Catholic Church

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The Catholic Church, alternately found as Roman Catholic Church or Holy Roman Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with adherents numbering some 1.196 billion, or 17.5% of world population, as of March 2012. The head of the church is the Pope, Bishop of Rome, who administers the church from the Vatican City, an enclave within the city of Rome itself. The church is organized into dioceses all over the world, each one headed by a bishop.

"Catholic Church" is the church's preferred name for itself, but many other Christians dispute its right to exclusive use of the name, claiming to be part of the Catholic Church themselves.

Catholicism holds that bishops are the successors to the original twelves apostles, and that all Catholic bishops can ulimately trace their ordinations back to one of the disciples specifically called by Jesus.

Sources of teaching

The Church claims that the whole of its teaching was divinely revealed in essence in ancient times, though the working out of its implications is a continuing process. This revelation is classified into scripture and tradition. Scripture is the Bible (including some books and passages rejected by Protestants as apocryphal), which is regarded as having God as its author and thus as incapable of error (if correctly interpreted). Tradition is the teaching of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to the apostles, handed down through successive generations.

On the relation between scripture and tradition, there are two schools of thought within the Church.

  1. One view holds that the whole teaching is implicit in the Bible, and tradition is needed only
    1. to define the contents of the Bible, and
    2. to draw out its implications.
  2. The other holds that there are teachings not even implicit in the Bible.

Opinion has seesawed between these views over the centuries, and the Church has not definitively decided between them.

While the wording of the Bible is fixed (subject to translation), the wording of tradition evolves as its implications are worked out. The process of this working out is something in which all the faithful can take part. Over the centuries, Popes have awarded (posthumously) the title Doctor of the Church to those they regard as having made the greatest contributions to this understanding. One requirement they lay down is that only someone canonized as a saint can be a Doctor: understanding must be informed by the holy life. Ecclesiastical rank, on the other hand, is not a requirement. Indeed, of the 37 Doctors so far recognized, 4 are women, who are excluded from ordination by Church doctrine. The most important Doctor is St Thomas Aquinas, whose works were declared the foundation of theology by the Pope in 1893.

However, members of the Church can only argue and propose. The decision is for the Church. If the Pope and a general consensus of bishops, having studied relevant writings, teach (for example, in their catechisms) some formulation as a true formulation of tradition, then that is the teaching of the Church, and is regarded as infallible, through the operation of the Holy Spirit. More formal Church declarations of teaching can occur in two ways:

  1. if an ecumenical council of bishops, convened with the authority of the Pope, agrees a declaration and it is approved by the Pope;
  2. if the Pope, acting as spokesman for the Church, formally declares something to be the agreed teaching of the Church.

The original Latin (and Greek) texts of these formal declarations are collected in Denzinger's Enchiridion, though it should be noted that the criteria are not precise, so that there may be disagreement on exactly which declarations are infallible.


Supreme authority and jurisdiction over clergy and laity alike is held by the pope, who (since the Middle Ages) is elected by the cardinals assembled in conclave, and holds the office until his death or legitimate abdication. According to Catholic teaching, there can be no ecumenical council without the pope, to whom exclusively are reserved the convocation, presidency, determination of agenda, transference, suspension, dissolution, and confirmation of a general council (thus the Roman Catholic Canon Law). The cardinals constitute the senate of the pope, and are his chief advisers and assistants in governing the Church; they meet to choose his successor. The pope exercises his administrative authority according to the code of canon law and through the congregations, tribunals, and offices of the Curia Romana based in Rome. In their respective territories (called "dioceses") and over their respective subjects, the patriarchs, metropolitans (or archbishops), and bishops exercise a jurisdiction which is called "ordinary" (as attached by law to an office and so distinguished from delegated jurisdiction which is given to a person).[1] Finally, pastors, strictly so-called, have ordinary jurisdiction within their parishes and over their parishioners.

The pope either appoints, or confirms the election of, bishops; these in turn name the pastors and diocesan officials. In modern times, and with few exceptions, the laity have no voice in the selection of ecclesiastical superiors. The teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church is exercised either in a solemn dogmatic definition or in the ordinary general teaching. The former is the prerogative of an ecumenical council and of the pope.


Early Church

In early centuries Christianity existed as what is sometimes called "the great Church" with most Christians, apart from a few notable exceptions, living within the confines of the Roman Empire.

