharist, acting in the person of Christ himself. Deacons as well as priests are ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and lay people may be authorized in limited circumstances to act as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The Eucharist is seen as "the source and summit" of Christian living, the high point of God 's sanctifying action on the faithful and of their worship of God, the point of contact between them and the liturgy of heaven. So important is it that participation in the Eucharistic celebration (see Mass (liturgy)) is seen as obligatory on every Sunday and holy day of obligation and is recommended on other days. Also recommended for those who participate in the Mass is reception, with the proper dispositions, of Holy Communion. This is seen as obligatory at least once a year, during Eastertide.

Reconciliation is the first of two sacraments of healing, which is also called the sacrament of penance, of conversion, of confession, and of forgiveness (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1423–1424).[5] It is the sacrament of spiritual healing of a baptized person from the distancing from God involved in sins committed. It involves four elements: the penitent's contrition for sin (without which the rite does not have its effect), confession to a priest (it may be spiritually helpful to confess to another, but only a priest has the power to administer the sacrament), absolution by the priest, and satisfaction. In early Christian centuries, the fourth element was quite onerous and generally preceded absolution, but now it usually involves a simple task (in some traditions called a “penance”) for the penitent to perform, to make some reparation and as a medicinal means of strengthening against further temptation.

Anointing of the Sick is the second sacrament of healing. In it a priest anoints the sick with oil blessed specifically for that purpose. "The anointing of the sick can be administered to any member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger by reason of illness or old age" (Code of Canon Law, canon 1004; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1514). A new illness or a worsening of health enables a person to receive the sacrament a further time. When, in the Western Church, the sacrament was conferred only on those in immediate danger of death, it came to be known as "Extreme Unction", i.e. "Final Anointing", administered as one of the "Last Rites". The other "Last Rites" are Confession (if the dying person is physically unable to confess, at least absolution, conditional on the existence of contrition, is given), and the Eucharist, which when administered to the dying is known as "Viaticum", a word whose original meaning in Latin was "provision for a journey".

Holy Orders is the sacrament by which a man is made a bishop, a priest or a deacon. Only a bishop may administer this sacrament. Ordination as a bishop confers the fulness of the sacrament, making the bishop a member of the body that has succeeded to that of the Apostles, and giving him the mission to teach, sanctify and guide, along with the care of all the Churches. Ordination as a priest configures the priest to Christ the Head of the Church and the one essential High Priest, and conferring on him the power, as the bishops' assistant, to celebrate the sacraments and other liturgical acts, especially the Eucharist. Ordination as a deacon configures the deacon to Christ the Servant of All, placing him at the service of the bishop, especially in the Church's exercising of Christian charity towards the poor and preaching of the word of God. (On "minor orders", see below, under the heading "Priests and deacons".)

Matrimony, or Marriage, like Holy Orders, is a sacrament that consecrates for a particular mission in building up the Church, and that provides grace for accomplishing that mission. This sacrament, seen as a sign of the love uniting Christ and the Church, establishes between the spouses a permanent and exclusive bond, sealed by God. Accordingly, a marriage between baptized persons, validly entered into and consummated, cannot be dissolved. The sacrament confers on them the grace they need for attaining holiness in their married life and for responsible acceptance and upbringing of their children. The sacrament is celebrated publicly in the presence of the priest (or another witness appointed by the Church) and other witnesses, though in the theological tradition of the Latin Church the ministers of the sacrament are the couple themselves. For a valid marriage, a man and a woman must express their conscious and free consent to a definitive self-giving to the other, excluding none of the essential properties and aims of marriage. If one of the two is a non-Catholic Christian, their marriage is licit only if the permission of the competent authority of the Catholic Church is obtained. If one of the two is not a Christian (i.e. has not been baptized) this permission is necessary for validity.

Relations with other Christians[]

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" 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" [6] (note the less common but by no means unique 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 to 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 Catholics feel have broken continuity with the past, while Protestants claim that, if they have done so, it was for the sake of fidelity to 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 Catholic Church[]

Unlike "families" or "federations" of Churches formed through the grant of mutual recognition by distinct ecclesial bodies, the Catholic Church considers itself a single Church ("one Body") composed of a multitude of local or particular Churches, in each of which the one Catholic Church is embodied. The universal Church, however, is believed to be "a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church" (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of the Church understood as communion of 28 May 1992, 9). [7]

However, the Catholic Church attaches great importance to the particular Churches within it, whose theological significance the Second Vatican Council highlighted. Two uses of the term particular Church are distinguished.

Autonomous (sui iuris) particular Churches or Rites[]

The higher of these two levels of particular Churches is that of what the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 2 [8] calls particular Churches or rites.

