The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with more than 1.25 billion members worldwide.[4] One of the oldest religious institutions in the world, it has played a prominent role in the history of Western civilisation.[5] Headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the Pope, its doctrines are summarised in the Nicene Creed.[6] The Catholic Church is also notable within the Western Christian tradition for its celebration of the seven sacraments.

The Catholic Church teaches that it is the one true church founded by Jesus Christ,[7][note 1][10] that its bishops are the successors of Christ's apostles, and that the Pope is the successor to Saint Peter.[11] The Church maintains that the doctrine on faith and morals that it declares as definitive is infallible.[12][note 2] The Latin Church, the autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches and religious institutes such as the Jesuits, mendicant orders and enclosed monastic orders, reflect a variety of theological emphases in the Church.[13][14]

Of the seven sacraments,[15] the principal one is the Eucharist, celebrated liturgically in the Mass. The church teaches that through consecration by a priest, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.[16] The Catholic Church practises closed communion, with only baptised members in a state of grace ordinarily permitted to receive it.[17]

The Catholic Church venerates Mary as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven and practises numerous Marian devotions.[18] It has defined four Marian dogmatic teachings: her immaculate conception without original sin, her status as the Mother of God,[19] her perpetual virginity and her bodily assumption into Heaven at the end of her earthly life.[20]

Catholic spiritual teaching includes spreading the Gospel while Catholic social teaching emphasises support for the sick, the poor and the afflicted through corporal works of mercy. The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of education and medical services in the world.[21]


The word catholic is derived from the Greek word καθολικός (katholikos), which means "universal". Katholikos is associated with the adverb καθόλου (katholou), a contraction of the phrase καθ' ὅλου (kath' holou), which means "according to the whole".[22]

Catholic was first used to describe the church in the early 2nd century.[23] The first known use of the phrase "the catholic church" (he katholike ekklesia) occurred in the letter from Saint Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans, written about 110 AD.[note 3] In the Catechetical Discourses of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, the name "Catholic Church" was used to distinguish it from other groups that also call themselves the church.[24][25]

Since the East–West Schism of 1054, the Eastern Church has taken the adjective "Orthodox" as its distinctive epithet, and the Western Church in communion with the Holy See has similarly taken "Catholic", keeping that description also after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th-century, when those that ceased to be in communion became known as Protestants.[26][27]

The name "Catholic Church" is the most common designation used in official church documents.[28] It is also the name which Pope Paul VI used when signing documents of the Second Vatican Council.[29] However, documents produced both by the Holy See[note 4] and by certain national episcopal conferences[note 5] occasionally refer to the Church as the Roman Catholic Church. The Catechism of Pope Pius X, published in 1908, also used the term "Roman" to distinguish the Catholic Church from other Christian communities which are not in full communion with the Holy See.[30]


The leadership of the Catholic Church is hierarchical, led by clergy who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders who are given formal jurisdictions of governance within the church.[2][3] There are three levels of clergy, the episcopate (bishops), whose members are given a geographical jurisdiction called a diocese or eparchy; the presbyterate (priests), who serve the bishops or other superiors, often by leading local parishes; and the diaconate (deacons), who serve the bishops and priests in a variety of ministerial roles. Ultimately leading the entire Catholic Church is the Bishop of Rome, commonly called the Pope, whose jurisdiction is called the Holy See. In parallel to the diocesan structure are a variety of religious institutes that function autonomously, often subject only to the authority of the Pope, though sometimes subject to the local bishop. Most religious institutes only have male or female members but some have both. Additionally, lay members aid many liturgical functions during worship services.

Papacy and Roman Curia

The Church's hierarchy is headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the Pope (Latin: papa; "father"), who is the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church composed of the Latin Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the see of Rome.[31] The current Pope, Francis, was elected on 13 March 2013 by papal conclave.[32]

The office of the Pope is known as the papacy. The Catholic Church holds that Christ instituted the papacy upon giving the keys of Heaven to Saint Peter. His ecclesiastical jurisdiction is called the "Holy See" (Sancta Sedes in Latin), or the "Apostolic See" (meaning the see of the apostle Peter).[33][34] Directly serving the Pope is the Roman Curia, the central governing body that administers the day-to-day business of the Catholic Church. The Pope is also Sovereign of Vatican City State,[35] a small city-state entirely enclaved within the city of Rome, which is an entity distinct from the Holy See. It is as head of the Holy See, not as head of Vatican City State, that the Pope receives ambassadors of states and sends them his own diplomatic representatives.[36]

The position of cardinal is a rank of honour bestowed by popes on certain clergy, such as leaders within the Roman Curia, bishops serving in major cities and distinguished theologians. For advice and assistance in governing, the pope may turn to the College of Cardinals.[37]

Following the death or resignation of a pope,[note 6] members of the College of Cardinals who are under age 80 meet in a papal conclave to elect a successor.[39] Although the conclave may elect any male Catholic as Pope, since 1389 only cardinals have been elected.[40]