Split with the East

During the third and forth centuries the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire began to experience increased tension as they drifted apart culturally and linguistically. These changes would become solidified after the barbarian invasion and the eventual collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. The repercussions of this cultural split were felt within the religious outlooks of Eastern and Western Christians even before the eventual schism. In what was formerly the Western Roman Empire, administrative power began to be consolidated in Rome by the Pope as most of the social services provided by the Empire began to collapse. This would lead Pope Gregory the Great to establish a bureaucratic system known today as the Vatican.

The Pope was canonically required to have his ordination approved by the Eastern Roman Emperor until 800, when the title was bestowed on Charlemagne as well. During this period "filioque" (and the son) would become uniformly added to the creed in the Western Church. These two developments drove the Eastern and Western Church further apart. This process of divergence continued over the centuries, and historians do not consider any one event as accurately representing the point of separation. Highlights include the following:

  • Popes after 1009 were not generally included in the official lists at Constantinople
  • in 1054, during a vacancy in the papal throne, the papal legates and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other
  • between 1098 and 1310, the Papacy appointed its own patriarchs of the Eastern sees
  • in 1274 and 1439 there were unpopular and short-lived attempts at reunion
  • disputes within the patriarchate of Antioch about relations with Rome and Constantinople culminated in a disputed patriarchal election in 1724, and rival Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox patriarchates

See also discussion in the Eastern Orthodox Church article.

Catholicism during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages in Western Europe the relationship between the secular and the religious, instead of being conceived of as two different spheres, was viewed as two different yet overlapping ways of codifying time. As a result the Catholic Church had a large role to play in the organization of the public order. The Church, under prompting from the Byzantine Empire who was facing military threats from the Muslims, organized a series of military campaigns known as the crusades. Within Western Europe however, the Church would also create The Peace of the Church, which would limit the extent to which secular rulers would be able to go to war with one another. This was applied with varying success. Because of the loss of much of the infrastructure of the Roman Empire monasteries would be one of the few places where an education could be obtained, although there were a few secular schools usually located in royal palaces. This would change towards the end of the Middle Ages. Several factors contributed to this, the largest being the revitalization of European cities, the founding of the universities, and rise of mendicant religious orders. Additionally, in the thirteenth century classical texts that had been lost in the West began to circulate again.


The Renaissance was both a time of great discovery as well a time of political, religious, and social uncertainty. Some of these the latter issues need to be explored to understand some of the events that occurred within Catholicism during the Renaissance and to understand the cultural milieu of the Reformation. The capital of the Byzantine Empire fell during the fifteenth century. This caused an influx of refugees from the Byzantine Empire. This had a destabilizing effect on Western European economies. Also severe freezing affected crop production in Northern Europe. These refugees also brought with them religious texts and patterns of spirituality that had been absent in Western Europe for quite some time. During the renaissance there was a period during which there were three active Popes. Many Church abuses began to develop during this period. While there had always been some abuse within the Church, there were also active movements within the Church to reign it in (especially monastic reform). However the sheer volume of abuse, the already depressed economic conditions, as well as a particularly several particularly corrupt Popes, made this especially troublesome. During the 1510-20s Martin Luther began to protest many of these absuses and what he saw as theological problems with Church doctrine. He was excommunicated 1521, and began the Protestant Reformation.

The Counter-Reformation and Early Modern Period

The Counter-Reformation (also known as the Catholic Reformation) was initiated by the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent would redefine several key theological issues that had contributed to the spread of the Reformation, as well as defined several new dogmas, viz. that there are only seven sacraments, that Justification is not by Faith only, and that both Scripture and tradition are authoritative for Catholics. During the Counter-Reformation Cathoicism engaged in a series of reforms and new initiatives. For example the period gave rise to several new religious orders such as the Jesuits and the Ursaline Sisters. The period also saw some of the first missionary efforts to take place since the crusades, most of which were along trade lines to the Americas and the Far East. Catholicism during the early modern period would also face new challenges as the European economic and political situation transformed from feudal kingdoms and manor economies into capitalist nation-states. During the 1700s, for example, the canonization of saints was moved from the local diocese to the Vatican in order to ensure that it did not become a tool of political leaders.

French Revolution

19th Century

Devotional revolution of 19th Century

Throughout the Church in the 19th century, Romanticism had the impact of inspiring new and much more complex devotions among the laity, usually strongly supported by the hierarchy. Prayers to Mary became an additional part of the liturgy.

End of Papal States

Vatican I

Vatican I was an ecumenical council, as the Roman Catholic Church understands it, which was called to resolve several issues such as Papal Authority. At Vatican I papal infallibility was defined dogma.


