Roman Catholic Church

I INTRODUCTION Print Article  Print Section

Roman Catholic Church, the largest single Christian body, composed of those Christians who acknowledge the supreme authority of the bishop of Rome, the pope, in matters of faith. The word catholic (Greek katholikos) means "universal" and has been used to designate the church since its earliest period, when it was the only Christian church. The Roman Catholic church regards itself as the only legitimate inheritor, by an unbroken episcopal succession descending from St. Peter to the present time, of the commission and powers conferred by Jesus Christ on the 12 apostles (see  Apostle). The church has had a profound influence on the development of European culture and on the introduction of European values into other civilizations. Its total membership in the early 1990s was about 958.4 million (about 17 percent of the world population). The church has its greatest numerical strength in Europe and Latin America but also has a large membership in other parts of the world.

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II ORGANIZATION AND STRUCTURE Print Section

In keeping with early Christian traditions, the fundamental unit of organization in the Roman Catholic church is the diocese, headed by a bishop. The church comprises about 1880 dioceses and about 520 archdioceses, which today are simply more distinguished sees without the special jurisdiction over nearby bishops that they once enjoyed. The major church in a diocese is the cathedral, where the bishop presides at worship and other ceremonies. The cathedral contains the bishop's "throne" or "chair" (Latin cathedra), from which in the early church he preached to his congregation.

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A The Bishop Print Section

The bishop is the chief liturgical figure in the diocese and is distinguished from the priest principally by the power to confer Holy Orders (see  Orders, Holy) and to act as the usual minister of confirmation. The bishop also wields the highest jurisdictional powers within the diocese: He has the right to admit priests to his diocese and to exclude them from the practice of ministry within it, and he assigns priests of his diocese to parishes and other duties. The bishop often delegates administrative details to his vicar-general, his chancellor, or other officials. In larger dioceses he may be assisted by auxiliary or coadjutor bishops.

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B The Clergy Print Section

Directly under the bishop are the clergy, both secular and religious. Secular clergy are not members of religious orders or congregations and have permanently been incorporated (incardinated) into the diocese under the authority of the local bishop. Secular clergy generally staff the parishes of the diocese and serve as pastors in them.

The religious clergy, on the other hand, are primarily committed to their orders or congregations, which transcend diocesan boundaries (see  Monasticism). While working within a given diocese, these clergy must adhere to the bishop's decisions in matters of public worship but otherwise enjoy considerable discretion in their ministry. The same can be said of nuns (or sisters) and brothers, who are members of orders or congregations but are not clergy. These religious—clergy and laity—tend to staff the schools, hospitals, and other institutions of mercy and social service in the diocese. Since the Second Vatican Council, the laity who are not members of religious orders have assumed an increasingly active role in advising pastors and bishops, especially in practical matters, and in the directly pastoral ministry such as catechesis (instruction given in preparation for adult baptism).

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C The Pope Print Section

Pope John Paul II At the head of the Roman Catholic church is the pope, who has final authority in all matters (see  Infallibility). The pope appoints bishops to dioceses and transfers them to others. Although bishops enjoy their jurisdictional powers by reason of their office, they cannot legitimately exercise them without the permission of the pope. On September 15, 1965, Pope Paul VI instituted the Synod of Bishops, a representative body of bishops and others that may be called by the pope to consult on major issues. The first such synod met in Vatican City in 1967, and several have been held since then. Synods are not to be confused with ecumenical councils (see  Council), solemn convocations of all the bishops of the world. The Catholic church numbers only 21 such councils in its long history—the most recent being the Second Vatican Council (1962-65; see  Vatican Council, Second). While they are in communion with the pope, the councils exercise unquestionably the highest authority in the church.

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D The Cardinal Print Section

Cardinals are the highest dignitaries in the church after the pope. Appointed by the pope, they constitute the supreme council of the church, the Sacred College, and on the death of the pope they elect his successor (see  Conclave). Most cardinals are bishops of dioceses located throughout the world; others are the chief members of the Sacred Congregations of the papal administration. The Sacred Congregation of Cardinals was formerly limited to 70 members (6 cardinal bishops, 50 cardinal priests, and 14 cardinal deacons). By 1991 the number of cardinals had reached 163, most of whom had been named by Pope John Paul II. see  Cardinal (prelate).

