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Catholicism, from the Greek katholikos
meaning "general" or "universal", is a religious name applied to two strands
of Christianity. In its general sense it is used by mainstream Christians
who believe that they can claim to be part of the Apostolic Succession, in
other words that they can claim a direct continuing link back to the early
church of the Apostles.
In its narrower sense, it is used to refer to the Roman Catholic Church, the
largest of the Christian denominations, whose members are in communion with
the Pope, the Bishop of Rome and who accept his authority on matters of
faith and morals.
Meaning of "Catholicism"
The Creeds & Catholicism
The word Catholic appears in the main Christian creeds (prayer-like
definitions of belief), notably the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed.
Christians of most denominations, including most Protestants, affirm their
faith in "one holy catholic and apostolic Church." This belief refers to
their belief in the ultimate unity of all churches under one God and one
Saviour. However in this context the word Catholic is used by such believers
in a definitionary sense (i.e. universal), not as the name of a religious
body. In this usage it is usually written with a lower-case c, while
upper-case C refers to the sense discussed in this article.
The majority of Christian faiths do not describe themselves as "Catholic".
In Western Christianity the principal faiths who regard themselves as
"Catholic", beside the Roman Catholic Church, are the Old Catholic Church,
the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and some elements of Anglicanism
("High Church Anglicans" or "Anglo-Catholics"). These groups hold beliefs
and practice religious rituals similar to Roman Catholicism, but differ
substantially from Roman Catholicism on the issue of the Bishop of Rome's
status, power and influence.
The several churches of Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy consider
themselves to be the catholic church, in the general, universal sense of the
word. The Orthodox churches generally see the Latin "Catholics" as being
heretical schismatics who left the "true catholic and apostolic church"
(See, Great Schism). The patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy are autocephalous
bishops, which roughly means that each of them is independent of the direct
oversight of another bishop; or, put another way, these Christians are not
in communion with the Pope and do not recognise his claim to be the head of
the universal Church as an earthly institution. There are also Eastern Rite
Catholics whose liturgy is similar to that of the Orthodox, and also allow
married men to be ordained as priests, but who recognize the Roman Pope as
the head of their church.
Some groups call themselves Catholic but are questionably so: for instance
the Liberal Catholic Church, which originated as a breakaway group from the
Old Catholic Church, but incorporated so much theosophy that it had little
doctrinally in common with Catholicism anymore.
The main and largest Catholic denomination is the "Holy Roman Catholic and
Apostolic Church", more commonly known as the "Roman Catholic Church". It is
so named because its adherents are all in communion with the Pope and Bishop
of Rome, and most parishes follow the Roman or Latin Rite in worship,
although there are other rites.
In casual usage, when people speak of "Catholics" or "Catholicism," they
usually but not always mean Roman Catholicism.
The Anglican Communion, though one church, is in practice divided into two
wings, "High Church Anglicans" also called the Anglo-Catholics and "Low
Church Anglicans" also known as the Evangelical wing. Though all elements
within the Anglican Communion recite the same creeds, Low Church Anglicans
treat the word Catholic in the creed as a mere older word for universal,
High Church Anglicans treat it as a name of Christ's church to which they,
the Roman Catholic Church and others in the Apostolic Succession all belong.
Anglo-Catholicism holds beliefs and practice religious rituals similar to
Roman Catholicism. These include a belief in seven sacraments,
Transubstantiation as opposed to Consubstantiation, devotion to the Virgin
Mary and saints, the description of their ordained clergy as "priests" -
addressed as "Father" - the wearing of vestments in church liturgy,
sometimes even the description of their Eucharistic celebrations as Mass.
Their main source of difference with Roman Catholicism on the issue of the
Bishop of Rome's status, power and influence. The development of the
Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism occurred largely in the nineteenth
century and is strongly associated with the Oxford Movement. Two of its
leading lights, John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning, both ordained
Anglican clergymen, ended up joining the Roman Catholic Church, becoming
Though Catholicism as a term is generally taken to mean Roman Catholic, many
Anglo-Catholics use the term to refer to them also, as part of the general
(and not just Roman) Catholic Church. Indeed some Anglican churches, for
example, St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, the "National Cathedral" of the
Anglican Church of Ireland, refers to itself as part of the "Catholic
Communion" and as a "Catholic Church" in notices in and around it.
