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The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, reporting more than a billion members.[1] The Church's highest earthly authority in matters of faith, morality, and governance is the Pope who holds supreme authority in concert with the College of Bishops of which he is the head. A communion of the Western (Latin Rite) church and 22 autonomous Eastern Catholic churches (called particular churches) comprising a total of 2,795 dioceses in 2008. The Church defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity. It operates social programs and institutions throughout the world, including Catholic schools, universities, hospitals, missions and shelters, and the charity confederation Caritas Internationalis.

The Catholic Church believes itself to be the original Church founded by Jesus upon the Apostles, among whom Simon Peter was chief. The Church also believes that its bishops, through apostolic succession, are consecrated successors of these apostles, and that the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as the successor of Peter possesses a universal primacy of jurisdiction and pastoral care. Church doctrines have been defined through various ecumenical councils, following the example set by the first Apostles in the Council of Jerusalem. On the basis of promises made by Jesus to his apostles and reported in the Gospels, the Church believes that it is guided by the Holy Spirit and so protected from falling into doctrinal error. Catholic beliefs are based on the deposit of Faith (containing both the Holy Bible and Sacred Tradition) handed down from the time of the Apostles, which are interpreted by the Church's teaching authority. Those beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed and formally detailed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Formal Catholic worship is called the liturgy. The Eucharist is the central component of Catholic worship.

With a history spanning almost two thousand years, the Church is the world's oldest and largest institution[2] and has played a prominent role in the politics and history of Western civilization since the 4th century.[3] It maintains that it is the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" founded by Jesus Christ, although it also believes that the Holy Spirit can make use of other Christian communities to bring people to salvation and that it is called to work for unity among Christians.



The Greek word καθολικός (katholikos), from which the word Catholic is derived, means "universal".[4] It was first used to describe the Christian Church in the early second century.[5] Since the East-West Schism, the Western Church has been known as "Catholic", while the Eastern Church has been known as "Orthodox".[6] Following the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the church in communion with the Bishop of Rome used the name "Catholic" to distinguish itself from the various Protestant churches.[6] The name "Catholic Church" appears in the title of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[7] It is also the term that Paul VI used when signing the documents of the Second Vatican Council.[8]

Because it can at times help distinguish the Church from other churches that also claim catholicity, the name "Roman Catholic Church" has also been used in some documents involving ecumenical relations.[9] However, this title is disliked by many Catholics, as a label applied to them by others to suggest that theirs is only one of several catholic churches, and to imply that Catholic allegiance to the Pope renders them in some way untrustworthy.[10] Within the Church, the name "Roman Church", in the strictest sense, refers to the Diocese of Rome.[11]


Early Christianity

According to its doctrine, the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ.[12] The New Testament records the activities and teaching of his group of sectarian Jews and his appointing of the twelve Apostles, and his giving them authority to continue his work.[12] The Church teaches that Jesus designated Simon Peter as the leader of the apostles by proclaiming "upon this rock I will build my church ...I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven ..."[13] The Church teache that the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, in an event known as Pentecost, signaled the beginning of the public ministry of the Church. All duly consecrated bishops since then are considered the successors to the apostles.[14]

There is a tradition about the early history of the Church, traceable from late antiquity. which places Peter in Rome, where he founded a church and served as the first bishop of the See of Rome, consecrating Linus as his successor and beginning the line of Popes.[15] The only element of this which the Catholic Encyclopedia presents as historical is Peter's martyrdom at Rome.[16]

Some historians of Christianity assert that the Catholic Church can be traced to Jesus's consecration of Peter,[17][18] some that Jesus did not found a church in his lifetime but provided a framework of beliefs,[19] while others do not make a judgement about whether or not the Church was founded by Jesus but disagree with the traditional view that the papacy originated with Peter. These assert that Rome may not have had a bishop until after the apostolic age and suggest the papal office may have been superimposed by the traditional narrative upon the primitive church.[20]

During the 1st century, the Apostles traveled around the Mediterranean region founding the first Christian communities,[21] over 40 of which had been established by the year 100.[22] By 58 AD, a large Christian community existed in Rome.[23] The New Testament gospels indicate that the earliest Christians continued to observe several traditional Jewish pieties.[24] Jesus also directed the evangelization of non-Jewish peoples, prompting circumcision controversies at the Council of Jerusalem. At this council, Paul argued that circumcision was no longer necessary. This position was supported widely and was summarized in a letter circulated in Antioch.[25]

Constantine I, believed Christ had helped him win Rome. Soon Christianity became the official state religion

Early Christianity accepted several Roman practices, such as slavery, campaigning primarily for humane treatment of slaves but also admonishing slaves to behave appropriately towards their masters.[26] Early Christians refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods or to worship Roman rulers as gods and were thus subject to persecution.[27] The first case of imperially-sponsored persecution of Christians occurred in 1st century Rome under Nero. Further such persecutions occurred under various emperors until the great persecution of Diocletian and Galerius, seen as a final attempt to wipe out Christianity.[28]

