In the beginning there were five autonomous Christian Churches developed by the Apostles and centered in Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, and Alexandria.
The great Library of Alexandria and much of the Church leadership and strength were destroyed but in time there emerged the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, which owes its foundation to the apostle and evangelist St Mark.
Much of Antioch was either destroyed or forcibly converted to Islam in the 7th century but there remains a small Antiochan Orthodox Church.
The Patriarch of Constantinople remains the recognized head of all the Orthodox churches, first among equals, but that Church itself is very diminished in members due to forcible conversion practiced since the 7th century by various conquering waves of Islam.
During the second half of the first millennium while Islam was conquering most of the known world and forcibly converting people or killing them or making them second class citizens with no rights and heavy head taxes for life, there developed Orthodoxy, that is, an Eastern form of Christianity with its own cultural expression and spirituality, with over a dozen churches all autonomous and ethnic, that is, characterized by their nationality, language, and culture, so to this day we have the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Chaldean Orthodox, and so on....
Then in 1054 due to centuries of increasing political, economic, and religious differences and even violent wars and atrocities - which were more about human nature and not so much about faith or religion - there was a break between East and West, the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, and the two heads mutually excommunicated the other and all the members of their respective churches.
In the course of the last two thousand years, the primary cause of aggravation, discord, and violence in civil society yet implicating the churches was the confusion between secular and religious interests and between religious leaders and worldly rulers. In the beginning, when the Roman Empire stopped persecuting the one Church, religious and secular affairs remained separate. With time, kings sought the blessing of the Church and the Church sought the protection of monarchs, and this opened the way for secular leaders to manipulate and make use of the Church in ways that at times were immoral and lead to what seemed to be religious wars but were mostly about politics, economics, and demographics.
It is only since the creation of the Vatican City State in 1929 that the Roman Catholic Church in particular has been freed from worldly concerns and governance and free to devote itself entirely to the service of God, the service of its members, and the service of humanity as a whole.
As time went by, during the early Renaissance and the subsequent centuries some of the Orthodox felt that they were drawn by God to reunite with Rome, with the successor of the Apostle Peter, and they became Eastern Rite Churches such as the Greek Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, and so on, who were considered traitors and heretics by those who remained Orthodox.
Today, the Orthodox churches continue to be autonomous under the figurehead leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople, first among equals, who doesn't have the kind of authority that the Pope has over all the Catholic Churches, the Latin Rite or Roman Church and all the Eastern Rite Churches.
The Roman Catholic Church
The Pope is first of all the Bishop of Rome, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Rome. There are some 500 parishes there.
As Bishop of Rome from the time of the 12 Apostles the Pope came to be recognized as the "first among equals" among all the bishops and patriarchs, who are head of their respective churches. Primarily this was because the first Bishop of Rome, the first Pope, was St Peter, the first among Jesus' 12 Apostles, but also in the time that followed because so many of the Popes were martyrs for Jesus and for their faith, killed by Roman authorities over 300 years.
Over the centuries, primarily due to having greater resources and also accumulating a large library of documents and teachings, the Bishop of Rome came to be recognized as a moral and religious authority, one whose role was to assure the defense of the faith, one in whom Jesus Himself accomplished his promise recorded by Matthew in 28:20 that He would remain with us until the end. So Catholics believe that Jesus assures the Pope will always defend the faith and never make a mistake in the expression and teaching of the faith and of morals.
During the thousand years after the end of the Roman persecutions, so until the Renaissance, Europe was a vast land governed by princes and kings of various sorts, so the land was a bunch of principalities and kingdoms and, occasionally, empires that combined several of the smaller areas into a larger entity or empire. It happened sort of naturally that the bishops and in particular the Bishop of Rome came to rule a large area of land with responsibility to care for and protect the inhabitants. So, the Pope in time developed and army and used it. It is not possible to really understand that or have any sympathy for the people who lived then unless we try to put ourselves "in their shoes or minds".
We are all children of our age and we are least likely to understand objectively the times we live in simply because we are in them and cannot see the big picture as clearly as those who look at us from the outside. It is very arrogant of us to take a superior stance and judge others - either in the past or in other cultures and societies - as primitive, barbaric, or what have you when what we are doing is judging them by our own standards - which they have never known or experienced - instead of judging them by their own standards, which is the only fair way to judge anyone.
During the Renaissance, the Church and especially the Church in Rome became a patron of the arts and sciences, and provided the resources for artists - painters, sculptors, architects - and scientists to develop their field of expertise simply because these churches were among the few organizations other than monarchs who had the means to do so. In this way, the various dioceses and most of all Rome became depositories of art and scientific works. This is why we still have today the Vatican Library and Archives containing manuscripts of historical value going back almost two millennia and the Vatican Museum.
These are of value to the whole human race and don't just belong to the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to be the custodian, assuming the responsibility and expense of maintaining them and keeping them secure. Whether ordinary people contributed offerings voluntarily or their money was taken from them by force as taxes or by persuasion in order to obtain spiritual benefits; either way the religious architectural, artistic, and historical heritage belongs to the people of every age and generation, and the Church remains a stable and trustworthy custodian of this part of the human patrimony.
In the late 1800's there arose in Europe a trend of nationalism and in various places the principalities and kingdoms were abolished, sometimes through civil war, and replaced by states with national governments and eventually with elected officials. It was Mussolini who, in 1929, signed a Concordat with the Pope who surrendered that last remaining Papal States to the government of Italy and in turn Italy left the Roman Catholic Church with the Pope at its head a small parcel of land called Vatican City - much smaller than Montreal and about the size of Mont Royal Park - and recognizing Vatican City as a state; so it is now the Vatican City State with recognition at the United Nations which was itself formed in 1948.
