Roman Catholic Church

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Acronyms, Wikipedia.

Roman Catholic Church

Roman Catholic Church, Christian church headed by the pope, the bishop of Rome (see papacy and Peter, Saint). Its commonest title in official use is Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. “Roman Catholic” is a 19th-century British coinage and merely serves to distinguish that church from other churches that are “Catholic” (see catholic church). The term “Roman Church,” when used officially, means only the archdiocese of Rome. Roman Catholics may be simply defined as Christians in communion with the pope.

Organization of the Church

There are within the church a number of rites, i.e., ancient, independent traditions of discipline and worship, differentiated through isolation (see also liturgy). Besides the Roman rite, to which the vast majority belong, there are among Catholics five Eastern rites, used by a number of communities (Eastern Catholics or Uniates; see patriarch). They are: the Byzantine (the rite also of the Orthodox Eastern Church, which is not in communion with Rome), to which belong many groups, including Melchites, Ruthenians, Romanians, and the Italo-Albanians of S Italy; the Antiochene (also the rite of the autonomous Jacobite Church), to which belong the Maronites, the Syrian Catholics, and the Malankarese of Malabar; the Alexandrian, to which belong the Catholic Copts and Ethiopians (see Copts); the Chaldaean (also the rite of the autonomous Nestorian Church), to which belong Chaldaean Catholics and Syro-Malabarese; and the Armenian (also the rite of the autonomous Armenian Church). These rites and communities have their own organizations under the pope and are protected from attempts to “Latinize” them. Best known, perhaps, of the non-Roman Western rites are the Ambrosian, the Dominican, and the Mozarabic.

Apart from the rites and foreign missions, the organization of the church is by diocese, the territory of a bishop. Important sees have archbishops, who often supervise neighboring, suffragan bishops. With certain restrictions, the pope names the bishops. Dioceses are made up of parishes, each of which has a church and a priest (the pastor). The pope controls bishops mainly by general legislation. His government, which is run by the cardinals living at Rome, is concerned with matters of wide significance, such as missions and relations with states (see also cardinal; papal election; Vatican City).

Cutting across territorial lines are the religious orders of men and women; their field is monastic life, nonparish activities, and schools; they frequently run missions, hospitals, and colleges (see monasticism). Their members generally receive subsistence only. The parish clergy support themselves, often with salaries fixed by the bishop. Most of the clergy are priests (see orders, holy); they are trained (usually from four to six years) in seminaries maintained by the bishops, the orders, or the Vatican. Members of the clergy do not marry, unless they are parish priests of Eastern rites.

There is no churchwide census, and there are various criteria for determining membership. However, the Roman Catholics in the world are estimated to be about half the total number of Christians and make the church one of the largest religions in the world, with more than 1 billion adherents. Roughly half of all Catholics live in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2003, there were 63.4 million Roman Catholics in the United States.

Beliefs, Doctrines, and Practices

To belong to the church one must accept as factually true the gospel of Jesus as handed down in tradition and as interpreted by the bishops in union with the pope. Fundamental in this divine tradition is the Bible, its text determined and disseminated by the church. Adherents must also accept the church as possessing the fullness of revelation, and the church, according to the Roman Catholic catechism, is the only Christian body that is “one, holy, catholic [universal], and apostolic.”

The doctrine of apostolic succession is one of the keystones of the Catholic faith; it holds that the pope (the vicar of Christ) and the bishops have in varying degrees the spiritual authority Jesus assigned to his apostles. The voice of the pope, either alone or in conjunction with his bishops in council, is regarded as infallible when speaking on matters of faith and morals taught in common with the bishops (see infallibility). Many features of the traditional teaching (dogma) have been analyzed and restated, by the councils and by great theologians (see council, ecumenical; creed; Thomas Aquinas, Saint; Trent, Council of; Vatican Council, First; Vatican Council, Second).