Nevertheless, the early Church continued to spread, and developed both in doctrinal and structural ways. From as early as the 1st century, the Church of Rome was recognized as a doctrinal authority because it was believed that the Apostles Peter and Paul had led the Church there.[29] In the 2nd century, writings by prominent teachers defined Catholic ideas in stark opposition to Gnosticism.[30] Other writers—such as Pope Clement I and Augustine of Hippo—influenced the development of Church teachings and traditions. These writers and others are collectively known as Church Fathers.[31] While competing forms of Christianity emerged early, the Roman Church evolved the practice of meeting in "synods" (councils) to ensure that any internal doctrinal differences were quickly resolved, which facilitated broad doctrinal unity within the mainstream churches.[32] Primacy of the Roman Pontiff was recognized by the church from the second century, although disputes over its implications ultimately led to schisms.[33] The schismatic Donatist Church was created in North Africa in 311 in a dispute over the authority of bishops[34] and survived until the Arab conquest in the 7th century.[35]

Christianity was legalized in 313 under Constantine's Edict of Milan,[36] and declared the state religion of the Empire in 380.[37] After its legalization, a number of doctrinal disputes led to the calling of ecumenical councils. The doctrinal formulations resulting from these ecumenical councils were pivotal in the history of Christianity. The first seven Ecumenical Councils, from the First Council of Nicaea (325) to the Second Council of Nicaea (787), sought to reach an orthodox consensus and to establish a unified Christendom. In 325, the First Council of Nicaea convened in response to the rise of Arianism, the belief that Jesus had not existed eternally but was a divine being created by and therefore inferior to God the Father.[38] In order to encapsulate the basic tenets of the Christian belief, it promulgated a creed which became the basis of what is now known as the Nicene Creed.[39] In addition, it divided the church into geographical and administrative areas called dioceses.[40] The Council of Rome in 382 established the first Biblical canon when it listed the accepted books of the Old and New Testament.[41] The Council of Ephesus in 431[42] and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 defined the relationship of Christ's divine and human natures, leading to splits with the Nestorians and Monophysites.[32]

Constantine moved the imperial capital to Constantinople, and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) elevated the See of Constantinople to a position "second in eminence and power to the bishop of Rome".[43] From circa 350 to circa 500, the bishops, or popes, of Rome steadily increased in authority.[23] Rome had particular prominence over the other dioceses: it was considered the see of Peter and Paul, it was located in the capital of the Western Roman Empire, it was wealthy and known for supporting other churches, and church scholars wanted the Roman bishop's support in doctrinal disputes.[44]

Middle Ages

After Roman collapse in the West, the Catholic faith competed with Arianism for the conversion of barbarian tribes.[45] The 496 conversion of Clovis I, pagan king of the Franks, marked the beginning of a steady rise of the Catholic faith in the West.[46] The Rule of St Benedict, composed in 530, became a blueprint for the organization of monasteries throughout Europe.[47] As well as providing a focus for spiritual life, the new monasteries preserved classical craft and artistic skills while maintaining intellectual culture within their schools, scriptoria and libraries. They also functioned as agricultural, economic and production centers, particularly in remote regions, becoming major conduits of civilization.[48]

Pope Gregory the Great reformed church practice and administration around 600 and launched renewed missionary efforts[49] which were complemented by other missionary movements such as the Hiberno-Scottish mission.[50] Missionaries took Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples.[51] In the same period, the Visigoths and Lombards moved from Arianism toward Catholicism,[46] and the Celtic churches united with Rome in 664.[50] Later missionary efforts by Saints Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century reached greater Moravia and introduced, along with Christianity, the Cyrillic alphabet used in the southern and eastern Slavic languages.[52] While Christianity continued to expand in Europe, Islam presented a significant military threat to Western Christendom.[53] By 715, Muslim armies had conquered much of the Southern Mediterranean.[54]

From the 8th century, Iconoclasm, the destruction of religious images, became a major source of conflict in the eastern church.[55] Byzantine emperors Leo III and Constantine V strongly supported Iconoclasm, while the papacy and the western church remained resolute in favour of the veneration of icons. In 787, the Second Council of Nicaea ruled in favor of the iconodules but the dispute continued into the early 9th century.[56] The consequent estrangement led to the creation of the papal states and the papal coronation of the Frankish King Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans in 800. This ultimately created a new problem as successive Western emperors sought to impose an increasingly tight control over the popes.[57]

Eastern and Western Christendom grew farther apart in the 9th century. Conflicts arose over ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Byzantine-controlled south of Italy, missionaries to Bulgaria and a brief schism revolving around Photios of Constantinople.[58] Further disagreements led to Pope and Patriarch excommunicating each other in 1054, commonly considered the date of the East–West Schism.[59] The Western branch of Christianity remained in communion with the Pope and remained a part of the Catholic Church, while the Eastern (Greek) branch that rejected the papal claims became known as the Eastern Orthodox churches.[60] Efforts to mend the rift were attempted at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 and Council of Florence in 1439. While in each case the Eastern Emperor and Eastern Patriarch both agreed to the reunion,[61] neither council changed the attitudes of the Eastern Churches at large, and the schism remained.[62]

