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The Roman Catholic Church is the world's second largest religious body after Sunni Islam, with an estimated 1.1 billion adherents. Frequently, and for simplicity's sake, they just call themselves Catholics. Like most religions, they believe that they are the only universal valid faith; naturally, other Christians disagree. Even in Ireland, a relatively conservative country, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church seems to be increasingly out of touch with what ordinary Catholics want. 
 Basic Beliefs
Unlike most Christian denominations, for which finding out what they actually believe can be as hard as nailing jelly to a wall, Roman Catholicism has the Catechism of the Catholic Church which all Catholics are meant to agree to. (They don't all, but it's the official statement of beliefs). Other statements by influential Catholics (such as the Pope) are not normally strict Roman Catholic doctrine - they are about as important as statements made in a press conference by a President or Prime Minister.
The Roman Catholic Church believes that it is God's representative on earth and as such is an authority in moral matters. It is fully aware that quite a few former Popes have been interesting and even downright dangerous individuals, and as such what the Pope says under normal circumstances can be taken with a pinch of salt. There is a specific set of circumstances known as Papal Infallibility, but in 2000 years, there have been few enough infallible statements that they can be counted on your fingers, and most of them have been on obscure subjects or subjects that are from day to day irrelevant (such as the Immaculate Conception - i.e. the idea that Mary (mother of Jesus) was conceived without sin).
On the other hand the Roman Catholic Church believes that it is God's representative on earth and, as such, God would not allow it to have persistently wrong teachings for a prolonged period of time (something known as Magisterial Infallibility). In short when the Roman Catholic Church has historically claimed something is morally wrong there is no room for movement (which is why their teachings on Contraception are so screwed up).
 Roman Catholic Philosophy and Ethics
Roman Catholic philosophy and ethics is based on a number of logical fallacies. The philosophy is generally Thomist - based on the works of Thomas Aquinas and also based on Aristotle. And Aquinas was the poster child for carrying logical thought past the evidence and then mistaking the map for the territory. Once you've done that it is unsurprising that you get a set of celibate old men laying down rules on contraception and marriage despite being officially obliged to not have much to do with either. They are also Teleological - rather than being a fancy name for the argument from design they presuppose the designer and work from there. (This doesn't mean that the Roman Catholic Church is creationist or supporters of intelligent design; although statements supporting either position have been made by individuals they are not official teachings).
The Roman Catholic Church teaches deontological ethics. This means that what is important is following the rules set down by the Church rather than, as utilitarianism would suggest, working out what would do the most good. The idea behind this is twofold; firstly that by providing clear guidelines it means it is possible to do the right thing with incomplete information, and secondly that even if the humans that make up the Roman Catholic Church are flawed, the Church itself is far better at reasoning than any one person and so can do better than you can by yourself.
Roman Catholics also believe in original sin - that no one is perfect and no one gets it right all the time. But you do the best you can, confess your sins, and then carry out the pennance to restore what went wrong so you can continue on.
 Apostolic succession and more
The doctrine of apostolic succession is not unique to the Catholic Church: the various Eastern and Orthodox Churches assert their claim to be the true inheritors of the original Christian Church, with Catholicism having abdicated its authority due to heretical teachings such as the filioque doctrine. The Catholic Church agrees that the Orthodox Churches have apostolic succession, and the Orthodox Churches generally agree that the Catholic Church has apostolic succession.
Apostolic succession is essentially a franchising business model. The validity of anyone's consecration as a bishop depends on the validity of the consecrations of the bishops who consecrated the new one. There exist "wandering bishops", episcopi vagantes, people who were consecrated validly but illegally by bishops who had the power, but not the legal authority, to make bishops. These bishops are considered valid bishops, and partake of the benefits of apostolic succession, even if their rites are not considered lawful by the Roman Catholic or Orthodox denominations.
The Anglican churches (that's the Church of England, also known as the Episcopalians to those of you in America) also claim apostolic succession, although the Catholics claim that the Anglican chain was broken on account of Edward VI changing the ordination rite while simultaneously requiring the clergy to assert that the Mass wasn't a sacrifice. Baptists and Restorationists in general deny that apostolic succession is a real thing, and tend to buy into the whole Trail of Blood thing that claims all the early Christians were Baptists and were oppressed by evil Romans who pretended to be Christian. This is where the Church thus lays claim to being "Roman".
The Catholic doctrine of "apostolic succession" holds that it is the original Christian Church - the direct chain of inheritance from Jesus to the apostles passed on via the "laying on of hands." Saint Peter, in particular, is claimed to be the leader of the first apostles, and his authority is said to have been transferred to the See (or diocese) of Rome. The Bishop of Rome (the Pope) is the inheritor of Saint Peter and thus the head of the earthly Church.
