Roman Catholic Church

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Roman Catholic clergy are those men who were assigned by the church's hierarchy to supervise the faithful and to administer the sacraments. The term "clergy" has its roots in the Greek word kleros, which expresses the idea of "lot" or "portion." In the first centuries of the church's existence, persons who administered liturgical functions became known as clerics, in contrast to the laikos or laitythe common people. Within clerical status there existed various ranks or "orders." During the first centuries of the Christian Church, three orders developed, those of the deacon, priest, and bishop. By the high Middle Ages these orders had developed into seven specific offices with specific liturgical functions. The minor orders included the offices of porter (sacristan), lector, exorcist, and janitor. Major orders included subdeacon, deacon, and priest. Theologians debated as to whether the episcopacy, the office of bishop, was a separate order or the fullness of the presbyterial (priestly) state. Hence sources refer either to the ordination of a bishop or to his consecration.

The ecclesiastical use of the word order has its foundation in classical Roman civil vocabulary. In classical Rome those with orders, or rank, were distinct from the plebs, or common Roman citizens. Patristic authors used the term ordo to designate those with official duties who were set apart from the rest of the Christian population. Emperor Theodosius II (ruled 408450) identified this separation when he spoke of the order of ecclesiastics in his code that became effective on 1 January 439. Two aspects of clerical life that evolved during the patristic period became consequential points of debate during the age of reforms: the separate nature of the cleric from that of the general body of believers and the role of the cleric, particularly one in a major order, as the sole dispenser of the Sacraments.

Some summary points must be made concerning the status of clerics by the beginning of the early modern period. Only men were clerics. In most cases clerics were immune from the jurisdiction of the civil courts and the obligation to pay taxes. Men attained clerical status by ordination (the instilling of an order) by a bishop. Those with minor orders could be married, but the promise of celibacy was required of those with major orders. The church established benefices to provide support for those within orders. A benefice, from the Latin for "good work," was the income generated by property or goods assigned to a specific cleric. Frequently a benefice was assigned to a youth to support his education with the expectation that he would continue his career in the church as a priest. John Calvin (15091564) was the recipient of such a benefice.


Clerics (clergy) were referred to as either secular or regular. Secular clergy were directly under the jurisdiction of a bishop and did not profess the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Seculars (those in major orders) took promises of celibacy and a promise of obedience to their bishop. Regulars, frequently referred to as "religious," were members of religious orders who lived according to a specific way of life or rule and were governed by a religious superior. The term regular comes from the Latin regula, 'rule', which refers to a specific rule established by a founder of a religious community. Examples of such rules and their dates of official church approval are the Rule of Saint Benedict (c. 530540), the Rule of Saint Dominic (1221), and Saint Ignatius's rule for the Jesuits, the Constitutions (1558). Although all regulars lived under a rule, not all regulars were clerics. Some were members of an order who took the evangelical vows but were not ordained. These persons were frequently referred to as brothers. Since regulars took the vow of poverty, they were referred to as mendicants, from the Latin mendicare, 'to beg.' Franciscans and Dominicans were known particularly as mendicates, since they did not take a promise of stability to one specific house, as did the Benedictines. Since their areas of activity frequently overlapped, disputes occurred concerning the proper jurisdictions of the mendicants and the seculars. For example, could one go to a mendicate to fulfill the obligation of the annual confession, or did one have to confess to his or her parish priest? From whom did a dying person receive the correct final blessing?

Prior to the Council of Trent (15451563), the spiritual and academic formation of the clergy within religious orders was superior to that of the secular clergy. Although several prior church councils and synods had recognized the need for a moral and educated secular clergy, the general breakdown of church discipline caused by the Avignon papacy (c. 1308c. 1378), the demographic collapse of the Black Death (1348), and the western schism (13781417) had an adverse effect on establishing norms for forming the clergy. By the end of the fifteenth century there were three possible programs for formal education: monastic schools, episcopal schools, and universities. No specific regulation concerning the education of the secular clergy existed before the Council of Trent.