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E The Curia Print Section

The pope is assisted in his administration of the church by a complex bureaucracy known as the Curia. Of ancient origin, the Curia is located in Vatican City. It is now directed by the Secretariat of State, to which the various other offices report. These offices now consist of the Sacred Congregation for the Public Affairs of the Church, as well as ten congregations, three tribunals, three secretariats, and other bureaus.

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F Eastern Rite Churches Print Section

Although most members of the Roman Catholic church follow a discipline, ritual, and canon law that developed in the early years of the diocese of Rome, others adhere in these matters to their own centuries-old traditions. These are the Eastern Rite churches, or Uniate churches, such as the Maronite, Chaldean, Ruthenian, and Ukrainian. Some of these churches legitimately practice Holy Communion under both kinds (the use of both bread and wine) and baptism by immersion, and allow marriage of the clergy.

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III DISTINCTIVE DOCTRINES Print Section

Second Vatican Council Although the Roman Catholic church holds certain doctrines that distinguish it from other Christian churches, it is most characteristic in the breadth and comprehensiveness of its doctrinal tradition. Locating its beginnings in the earliest Christian communities and refusing to acknowledge any decisive break in its history, the Roman Catholic church considers itself heir to all the theological speculation of the apostolic, patristic, medieval, and modern periods. Although this doctrinal comprehensiveness may sometimes seem to lack internal coherence, it helps vindicate the church's claim to "catholicity" (universality), even in doctrinal matters. The church does not in principle exclude any theological method, and since Pope Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) it has officially sanctioned modern principles of exegesis for interpreting the Bible. Participation since the Second Vatican Council in the ecumenical movement has made Catholics appreciate the doctrinal viewpoint even of the Protestant reformers who broke with the church in the 16th century.

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A The Bible Print Section

Like other Christian churches, the Roman Catholic church accepts the Bible as the basis for its teaching. This was an unquestioned assumption until the Reformation, and great theologians such as the 13th-century Italian St. Thomas Aquinas taught that "Scripture alone" was the source for theology. Even while maintaining a "Scripture-alone" position, however, theologians also held that certain truths or practices (such as infant baptism), although not found in Scripture, were validated by the tradition of the church. They agreed, moreover, that the solemn decisions of the church, especially those that were arrived at by the ecumenical councils, were authentic interpretations of Christian doctrine and therefore irrevocably binding on the church.

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B Tradition Print Section

In reaction to the Protestant insistence during the Reformation on a seemingly unqualified "Scripture-alone" principle, the Council of Trent (see  Trent, Council of) affirmed (Fourth Session) that Christian revelation was contained in "written books" and in "unwritten traditions." Although this decree speaks at length and almost exclusively about the Bible, the insertion of the phrase about "unwritten traditions" was interpreted until recently as indicating a "two-source" theory. Today the interpretation of the decree is debated, but its significance has been somewhat diminished by a general agreement among both Catholic and Protestant scholars that the books of the New Testament are themselves the product of various traditions or schools in the early church (see  Biblical Scholarship).

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C Apostolic Succession Print Section

Somewhat related to the theological notion of tradition is the doctrine of apostolic succession, that is, the continuous transmission of ministry from the time of Jesus until today. The doctrine is found as early as the Epistle to the Corinthians (circa 96), traditionally attributed to Pope Clement I. It is present in a qualified form in some Protestant churches, but it is more expressly affirmed in Roman Catholicism. It is identified with the succession of bishops in office and interpreted as the source of the bishops' authority and leadership role. The most specific instance of these claims is that the pope is the successor of St. Peter, who was chosen by Jesus as head of his church (see Matthew 16:16-18). Thus, Catholicism tends to see the same authority and spiritual gifts operative in the church today as were operative in the apostolic communities.

