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The Geography of Roman Catholicism

The Essentials of the Faith

Roman Catholicism is one of the largest religions in the world, with over a billion adherents distributed all over the world. It is characterized by it's highly developed doctrinal and organizational structure. Catholicism's history began when adherents of Judaism accepted Jesus Christ as not just a prophet, but as the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Founded: Roman Catholicism was reputedly started with the commissioning of the Apostle Peter "as the rock on which the church is to be built" (Matt. 16:18). Catholicism, which means universal, received the adjective "Roman" due to the Church's adoption of the organizational grid of the Roman empire. The adjective was also used because of the tradition that Peter had founded the Church in Rome and that he and Paul were buried there.

Adherents: With few exceptions, Roman Catholics are found throughout the world, out of many nations and peoples. Roman Catholics are found concentrated in several areas of world such as southern Europe, South America and certain areas of Asia such as the Philippines. Please see the distribution chart below.

Distribution: The distribution listed for Roman Catholics is given as follows from Markham, pp. 356-357:

Area Adherents Population Percentage
Latin America405,623,00087.0%
Northern America97,022,00034.7%

Major Teachings: There are two central ideas to Roman Catholicism: the Church as a teaching authority, and the Church as a sacramental agent. The Church as a teaching authority means that the Church is the interpreting agent of the Bible, like the US Supreme Court is to the US Constitution. To accomplish this, the Church has a Pope (with papal infallibility) who speaks officially on matters of faith and morals (Matthew 16:18,19). The Church as a sacramental agent means that the church institutes sacraments for its adherents so that they can live more spiritually. The seven sacraments are further discussed below.

Scriptures and Significant Writings: Roman Catholics recognize the New Testament and the Old Testament (the Hebrew scriptures of Judaism). In addition to these scriptures, the Church recognizes several other books as canon, not recognized by Protestants. These books are known by Protestants as the Apocrypha, and to the Church as the Deuterocanonicals. Furthermore, tradition, canon law, and the infallible authority of the Pope are regarded as additional sources of divine truth.

Major Divisions: The primary segment of the Roman Catholic Church are the Latin rite Catholics, which liturgy has historically been in Latin. Other Eastern Catholic jurisdictions with differing liturgies, languages, ethnicities, and rules are the Ruthenian, Ukrainian, Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean, and Armenian dioceses. Links to some of these churches are listed below. Other Eastern Catholic Churches under the authority of Roman Catholic Bishops include the Syrian, Russian, White Russian, and Romanian Churches (Channing L. Bete Co., p. 14). All of these churches are distinguished from native Orthodox churches usually only by the fact that they acknowledge the primacy of the Pope.

Major Holy Days: In addition to the holy days celebrated by most other Christians, Roman Catholics observe a number of other holy days and saints days. These might be observed by special masses, fasts, or feasts. The more significant of these are All Saints Day, Annunciation, Ascension Day, Epiphany, Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Good Friday, Maundy Thursday, Nativity of St. John the Baptist (observed especially in Latino culture), and Palm Sunday.

The Details about Roman Catholicism

During the first five centuries, the Church of Rome gradually assumed preëminence among the churches of the Mediterranean region. It came to be regarded as a kind of final court of appeal as well as a focus of unity for the worldwide communion of churches. After the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine I, in the year 312, a new era for the Church began.

In 314, the Edict of Milan recognized Roman Catholicism as a legal religion and by the end of the 4th century, Roman Catholicism was made the official religion of the Empire. The clergy was then accorded privileged status in the Empire. Constantine's conversion also provided the Church with extraordinary opportunities for proclaiming the gospel to all nations, usually through missionary work. Some, however, saw this as dangerous because Christian commitment would no longer be tested by persecution, as it was before Constantine's conversion. Following this, a monastic movement developed in which monks became directly involved in the missionary expansion of the Church in Ireland, Scotland, Gaul, and England between the 5th and 7th centuries.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, there was a controversy over the relationship between the one God, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, ended the controversy by stating that "Jesus is at once divine and human. The divine and the human are united in one person, 'without confusion or change, without division or separation'" (Eliade, p. 432).

When the western empire fell in 476 CE, Germanic tribes came into the area and the Pope was the only effective force left for order in the west. In the ensuing centuries, the monks "Christianized the [Germanic] invaders and cemented ties between a distinctly Roman form of Christianity and western European culture" (The New Encyclopædia Britannica, p. 149).

A turning point in the Church's history came in 1054, in an event known as the Great Schism. This schism occurred as the eastern churches separated from the western churches due to unfortunate and complicated political maneuvers. The unity between the East and the West came apart when:

  1. the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularios, was excommunicated by the Roman Church
  2. the Fourth Crusade happened between the years of 1202-1204
  3. the city of Constantinople was sacked by western knights.
In the years 1378-1417, the Western Schism took place, making three different men claimants to the papal throne. This schism was brought to an end in 1414 by the Council of Constance which through the principle of conciliarism. The principle of conciliarism is that a general council of the Church, not the Pope, is the highest ecclesiastical authority. The Council then elected Martin V (not one of the three) as the new Pope in 1417.

During the 16th century, a general call for reform swept through the Christian West as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli attacked the corruption and lack of spirituality in the Church. After the Reformation which led to the formation of Protestantism, the Church underwent reform with a program of internal renewal during the Counter-Reformation under the Council of Trent from 1545-1563. The Council of Trent did little to heal the rifts between the Church and growing Protestant movement as it condemned most of the Protestant issues of dissent with anathema. The reforms lost momentum when in the aftermath of the wars of religion, Europe went into a religious decline.

In the century following the 1st Vatican Council (1869-70), the papal states were lost. The Church's tardiness in committing itself to the cause of social justice in industrial relations led large segments of the working class in Europe to turn away from the Roman Catholic Church. This led to anticlerical regimes to succeed in reducing the political power and freedom of the Church. From the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-65) onward, the Church has attempted to update it's message and soften it's opposition to the modern world.

The Sacraments

The Church believes that the seven sacraments are needed to help Catholics live the kind of life Jesus would have wanted and these sacraments spiritually parallel the great moments and needs of human life. The Church sees Christ as having explicitly joined the sacramental agency of the Church to its teaching authority in his closing commission to his disciples (Matthew 28:19,20). These sacraments are:
  1. Baptism: As birth brings a child into the natural world, baptism draws the infant into the supernatural order of existence by planting God's first special grace in it's soul. Baptism also washes away the original sin a person is born with due to Adam's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.
  2. Penance: If one errs, or sins, penance is needed as a step to take so that one may be restored to the human community and divine fellowship. The Church teaches that if one confesses one's sins to God in the presence of of one of God's delegates, a priest, and truly repents for the sins committed, the sins are forgiven.
  3. Holy Communion: Also called Holy Eucharist, the Mass, and the Lord's Supper, it is seen as the central sacrament of the seven. In Catholicism, the Mass is viewed as a reenactment of Christ's last supper with his disciples, not as a commemoration of the supper as viewed in Protestantism. The Church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine become Christ's human body and blood, and are actually present during the service even though no actual physical change takes place in the bread and wine. Rather, they are transubstantiated into the actual body and the actual blood of Christ.
  4. Confirmation: When a child reaches the age of reason (between 12 and 14), the child is strengthened for mature reflection and responsible action as a soldier of God through an act of consecration. At the time of confirmation, the child takes on the name of a saint of his or her own choosing.
  5. Marriage: Sanctified marriage is the joining of two adults with the grace of God for lifelong companionship and procreation.
  6. Holy Orders: One receives this sacrament when one decides to dedicate his or her life entirely to God. When a man undergoes this sacrament, he may become either a priest or a monk. He is considered married to the Church and is bound by the same laws as a married person. A Roman Catholic priest is not allowed to marry in the conventional sense and is bound by a vow of celibacy. A monk is bound to live by the laws of the particular order or community in which he is a member, and may or may not be a priest. When a woman undergoes this sacrament, she becomes a nun in the Church and is also a bride of Christ. She is also prevented from conventional marriage and is also bound by a vow of celibacy.
  7. Last Rites: Last rites are also called Extreme Unction and Sacrament of the Sick. This sacrament, at the ending of one's life, closes the earthly eyes of the person and prepares the soul for its last passage to the afterlife.

The Geography of Roman Catholicism

The Church is divided into the Western, or Roman Church and the Patriarchal Synods of the eastern Church. The Roman Church is divided into archdioceses and then dioceses which are in turn divided into the parishes of the local churches. The state of Louisiana, having been heavily settled Catholics, was divided into parishes (rather than the county units used in other states).

The Church also has a large number of missions scattered throughout the world, which are most often run by one of the holy orders. The location of monasteries and their distribution was important in the pilgrimage routes, land use, and economics of the middle ages. Often becoming central repositories of learning, monasteries were very important in the development of Europe.


CMD Apostolate, Basic Catechism of Christian Doctrine. Brooklyn: CMD Apostolate, undated. This is a pocket sized "penny catechism" available free of charge for a self addressed, double stamped 9×4 envelope from CMD Apostolate, P.O. Box 52, Brooklyn, NY 11209. Imprimatur by John Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminister, 18 July 1971. Very traditional.

Channing L. Bete Co., Inc., About Being an Eastern Catholic (booklet). South Deerfield, MA: Channing L. Bete Co., Inc., 1982.

Eliade, Mircea, The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.

German Catechetical Association, Sister Benedict Davies OSU (translator), Credo, A Catholic Catechism. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1983. Imprimatur by David Norris, VG, Westminster, 18 October 1982. A good systematic study of Catholic doctrine designed for young people.

Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

The New Encyclopædia Britannica (Micropædia), volume 10. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1997.

Schaff, Philip, D.D., LL.D., The Creeds of Christiandom. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1882. This work has recently been reprinted; very useful in comparative studies!

Our Sunday Visitor's 1997 Catholic Almanac. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor's Publication Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1996.

The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1997. Mahwah: The K-III Reference Corporation, 1996.

Links for More Information

General Latin Rite Links
The Vatican
Catholic Online
Vatican Radio
Mother Angelica
Catholic Information Center on Internet
Christus Rex et Redemptor Mundi (nicely done)
The Fatima Network
The Gregorian Chant Home Page

Other Liturgical Rites
The Catholic Encyclopedia (article)
Byzantine Catholic Home Page
MaroNet (Maronite)
The Knanaya Catholic Home Page (Syrian ["Jacobite"] Catholics of India)
The Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Religious Orders
Benedictine Web Ring
Order of Cistericans of the Strict Observance
Dominican Web News
Order of Ecumenical Fransiscans
Jesuit Identity (Fairfield University)

Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (the home of Fr. Thomas Merton)
Mepkin Abbey (featured in the PBS program, Trappist)
Monastery of Christ in the Desert (Benedictine)
Version 1.0 dated 1.15.98

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