The Cluniac reform of monasteries that had begun in 910 sparked widespread monastic growth and renewal.[63] Monasteries introduced new technologies and crops, fostered the creation and preservation of literature and promoted economic growth. Monasteries, convents and cathedrals still operated virtually all schools and libraries.[64] Despite a church ban on the practice of usury the larger abbeys functioned as sources for economic credit.[65] The 11th and 12th century saw internal efforts to reform the church. The college of cardinals in 1059 was created to free papal elections from interference by Emperor and nobility. Lay investiture of bishops, a source of rulers' dominance over the Church, was attacked by reformers and under Pope Gregory VII, erupted into the Investiture Controversy between Pope and Emperor. The matter was eventually settled with the Concordat of Worms in 1122 where it was agreed that bishops would be selected in accordance with Church law.[66]

Colored painting showing a large congregation of bishops listening to the Pope
Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont (1095), where he preached the First Crusade; later manuscript illumination of c. 1490.

In 1095, Byzantine emperor Alexius I appealed to Pope Urban II for help against renewed Muslim invasions,[67] which caused Urban to launch the First Crusade aimed at aiding the Byzantine Empire and returning the Holy Land to Christian control.[62] The goal was not permanently realized, and episodes of brutality committed by the armies of both sides left a legacy of mutual distrust between Muslims and Western and Eastern Christians.[68] The sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, conducted against papal authorisation, left Eastern Christians embittered and was a decisive event that permanently solidified the schism between the churches.[69]

The crusades saw the formation of various military orders that provided social services as well as protection of pilgrim routes.[70] The Teutonic Knights, one of the orders, conquered the then-pagan Prussia.[70] The Templars became noted bankers and creditors who were suppressed by King Philip IV of France shortly after 1300.[71] Later, mendicant orders were founded by Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzmán which brought consecrated religious life into urban settings.[72] These orders also played a large role in the development of cathedral schools into universities, the direct ancestors of the modern Western institutions.[73] Notable scholastic theologians such as the Dominican Thomas Aquinas worked at these universities, and his Summa Theologica was a key intellectual achievement in its synthesis of Aristotelian thought and Christianity.[74]

Twelfth century France witnessed the emergence of Catharism, a dualist heresy that had spread from Eastern Europe through Germany. After the Cathars were accused of murdering a papal legate in 1208,[75] Pope Innocent III declared the Albigensian Crusade against them. When this turned into an "appalling massacre",[76] later popes instituted the first papal inquisition to prevent further massacres and to root out the remaining Cathars.[77] Formalized under Gregory IX, this Medieval inquisition found guilty an average of three people per year for heresy.[71]

In the 14th century, the Papacy came under French dominance, with Clement V in 1305 moving to Avignon.[78] The Avignon Papacy ended in 1376 when the Pope returned to Rome[79] but was soon followed in 1378 by the 38-year-long Western schism with separate claimants to the papacy in Rome, Avignon and (after 1409) Pisa, backed by conflicting secular rulers.[79] The matter was finally resolved in 1417 at the Council of Constance where the three claimants either resigned or were deposed and held a new election naming Martin V Pope.[80]

The Church was the dominant influence on the development of Western art in these times, overseeing the rise of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles of art and architecture.[81] Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Bernini, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Titian, were among a multitude of innovative virtuosos sponsored by the Church.[82] In music, Catholic monks developed the first forms of modern Western musical notation in order to standardize liturgy throughout the worldwide Church,[83] and an enormous body of religious music has been composed for it through the ages. This led directly to the emergence and development of European classical music, and its many derivatives.[84]

Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The English and Protestant Reformations resulted in the separation of Anglicans and Protestants from the Catholic Church. In response, the Vatican initiated a series of reforms in the areas of doctrine, ecclesiastical structure, religious orders, spiritual movements and politics. The ensuing tensions between Catholics and Protestants and the perceived need for uniformity of faith helped fuel the European wars of religion.

John Wycliffe and Jan Hus crafted the first of a new series of disruptive religious perspectives that challenged the Church. The Council of Constance (1414–1417) condemned Hus and ordered his execution, but could not prevent the Hussite Wars in Bohemia. In 1509, the scholar Erasmus wrote In Praise of Folly, a work which captured the widely held unease about corruption in the Church.[85] The Council of Constance, the Council of Basel and the Fifth Lateran Council had all attempted to reform internal Church abuses but had failed.[86] As a result, rich, powerful and worldly men like Roderigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) were able to win election to the papacy.[87] In 1517, Martin Luther included his Ninety-Five Theses in a letter to several bishops.[88] His theses protested key points of Catholic doctrine as well as the sale of indulgences.[88] Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and others further criticized Catholic teachings. These challenges developed into a large and all encompassing European movement called the Protestant Reformation.[44]

