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Catholic Church

The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church,[note 1] is the world's largest Christian church. It has more than a billion members, over half of all Christians[note 2] and more than one-sixth of the world's population, although the number of lapsed Catholics is not reliably known.[15] A communion of the Western, (or Latin Rite) Church, and 22 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches (called particular churches), it comprised a total of 2,795 dioceses in 2008. The Church's highest earthly authority in matters of faith, morality, and governance is the Pope,[16] currently Pope Benedict XVI, who holds supreme authority in concert with the College of Bishops, of which he is the head.[17][18][19] The Catholic community is made up of an ordained ministry and the laity; members of either group may belong to organized religious communities.[20]

The Church defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity.[21] 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,[22] among whom Simon Peter held the position of chief apostle.[23] The Church also believes that its bishops, through apostolic succession, are consecrated successors of these apostles,[24][25] and that the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as the successor of Peter, possesses a universal primacy of jurisdiction and pastoral care.[26]

Church doctrines have been defined through various ecumenical councils, following the example set by the first Apostles in the Council of Jerusalem.[27] On the basis of promises made by Jesus to his apostles, described in the Gospels, the Church believes that it is guided by the Holy Spirit and so protected from falling into doctrinal error.[28][29][30]

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.[31] Formal Catholic worship is termed the liturgy. The Eucharist is the center of Catholic worship. It is one of seven sacraments which mark key stages in the lives of believers.

With a history spanning almost two thousand years, the Church is "the world's oldest and largest institution"[32] and has played a prominent role in the history of Western civilization since at least the 4th century.[33] In the 11th century, a major split, sometimes called the Great Schism, occurred between Eastern and Western Christianity. Those Eastern churches which remained in, or later re-established, communion with the Pope, form the Eastern Catholic churches and those which remain independent of papal authority are usually known as Orthodox churches. In the 16th century, partly in response to the rise of the Protestant Reformation, the Church engaged in its own process of reform and renewal, known as the Counter-Reformation.

Although the Church maintains that it is the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" founded by Jesus and in which is found the fullness of the means of salvation,[34][35] it also acknowledges that the Holy Spirit can make use of other Christian communities to bring people to salvation.[36][37] It believes that it is called by the Holy Spirit to work for unity among all Christians, a movement known as ecumenism.


The Catholic Church is the original Christian church founded by Jesus Christ.[38][39][40] The New Testament records his appointing of the twelve Apostles and giving them authority to continue his work.[38] Catholics believe 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 ... ".[29][39][41][42][43] Catholics believe 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.[39][43]

The traditional narrative places Peter in Rome, where he founded a church and served as the first bishop of the See of Rome, later consecrating Linus as his successor, thus beginning the line of Popes.[44][45] Elements of this traditional narrative agree with the surviving historical evidence which includes the writings of Saint Paul, several early Church Fathers (among them Pope Clement I)[46] and some archaeological evidence.[44] Although in the past some Biblical scholars thought the word 'rock' referred to Jesus or to Peter’s faith, the majority now understand it as referring to the person of Peter.[47] Some historians of Christianity assert that the Catholic Church can be traced to Jesus's consecration of Peter,[45][48] some that Jesus did not found a church in his lifetime but provided a framework of beliefs,[49] 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[50][51] although some assert that the papal office had indeed emerged by the mid 150s.[52][53]

Mission and purpose

The Church believes that its mission is founded upon Jesus' command to his followers to spread the faith across the world:[54] "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you".[55][56][57] Pope Benedict XVI summarized this mission as a threefold responsibility to proclaim the word of God, celebrate the sacraments, and exercise the ministry of charity.[58] As part of its ministry of charity, the Church runs worldwide agencies such as Caritas Internationalis, whose national subsidiaries include CAFOD and Catholic Relief Services. Other institutions include Catholic schools, Catholic universities, Catholic Charities, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, Marriage Encounter, hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, homeless shelters, as well as ministries to the poor, families, the elderly, AIDS victims, and pregnant and abused women.[59]


