How is the Catholic Church Organized?

Confused by Catholic Church structure?  Hopefully this entry can help demystify how the Catholic Church is organized.

The “Catholic Church” is a worldwide church of one billion people.  The Catholic Church is actually a group of individual churches.  The largest church is the Roman Catholic church.  The Roman Catholic church is the familiar face of Catholicism in the West, and the vast majority of Catholics are members of this church.  The remaining 22 churches fall under the umbrella of Eastern Catholic churches.  Most of the Eastern Catholic churches were communities of Eastern Orthodox that came into full communion with the Roman Catholic church.  Examples of Eastern Catholic churches include the Ukrainian Catholic church, Greek Byzantine Catholic church, Coptic Catholic church, Armenian Catholic church, and Melkite Greek Catholic Church.  Again, most of these have an Eastern Orthodox counterpart.  Together, the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Catholic churches make up the Catholic Church.  We are united under the visible earthly head of the Catholic Church, the bishop of Rome, the Pope.  The Pope is not only the head of the Catholic Church as a whole, but the patriarch, or head, of the Roman Catholic church.  This mirrors the apostles, who started many different churches, yet Saint Peter had primacy over all of the apostles.  Currently (Sept. 2009), the Bishop of Rome is Pope Benedict XVI.

When Catholics go to church during the week and on Sundays, we go to a place called a parish. The parish is the spiritual home of the Catholic.  Here, we participate in the sacraments, have prayer services, Bible studies, Sunday School, RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the conversion program), charity events, and other social events.  Parishes many times have an elementary and/or secondary school associated with it.  The parish is headed by the parish priest, sometimes called the “pastor”.  Parishes also have deacons, who are also ordained ministers.  They assist the priest at Mass/Divine Liturgy, many times head the Sunday School and RCIA programs, bring the Eucharist to the hospitalized and home-bound, celebrate Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction, etc.  In the Roman Catholic church, deacons can also baptize and witness marriages.  In the Eastern Catholic churches, only bishops and priests can do those.  Lay volunteers help run the parish, including serving as cantors/chanters, singing in the choir, as altar servers, ushers, organists,  catechists (teachers), lectors (readers), extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers, tour guides, secretaries, etc.

Parishes are organized into geographical territories called a diocese.  A diocese is also called a “local particular church”.  A diocese is headed by a bishop.  Bishops hold the “fullness of the priesthood” (and are seen as successors of the Twelve Apostles), the highest level of Holy Orders (a common misconception is that someone is ordained as Pope.  This is incorrect.  The Pope is a bishop.  There are only three Holy Orders that one can be ordained to: deacons, priests, and bishops. Pope is a title for the Bishop of Rome.  Likewise, “cardinal” is a special office and title for a group of bishops).  Larger dioceses, or dioceses that have had some important role or event in history, are called archdioceses, such as the Archdiocese of New York, and the head of the archdiocese is known as an archbishop.  The church that the bishop calls home is called a cathedral.  The cathedral is the head church of a diocese.  For example, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the central church of the Archdiocese of New York.  You may have also heard of some churches called basilicas.  A basilica is simply a church that has some historical significance, and may have certain privileges as well.  The most famous basilica is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  We should also note here the distinction between cathedral and basilica.  The cathedral, as mentioned before, is the church of the bishop, the head of the diocese.  It literally has a chair (or “cathedra“) symbolizing this status.  So, in Washington, DC, The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic church in the United States.  However, it is not the cathedral.  The cathedral of the Archdiocese of Washington is St. Matthew’s Cathedral.  Likewise, the cathedral of the Pope is NOT St. Peter’s Basilica.  It is the Basilica of St. John Lateran (a basilica and also a cathedral).  So to sum up all of that: parishes are headed by a parish priest, and are organized into groups called dioceses, which are headed by a bishop. The central church of the diocese is a cathedral, which is the home church of the bishop.

The bishops of a country are organized into “conferences”.  In the USA, this is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which governs the Catholic Church in the United States.

A group of dioceses make up an “autonomous particular church“.  As stated above, the largest of these is the Roman Catholic church.  So, the Catholic Church is not one monolithic church, but a group of churches that all have their own rulers.  As a diocese (local particular church) has a bishop at its head, an autonomous particular church is also headed by a bishop, who has the title of Patriarch.  The patriarch of the Roman Catholic church is the Pope.  Again, because we see the Pope as the successor of Saint Peter the Apostle, who had primacy among the other apostles, the Pope has primacy over all other bishops, and is the visible head of the Catholic Church.  Each autonomous church in the Catholic Church is governed by a set of laws called canon law, which is specific to the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Catholic churches.

The “headquarters” of the worldwide Catholic Church is the Holy See, which is also home to the Patriarch of the Roman Catholic church, as well as the head of the entire Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  Vatican City is the city-state  that the Holy See rules over. The Roman Curia governs the Holy See.  The Curia has many congregations, which are basically specialty offices, the oldest of which is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Others include: the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.  The Curia also has tribunals (such as the Apostolic Penitentiary, which deals with excommunication and other related matters), pontifical councils (such as the Pontifical Council for the Family, which aims to ensure the rights and understanding of sacramental matrimony and the traditional family, as well as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace), and pontifical commissions (such as the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology).  All of these offices and many more govern the Catholic Church as a whole.

So, let’s sum up the basics of Catholic Church organization: The Catholic Church is a group of 23 autonomous, or self-governing churches.  The largest of these is the Roman Catholic Church.  The remaining 22 fall under the umbrella of “Eastern Catholic churches”.  All of these churches are united under the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  The parish is the center of Catholic life, and is headed by a parish priest.  The geographical territory of groups of parishes is known as a diocese (local particular church).  The head of a dicoese is a bishop.  A cathedral is the central church of a diocese.  All of the bishops in a country form a “conference”, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  These conferences govern the Catholic Church in a country.  Dioceses make up an autonomous particular church, such as the Roman Catholic church, or the Ukrainian Catholic church.  The head of an autonomous particular church is also a bishop, who has the title of Patriarch.  Bishops are seen as successors of the Twelve Apostles.  The successor of Saint Peter is the Patriarch of the Roman Catholic church, the bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope, who has primacy over all other bishops, as St. Peter had primacy over the other apostles.  Together, these autonomous churches make up the Catholic Church, which is governed as a whole by the Holy See (which governs the territory of Vatican City, a city state).  The Holy See has many offices that oversee various aspects of church life.

Hope that helps (somewhat)!

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~ by onecatholic on September 11, 2009.

3 Responses to “How is the Catholic Church Organized?”

  1. Very good and informative post. Me being a convert it helped to clear up the matter of east and west for me. Thanks so much. Sandy

  2. No problem! I know that a lot of people get confused by how the Church is organized, so I thought I’d break it down. The details do get confusing, but the overall picture is better.

  3. You are correct he overall picture is much better. In fact I love the way you break it down, and you might want to maybe ask your Priest if you could put this in the bulletin or something, as I am sure there are many life me who need it. Thanks again, Sandy

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