However, by the end of the late Middle Ages a growing number of clergy received their education at a major university. Ignatius of Loyola (14911556) and the first members of the Jesuit order demonstrate this point; they received their degrees from the University of Paris and with these credentials were ordained. University-educated priests set a high standard and perhaps created a sharp contrast with those clerics of limited education (the basic ability to read and write). Although many clerics at the beginning of the Reformation were more educated than ever, they stood in contrast to those with poor or nonexistent preparations for the clerical state. Both these situations created opportunities for abuse. Persons with basic skills and little or no theological training were usually assigned to the care of souls in a parish or recited masses, supported by a benefice. Benefices varied in amounts but provided enough incentive for some to take on clerical office with little regard for its spiritual and temporal duties. University-trained clerics received benefices for their education and usually multiple benefices upon arrival at their new positions. The consequence of this was pluralism, the practice of holding more than one benefice at a time. This created the problem of absenteeism, accepting a benefice without fulfilling the obligation of spiritual and temporal care of souls attached to the benefice. Before the English Reformation almost 25 percent of English parishes were served by an "absentee." Celibacy was disregarded by many clerics as well.


Protestant and Catholic Reformers identified the lack of a well-trained clergy, sexual license, absenteeism, and simony (the selling of an office for profit) as the greatest scandals within clerical life. Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) was particularly vehement in his castigation of both seculars and religious. Erasmus, however, was not alone in his desire for reform. A committee formed by Pope Paul III (reigned 15341549) in 1536 to identify the problems that beset the church acknowledged in its 1537 publication the ill-trained and immoral lives of religious and secular clerics, echoing many of the concerns raised on both sides of the confessional divide.

During the first half of the sixteenth century, Catholic and evangelical reformers debated the nature and role of the cleric. No one during the age of reforms disputed that the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus were fundamentally necessary for salvation; arguments instead centered on how the faithful acquired access to salvation. Catholic theologians, particularly in the Council of Trent, identified the priest, under the jurisdiction of a bishop, as the intermediary through whom the faithful experienced the saving grace of the Sacraments. Hence the priest, as the administrator of the Sacraments, was essential for salvation, and priestly reform was a necessary step in the reform of the entire church. The participants at Trent envisioned a bishop in residence supervising an educated and celibate clergy, each cleric in turn supervising and providing the Sacraments (the means of salvation) to the faithful registered in a parish. The council specifically noted that "it is of the highest import for the salvation of souls that parishes be governed by worthy and qualified men" (Trent, Session 24 canon 18, cited in Tanner, p. 770).

Even before the Council of Trent, Catholic Reformers identified problems within the clerical state and recommended means of reform. Ignatius of Loyola, following the recommendations of the committee appointed by Pope Paul III in 1536, established the first seminary, the German College (1552), as a residential training program for secular clerics, particularly Germans, to prepare them to "support the tottering and in some places collapsed church in Germany" (Ignatius of Loyola, 1959, p. 259). Other Reformers led the way toward a better-trained clergy. Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (14361517) of Spain, Cardinal Reginald Pole (15001558) of England, and Bishop Gian Matteo Giberti (14951543) of Vernona argued for a better-trained clergy as the principal means of reform. Bartholomew Fernández (15141590), bishop of Braga, Portugal, advanced clerical reform in his dioceses and was instrumental in the reforms of the clerical state crafted in the twenty-third session (1563) of the Council of Trent. Legislation in that session condemned absenteeism, the giving of benefices to those under the age of fourteen, and simony. One of the most consequential pieces of legislation for clerical formation was the recommendation of separate training for those interested in the priesthood. The council legislated that large dioceses were obliged to provide training for youths in preparation for the priesthood. These "seedbeds" or seminaries were to be strictly supervised by local bishops.