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. Catholic beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed[60] and detailed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[31][61] The Nicene Creed also forms the central statement of belief of other Christian denominations.[62] Chief among these are Eastern Orthodox Christians, whose beliefs are similar to those of Catholics, differing mainly with regard to papal infallibility, the filioque clause and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.[63][64] The various Protestant denominations vary in their beliefs, but generally differ from Catholics regarding the Pope, Church tradition, the Eucharist, veneration of saints, and issues pertaining to grace, good works and salvation.[65]

Catholic belief holds that the Church "... is the continuing presence of Jesus on earth."[66] To Catholics, the term "Church" refers to the people of God, who abide in Jesus and who, "... nourished with the Body of Christ, become the Body of Christ."[67] 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.[68][69] It teaches that Catholics are called by the Holy Spirit to work for unity among all Christians.[68][69]

The Council of Jerusalem, convened by the Apostles around the year 50 to clarify Church teachings, set the precedent for later councils of the Church, convened by Church leaders throughout history.[27][70][71] The most recent Church council was the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965.[72]

Teaching authority, seven sacraments

Based on the promises of Jesus in the Gospels, the Church believes that it is continually guided by the Holy Spirit and so protected infallibly from falling into doctrinal error.[17][73] The Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit reveals God's truth through Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium.[74]

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[75]—and the 27 New Testament writings first found in the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209 and listed in Athanasius' Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter.[76] [note 3] Sacred Tradition consists of those teachings believed by the Church to have been handed down since the time of the Apostles.[73] 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.[77]

According to the Council of Trent, Jesus instituted seven sacraments and entrusted them to the Church.[78] 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).[79][80] 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".[81]

God the Father, creation, and original sin

The Church teaches that God is the source and creator of all that exists,[82] and that he is a loving and caring entity who is directly involved in the world and in people's lives,[83] desiring his creatures to love him and to love each other.[84][85] Catholicism teaches that while human beings live bodily in a visible, material world, their souls simultaneously occupy an invisible, spiritual world, in which spiritual beings called angels exist to "worship and serve God".[86] Some angels, however, chose to rebel against God, and thereby became demons antagonistic both to God and to mankind.[87] Among other names, the leader of this rebellion has been called "Lucifer", "Satan" and the devil.[88] Satan is believed to have tempted the first humans, Adam and Eve, whose subsequent act of original sin brought suffering and death into the world.[89]

This event, known in Catholic belief as the Fall of Man, separated humanity from its original intimacy with God. The Catechism states that the description of the fall, in Genesis 3, uses figurative language, but affirms that "... a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man" that resulted in "a deprivation of original holiness and justice" that makes each person "subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death: and inclined to sin". Catholic doctrine accepts the possibility that God's creation occurred in a way consistent with evolution but rejects as outside the scope of science any efforts to use of the theory to deny supernatural divine creation.[90] The soul did not evolve, according to Catholic doctrine, but was infused into man and woman directly by God.[89] The Church believes that people can be cleansed of original sin and all personal sins through Baptism.[91] This sacramental act of cleansing admits a person as a full member of the natural and supernatural Church and can only be conferred on a person once.[91]

Jesus, sin and Penance

Catholics believe that Jesus is the Messiah of the Old Testament's Messianic prophecies.[92] The Nicene Creed states that he is "... the only begotten son of God, ... one in being with the Father. Through him all things were made". 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 Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Jesus is believed, therefore, to be both fully divine and fully human. It is taught that Jesus' mission on earth included giving people his teachings and providing his example for them to follow, as recorded in the four Gospels.[93]