There are 23 such autonomous Churches, one "Western" and 22 "Eastern", a distinction by now more historical than geographical. The term sui iuris means, literally, "of their own law", or self-governing. Although all of the particular Churches espouse the same beliefs and faith, their distinction lies in their varied expression of that faith through traditions, disciplines, and canon law. All 23 are in communion with the Pope in Rome.

The central importance for the Catholic Church of the Eucharistic liturgy explains the traditional use of the term Rite to distinguish these particular Churches. The term rite is, however, not devoid of ambiguity, since it can refer also to a liturgical rite. To take one instance, the Ukrainian particular Church uses, along with others, the Byzantine liturgical rite, but has itself been customarily referred to as "the Ukrainian Rite". Since a legal text must be careful to avoid ambiguity, the 1983 Code of Canon Law adopted, instead of the term rite (found in the 1917 Code of Canon Law), the term autonomous ritual Church (in Latin, Ecclesia ritualis sui iuris) for the reality that the Second Vatican Council called a "particular Church or Rite"; and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches shortened this to autonomous Church (in Latin, Ecclesia sui iuris). Since then, the term Rite, once the normal term, is rarely used to refer to these Churches, but has not fallen altogether out of use.

A single "particular Church or Rite" may use several liturgical rites: the Latin Church does. And several distinct "particular Churches or Rites" may use the same liturgical rite: no less than fourteen use the same Byzantine liturgical rite, in some cases without even a distinction of language.

The autonomy of each particular 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 autonomous particular Churches have in common.

The Annuario Pontificio, the yearly directory of the Holy See, gives the following list of Rites or autonomous particular Churches, and of countries or other political areas in which they possess an episcopal ecclesiastical jurisdiction (patriarchate, major archbishopric, archeparchy, eparchy, exarchate or ordinariate):

Latin Rite or autonomous Church

(On liturgical rites used within the Latin particular Church, see Latin liturgical rites)

Eastern Rites or autonomous Churches:

  • Alexandrian Tradition
    • Coptic Catholic Church (Egypt)
    • Ethiopic Catholic Church (Ethiopia, Eritrea)
  • Antiochene or West-Syrian Tradition
    • Syro-Malankara Catholic Church (India)
    • Maronite Church (Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Argentina, Brazil, USA, Australia, Canada, Mexico)
    • Syrian Catholic Church (Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, United States and Canada, Venezuela)
  • Armenian Tradition:
    • Armenian Catholic Church (Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Palestine, Ukraine, France, Greece, Latin America, Argentina, Romania, United States and Canada, Eastern Europe)
  • Chaldean or East-Syrian Tradition:
    • Chaldean Catholic Church (Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, United States of America)
    • Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (India, United States of America)
  • Byzantine (Constantinopolitan) Tradition:
    • Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church (Albania)
    • Belarusian Byzantine Catholic Church (Belarus)
    • Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church (Bulgaria)
    • Byzantine Church of the Eparchy of Križevci (Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro)
    • Greek Byzantine Catholic Church (Greece, Turkey)
    • Greek-Catholic Melkite Church (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Jerusalem, Brazil, USA, Canada, Mexico, Iraq, Egypt and Sudan, Kuwait, Australia, Venezuela, Argentina)
    • Hungarian Byzantine Catholic Church (Hungary)
    • Italo-Albanian Catholic Church (Italy)
    • Macedonian Byzantine Catholic Church (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)
    • Romanian Church United with Rome, Greek-Catholic (Romania, United States of America)
    • Russian Byzantine Catholic Church (Russia, China)
    • Ruthenian Catholic Church (United States of America, Ukraine, Czech Republic)
    • Slovak Greek Catholic Church (Slovak Republic, Canada)
    • Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (Ukraine, Poland, USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Germany and Scandinavia, France, Brazil, Argentina)

The Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh, while being, strictly speaking, a constituent metropolia or province of the Ruthenian Catholic Church has been treated as if it held the rank of an autonomous metropolitan particular Church, because, when it was set up as an ecclesiastical province (1969), conditions in the Ruthenian homeland admitted no other solution. To it has been entrusted the care also of other United States Byzantine Catholics who have no hierarch of their own Church. In other countries too, such Eastern Catholics may be entrusted to an Eastern Hierarch, though more commonly to the Latin Ordinaries.

Particular or local Churches[]

In Catholic teaching, each diocese too is a local or particular Church, though it lacks the autonomy of the particular Churches described above: "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[9]).

The standard form of a particular or local Church is called in the Latin Rite a diocese and in the Eastern Rites an eparchy. For other forms, see below under "The episcopate".

The Holy See of Rome is seen as central, and its bishop, the Pope, is considered to be the (sole) successor of Saint Peter, the chief (or "prince") of the Apostles.

The 2006 edition of the Holy See's Annuario Pontificio reported the total number of all these particular local Churches or sees at the end of the previous year as 2,770.