In Germany, the reformation led to a nine-year war between the Protestant Schmalkaldic League and the Catholic Emperor Charles V. In 1618 a far graver conflict, the Thirty Years' War, followed.[89] In France, a series of conflicts termed the French Wars of Religion were fought from 1562 to 1598 between the Huguenots and the forces of the French Catholic League. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre marked the turning point in this war.[90] Survivors regrouped under Henry of Navarre who became Catholic and began the first experiment in religious toleration with his 1598 Edict of Nantes.[90] This Edict, which granted civil and religious toleration to Protestants, was hesitantly accepted by Pope Clement VIII.[91]

The English Reformation under Henry VIII initially began as a political dispute. When the annulment of his marriage was denied by the pope, Henry had Parliament pass the Acts of Supremacy, which made him, and not the pope, head of the English Church.[92] Although he tried to maintain traditional Catholicism, Henry initiated the confiscation of monasteries, friaries, convents and shrines throughout his realm.[93] Under Mary I, England was reunited with Rome, but Elizabeth I later restored a separate church that outlawed Catholic priests[94] and prevented Catholics from educating their children and taking part in political life[95] until new laws were passed in 1778.[96]

The Council of Trent (1545–1563) became the driving force behind the Counter-Reformation. Doctrinally, it reaffirmed central Catholic teachings such as transubstantiation, and the requirement for love and hope as well as faith to attain salvation.[97] It also made structural reforms, most importantly by improving the education of the clergy and laity and consolidating the central jurisdiction of the Roman Curia.[97][note 1] To popularize Counter-Reformation teachings, the Church encouraged the Baroque style in art, music and architecture,[84] and new religious orders were founded. These included the Theatines, Barnabites and Jesuits, some of which became the great missionary orders of later years.[100] The Jesuits quickly took on a leadership in education during the Counter-Reformation, viewing it as a "battleground for hearts and minds";[101] at the same time, the writings of figures such as Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales and Philip Neri spawned new schools of spirituality within the Church.[102]

Toward the latter part of the 17th century, Pope Innocent XI reformed abuses that were occurring in the Church's hierarchy, including simony, nepotism and the lavish papal expenditures that had caused him to inherit a large papal debt.[103] He promoted missionary activity, tried to unite Europe against the Turkish invasion, prevented influential Catholic rulers (including the Emperor) from marrying Protestants but strongly condemned religious persecution.[103]

Early Modern period

The Age of Discovery saw the expansion of Western European power and culture and, given the prominent role of Spain and Portugal, the spreading of Catholicism to the Americas and Asia by explorers and missionaries.

Pope Alexander VI had awarded colonial rights over most of the newly discovered lands to Spain and Portugal[104] and the ensuing patronato system allowed state authorities, not the Vatican, to control all clerical appointments in the new colonies.[105] Although the Spanish monarchs tried to curb abuses committed against the Amerindians by explorers and conquerors,[106] Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar, openly rebuked the Spanish rulers of Hispaniola in 1511 for their cruelty and tyranny in dealing with the American natives.[107] King Ferdinand enacted the Laws of Burgos and Valladolid in response. The issue resulted in a crisis of conscience in 16th-century Spain.[108] and, through the writings of Catholic clergy such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria, led to debate on the nature of human rights[109] and to the birth of modern international law.[110] Enforcement of these laws was lax, and some historians blame the Church for not doing enough to liberate the Indians; others point to the Church as the only voice raised on behalf of indigenous peoples.[111]

In 1521 the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan made the first Catholic converts in the Philippines.[112] Elsewhere, Portuguese missionaries under the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier evangelized in India, China, and Japan.[113] Church growth in Japan came to a halt in 1597 when the Shogunate, in an effort to isolate the country from foreign influences, launched a severe persecution of Christians or Kirishitan's.[114] An underground minority Christian population survived throughout this period of persecution and enforced isolation which was eventually lifted in the 19th century.[115] In China, despite Jesuit efforts to find compromise, the Chinese Rites controversy led the Kangxi Emperor to outlaw Christian missions in 1721.[116] These events added fuel to growing criticism of the Jesuits, who were seen to symbolize the independent power of the Church, and in 1773 European rulers united to force Pope Clement XIV to dissolve the order.[117] The Jesuits were eventually restored in the 1814 papal bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum.[118] In the Californias, Franciscan priest Junípero Serra founded a series of missions.[119] In South America, Jesuit missionaries sought to protect native peoples from enslavement by establishing semi-independent settlements called reductions.

From the 17th century onward, the Enlightenment questioned the power and influence of the Church over Western society.[120] Eighteenth century writers such as Voltaire and the Encyclopedists wrote biting critiques of both religion and the Church. One target of their criticism was the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV which ended a century-long policy of religious toleration of Protestant Huguenots.

