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Catholic Etiquette
by Robert C. Broderick, M.A.



     The Church by divine law is independent of civil power in everything which directly concerns the objective of the Church, that is, the salvation of souls. To all just regulations set up by civil authority for the governance of people, the Church bows and obeys. The Church is not a political power, and claims no temporal power. However, in so far as acts of civil authority involve degrees of morality, the Church has indirect jurisdiction.

     It is thus that the Church alone may interpret the natural and divine law and bind men by her interpretation.

     The head of the Catholic Church is the pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth, who is the supreme authority in jurisdiction. The pope alone is infallible in matters of faith and morals when he speaks as the head of the Universal Church. Thus the jurisdiction of the pope in matters of faith and morals and Church governance extends to all churches, bishops, clergy and faithful. His jurisdiction is independent of any civil authority (c. 218).

     The pope is the supreme head of the Church, deriving his authority by direct commission from Christ. He is the successor of St. Peter, the divinely appointed head of the Church founded by Christ. The authority of the pope is personal and supreme. It is because of his authority, rather than his infallibility, that the entire Church listens and obeys when he speaks through encyclicals and papal pronouncements on subjects other than those of faith and morals.

     In the governance of the Church, the pope is aided by counsel and delegated authority. The chief aids to the pope are the cardinals, who are called "princes of the Church." Each cardinal is appointed by the Supreme Pontiff. By such appointment, a cardinal becomes a member of the College of Cardinals, which may not exceed seventy members. It is the perogative of the College of Cardinals to elect a successor to the pope after the Holy See becomes vacant by death. The duties of the cardinals, both individually and jointly, are to assist and advise the pope in governing the Church.

     Further aides to the pope in administering the affairs of the Church are the Sacred Congregations - twelve established groups who serve by reviewing and recommending actions to be carried out under the authority of the pope. These congregations are:

     The Sacred Consistory - made up of the pope and cardinals, concerns itself with major questions.

     The Congregation of the Sacraments - examines and has responsibility for the administration of the sacraments.

     The Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs - treats of matters of international importance arising between the Church and governments.

     The Congregation of the Holy Office - considers questions of heresy, examines books as to their content regarding faith and morals.

     The Congregation of the Council - deals with questions of discipline and order within the Church.

     The Congregation for the Oriental Church - handles affairs of the Oriental Rites.

     The Congregation of Religious - treats of all questions concerning religious orders of men and women.

     The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith - supervises missions.

     The Congregation of Rites - regulates matters of ritual.

     The Ceremonial Congregation - supervises certain sacred functions.

     The Congregation of Universities and Seminaries - regulates institutions of learning. And finally:

     The Congregation for St. Peter's Basilica - provides for the management of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. (It is not a canonical congregation but is listed as one.)

     There are, in addition to the Sacred Congregations, six tribunals, three of justice and three of grace, which are directed to legal matters, both religious and civil. (For ordinary matters of discipline, the diocesan courts are the courts of first authority.)

     Since the Church is a sovereign temporal power, established in and occupying the territory of the Vatican State, it sends representatives to foreign countries. Such representatives are known as apostolic legates. These are, in descending rank: legates; nuncios; apostolic delegates; apostolic vicars and ablegates. They represent the pope to governments, bishops and faithful of the countries to which they are sent. The United States has an apostolic delegate as its representative from the Holy Father.


     By broad distinction, the membership of the Church is divided into clerics (a man becomes a cleric by first tonsure), religious (brothers, sisters and tertiaries), and laity. The sacred hierarchy of the Church, by reason of holy orders, is made up of bishops, priests and deacons. Members of the hierarchy may have carious titles, which are conferred upon them because of the office they hold or by dignity. Thus the Holy Father is a bishop (not only by holy orders but also by consecration as the Bishop of Rome), but by office he is the Supreme Pontiff, just as a priest may be honored by the pope with the titles of Right Revenend or Very Reverend Monsignor while at the same time by office being a pastor.

     Popes and bishops have power by jurisdection, that is, by the fullness of authority residing in their respective offices. They make up the hierarchy of jurisdiction. Other members of the hierarchy of orders share in the power of jurisdiction by delegation.

     MEMBERS OF THE HIERARCHY - BY PERSONS AND TITLE. All bishops have the fullness of orders, and to this nothing can be added because of title. Following the cardinals in honor are the archbishops. By title there are several grades which are in order of dignity: Patriarchs (the greater partiarchs are the archbishops of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria); Primates, an honorary rank (given usually to the senior bishop of a country); Metropolitans, title of those archbishops having an added degree of jurisdiction over the other dioceses of a province; and Titular Archbishops, ruling over single dioceses or having the title to an extinct archdiocese (also an honorary rank).

