(on sui juris churches in general)
Liturgical Family: Latin
Primary Liturgical Language: Latin
Juridical Status: Patriarchal
Approximate Population (to Nearest 100 Million): 1.2 billion
Brief History: The Latin Church is one of the largest religious institutions, if not the largest, in the history of the world. It is often noted that it is many times larger than all of the Eastern Catholic churches put together, but this is still somewhat misleading. If all Eastern churches of Apostolic provenance were put together -- if, in addition to the Eastern Catholic churches, all of the Eastern Orthodox, and all of the Oriental Orthodox, and all of the Assyrian Church of the East were to enter the Catholic Communion -- the Latin Church would still be more than three times larger than all of the Eastern churches put together. It is immense, truly and unquestionably global, and it has all the advantages, and all the disadvantages, of immensity.
The proper name for the church is the Latin Church. Colloquially it is often called the Roman Catholic Church or (much more rarely) the Western Catholic Church. But 'Western Catholic' has never caught on, and 'Roman Catholic' in all official documents of the Holy See itself always refers to the entire Catholic communion, never to the Latin Church alone. And 'Latin Church' fits: it is the Latin Church, no further clarification required.
The Christian community in Rome arose very, very early; the earliest mentions of it that we know of, in the New Testament itself, already indicate that it was reasonably well established. The Roman Empire was a realm in which movement was relatively easy, and obviously there was a lot of constant circulation into and out of Rome, the foremost city in the Empire. Thus Roman Christianity was beginning to be established even before the arrival of the Apostolic evangelists. The two that became most closely associated with Rome, of course, were St. Paul and St. Peter. The book of Acts, in fact, ends with Paul in Rome, and the book of I Peter 5:13 represents Peter as being in 'Babylon', which was often a codeword for Rome in the early Christian community.
Having such an early-rooted Christian community and being the heart of the beast, it was inevitable that it would be especially hard-hit in the occasional Imperial persecutions of Christianity arose. Early and widespread legends represents both St. Paul and St. Peter as having been martyred in Rome. This is quite significant for the role of Rome in the later history of the Church, because the association with so many holy martyrs, and especially with St. Peter and St. Paul, meant that Rome had an immense amount of pull that has never abated; other Christian communities have always naturally tended to be drawn into its influence, to the extent that there was active communication between Rome and these other communities. In the early days this was especially true of Western Europe and North Africa. That Rome is the last resting place of both Peter and Paul has also always been the overarching principle governing how the bishop of Rome has been seen in the Latin Church: as the Successor of St. Peter, keeper of the keys and foundational rock of the Church, and as carrying on the task of St. Paul in carrying the message of the gospel to the nations.
Rome was not the only great see to exert a significant 'gravitational attraction' on other sees. Alexandria and Antioch, and a little later Constantinople, also did so. But the Eastern Roman Empire was more crowded in the West, and thus the East saw an intense tug-of-war of influence between the major Eastern sees, with other sees in a constant shift from being dominated by one to being dominated by another. And Rome was not directly involved in most of it; it was out of the way, and active routes of communication between West and East, while still existent, were becoming less reliable. The always important trade routes between Rome and Egypt, however, remained relatively good. Thus began to coalesce the Rome-Alexandria alliance, which was part of the reason for Alexandria's immense importance in the early patristic period. Most of Rome's knowledge of events in the East came through Alexandria, and Alexandria to at least a limited extent operated not only in its own right but also as Rome's agent in the East, giving it more than enough influence to counterbalance the other Sees. This alliance would reach its high point with St. Cyril of Alexandria's victory at the Council of Ephesus, but it had already started breaking apart by that point, as Rome had become increasingly wary of what it saw as Alexandria's over-reach. The alliance would be broken entirely in and after the Council of Chalcedon.
The result of the slow collapse of the Empire in the West and of the fading of regular communications between East and West would inevitably isolate the Latin Church from the Eastern sees, which were engaged in a constant struggle with each other, and also to expand the extent to which the See of Rome had to step in to serve the civilizational function that had once belonged to the once Imperial city. The See of Rome thus became entangled with the complicated politics that developed in the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms in the West, whether that of Charlemagne or Otto of Saxony. Contact with the East also was not always easy, because the West and the East had diverged in a number of customs, which led each to look with some suspicion on the orthodoxy of the other. In addition, the Eastern and Western sees were fighting very different theological battles; one of the things that would later become a major contention between East and West, the addition of the Filioque to the Creed, initially arose out of the struggle of Iberian sees with a mutant variety of Arianism that was not found in the East.
