Catholic Church

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The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, claiming more than a billion members.[1] Its leader is the Pope who is head of the College of Bishops. A communion of the Western and Eastern Catholic churches, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity.

The Church holds the Blessed Virgin Mary in special regard. Catholic beliefs concerning her include her Immaculate Conception without the stain of original sin and bodily Assumption into heaven at the end of her life. The Catholic belief that her intercession may aid the souls of those in Purgatory is reflected in the prayer Hail Mary.

The Church is the oldest continuous Christian institution in the world and has played a prominent role in the history of Western civilisation.[2] It believes that it was founded by Jesus Christ, that its bishops are successors of his apostles and that the Pope as the successor of St. Peter possesses a universal primacy. Church doctrines have been defined through ecumenical councils and the Church maintains that by guidance of the Holy Spirit it can define its teachings on faith and morals infallibly.[3][note 1][4] Catholic worship is centred on the Eucharist in which Catholics believe bread and wine are supernaturally transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.


The Greek word καθολικός (katholikos) means "universal". It was first used to describe the Christian Church in the early 2nd century.[5]

Since the East-West Schism of 1054, the church that remained in communion with the See of Rome has generally been known as "Catholic", while the Eastern churches which are no longer in communion with that see have generally been known as "Orthodox" or "Eastern Orthodox".[6] Following the Reformation in the 16th century, the church in "communion with the Bishop of Rome" used the term "Catholic" to distinguish itself from the various Protestant churches.[6] The name "Catholic Church" appears in the title of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[7] It is also the term that Paul VI used when signing the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council.[8] Church documents both of the Holy See[9] and of certain episcopal conferences[10] occasionally refer to the Church by the name "Roman Catholic Church". In the Catechism of Pope Pius X the Church is called "Roman".[11]


Early ChristianityEdit

Catholic tradition and doctrine holds that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ in the 1st century A.D. The New Testament records Jesus's activities and teaching, his claims and personal death and resurrection, appointment of the twelve Apostles and his instructions to them to continue his work and teaching.[12][13] The Church teaches that the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, an event known as Pentecost, signaled the beginning of the public ministry of the Church.[14]

Conditions in the Roman Empire facilitated the spread of new ideas,[15][note 2] and Jesus's apostles gained converts in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean Sea. As preachers such as Paul of Tarsus began converting Gentiles, Christianity grew away from Jewish practices[16] and established itself as a separate religion.[17]

The early Catholic Church was more loosely organized and based on evangelism, at times resulting in diverse interpretations of Christian beliefs.[18] In part to ensure a greater consistency in their teachings, by the early 2nd century, Christian communities had adopted a more structured hierarchy, with a central 'bishop' having authority over the clergy in his city.[19] The organization of dioceses was established mirroring the territories and cities of the Roman Empire. Bishops in politically important cities exerted greater authority over bishops in nearby cities.[20] The churches in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome held the highest positions,[21] but sees considered "apostolic" retained certain rights of governance and discipline over the other sees "because of their superior origin". By at least the 3rd century, the Roman bishop already functioned as a court of appeals for problems that other bishops could not resolve.[22] Beginning in the 2nd century, bishops often congregated in regional synods to resolve doctrinal and policy issues.[23] Doctrine was further refined by a series of influential theologians and teachers, known collectively as the Church Fathers.[24] Ecumenical Councils came to be recognized as infallible and authoritative in resolving theological disputes.

Unlike most religions in the Roman Empire, Christianity required its adherents to renounce all other gods. Christians' refusal to join pagan celebrations meant they were unable to participate in much of public life. This refusal caused non-Christians to fear that the Christians were angering the gods. Christian secrecy about their rituals spawned rumours that Christians were orgiastic, incestuous, atheistic cannibals.[25][26] Local officials sometimes saw Christians as troublemakers and sporadically persecuted them.[27] A series of more centrally organized persecutions of Christians emerged in the late 3rd century, when emperors decreed that the Empire's military, political, and economic crises were caused by angry gods. All residents were ordered to give sacrifices or be punished.[28] Relatively few Christians were executed,[29][note 3] others were imprisoned, tortured, put to forced labor, castrated, or sent to brothels;[33] others fled or managed to go undetected,[34] and some renounced their beliefs. Disagreements over what role, if any, these apostates should have in the Catholic Church led to the Donatist and Novatianist schisms.[35]

Late antiquityEdit

Byzantinischer Mosaizist um 1000 002

Constantine the Great, mosaic in Hagia Sophia, c. 1000

Catholic Christianity was legalized in 313 under Constantine's Edict of Milan,[36] and declared the state religion of the Empire in 380.[37] After its legalization, a number of doctrinal disputes led to the calling of ecumenical councils. The doctrinal formulations resulting from these ecumenical councils were pivotal in the history of Christianity.[38]

The first seven Ecumenical Councils, from the First Council of Nicaea (325) to the Second Council of Nicaea (787), sought to reach an orthodox consensus and to establish a unified Christendom. In 325, the First Council of Nicaea convened in response to the rise of Arianism, the belief that Jesus had not existed eternally but was a divine being created by and therefore inferior to God the Father.[38]

In order to briefly express the basic tenets of the Christian belief, the council promulgated a creed that became the basis of what is now known as the Nicene Creed.[39] In addition, it dilineated Church territory into geographical and administrative areas called dioceses.[40] The Council of Rome in 382 established the first Biblical canon when it listed the accepted books of the Old and New Testament.[41]

In the same century, Pope Damasus I commissioned a new translation of the Bible in fine classical Latin. He chose his secretary St. Jerome, who delivered the Vulgate– the Church was now "committed to think and worship in Latin."[42] Latin continued to play a role as the liturgical language of the Roman Rite of the Church, and is still to this day used in the official documents of the Church. The Council of Ephesus in 431[43] and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 defined the relationship of Christ's divine and human natures, leading to splits with the Nestorians and Monophysites.[44]

Constantine moved the imperial capital to Constantinople, and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) elevated the See of Constantinople to a position "second in eminence and power to the bishop of Rome".[45] From circa 350 to circa 500, the bishops, or popes, of Rome steadily increased in authority.[46]

Middle AgesEdit


Pope Gregory the Great

After the decline of the Roman Empire, barbarian tribes either converted to Arianism or to orthodox Catholic Christianity.[47] When the Frankish king, Clovis I, converted to orthodox Catholicism, thereby allying himself with the papacy and the monasteries he strengthening the position of the Franks, and other tribes such as the Visigoths followed his example.[48] Beginning in the 6th century European monasteries followed the structure of the Rule of St Benedict,[49] becoming spiritual centers with workshops for the arts and crafts, scriptoria and libraries, and agricultural centers in remote regions.[50] By the end of the century Pope Gregory the Great initiated administrative reforms and the Gregorian missions to evangelize Britain;[51] Early in the 7th century Muslim armies had conquered much of the southern Mediterranean posing a threat to western Christendom.[52]

In the 8th century, iconoclasm, the destruction of religious images, became a source of conflict with the eastern church.[53] The papal coronation of the Frankish King Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800[54] created a paradigm of Western emperors imposing control over the popes.[55] The invention of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 9th century "is attributed to" the Greek missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius who were sent to greater Moravia.[56] The 9th century conflicts over ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Byzantine-controlled southern Italy, Bulgarian missions, led to further disagreements that created the East–West Schism which is generally considered to have become formalized in 1054 although there is no single date on which the schism started.[57] After the schism, the eastern side came to be called the Orthodox Church, while the West, which remained in communion with the Pope, retained the name Catholic.[58] Efforts to mend the schism at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 and the Council of Florence in 1439 were unsuccessful.[59]

The Cluniac reform of monasteries sparked widespread monastic growth and renewal.[60] The 11th and 12th century saw internal efforts to reform the church. In 1059 the college of cardinals was created to free papal elections from interference by Emperor and nobility. Lay investiture of bishops, a source of rulers' dominance over the Church, was attacked by reformers and under Pope Gregory VII, erupted into the Investiture Controversy between Pope and Emperor. The matter was eventually settled with the Concordat of Worms in 1122 where it was agreed that bishops would be selected in accordance with Church law.[61] By the early 14th century a centralized Church organization had been established, a Latin speaking culture was prevalent, the clergy were literate and celibacy was required.[62]

Colored painting showing a large congregation of bishops listening to the Pope

Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont (1095); the Pope announced the launch of a Holy War between Christians and Islam. In an impassioned speech he urged all good Christians to wrest the Holy Land 'from the wicked race and subject it to yourselves' - those who died on the expedition would earn immediate remission of sins. The First Crusade had begun.[63]

In 1095, Byzantine emperor Alexius I appealed to Pope Urban II for help against renewed Muslim invasions,[64] which caused Urban to launch the First Crusade aimed at aiding the Byzantine Empire and returning the Holy Land to Christian control.[59] The crusades saw the formation of various military orders such as the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights.[65] In 1208, after they were accused of murdering a papal legate,[66] Pope Innocent III declared the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, a gnostic Christian sect in Languedoc.[67] Up to a million people were killed[68] in a conflict that combined both religious and political struggles.[69] To root out those with Cathar sympathies, Gregory IX instituted the Papal Inquisition in 1231.[70]

Mendicant orders were founded by Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzmán, which brought consecrated religious life into urban settings.[71] These orders also played a large role in the development of cathedral schools into universities.[72] Scholastic theologians such as the Dominican Thomas Aquinas studied and taught at such universities, and his Summa Theologica was a key intellectual achievement in its synthesis of Aristotelian thought and Christianity.[73]

The Church was the dominant influence on the development of Western art, overseeing the rise of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles of art and architecture.[74] Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Bernini, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Titian, were among a multitude of artists sponsored by the Church.[75] In music, Catholic monks developed the first forms of modern Western musical notation in order to standardize liturgy throughout the worldwide Church,[76] 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.[77]

Reformation and Counter-ReformationEdit

In the 14th century, the Papacy came under French dominance, with Clement V moving to Avignon in 1305.[78] The Avignon Papacy ended in 1376 when the Pope returned to Rome,[79] but was followed in 1378 by the 38-year-long Western schism with claimants to the papacy in Rome, Avignon and (after 1409) Pisa.[79] The Western Schism resulted in a call for a "collective authority rather than the single primacy of the bishop of Rome" which gained support, but was overturned in 1417 at the Council of Constance with Martin V declared pope, and a decree issued that the Pope received authority "immediately from Christ".[80] In reaction to the lack of authority created by the Great Schism, in England John Wycliffe wrote that the "eternal existing Church" was to be found in the Bible and available to all. His work was brought to Bohemia, where in Prague, Jan Hus embraced Wycliffe's ideas and gained wide support. At the Council of Constance, Hus was charged with heresy and ordered to be executed by burning at the stake.[81]


Desiderius Erasmus

The Council of Constance, the Council of Basel and the Fifth Lateran Council each attempted to reform internal Church abuses, with the "popular and persistently recommended" creation of a council.[82] In 1460, following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Pope Pius II forbade further appeal for a general council.[80] Consequently worldly men such as Roderigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) were elected to the papacy,[83] followed by Pope Julius II who presented himself as a secular prince.[84] Early in the 16th century, the publication of In Praise of Folly, written by Erasmus, "included some biting criticisms of the unreformed Church."[85]

In Germany in 1517, Martin Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses to several bishops.[86] His theses protested key points of Catholic doctrine as well as the sale of indulgences.[86] In Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and others further criticized Catholic teachings. These challenges developed into the European movement called the Protestant Reformation.[87]

In Germany, the reformation led to a nine-year war between the Protestant Schmalkaldic League and the Catholic Emperor Charles V. In 1618 a far graver conflict, the Thirty Years' War, followed.[88] In France, a series of conflicts termed the French Wars of Religion were fought from 1562 to 1598 between the Huguenots and the forces of the French Catholic League, with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre marking the turning point in the conflict.[89] Survivors regrouped under Henry of Navarre who became Catholic and began the first experiment in religious toleration with his 1598 Edict of Nantes.[89] This Edict, which granted civil and religious toleration to Protestants, was hesitantly accepted by Pope Clement VIII.[90]

The English Reformation during the reign Henry VIII began as a political dispute. When the pope denied Henry's petition for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he had the Acts of Supremacy passed, making him head of the English Church.[91] Although he tried to maintain traditional Catholicism, Henry initiated the confiscation of monasteries, friaries, convents and shrines throughout his realm.[92] A more thoroughgoing doctrinal and liturgical Reformation was initiated at the end of Henry VIII's reign and continued through the reign of Edward VI under Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Under Mary I, England was briefly reunited with Rome, but Elizabeth I later restored a separate church that outlawed Catholic priests[93] and prevented Catholics from educating their children and taking part in political life[94] until new laws were passed in the late 18th century and 19th century.[95]