Seminary training, though legislated at Trent, was more the exception than the norm, however. Even one hundred years after the Council of Trent, most priests did not receive a seminary education. The diocese of Lyon, France, did not have a seminary until 1654, and until 1657 its bishop did not require a seminary education for its priests, which even then entailed only a ten- to fifteen-day retreat. A one-year seminary education was not required for those in major orders until the Lyon diocesan statutes of 1707 and 1715 (Hoffman, 1984, p. 77). In Fiesole, Italy, during the seventeenth century only 26 percent of the clergy were educated in a seminary. A seminary education did not lead to better church offices, as all the prestigious positions (bishop, notary, master of the chapel, and so forth) went to nonseminarians. Paris, with its a population of 400,000 persons and 472 parishes in the late seventeenth century, did not have a seminary until 1696.

There were important exceptions to this lack of seminary education. In 1564, the year after the Council of Trent adjourned, three seminaries were established. Cardinal Marcantonio Amulio (d. 1572) of Rieti, Italy, began the first Tridentine seminary in Italy. Cardinal Carlo Borromeo (15381584) opened a seminary in Milan with fourteen Jesuit faculty, thirty-four seminarians, and one hundred nonseminarians. Eight years later the number of seminarians increased to sixty. The first seminary in Germany began the same year in Eichstätt (Eichstadt), Bavaria. A year later Pope Paul IV (reigned 15551559) established the Roman Seminary and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Jesuits. In 1568 William Allen (15321594) established a seminary for English Catholic exiles in Douai, France. Bishops throughout Europe looked to the work of Borromeo, who called provincial councils and diocesan synods, created seminaries, and initiated extensive visitation of parishes, as an example for implementing clerical reform.

Although the church hierarchy of France did not accept Tridentine legislation until 1615, the country eventually became a model for the training of clerics and the implementation of Borromeo's ideals. Earlier in the century requirements for a curé, the head of a parish, were meager: the ability to read and write and ownership of a Bible, a Lives of the Saints, the catechism of the Council of Trent, and the legislation of provincial synods. The young bishop of Luçon, France, Armand-Jean du Plessis (15851642), the future Cardinal Richelieu, created the first seminary in France in his diocese in 1612 and placed it under the supervision of the Oratorians. The advancement of a deeper spiritual life was the special object of attention of Pierre de Bérulle (15751629), founder of the French Oratory, an organization of priests modeled on the oratory of Philip Neri (15151595) in Rome.

Adrien Bourdoise (15841665) may be considered the principal initiator of clerical reform in France. Vincent de Paul (15811660) advanced the character of clerical life in France with conferences for priests and the establishment of seminaries. François de Sales (15671622), as bishop of Geneva, conducted conferences for existing priests and carefully screened those who applied for ordination. Jean Eudes (16011680) established a congregation of secular priests in 1643 to form educated and virtuous priests. His society of secular priests established seminaries in six French cities from 1644 to 1670.

Because so few clerics received their training in seminaries, other means developed to assure the training of priests as effective implementers of Tridentine Catholicism. The Jesuits established congregations for priests that aimed to develop the spiritual and academic lives of the secular priesthood. During weekly meetings, the Jesuits discussed "cases of conscience," the application of church law to individual situations. So important were these meetings that the Roman diocese in 1721 ordered all priests living within the diocese to attend these or other such meetings. Similar groups met in different cities, especially where Jesuit colleges were located.


Enumerating the quantity of clergy, as David Gentilcore (1992) has demonstrated with his studies of southern Italy, is a difficult task. The Terra d'Otranto in southern Italy had 7,684 clerics for 41,980 hearths. But just less than half of these clerics were actually ordained priests. The kingdom of Naples in the mid-seventeenth century had a total of 58,597 clerics. Lecce at this same time had 404 clerics to its 154 priests, and Gallipoli had 203 clerics to its 139 priests and deacons (Gentilcore, 1992, p. 50). Since the designation of cleric included all those with any type of order (and its consequent benefice), discerning active priests among the total population of clerics necessitates a study of individual diocesan recordsa daunting task. In pre-Reformation Europe it was not uncommon for clerics to make up 4 percent of the male population. Early sixteenth-century England maintained twenty to twenty-five thousand priests. Luçon, France, with a population of 100,000 in 1600, had 428 priests. Areas where Catholics were persecuted or were under restrictions have been better studied and hence have generated more statistics. During the reign of Elizabeth I (ruled 15581603) the number of priests in Wales was reduced from sixteen to four. In 1623 Scotland had thirteen secular priests. Ireland in 1731 had 1,445 parish priests and curates with an additional 700 religious priests for a Catholic population of 2,293,680.

