There are two kinds of particular Churches:
- Local particular Churches. A diocese is the most familiar form of such local particular Churches, but there are other forms, including that of a territorial abbacy, an apostolic vicariate and an apostolic prefecture: "Particular Churches, in which and from which the one and only Catholic Church exists, are principally dioceses. Unless the contrary is clear, the following are equivalent to a diocese: a territorial prelature, a territorial abbacy, a vicariate apostolic, a prefecture apostolic and a permanently established apostolic administration."
- Autonomous ("sui iuris") particular Churches. These are aggregations of local particular Churches that share a specific liturgical, theological and canonical tradition. They have also been called "particular Churches or rites". The largest such autonomous particular Church is the Latin Rite. The others are referred to collectively as the Eastern Catholic Churches. The larger Eastern Catholic Churches are headed by a bishop who has the title and rank of patriarch or major archbishop.
Autonomous particular Churches or Rites
There are 23 such autonomous Churches, one "Western" and 22 "Eastern", a distinction by now more historical than geographical. The term sui iuris means, literally, "of their own law", or self-governing. Although all of the particular Churches espouse the same beliefs and faith, their distinction lies in their varied expression of that faith through their traditions, disciplines, and Canon law. All 23 are in communion with the Pope in Rome.
For this kind of "particular Church" the 1983 Code of Canon Law uses the unambiguous phrase "autonomous ritual Church" (in Latin Ecclesia ritualis sui iuris). The 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which is instead concerned principally with what the Second Vatican Council called "particular Churches or rites", has shortened this phrase to "autonomous Church" (in Latin, Ecclesia sui iuris), as in its canon 27: "A group of Christ’s faithful hierarchically linked in accordance with law and given express or tacit recognition by the supreme authority of the Church is in this Code called an autonomous Church."
Communion between particular Churches has existed since the Apostles: "Among these manifold particular expressions of the saving presence of the one Church of Christ, there are to be found, from the times of the Apostles on, those entities which are in themselves Churches (32: Cf. Ac 8:1, Ac 11:22, 1 Cor 1:2, 1 Cor 16:19, Gal 1:22, Rev 2, Rev 1:8, etc.), because, although they are particular, the universal Church becomes present in them with all its essential elements (33: Cf. PONTIFICAL BIBLICAL COMMISSION, Unité et diversité dans l'Eglise, Lib. Ed. Vaticana 1989, especially, pp. 14-28.)" (Communionis Notio, 7).
Local particular Churches
In Catholic teaching, each diocese (Latin Rite term) or eparchy (Eastern Rite term) is also a local or particular Church, though it lacks the autonomy of the particular Churches described above: "A diocese is a section of the People of God entrusted to a bishop to be guided by him with the assistance of his clergy so that, loyal to its pastor and formed by him into one community in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Eucharist, it constitutes one particular church in which the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active."
The 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is concerned with the Latin-Rite Church alone and so with only one autonomous particular Church, uses the term "particular Church" only in the sense of "local Church", as in its canon 373: "It is within the competence of the supreme authority alone to establish particular Churches; once they are lawfully established, the law itself gives them juridical personality."
The standard form of these local or particular Churches, each of which is headed by a bishop, is called a diocese in the Latin Church and an eparchy in the Eastern Churches. At the end of 2007, the total number of all these jurisdictional areas (or "sees") was 2,789.
Unlike "families" or "federations" of Churches formed through the grant of mutual recognition by distinct ecclesial bodies, the Catholic Church considers itself a single Church ("one Body") composed of a multitude of particular Churches, each of which, as stated, is an embodiment of the fullness of the one Catholic Church. For the particular Churches within the Catholic Church, whether autonomous ritual churches (e.g., Coptic Catholic Church, Melkite Catholic Church, Armenian Catholic Church, etc.) or dioceses (e.g., Diocese of Birmingham, Archdiocese of Chicago, etc.), are seen as not simply branches, divisions or sections of a larger body. Theologically, each is considered to be the embodiment in a particular place or for a particular community of the one, whole Catholic Church. "It is in these and formed out of them that the one and unique Catholic Church exists."
The local particular Church of Rome
The Holy See of Rome is seen as the central local Church. Its bishop, the Pope, is considered to be the (sole) successor of Saint Peter, the chief (or "prince") of the Apostles. Quoting the Second Vatican Council's document Lumen Gentium, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, 'is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.'"
All the particular Catholic Churches — eastern or western, autonomous (rites) or local (dioceses or eparchies) — are by definition in full communion with the see or local particular Church of Rome.
- Code of Canon Law, canon 638
- Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 2
- Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church Christus Dominus,11
- Code of Canon Law, canon 373
- Central Statistics Office (February 2008). Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. pp. 1172. ISBN 978-88-209-8021-4.
- Also unlike the situation of those countries within the Commonwealth that consider the British monarch to be their head of state, but are nonetheless fully independent and quite distinct states, not just one state.
- Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Decree on the Church Lumen Gentium, 23
- "The particular Churches, insofar as they are 'part of the one Church of Christ' (Second Vatican Council: Decree Christus Dominus, 6/c), have a special relationship of mutual interiority with the whole, that is, with the universal Church, because in every particular Church 'the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active' (Second Vatican Council: Decree Christus Dominus, 11/a). For this reason, the universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular Churches, or as a federation of particular Churches. It is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church" (Communionis Notio, 9).
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 882
- Communionis Notio (from the Vatican)
- Code of Canon Law (from the Vatican, with IntraText concordance)
- Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches with IntraText concordance