Falling into sin is considered the opposite to following Jesus, weakening a person's resemblance to God and turning their soul away from his love.[94] Sins range from the less serious venial sins to more serious mortal sins which end a person's relationship with God.[94][95] The Church teaches that through the passion (suffering) of Jesus and his crucifixion, all people have an opportunity for forgiveness and freedom from sin, and so can be reconciled to God.[92][96] The Resurrection of Jesus, according to Catholic belief, gained for humans a possible spiritual immortality previously denied to us because of original sin.[97] By reconciling with God and following Jesus' 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."[98][99]

After baptism, the sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance or Confession) is the means by which Catholics believe they can obtain forgiveness for subsequent sin and receive God's grace. Catholics believe Jesus gave the apostles authority to forgive sins in God's name.[100] After making an examination of conscience that often involves a review of the ten commandments, the sacrament involves confession of sins by an individual to a priest, who then offers advice and imposes a particular penance to be performed. The penitent then prays an act of contrition and the priest administers absolution, formally forgiving the person of his sins.[101] The priest is forbidden—under penalty of excommunication—to reveal any sin or disclosure heard under the seal of confession. Penance helps prepare Catholics before they can licitly receive the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist.[102][103]

Holy Spirit and Confirmation

Jesus told his apostles that after his death and resurrection he would send them the "Advocate", the "Holy Spirit", who "... will teach you all things".[104][105] Through the sacrament of Confirmation, Catholics believe they receive the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is a Person of the Trinity, the Church teaches that receiving the Holy Spirit is an act of receiving God.[106] Confirmation, sometimes called the "sacrament of Christian maturity", is believed to increase and deepen the grace received at Baptism,[107] as the confirmand is sealed with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, i.e., wisdom (to see and follow God's plan), understanding, counsel (right judgement), fortitude (courage), knowledge, piety (reverence), and fear of the Lord (rejoicing in the presence of God; a spirit of holy fear in God's presence).[108][109] The corresponding fruits of the Holy Spirit are charity (love), joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.[108][109] 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.[109] 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.[107] In the Eastern Catholic Churches, baptism, including infant baptism, is immediately followed by Confirmation and the reception of the Eucharist.[109][110]

Final judgment and afterlife

Belief in an afterlife is part of Catholic doctrine, the "four last things" being death, judgment, heaven, and hell. 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.[109][111] This teaching also attests to another day when Jesus will sit in a universal judgment of all mankind.[59][112] 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.[109][113] 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".[112][113] Emphasis is upon Jesus' 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".[113] 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."[113]

There are three states of afterlife in Catholic belief. Heaven is a time of glorious union with God and a life of unspeakable joy that lasts forever.[109][111] Purgatory is a temporary condition for the purification of souls who, although saved, are not free enough from sin to enter directly into heaven. It is a state requiring penance and purgation of sin through God's mercy aided by the prayers of others.[109][111] 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.[109][114] The Church teaches that no one is condemned to hell without having freely decided to reject God and his love.[109][111] He predestines no one to hell and no one can determine whether anyone else has been condemned.[109][111] Catholicism teaches that through God's mercy a person can repent at any point before death and be saved "like the good thief who was crucified next to Jesus".[111][115]

Social teaching

In addition to operating numerous social ministries throughout the world, the Church teaches that individual Catholics are required to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy as well. The seven corporal works of mercy are: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.[109] Welcoming strangers, immigrants, and refugees could be said to be another corporal work of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy include: instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead.[59][109] In conjunction with the work of mercy to visit the sick, the Church offers the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick,[109] administered only by a priest.[116] Church teaching on works of mercy and the new social problems of the industrial era led to the development of Catholic social teaching, which emphasizes human dignity and commits Catholics to the welfare of others.[59][109]

