Catholicism, Catholics, and Catholic Church Organization

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Saint Peter's Basillica

The Catholic church is the largest branch of Christendom. Over half of the world’s two billion Christians are Catholics. Some Catholics feel that Catholicism is the only branch of Christianity and other denominations chose to leave the flock. In some ways that is true as the history of Christianity is one of schisms. Over more than 1,500 years one by one different sects and denominations have broken away of the prevailing mainstream and Catholicism is what is left. The word Catholic means “universal.” It is derived from the Greek word “katholikos” or “kath-holou” (“according to all”). In the West, Catholic has come to mean “universal in the sense of geographical extension of the Church throughout the world.” In the East “Catholic” mean “integral” or “whole.”

The Catholic church is headquartered at the Vatican, a sovereign state in the middle of Rome. Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “The Catholic Church, based in Rome and headed by the Pope, is the oldest institution in the western world. It can trace its history back almost 2000 years. Catholics believe that the Pope, based in Rome, is the successor to Saint Peter whom Christ appointed as the first head of His church. He therefore stands in what Catholicism calls the apostolic succession, an unbroken line back to Peter and has supreme authority. Popes can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals but in practice do so rarely.” [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011]

The Catholic Church stresses hierarchy, community and good works not individualism as is highlighted in Protestantism. The theology of the Catholic church is based in a large part on the ideas of the great 5th century Christian theologian St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas ((1224-74).

Websites and Resources Holy See ; Catholic Online ; Catholic Encyclopedia ; Lives of the Saints: ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Sourcebook ;


praying woman in Poland

The 1 billion or so members of the Catholic church make up nearly one sixth of humanity, approximately the same number as Muslims. Half the world's Catholic population lives in Latin America although significant populations of Catholic can be found in almost very country. The fastest rates of growth are among animists in Asia and Africa. Elsewhere, the Catholic church suffers from declining membership particularly in North America and Europe. Less men are entering the priesthood. Sexual abuse scandals have rocked the church in the U.S., Ireland, Canada and Britain. In Italy most practicing Catholics it often seems are old women.

Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “ Today there are more than a billion Catholics in the world, spread across all five continents with particular concentrations in southern Europe, the United States, the Philippines and the countries of Central and South America. What binds this diverse group of people together is their faith in Jesus Christ and their obedience to the papacy.” [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011 |::|]

“Catholics share with other Christians a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, the son of God made man who came to earth to redeem humanity's sins through His death and resurrection. They follow His teachings as set out in the New Testament and place their trust in God's promise of eternal life with Him. Catholicism, however, is distinct from other Christian churches in both its organisation and its teaching.” |::|

Catholic Numbers

The largest Christian denomination is the Roman Catholic Church, with 1.3 billion adherents, representing half of all Christians. A Pew Forum study in 2012 study estimated Christianity was the largest faith at 2.2 billion adherents or 31.5 percent of the world’s population, with Roman Catholics making up 48 percent of that total, Protestants — including Anglicans and non-denominational churches — at 37 percent and Orthodox at 12 percent. [Source: AFP, December 20, 2011; Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012; Wikipedia, 2024]

In Latin America, Pentecostalism has overtaken Roman Catholicism as the dominant faith in many regions. Brazil has more than twice as many Catholics as Italy, where the Vatican, the seat of Catholicism, is..

About 36.7 percent of the world's Christians are Protestant and 11.9 percent Orthodox, according to the Pew study. The report's findings, posted on the Pew Research Center's website ( were primarily based on a country-by-country analysis of about 2,400 data sources, including censuses and population surveys. In a report at the start of this year, the center estimated the world's Muslim population at 1.6 billion — a figure it said was projected to grow by about 35 percent to 2.2 billion by 2030.” =*=

According to Pew, In many cases however, censuses and surveys do not contain detailed information on denominational and religious movement affiliations. Christian organizations remain in many cases the only source of information on the size of global movements within Christianity

Catholic Church Structure and Organization


The church's organization chart goes on for 2000 pages. At the top of the pyramid are cardinals, bishops and the Curia Romana, the Vatican's legendary bureaucracy. The most important body within the Curia is the Secretary of State who is responsible for coordinating all of the Vatican's other bureaucracies and conducting the affairs of the Vatican with the outside world. Its principal is the cardinal secretary of state. In the 1980s Agostino Cardinal Casarol was often referred to as "the Vatican's Kissinger."