The French Revolution of 1789 brought about a shifting of powers from the Church to the State, destruction of churches and the establishment of a Cult of Reason.[121] In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy, imprisoning Pope Pius VI, who died in captivity. Napoleon later re-established the Catholic Church in France through the Concordat of 1801.[122] The end of the Napoleonic wars brought Catholic revival and the return of the Papal States.[123]

In Latin America, a succession of anti-clerical regimes came to power beginning in the 1830s.[124] Church properties were confiscated, bishoprics left vacant, religious orders suppressed,[125] the collection of clerical tithes ended,[126] and clerical dress in public prohibited.[127]

Pope Gregory XVI challenged the power of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs by appointing his own candidates as colonial bishops. He also condemned slavery and the slave trade in the 1839 papal bull In Supremo Apostolatus, and approved the ordination of native clergy in the face of government racism.[128]

Industrial age

In response to the social challenges of the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum. It set out Catholic social teaching in terms that rejected socialism but advocated the regulation of working conditions, the establishment of a living wage and the right of workers to form trade unions.[129] Although the infallibility of the Church in doctrinal matters had always been a Church dogma, the First Vatican Council, which convened in 1870, affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility when exercised under specific conditions.[130] This decision gave the pope "enormous moral and spiritual authority over the worldwide" Church.[120] Reaction to the pronouncement resulted in the breakaway of a group of mainly German churches which subsequently formed the Old Catholic Church.[131] The loss of the papal states to the Italian unification movement created what came to be known as the Roman Question,[132] a territorial dispute between the papacy and the Italian government that was not resolved until the 1929 Lateran Treaty granted sovereignty to the Holy See over Vatican City.[133] At the end of the 19th century, Catholic missionaries followed colonial governments into Africa and built schools, hospitals, monasteries and churches.[134]

The 20th century saw the rise of various politically radical and anti-clerical governments. The 1926 Calles Law separating church and state in Mexico led to the Cristero War[135] in which over 3,000 priests were exiled or assassinated,[136] churches desecrated, services mocked, nuns raped and captured priests shot.[135] In the Soviet Union following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, persecution of the Church and Catholics continued well into the 1930s.[137] In addition to the execution and exiling of clerics, monks and laymen, the confiscation of religious implements and closure of churches was common.[138] During the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War, the Catholic hierarchy supported Francisco Franco's rebel Nationalist forces against the Popular Front government,[139] citing Republican violence directed against the Church.[140] Pope Pius XI referred to these three countries as a "Terrible Triangle" and the failure to protest in Europe and the United States as a Conspiracy of Silence.

After violations of the 1933 Reichskonkordat which had guaranteed the Church in Nazi Germany some protection and rights,[141] Pope Pius XI issued the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge[142] which publicly condemned the Nazis' persecution of the Church and their ideology of neopaganism and racial superiority.[143] After the Second World War began in September 1939, the Church condemned the invasion of Poland and subsequent 1940 Nazi invasions.[144] In the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII directed the Church hierarchy to help protect Jews from the Nazis.[145] While Pius XII has been credited with helping to save hundreds of thousands of Jews by some historians,[146] the Church has also been accused of encouraging centuries of antisemitism[147] and Pius himself of not doing enough to stop Nazi atrocities.[148] Debate over the validity of these criticisms continues to this day.[146] In 2000 Pope John Paul II on behalf of all people, apologized to Jews by inserting a prayer at the Western Wall.[149]

Postwar Communist governments in Eastern Europe severely restricted religious freedoms.[citation needed] Even though some clerics collaborated with the Communist regimes,[150] the Church's resistance and the leadership of Pope John Paul II have been credited with hastening the downfall of communist governments across Europe in 1991.[151] The rise to power of the Communists in China in 1949 led to the expulsion of all foreign missionaries.[152] The new government also created the Patriotic Church whose unilaterally appointed bishops were initially rejected by Rome before many of them were accepted.[153] The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s led to the closure of all religious establishments. When Chinese churches eventually reopened they remained under the control of the Patriotic Church. Many Catholic pastors and priests continued to be sent to prison for refusing to renounce allegiance to Rome.[154]


The Second Vatican Council initiated in 1962 was described by its advocates as an "opening of the windows".[155] It led to changes in liturgy within the Latin Church, focus of its mission and a redefinition of ecumenism, particularly dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church and Protestants.[156]

Reception of the council has formed the basis of multifaceted internal positions within the Church since then. A so-called Spirit of Vatican II followed the council, influenced by exponents of Nouvelle Théologie such as Karl Rahner. Some dissident liberals such as Hans Küng claimed Vatican II had not gone far enough.[157] On the other hand, Traditionalist Catholics represented by figures such as Archbishop Lefebvre strongly criticized the council arguing that it defiled the sanctity of the Latin Mass, promoted religious indifferentism towards "false religions" and compromised orthodox Catholic dogma and tradition. A group positioned in between, represented by theologians such as Communio including Pope Benedict XVI, hold that the council was ultimately positive but there were abuses in interpretation.

