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While the Church considers Jesus to be its ultimate spiritual head, the spiritual leader and head of the Church organization is the pope.[134] The pope governs from Vatican City in Rome, a sovereign nation of which he is also the civil head of state.[135]

The pope can name cardinals to serve as his advisers. Today, cardinals are almost always bishops.

On the death of a pope, the College of Cardinals, consisting of all the cardinals under the age of 80, must elect a new pope. The pope is elected for life and may be any male member of the Church; but if the person chosen is not already a bishop, he must become one before taking office.[136]

The pope is assisted in the Church's administration by the Roman Curia, or civil service. The Church community is governed according to formal regulations set out in the Code of Canon Law. The official language of the Church is Latin, although Italian is the working language of the Vatican administration.[137]

As of 2008 worldwide, the Catholic Church comprises 2,795 dioceses (also called sees or, in the East, eparchies) grouped into 23 particular rites – the Latin Rite and 22 Eastern rites – each with distinct traditions regarding the liturgy and the administering the sacraments.[138]

Each diocese is divided into individual communities called parishes, each staffed by one or more priests.[139] The community is made up of ordained members and the laity. Members of religious orders such as nuns, friars and monks are lay members unless individually ordained as priests.

Ordained members and Holy Orders

Men may become ordained clergy, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, as bishops, priests or deacons. (see Catholic Church hierarchy) All clergy who are bishops [note 3] form the College of Bishops and are considered the successors of the apostles.[141][142] Only bishops can administer the sacrament of Holy Orders; and, in the Latin Rite, Confirmation is ordinarily reserved to them.[143] Bishops are responsible for teaching and governing the faithful of their diocese, sharing these duties with the priests and deacons who serve under them. Only priests and bishops may celebrate the Eucharist and administer the sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick. They and deacons may preach, teach, baptize, witness marriages and conduct funeral services.[144] Baptism is normally performed by clergy but is the only sacrament that may be administered in emergencies by any Catholic or even a non-Christian "who has the intention of baptizing according to the belief of the Catholic Church".[145]

Married men may become deacons, but only celibate men can ordinarily be ordained as priests in the Latin Rite.[146][147] Married clergymen who have converted to the Church from other denominations are sometimes exempted from this rule.[148] The Eastern Catholic Churches ordain both celibate and married men.[149][150] All rites of the Catholic Church maintain the ancient tradition that marriage is not allowed after ordination. Men with transitory homosexual leanings may be ordained deacons following three years of prayer and chastity, but homosexual men who are sexually active, or those who have deeply rooted homosexual tendencies cannot be ordained.[151] [note 4]

All programs that aim to prepare men for the priesthood are governed by canon law, and are usually designed by national bishops' conferences, so they can vary from country to country.[155] The conferences consult Vatican documents such as Pastores Dabo Vobis, Novo Millennio Ineunte, Optatam Totius, and others to create these programs.[156] In some countries, priests are required to have a college degree plus another four years of full time theological study in a seminary or other approved institution. In other countries a degree is not strictly required, but seminary education is longer. Candidates for the priesthood are also evaluated in terms of human, spiritual and pastoral formation.[157] The sacrament of Holy Orders (ie ordination) can only be conferred by a bishop through the laying on of hands, following which the newly ordained priest is formally clothed in his priestly vestments.[143]

The Catholic view is that since the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus were all male, only men may be ordained in the Catholic Church.[158] While some consider this to be evidence of a discriminatory attitude toward women,[159] the Church believes that Jesus called women to different yet equally important vocations in Church ministry.[160] Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Christifideles Laici, states that women have specific vocations reserved only for the female sex, and are equally called to be disciples of Jesus.[161] This belief in different and complementary roles between men and women is exemplified in Pope Paul VI's statement "If the witness of the Apostles founds the Church, the witness of women contributes greatly towards nourishing the faith of Christian communities

