Catholicism is one of the largest branches of the Christian religion. The main Catholic group is the Roman Catholic Church (so named to indicate its headquarters in Rome); however smaller Catholic groups exist, such as the Old Catholic Church, the Polish National Catholic Church, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. There are also some in the Anglican church, Anglo-Catholics, that consider Anglicanism to be a branch of Catholicism. Some groups call themselves Catholic but are questionably so: for instance the Liberal Catholic Church, which originated as a breakaway group from the Old Catholic Church, but incorporated so much theosophy that it had little doctrinally in common with Catholicism anymore.
The early Christian church became organized under five patriarchs, the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. While Rome could claim an authority descending from St. Peter, Constantinople had become the residence of the Emperor and the Senate. The fact that the bishop of Rome did not recognise the supremacy of the emperor in ecclesiastical matters lead to the split in 1054 which divided the Church into the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East (Greece, Russia and much of the Slavic lands, Anatolia, Syria, etc.); this is called the Great Schism. The next major split of the Catholic Church occurred in the 1500's in the Protestant Reformation, where all of the Protestant (protesting) denominations began.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church is known as the Pope. The church has a hierarchical structure, in descending order - Pope, Cardinal, Bishop (Archbishop and Suffragan Bishop), Monsignor (an honorary title for a priest, giving no extra sacramental powers), Priest, Deacon and Acolyte. (There are also several more minor offices: Exorcist, Lector, Sub-deacon, many of which are now defunct.) Religious orders have their own hierarchy and titles. These offices constitute the clergy, and in the Western rite can only normally be occupied by unmarried men, since too much power was being amassed by families of churchmen prior to 1066. However, in the Eastern rite married men are admitted to the priesthood, but not the office of bishop; and on rare occasions married priests converting from other Christian groups have been permitted to be ordained in the Western rite. The Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals and continues in office until death or until he resigns (which has not happened since the Middle Ages).
The practice of Catholic Church consists of seven sacraments: Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, Reconciliation, Baptism, and Confirmation. The first is Eucharist (Communion), the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ, marked by partaking in the Body of Christ, the bread, and the Blood of Christ, the wine; the Roman Catholic belief that the priest can turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is called transubstantiation. Holy Orders is the entering into the priesthood and involves a vow of chastity; the sacrament of Holy Orders is given in three degrees: that of the deacon (a permanent deacon may be married before becoming a deacon), that of the priest, and that of the bishop. Anointing of the Sick is also known as "extreme unction" or the "last rites," and involves the anointing the seriously ill or dying with oil. Confession or reconciliation involves admitting sins to a priest and receiving penance (a task to complete in order to achieve absolution or forgiveness from God). Baptism is given to infants and upon entering adulthood, the baptised make a personal commitment in the sacrament of Confirmation (also called Chrismation).
The Roman Catholic Church is divided into rites. The main rite is the Latin rite, which is used in most parts of the world. There are also several Eastern rites, which are used in parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and by Catholic communities in other parts of the world that originate from there. There are also two other small Western rites, other than the Latin rite, the Ambrosian rite and the Mozarabic rite, which are used in a few places in Europe. In the Middle Ages there were many other Western rites, but almost all of them were replaced by the Latin rite by the Council of Trent. The Eastern rites originated with groups that left Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches to join the Roman Catholic church, but retained their own liturgies.
Historically, the church service in the Latin rite was conducted entirely in Latin, but local languages came into use with the Second Vatican Council (also called Vatican II), which occurred in 1962-5. Eastern rite Catholicism uses various languages, depending on the particular rite involved, such as Greek, Syriac, Coptic or Arabic.
The Catholic Church is organized into geographic districts. Local churches form so-called parishes. All Catholics are expected to attend and support their local parish church. Groups of parishes form dioceses, headed by a bishop, or, techically, a suffragan bishop. Groups of dioceses in turn form provinces, headed by archbishops, whose diocese is called an archdiocese. In large dioceses and archdioces, the bishop is often assisted by auxillary bishops, full bishops and members of the College of Bishops who do not head a diocese of their own. It should also be stated here that archbishop, suffragan bishop (usually shortened to bishop), and auxillary bishop are equally bishops; however, the different titles indicate what type (if any) of eccleistical unit they head.
The College of Cardinals is the collection of Roman Catholic bishops who have sworn to defend the Pope (thus the blood-red skullcap) and who, in return, have recieved membership into this group. All cardinals under the age of (80?) may elect a new pope upon the old pope's death; the cardinals who may elect are almost always members of the clergy; however, the Pope has sometimes in the past awarded oustanding members of the Catholic laity (e.g., theologians) with membership to this College after they have passed electing age. Each cardinal is given some church or chapel (thus, cardinal bishop, cardinal priest, and cardinal deacon) in Rome to make him a member of the Pope's curia.
The Roman Catholic Church supports many orders (groups) of monks and nuns who are mainly non-priests living lives specially devoted to serving God. This sometimes involves separation from the world for meditation and sometimes exceptional participation in the world, often in medical or educational work.
Catholics believe in the Trinity of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and through a good, unsinful life. [Catholic views differ from Orthodox on several points...] Catholics differ from Protestants in several points, including the necessity of penance, the meaning of communion, the composition of the canon of scripture, purgatory, and the means of salvation: Protestants believe that salvation is by faith alone, while Catholics believe that salvation is by faith and works.
Roman Catholics celebrate the Mass in remembrance of the Resurrection of Christ; the Mass can be celebrated on any day of the liturgical year except for Good Friday (the day that Christians believe Jesus was crucified). The Mass is composed of two major parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Word, readings from the Bible are done; and a homily (like the Protestant sermon) is spoken. In the Mass, the Nicene Creed, which states the orthodox beliefs of Catholicism, is stated by all Catholics present. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the series of prayers and statements said to prepare for communion itself.
A summary of Catholic views on homosexuality should be started on the new page discussing Religion and homosexuality.