     Most bishops rule over distinct territories called dioceses. Such a bishop os termed a Diocesan Bishop and is referred to officially as the ordinary of those under his jurisdiction. A bishop who governs a diocese which is part of a province has the prefix suffragan or provincial. When the diocese is not part of a province, the bishop may be referred to an exempt bishop. When a particular country or territory (usually missionary in character) is established, but the jurisdiction is exercised by a priest who is not a bishop but has been given certain additional powers, this priest is referred to as a vicar apostolic or a perfect apostolic. Bishops who do not have the governance of a diocese are titular bishops and are referred to as auxiliary or coadjutor, being given the "title" to an extinct diocese.

     By dignity, there is a broad group know as the prelature. Actually, the title of prelate is applied properly to the pope, cardinals, patriarchs, primates, archbishops, bishops, abbots, and monsignors. The title of domestic prelate is given to priests as an honor and dignity by the pope. There are the priests who bear the title of monsignor, of which there are four degrees of prothonotaries. A fifth group, also entitled monsignors, is made up of papal chamberlains. The title of address of the papal chamberlains and the 4th rank of prothonotaries (titular prothonotaries) is "Very Reverend." "Right Reverend" pertains to the first three degrees of prothonotaries.

     Each diocese also has certain dignitaries who are honored with titles which arise from their office. These are: vicar-generals, chancellors, diocesan consultors, deans, etc. The title of a priest who is placed in charge of a parish is properly pastor, although in some instances the title may be "rector." However, in America the title of "rector" is usually given to a superior of a religious institution, as, for example, the rector of a seminary.

     A priest assigned to assist the pastor of a parish is called a curate, although by custom he is frequently referred to as an "assistant." When a priest is placed as a spiritual director of a group of religious, a religious institution, or as a member of the military or naval services, his title is that of chaplain. Such a priest may be referred to by title or rank of service.


     Further spiritual work of the Church is carried on by individuals who affiliate themselves with one of the religious orders. Primarily, these orders are communities of men who join under a particular rule of life which directs them in a special way toward perfection. A religious community implies a fixed way of life, according to a rule, having either simple or solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These communities are distinguished by the vows taken by members. Those having solemn vows are religious orders. Members of religious orders devote their lives to prayer and spiritual perfection. Their prayers are directed to the salvation of the individual members and to reparation for others.

     Besides the religious orders there are groups called congregations. These groups may live a semi-community or monastic life but are directed to the active apostolate of teaching, missionary work, etc.

     These communities or orders of men are called clerical, meaning that their members are priests, or lay institutes, that is, sisters, brothers, etc.

     While the majority of religious orders and congregations have both priests and brothers living according to their rule, there are societies where the membership is made up of brothers, with few priest members. These societies are directed to a particular purpose while they live a life of personal spiritual advancement. Such societies include the Christian Brothers; Brothers of Mary; etc.

     RELIGIOUS ORDERS OF WOMEN AND TERTIARIES. The religious rules of life, adapted to women, were patterned after the rules developed for men. There are two groups of women in religious life. Those living in monastic seclusion and leading a life devoted to contemplation are usually referred to as nuns; women joined in communities, but engaged in an active apostolate outside the cloister, are more often called sisters. However, the titles are commonly used for both.

     In addressing groups of nuns or sisters, it is the practice to refer to them as "Venerable" - which is a term of dignity. In listing a sister's name or addressing her in correspondence, it is proper and preferred that the initials of her affiliation be given. This is because of the similarity of names taken in the religious life and the courtesy of recognizing her life, and thus it is proper, for example, to write: Sister Mary ____ ____, B.V.M.

     Religious orders are affiliated with associations of the laity know as third orders and referred to as tertiaries. These members are not properly members of the religious state but are made up of groups of people who, while living in the world, espouse a particular rule of religious life (Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite, etc.). They say certain prescribed prayers and conduct themselves in accord with a life directed toward their personal sanctification.

     Also there are third orders regular whose members live a religious life but are also active in some apostolic work, teaching, nursing, or missions. They take public vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. They are usually addressed as "Sister."


     (Key: in formal address, as indicated in the following: (a) direct speech or conversation; (b) correspondence. The abbreviation, add., is for the address on the envelope; sal., the salutation of a letter.)

THE POPE - (a) Your Holiness. (b) Add.: To His Holiness, Pope ... Sal.: Most Holy Father.

CARDINALS - (a) Your Eminence. (b) Add.: His Eminence (Christian name) Cardinal (surname). Sal.: My Lord Cardinal.

LATIN PATRIARCHS - (a) Your Excellency. (b) Add.: His Excellency the Patriarch of ... Sal.: Your Excellency or Most Reverend Excellency.

EASTERN PATRIARCHS - (a) Your Beatitude. (b) Add.:His Beatitude the Patriarch of ... Sal.: Most Reverend Lord.