The occasion for the actual cracking of relations between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox sees, and thus the Latin Church and its Eastern counterparts, was when Rome stepped in to adjudicate a canonical dispute in the See of Constantinople in the late ninth century. The Patriarch, Ignatios, was deposed by the Emperor because of his extensive criticisms of Imperial politics, and the Emperor, Michael III, had a layman, Photios, ordained and put in his stead. The supporters of Ignatios appealed to Rome, and Pope Nicholas I agreed that Ignatios had been deposed uncanonically and recognized him as the rightful Patriarch. Photios would later respond by excommunicating the Pope. Michael III, however, was assassinated by Basil the Macedonian, who took the throne and wanted to strengthen ties with the West, so he banished Photios and reinstated Ignatios, and what Catholics call the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 869 condemned Photios. Basil had nothing personally against Photios, however, and eventually recalled him; Photios and Ignatios reconciled, and at the death of the latter, Photios became Patriarch. Photios then called another council, what many Eastern Orthodox call the Fourth Council of Constantinople, and a somewhat half-hearted attempt was made by both sides to heal a number of the disputes that had arisen over the previous decades and years. It did not succeed very well. Photios was recognized as the Patriarch, but we can see the cracks very clearly. It's notable that while both Catholic and Orthodox calendars recognize Ignatios as a saint, only Orthodox calendars recognize Photios and only Catholic calendars recognize Nicholas as saints.
But cracks are not breaks, and the tearing of the Orthodox Catholic Church was slow. Everybody knows the mutual excommunication of Cerularius and Humbert in 1054, but this seems more of a symptom of worsening conditions than a significant cause of anything. It seems to me that if you want to locate a definite break, it makes more sense to put it at some point between 1182, when Latin Christians in Constantinople were massacred, touching off a series of mutual retaliations, and the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, when the Fourth Crusade was basically highjacked by the Venetians (who had suffered the worst in the Latin Massacre) and used to conquer Constantinople itself. Pope Innocent III strongly condemned the action, but as it was a fait accompli, the question was what to do in its wake. One of the things that the clergy accompanying the Crusade did was appoint a Latin Patriarch of Constantinople. Such Latin Patriarchates were recognized by the Fourth Lateran Council. (Latin Patriarchates were eventually set up for all of the Eastern sees; the only one that currently still exists is the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.)
But the Crusades did not only see the tearing of relations between the Greeks and the Latins, with much bad blood; they also led to the establishing of permanent relations with the Maronites and temporary relations with the Armenians of Lesser Cilicia, and the interaction of Latin Christians with some of the other Christian groups around the Holy Land both enriched the doctrine and devotion of the Latin Church and would later set up possibilities of reunion that might not otherwise have existed.
The Latin Empire of Constantinople lasted only until 1261, at which point Michael VIII Palaiologos managed to recapture Constantinople. Now things were in a very bad state between the sees of Rome and Constantinople. But the Byzantine Empire was also collapsing. It had been slowly declining, off and on, for centuries by this time, but the Sack of Constantinople had thrown things completely off-kilter. The Byzantine Empire needed Western help more than ever before; and the religious divide between East and West was now worse than ever before. Thus began the Imperial policy of courting reunion with the West while not pressing for it too hard at home. The Second Council of Lyons was convoked in 1272, which served as a sort of council of nations: while it was an ecclesiastical council, there were representatives of the major political groups of the day, including ambassadors from the Byzantine Empire, the Ilkhanate, England, France, and parts of Spain, Germany, and Italy. Much of its business was concerned with secular Christendom: conquest of the Holy Land, protection of pilgrimage routes, the recognition of the Holy Roman Emperor, an official declaration of peace among Christian nations. In addition, the Latins and Greeks at the council came to an agreement about the major doctrinal issues separating them. It was ambitious. It failed. Emperor Michael did officially promulgate the reunion, but this purely official recognition only lasted for the few years he had left to live, and was in fact strongly resisted in the East.
The fourteenth century was a period of crisis for the Latin Church. In 1304, following the death of Pope Benedict XI, the College of Cardinals deadlocked between the Italians and the French. After nearly a year of negotiations, the College chose someone who was not one of the cardinals: Raymond Bertrand de Got, the Archbishop of Bourdeaux. He was French, but he had solid Italian ties, and not being a member of either of the two parties of cardinals, he was almost certainly seen as a compromise candidate. As compromise candidates sometimes are, he was a massive disaster. Ascending to the papal throne as Clement V, he refused to go to Rome -- even for his coronation -- and immediately showed himself to be an active partisan in favor of French power. In 1309, he moved the Papal Curia to Avignon, France, nominally for reasons of security. The Avignon Papacy, often referred to as the Babylonian Captivity, would last until it was ended by Gregory XI's return to Rome in 1377. The move to Avignon put the papacy squarely under French control; it also led to a massive expansion of power on the part of the papal curia, as the papacy itself began to imitate the intensive centralization and revenue-focused organization that had come to be associated with France, the first of the major nations to begin forging the modern nation-state. Most of the corruptions and abuses associated with the Renaissance papacy and that were specifically targeted by later Protestant reformers can be argued to have their root in the Avignon Papacy.
The return of Gregory XI to Rome was not, alas, a return to normality. When Gregory XI died shortly after the return, Urban VI was elected. He was an Italian, and probably only elected due to a failure of the French cardinals to unite behind a common candidate. Urban VI was a gung-ho reformer, a vehement critic of all of the faults of the papal curia, and like most such reformers turned out to be a domineering leader who demanded that everyone fall in line and that there be no dissent. Since cardinals always have the solidarity of a herd of cats, and like cats tend to resist going in any direction that they can't be fooled into thinking it was already their idea to go, this inevitably created an immense amount of resentment and dissent. The French Cardinals revolted, forming a list of grievances and declaring in council that his election was invalid and the see of Rome unoccupied; the sedevacantist cardinals elected another to be pope, Clement VII, who returned to Avignon. And thus the Western Schism began, splitting the Latin Church and sowing confusion everywhere. It would last until 1417, and by the end of it there would be three claimants for the papacy, at Avignon, Rome, and Pisa.
Faced with such a situation, an idea caught fire: if the papacy itself is in doubt, who could be higher than the Pope, if not a general council? Thus the battle between conciliarists and papalists began, and the conciliarists from the beginning had the upper hand. After all, what else could solve the problem except a general council? When they attempted to do so at Pisa, the result was just the Pisan line of popes; but, again, what else was there? And a big boost came to conciliarism when a general council did indeed solve the problem. One of the Pisan popes, John XXIII, called a council at Constance, and the Roman pope, Gregory XII, decided to recognize it as an authoritative council. The Council of Constance's (1414-1418) solution was to have all three claimants to the papacy resign -- they did not have to concede that their claim was illegitimate, they just had to agree to give it up for the good of the church -- and elect one pope from scratch, while confirming as cardinals all the cardinals that had been created by each of the claimants. Both the Pisan and the Roman popes accepted the agreement, and the Council (eventually -- it deliberately delayed to prevent a new pope from interfering with its work) elected Martin V as pope. The Avignon pope refused to resign -- but immediately began to lose influence even among previously strong supporters because of it. Constance did not just deal with the problem, however; it furthered a number of pet projects of conciliarists, designed to establish clearly the superiority of general councils over the pope.
One of the requirements imposed by Constance was that ecumenical councils should be held at regular intervals. The Council of Siena (originally Pavia) was initially called to be such, but faced a significant number of problems getting up and running properly. It did, however, establish that the next council should be at Basel; and Martin V did indeed summon a council to Basel in 1431, although he died before it actually opened. His successor, Eugenius IV, had his legate open the council, but as the council immediately began making demands on the papacy, he quickly issued a bull dissolving it, with another council to open at Bologna a year and a half later. The bishops at Basel refused, reiterating the claims of Constance, and demanded that the Pope appear in person to answer for his impudence. Eugene was facing a number of problems at the time, including an invasion of the Papal States, and so could not easily afford to be involved in a power struggle with the bishops. A compromise was worked out by pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor; Eugene withdrew his bull and, reserving the rights of the Holy See, recognized the council as ecumenical, but refused to include within that the anti-papal provisions that had previously been resolved. Shortly afterward, Eugene had to flee Rome and was exiled for some years in Florence. In 1438, Eugene, now in a slightly stronger position, attempted to dissolve the council at Basel again, moving it to Ferrara. Due to European politics (the council at Basel was widely thought to be very pro-French), the bishops of the council split, with some staying at Basel and claiming to be the real ecumenical council, and some accepting the change. Those who stayed at Basel issued a decree deposing Eugene as a heretic and electing an antipope.