The chief teachings of the Catholic church are: God's objective existence; God's interest in individual human beings, who can enter into relations with God (through prayer); the Trinity; the divinity of Jesus; the immortality of the soul of each human being, each one being accountable at death for his or her actions in life, with the award of heaven or hell; the resurrection of the dead; the historicity of the Gospels; and the divine commission of the church. In addition the Roman Catholic Church stresses that since the members, living and dead, share in each other's merits, the Virgin Mary and other saints and the dead in purgatory are never forgotten (see church; saint).

The church is seen as having from God a system of conveying God's grace direct to humanity (see sacrament). The ordinary Catholic frequents the sacraments of penance (required at least once a year) and the Eucharist (required once every Easter time; see also sin). The Eucharist is the center of public worship, often embellished with solemn ceremony (see Mass).

Private prayer is also regarded as essential; contemplation is the ideal (see mysticism), and all believers are expected to devote some time to prayer that is more than requesting favors. Different methods of prayer are recommended (see rosary; Saint Ignatius of Loyola; Thomas à Kempis). Self-renunciation is a necessary part of prayer (see fasting; Lent).

The church teaches that the main motive for ethical behavior is the love of God. Nothing that God has created is evil in itself, but evil use may be made of it. The doctrine concerning persons not Catholic is that since God affords each human being light sufficient to attain salvation, all will be saved who persevere in what they believe to be good, regardless of ignorance. Only those will be damned who persist in what they know to be wrong; among these are persons who resist the church when they know it to be the one, true church.


For the first centuries of the church's history, see Christianity.

The Church in the Middle Ages

From the 9th cent. to 1520 the church was simply Western Europe taken in its religious aspect, and no clear line divided spiritual from temporal life. In the West (unlike the East) the religious organization was free for centuries from grave interference from civil rulers. Charlemagne was an exception, but his influence was benign. In the chaotic 9th and 10th cent. every part of the church organization, including the papacy, became the prey of the powerful.

The restoration of order began in monasteries; from Cluny a movement spread to reform Christian life (see Cluniac order). This pattern of decline of religion followed by reform is characteristic of the history of the Roman Catholic Church; the reform goals have varied, but they have included the revival of spiritual life in society and the monasteries, and the elimination of politics from the bishops' sphere and venality from the papal court. The next reform (11th cent.) was conducted by popes, notably St. Gregory VII and Urban II. Part of this movement was to exclude civil rulers from making church appointments—the first, bold chapter in a 900-year battle between the church and the “Catholic princes” (see church and state; investiture).

The 12th cent. was a time of great intellectual beginnings. St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians revived practical mystical prayer. Gratian founded the systematic study of the canon law, and medieval civil law began its development. This double study was to provide weapons to both sides in the duel between the extreme papal claims of Innocent III and Innocent IV, and the antipapal theories of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Also in the 12th cent., Peter Abelard and other thinkers pioneered in rationalist theology.

From early rationalist theology and from the teachings of Aristotle developed the philosophies and theologies of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas (see also scholasticism). This was the work of the new 13th-century universities; to them, and to the friars—the Dominicans and Franciscans—who animated them, passed the intellectual leadership held by the monasteries. St. Dominic's order was formed to preach against the Albigenses (a campaign that also produced the Inquisition). The vast popular movement of St. Francis was a spontaneous reform contemporary with the papal reform of the Fourth Lateran Council. The 13th cent. saw also the flowering of Gothic architecture.

The contest between church and state continued, ruining the Hohenstaufen dynasty and, in the contest between Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France, bringing the papacy to near ruin. Then came the Avignon residence—the so-called Babylonian captivity of the papacy (1309–78), a time of good church administration, but of excessive French influence over papal policy. Except for isolated voices, such as that of St. Catherine of Siena, the church seemed to lose energy, and a long period devoid of reform began. A long-enduring schism and a series of ambitious councils (see Schism, Great) involved most churchmen in a welter of politics and worldliness.

There were popular religious movements, characterized by revivalism and a tendency to minimize the sacraments (along with church authority); they encouraged private piety, and one group produced the inspirational Imitation ascribed to Thomas à Kempis. The popular tendencies were extreme in John Wyclif, who developed an antisacramental, predestinarian theology emphasizing Bible study—a “protestant” movement 150 years before Protestantism.