The present pope, (or Pontiff) Francis was 76 on appointment. The outgoing pope, Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), was elected in 2005. Ideally, the Pope is a wise man well past normal retiring age, being instead chosen to relentlessly work for the well-being of humanity until God calls him to Heaven. (Or at least that's the plan. Some do, many across history have been in it solely for the power.) Usually, however, the realistic administrator-types have made better popes than the more saintly ones.
 Modern and traditional
Nowadays, Roman Catholicism can be divided into two groups, bluntly calling each other modernists and traditionalists, though there are many more subdivisions and nuanced positions.
Modernism consists of groups ranging from the ordinary pro-choice Catholics to liberation theologians and the Nouvelle Théologie. Some famous Catholics belonging to this group are Joe Biden (pro-choice Catholic), Hans Küng (Nouvelle Théologie) and Gustavo Gutiérrez (the founder of liberation theology). Joseph Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI, was considered to adhere to the Nouvelle Théologie in his younger years, but he became increasingly conservative. This progressive group tends to be politically progressive as well, though they aren't free of new age pseudo-science despite having abandoned creationism.
Traditionalism consists of groups ranging from Catholics who strictly follow Rome (neoconservatives) to the Society of Saint Pius X (FSSPX), which doesn't recognize the second Vatican Council. Most recent popes belong to the first group, naturally. Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society, was excommunicated together with the four bishops he consecrated. The four bishops have had their excommunication lifted. Richard Williamson, one of these bishops, vehemently denies the holocaust, and was expelled from the society after breaking his gag order(s) countless times. Of this group, the neoconservatives follow the Catholic Social Teaching, and are thus politically quite progressive, and accept theistic evolution. Members of FSSPX mostly adhere to absolute monarchism, and are either distributist or conservative. Some of their members, especially in France and Spain, are far-right extremists, praising Vichy France and Francoist Spain. They are most likely to be creationists.
Both groups are prone to forming breakaway groups, especially those who ordain female priests  or denounce the popes as heretics (sedevacantism). Of course, in their opinion, the Roman Catholic Church broke away from them.
Politically, the Catholic Church has long been a very conservative force. For centuries, the Church has fought the creation of liberal democracy, vehemently opposing almost every progressive change in Europe and North America during the 18th and 19th centuries. As recently as 1864, Pius IX's infamous Syllabus of Errors declared that liberalism, rationalism and freedom of religion were all heretical. For most of the 20th century it was little better, often supporting monarchies, dictatorships and fascist regimes against democracies and republics (Spain, Italy, and Latin America were all areas where the Church was a bulwark to fascism and militarism).
Their policies were largely reactions against the French Revolution, with its strongly anti-clerical turn, and later, against the rise of Communism and similar socialist movements, all of which they strongly opposed. In order to oppose the left-wing idea of class struggle by the working class, the Church attempted to create its own, contrary, political ideology. This was developed in a series of Papal encyclicals, including Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum ("Of Revolution...", 1891) and Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno ("Forty years later...", 1931).
This Catholic political ideology sought to instil nationalism and ethnic solidarity, hoping that emphasizing the claims of unique national characters would encourage moral traditionalism, and hoping that ethnic solidarity would take the place of class solidarity. In order to attempt to quell the discontents caused by capitalist greed and resulting inequality, they advocated a "third way" system, sometimes called "distributism", under which government, industry, and labor work together under the direction of a powerful, strongman government. Not a liberal democracy -- that was still heresy -- but a government with the power to expropriate and redistribute property and enforce traditional morality. These governments were of course supposed to cede control of parts of their laws and institutions, such as their educational systems, and their laws on sex, marriage, and divorce, to the Church. This ideology had a way of not working all that well when translated into a political blueprint. The constitutions of Vichy France, Franco's Spain, and Antonio Salazar's Portugal all referenced these documents as having inspired their polities.
During the second half of the twentieth century, the Church's posture changed somewhat: the environment of the Cold War meant that the Church's fanatical opposition to Communism landed it on the side of pro-democracy activists like Lech Wałęsa in Poland. In the 1960's, Catholic clergy in Latin America began challenging, instead of supporting, local elites, using the gospel as a basis. This so-called "liberation theology" was viewed dimly by the central hierarchy due to its links with Marxism and radicalism but it attracted considerable support among ordinary Catholics. Also, while remaining vehemently opposed to gay rights, abortion, and birth control, the Church has taken a stand against the death penalty, unprovoked aggression, and torture. It has also made some effort to ameliorate its generally appalling record on the treatment of women, while still absolutely prohibiting the creation of women clergy.