Canon law

The canon law of the Catholic Church is the system of laws and legal principles made and enforced by the hierarchical authorities to regulate the church's external organisation and government and to order and direct the activities of Catholics towards the church's mission.[41] In the Catholic Church, universal positive ecclesiastical laws, based upon either immutable divine and natural law, or changeable circumstantial and merely positive law, derive formal authority and promulgation from the office of pope who, as Supreme Pontiff, possesses the totality of legislative, executive and judicial power in his person.[42] It has all the ordinary elements of a mature legal system:[43] laws, courts, lawyers, judges,[43] a fully articulated legal code,[44] principles of legal interpretation[45] and coercive penalties that are limited to moral coercion.[46][47]

Canon law concerns the Catholic Church's life and organisation and is distinct from civil law. In its own field it gives force to civil law only by specific enactment in matters such as the guardianship of minors.[48] Similarly, civil law may give force in its field to canon law, but only by specific enactment, as with regard to canonical marriages.[49] Currently, the 1983 Code of Canon Law is in effect primarily for the Latin Church.[50] The distinct 1990 Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches (CCEO, after the Latin initials) applies to the autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches.[51]

Autonomous particular churches

The Catholic Church is made up of 24 autonomous particular churches, also known by the term "churches sui iuris" (Latin: "of one's own right"), each of which accepts the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome on matters of doctrine.[52][53] These churches are communities of Catholic Christians whose forms of worship reflect different historical and cultural influences rather than differences in doctrine. In general, each sui iuris church is headed by a patriarch or high-ranking bishop,[54] and has a degree of self-governance over the particulars of its internal organisation, liturgical rites, liturgical calendar and other aspects of its spirituality.[55]

The largest by far of the particular churches is the Latin Church, which reports over one billion members. It developed in southern Europe and North Africa. Then it spread throughout Western, Central and Northern Europe, before expanding to the rest of the world. The Latin Church is part of Western Christianity, a heritage of certain beliefs and customs originating in various European countries, some of which are inherited by many Christian denominations that trace their origins to the Protestant Reformation.[56]

Relatively small in terms of adherents compared to the Latin Church, but important to the overall structure of the Church, are the 23 self-governing Eastern Catholic Churches with a combined membership of 17.3 million as of 2010.[57] The Eastern Catholic Churches follow the traditions and spirituality of Eastern Christianity and are composed of Eastern Christians who have always remained in full communion with the Catholic Church or who have chosen to reenter full communion in the centuries following the East–West Schism and earlier divisions. Some Eastern Catholic Churches are governed by a patriarch who is elected by the synod of the bishops of that church,[58] others are headed by a major archbishop,[59] others are under a metropolitan,[60] and others are organised as individual eparchies.[61] The Roman Curia has a specific department, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, to maintain relations with them.[62]

Dioceses, parishes and religious institutes

Individual countries, regions, or major cities are served by particular churches known as dioceses or eparchies, each overseen by a bishop. Each diocese is united with one of the worldwide sui iuris particular churches such as the Latin Church or one of the Eastern Catholic churches. In 2008, the Catholic Church had 2,795 dioceses.[64] The bishops in a particular country are members of a national or regional episcopal conference.[65]

Dioceses are divided into parishes, each with one or more priests, deacons or lay ecclesial ministers.[66] Parishes are responsible for the day to day celebration of the sacraments and pastoral care of the laity.[67]

In the Latin Church, Catholic men may serve as deacons or priests by receiving sacramental ordination. Men and women may serve as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, as readers (lectors); or as altar servers. Historically, boys and men have only been permitted to serve as altar servers; however since the 1990s, girls and women have also been permitted.[68][note 7]

Ordained Catholics, as well as members of the laity, may enter into consecrated life either on an individual basis, as a hermit or consecrated virgin, or by joining an institute of consecrated life (a religious institute or a secular institute) in which to take vows confirming their desire to follow the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience.[69] Examples of institutes of consecrated life are the Benedictines, the Carmelites, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Missionaries of Charity, the Legionaries of Christ and the Sisters of Mercy.[69]

"Religious institutes" is a modern term encompassing both "religious orders" and "religious congregations" which were once distinguished in canon law.[70] The terms "Religious order" and "religious institute" tend to be used as synonyms colloquially.[71]

Membership statistics

Church membership in 2013 was 1.254 billion, which is 17.7% of the world population,[4] an increase from 437 million in 1950[72] and 654 million in 1970.[73] Since 2010, the rate of increase was 1.5% with a 2.3% increase in Africa and a 0.3% increase in the Americas and Europe. 48.8% of Catholics live in the Americas, 23.5% in Europe, 16.0% in Africa, 10.9% in Asia and 0.8% in Oceania.[74] Catholics represent about half of all Christians.[75]


In 2011, the Catholic Church had 413,418 priests. The main growth areas have been Asia and Africa, with 39% and 32% increases respectively since 2000, while the numbers were steady in the Americas and dropped by 9% in Europe.[74] In 2006, members of consecrated life totalled 945,210; 743,200 of whom were female.[76] As of 2009 there were approximately 5,100 bishops total in the Latin and Eastern churches.[77]

Catholic Church at a Glance


Pope Francis as Bishop of Rome


Holy See
Patriarchates: 9
Archdioceses: 640
Regular dioceses: 2,851

sui iuris

Latin Church (Western)
Eastern Catholic Churches: 23




Jesus Christ


1st century in JerusalemJudeaRoman Empire


1.254 billion[4]


5,100 bishops and 413,000 priests