Prayer and worship

Catholic liturgy is regulated by Church authority[117] and consists of the Eucharist and Mass, the other sacraments, and the Liturgy of the Hours. According to the precepts of the Church, every Catholic is required to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation[109] and confess mortal sins at least once a year.[118] There is evidence from the UK[119] and USA[120] that at least three-quarters of professed Catholics do not adhere to the latter requirement of canon law. They should also receive the Eucharist at least once during Easter season, observe the prescribed days of fasting and of abstinence as established by the Church, and help provide for the Church's needs.[121] (For the Latin Church, the holy days of obligation are set forth in the Code of Canon Law, but they vary from nation to nation, as requested by each nation's conference of bishops and approved by the Holy See.) All Catholics are expected to participate in the liturgical life of the Church, but individual or communal prayer and devotions—while encouraged—are a matter of personal preference.[122]

In addition to the Mass, the Catholic Church considers prayer to be one of the most important elements of Christian life. The Catechism identifies three types of prayer: vocal prayer (sung or spoken), meditation, and contemplative prayer. Two of the most common devotional prayers of the Catholic Church are the Rosary and Stations of the Cross.[123] These prayers are most often vocal, yet also meditative and contemplative. Benediction and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament are common forms of contemplative prayers.[124]

Diverse traditions of worship

Differing liturgical traditions, or rites, exist throughout the universal Church, reflecting historical and cultural diversity rather than a difference in beliefs.[125] 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 ).[126][127][note 4] 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 5] Other Western rites (non-Roman) include the Ambrosian Rite and the Mozarabic Rite.

The Eastern Catholic Churches refer to the Eucharistic celebration as the Divine Liturgy. 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 Latin Catholic Church and the various Eastern Catholic Churches each follow a liturgical year—an annual calendar—which sets aside certain days and seasons to celebrate key events in the life of Jesus.[129] Advent, Christmas and the Epiphany celebrate his expected coming, birth and manifestation. Lent is the period of purification and penance that ends during Holy Week with the Easter Triduum. These days recall Jesus' last supper with his disciples, death on the cross, burial and resurrection. The feast of the Ascension of Jesus is followed by Pentecost which recalls the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' disciples.[129]


The Eucharist is celebrated at each Mass and is the center of Catholic worship.[130][131] The Words of Institution for this sacrament are drawn from the Gospels and a Pauline letter.[132] In its main elements and prayers, the Catholic Mass celebrated today, according to professor Alan Schreck, is "almost identical" to the form described in the Didache and First Apology of Justin Martyr in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries.[133][134] 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 Jesus 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,[126] there are strict rules about its celebration and reception. The ingredients of the bread and wine used in the Mass are specified and Catholics must abstain from eating for one hour before receiving Communion.[135] 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).[135] Catholics are not permitted to receive communion in Protestant churches because of their different beliefs and practices regarding Holy Orders and the Eucharist.[136]

Mary and the saints

Prayers to, devotions to, and veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints are a common part of Catholic life but are distinct from the worship of God.[137] Catholic teaching maintains that the Church exists simultaneously on earth (Church militant), in purgatory (Church suffering), and in heaven (Church triumphant); thus Mary and all other saints are alive and part of the living Church.[138] This unity of the Church in heaven, in purgatory, and on earth is the "Communion of Saints".[138][139] Explaining the intercession of saints, the Catechism states that the saints "... do not cease to intercede with the Father for us ... so by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped."[137][139]

The Church holds Mary, as ever Virgin and Mother of God, in special regard. She is believed to have been conceived without original sin, and to have been assumed into heaven. These teachings, the focus of Roman Catholic Mariology, are considered infallible. Several liturgical Marian feasts are celebrated throughout the Church Year and she is honored with many titles such as Queen of Heaven (in Latin, Regina Coeli). Pope Paul VI called her Mother of the Church (in Latin, Mater Ecclesiae), because by giving birth to Christ, she is considered to be the spiritual mother to each member of the Body of Christ.[140] Because of her influential role in the life of Jesus, prayers and devotions, such as the Rosary, the Hail Mary, the Salve Regina and the Memorare are common Catholic practices.[123] The Church has affirmed the validity of Marian apparitions (supernatural experiences of Mary by one or more persons) such as those at Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe[141] while others such as Međugorje are still under investigation.