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 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.[10]).

The hierarchical constitution of the Church[]

Main article: Catholic Church hierarchy

The Church is a hierarchical organization headed by the Pope, with ordained clergy divided into the orders of bishops, priests, and deacons.

The Pope[]

File:Lateran basilica.png

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

What most obviously distinguishes the Catholic Church from other Christian bodies 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.’"[11]

The Pope is referred to as the Vicar of Christ and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. He may sometimes also use the less formal title of "Servant of the Servants of God". Applying to him the term "absolute" would, however, give a false impression: he is not free 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 Roman Catholic Church.

In certain limited and extraordinary 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 (usually taking place in holy synods or an ecumenical council).

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."[12]

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, an independent state within the city of Rome, set up by the 1929 Lateran Pacts between the Holy See and Italy. Ambassadors are accredited not to Vatican City State but to the Holy See, which was a subject of international law even before the state was instituted. The body of officials that assist the Pope 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.[13] 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 normally 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 cardinalate[]

Angelo sodano

Angelo Cardinal Sodano (right) is the Dean of the College of Cardinals and Cardinal Secretary of State. Pictured here with Condoleezza Rice, United States Secretary of State.

Cardinals are appointed by the Pope, generally choosing bishops who head departments of the Roman Curia or important episcopal sees, Latin or Eastern, throughout the world.

The cardinalate is not an integral part of the theological structure of the Catholic Church, but largely an honorific distinction that has its origins in the 1059 assignation of the right of electing the Pope 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, only six cardinals held 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, the former rank being normally assigned to bishops in charge of dioceses, and the latter to officials of the Curia and to priests raised to the cardinalate.

Only cardinals whose eightieth birthday does not fall before the date of a Pope's death may enter the conclave that elects his successor. The number of cardinals not over eighty years of age has therefore been limited to 120. But additional cardinals can be chosen from among clergy over that age, an honour that has been bestowed on priests who have suffered long imprisonment under dictatorial regimes or have otherwise served the Church "with exemplary fidelity and admirable self-dedication", as Pope Benedict XVI said when naming some on 22 February 2006. In October 2003, Pope John Paul II went beyond the limit of 120 voting-age cardinals, a limit that he himself had confirmed; but at the time of his death in April 2005, the number of cardinal electors was down to 117, not all of whom were able, for health reasons, to attend the conclave that elected his successor.

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.

The hat and tassels of cardinals' armorial bearings are red; those of bishops are green; and those of lesser prelates are purple. The hat has the same form for all these prelates and should therefore not be identified with the galero, a large hat that once distinguished cardinals.

The episcopate[]


Bishop Carlos Belo, SDB, (left) the Apostolic Vicar emeritus of Dili in East Timor.

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. These bishops may be known as hierarchs in the Eastern Rite churches. Other jurisdictional areas led by members of the episcopate are territorial prelatures, territorial abbacies, apostolic exarchates and ordinariates for Eastern-rite faithful, military ordinariates, personal prelatures (of which only one exists at present), apostolic vicariates, apostolic prefectures, apostolic administrations, personal apostolic administrations (only one exists), and sui iuris (i.e. autonomous) missions. Other bishops may be appointed to assist ordinaries (auxiliary and coadjutor bishops) or to carry out a function in a broader field of service to the Church, such as appointments as papal nuncios or as officials in the Roman Curia.

Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches are headed by a patriarch. (A few bishops in the Latin Church, such as those of Venice and Lisbon, also have the title of patriarch, but in their case the title is merely honorary.) Four 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. (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 for the senior bishop of a nation 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. The decisions of the conferences are binding on the individual bishops only if agreed to by at least two-thirds of the membership and confirmed by the Holy See.

Bishops are ordained to the episcopate by at least three other bishops, with the approval of the Holy See. Concrecration to the episcopate is considered the completion of the sacrament of holy orders; 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, and existing bishops who rise to those offices do not require further ordination.

Priests and deacons[]

File:Father McGivney 300.jpg

Michael J. McGivney was a priest in the United States.

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.

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

To explain this tradition, one theory[14] 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 Permanent deacons, but not if they intend to advance to priestly ordination (Ordination to the order of Deacon (transitional) is part of the process through which Priests pass on their way 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 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 Sacerdotalis [15]) 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 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."

For the Latin Rite, the term "minor orders" was, together with the subdiaconate, abolished in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. Of the four Latin-Rite minor orders, which were stages in the passage to ordination to the diaconate and priesthood, he preserved those of lector and acolyte, applying to them the term "instituted ministries". Some groups particularly attached to the earlier form of the Roman liturgical rite (the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and the Priestly Union of St. Jean-Marie Vianney), have been permitted to continue to administer the rites of admission to all the previous orders, as well as that of tonsure, which formerly marked entrance to the ranks of the clergy. The Eastern Churches have maintained their less numerous minor orders.

