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:
- Doctrine of the Faith (the old Holy Office, successor to the Inquisition), under which is an International Theological Commission and a Biblical Commission
- Oriental Churches
- Divine Liturgy and Discipline of the Sacraments
- Causes of Saints (procedures for beatification and canonization)
- Missions (previously called the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and today called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples)
- Institutes of Consecrated Life (vowed religious)
- 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.
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