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Roman Catholicismthe version of CHRISTIANITY held by the largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic Church. The RC Church claims universality and stresses the importance of unity with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of the apostle St. Peter. The RC Church broke with the Eastern (Orthodox) Church in the 11th-century, and there were further divisions in Western Christianity at the time of the Protestant Reformation (see PROTESTANTISM). The RC Church has always had a powerful political role and has exerted influence on both the formation of states and the shape of social and political institutions within them. It continues to play a major role internationally. It is difficult, however, to characterize the political nature of its current doctrine. Its stance on abortion and contraception, for example, has left it open to allegations that it is illiberal. On other issues, however, such as defence of human rights, for example in South Africa, Eastern Europe or Latin America, it is clearly progressive. Its internal structure remains authoritarian and hierarchical, but recent years have seen the laicization of its functions, revision of its central liturgies and more open relationships with other Churches. See also CHURCH, RELIGION, SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000