Pilgrimage has been an important element of Catholic spirituality since at least the second century. Devotional journeys to the sites of biblical events or to places connected with Jesus, Mary or the saints are considered an aid to spiritual growth and are popular Catholic devotions.[142] Western Europe has more than 6,000 pilgrimage destinations which generate around 60 million faith-related visits a year.[143]

Church organization and community

While the Church considers Jesus to be its ultimate head, the spiritual leader and head of the Church organization is the pope.[144][note 6] The pope governs from the Vatican City in Rome – a sovereign nation of which he is the head of state.[146] Each pope is elected for life by the College of Cardinals, a body composed of clerics (normally bishops) who have been elevated to the rank of cardinal. The cardinals, who also serve as papal advisors, may select any Catholic male as pope, but if the candidate is not already a bishop, he must become one before taking office.[147]

The pope is assisted in the Church's administration by the Roman Curia, or civil service. The Church is governed according to formal regulations set out in the Code of Canon Law. The official language of the Church is Latin, although Italian is the working language of the Vatican administration.[148]

As of 2008, the worldwide Catholic Church comprises 2,795 dioceses (also called sees or, in the East, eparchies), grouped into 23 particular Churches – the Latin-rite Church and 22 Eastern Catholic Churches – each with distinct traditions regarding the liturgy and the administration of the sacraments.[149] Each diocese is divided into individual communities called parishes, each staffed by one or more priests.[150]

The church community is made up of ordained members (such as bishops, priests and deacons,) and the laity. Members of religious orders such as nuns, friars and monks are lay members unless individually ordained as priests.[151]

Ordained members and Holy Orders

Men may become ordained clergy to serve as deacons, priests or as bishops through the sacrament of Holy Orders which is conferred by one or more bishops through the laying on of hands.[152]

Deacons and all other clergy may preach, teach, baptize, witness marriages and conduct funeral liturgies.[153] The sacraments of the Eucharist, Reconciliation (Penance) and Anointing of the Sick may only be administered by priests or bishops.

All clergy who are bishops [note 7] form the College of Bishops and are jointly considered the successors of the apostles.[154][155] Only bishops can administer the sacrament of Holy Orders.[152] They are also responsible for teaching, governing, and sanctifying the faithful of their diocese, sharing these duties with the priests and deacons who serve under them.

The Church teaches that since the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus were all male, only men may be ordained as priests.[156] While some consider this to be evidence of a discriminatory attitude toward women,[157] the Church believes that Jesus called women to different yet equally important vocations in Church ministry.[158] Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Christifideles Laici, states that women have specific vocations reserved only for the female sex, and are equally called to be disciples of Jesus.[159]

Married men may become deacons but only celibate men are ordinarily ordained as priests in the Latin Rite.[160][161] However, married clergymen who have been received into the Church from other denominations may be exempted from this rule.[162] The Eastern Catholic Churches ordain both celibate and married men to the priesthood, but married men cannot become bishops.[163][164] All 23 particular Churches of the Catholic Church maintain the ancient tradition that marriage is not allowed after ordination.

Men with transitory homosexual leanings may be ordained deacons following three years of prayer and chastity, but homosexual men who are sexually active, or those who have deeply rooted homosexual tendencies, cannot be ordained.[165]