History and Influence
The early Christian church became organized under five patriarchs, the
bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. The
Bishop of Rome was recognized by the Patriarchs as "the first among equals,"
though his status and influence increased when Rome was the capital of the
empire, with doctrinal or procedural disputes often referred to Rome for an
opinion. But when the capital moved to Constantinople, his influence
dwindled. While Rome claimed an authority descending from St. Peter (who
died in Rome and was regarded as the first pope1) and St. Paul,
Constantinople had become the residence of the Emperor and the Senate. A
series of complex difficulties (the fact that the bishop of Rome did not
accept the emperor's claim of supremacy in ecclesiastical matters, doctrinal
disputes, disputed Councils, and the evolution of the separate rites) led to
the split in 1054 which divided the Church into the Roman Catholic Church in
the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East (Greece, Russia and
much of the Slavic lands, Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, etc.); this is called the
Great Schism. (Conversely, most Eastern Orthodox believe the split arose
because the other patriarchs failed to recognize the supremacy of the Bishop
of Rome in ecclesiastical matters, particularly regarding the addition of
the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed.)
The next major split of the Catholic Church occurred in the 16th century
with the Protestant Reformation, during which many of the Protestant
(protesting) denominations were formed.
Structure and Practice of the Roman Catholic Church
Organization by Office
Structurally Roman Catholicism is one of the world's most centralised
religious faiths. Its head, the Pope, a quasi-absolute monarch, rules for
life from the Vatican, an independent state in the centre of Rome known also
in international diplomacy as the Holy See. He is selected by an elite group
of Princes of the Church called Cardinals. The Pope alone selects and
appoints all clergymen in the Church above the rank of priest. All members
of the hierarchy are answerable to the Pope and to his papal court, called
the Curia. Popes exercise what is called Papal Infallibility, that is the
right to define definitive statements of Roman Catholic teaching on matters
of faith and morals. In reality, since its declaration in the First Vatican
Council in 1870, papal infallibility has only definitively been used once,
by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s.
The Pope's authority is comes from the belief that he is the lineal
successor of St. Peter, and as such the Vicar of Christ on earth. The church
has a hierarchical structure of offices or titles, in descending order:
* Pope, which is the bishop of Rome and also Patriarch of the West. Those
who assist and advise him in leading the whole church are the
* Patriarchs are the heads of Catholic Churches other than the Latin
Church. Some senior Roman Catholic archbishops are also called
Patriarchs; among those possessing the title are the Archbishop of
Lisbon and the Archbishop of Venice.
* Bishop (Archbishop and Suffragan Bishop): are the successors of the
twelve apostles. They have received the fullness of sacramental orders;
* Priest (Monsignor is an honorary title for a priest, giving no extra
sacramental powers); Initially there were no Priests per se. This
position evolved from the suburban Bishops who were charged with
distributing the sacraments but without full jurisdiction over the
There are also several more minor offices: Lector, Acolytes (since the
Second Vatican Council, the office of Sub-deacon no longer exists).
Religious orders have their own hierarchy and titles. These offices taken
together constitute the clergy, and in the Western rite can only normally be
occupied by unmarried men. However, in the Eastern rite married men are
admitted as diocesan priests, but not as monastic priests or bishops; and on
rare occasions married priests converting from other Christian groups have
been permitted to be ordained in the Western rite. The Pope is elected by
the College of Cardinals (the process of election, held in Sistine Chapel,
is called Conclave) and continues in office until death or until he resigns
(which has happened only twice, and never since the Middle Ages).
The practice of the Catholic Church consists of seven sacraments (see also
* Holy Matrimony,
* Holy Orders, and
* Anointing of the Sick.
Within the Catholic faith, sacraments are gestures and words of Christ that
impart sanctifying grace on the receiver. Baptism is given to infants and to
adult converts who have not previously been validly baptised (the baptism of
most Christian denominations is accepted as valid by the Catholic Church
since the effect is thought to come straight from God regardless of the
personal faith, but not intention, of the minister). Confession or
reconciliation involves admitting sins to a priest and receiving penance (a
task to complete in order to achieve absolution or forgiveness from God).