See also Jesuits ; Reformation, Catholic ; Religious Orders ; Trent, Council of .


Primary Sources

Ignatius of Loyola. Letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Selected and translated by William J. Young. Chicago, 1959.

Tanner, Norman P., ed. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. 2 vols. London and Washington, D.C., 1990.

Secondary Sources

Andrieu, M. "Les ordres mineurs dans l'ancien rite romain." Revue des sciences religieuses 5 (1925): 232274.

Blet, Pierre. Le clergé de France et la monarchie: Étude sur les assemblées générales du clergé de 1615 à 1666. Rome, 1959.

Bowker, Margaret. The Secular Clergy in the Diocese of Lincoln, 14951520. London, 1968.

Burke, William P. Irish Priests in the Penal Times, 1660 1760. London, 1914.

Comerford, Kathleen M. Ordaining the Catholic Reformation: Priests and Seminary Pedagogy in Fiesole, 15751675. Florence, 2001.

Congar, Y. M. J. "Aspects ecclésiologiques de la querelle entre mendiants et séculiers dans la second moitiédu XIIe siècle et au dèbut du XIVe." Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 28 (19611962).

Delumeau, Jean. Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire. Translated by Jeremy Moiser. London, 1977. An important study that argues that a thorough "Christianization" of France began only in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Ellis, John Tracy. "A Short History of Seminary Education: The Apostolic Age to Trent." In Seminary Education in a Time of Change, edited by James Michael Lee and Louis J. Putz, pp. 129. Notre Dame, Ind., 1965.

. "A Short History of Seminary Education: Trent to Today." In Seminary Education in a Time of Change, edited by James Michael Lee and Louis J. Putz, pp. 3081. Notre Dame, Ind., 1965.

García Oro, José. Cisneros y la reforma del clero español en tiempo de los Reyes Católicos. Madrid, 1971.

Gentilcore, David. From Bishop to Witch: The System of the Sacred in Early Modern Terra d'Otranto. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Heath, Peter M. A. The English Parish Clergy on the Eve of the Reformation. London, 1969.

Hoffman, Philip T. Church and Community in the Diocese of Lyon, 15001789. New Haven and London, 1984.

Logan, Oliver. The Venetian Upper Clergy in the 16th and Early 17th Centuries: A Study in Religious Culture. Lewiston, N.Y., 1996.

Maher, Michael W. "Jesuits and Ritual in Early Modern Europe." In Medieval and Early Modern Ritual: Formalized Behavior in Europe, China, and Japan, edited by Joëlle Rollo-Koster, pp. 193218. Leiden, 2002. Discusses the important role of ritual in Catholic reform and the part played by Jesuits in teaching ritual and forming priests.

Marshall, Peter. The Catholic Priesthood and the English Reformation. Oxford, 1994.

Olin, John C. Catholic Reform from Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent, 14951563. New York, 1990. This collection of translated documents contains the report given to Pope Paul III in 1537.

Prosperi, Adriano. Tra evangelisom e controriforma: G. M. Giberti (14951543). Rome, 1969.

Reynolds, Roger E. Clerical Orders in the Early Middle Ages. Brookfield, Vt., 1999.

Michael W. Maher

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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 former 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.


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).

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Roman Catholic Church


The Roman Catholic Church refers to the worldwide assembly of Christians who are in full communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome, who is regarded as the sign and instrument of Catholic unity among bishops and faithful alike. Statistically, Roman Catholics form the largest single Christian body, with close to 1.1 billion members worldwide. The rise of Christian culture in western Europe is virtually synonymous with the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Although other Christians sometimes refer to themselves as catholic (from the Greek word meaning universal or complete), Roman Catholics believe communion with the See of Rome is required for full membership in the Catholic Church. In addition to the Western or Latin Rite Catholics, there are some 20 million Eastern Christians in full communion with Rome (better identified as Eastern Catholics than Roman Catholics).

