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  As with the Orthodox Christian Churches and some Anglican Churches, the Church of Rome claims to be the only true and universal church. In Vatican Council decrees, therefore, it calls itself ‘the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church’. ‘Catholic’ (from which the term ‘Catholicism’ derives) means ‘all-embracing, universal’. The present-day Roman Catholic Church is a world organization that, despite subtle variations from country to country, has the same basic structure, forms of worship and theological beliefs throughout the world. The words ‘catholic’ and ‘catholicism’ have also come to have a narrower, more sectarian (see sect/sectarianism) connotation, so that in the Lutheran churches, we find the phrase in the Nicene Creed, ‘I believe in the holy, catholic and apostolic Church’. To confuse matters further, a Catholicos is a bishop of metropolitan rank in the Orthodox Churches.

Organization of the Roman Catholic Church, modelled on the colonial administration of the late Roman Empire, is both regional and territorial, being in the form of parishes grouped into dioceses, and then into archdioceses. A continuous line of bishops stretches back to the 1st century. The claims of the see of Rome are based on the tradition, not without historical foundation, that Peter and Paul were martyred there. That the pope could not err when speaking ex cathedra (i.e. from his throne in St Peter\'s cathedral, Rome) was popular belief since the Middle Ages, and was formally decreed in 1870. In controversy with the Orthodox since 1054 (when the pope excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople) and with Protestant leaders, the Catholic Church is also held to be infallible.

Other distinctive features of Catholicism, apart from its claims to universality, undisputed authority and highly centralized episcopal government, are its ecclesiology, Mariology and doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine at the Eucharist (sacraments). There is, also, a threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, and since the 5th century, celibacy has been strictly enforced.

Because the Catholic Church expanded throughout Europe through the work of religious orders (who preserved civilization in the West in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’), religious life has been highly esteemed, whether in communities of monks or nuns, as individual hermits grouped around a particular centre, or as individual consecration to follow a Rule while living in the world (‘tertiaries’). This has led to the cult of innumerable saints. In modern times, Catholic theologians have been at the forefront of the liberation theology and feminist theology movements, while in many Third World countries the Catholic Church has moved from being a champion of the political status quo to a defender of human rights. EMJ

See also Catholic political thought.Further reading Hans Küng, Infallible?.



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