Lay members, marriage

The laity consists of those Catholics who are not ordained clergy. Saint Paul compared the diversity of roles in the Church to the different parts of a body, all being important to enable the body to function.[20] The Church therefore considers that lay members are equally called to live according to Christian principles, to work to spread the message of Jesus, and to effect change in the world for the good of others. The Church calls these actions participation in Christ's priestly, prophetic and royal offices.[169] Marriage and the consecrated life are lay vocations. The sacrament of Holy Matrimony in the Latin rite is not administered (conferred) by the priest or deacon who presides. Instead, the ministers of the sacrament are the bride and groom, who mutually confer the sacrament upon each other by expressing their consent before the priest or deacon who serves as a witness. In the Eastern Catholic Churches the minister of this sacrament, which is called "Crowning", is the priest or bishop who, after receiving the mutual consent of the spouses, successively crowns the bridegroom and the bride as a sign of the marriage covenant.[170] Church law makes no provision for divorce, but annulment may be granted when proof is produced that essential conditions for contracting a sacramental union (valid marriage) were absent. Since the Church condemns all forms of artificial birth control, married persons are expected to be open to new life in their sexual relations.[171] Natural family planning is approved.[172]

Lay ecclesial movements consist of lay Catholics organized for purposes of teaching the faith, cultural work, mutual support or missionary work.[173] Such groups include: Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei and many others.[173] Some non-ordained Catholics practice formal, public ministries within the Church.[174] These are called lay ecclesial ministers, a broad category which may include pastoral life coordinators, pastoral assistants, youth ministers and campus ministers.[175]

Consecrated life

Both the ordained and the laity may enter the cloistered consecrated life as monks or nuns. There are also friars and sisters who engage in teaching and missionary activity and charity work such as the various mendicant orders. A candidate takes vows confirming their desire to follow the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience.[176]

The majority of those wishing to enter the consecrated life join one of the religious institutes which are also referred to as monastic or religious orders. They follow a common rule such as the Rule of St Benedict and agree to live under the leadership of a superior.[177][178] They usually live together in a community but individuals may be given permission to live as hermits, or to reside elsewhere, for example as a serving priest or chaplain.[179] Examples of religious institutes include the Benedictines, Carmelites, Cistercians, Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Marist Brothers, Paulist Fathers, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of the Destitute, Sisters of Mercy, Legionaries of Christ and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), but there are many others.[176]

Tertiaries and "Oblates (regular)" are laypersons who live according to the third rule of orders such as those of the Secular Franciscan Order or Lay Carmelites, either within a religious community or outside.[173] The Church recognizes several other forms of consecrated life, including secular institutes, societies of apostolic life and consecrated widows and widowers.[176] It also makes provision for the approval of new forms.[180]


Membership of the Catholic Church is attained through baptism.[181] For those baptized as children, First Communion is a rite of passage when, following instruction, they are allowed to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist for the first time in the Latin (Western) Church; the Eastern Churches confer the sacraments of initiation at once – Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation) and Eucharist – to unbaptized children or unbaptized adult converts. Adults who have never been baptized may be admitted to Baptism by participating in a formation program such as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.[182] Christians – those baptized with flowing water and in the "Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" – baptized outside of the Catholic Church are admitted through other formation programs but are not re-baptized.[183]

Members of the Church can incur excommunication for serious violations of ecclesiastical law. Excommunication does not remove a member from the Church but severely limits the member's ability to participate in it. For very serious offenses, the excommunication can be incurred automatically.[184] Examples include violating the seal of confession (committed when a priest discloses the sins heard in the sacrament of Penance), persisting in heresy, creating schism, becoming an apostate, or having or performing an abortion.[185] Excommunication is the most severe ecclesiastical penalty because it forbids a person from receiving any sacrament. Such offences can only be forgiven by the Pope, the bishop of the diocese where the person resides, or a priest authorized by the bishop to do so.[186] A similar concept is a minister's power to refuse to distribute communion to a person not yet declared excommunicated (but nonetheless excommunicated latae sententiae) who has publicly committed a very serious sin.[187]

Excommunication, which is a "medicinal" measure meant to lead to repentance, does not make the person to whom it is applied cease to be a member of the Church. To terminate one's membership, a person must present to the competent Church authority a formal act of defection. If that person later wishes to rejoin the Church, the procedure is the same as for any baptized non-Catholic, namely by a profession of faith, again before the competent Church authority.