APOSTOLIC DELEGATES AND NUNCIOS - (a) Your Excellency. (b) Add.: His Excellency Archbishop (or Monsignor) ... Sal.: Your Excellency.

ARCHBISHOPS - (a) Your Excellency. (b) Add.: The Most Reverend ..., D.D., Archbishop of ... Sal.: Your Excellency.

BISHOPS - (a) Your Excellency. (b) Add.: The Most Reverend ..., D.D., Bishop of ... Sal.: Most Reverend.

ABBOTS - (a) Father Abbot or My Lord Abbot. (b) Add.: The Right Reverend ..., Abbot of ... Sal.: Right Reverend Abbot.

ABBESSES - (a) Lady Abbess or Mother Abbess. (b) Add.: Lady Abbess ..., Abbess of ... Sal.: Dear Mother Abbess.

PROTHONOTARIES APOSTOLIC (Domestic Prelates and Vicar-General) - (a) Monsignor. (b) Add.: The Right Reverend Monsignor ..., P.A. orV.G. Sal.: Right Reverend and Dear Monsignor.

PROVOSTS AND CANONS - (a) Provost or Canon. (b) Add.: The Very Reverend Provost (or Canon). Sal.: Very Reverend Provost or Dear Canon.

PAPAL CHAMBERLAINS - (a) Monsignor. (b) Add.: The Very Reverend Monsignor ... Sal.: Very Reverend Monsignor.

RECTORS OF SEMINARIES - (a) Father (or title). (b) Add.: The Very Reverend ... Sal.: Very Reverend and Dear Father (or title).

PROVINCIALS OF RELIGIOUS ORDERS - (a) Father Provincial. (b) Add.: The Very Reverend Father Provincial ... Sal.: Very Reverend and Dear Father Provincial.

PRIORS - (a) Father Prior. (b) Add.: The Very Reverend Father Prior ... Sal.: Very Reverend and Dear Father Prior.

PRIORESSES - (a) Mother Prioress. (b) Add.: The Very Reverend Mother Prioress ... Sal.: Very Reverend and Dear Mother Prioress.

RURAL DEANS - (a) Father. (b) Add.: The Very Reverend ... Sal.: Very Reverend and Dear Dean.

PRIESTS, DIOCESAN - (a) Father. (b) Add.: The Reverend ... Sal.: Reverend and Dear Father.

PRIESTS, RELIGIOUS - (a) Father. (b) Add.: The Reverend Father ... Sal.: Reverend and Dear Father.

CLERICS (BELOW ORDER OF PRIESTHOOD) - (a) no title. (b) Add.: The Reverend Mr. ... Sal.: Reverend Sir.

BROTHERS - (a) Brother. (b) Add.: Venerable Brother ... Sal.: Venerable and Dear Brother.

SISTERS - (a) Sister. (b) Add.: Venerable Sister ... Sal.: Venerable and Dear Sister.

PAPAL KNIGHTS - (a) Sir. (b) Add.: The Honorable ..., K.S.G. (or K.H.S.) Sal.: Honorable and Dear Sir.


     By definition, all those persons who are not clerics are lay people. As such, the laity as members of the Church and of the mystical body are frequently referred to as "the faithful." Lay people have the right, under the mandate of Christ and under law of the Church (c. 682) to receive from the clergy the aids to their salvation, including the sacraments, instructions in the faith, good example, etc. Lay persons may participate in administering Church property under the law and by special delegation.

     At the same time, the laity are to subject themselves in filial obedience to the Church, observing its laws, accepting the ministry given, seeking proper instruction, and joining in Catholic associations for the spread of Catholic belief and practice among men.

     THE LAY APOSTOLATE. The laity has both the opportunity and the obligation to seek, first, its own perfection, and second, the perfection of others through works of merit. This activity is called the "lay apostolate." It may be both singular and group action. The layman may seek his own sanctification by complying with the law and directives of the Church, by receiving the aids of grace through reception of the sacraments, by seeking proper instruction for himself and those subject to him, and by acquiring greater knowledge, and hence greater effectiveness, in working for the Church. The role of a lay apostolate begins with ourselves and our families and extends to all the associations of our social life.

     CATHOLIC ACTION. By definition, Catholic Action extends broadly, embracing activities which seek the good of the parish, the diocese, the state and the nation. Its operation is the diffusion through society of the Christian principles of faith and morals, including domestic, social and legislative areas.

     Concerning Catholic Action, Pope Pius XI declares: It is not alone "of the pursuit of personal Christian perfection which is, however, before all others, its first and greatest end, but also of a true apostolate in which Catholics of every social class participate, coming thus to be united in thought and action around those centers of sound doctrine and multiple social activity, legitimately constituted, and, as a result, aided and sustained by the authority of the bishops." In the strict sense of the term, Catholic Action must have two primary qualities to be genuine: each group should have an apostolic objective and be organized under the direction of the hierarchy.