Almost implicit in this belief in apostolic succession is the belief that the church has the right and duty to teach Christian doctrine and morals authoritatively and that the substantial correctness of this teaching is guaranteed by the continued presence of the Holy Spirit in the church. For all practical purposes, Catholic theology locates this authority in the bishops, the pope, and the ecumenical councils; under certain circumstances it acknowledges this teaching as infallible. The teaching authority of the church is referred to collectively as the magisterium, a term that came into common use in the 19th century.

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D The Church Print Section

Because of Catholic emphasis on the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the church, Catholic theology has given more attention to ecclesiology than has the theology of other Christian bodies. Trying to correct an excessively juridical concept of the church, the Second Vatican Council consistently spoke of it as a mystery and favored images such as the "people of God" to describe it. Fundamental to Catholic belief in all ages has been the assumption that God's love and grace are mediated to the world in a uniquely efficacious way through the ministry of the church.

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E Saints Print Section

Madonna and Child With greater enthusiasm than other Western churches, Roman Catholicism fosters the veneration of the saints (see  Saint) and especially of Mary. In 1854 Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, and in 1950 Pope Pius XII proclaimed her assumption (see  Assumption of the Virgin). Often criticized for letting veneration of the saints obscure the worship due God, the church has tried to limit it, for instance by reducing the number of saints whose feasts are observed in the liturgy. Catholics also believe that they can help by their prayers and good works those who have died without being fully purified of their sins. This belief is closely associated with the doctrines of purgatory and indulgence.

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IV WORSHIP AND PRACTICES Print Section

Catholic worship is unequivocally centered on the Mass, at which the faithful are expected to be present every Sunday and on a few major feasts during the year. Mass is also celebrated daily in most churches and is the essential element of the service at marriages, funerals, and other Catholic observances.

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A The Mass Print Section

The Mass consists of several parts of which the longest and most important are the so-called liturgy of the Word and the eucharistic liturgy, during which Holy Communion is distributed. Within this set structure considerable variation is possible in the use of music, pageantry, and other devices to render the service appropriate for a given occasion.

This potential for variation is graphically illustrated in the history of the Mass and in the differences that exist today between the Roman rite and the rites of the Eastern churches. The most sweeping changes ever made in the Roman rite were those effected by the Second Vatican Council in its decree Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963). The general tendency of these changes was to excise accretions to the liturgy that obscured its purpose and basic outline. Of all the provisions legislated or inspired by the council, none was more dramatic than the translation of the liturgy and rites of the church from their traditional Latin language into modern vernaculars.

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B Sacraments Print Section

The Eucharist is one of the seven sacraments (see  Sacrament), which are the most important symbolic rites by which the church nourishes its members. Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist through the change of bread and wine into his body and blood ( transubstantiation) and are encouraged to receive the Eucharist at every Mass in which they participate. The other sacraments are baptism, confirmation, penance, holy orders, matrimony, and the anointing of the sick. Catholic theology teaches that these signs, instituted by Christ, effect their spiritual benefit on the recipient independent of the faith or virtue of the minister (ex opere operato).

Liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council revised the sacrament of penance to shift attention away from confession of a detailed list of sins (see  Sin) to the healing nature of the divine mercy mediated through the sacrament. To highlight these purposes the alternative term sacrament of reconciliation was devised. Besides other revisions in sacramental rites, the council determined that the anointing of the sick should be administered in every serious illness or old age and not be delayed until the point of death. Hence, it should no longer be called extreme (last) unction.

The minister for the sacrament of matrimony is not the officiating priest, as is usually thought, but the bride and groom themselves. The bond this sacrament creates between two baptized persons cannot, according to Catholic theology, be dissolved. Numerous prior conditions exist for a valid bond, however, so that it is sometimes possible for the church to declare, after examination, that a marriage was null and void from the beginning. Often viewed as the Catholic equivalent of divorce, annulment is based on different principles. The church teaches that the purpose of matrimony is to foster mutual love and procreate children.

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C Other Practices Print Section

Catholics express piety in many ways in addition to the Mass and sacraments. The rosary of the Virgin Mary, for instance, is still a popular devotion. In recent years the strict obligation to fast (see  Fasting) and to abstain from meat on certain days has been made optional but is still observed by many. Although the earlier insistence of bishops, especially in the United States, that children be sent to schools operated by the church has been abandoned, many Catholics continue to do so, maintaining a strong system of elementary and secondary education. Throughout the world the church sponsors a number of universities and an even larger number of faculties of theology. The church is directly or indirectly responsible for an immense number of publications that range from popular journalism to highly sophisticated scholarship.