Roman Catholics believe the pope is the successor of Peter, appointed by Jesus Christ as the chief apostle and head of the Church. By the late second century, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon (c.130200), saw agreement with the Church of Rome as necessary for all Christian churches.

Following persecutions by various Roman emperors, the Church received legal recognition from Constantine in 313. The move of the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople) in 330 set the stage for the later split (schism) of the Byzantine Church from the Church of Rome in 1054.

The monasteries of the Church preserved learning after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The rise of Islam in the seventh century and the Muslim invasions of Spain and Gaul prompted the pope to form an alliance with Charlemagne and the Franks. The Crusades (10951291) failed to maintain Christian control over Jerusalem and stem the eventual spread of Muslim power into Asia Minor (Turkey).

During the Middle Ages (c. 8001400), the Church inspired cultural achievements in art (e.g., Gothic architecture), poetry (e.g., Dante), philosophy (e.g., Thomas Aquinas), and learning (e.g., the universities of Oxford, Paris, Salamanca, and Bologna). During the Renaissance (c.14001550), the Church continued its patronage of the arts, but many areas of Europe (e.g., England, Holland, northern Germany, and Scandinavia) broke with papal authority in the sixteenth century following the Protestant Reformation. In the 1500s and 1600s, missionaries and colonial rulers spread Roman Catholicism into the Americas and Asia.

Although the Roman Catholic Church contributed much to the cultural achievements of the medieval and Renaissance eras, religious minorities, such as the Jews, often suffered persecutions in countries under Roman Catholic control. Theological ideas were enforced by various inquisitions (Church tribunals) that conducted trials for those accused of heresies (false teachings). Technically, the inquisition only had jurisdiction over the baptized, but after the Jews and Muslims were expelled from Iberia in 1492, the Spanish Inquisition would often target Los Conversos, the Jews and Muslims who had accepted baptism rather than leave the country of their birth.

In the 1700s and 1800s, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church over European culture began to fade. The French Revolution (17891799) placed the Church in France under virtual state control. In 1870, the Papal States of central Italy were seized from the Church, leaving control only over Vatican City State (according to the Lateran Agreement of 1929).

Deprived of secular power, the Roman Catholic Church in the twentieth century tried to exert moral authority. Pope Pius XI (18571939), who was pope from 1922 to his death, issued encyclical letters protesting Italian Fascism (1931), German Nazism (1937), and atheistic Communism (1937). His successor, Pius XII (pope from 19391958), led the Church through the difficult years of World War II (19391945). His policies during this timeespecially with regard to helping the Jews have been praised by some and criticized by others.

The Second Vatican Council (19621965) urged dialogue with other Christians and non-Christians (most notably Jews and Muslims). In his 1994 apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul II (pope from 19782005) called Catholics to a spirit of repentance for practices of past centuries that involved intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth. Pope Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul in 2005, has continued this spirit into the early-twenty-first century, while at the same time condemning secularization and moral relativism.

SEE ALSO Christianity; Church, The; Enlightenment; French Revolution; Greek Orthodox Church; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Jesus Christ; Missionaries; Protestantism; Religion; Rituals; Secular, Secularism, Secularization; Vatican, The


Bunson, Matthew, ed. 2006. Our Sunday Visitors 2007 Catholic Almanac. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor.

OCollins, Gerald, and Mario Farrugia. 2003. Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Woods, Thomas E., Jr. 2005. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington, D.C.: Regnery.