Lay members, marriage

The laity consists of those Catholics who are not ordained clergy. Saint Paul compared the diversity of roles in the Church to the different parts of a body, all being important to enable the body to function.[12] The Church therefore considers that lay members are equally called to live according to Christian principles, to work to spread the message of Jesus, and to effect change in the world for the good of others. The Church calls these actions participation in Christ's priestly, prophetic and royal offices.[162] Marriage and the consecrated life are lay vocations. The sacrament of Holy Matrimony in the Latin rite is not conferred by a priest—the spouses mutually confer the sacrament upon each other by expressing their consent before the priest who serves as a witness. In the Eastern liturgies the minister of this sacrament, which is called "Crowning", is the priest or bishop who, after receiving the mutual consent of the spouses, successively crowns the bridegroom and the bride as a sign of the marriage covenant.[163] Church law makes no provision for divorce, but annulment may be granted when proof is produced that essential conditions for contracting a sacramental union (valid marriage) were absent. Since the Church condemns all forms of artificial birth control, married persons are expected to be open to new life in their sexual relations.[164] Natural family planning is approved.[165]

Lay ecclesial movements consist of lay Catholics organized for purposes of teaching the faith, cultural work, mutual support or missionary work.[166] Such groups include: Communion and Liberation, Neocatechumenal Way, Regnum Christi, Opus Dei, Life Teen and many others.[166] Some non-ordained Catholics practice formal, public ministries within the Church.[167] These are called lay ecclesial ministers, a broad category which may include pastoral life coordinators, pastoral assistants, youth ministers and campus ministers

Consecrated life

Religious orders

Both the ordained and the laity may enter the cloistered consecrated life as monks or nuns. There are also friars and sisters who engage in teaching and missionary activity and charity work such as the various mendicant orders. A candidate takes vows confirming their desire to follow the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience.[1]

The majority of those wishing to enter the consecrated life join one of the religious institutes which are also referred to as monastic or religious orders. They follow a common rule such as the Rule of St Benedict and agree to live under the leadership of a superior.[2][3] They usually live together in a community but individuals may be given permission to live as hermits, or to reside elsewhere, for example as a serving priest or chaplain.[4] Examples of religious institutes include the Sisters of Charity, Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Cistercians, Marist Brothers, Paulist Fathers and the Society of Jesus, but there are many others.[1]

Tertiaries and Oblates

Tertiaries and "Oblates (regular)" are laypersons who live according to the third rule of orders such as those of the Secular Franciscan Order or Lay Carmelites, either within a religious community or outside.[5] Although all tertiaries make a public profession, participate in the good works of their order and in some cases may wear the habit, they are not bound by public vows unless they live in a religious community. They must not be confused with "Oblates (secular)", who are not members of the consecrated life but are laypersons (married or single) or secular priests that have individually affiliated themselves in prayer with a House of their choice without making public vows. They make a formal private promise (annually renewable or for life, depending on the house with which they are affiliated) to follow the rule of prayer in their private life as closely as their individual circumstances and prior commitments permit.

Other forms of consecrated life

The Church recognizes several other forms of consecrated life, including secular institutes, societies of apostolic life and consecrated widows and widowers.[1] It also makes provision for the approval of new forms.[6]


Membership of the Catholic Church is attained through baptism.[174] For those baptized as children, First Communion is a particular rite of passage when, following instruction, they are allowed to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist for the first time. Those never baptized may be admitted to Baptism by participating in a formation program such as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.[175] Christians baptized outside of the Catholic Church are admitted through other formation programs but are not re-baptized.[176] In all rites, after going through formation and making a profession of faith, candidates receive the sacraments of initiation. This ordinarily occurs at the Easter vigil on Holy Saturday.[175]

Members of the Church can incur excommunication for serious violations of ecclesiastical law. Excommunication does not remove a member from the Church but severely limits the member's ability to participate in it. For very serious offenses, the excommunication can be incurred automatically.[177] Examples include violating the seal of confession (committed when a priest discloses the sins heard in the sacrament of Penance), persisting in heresy, creating schism, becoming an apostate, or having or performing an abortion.[178] Throwing away or retaining for a sacrilegious purpose the Eucharist is considered an excommunicable offense.[179] Excommunication is the most severe ecclesiastical penalty because it prevents a person from validly receiving any sacrament. Such offences can only be forgiven by the Pope, the bishop of the diocese where the person resides, or a priest authorized by the bishop to do so.[180] A similar but different concept is a minister's power to refuse to distribute communion to a person not excommunicated that has publicly committed a very serious sin.

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