The Eucharist (Communion), is the sacrifice of Christ, marked by partaking
in the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ which are believed to replace
in everything but appearance the bread and wine used in the ceremony. The
Roman Catholic belief that bread and wine are turned into the Body and Blood
of Jesus Christ is called transubstantiation. In the sacrament of
Confirmation, the gift of the Holy Spirit conferred in baptism is
"strengthened and deepened" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church para.
1303) by the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. In the majority
Latin Rite church, this sacrament is presided over by a bishop, and takes
place in early adulthood. In the Eastern Catholic Churches (see below) the
sacrament is called chrismation, and is ordinarily performed immediately
after baptism by a priest. Holy Orders is the entering into the priesthood
and involves a vow of chastity; the sacrament of Holy Orders is given in
three degrees: that of the deacon (since Vatican II a permanent deacon may
be married before becoming a deacon), that of the priest, and that of the
bishop. Anointing of the Sick used to be known as "extreme unction" or the
"last rites"; it involves the anointing of a sick person with a holy oil
blessed specifically for that purpose and is no longer limited to the
seriously ill or dying.
The Catholic Church is actually a federation of 24 self-governing (sui
juris) Churches in communion with each other under the leadership of the
Pope. By far the largest Church is the Latin Church, popularly called the
Roman Catholic Church. The other 23 Churches are in the collective called
Eastern Catholic Churches. Each Eastern Catholic Church is led by a
Patriarch, Major Archbishop, or Metropolitan (a chief Archbishop who does
not hold the rank of Major Archbishop or Patriarch). The 24 Catholic
Churches use among them six rites. The Roman rite is used only by the Latin
(Roman Catholic) Church, and is used by the vast majority of Catholics
(98%). There are also several Eastern Rites, which are used in parts of the
Middle East and Eastern Europe, and by Catholic communities in other parts
of the world that originate from there. There are also two other small
Western rites, other than the Latin rite, the Ambrosian rite and the
Mozarabic rite, which are used in a few places in Europe. In the Middle Ages
there were many other Western rites, but almost all of them were replaced by
the Latin rite by the Council of Trent. The Eastern rites originated with
groups that left Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches to join the Roman
Catholic church, but retained their own rites and traditions.
Historically, the church service in the Latin rite was conducted entirely in
Latin, but local languages came into use with the Second Vatican Council
(also called Vatican II), which occurred in 1962-5. Eastern rite Catholicism
uses various languages, depending on the particular rite involved: Greek,
Slavonic, Arabic, Romanian or Georgian in the Byzantine rite; Syriac in the
Antiochene and Chaldean rites; Armenian in the Armenian rite; and Coptic or
Ge'ez in the Alexandrian rite.
Organization by Region
The fundamental geographical and organizational unit of the Catholic Church
is the diocese (in the Eastern Catholic Churches, the equivalent unit is
called an eparchy). This is generally a defined geographical area, centered
on a principal city, headed by a bishop. The primary church of a diocese is
known as a cathedral from the cathedra or chair of the bishop that is one of
the main symbols of his office. Within a diocese, a bishop exercises what is
known as ordinary, or primary administrative authority. (Houses of some
religious orders are semi-independent of the dioceses they are in; the
religious superior of that order exercises ordinary jurisdiction over them.)
While the Pope appoints bishops and reviews their performance, and a variety
of other institutions govern or supervise certain activities, a bishop has a
great deal of independence in administering a diocese. Certain dioceses,
generally centered around large and important cities, are called
archdioceses and are headed by an archbishop. In large dioceses and
archdioceses, the bishop is often assisted by auxiliary bishops, full
bishops and members of the College of Bishops who do not head a diocese of
their own. Archbishops, suffragan bishops (usually shortened to just
"bishops"), and auxiliary bishops are equally bishops; the different titles
indicate what type (if any) of ecclesiastical unit they head. Many countries
have vicariates that support their militaries (see military ordinariate).
Almost all dioceses were organized into groups known as provinces, each of
which is headed by an archbishop. While provinces still exist, their role
has largely been replaced by conferences of bishops, generally made up of
all the dioceses of a particular country or countries. These groups handle a
wide array of common functions, including supervision of liturgical texts
and practices for the specific cultural and linguistic groups and relations
with the governments in their area. The authority of these conferences to
bind the actions of individual bishops is limited (traditional theologians
consider this authority ultimately non-binding), however. Bishop's
conferences started to appear early in the 20th century, and were officially
recognized in the Second Vatican Council document Christus Dominus.
