Christianity: Roman Catholic

Social Structure and Institutions

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Branches of the Catholic Church

There are two major categories of the Catholic Church: Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Catholic Churches. Both are in union with one another, upholding the same set of doctrines and beliefs. The major differences are with respect to particular rites and rituals.

  • Roman Catholic: The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and arguably most widely known Catholic Church. This stream is sometimes referred to as the Latin or Western Catholic Church.
  • Eastern Catholic: The Eastern Catholic Church refers to any Eastern Christian churches that trace their origins to the ancient Christian bodies in parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and have established a union with the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Eastern Catholic Churches are distinct from the Eastern Churches.

Social Structure

Generally, there is no specific social structure that underpins a member of the Roman Catholic Church. This means that many Catholics may use services and may reside anywhere they wish. Some Catholics may visit a Catholic hospital or send their children to a Catholic school. However, this is usually determined by personal preference.


A common figure in a Catholic ’s life is the godparent (also known as a sponsor). Oftentimes, an individual will have one female and one male godparent. However, an individual may have one godparent, who is typically Catholic. Godparents bear witness to their godchild’s baptism and are responsible for the spiritual development of the child. In some predominantly Catholic countries (such as countries in , Southern Europe and the Philippines), the relationship between the biological parents and godparents is particularly special. The two couples may hold mutual obligations to one another to ensure the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the Catholic child.

Organisational Structure

There are three general categories within the organisational structure of the Roman Catholic Church: the clergy, monastics and laity. Part of the Church’s organisational structure designates administrative areas based on territorial scope, known as dioceses. Each diocese has a collection of local parishes, which are smaller areas of administration and local places of worship. The number of parishes and dioceses depends on how large the Catholic population is in the region.


The clergy refers to the body of all ordained members of the Roman Catholic Church. An ordained member of the Church refers to someone who has undertaken the Sacrament of Ordination, also known as the Holy Orders or Sacred Orders. There are three roles within the clergy: bishop, priest or deacon. Those who have become part of the clergy are entrusted with roles of teaching, sanctifying, governance and leadership. For instance, the clergy are responsible for administering the sacraments. Each member of the clergy has specific dress codes depending on their position. All clergy in the Roman Catholic Church are male.

  • Bishops: Bishops are ordained ministers who hold power to teach Catholic doctrine, administer all seven sacraments and govern all the churches within their respective diocese. Bishops of a country or region may come together periodically as a conference to discuss current problems of the area (e.g. Australian Catholic Bishops Conference).
  • Priests: Priests are ordained ministers that a bishop appoints as their representative at the local parish. Priestly duties include the celebration of Mass, teaching the congregation, administering certain sacraments and providing counselling. In some parts of the world, a priest is referred to as a pastor. Catholic priests also use the title ‘Father’, as they are considered to be the spiritual father of their parish.
  • Deacons: Deacons are ordained ministers who may be permanent or transitional (moving on to priesthood). Deacons usually act as co-workers and assistants to those hierarchically above them. They have the authority to perform baptisms, funerals, witness marriages and distribute the Eucharist. Deacons are the only members of the permitted to marry.

The bishop of Rome (known commonly as the Pope) is a particularly special position. Historically, there has been an uninterrupted (though at times turbulent) succession of bishops of Rome. Thus, the Pope is often seen as a sign of unity for, and the visible head of the Roman Catholic Church. As a historically significant role, the bishop of Rome also has some universal responsibilities of governance. Since 2013, the position has been held by the Argentinian-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio (referred to as Pope Francis). Cardinals (an honorary title within the Roman Catholic Church) elect a new bishop of Rome after the current one dies or freely resigns. They also advise, counsel and assist the reigning pope.

Consecrated Religious

In the Roman Catholic Church, monastics are also sometimes referred to as ‘consecrated religious’. This term refers to those who are not members of the clergy, yet live a devout religious life by upholding public religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This way of living is sometimes referred to as ‘the consecrated life’. Monastics are often distinguished by their kinds of habit (religious dress). Some are part of a specific religious order (such as the Dominicans or Franciscans) while others are (i.e. not belonging to an order or community).

  • Nuns and Monks: Nuns (female) and monks (male) live in single-gender buildings known as monasteries that have restricted access to the outside world. Monasteries allow for a highly communal religious practice, meaning that all congregate together to pray, eat and work.
  • Sisters and Brothers: Religious sisters reside in convents where all sisters reside and pray together. Similarly, religious brothers reside in friaries. Convents and friaries have more open access to the outside world than monasteries. For example, they may live and pray inside the convent or friary but work outside in hospitals and schools. Some may also act as assistants to priests.


The term ‘laity’ refers to lay or ordinary people who are not part of the formal religious order. While the clergy are understood as those responsible for teaching, sanctifying and governing, the fulfill the mission of the Church through living the Gospel in their daily lives. The forms the majority of Catholics.

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