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D Current Issues Print Section

The Roman Catholic church has been characterized in modern times by strong positions on some controversial issues. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), the popes have consistently decried the injustices of the economic and social conditions created by modern industrial societies and proposed remedies for them. They have denounced nuclear warfare, repeatedly urged an end to the arms race, and sought to halt the exploitation of poor nations by rich ones. The protection and promotion of basic human rights in the social, economic, and political orders have been central to these pronouncements. The so-called liberation theology created by some Catholic intellectuals in Latin America has recently attempted to fit these concerns into a less traditional framework of speculation, even utilizing concepts found in Marxist literature.

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The Papal Visit: Will Cuba Follow Poland?

In January 1998 Pope John Paul II paid the first papal visit to Cuba. Not long after the pope's first visit to Poland a decade earlier, the Communist government there fell, and observers speculated whether Cuba might undergo a similar loosening of control. Tom Gjelten, diplomatic correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), covered Pope John Paul II's visit. The following article appeared in the January 1998 Encarta Yearbook.

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At the Second Vatican Council the church encouraged Catholics to work with members of other religions for common human goals and for the reunion of the various Christian churches. Although the Roman Catholic church has never joined the World Council of Churches, it does maintain contact with it. In recognition of the genuine spiritual values in other religions, Catholic missionary practice since the council has been modified from proselytizing to a dialogue more respectful of those values (see  Missionary Movements).

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Pope Beatifies First Roma

The following report is from a May 1997 article in the Encarta Yearbook.

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On certain other issues the church has been more conservative but no less forceful. The prohibition of "artificial" means of birth control was reiterated by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). This document provoked objections in some theological and even episcopal circles—a unique phenomenon for the modern papacy. Although its import continues to be debated, it is certainly the most authoritative statement on the issue. The Roman Catholic church has been a fierce opponent of liberalized abortion laws and has inspired political resistance to such legislation in several Western countries. Although the church permits women under certain circumstances to administer the Eucharist and perform some other ministries, it has not allowed them to be ordained priests or deacons. For priests of the Roman rite, marriage is strictly forbidden.

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V HISTORY Print Section

Until the break with the Eastern church (see  Orthodox Church) in 1054 and the break with the Protestant churches in the 16th century, it is impossible to separate the history of the Roman Catholic church from the history of Christianity in general. The distinct Roman Catholic view of history, however, is its claim to unbroken continuity with the church of the New Testament and its consequent acceptance as legitimate of the major developments in doctrine and structure that it has assimilated since then. The great shifts in culture, theology, and discipline within Christian history are not necessarily viewed, therefore, as deviations from some absolute norm of the apostolic church. They tend to be viewed, rather, as expressions in different and more elaborate ways of impulses that were already present from the beginning.

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A The Early Church Print Section

The first great change in Christian history was its spread from Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean world in the first few decades after Jesus' death. Within a short time Christianity had adopted the language and philosophical vocabulary of the Greco-Roman world to express its message, and it also adopted some procedural and organizational practices of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, the characteristically Christian figure of the bishop had clearly emerged by the middle of the 2nd century. The recognition of the church by Emperor Constantine the Great in 313 consolidated these developments and gave the church support in the great doctrinal controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries that determined orthodoxy. By the time of the 5th-century pope Leo I, the bishop of Rome was claiming and to some extent was exercising a primacy of leadership over the other churches (see  Papacy).

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B The Medieval Church Print Section

The decline of the Roman Empire in the West and the assimilation of the Germanic peoples into the church had great impact on all aspects of religious life, including a diminution of episcopal authority from the 7th to the 11th century. Under the leadership of a reformed papacy in the late 11th century, however, episcopal rights were restored amid the bitter Investiture Controversy waged by the papacy with various rulers in Europe. As a result, the papacy emerged as the acknowledged leader of the Western church, possessing a centralizing and increasingly efficient Curia. Canon law was revitalized and implemented, with an emphasis on the role of the papacy in governing the church. These developments, plus the Crusades, made reconciliation with the Eastern church more difficult after the Great Schism of 1054.