The Council of Trent (1545–1563) became the driving force behind the Counter-Reformation. Doctrinally, it reaffirmed central Catholic teachings such as transubstantiation, and the requirement for love and hope as well as faith to attain salvation.[96] It also made structural reforms, most importantly by improving the education of the clergy and laity and consolidating the central jurisdiction of the Roman Curia.[96][note 4] To popularize Counter-Reformation teachings, the Church encouraged the Baroque style in art, music and architecture,[77] and new religious orders were founded such as the Theatines and the Barnabites in which were established the "evangelistic zeal of the original monastic vocation."[99] The Society of Jesus was formally established in the mid-16th century,[100] and they quickly saw the importance of providing education during the Counter-Reformation, viewing it as a "battleground for hearts and minds".[101] At the same time, the writings of figures such as Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales and Philip Neri spawned new schools of spirituality within the Church.[102]

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

Early modern periodEdit

São Miguel das Missões (Brazil)

Ruins of the Jesuit Reduction at São Miguel das Missões in Brazil.

The Age of Discovery saw the expansion of Western Europe's political and cultural influence worldwide. Because of the prominent role the strongly-Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal played in Western Colonialism, Catholicism was spread to the Americas, Asia and Oceania by explorers, conquistadors, and missionaries, as well as by the transformation of societies through the socio-political mechanisms of colonial rule.

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

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

From the 17th century onward, the Enlightenment questioned the power and influence of the Catholic Church over Western society.[120] 18th century writers such as Voltaire and the Encyclopedists wrote biting critiques of both religion and the Church. One target of their criticism was the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV, which ended a century-long policy of religious toleration of Protestant Huguenots.

The French Revolution of 1789 brought about a shifting of powers from the Church to the State, destruction of churches and the establishment of a Cult of Reason.[121] In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy, imprisoning Pope Pius VI, who died in captivity. Napoleon later re-established the Catholic Church in France through the Concordat of 1801.[122] The end of the Napoleonic wars brought Catholic revival and the return of the Papal States.[123] In 1833, Frederic Ozanam began the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Paris to assist the poor created by the industrial revolution. The society would grow to more than 1 million members in 142 countries by the year 2010.[124]

The spread of the British Empire brought the first Catholics to Australia with the arrival of Irish convicts at Sydney in 1788. By the close of the 19th century, missionaries had taken Catholicism to the neighbouring islands of Oceania.[125]

In Latin America, a succession of anti-clerical regimes came to power beginning in the 1830s.[126] Church properties were confiscated, bishoprics left vacant, religious orders suppressed,[127] the collection of clerical tithes ended,[128] and clerical dress in public prohibited.[129] Pope Gregory XVI challenged the power of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs by appointing his own candidates as colonial bishops. He also condemned slavery and the slave trade in the 1839 papal bull In Supremo Apostolatus, and approved the ordination of native clergy in the face of government racism.[130]

At the end of the 19th century, Catholic missionaries followed colonial governments into Africa and built schools, hospitals, monasteries and churches.[131]

Industrial ageEdit

In response to the social challenges of the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum. It set out Catholic social teaching in terms that rejected socialism but advocated the regulation of working conditions, the establishment of a living wage and the right of workers to form trade unions.[132] Although the infallibility of the Church in doctrinal matters had always been a Church dogma, the First Vatican Council, which convened in 1870, affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility when exercised under specific conditions.[133] This decision gave the pope "enormous moral and spiritual authority over the worldwide" Church.[120] Reaction to the pronouncement resulted in the breakaway of a group of mainly German churches, which subsequently formed the Old Catholic Church.[134] The loss of the papal states to the Italian unification movement created what came to be known as the Roman Question,[135] a territorial dispute between the papacy and the Italian government that was not resolved until the 1929 Lateran Treaty granted sovereignty to the Holy See over Vatican City.[136]

In 1872, John Bosco and Maria Mazzarello founded the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco in Italy[137] which would grow to be the largest Catholic institute for women in the world, with 14,420 members in 2009.[138]

The 20th century saw the rise of various politically radical and anti-clerical governments. The 1926 Calles Law separating church and state in Mexico led to the Cristero War[139] in which over 3,000 priests were exiled or assassinated,[140] churches desecrated, services mocked, nuns raped and captured priests shot.[139] In the Soviet Union following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, persecution of the Church and Catholics continued well into the 1930s.[141] In addition to the execution and exiling of clerics, monks and laymen, the confiscation of religious implements and closure of churches was common.[142] In the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War, the Catholic hierarchy allied itself with Franco's Nationalists against the Popular Front government,[143] citing Republican violence against the Church[144] and "foreign elements which have brought us to ruin".[145] Pope Pius XI referred to these three countries as a "Terrible Triangle" and the failure to protest in Europe and the United States as a Conspiracy of Silence.