Large areas with Catholic populations are divided into dioceses. Each diocese has a bishop and usually at least one assistant bishop. Each diocese also has a cathedral which is the 'seat' of the bishop. Sometimes diocese are grouped together under the leadership of an archbishop.

The parish is the heart of the church system. Each parish is overseen by a parish priest, usually called a vicar or rector. Sometimes they are assisted by a curate or deacon or parish worker. The latter is a lay post. Each parish church is run by the priest in collaboration with a parochial church council. The bishop appoints the priest.

There are thousands of bishops, tens of thousands of priests and million of ordinary Catholic. A cathedral by definition is the home of a bishop. Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “The hierarchical nature of Catholicism sets it apart from other Christian churches. It is a pyramid with the Pope at the top, followed by cardinals (who have the right to elect a new Pope on the death of the current incumbent), archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons and laity. [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011 |::|]

“Traditionally clerics were seen as having a higher calling than the laity but, since the landmark Second Vatican Council, both laity and clergy have been regarded as jointly 'the people of God'. That same reforming council stressed the need for popes and bishops to consult widely before pronouncing on matters of faith, but in practice they retain the unfettered power to teach on such questions. All major decisions rest with the Pope and his advisors. |::|


Priests are men who have been ordained (officially designated) by the Catholic church to carry out the holy sacraments such as baptism and communion. Monsignor is the official title of a priest. It is s derived from “monseigneur”, the French word for "my lord." During their ordination priests receive and stole and chasuble as well as bread and wine for mass.

Originally priests were set up to be assistants to the bishops to administer the Eucharist acting in “persoana Christ” (“in the person of Christ”). An official who becomes a priest must be ordained by a bishop. Ordination allows the priest to consecrate the bread and wine for the Eucharist. Members of the clergy are often invited to family affairs. There is currently a shortage of priests.

Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “The Catholic Church ordains only celibate men to the priesthood since Jesus was, it teaches, male and celibate. In the Protestant churches married and female clergy are the norm. Orthodoxy allows married men to become priests but not bishops. [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011 |::|]

Catholic Church structure

Canonical hours are fixed forms of prayer that Catholic priests are required to recite everyday and consist of vigils (late night) matins and lauds (before sunrise), prime (at sunrise), tierce (morning), sext (noon time), none (afternoon), vespers (evening), and compline (night). These prayers are delivered as chants such as Gregorian chats.

Roman Catholicism Passed by by the Modern World?

The world seems to be passing the Catholic Church by. Defying calls by the Vatican to do otherwise, the majority of Catholics in Catholic countries use some form of contraception. Predominately Catholic Italy and Spain have among the lowest birth rates in the world. Many young people are losing their connection with Catholicism. Many don’t know how to use a rosary or properly say a Hail Mary.

Many people believe the time has come for the Catholic Church to get real about issues like overpopulation and women's rights. In the 1990s, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, and from Barcelona, once said the Olympic Games were "more important that the Catholic religion." The Italian Soccer Federation more or less told the Vatican to get lost when it asked the league to stop league matches on Sunday. The Irish legalized divorce. German Catholics have called for ordination of women.

Church attendance has been declining for some time, especially in Europe and North America. According to a survey in the late 1990s, only 17 percent of Catholics in Austria and 28 percent of the Catholics in Rome attend Mass. In the United States only a third of Catholics attend Mass weekly. In Latin America the figure is only 6 to 10 percent. This is arguable due to lack of interest and a shortage of priests.

In 1998, the Vatican issued an apostolic letter urging Catholics t improve Mass attendance and make weekend leisure pursuits secondary to obligatory worship. The letter reminded Catholics that its is :grave sin: to skip Sunday Mass without a good reason. It mostly fell on deaf ears.

worldwide Christian denomination percentages

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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