Robert Fastiggi

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Roman Catholic Church. Those churches in communion with the Church of Rome, recognizing the leadership of the pope. The word ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal’, and thus the addition of ‘Roman’ seems to some contradictory, since they regard the Church under the successor of Peter (see PETRINE TEXTS) as the one, universal Church; other Christians (i.e. those who are baptized and ‘honoured by the name of Christian’, Lumen Gentium, 15) are held to be ‘in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church’ (Unitatis redintegratio, 3). To be in complete communion with the Church of Rome is to belong to the Catholic Church. However, the addition of ‘Roman’ has become more common during the recent decades of ecumenicism, not least in recognition of the status of uniate Churches and of other uses of the world ‘Catholic’; ‘Roman Catholic’ is therefore used in this article and throughout the Dictionary.

Central government is exercised by the pope and curia (usually referred to as ‘the Vatican).

It is by far the largest of the Christian denominations, with approaching a billion members. Serving the Church's members are just over 400,000 priests, 68,000 male religious, and just short of one million female religious. There are rather more than 2,000 dioceses or equivalent administrative areas, but a quarter of these are in Europe.

The Roman Catholic Church insists on its continuity of belief, liturgy, and structure from the pre-Reformation church, and upon its right, as (in its own view) the one church founded by Christ, to hold councils of its own bishops which are regarded as ecumenical and, doctrinally, of the same standing as the councils of the early church. It has held three since the Reformation, those of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. At Vatican I the bishops asserted the primacy and infallibility of the pope, but at Vatican II the RC Church made an effort to come closer to other Christian churches, and formulated no firm doctrinal statements—setting, for example, Mariological (see MARY) devotion (so typical of Catholicism) firmly within its ecclesial framework. In the subsequent years, Paul VI did much to put into effect the programme of Vatican II, but began also to express a caution which became also a marked feature of the policy of John Paul II—culminating in Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993/4): in this, for example, the Bible is used as though a-historical, as though its embeddedness in history has no effect on the application of the text to current issues.

Throughout its history, the Roman Catholic Church has placed great emphasis on the offering of life, through the Church, to God in obedience and holiness. It has thus given special importance to the monastic life, which epitomizes the choice of God rather than the world. At the same time, the radical choice for God has led to a constant acceptance of martyrdom, which the outreach of evangelism (not least in the 20th cent.) has repeatedly brought about; the strong emphasis on being the only Church has equally led Roman Catholics to be zealous in their persecution of others, and evangelism often accompanied conquest, as in the policy of Spain (between the 16th and 18th cents.). In this context, the prayer of the faithful was, until the 15th cent., apt to be of a verbal and repetitive nature. The Latin liturgy and Bible (Vulgate) increased the problems for the laity in understanding the faith. Since Vatican II, the change to vernacular liturgies and Bibles, together with the transformation of the penitential rites (confession) and the move of the altar to the centre of the church, has increased the active participation of all in worship. It remains the case that strict rules govern membership of the Church, e.g. concerning who may communicate at Mass, or the status of divorced people; celibacy is a requirement for priests (even though in some parts of the world this means that the celebration of the Mass is infrequent); and the laity are under obligation not to use artificial contraception (see HUMANAE VITAE). The latter arises from definitions of the meaning of ‘the person’, and of when the life of any particular person begins. The same consideration underlies the absolute opposition to abortion. Control (through licensing) is also exercised over those teaching in Catholic schools and universities, and while many such institutions are now under the direction of lay professionals, publications and lectures may still occasion discipline, which many include the silencing of so-called progressive theologians. Conformity has not in the past meant a repetitive theology: theology and philosophy have had a high place in Roman Catholicism, by no means confined to scholasticism.

The central place, both of the Mass in worship, and of the Church in the community, has contributed to the inspiration of enduring art, architecture, and music, as well as many kinds of literature. The Church as patron has had immense consequences for civilization as a whole. So also has the absolute requirement to be generous to those in need (a requirement which goes back to Christ). As a result, schools, hospitals, places where the needy and dying can find refuge, and a wide range of aid programmes have multiplied. This tradition is also expressed in 100 years of teaching on social justice issues, from Rerum Novarum to the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) in 1965, and subsequent encyclicals. The financial cost of the Vatican is great and falls heavily on the Church in the USA, where the majority have a vision of the Church in the service of the world which has been increasingly at variance from the official Vatican line (though, they would say, in line with the vision of Vatican II). The resulting tension can be seen particularly in the radical divide over the opportunities open to women to have a voice comparable to that of men in the Church. Roman Catholicism is highly clericalized, and the refusal to allow the possibility that women can be ordained means that they can never be a serious part of the leadership or decision-making of the Church.

