The Catholic patriarchs of the east are generally speaking the head bishops of some of the autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches. Each patriarch of the east has authority over all bishops of a particular eastern rite church. These patriarchs are elected by their synods, and must extend communion to and receive it from the other patriarchs, including the pope, before officially taking their office. In matters of discipline and practice, but not in matters of dogma, they generally follow the customs and laws of their particular church. Perhaps the most striking example is that in most Eastern Catholic Churches, ordination of married men to the priesthood is routine (although no priest may marry after ordination, and only celibate priests may become bishops). Eastern churches that are not headed by patriarchs are instead headed by bishops who are titled major archbishops, metropolitans, or in a few cases merely eparchs.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem is also considered one of the patriarchs of the east. However, his church follows the Latin Rite and his patriarchal title derives from the historical importance of the see rather than the autonomy of his church. The Patriarch of the East Indies is a Latin Rite archbishop whose patriarchal title derives from the importance of his see in the evangelization of south and east Asia but, despite the title of the patriarchate, is not considered a patriarch of the east.
Around the time of the Second Vatican Council, as a result of new ecumenical bonds between the Eastern Rite Catholic and Latin Rite Catholic churches and their leaders, some Eastern patriarchs that headed Eastern churches recognizing the papacy (and thus making the joint reception of Communion possible) were elevated to Cardinal.
The patriarchs of the Eastern Rite churches are:
- The Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria
- The Syrian Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and all the East
- The Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of Alexandria, and of Jerusalem
- The Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East
- The Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon
- The Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia