Catholicism, along with Orthodoxy and Protestantism, is one of Christianity’s three principal branches and statistically the most important. Today’s use of the term is a recent, secularized means  of  referring  to  the  Catholic Church, whose head is the pope and whose headquarters are in the Vatican City in Rome.

The  word  Catholicism is  a  latecomer  in the long history of the church, a word whose history has yet to be written. It is scarcely more than four centuries old in the French language, where it  seems to  have been born  amid the sixteenth century wars of religion as a counterpart to the Protestantism of the Calvinists. The  schism between German  Lutherans  (the Church   of  the   Augsburg  Confession)  and Catholics – only recently healed after lengthy ecumenical dialogue – has no exact parallel in the relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches: the  orthodoxy Constantinople claims for itself is not opposed to any putative Roman  heresy,  but  to  the  iconoclasts over whom it triumphed in the ninth century.

Relations between confessions are inflected with   language  difficulties  about  which  no unanimity exists and which are open to multiple interpretations. ‘‘Church’’ is a theological concept that  each confession develops in  its own way. Doctrinal differences have led to the establishment   of   separate   churches   whose ecclesiological peculiarities limit  and  undermine  ecumenical dialogue.  In  contemporary Catholic usage the  word Church  is regarded as the result of contamination or degradation and reflects vacillation and uncertainty.  Formerly, ‘‘Holy Church’’ referred to the only true Church,  mother of all and universal teacher. Today,   reference  to   the   Roman   Catholic Church or the Anglican Church, for example, indicates the existence or absence of a linkage to the See of Peter (cathedra Petri), a nuance current  in  the  Anglican tradition  and  more generally in the English speaking world.

By invoking its divine institution the universal Catholic Church affirms itself to be independent of any earthly power and sovereign in its own order. This exceptional prerogative of which it is the sole beneficiary is recognized at the international level. The Catholic Church is a society with no national frontiers but with a place among the nations, possessing a territorial base of its own (Vatican City) and legally embodied by its supreme organ of governance, the Holy  See  (called such  by  the  UN),  where ambassadors are accredited from around  164 nations with whom it has diplomatic relations. Thus,  while Catholicism is a religion in  the modern sense of the word, it is also more than that, making it of great sociological interest.

Statistics about the demography and member ship   of   religions  need   to   be   interpreted cautiously. The  last research dates from 1982, with forward projections to the year 2000 (Barrett 1982). For Catholicism, however, such statistics can be updated by means of the Annuario pontificio and the Annuaire statistique de l’Eglise. The  number  of  adherents  is  thus  estimated at about a thousand million, distributed among close to 3,000 major territories, of which 2,700 are dioceses with the full exercise of episcopal authority, and some 400,000 parishes. This framework is supported by 4,500 bishops, assisted by  265,000  diocesan  priests  (called  secular clergy), 2,000,000 religious priests  (of which 125,000 are priests called ‘‘regular’’ because they live under a rule, regimen), 80,000 nuns, 26,000 permanent deacons, 80,000 lay missionaries, and 2,500,000 catechists.

Two subsets can be distinguished from this vast  collectivity. The  first  were  once  called mission territories,  entrusted  to  vicariates or apostolic  prefects  working  with  missionary orders and congregations and foreign resources. These  once  had  considerable territorial  significance. The  second were once very local: the  churches  of  the  oriental  rites  that  were united to Rome, whose special autonomy has always been recognized by virtue of their non derivative origins. Decolonization has accelerated somewhat the establishment of such fully operative churches, and while missionary activity has not ceased, it has undergone profound transformation. Migration has also led to the multiplication of dioceses of the oriental rites in western countries  (e.g., 75 percent  of Arabs living in the US are Christian), while the Latin Christians  of  the  East  have declined  to  the point of atrophy.

As  one  would  expect,  such  a  culturally diverse communion is not only spiritual in nature,  but  also a  consciously hierarchical and strongly centralized organization that rests on extensive legal, administrative,  and  financial resources.  Over  the  centuries  the  Catholic Church  has been closely associated with  the political life of Europe, as well as Latin America. For millennia, religion was a public matter and its laws were also those of society. The two orders of temporal and spiritual authority possessed respectively civil and ecclesiastical power, but  their  exact relationship and the  question of which had authority over the  other – the pope or the sovereign – was debated endlessly and often bitterly.  Today,  confessional states are now the  exception rather  than  the  rule. The  separation of church  and  state  and  the principle  of  secular  government  have  more or less succeeded the principle of Catholicity.

It is no longer religion that is public, but each person’s freedom  of religion (i.e., freedom of conscience and worship). Religion itself, it is held, is a private matter. However, the privatization of the church is not an inevitable outcome  of   freedom   of   conscience  and   the religious neutrality of the  state.  The  church does not cease its active presence in public life, nor does the nature of that presence cease to be transformed or to take new directions.

The history of the Catholic Church from the end of the nineteenth century is the history of its difficult and  necessary conversion to  this new order of society, which provides the conditions for its very existence. The singularity of the Catholic Church – its strength and its weakness –  is  really its  deep  dislike of  any regime and for the  modern  invention of the separation  of  church  and  state.  What  the church teaches and what it does always refer to an ideal of integration, although the words necessary for expressing this ideal are freighted with the old opposition between the church and the world.

The   ‘‘conversation’’ this  entails  between church and state is supervised on the church’s side by the papacy. The papacy consists of the current pope himself, plus the historical institution  for  which  he  assumes  responsibility and  the  continuity  of  which  he  represents. The Holy See is at one and the same time the Roman pontiff, the central government of the universal  church   (over  which  he  exercises ‘‘the supreme and full power of jurisdiction’’), and  the  legal personification of the  Catholic communion. The  activity of the Holy See is exercised above all by a traditional but periodically reformed organization, the Roman curia.

Since 1967 it has had at its head a secretary of state who serves as the leader of the government and who directs the policy of the church in its relations with states. He oversees the work of 9 congregations, which constitute as many minis tries but whose heads remain directly responsible to the pope. Their names clearly indicate the tasks for which they are responsible:

  1. Doctrine of the Faith (the old Holy Office, successor to the Inquisition), under which is an International Theological Commission and a Biblical Commission
  2. Oriental Churches
  3. Divine  Liturgy   and   Discipline   of   the Sacraments
  4. Causes of Saints (procedures for beatification and canonization)
  5. Bishops
  6. Missions (previously called the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and today called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples)
  7. Clergy
  8. Institutes of Consecrated Life (vowed religious)
  9. Catholic Education (seminaries and Catholic schools and universities)

In addition to these congregations, three tribunals exist under archaic names: (1) the Apostolic  Signature,   which  judges  appeals  and administrative disputes; (2) the  Roman Rota, for  cases of  marriage litigation; and  (3) the Sacred Penitentiary, for matters of conscience that are private or reserved to the pope. Then there are offices or bureaus, among them the Prefecture   of   Economic   Affairs   (accounts office) and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See.

Among   various  permanent   commissions, there  are pontifical councils established after the Second Vatican Council in 1962–5 (Unity of Christians, Interreligious Dialogue, for the Laity, for Culture, Pastoral Council of Migrants,  Family, Health,  Charitable Works, etc.).  To   these  entities  of  government  are added institutions responsible for administering the  cultural patrimony of the  Holy See and making it accessible to the public: the Vatican Library, the Vatican Archives, and the Vatican Museum.  Only  3,500 active permanent  staff (with a thousand retired) are employed in this administration – not many, given the task and the size of the budget, the balancing of which has become a problem.

‘‘The Vatican’’ is partly mythic (a kind of shorthand), but  also a reality of international law, defined by  the  Lateran  Accords (1929) between the Holy See and Italy. It is a miniature state of 44 hectares: testimony to a distant historical past (the Papal States) and endowed with  a  system  and  government  of  its  own (bureaus of work and places of service), but above all a territorial basis for the independence of the Holy See.

The  papacy is often considered one of the last absolute monarchies, but this is inappropriate. If the power of the pope is supreme and complete, it is neither absolute nor solitary, but vicarious and collegial. This  relativization did not  prevent  its  growth from the  end  of the nineteenth century, nor block the reestablishment  of episcopal collegiality at  the  Second Vatican Council. This  takes effect at  several levels: in a unique way on the occasion of a council; periodically by the holding of synods (11 from 1967 to 2005, to which are added an extraordinary session and  8 special sessions); and regularly in national or regional episcopal conferences. Compared to these, the particular council of the pope that the Sacred College of Cardinals comprises (120 below the age of 80 years) seems a lighter and more mobile structure. Its major responsibility is to elect a successor at the death of the pope.

The Holy See is not supranational: it is not a state among states while participating in their organizations as an ‘‘observer,’’ and the Vatican citizenship that its officers enjoy is in addition to that  of their national origin. The  Catholic Church thinks of itself as being transnational: state boundaries are accommodated and respected, but without thereby discriminating among  the  faithful.  As  for  the  latter,  they voluntarily give an international form to their national activities. Thus,  since 1951, there has been  a  Conference of  International  Catholic Organizations (OIC)  comprising 36  member organizations, 4 associated ones, and 4 invited, most of which have NGO consultative status at the UN  and its specialized agencies, such as UNESCO.

If the diocese and the parish have been the ordinary structures of the church for a thou sand years, the importance of other structures should not be neglected: the ancient, strongly controlled  network  of  orders,  congregations, and other institutes of religious life; the teaching  sector  (seminaries and  Catholic  schools and universities); the periodical and book publishing  sector;  hospital  care  and   charities, complemented by missionary cooperation and economic  development;   and   the   immense movement of the lay apostolate, long identified – narrowly – as Catholic Action, but the forms and orientations of which vary considerably by country and era.

Tensions can arise between the two aspects of  these  intertwining  activities:  an  internal aspect  turned  toward  spirituality  and  sometimes tempted to ignore ‘‘the world,’’ and an external aspect turned  toward the  apostolate and  evangelization, engaged in  the  world to the  point  of  losing its  Christian  identity  – hence, it is possible to go from ‘‘dechristianization’’ to  ‘‘deconfessionalization.’’  This  was the  great  adventure  of  the  Catholic  Social Movement, born  in  Western  Europe  around 1870, from which arose Christian labor unions and political parties of Christian inspiration. If these  were not  or  are no  longer specifically Catholic, a study of Catholic organization cannot pass over them in silence, for they speak to the church’s capacity to maintain a presence. Globally, the Catholic Church is an immense mosaic of  cultures,  traversing  all  the  social classes, speaking all the languages. At the center of this Catholicity there exists a relatively small  bureaucracy which  no  official of  any country would judge sufficiently large. Political scientists would do well to examine this phenomenon more closely. They  would discover that   the   principle   of  episcopal  collegiality involves decentralization and subsidiarity, associating strict control at all levels with features of voluntary association. In  itself this fund mental principle cannot guarantee functionality – historians and sociologists have known that for a long time. Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties it experiences and the struggles it encounters, the Catholic Church continues.


  1. Barrett, B. (Ed.) (1982) World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. Cuneo,  W.  (1987) Conservative  Catholicism  in North America: Pro Life Activism and the Pursuit of the Sacred. Pro Mundi Vita, Brussels.
  3. Grabiel, & Kaufmann, F.-X. (Eds.) (1980) Zur Soziologie des Katolizismus  (Toward the Sociology of Catholicism). Matthias-Grunwald, Mainz.
  4. Hebaugh,  R.  (Ed.)  (1991) Religion and Social Order: Vatican II  and US Catholicism. JAI Press, Greenwich, CT.
  5. Hornsby-Smith, (1991) Roman Catholic Beliefs in England: Contemporary Catholicism and Transformations of Religious Authority.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  6. McSweeney,  (1987)  Roman  Catholicism: The Search for Relevance. Blackwell, Oxford.
  7. O’Toole,  (Ed.)  (1989)  Sociological Studies in Roman Catholicism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Edwin Mellen, Lewiston, NY.
  8. Poulat, E. (1965) Catholicisme, democratie et socialism (Catholicism, Democracy, and Socialism). Casterman, Paris.
  9. Poulat, (1969) Integrisme  et catholicisme  integral (Fundamentalism and Integral Catholicism). Casterman, Paris.
  10. Poulat, (1986) L’Eglise c’est un monde. L’Ecclesio sphere  (The  Church  is a  World: The  Ecclesiosphere). Editions du Cerf, Paris.
  11. Vaillancourt, G. (1980) Papal Power: A Study of Vatican Control over Lay Catholic Elites. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Back to Sociology of Religion