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C The Modern Period Print Section

Partly in reaction to the changes resulting from the Investiture Controversy, the Protestant Reformation broke out in the 16th century. The Catholic church responded during the era of the Counter Reformation by reaffirming the traditions that had developed through the ages and especially by emphasizing those elements that were most under attack, such as Scholastic theology (see  Scholasticism), the efficacy of the sacraments, and the primacy of the pope.

The attacks launched against the church by the Enlightenment (see  Enlightenment, Age of) and the French Revolution were largely responsible for the defensive postures struck by Catholicism long afterward. The Second Vatican Council tried to reverse this trend. Although the changes introduced by the council engendered considerable confusion for some years, the church has remained fundamentally stable and flourishing in many parts of the world.

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VI THE CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES Print Section

In 1493, 12 priests accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage of exploration, and the first episcopal see was erected at Santo Domingo (now in the Dominican Republic), the first European settlement in the New World, in 1512. The second American see—that of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba—was established in 1522, the third—that of Mexico—in 1530. The missionaries who preached to the natives of the southeastern and southwestern portions of what is now the United States were mainly Spanish Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits. Between the middle of the 16th century and the end of the 18th century they established many communities in what are now the states of Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and California. French missionaries during the same time were preaching on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, in areas that are now Maine and northern New York, and even around the Great Lakes and in the Mississippi River valley. Before 1789, Catholics living in the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania were under the jurisdiction of the vicar apostolic of London, but in that year a see was established in Baltimore, and on August 15, 1790, the American prelate John Carroll was consecrated its first bishop.

During the 19th century the tide of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere swelled the ranks of the Roman Catholic communion, and the Catholic population of the United States, which had been 30,000 in 1790, increased to 250,000 in 1820, about 1 million in 1840, and some 5 million in 1870. In the early 1990s the estimated Roman Catholic population of the United States had reached a figure of about 59,858,000. During the same period, the U.S. Catholic hierarchy was composed of 9 cardinals, 45 archbishops, 344 bishops, and 50,320 priests. The total number of Roman Catholic parishes was 19,787. The church maintained 226 seminaries for the training of the clergy. Other educational institutions under Roman Catholic sponsorship were 7292 elementary schools, 1360 high schools, and 232 colleges and universities; the total number of students enrolled in these institutions was about 3,336,000.

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VII THE CHURCH IN CANADA Print Section

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the missionary zeal of French Jesuits, Ursulines, Sulpicians, and others aided the colonization of New France in the Canadian wilderness. The first Canadian martyrs were Jesuits killed in an Iroquois massacre of the Huron people in the 1640s. François Xavier de Laval-Montmorency, in charge of church affairs since 1659, was consecrated the first bishop of Québec in 1674. With Protestants legally banned from the colony, the bishop had a permanent seat on the three-man governing council; the clergy had charge of education, hospitals, and welfare; and the state enforced tithes and gave the church land and money. After the British conquest of New France in 1760, opposition to the church arose, but the Québec Act (1774) opened public office to Catholics and authorized continuation of tithes.

As a result of 19th- and 20th-century immigration, the Roman Catholic church in Canada grew rapidly and was removed from mission status in 1908. The newcomers, however, changed its character. Irish immigration in the early 1800s reduced the French-Canadians to a minority among Catholics outside Québec and led to conflict over language and episcopal appointments. Such tension continued in the 20th century with the arrival of southern and eastern Europeans. In the early 1990's the Roman Catholic church was the largest religious group in the country, with about 45 percent of all Canadians. It still had some government recognition, especially in Québec and in provinces where Catholic schools received tax aid. Its clergy included 3 cardinals and 118 other prelates.

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Contributed By: John W. O'Malley, Ph.D.
Professor of History, Weston School of Theology. Author of Rome and the Renaissance, Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome, and Giles of Viterbo on Church and Reform.

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