20th Century

Relations with secular states

Catholic politial parties

Relations with totalitarian states

Germany and Italy
Eastern Europe=

Vatican II

The second Vatican Council was called by John XXIII. In his speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962, he said it is necessary that "adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness..." be presented in "faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought."[2]

Thus, the Council was intended to be a reform that is based on a continuity with tradition, or a return to the sources. [1]. This address also condemned the so-called "prophets of doom." This was intended to deter bishops who had resisted any sort of dialougue with the contemporary world.

One of the most important documents of the council was the Lumen Gentium, a statement on how the Church understands itself. An important component of this was the universal call to holiness, that all the faithful of the Church are called to live a life consistent with their oneness with Christ in baptism. Other key features of the Council included a reform of the liturgy and permission to translate it into the vernacular, reorganization of the Eastern Churches, and clearly defining the role of regional bishop conferences within the hierarchy of the Church.

Catholicism after Vatican II



  • Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Catholic Encyclopedia, (1913) online edition thousands of articles on related topics
  • Coppa, Frank J., ed. Encyclopedia of the Vatican and Papacy. Greenwood, 1998. 473 pp.
  • Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, (3rd ed 2006), 496pp; Yale University Press; heavily illustrated history by leading Catholic scholar excerpt and text search
  • Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1988). 349pp; scholarly short biographies; online edition
  • Levillain, Philippe, ed. The Papacy: An Encyclopedia. Routledge, 2001. 1780 pp.
  • New Catholic 'Encyclopedia (1967), numerous articles
  • Steimer, Bruno and Parker, Michael G., ed. Dictionary of Popes and the Papacy. Crossroad, 2001. 278 pp.
  • Trigilio, John. and Kenneth Brighenti. Catholicism for Dummies (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Vidmar, John. The Catholic Church through the Ages: A History (2005) excerpt and text search

Specialized studies

  • Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity 200-1000 AD (2002), 640pp
  • Chadwick, Owen. The Popes and European Revolution. Oxford U. Press, 1981. 646 pp.
  • Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Church in the Eighteenth Century (1964)
  • Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Church in an Age of Revolution (1965).
  • Hales, E. E. Y. Revolution and Papacy, 1769-1846, (1960)
  • Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500 (1975), by leading Protestant historian excerpt and text search
  • Logan, F. Donald. A History of the Church in the Middle Ages. 2002. online edition
  • Mullett, Michael A. The Catholic Reformation, (1999), online edition
  • Pastor, Ludwig von. History of the Popes From the Close of the Middle Ages, (1894-1930), 16 vol, older Catholic history online from
  • Ullmann, Walter. A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages, (2002), 393pp, online edition
  • Wright, A. D. The Early Modern Papacy: From the Council of Trent to the French Revolution 1564-1789. Longman, 2000. 335 pp.

Since 1815

  • Burns, Gene. "The Politics of Ideology: The Papal Struggle with Liberalism." American Journal of Sociology, 1990 95(5): 1123-1152. Issn: 0002-9602 fulltext: in Jstor and Ebsco
  • Camp, Richard L. "From Passive Subordination To Complementary Partnership: The Papal Conception of a Woman's Place in Church and Society since 1878." Catholic Historical Review, 1990 76(3): 506-525. Issn: 0008-8080 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Chadwick, Owen. A History of the Popes, 1830-1914. (1998), 616pp; a standard recent history. online edition,
  • Coppa, Frank J. The Modern Papacy since 1789. Longman, 1998. 296 pp.
  • Coppa, Frank J. "Between Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism, Pius XI's Response to the Nazi Persecution of the Jews: Precursor to Pius XII's "Silence"?" Journal of Church and State 2005 47(1): 63-89. Issn: 0021-969x Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Gillis, Chester, ed. The Political Papacy: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Their Influence. Paradigm, 2006. 208 pp.
  • Holland, Joe. Modern Catholic Social Teaching: The Popes Confront the Industrial Age 1740-1958. Paulist Press, 2003. 404 pp.
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries 5 Vol (1958), a detailed history of Chritianity 1800-1950 by a fair-minded Protestant scholar. vol 1 online edition
  • Pollard, John F. Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: Financing the Vatican, 1850-1950. Cambridge U. Press, 2005. 265 pp.

See also

  1. Certain abbots and prelates also have this jurisdiction; the major superiors of exempt clerical religious orders enjoy it, but only with regard to their own subjects.
  2. The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J., p. 715