The Church has consistently continued to uphold its own moral positions,[citation needed] contrary to those propagated by the sexual revolution and moral relativism, especially prevalent in western society since the 1960s.[citation needed] Various teachings of the popes, such as the encyclicals Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae, have opposed contraception[158] and abortion respectively, describing them as part of a "culture of death".[159] Since the end of the 20th century, sex abuse by Catholic clergy has been the subject of media coverage, legal action, and public debate.[160] Pope John Paul II criticised the emergence of liberation theology among some clergy in South America, asserting that the Church should champion the poor without supporting radicalism or violence.[161] John Paul II canonised many saints and made Opus Dei his personal prelature. The Pope, since 2005 Benedict XVI, regularly receives heads of state[162] and as the representative of the Holy See has permanent observer status at the United Nations.[163]


The Catholic Church holds that there is one eternal God, who exists as a mutual indwelling of three persons: God the Father; God the Son; and the Holy Spirit.[164] Catholic belief holds that the Church "... is the continuing presence of Jesus on earth."[165] To Catholics, the term "Church" refers to the people of God, who abide in Christ and who, "... nourished with the Body of Christ, become the Body of Christ."[166] The Church teaches that the fullness of the "means of salvation" exists only in the Catholic Church but acknowledges that the Holy Spirit can make use of Christian communities separated from itself to bring people to salvation. It teaches that anyone who is saved is saved indirectly through the Church if the person has invincible ignorance of the Catholic Church and its teachings (as a result of parentage or culture, for example), yet follows the morals God has dictated in his heart and would, therefore, join the Church if he understood its necessity.[167][168] It teaches that Catholics are called by the Holy Spirit to work for unity among all Christians.[167][168]

According to the Council of Trent, Christ instituted seven sacraments and entrusted them to the Church.[169] These are Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Reconciliation (Penance), Anointing of the Sick (formerly Extreme Unction or the "Last Rites"), Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. Sacraments are important visible rituals which Catholics see as signs of God's presence and effective channels of God's grace to all those who receive them with the proper disposition (ex opere operato).[170][171] With the exception of baptism, the sacraments are administered by ordained members of the Catholic clergy. Baptism is the only sacrament that may be administered in emergencies by any Catholic, or even a non-Christian who "has the intention of baptizing according to the belief of the Catholic Church".[172]

Catholics believe that Christ is the Messiah of the Old Testament's Messianic prophecies.[173] In an event known as the Incarnation, the Church teaches that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God became united with human nature when Christ was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Christ is believed, therefore, to be both fully divine and fully human. It is taught that Christ's mission on earth included giving people his teachings and providing his example for them to follow, as recorded in the four Gospels.[174]

Catholic beliefs concerning Mary include her Immaculate Conception without the stain of original sin and bodily Assumption into heaven at the end of her life, both of which have been infallibly defined as dogma, by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and Pope Pius XII in 1950 respectively.

Falling into sin is considered the opposite to following Christ, weakening a person's resemblance to God and turning their soul away from his love.[175] Sins range from the less serious venial sins to more serious mortal sins which end a person's relationship with God.[175][176] The Church teaches that through the passion (suffering) of Christ and his crucifixion, all people have an opportunity for forgiveness and freedom from sin, and so can be reconciled to God.[173][177] The Resurrection of Jesus, according to Catholic belief, gained for humans a possible spiritual immortality previously denied to us because of original sin.[178] By reconciling with God and following Christ's words and deeds, the Church believes one can enter the Kingdom of God, which is the "... reign of God over people's hearts and lives".[179][180]

Alabaster window in St. Peter's Basilica showing a white dove with wings spread in a yellow background
Bernini's alabaster window in St. Peter's Basilica depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, a common motif in Christian art.

Christ told his apostles that—after his death and resurrection—he would send them the "Advocate", the "Holy Spirit", who "... will teach you all things".[181][182] Catholics believe that they receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Confirmation and that the grace received at baptism is strengthened,[183] To be properly confirmed, Catholics must be in a state of grace, which means they cannot be conscious of having committed an unconfessed mortal sin.[184] They must also have prepared spiritually for the sacrament, chosen a sponsor for spiritual support, and selected a saint to be their special patron and intercessor.[183] In the Eastern Catholic Churches, baptism, including infant baptism, is immediately followed by Confirmation—referred to as Chrismation[185]—and the reception of the Eucharist.[184][186]

After baptism, Catholics may obtain forgiveness for subsequent sins through the sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance or Confession).[187] In this sacrament, an individual confesses his sins to a priest, who then offers advice and imposes a particular penance to be performed. The priest administers absolution, formally forgiving the person of his sins.[188] The priest is forbidden—under penalty of excommunication—to reveal any sin or disclosure heard under the seal of confession.[189][190]