The Reformation and Counter Reformation

The 15th-century councils did little for reform, and the popes, shorn of power, were reduced to being Renaissance princes. Such men could not cope with the Protestant revolt of Martin Luther and John Calvin (see also Reformation). The Protestants aimed to restore primitive Christianity (as described in the Bible), and they succeeded in weakening the hold of the church in all of N Europe, in Great Britain, and in parts of Central Europe and Switzerland. Politics and religion were completely intertwined (as in England, Scotland, and France); hence the admixture of religious issues in the Thirty Years War.

Within the church there triumphed the most extensive of all the church's reform movements (see Counter Reformation; Jesus, Society of). From it sprang a general revival of religion and much missionary activity in the new empires of Spain and Portugal and in East Asia. In France, Catholicism found new life, beginning with St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul. There, too, began the cult of the Sacred Heart (i.e., God's love for men), which would affect Catholic prayer everywhere. A contrary influence was Jansenism (see under Jansen, Cornelis), an antisacramental middle-class movement.

The Seventeenth through Nineteenth Centuries

The 17th cent. saw an increase of state control over the church (see Gallicanism) in all the Catholic countries, and in the 18th cent. the Bourbons began a course openly aimed at eliminating the papacy. The suppression of the Jesuits was part of the campaign, which reached a climax in the legislation of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. The revolutionary movement eventually destroyed the Catholic princes, and the church had to live with secular states, some anti-Catholic, some tolerant. The facts of the change were not clear at once, and for much of the 19th cent. the popes (and other Catholics) would look back to an idealized 18th-century golden age before “liberalistic” atheism and materialism. The last of these popes was Pius IX, who was forced to give up the Papal States. In enouncing the dogma of papal infallibility Pius did much to cement church unity.

In Pius's successor, Leo XIII, the church found new leadership; he and his successors worked and preached to urge Catholics to take part in modern life as Catholics, abandoning reactionary dreams and seeking some social reform. In some countries Catholic political parties were formed. Meanwhile oppressive conditions and the development of a mass socialist movement combined to detach much of the working class from the church. Otto von Bismarck (in Germany; see Kulturkampf) and “liberal” governments (in Italy, France, and Portugal) passed hostile measures, especially against religious orders.

The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

In the 20th cent. the tensions between the church and national governments sometimes led to outright suppression of the church, as in the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe, Mexico, Spain, and China. Mussolini and Hitler also ruined as much of the church as they could. The century has been marked more noticeably, however, by new trends in the practice and outlook of the church. The encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891), was followed by the Quadrigesimo Anno (1931) of Pius XII, and the Mater et Magistra (1961) of John XXIII, the Progressio Populorum (1967) of Paul VI, and the Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centessimus Annus (1991) of John Paul II. The purpose of these was fundamental readjustment to the moral and social problems of modern life and a greater stress upon the role of the laity in the church. Linked with this was a movement for church “renewal” both by laity and the clergy. This was particularly strong in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States.

Some of the issues stressed were the need for liturgical reform, the recognition of the various regional contributions to the living existence of the church, and the recognition of the nonpolitical internationalism of the church (although declarations of implacable opposition to atheistic Communism persisted and were particularly strong under Pius XII, who urged the church to oppose all antireligious totalitarianism). Another growing revival involved the tightening of relations between the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and various Protestant churches.

All of these “progressive” currents came together at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), which, under John XXIII and Paul VI, initiated broad reforms in the areas of public worship, government, and ecumenism (see ecumenical movement). The long-reigning John Paul II made the church more international and continued his predecessors ecumenical trends, but he affirmed (as the popes preceding him did) the church's traditional stands on marriage, abortion, homosexuality, and other doctrinal matters, opposed relaxing the rule of celibacy, and reemphasized the primacy of the Vatican in church government.