After violations of the 1933 Reichskonkordat that had guaranteed the Church in Nazi Germany some protection and rights,[146] Pope Pius XI issued the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge,[147] which publicly condemned the Nazis' persecution of the Church and their ideology of neopaganism and racial superiority.[148] After the Second World War began in September 1939, the Church condemned the invasion of Poland and subsequent 1940 Nazi invasions.[149] Thousands of Catholic priests, nuns and brothers were imprisoned and murdered throughout the areas occupied by the Nazis including Saints Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein.[150] In the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII directed the Church hierarchy to help protect Jews from the Nazis.[151] While Pius XII has been credited with helping to save hundreds of thousands of Jews by some historians,[152] the Church has also been accused of encouraging centuries of antisemitism[153] and Pius himself of not doing enough to stop Nazi atrocities.[154] Debate over the validity of these criticisms continues to this day.[152]

Postwar Communist governments in Eastern Europe severely restricted religious freedoms.[155] Although some priests and religious collaborated with Communist regimes,[156] many were imprisoned, deported or executed and the Church would be an important player in the fall of communism in Europe.[157] The rise to power of the Communists in China in 1949 led to the expulsion of all foreign missionaries.[158] The new government also created the Patriotic Church whose unilaterally appointed bishops were initially rejected by Rome before many of them were accepted.[159] The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s led to the closure of all religious establishments. When Chinese churches eventually reopened they remained under the control of the Patriotic Church. Many Catholic pastors and priests continued to be sent to prison for refusing to renounce allegiance to Rome.[160]


President and Mrs. Reagan meet Pope John Paul II 1982

Pope John Paul II with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

The Second Vatican Council initiated by Pope John XXIII in 1962 was described by its advocates as an "opening of the windows".[161] It led to changes in liturgy within the Latin Church, a re-focusing of its mission and a redefinition of ecumenism, particularly dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, and Protestant denominations.[162]

Reception of the council has formed the basis of multifaceted internal positions within the Church since then. A so-called Spirit of Vatican II followed the council, influenced by exponents of Nouvelle Théologie such as Karl Rahner. Some dissident liberals such as Hans Küng claimed Vatican II had not gone far enough.[163] On the other hand, Traditionalist Catholics represented by figures such as Marcel Lefebvre strongly criticized the council, arguing that it defiled the sanctity of the Latin Mass, promoted religious indifferentism towards "false religions" and compromised historical Catholic dogma and tradition. A group positioned in between, represented by the theologians of the publication Communio (including Pope Benedict XVI) hold that the council was ultimately positive but that there were abuses in interpretation.

Teachings of the popes, such as the encyclicals Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae, have opposed contraception[164] and abortion respectively, describing these views as part of a "culture of life".[165]

In 1978, Pope John Paul II became the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. His 27-year pontificate was one of the longest in history.[166] Mikhail Gorbachev, the last premier of the Soviet Union, credited him with hastening the fall of Communism in Europe.[167] He also supported debt relief in the Third World[168] and the campaign against the Iraq War.[169] A staunch conservative on questions of sexual morality, he made Opus Dei a personal prelature.[170] Disapproving of the influence of Marxism on the Liberation Theology prevalent in Latin America during the 1980s, he said the Church should not work for the poor and oppressed through partisan politics or revolutionary violence.[171] He canonised 483 saints - more than all his predecessors combined.[172] In 1986, he established World Youth Day.[173] He worked for reconciliation with Jews and Muslims, offering forgiveness to persecutors of the Church, and asking forgiveness for the historical errors of the Church, including religious intolerance and injustice toward Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn.[174]

Campaigns for human rights and social justice led to the martyrdom of Catholics during this period - notably in Latin America, where Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was gunned down at the altar in 1980, and six Jesuits of the University of Central America were assassinated in 1989.[175] The Catholic nun Mother Teresa of Calcutta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work among India's poor.[176] Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo won the same award in 1996 for "work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor".[177]