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 a 1969 reform [16]), 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.

The consecrated life[]

Consecrated Life, referred to also as Religious Life, is a way of Christian living within the Catholic Church that, publicly professed, is recognized by Church Law (canons 573–746 of the Code of Canon Law). Those who profess it are not part of the hierarchy. They commit themselves, for love of God, to observe as binding obligations what the Christian Gospel proposes as counsels (Evangelical Counsels) rather than commands.

Most join what are called Religious Institutes (cf. canons 573–602, 605–709), often referred to in everyday life as religious orders or religious congregations, in which they follow a common rule under the leadership of a superior. They usually live in community, although some may for a shorter or longer time live the Religious Life as Hermits without ceasing to be a member of the Religious Institute.

Canons 603 and 604 give official recognition also to hermits and consecrated virgins who are not members of religious institutes.

Common usage about the different forms of religious life is more imprecise in English than in the languages of many countries of Catholic rather than Protestant culture (see Catholic order). The term "monks" is commonly applied to members not only of institutes classified as "orders" (grouped in four subsets: canons regular, monks, mendicant friars, and clerics regular), but also of the institutes classified as either clerical or lay religious congregations, and even of societies of apostolic life. And since the houses of monks are indeed rightly called monasteries (abbeys if headed by an abbot), any house of any of these categories is commonly called a monastery. Similarly, all female religious are commonly called nuns; but in their case the general term for their houses is "convent", rather than the term proper to the houses of nuns in the strict sense.

Members of Religious Institutes for men are usually addressed as "Brother", unless they are priests, in which case the form of address is "Father". In Institutes for women most members are addressed as "Sister", and the superior generally as "Mother", "Mother Superior" or "Reverend Mother". The formal title for the superior of a community or a whole institute varies according to the category of the institute: even in English few would address a Jesuit superior as "Abbot" or an abbot as "Guardian" (the term used by Franciscans).

There is a great variety of Religious Institutes, both male and female. Some have only lay members, while among male Institutes some have both priests and lay members, and yet others only priests and men preparing for priesthood. Some date from the earliest centuries of Christianity, others spring up every year. Their apostolates, too, vary considerably, depending on the vision of the founder: some have an apostolate specifically of prayer, often called "contemplative", others have an outgoing apostolate, e.g. teaching, missionary work. The rare "double communities" known in earlier centuries, where monks and nuns prayed and worked alongside each other under the leadership of only one superior, usually an Abbess, have not survived, though a small number have been founded afresh in recent times.

The oldest existing forms of Religious Institutes are those of monks and nuns, such as the Basilians of the East and the Benedictines of the West, who live in monasteries. Around the thirteenth century Mendicant Orders arose, such as of those of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Unlike the monks and nuns of the earlier Orders, the members of the latter Orders had their houses (which they called convents, not monasteries; in English, Dominican convents for men may also be called 'priories', and Fransciscan convents 'friaries') 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).

According to canon law (cf. canon 579), religious communities 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 new association, the Bishop, having consulted the Holy See, may formally set it up as a Religious Institute under his own jurisdiction. 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 such Institutes and to provide for the needs of their apostolate, the Holy See may exempt them from the governance of the local Bishops, bringing them entirely under the authority of the Holy See itself or of someone else. In some respects, for example public liturgical practice, they always remain under the local bishop's supervision.

Typically, members of Religious Institutes take vows of evangelical poverty, chastity and obedience (the "Evangelical Counsels") to lead a life in imitation of Christ Jesus. 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.

Secular Institutes (cf. canons 710–730) 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. They include, among others, Caritas Christi, The Grail, and the Servite Secular Institute.

Comparable to Religious Institutes are the Societies of Apostolic Life (cf. canons 731–746), 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. Among them are, for example, St. Philip Neri's Institute of the Oratory, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Priests of St. Sulpice.

As mentioned earlier, individuals unattached to any such institutes can be granted official recognition as hermits or consecrated virgins. Although widows appear to have been given special attention in the early Church, present canonical legislation does not mention them as a category calling for similar recognition.

Catholic Church and society[]

Main article:Catholic church and society

See also[]

  • Other articles on the Catholic Church
  • Roman Catholic Church by country
  • Ruthenian Catholic Church
  • History of the Roman Catholic Church
  • Primacy of the Roman Pontiff
  • Catholic Church
  • Catholic church hierarchy
  • Catholic Worker Movement
  • Christianity
  • Christian apologetics
  • Independent Catholic Churches
  • Traditionalist Catholic
  • Anti-Catholicism
  • Criticism of the Catholic Church
  • Forgiveness


External links[]

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