The Catholic Church is the only religious denomination to have full legal, internationally recognised control of its own state, the Vatican City State in Rome. Historically, from about the mid-7th century onwards, the Popes controlled the Papal States, a territory covering a significant part of central Italy. In 1860, however, most of the Papal States were lost as part of the wars that led to the unification of Italy. Rome was finally occupied by Italy in 1870, leading to a 59-year conflict between the Popes and the government of Italy. This conflict was finally resolved by the Concordat of 1929 with Fascist Italy that established the present-day Vatican City as a sovereign state.
Shortly before his death, the late Cardinal Carlo Martini commented that the Church was 200 years behind the times -- just about in step with the Napoleonic era. The late cardinal was liberal by RC standards and he was widely respected and even considered as a possible pope. Martini was concerned about declining attendance and confidence in the church by its members and worried that official RC policy was alienating its followers.
There are ongoing scandals involving child abuse, leaked dossiers  and other matters. It can be confidently predicted that more dirt will be uncovered in the future.  In 2012, documents were stolen from Benedict XVI and later published that revealed backbiting, cronyism and other problems high up in the Church. There were concerns raised about money laundering and accusations of corruption at the Vatican Bank. 
Some cardinals blame the Curia for preventing a more decisive response to the child abuse problem.  Archbishop C M Vigano claimed in leaked documents there was corruption over Vatican contracts that cost the Holy See millions of dollars. Later, the pope sent Archbishop Vigano as an ambassador to Washington, which gave him the chance to explain said problems to American Cardinals and author Massimo Franco. In a book. Franco claims the Vatican is "falling apart" with financial scandals, internal strife and the child sexual abuse issue, weakening the Church worldwide. Franco claims Benedict XVI sacrificed himself since he could not improve the situation.  Others claim Ratzinger never wanted to be pope, and so it may not have been a big sacrifice.
In 2007, a senior Vatican official was secretly filmed making gay advances to another man and, in 2010, a chorister allegedly tried to procure gay prostitutes for someone within the Vatican. Rumours have circulated about Vatican priests frequenting gay-affiliated places in Rome and being blackmailed. Links to organised crime have also been alleged. All of this was reported in the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica and reprinted extensively elsewhere. According to La Repubblica some members of the Curia may be open to blackmail because they belong to a "gay network" and organise "sexual meetings" in Rome and the Vatican. Many sources suggest Benedict XVI asked three cardinals to investigate these allegations and when he received the dossier on the extent of the scandal, he decided finally to resign.  As of mid-March 2013, these allegations have not been conclusively proven, but the Vatican refuses to deny them. 
Anyone who has studied the church's history will know that this is standard operation procedure. The only difference is that they can't get their flock (or secular leaders) to look the other way.
That the church does not offer its moralizing with entirely clean hands should be obvious. Among the morally repugnant activities of its clergy have been the psychological, physical and sexual abuse of persons in its custody. The Magdalene laundries scandal is well known in Ireland. In Spain there is as growing scandal about newborn babies taken from their mothers and sold for adoption while authorities pretended the babies had died.
 Child sex abuse
Pedophilia and pederasty are not the sole preserve of the Irish Roman Catholic Church, with allegations emerging in virtually every country with a sizable Roman Catholic population, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany. For decades the church tried to cover up abuse. Basically, abuse victims were told to keep quiet about harm done to them, while abusers were in most cases moved on to other parishes where far too often other victims were abused. The whole criminal policy was written in Latin to help keep it secret but our article, Crimen sollicitationis, explains things in plain English.
Since 1950, when Pope Pius XII issued the Encyclical[wp] Humani Generis, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church has been to accept that the theory of evolution is consistent with Roman Catholic faith.  John Paul II went further saying scientific evidence points to evolution being real.  The Roman Catholic Church accepts some type of theistic evolution, and teaches evolution in its schools though Roman Catholics are not required to believe it. 
Roman Catholics are however required to believe in a literal Adam and Eve who were the universal parents of all mankind and Roman Catholics must believe in Original sin. PZ Myers considers this unscientific and unreasonable. Myers claims introducing God into evolution violates parsimony. Further universal descent from Adam and Eve would lead to a recent genetic bottleneck which would be observable in the genome and has not been found.  However some Roman Catholics have been rejecting the "Adam and Eve" myth, unfortunately as they don't really understand what "Monogenism" and "Polygenism" is, their statements can be confusing.   
 Relationship with other Christians
While most people in the West do not contest the idea that the Catholic Church is the oldest branch of Christianity, there are other Eastern branches that consider themselves as old as the Roman Catholic Church, which they claim has fallen into heresy (an opinion reciprocated by the Catholics). Recently, there has been a push by the Catholic Church to reconcile with some of these smaller churches, with some success. Despite the RCC's status as the largest branch of Christianity, however, some fundamentalist Protestants refuse to recognize it as Christian at all. The RCC recognizes that the Eastern Orthodox Churches have valid orders but it considers the orders of the Anglican Communion to be utterly null and absolutely void.