The College of Cardinals is the collection of Roman Catholic bishops who are
special advisors to the Pope. Any priest can be appointed Cardinal, provided
he "excelled in believe, moral and piety". If a cardinal is elected Pope who
has not yet been ordained bishop he subsequently has to receive episcopal
ordination. (C.f. Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis) All
cardinals under the age of 80 have the right to elect a new pope upon the a
pope's death; the cardinals who may elect are almost always members of the
clergy; however, the Pope has sometimes in the past awarded outstanding
members of the Catholic laity (e.g., theologians) with membership in the
College after they have passed electing age. Each cardinal is given some
church or chapel (thus, cardinal bishop, cardinal priest, and cardinal
deacon) in Rome to make him a member of the clergy of Rome. Many cardinals
serve in the curia, which assists the Pope in Church administration. All
cardinals who are not resident in Rome are diocesan bishops.
Dioceses are divided into local districts called parishes. All Catholics are
expected to attend and support their local parish church. While the Catholic
Church has developed an elaborate system of global governance, day to day
Catholicism is lived in the local community, tied together in worship in the
local parish. Local parishes are largely self supporting; a church, often in
a growing or poor community, that is being supported by a diocese is known
as a mission.
The Roman Catholic Church supports many orders (groups) of monks and nuns
who are mainly non-priests living lives specially devoted to serving God.
These are people who have grouped together under a certain system for the
purpose of the perfection of virtue. This sometimes involves separation from
the world for meditation and sometimes exceptional participation in the
world, often in medical or educational work. Almost universally the Monks
and Nuns take vows of poverty (no or limited personal ownership of property
and money), chastity (no use of the sexual mechanisms), and obedience (to
Catholics believe in the Trinity of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the
divinity of Jesus, and the salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and
through loving God above all things. Catholic views differ from Orthodox on
several points, including the role of the Pope as the central pillar of the
Church, the nature of the Trinity and how that should be expressed in the
Nicene Creed, and a juridical versus relational understanding of salvation
and repentance. Catholics differ from Protestants in several points,
including the necessity of penance, the meaning of communion, the
composition of the canon of scripture, purgatory, and the means of
salvation: Protestants believe that salvation is by faith alone (sola fide),
while Catholics believe that faith is exhibited in good works.
Stereotypically, this has led to a conflict over the doctrine of
justification (the Reformation taught that "we are justified by faith
alone"). Modern ecumenical dialogue has led to a number of consensus
statements on the doctrine of justification between Roman Catholics and
Lutherans, Anglicans, and others.
Liturgy and worship
The most important act of worship in the Roman Catholic Church is the
Eucharistic liturgy, usually called the Mass. Mass is celebrated every
Sunday morning in most Roman Catholic parishes; Catholics can however
fulfill their Sunday devotion by attending a Mass on Saturday night.
Catholics must also attend Mass on ten additional days every year, known as
the Holy Day of Obligation. Additional Masses can be celebrated on any day
of the liturgical year except for Good Friday. Most churches have daily
Mass. The contemporary Mass is composed of two major parts: the Liturgy of
the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Word,
readings from the Bible are done; and a homily (like the Protestant sermon)
is spoken. At Masses on Sundays and feast days, the Nicene Creed, which
states the orthodox beliefs of Catholicism, is professed by all Catholics
present. The Liturgy of the Eucharist includes the presentation of the gifts
of bread and wine, the Eucharistic Prayer, during which the bread and wine
become the Body and Blood of Christ, and the communion procession.
The liturgical reform movement has been responsible over the past forty
years for a significant convergence of Latin Rite worship practices with
that of Protestant churches. One feature of the new liturgical views has
been a "return to the sources" (ressourcement) resulting in the rediscovery
of ancient liturgical texts and practices, along with many new practices.