In the 1980s, the issue of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy became the subject of media coverage, legal action and public debate in the United States, Ireland, Australia and other countries. The Church was criticized for its handling of abuse complaints when it became known that some bishops had shielded accused priests, transferring them to other pastoral assignments where some continued to commit sexual offenses. In response to the scandal, the Church has established formal procedures to prevent abuse, encourage reporting of any abuse that occurs and to handle such reports promptly, although groups representing victims have disputed their effectiveness.[178]

Pope Benedict XVI, elected in 2005, regularly receives heads of state[179] and as the representative of the Holy See has permanent observer status at the United Nations.[180] During his pontificate, he has called for a new evangelization of Europe.[181]


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, which make up the Trinity. Catholic belief holds that the Church "... is the continuing presence of Jesus on earth."[182] To Catholics, the term "Church" refers to the people of God, who abide in Christ and who, "... nourished with the Body of Christ, become the Body of Christ."[183]

BentoXVI-51-11052007 (frag)

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Holy Mass at the canonization of Frei Galvão in São Paulo, Brazil on 11 May 2007

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.[184] It teaches that Catholics are called by the Holy Spirit to work for unity among all Christians.[184]

According to its doctrine, the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ.[12] The New Testament records the activities and teaching of Christ's appointment of the twelve Apostles and giving them authority to continue his work.[12] The Church teaches that Jesus designated Simon Peter as the leader of the apostles by proclaiming "upon this rock I will build my church ...I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven ..."[184] The Church teaches that the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, in an event known as Pentecost, signaled the beginning of the public ministry of the Church. All duly consecrated bishops since then are considered the successors to the apostles,[14] and they hand on the Sacred Tradition received from the apostles.[185]

According to the Council of Trent, Christ instituted seven sacraments and entrusted them to the Church.[186] 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 that 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).[187]

Catholics believe that Christ is the Messiah of the Old Testament's Messianic prophecies.[188] In an event known as the Incarnation, the Church teaches that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God became united with human nature when Christ was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Christ is believed, therefore, to be both fully divine and fully human. It is taught that Christ's mission on earth included giving people his teachings and providing his example for them to follow as recorded in the four Gospels.[189]

Prayers and devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary are part of Catholic piety but are distinct from the worship of God.[190] The Church holds Mary, as Perpetual Virgin and Mother of God, in special regard. Catholic beliefs concerning Mary include her Immaculate Conception without the stain of original sin and bodily Assumption into heaven at the end of her life, both of which have been infallibly defined as dogma, by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and Pope Pius XII in 1950 respectively.[191]

Mariology deals not only with her life but also her veneration in daily life, prayer and Marian art, music and architecture. Several liturgical Marian feasts are celebrated throughout the Church Year and she is honored with many titles such as Queen of Heaven. Pope Paul VI called her Mother of the Church, because by giving birth to Christ, she is considered to be the spiritual mother to each member of the Body of Christ.[191] 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.[192]

The Church has affirmed the credibility of certain Marian apparitions such as Our Lady of Lourdes, Fátima and Guadalupe,[193] Pilgrimages to these sites are popular Catholic devotions.[194]

Falling into sin is considered the opposite to following Christ, weakening a person's resemblance to God and turning their soul away from his love. Sins range from the less serious venial sins to more serious mortal sins that end a person's relationship with God.[195] The Church teaches that through the passion (suffering) of Christ and his crucifixion, all people have an opportunity for forgiveness and freedom from sin, and so can be reconciled to God.[196] The Resurrection of Jesus, according to Catholic belief, gained for humans a possible spiritual immortality previously denied to them because of original sin.[197] By reconciling with God and following Christ's words and deeds, the Church believes one can enter the Kingdom of God, which is the "... reign of God over people's hearts and lives".[198]

Catholics believe that they receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Confirmation and that the grace received at baptism is strengthened,[199] 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.[200] 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.[199] In the Eastern Catholic Churches, baptism, including infant baptism, is immediately followed by Confirmation—referred to as Chrismation[201]—and the reception of the Eucharist.[200]

After baptism, Catholics may obtain forgiveness for subsequent sins through the sacrament of penance.[202] In this sacrament, an individual confesses his sins to a priest, who then offers advice and imposes a particular penance to be performed. The priest administers absolution, formally forgiving the person of his sins.[203] The priest is forbidden—under penalty of excommunication—to reveal any sin or disclosure heard under the seal of confession.[204] An indulgence may be granted by the church after the sinner has confessed and received absolution for their sins. An indugence is believed to effect a partial or full remission (known as a plenary indulgence) of the temporal punishment still due for them in Purgatory.[205]