So we have
Vatican City State - a state equal to other nation states but existing as a principality, like Monaco and Lichtenstein
The Holy See - this is the Chair of Peter, the Pope as religious and moral leader of the Roman Catholic Church with all his appointed officials and assistants
The Roman Curia - all the officials and groupings constituting the Holy See and working under the Pope's leadership at the service of the universal Church: the Secretariat of State (like a Prime Minister and his Office), Congregations, Tribunals, Pontifical Councils, Synod of Bishops, Offices, Pontifical Commissions, Swiss Guard, Institutions Connected, Labour Office of the Holy See, Pontifical Academies, Pontifical Committees
The Diocese of Rome operates like any other diocese around the world but is among the largest if not the largest. This link gives information about Rome but the Rome website is difficult to log into.
The Roman Catholic Church exists worldwide in the form of local churches or dioceses. Larger dioceses are called archdioceses and the archbishops have some jurisdiction over some neighboring dioceses called suffragan dioceses. However, each diocese is autonomous and the local bishop or archbishop has full authority and responsibility to govern and serve the faithful and the whole population under his jurisdiction, but also is answerable to the Pope who continues to have moral authority over all the bishops together and each one in particular. This is demonstrated in the practice of bishops being personally appointed by the Pope after the Congregation of Bishops has carefully researched the best possible candidates.
From the point of view of civil law, property, assets, personnel, and all forms of management, each diocese is truly autonomous, as if it were simply a member of an association of dioceses worldwide. Each diocese is regulated according to local civil and criminal codes of law.
Some people and organizations are trying to hold the Pope responsible for the abuse of children worldwide, but this shows their lack of understanding of how the Roman Catholic Church works. The Pope has moral authority to try to lead the bishops of the world in the best possible direction, but in the end, each bishop is responsible under local laws for his governance in civil and criminal matters, just as every priest is responsible for his own conduct under those laws.
Bishops are now being held accountable for not having properly managed priests reportedly having committed sexual abuses of children and for not having acted promptly enough to prevent such priests from having further access to children. However, what these accusations seem not to take sufficiently into account is the historical circumstances at work at the time of those sexual abuses, such as the prevailing medical and psychological expertise concerning such behavior and abuse. In addition, those accusations don't seem often to take into account the positive measures taken by many bishops and dioceses to isolate and attempt to treat priests accused of or caught in the act of abuse.
In a social climate in which the general population could not tolerate even contemplating the possibility of sexual abuse, it was difficult if not impossible for bishops to offer to help the reported victims, even though in many cases attempts were made to offer what care could be offered at the time.
Whenever it can be established that priests abused, they must be held accountable according to local laws, and in the end, they will also have to answer to God. When it can be established that bishops failed to govern properly, to prevent such priests from abusing again or to offer timely and effective assistance to victims, then they too must be held accountable according to local laws, and eventually to God.
One of the most serious and misunderstood issues relates to financial compensation of victims because people misunderstand the Roman Catholic Church as a depository of riches and wealth, comparable to billionaires and large corporations that enrich their shareholders. The truth is that the Roman Catholic Church, from a human point of view, is not a single entity like a billionaire or a multinational corporation.
The Roman Church has thousands of dioceses and each one has some form of civil incorporation. In Québec, due to the Napoleonic civil Code, each parish is an autonomous corporation and the bishop does not "own" the assets belonging to parishes. The "riches" of the Vatican are mostly architecture, art, and archives, and no one actually "owns" them, though in human affairs all man-made things must "belong" to someone or some organization. Vatican City "owns" the buildings and art "treasures" of the Vatican, but really, these are part of the patrimony of humanity in general and of Roman Catholics and Christians in particular.
Visible "heads" in the Church, bishops, have of themselves no wealth, unless they are of a rich family and share in the enjoyment of such estates. Regrettably there may be here and there bishops who have "enriched" themselves by siphoning off some funds for their personal use, either in legitimate ways or "under the table", but such cases are few indeed, and when they do occur, they are generally caught and reprimanded. Wherever bishops are in their person the "corporation" which "owns" the assets of their diocese, what constitutes their "wealth"?
Generally all church properties have been purchased and built for the people and by the people. Ordinary citizens like us for generations have contributed their hard-earned offerings to the Church in order to be able to worship in a building offering them shelter from the elements and at the same time through religious art and architecture evoking in beautiful ways the God in whom they believe and whom they come to worship. Dioceses that enjoy surplus funds employ them to maintain those buildings, offer additional services, and provide alternative places for formation, retreats, and recreation, like retreat and formation houses and camps.
When victims and their representatives sue a local church for compensation, the amounts are generally in an order of magnitude that can in effect bankrupt a local church. Because churches do not operate for profit, literally, any surplus funds are needed for personnel development and building maintenance. Large sums attributed by courts to compensate victims generally require that churches be closed and sold. That means that your church or mine would have to be closed, sold, and the money given to victims because father so and so abused them sometime in the past. For one victim to be compensated for sexual abuse, more victims are made now when they lose their church which they have supported. The compensation does not come from the perpetrator of the abuse, nor from the bishops involved at the time of the abuse, but rather from ordinary people today who in effect lose their church and must either begin all over again or must go somewhere else.
This doesn't mean that victims don't deserve compensation, they do, but more than that, they need competent assistance in order to come to terms with what they suffered, somehow get past it, and resume living and giving meaning to their lives. For this the Church hold a heavy responsibility to do all it can to help them achieve an optimal outcome, but simple financial compensation is a view of things inspired by our very twisted western society whose primary value is money and the accumulation of wealth and all the pleasure one can possibly afford. Wealth and pleasures of the flesh do not bring happiness, but rather a meaningful life.