And it's at this point that the Eastern sees enter the picture. None of the Eastern sees had any interest in furthering the doctrine of papal supremacy; but, ironically, they were one of the factors that tipped the power away from the conciliarists to the papalists. For the Eastern sees, reunion of East and West meant one thing: the reunion of the See of Rome with its Eastern counterparts. They had no particular interest in this whole issue with the Council of Basel; the leader of the Church in the West was, in their eyes, very obviously the bishop of Rome, and, not having had any part at all in the affairs of Basel, they had no reason to regard it as having any kind of ecumenical authority. Thus when negotiations between the East and the West at Ferrara, and continued at Florence, the entire weight of the Eastern churches was placed on the papalist side of the scale. Thus it was that the Florence was a victory for Rome. Yes, the unions with the major Eastern sees began to fall apart as soon as the delegates returned home. Yes, the unions with the Armenians and the Copts were entirely on paper and with delegates who had no authority to speak for their churches. But the pope had broken the seemingly unstoppable momentum of conciliarism.
Conciliarism did not die; and even after it was officially condemned at the Fifth Lateran Council, and struggles for variant forms of it, like Gallicanism, continued to plague the West for the next several hundred years. It was in the course of these struggles that a significant number of the unions with Eastern churches would come about, and a great deal of the Latin Church's interaction with the East, and many papal impositions on the Eastern churches who united with Rome, can be explained by this ongoing struggle of authority. The next several centuries would begin to see a massive expansion of the Latin Church, due to Portuguese discoveries of trade routes to east Asia and Spanish discoveries in the New World. It would also see the rise of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation -- another authority-struggle contributing to Latin interaction with the East. This is all quite visible in the work of one of the popes who did the most work with establishing and consolidating the reunions of various Eastern churches with Rome, Benedict XIV; much of the time when he actively affirms specific rites distinctive to the East, one can see that these rites express principles that were inconsistent with common Protestant claims, and thus served as independent witnesses in that particular struggle.
(This would also be part of the latinizing of rites pressed on Eastern churches by Latin bishops. But this was not the only cause working, by any means. Not all latinization was imposed by Rome. Some of it was voluntary, as can be seen in the fact that Eastern churches not in communion with Rome also went through a process of latinization, in part because of the near-ubiquity of the Latin Church by this time, and in part because Latin customs were sometimes easier and often simpler.)
The slowly increasing significance of the Eastern churches in the life of the Latin Church, and the complications caused by its struggles over authority, can be seen in the case of the First Vatican Council. The Melkite Patriarch, Gregory II Youssef, was one of the major voices opposing the definition of papal infallibility, arguing that actual definition would interfere with relations with the Eastern Orthodox, and that the terms in which some of the Council fathers wanted to define it failed to take into account the good example of Florence in explicitly recognizing that traditional rights and privileges of all the patriarchal sees. After the Council, it was very important for Pius IX to get the explicit affirmation of all of the Eastern patriarchs; the Armenians, Melkites, and Chaldeans were particularly reluctant. When Patriarch Gregory signed, he did so explicitly with the qualification from Florence; and Patriarch Joseph IV Audo of the Chaldeans was the last Eastern patriarch to sign it, and did so only with great reluctance. But they all did, and it had become important for Rome that they do so. And the importance of the Eastern churches to the Latin Church have continued to expand; they were particularly cultivated by Leo XIII, with whom Rome's relations with Eastern churches began to loosen considerably, and this tendency was amplified by the Second Vatican Council.
Notable Monuments: The preeminent church of the Latin Church is the Papal Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran, which is the cathedral of the diocese of Rome and thus the immediate church of the pope; there are, in addition, several other well known papal major archbasilicas in Rome: the most famous is St. Peter's in the Vatican, but there are also St. Paul's Outside the Walls and St. Mary Major.
Notable Saints: Agnes (January 21); Thomas Aquinas (January 28); Peter and Paul (June 29); Protomartyrs of Rome (June 30); Lawrence (August 10); Augustine (August 28); Gregory I (September 3); Leo I (November 10); Lucy (December 13).
Notable Religious Institutes: Benedictines; the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans); the Order of Preachers (Dominicans); the Society of Jesus (Jesuits); among many others.
Extent of Official Jurisdiction: Barring a few small areas of the world, like Eritrea, that are entirely under the authority of Eastern Catholic bishops, global.
Online Sources and Resources: