Christian church that has been the decisive spiritual force in the history of Western civilization. Along with Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism, it is one of the three major branches of Christianity.
The Roman Catholic Church traces its history to Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Over the course of centuries it developed a highly sophisticated theology and an elaborate organizational structure headed by the papacy, the oldest continuing absolute monarchy in the world.
The number of Roman Catholics in the world (nearly 1.1 billion) is greater than that of nearly all other religious traditions. There are more Roman Catholics than all other Christians combined and more Roman Catholics than all Buddhists or Hindus. Although there are more Muslims than Roman Catholics, the number of Roman Catholics is greater than that of the individual traditions of Shi’ite and Sunni Islam.
These incontestable statistical and historical facts suggest that some understanding of Roman Catholicism—its history, its institutional structure, its beliefs and practices, and its place in the world—is an indispensable component of cultural literacy, regardless of how one may individually answer the ultimate questions of life and death and faith. Without a grasp of what Roman Catholicism is, it is difficult to make historical sense of the Middle Ages, intellectual sense of the works of Thomas Aquinas, literary sense of The Divine Comedy of Dante, artistic sense of the Gothic cathedrals, or musical sense of many of the compositions of Haydn and Mozart.
At one level, of course, the interpretation of Roman Catholicism is closely related to the interpretation of Christianity as such. By its own reading of history, Roman Catholicism originated with the very beginnings of Christianity. An essential component of the definition of any one of the other branches of Christendom, moreover, is its relation to Roman Catholicism: How did Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism come into schism? Was the break between the Church of England and Rome inevitable? Conversely, such questions are essential to the definition of Roman Catholicism itself, even to a definition that adheres strictly to the official Roman Catholic view, according to which the Roman Catholic Church has maintained an unbroken continuity since the days of the Apostles, while all other denominations, from the ancient Copts to the latest storefront church, are deviations from it.
Like any intricate and ancient phenomenon, Roman Catholicism can be described and interpreted from a variety of perspectives and by several methodologies. Thus the Roman Catholic Church itself is a complex institution, for which the usual diagram of a pyramid, extending from the pope at the apex to the believers in the pew, is vastly oversimplified. Within that institution, moreover, sacred congregations, archdioceses and dioceses, provinces, religious orders and societies, seminaries and colleges, parishes and confraternities, and countless other organizations all invite the social scientist to the consideration of power relations, leadership roles, social dynamics, and other sociological phenomena that they uniquely represent. As a world religion among world religions, Roman Catholicism encompasses, within the range of its multicoloured life, features of many other world faiths; thus only the methodology of comparative religion can address them all. Furthermore, because of the influence of Plato andAristotle on those who developed it, Roman Catholic doctrine must be studied philosophically even to understand its theological vocabulary. Nevertheless, a historical approach is especially appropriate to this task, not only because two millennia of history are represented in the Roman Catholic Church but also because the hypothesis of its continuity with the past, and the divine truth embodied in that continuity, are central to the church’s understanding of itself and essential to the justification of its authority.
For a more detailed treatment of the early church, see Christianity. The present article concentrates on the historical forces that transformed the primitive Christian movement into a church that was recognizably “catholic”—that is, possessing identifiable norms of doctrine and life, fixed structures of authority, and a universality (the original meaning of the term catholic) by which the church’s membership could extend, at least in principle, to all of humanity.