The post-conciliar (post-Vatican II) reforms of the liturgy included the use
of the vernacular (local) language, a greater emphasis on the Liturgy of the
Word, and the clarification of symbolism. The most visible feature of the
reforms is the posture of the priest. In the past, the priest faced the
altar, with his back to the congregation. The reforms have turned the priest
to face the people, with the altar between. This symbolises the desire for
the Mass to become more people centered. Critics however have complained
about the nature of the post-Vatican II Mass (known sometimes as the Novus
Ordo Missae). In 2003, it was revealed that the pre-Vatican II Tridentine
Mass was again being celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica (though not on the
main altar) and that Pope John Paul II had begun celebrating Tridentine
Masses in his private chapel in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.
The Catholic Church, like most Christian faiths, has experienced a steep
decline in its worldwide influence in western society in the late 20th
century; its exclusively male leadership structure and rigid doctrinal
beliefs on matters to do with human sexuality have less appeal to a more
secular western world where diversity in sexual practices and gender
equality are the norm. In places where it once played a primary role, such
as Quebec, Ireland, and Spain, it holds only a fraction of its former
influence. At the same time, however, Roman Catholicism is experiencing a
dramatic rise in membership in Africa and parts of Asia. While western
missionaries once served as priests in African churches, by the late 20th
century a growing number of western nations began to recruit African priests
to balance their dwindling numbers of local clergy.
Ordination of women
As a result of feminism and other social and political movements that have
removed barriers to the entry of women into professions that were
traditionally male strongholds, in latter quarter of the twentieth century
many women sought ordination into the Roman Catholic priesthood.
The traditionalist Roman Catholic position is that women cannot be priests
or bishops, on account of the doctrine of apostolic succession. Priests and
bishops are successors to the Apostles, and because Jesus Christ chose only
men to be the twelve apostles, only men can become priests and bishops. On
May 22, 1994, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter, Ordinatio
Sacerdotalis (Priestly Ordination) which reaffirmed the traditionalist
position, and concluded:
Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men
alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the
Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent
documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless
considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women
are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely
Wherefore, 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.
Within Roman Catholicism itself, debate on the subject now focuses on
whether this statement is meant to invoke papal infallibility and raise the
rule that women cannot be Roman Catholic priests to the level of an
irreformable dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. That disagreement as to the
status reached to the heart of the Church. While some elements around Joseph
Cardinal Ratzinger implied strongly that the statement had invoked
infallibility, many other elements, notably the Vatican's own press office,
explicitly stated it was not, and should not be seen as, an infallible
statement. (Disagreements between Ratzinger and official Vatican policy are
a regular occurance. His Dominus Iesus statement, for example, disagreed in
tone and content with Pope John Paul II's own encyclical on ecumanism. While
it was stated that the Pope agreed with and approved Ratzinger's document, a
dissenting senior Vatican official discovered on meeting the Pope that John
Paul II had not fully read Ratzinger's document.)2
Critics accused some of those attached to Ratzinger's Congregation of trying
to make the document sound infallible to try to kill off the debate, in
effect spinning a fallible document as infallible. Such an accusation has
been made in the pact, notably Pope Paul's encyclical, Humanæ Vitæ about
which one conservative curial cardinal stated "the Holy Father has spoken.
The issue is forever closed." However the refusal of Pope John Paul's own
press spokesman, himself a conservative, to describe the statement as
"infallible" has led to a general though not universal presumption that the
document is not so. In addition, the Vatican itself formally states that
since 1870, only one infallible teaching has been issued by a pope, namely
Pope Pius XII's 1950 statement about the bodily assumption of the Blessed
Virgin Mary into heaven. By implication, neither Humanæ Vitæ nor Ordinatio Sacerdotalis are infallible.
Sexual abuse of children
Particular damage has been done to the institution and to its members' trust
in it by acts of child sexual abuse by a small but persistent group of
clergy. Allegations of abuse have been made against clergy in many parts of
the world, with notorious cases hitting the headlines in Spain, Ireland,
Canada and the United States. For the Church, the crisis has been two-fold.
First, many Roman Catholics had an almost automatic sense of trust in the
clergy. The revelation that this trust had been violated repeatedly
fundamentally reshaped public attitudes towards the clergy. But secondly,
the institution was damaged by the revelation that the Church's leadership
seriously mishandled cases of abusers, using Canon Law and diocesian
boundaries to help clergy avoid popular anger and even criminal sanction.
For a full discussion, see Roman Catholic Church sex abuse allegations.