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This qualification of the name catholic seems to have been first introduced by those reformers who resented the Roman claim to any monopoly of catholicity. In England many of the reformers thought of themselves as catholic. So the term Roman Catholic became accepted as a useful designation of those who owed allegiance to the pope, and it passed into legal usage. English Catholics resented the appellation Roman insofar as it implied that they were but a part of the one true catholic church that also included the Anglo-Catholics and the Orthodox.

On the other hand, Roman is an apt designation of the true Church. Peter was given a primacy in the Church by Christ; his successors continue this office; and as these successors are in fact the succeeding bishops of Rome, the Church of Christ is by this token Roman. Theologians discuss whether the connection with Rome is simply an accident of history or whether it was divinely intended from the beginning that Peter should set up his see in Rome, but all agree that there has been a special disposition of Providence that up to this moment has always connected the primacy with Rome, and so a condition of one's succeeding Peter is election to the See of Rome. This leaves open the question as to whether at some future date the pope himself could sever the connection with Rome. Up to now there has been an unbroken line since Peter. This connection with Rome does not necessarily involve actual residence in the city; it is sufficient that the pope should be bishop of Rome, but it is desirable that he should be in residence there.

There is a further aspect of the term Roman Catholic that needs consideration. The Roman Church can be used to refer, not to the Church universal insofar as it possesses a primate who is bishop of Rome, but to the local Church of Rome, which has the privilege of its bishop being also primate of the whole Church. This local Church has its own customs and rites; consequently one must not confuse these particularities with the practice of the universal Church. Historical circumstances have meant that the roman rite and law have won acceptance in many parts of the world, and this has been a potent factor in maintaining unity. Nevertheless one has to distinguish between the particular Roman elements that could be dispensed with, and the faith itself centered on the primacy, which is an essential element in the structure of the Church. There is always the danger that sufficient attention will not be paid to local cultures and the Church will become too closely bound up with western European thought. That is why Vatican Council II was anxious to decentralize on several matters and allow more scope to the local episcopate.

See Also: apostolic see; branch theory of the church; church, articles on.

Bibliography: c. journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, tr. a. a. c. downes (New York 1955) 1:427438. Sacrae theologiae summa, ed. Fathers of the Society of Jesus, Professors of the Theological Faculties in Spain (Madrid 1962), Biblioteca de autores cristianos 1.3:439448. h. thurston, The Catholic Encyclopedia ed. c. g. herbermann et al. (New York 190714) 13:121123.

[m. e. williams]

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Roman Catholic Church Christian denomination that acknowledges the supremacy of the Pope (see papacy; Papal infallibility). An important aspect of doctrine is the primacy given to the Virgin Mary, whom Roman Catholics believe to be the only human being born without sin (Immaculate Conception). Before the Reformation in the 16th century, the ‘Catholic Church’ applied to the Western Church as a whole, as distinguished from the Eastern Orthodox Church based at Constantinople. The Reformation led to a tendency for the Roman Catholic Church to be characterized by rigid adherence to doctrinal tradition from the 16th to the early 20th century. The desire for a reunited Christendom led to a more liberal attitude in the mid-20th century. The government of the Church is episcopal, with archbishops and bishops responsible for provinces and dioceses. The priesthood is celibate. The centre of the Roman Catholic liturgical ritual is the Mass or Eucharist. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the Roman Catholic Church underwent marked changes, notably the replacement of Latin by the vernacular as the language of the liturgy. Today, there are c.600 million Roman Catholics worldwide, with large numbers in s Europe, Latin America and the Philippines.

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Ro·man Cath·o·lic • adj. of or relating to the Roman Catholic Church: a Roman Catholic bishop. • n. a member of this church. DERIVATIVES: Ro·man Ca·thol·i·cism n.