Catholic doctrine acknowledges an afterlife. The Church teaches that, immediately after death, the soul of each person will receive a particular judgment from God, based on the deeds of that individual's earthly life.[184][191] This teaching also attests to another day when Christ will sit in a universal judgment of all mankind. This final judgment, according to Church teaching, will bring an end to human history and mark the beginning of a new and better heaven and earth ruled by God in righteousness.[184][192] The basis upon which each person's soul will be judged is detailed in the Gospel of Matthew which lists works of mercy to be performed even to people considered "the least".[192][193] Emphasis is upon Christ's words that "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven".[192] According to the Catechism, "The Last Judgement will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life."[192] Depending on the judgement rendered, a soul may enter one of three states of afterlife. Heaven is a time of glorious union with God and a life of unspeakable joy that lasts forever.[184][191] Purgatory is a temporary condition for the purification of souls who, although saved, are not free enough from sin to enter directly into heaven.[184][191] Finally, those who chose to live a sinful and selfish life, did not repent, and fully intended to persist in their ways are sent to hell, an everlasting separation from God.[184][194] The Church teaches that no one is condemned to hell without having freely decided to reject God.[184][191] No one is predestined to hell and no one can determine whether anyone else has been condemned.[184][191] Catholicism teaches that through God's mercy a person can repent at any point before death and be saved.[191][195]

Catholic beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed[164] and detailed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[196][197] Based on the promises of Christ in the Gospels, the Church believes that it is continually guided by the Holy Spirit and so protected infallibly from falling into doctrinal error.[198][199] The Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit reveals God's truth through Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium.[200] Sacred Scripture consists of the 73 book Catholic Bible. This is made up of the 46 books found in the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament—known as the Septuagint[201]—and the 27 New Testament writings first found in the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209 and listed in Athanasius' Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter.[202] [note 2] Sacred Tradition consists of those teachings believed by the Church to have been handed down since the time of the Apostles.[199] Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are collectively known as the "deposit of faith" (depositum fidei). These are in turn interpreted by the Magisterium (from magister, Latin for "teacher"), the Church's teaching authority, which is exercised by the pope and the college of bishops in union with the pope.[203]

Traditions of worship

Differing liturgical traditions, or rites, exist throughout the Catholic Church, reflecting historical and cultural diversity rather than differences in beliefs.[204] The most commonly used liturgy is the Roman Rite (which is used in most of the Latin Catholic Church, but not in the Eastern Catholic Churches nor in those parts of the Latin Church where other Latin liturgical rites are in use). Presently, the Roman Rite exists in two authorized forms: the ordinary form (the 1969 Mass of Paul VI, celebrated mostly in the vernacular, i.e., the language of the people) and the extraordinary form (the 1962 edition of the Tridentine or Latin Mass ).[205][206][note 3] In the United States, certain "Anglican Use" parishes use a variation of the Roman rite which retains many aspects of the Anglican liturgical rites.[note 4] In 2009, an ordinariate for Anglicans to enter communion with the Church was also created.[208] Other Western rites (non-Roman) include the Ambrosian Rite and the Mozarabic Rite. The Eastern Catholic Churches use one of the following rites: the Byzantine rite, Alexandrian or Coptic rite, Syriac rite, Armenian rite, Maronite rite, and Chaldean rite.

The Eucharist is celebrated at each Mass and is the center of Catholic worship.[209][210] The Words of Institution for this sacrament are drawn from the Gospels and a Pauline letter.[211] Catholics believe that at each Mass, the bread and wine become supernaturally transubstantiated into the true Body and Blood of Christ. The Church teaches that Christ established a New Covenant with humanity through the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Because the Church teaches that Christ is present in the Eucharist,[205] there are strict rules about its celebration and reception. Catholics must abstain from eating for one hour before receiving Communion.[212] Those who are conscious of being in a state of mortal sin are forbidden from this sacrament unless they have received absolution through the sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance).[212] Catholics are not permitted to receive communion in Protestant churches because of their different beliefs and practices regarding Holy Orders and the Eucharist.[213]

Organization and demographics

Hierarchy, personnel and institutions

Painting of a group of men in a piazza, a long haired man giving a key to a kneeling man.
The Church holds that Christ instituted the papacy, upon giving the keys of heaven to Saint Peter, here in a fresco by Pietro Perugino (1481-82), Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

The Church's hierarchy is headed by the Pope.[214] Catholics give many titles to the Pope, including Bishop of Rome, successor to Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Pontifex Maximus, Vicar of Christ and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.[215] In the Church, the Pope holds primacy of jurisdiction in matters of faith, morals, discipline and Church governance and is the head of state of the Vatican City.[216] For advice and assistance in governing, the Pope may turn to the College of Cardinals, the next highest level in the hierarchy.[217] When a pope dies or resigns,[note 5] members of the College of Cardinals who are under age 80 meet to elect a new pope.[219] Although the papal conclave can theoretically elect any male Catholic as pope, since 1389 only cardinals have been elevated to that position.[220]

The Catholic Church comprises, as of 2008, 2,795 dioceses,[221] each overseen by a bishop. Dioceses are divided into individual communities called parishes, each staffed by one or more priests.[222] Priests may be assisted by deacons. All clergy, including deacons, priests, and bishops, may preach, teach, baptize, witness marriages and conduct funeral liturgies.[223] Only priests and bishops are allowed to administer the sacraments of the Eucharist, Reconciliation (Penance) and Anointing of the Sick.[224][225] Only bishops can administer the sacrament of Holy Orders, which ordains someone into the clergy.[226]