Catholic institutions, personnel and demographics

Church membership in 2007 was 1.147 billion people,[189] significantly increased from the 1950 figure of 437 million[190] and the 1970 figure of 654 million.[191] The Catholic population increase of 139% outpaced the world population increase of 117% between 1950 and 2000.[190] The Catholic Church is the largest Christian church, encompassing approximately half of all Christians and one sixth of the world's population, making it the largest organized body in any world religion,[13][192] although the number of practicing as opposed to lapsed Catholics worldwide is not reliably known.[15] The Church operates transnational relief organisations across the world,[193] it also operates the world's largest non-governmental school system.[194]

In 2003, the church had about 405,450 priests worldwide, a 3.7 percent drop from 1978. In the United States and Europe, numbers fell about 20 percent over this period while recruitment in Africa, Latin America and Asia grew.[195][196][197][198][199] In 2009, the Vatican announced that in 2005 the number of priests had increased from 405,891 to 406,411, although Europe and America saw a decrease of about one-half point of a percentage point and Australia of 1.8%.[200][201]

Church membership in Africa and Asia grew by 3.1% and 2.71% respectively in 2005.[12] Of Catholics worldwide, 12% live in Africa, 50% in the Americas, 10% in Asia, 27% in Europe and 1% in Oceania.[202]

Cultural influence

The influence of the Catholic Church on world culture and society has been vast, first and foremost in the development of European civilization from Greco-Roman times to the modern era.[33] The church rejected and helped end practices[dubious – discuss] such as human sacrifice, slavery,[note 9] infanticide, and polygamy in evangelized cultures throughout the world, beginning with the Roman Empire. In addition, the Church played a significant role in moderating some of the excesses of the colonial era.[205][206][207][208][209] Over the course of its history, the Church has influenced the status of women, condemning infanticide, divorce, incest, polygamy and counting the marital infidelity of men as equally sinful to that of women.[205][206][210] The official Church teaching[211] considers women and men to be equal, different, and complementary.

Catholic universities, scholars and many priests including Nicolaus Copernicus, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Nicholas Steno, Francesco Grimaldi, Giambattista Riccioli, Roger Boscovich, Athanasius Kircher, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaître and others, were responsible for many important scientific discoveries. The Jesuits produced the large majority of priest-scientists, who contributed to worldwide cultural exchange by spreading their developments in knowledge to Asia, Africa, and the Americas.[212][213] Most research took place in Catholic universities that were staffed by members of religious orders who had the education and means to conduct scientific investigation.[212] The 1633 Church condemnation of Galileo Galilei created the perception of antagonism between the Church and science of that era. According to historian Thomas Noble, the effect of the Galileo affair was to restrict scientific development in some European countries.[212] In part because of lessons learned from the Galilei affair, the Church created the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1603. This scientific organization reached its present form by 1936.[214]

The Catholic Church was the dominant influence on the development of Western art, at least up to the Protestant Reformation. Important contributions include its consistent opposition to Byzantine iconoclasm, its cultivation and patronage of individual artists, as well as development of the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles of art and architecture.[215] 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.[216] In music, Catholic monks developed the first forms of modern Western musical notation in order to standardize liturgy throughout the worldwide Church,[217] 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. The Baroque style, which encompassed music, art, and architecture, was particularly encouraged by the post-Reformation Catholic Church as such forms offered a means of religious expression that was stirring and emotional, intended to stimulate religious fervor.[218]