The Catholic Church considers all persons baptized with the Trinitarian formula to be members, but in various degrees of communion. Latin Rite and Ukrainian Rite Catholics, for instance, are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. The Eastern Orthodox are considered to be very close indeed, but full intercommunion between the two is currently not authorized (Catholics are allowed to participate in the Eucharist at Eastern Orthodox Masses whereas the Orthodox cannot do so at a Catholic Mass). Lutherans and Methodists are acknowledged to be fellow Christians, but they are considered "separated brethren." Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Oneness Pentecostals are considered to be members of non-Christian sects due to what the Catholic Church holds to be their view of the Holy Trinity.
Neither is Catholicism a monolithic entity in and of itself; there are several branches, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, that are fundamentally part of the Catholic Church but do not consider themselves Roman Catholic, while splinter groups both liberal and traditionalist appear in some places, out of communion with the Roman church, over doctrinal differences such as gay rights, female priesthood, and the controversial Vatican II reforms of the 1960s. In addition, small groups such as Opus Dei and the Society of St. Pius X operate on the fringes of the Roman church (the latter is generally not on good terms with Rome, while the former, though a social fringe and according to some a cult, operates with the direct blessing of the Vatican).
Unlike Protestants, Catholics do not consider the Bible to be the sole source of religious truth. To Catholics, the Bible is just one part of "Sacred Tradition" and cannot be interpreted outside of the Church's teaching. To the Catholic view, believing in the Bible without believing in the Church that wrote it is a confusion, analogous to thinking that the book The Origin of Species is good science but that Charles Darwin was a moron. As a result, rationalist arguments based on Biblical contradictions are less challenging to Catholics than to Protestants—Catholics don't expect the Bible to make sense to an individual intellectually examining it outside the Church. The Roman Catholic hierarchy for England, Scotland, and Wales has formally accepted that parts of the Bible are not literally true; this applies to the first few chapters of Genesis, parts of Revelation, and to the idea that all Jews collectively are responsible for the death of Jesus.
 See also
- Anti-Catholicism: There's plenty wrong with the Roman Catholics but some critics take things too far.
- Catholic sacraments
- Crimen sollicitationis
- Douay-Rheims: The Catholic equivalent of the KJV.
- Independent Catholic churches
- Old Catholic Church
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, describing the fundamental doctrine of Catholicism.
- The 1983 Code of Canon Law, the rules and laws that govern the Catholic Church.
- Also available in Latin, for those who like such things.
- ↑ Religious Diversity and Children's Literature: Strategies and Resources, Sandra Brenneman Oldendorf - 2011, p 156
- ↑ Association of Catholic Priests discuss Church's future
- ↑ 12/10/10 Statement on Formal Defections
- ↑ Even excommunication only means the Church isn't talking to you, not that you're not still a member.
- ↑ Catechism of the Catholic Church, ss. 861 - 862
- ↑ Barrett, David, A Brief Guide to Secret Religions
- ↑ the title Pontifex Maximus - literally "Master Bridge Builder" was originally a pagan Roman title held by the Emperors, which the popes claimed following the establishment of Christianity as Rome's official religion
- ↑ The Guardian
- ↑ Catholic News Agency
- ↑ (womenpriests)
- ↑ Rerum Novarum
- ↑ Quadragesimo Anno
- ↑ Although the Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos also enjoy considerable political autonomy from the Greek state, they do not, for example host diplomatic missions as the Vatican does. Saudi Arabia and Iran are examples of other states where the clergy have a fair amount of legal authority, although there is still a civil administration.
- ↑ The basis of papal temporal authority was said to be the "Donation of Constantine" - a supposed testament of Emperor Constantine that gave the Popes authority over central history. In fact this document is one of history's most notorious forgeries.
- ↑ Cardinal Carlo Martini says Church '200 years behind'
- ↑ The Vatican: Suspense and intrigue
- ↑ A New Pope Won't Save the Sinking Ship
- ↑ Rome conclave: Cardinals to resume papal deliberations
- ↑ Pope election: Where the Conclave really divides
- ↑ Vatican dysfunction looms ahead of papal conclave
- ↑ Vatican scandal cited in Pope resignation
- ↑ Papal resignation linked to inquiry into 'Vatican gay officials', says paper
- ↑ Giles Tremlett. "Spain seeks truth on baby-trafficking claims." The Guardian. 2011 January 27.
- ↑ Humani Generis
- ↑ The Vatican's View of Evolution: The Story of Two Popes
- ↑ Pope John Paul II, Darwin, and Evolution
- ↑ The Problem of Polygenism in Accepting the Theory of Evolution
- ↑ Sunday Sacrilege: Cant can’t
- ↑ 
- ↑ 
- ↑ 
- ↑ http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article574768.ece