The Church has defined rules on who may be ordained into the clergy. In the Latin Rite, the priesthood is generally restricted to celibate men[227]who lack deeply-rooted homosexual tendencies.[228] Men who are already married may be ordained in the Eastern Catholic Churches,[229] and may become deacons in any rite.[227] According to the Vatican, as of 2007 there were 408,024 priests, an increase of 0.18% over 2005. The number of priests had decreased in Europe (6.8%) and Oceania (5.5%), remained roughly the same in the Americas, and increased in Africa (27.6%) and Asia (21.1%).[230]

Ordained Catholics, as well as members of the laity, may enter consecrated life as monks or nuns. A candidate takes vows confirming their desire to follow the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience.[231] Most monks and nuns join a monastic or religious order,[232][233] such as the Benedictines, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, and the Sisters of Mercy.[231]

Personnel[citation needed] Members Institutions Number
Pope 1 Parishes and missions 408,637
Cardinals 183 Primary and secondary schools 125,016
Archbishops 914 Universities 1,046
Bishops 3,475 Hospitals 5,853
Permanent deacons 27,824 Orphanages 8,695
Lay ecclesial ministers 30,632 Homes for the elderly and handicapped 13,933
Diocesan and religious priests 405,178 Dispensaries, leprosaries, nurseries and other institutions 74,936
Religious brothers and sisters 824,199
Seminarians 110,583
Total 1,402,989 Total 638,116


Church membership in 2007 was 1.147 billion people,[230] increasing from the 1950 figure of 437 million[234] and the 1970 figure of 654 million.[235] It is the largest Christian church, and encompasses over half of all Christians, approximately one sixth of the world's population, the largest organized body of any world religion,[236][237] although the number of practising Catholics worldwide is not reliably known.[238] In 2005, there was an 1.5% increase from 1.098 to 1.115 billion Catholics worldwide, including an increase of 3.1% in Africa and 1.18% in Asia,[1] where the Church comprises 3% of the population.[239]

Membership of the Catholic Church is attained through baptism.[240] In the Latin Rite, although children may be baptized, they do not begin full participation in the Church until First Communion, when they receive the sacrament of the Eucharist for the first time. In Eastern Churches, baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation) and the Eucharist may be conferred at the same time for both unbaptized children and adult converts. Adults who wish to convert to Catholicism can participate in a formation program such as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.[241] For serious violations of ecclesiastical law, a member can be excommunicated, which forbids a member from participation in the sacraments.[242][243]


  1. ^ The Roman Curia is a "bureaucracy that assists the pope in his responsibilities of governing the universal Church. Although early in the history of the Church bishops of Rome had assistants to help them in the exercise of their ministry, it was not until 1588 that formal organization of the Roman Curia was accomplished by Pope Sixtus V. The most recent reorganization of the Curia was completed in 1988 by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus".[98] The Curia functioned as the civil government of the Papal States until 1870.[99]
  2. ^ The 73-book Catholic Bible contains the Deuterocanonicals, books not in the modern Hebrew Bible and not upheld as canonical by most Protestants.[201] The process of determining which books were to be considered part of the canon took many centuries and was not finally resolved in the Catholic Church until the Council of Trent.
  3. ^ The Tridentine Mass was the ordinary form of the Roman-Rite Mass standardized by Pope Pius V after the Council of Trent in the 16th century; although it was superseded in 1969 by the Roman Missal of Paul VI; it continues to be offered according to that of 1962, as authorised by the documents Quattuor Abhinc Annos (1984), Ecclesia Dei (1988)[207] and Summorum Pontificum (2007).
  4. ^ In 1980, Pope John Paul II issued a Pastoral Provision which allows members of the Episcopal Church (the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion) to retain many aspects of Anglican liturgical rites as a variation of the Roman rite when they join the Catholic Church. Such "Anglican Use" parishes exist only in the United States
  5. ^ The last resignation occurred in 1415, as part of the Council of Constance's resolution of the Avignon Papacy.[218]


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From Roman + catholic + Church

Proper noun

Roman Catholic Church

  1. That part of the Christian churches in union with the pope in Rome.
  2. The Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.

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Introduction and Statistics

The name "Roman Catholicism" denotes the beliefs of those Christians who are in communion with the Pope who, as the successor of St Peter as Bishop of Rome, has primacy among all the bishops. Such Christians may be termed "Roman Catholics" or simply "Catholics". Historically speaking, the word "Catholic" has always been applied to the Church (it means "universal") and "Roman" goes before it to emphasise both the primacy of the Pope and continuity with the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

According to the 2006 Annuario Pontificio, the official yearbook of the Vatican, the membership of the Catholic Church was approximately 1,098,000,000 in 2004. There were 405,891 priests, 32,324 permanent deacons, and 113,044 seminarians when the data was compiled [1][2].

Include statistics of cardinals, bishops, episcopal sees, religious, parishes.

Hierarchy of the Catholic Church



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Prayers and Sacramentals

Liturgies of the Church, the Mass, and articles appropriate to the Mass

History of the Catholic Church and Biographies of the Saints

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