The church in the United States began the 21st cent. confronting a major crisis concerning sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests and how it is and was handled by the U.S. hierarchy. Multiple revelations in 2002 that some bishops had allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to remain in the priesthood and to continue to perform their duties in situations where abuse could and sometimes did recur sparked outrage in the United States; such cases were also not reported to civil authorities. Various dioceses faced civil lawsuits and criminal investigations, several bishops resigned after their involvement in sexual relationships was revealed, and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston resigned because of criticism over his handling of sex abuse charges. The issue led to a meeting between American cardinals and the pope in Rome, and, after a meeting of American bishops and discussions with the Vatican, to the establishment of new policies that included barring a priest who has sexually abused a minor from any ministerial role and that committed the hierarchy to alert legal authorities to instances of abuse. Sexual and physical abuse scandals involving Roman Catholic priests and brothers have occurred in other countries including Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul II, was regarded as a traditionalist and generally continued John Paul's policies, but he broke with tradition in 2013 when he resigned as pope for reasons of age. Although the church set a retirement age for bishops and an age limit for the cardinals who vote to elect a pope, the tradition of lifetime tenure for the pope was longstanding; the last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, who abdicated to facilitate the end of the Great Schism. Benedict was succeeded by Francis, an Argentinian who was the first pope from the Americas and the first Jesuit to hold the office. In 2018 the church reached an accord with China on the nomination of bishops in an effort to unify the state-sanctioned and underground branches of the Chinese Roman Catholic church.


See P. Hughes, A Popular History of the Catholic Church (1947, repr. 1961); L. Hertling, A History of the Catholic Church (tr. 1956); J. McSorley, Outline History of the Church by Centuries (11th ed. 1961); The New Catholic Encyclopedia (19 vol., 1967–95); M. A. Fitzsimons, The Catholic Church Today: Western Europe (1969); J. L. McKenzie, The Roman Catholic Church (1969); J. Seidler and K. Meyer, Conflict and Change in the Catholic Church (1989); C. R. Morris, American Catholic (1997); D. France, Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal (2004); J. Berry, Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church (2011); G. Posner, God's Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican (2015).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Roman Catholic Church

the Christian Church over which the pope presides, with administrative headquarters in the Vatican
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
<div class="caption">Pallbearers (L-R) Anthony Kennedy Shriver, Sam Shriver, Maria Kennedy Shriver, Robert Kennedy Shriver, Tim Shriver Jr, Mark Kennedy Shriver and Tim Kennedy Shriver carry the casket of Eunice Kennedy Shriver in a procession to funeral services at Saint Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in Hyannis, Massachusetts, August 14, 2009.</div>
The relations and collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC after Vatican II can be rightly described as a journey of confidence-building.
There was a Roman Catholic church in our neighborhood, of course, and it was within a few blocks of our home.
School officials and the student senate decided to rescind the group's charter because they believed the group wanted "to promote the lifestyle of GLBT people in conflict with the standards and values of the college" and the Roman Catholic Church.
A publicly funded charter high school will open on the grounds of a Roman Catholic church in Minneapolis next year, despite concerns about church-state separation.
It was a time when the Roman Catholic Church was working on a new Roman Missal and when most mainline churches in the English-speaking world were preparing new liturgical books.
In her speeches and her book Manning takes on what she calls the "dissident minority" in the Roman Catholic Church, by which she means Pope John Paul II and his myrmidons, the majority of cardinals and bishops who have turned their backs on the modest reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Ordaining Ramerman was Bishop Peter Hickman of the Old Catholic church, which claims a common root with the Roman Catholic church. The Old Catholic church derives from the 1870s, when the First Vatican Council defined the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Flumerfelt said he had taken a break from his Anglican ministry to address family issues and during that time, had received a lot of support from the Roman Catholic church and felt a calling.
Though situated just across the Tiber from the ancient heart of Rome (and attracting no small part of the tourist trade to both Italy and Rome) Vatican City is not only the seat of government for the Roman Catholic Church but also functions as the world's smallest independent state.
Gay and lesbian worshippers are welcome in the Roman Catholic Church as long as they are true to its moral teachings.
"If another denomination of Christianity offered its members Communion, they could only use a Eucharist and wine approved by the Roman Catholic Church; otherwise, the Communion was illegitimate and perpetrated a fraud," they wrote in court briefs.

Full browser ?