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.[200] This teaching also attests to another day when Christ will sit in a universal judgment of all mankind. This final judgment, according to Church teaching, will bring an end to human history and mark the beginning of a new and better heaven and earth ruled by God in righteousness.[200] The basis on which each person's soul is judged is detailed in the Gospel of Matthew, which lists works of mercy to be performed even to people considered "the least".[206] Emphasis is upon Christ's words that "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven".[207]

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."[207] Depending on the judgement rendered, a soul may enter one of three states of afterlife. Heaven is a time of glorious union with God and a life of unspeakable joy that lasts forever.[200] Purgatory is a temporary condition for the purification of souls who, although saved, are not free enough from sin to enter directly into heaven.[200] Souls in purgatory may be aided in reaching heaven by the prayers of the faithful on earth and by the intercession of saints.[208]

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.[200] The Church teaches that no one is condemned to hell without having freely decided to reject God.[200] No one is predestined to hell and no one can determine whether anyone else has been condemned.[200] Catholicism teaches that through God's mercy a person can repent at any point before death and be saved.[209] Some Catholic theologians have speculated that the souls of unbaptised infants who die in original sin are assigned to limbo although this is not an official doctrine of the Church.[210]

Catholic beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed and detailed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[211][212] Based on the promises of Christ in the Gospels, the Church believes that it is continually guided by the Holy Spirit and so protected infallibly from falling into doctrinal error.[184] The Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit reveals God's truth through Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium. 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[213]—and the 27 New Testament writings first found in the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209 and listed in Athanasius' Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter.[214] [note 5]

Sacred Tradition consists of those teachings believed by the Church to have been handed down since the time of the Apostles.[215] 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.[216]

Traditions of worshipEdit

St. Leonard church (Madison, Nebraska) altar 1

Altar of St. Leonard's Catholic Church in Madison, Nebraska

Differing liturgical traditions, or rites, exist throughout the Catholic Church, reflecting historical and cultural diversity rather than differences in beliefs.[217] The most commonly used liturgy is the Roman Rite, but even in the Latin Catholic Church a few other rites are in use, and the Eastern Catholic Churches have distinct rites. Two forms of the Roman Rite are authorized at present: that of the post-1969 editions of the Roman Missal (Mass of Paul VI), which is now the ordinary form of the rite and is celebrated mostly in the vernacular, i.e., the language of the people; and that of the 1962 edition (the Tridentine Mass), now an extraordinary form.[218][note 6]

In the United States, certain "Anglican Use" parishes use a variation of the Roman rite that retains many aspects of the Anglican liturgical rites.[note 7]Implementation is still awaited of the authorization granted in 2009 for the creation wherever appropriate of ordinariates for Anglicans who enter into communion with the Church and who may then use a rite that incorporates elements of Anglican tradition.[219] Other Western rites (non-Roman) include the Ambrosian Rite and the Mozarabic Rite. The rites used by the Eastern Catholic Churches include the Byzantine rite, the Alexandrian or Coptic rite, the Syriac rite, the Armenian rite, the Maronite rite, and the Chaldean rite.

The Eucharist, or Mass, is the center of Catholic worship.[220] The Words of Institution for this sacrament are drawn from the Gospels and a Pauline letter.[221] Catholics believe that at each Mass, the bread and wine are supernaturally transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. The Church teaches that Christ established a New Covenant with humanity through the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Because the Church teaches that Christ is present in the Eucharist,[218] there are strict rules about its celebration and reception. Catholics must abstain from eating for at least an hour before receiving Communion.[222]

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).[222] Catholics are not permitted to receive communion in Protestant churches because of their different beliefs and practices regarding Holy Orders and the Eucharist.[223] Likewise, Protestants are not permitted to receive Communion in the Catholic Church.

Organization and demographicsEdit

Hierarchy, personnel and institutionsEdit

Painting of a group of men in a piazza, a long haired man giving a key to a kneeling man.