^ There is some ambiguity about the title "Catholic Church", since the Church is not the only institution to claim catholicity. The Church is referred to and refers to itself in various ways, in part depending upon circumstance. The Greek word καθολικός (katholikos), from which we get "Catholic", means "universal".[1] It was first used to describe the Christian Church in the early second century.[2] Since the East-West Schism, the Western Church has been known as "Catholic", while the Eastern Church has been known as "Orthodox".[3] 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.[3] The name "Catholic Church", rather than "Roman Catholic Church", is usually[citation needed] the term that the Church uses in its own documents. It appears in the title of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[4] It is also the term that Pope Paul VI used when signing the documents of the Second Vatican Council.[5][6][7] Especially in English-speaking countries, the Church is regularly referred to as the "Roman" Catholic Church; occasionally, it refers to itself in the same way.[8] At times, this can help distinguish the Church from other churches that also claim catholicity. Hence this has been the title used in some documents involving ecumenical relations. However, the name "Roman Catholic Church" 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.[9] Within the Church, the name "Roman Church", in the strictest sense, refers to the Diocese of Rome.[10][11]

^ The 2007 Pontifical Yearbook states that there are 1.115 billion Catholics worldwide.[12] The CIA World Factbook, which relies on worldwide census' figures, provides a similar estimate.[13] Estimates from other reliable sources suggests that the Catholic Church accounts for over half[14] of all Christians worldwide.

^ The 73-book Catholic Bible contains the Deuterocanonicals, books not in the modern Hebrew Bible and not upheld as canonical by most Protestants.[75] 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.

^ 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)[128] and Summorum Pontificum (2007).

^ 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.

^ There is no official list of popes, but the Annuario Pontificio, published every year by the Vatican, contains a list that is generally considered to be the most authoritative. It is provided here. The Annuario Pontificio lists Benedict XVI, the current pope as of this writing, as the 265th pope of Rome. In 2001 a rigorous study was made by the Catholic Church into the history of the papacy.[145] Based on that research, in 2008 there have been 265 Popes and 267 pontificates.

^ A bishop can be one who holds the position of pope, cardinal (normally), patriarch, primate, archbishop, or metropolitan, as well, as ordinary diocesan bishop, auxiliary bishop or titular bishop.

^ Based on the Christ's example and his teaching as given in Matthew 19:11–12 and to St. Paul, who wrote of the advantages celibacy allowed a man in serving the Lord,[166] celibacy was "held in high esteem" from the Church's beginnings. It is considered a kind of spiritual marriage with Christ, a concept further popularized by the early Christian theologian Origen. Clerical celibacy began to be demanded in the 4th century, including papal decretals beginning with Pope Siricius.[167] In the 11th century, mandatory celibacy was enforced as part of efforts to reform the medieval church.[168]

^ The Church initially accepted slavery as part of the social fabric of society during the Roman Empire and early antiquity, campaigning primarily for humane treatment of slaves but also admonishing slaves to behave appropriately towards their masters. During the early medieval period, this attitude changed to one which opposed enslavement of Christians but still tolerated enslavement of non-Christians. Between the 6th and 12th century there was a growing sentiment that slavery was not compatible with Christian conceptions of charity and justice; some Catholics such as Saint Bathilde, Saint Anskar, Saint Wulfstan and Saint Anselm campaigned against slavery and the slave trade. The Middle Ages witnessed the emergence of orders of monks such as the Mercedarians who were founded for the purpose of freeing Christians who had been enslaved by Muslims. By the end of the Medieval period, enslavement of Christians had been converted to serfdom throughout most of Europe. Catholic teaching began to turn towards the abolition of slavery beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537. The papacy endorsed Portuguese and Spanish taking of Muslim slaves; however, a number of Popes issued papal bulls condemning enslavement and mistreatment of Native Americans by Spanish and Portuguese colonials. These bulls were largely ignored despite the threat of excommunication. Nonetheless, Catholic missionaries such as the Jesuits worked to alleviate the suffering of Native American slaves in the New World. In spite of a resounding condemnation of slavery by Pope Gregory XVI in his bull In Supremo Apostolatus issued in 1839, some American bishops continued to support slaveholding interests until the abolition of slavery.[204] The Church has maintained its teaching against slavery and continues to campaign against it in whatever form it takes around the world.

^ 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".[321] The Curia functioned as the civil government of the Papal States until 1870.[322]



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