The Church holds that Christ instituted the papacy, upon giving the keys of heaven to Saint Peter, here in a fresco by Pietro Perugino (1481–82), Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

The Church's hierarchy is headed by the Pope.[224] Catholics give many titles to the Pope, including Bishop of Rome, successor to Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Pontifex Maximus, Vicar of Christ and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.[225] In the Church, the Pope holds primacy of jurisdiction in matters of faith, morals, discipline and Church governance and is the head of state of the Vatican City.[226] For advice and assistance in governing, the Pope may turn to the College of Cardinals, the next highest level in the hierarchy.[227] When a pope dies or resigns,[note 8] members of the College of Cardinals who are under age 80 meet to elect a new pope.[229] Although the papal conclave can theoretically elect any male Catholic as pope, since 1389 only cardinals have been elevated to that position.[230]

The Catholic Church comprised, as of 2008, 2,795 dioceses,[231] each overseen by a bishop. Dioceses are divided into individual communities called parishes, each staffed by one or more priests.[232] Priests may be assisted by deacons. All clergy, including deacons, priests, and bishops, may preach, teach, baptize, witness marriages and conduct funeral liturgies.[233] Only priests and bishops are allowed to administer the sacraments of the Eucharist, Reconciliation (Penance) and Anointing of the Sick.[234][235] Only bishops can administer the sacrament of Holy Orders, which ordains someone into the clergy.[236]

The Church has defined rules on who may be ordained into the clergy. In the Latin Rite, the priesthood is generally restricted to celibate men.[237][238] Men who are already married may be ordained in the Eastern Catholic Churches,[239] and may become deacons in any rite.[237][238] According to the Vatican, as of 2007 there were 408,024 priests, an increase of 0.18% over 2005. The number of priests had decreased in Europe (6.8%) and Oceania (5.5%), remained roughly the same in the Americas, and increased in Africa (27.6%) and Asia (21.1%).[240]

Ordained Catholics, as well as members of the laity, may enter consecrated life as monks or nuns. A candidate takes vows confirming their desire to follow the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience.[241] Most monks and nuns join a monastic or religious order,[241] such as the Benedictines, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, and the Sisters of Mercy.[241]


Church membership in 2007 was 1.147 billion people,[240] increasing from the 1950 figure of 437 million[242] and the 1970 figure of 654 million.[243] On 31 December 2008, membership was 1.166 billion, an increase of 11.54% over the same date in 2000, only slightly greater than the rate of increase of the world population (10.77%). The increase was 33.02% in Africa, but only 1.17% in Europe. It was 15.91% in Asia, 11.39% in Oceania, and 10.93% in the Americas. As a result, Catholics were 17.77% of the total population in Africa, 63.10% in the Americas, 3.05% in Asia, 39.97% in Europe, 26.21% in Oceania, and 17.40% of the world population. Of the world's Catholics, the proportion living in Africa grew from 12.44% in 2000 to 14.84% in 2008, while those living in Europe fell from 26.81% to 24.31%.[1] Membership of the Catholic Church is attained through baptism.[244] If someone formally leaves the Church, that fact is noted in the register of the person's baptism.



  1. ^ "890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:"
  2. ^ The empire's well-defined network of roads and waterways allowed for easier travel, while the Pax Romana made it safe to travel from one region to another. The government had encouraged inhabitants, especially those in urban areas, to learn Greek, and the common language allowed ideas to be more easily expressed and understood.[15]
  3. ^ Eusebius of Caesarea, in a catalog of Palestinian martyrs for the Great Persecution, lists ninety-one victims for the years 303–11.[30] His figures are not complete,[31] but have been used to estimate the total number of martyrs across the empire.[32]
  4. ^ 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".[97] The Curia functioned as the civil government of the Papal States until 1870.[98]
  5. ^ The 73-book Catholic Bible contains the Deuterocanonicals, books not in the modern Hebrew Bible and not upheld as canonical by most Protestants.[213] 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.
  6. ^ The Tridentine Mass, so called because standardized by Pope Pius V after the Council of Trent in the 16th century, was the ordinary form of the Roman-Rite Mass until superseded in 1969 by the Roman Missal of Paul VI; its continued use, in the version found in the 1962 edition of the Missal, is authorized by the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.
  7. ^ In 1980, Pope John Paul II issued a pastoral provision that allows establishment of personal parishes in which members of the Episcopal Church (the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion) who join the Catholic Church retain many aspects of Anglican liturgical rites as a variation of the Roman rite. Such "Anglican Use" parishes exist only in the United States.
  8. ^ The last resignation occurred in 1415, as part of the Council of Constance's resolution of the Avignon Papacy.[228]


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