São Paulo Cathedral, a representative modern cathedral built in Neo-Gothic style.
Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, is the first and oldest cathedral established in the New World.[1]
Interior of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Memphis, Tennessee with a procession.

A cathedral is a church that contains the cathedra (Latin for "seat") of a bishop,[2] thus serving as the central church of a diocese, conference, or episcopate.[3] Churches with the function of "cathedral" are usually specific to those Christian denominations with an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and some Lutheran and Methodist churches.[3] Church buildings embodying the functions of a cathedral first appeared in Spain, Italy, Gaul and North Africa in the 4th century, but cathedrals did not become universal within the Western Catholic Church until the 12th century, by which time they had developed architectural forms, institutional structures and legal identities distinct from parish churches, monastic churches and episcopal residences.

Following the Protestant Reformation, the Christian church in several parts of Western Europe, such as Scotland, the Netherlands, certain Swiss Cantons and parts of Germany, adopted a Presbyterian polity that did away with bishops altogether. Where ancient cathedral buildings in these lands are still in use for congregational worship, they generally retain the title and dignity of "cathedral", maintaining and developing distinct cathedral functions, but void of hierarchical supremacy. From the 16th century onwards, but especially since the 19th century, churches originating in Western Europe have undertaken vigorous programmes of missionary activity, leading to the founding of large numbers of new dioceses with associated cathedral establishments of varying forms in Asia, Africa, Australasia, Oceania and the Americas. In addition, both the Catholic Church and Orthodox churches have formed new dioceses within formerly Protestant lands for converts and migrant co-religionists. Consequently, it is not uncommon to find Christians in a single city being served by three or more cathedrals of differing denominations.

The word "cathedral", as the seat of a bishop, is found in most languages; however in Europe a cathedral church can be referred to as a Duomo (for example in Italian, Spanish) or Dom (e.g. German, Dutch, etc.), from the Latin term domus ecclesiae or domus episcopalis. While the terms are not synonymous (a duomo is a collegiate church, cognate with the English "Minster") many cathedral churches are also collegiate churches, so that Duomo, or Dom, has become the common name for a cathedral in those countries.In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the English word "cathedral" commonly translates as katholikon (sobor in Slavic languages), meaning "assembly", but this title is also applied to monastic and other major churches without episcopal responsibilities. When the church at which an archbishop or "metropolitan" presides is specifically intended, the term kathedrikós naós (literally: "cathedral temple") is used.

In the Catholic or Roman Catholic tradition, the term "cathedral" correctly applies only to a church that houses the seat of the bishop of a diocese. The abbey church of a territorial abbacy serves the same function (that is, houses the seat of the abbot), but does not acquire the title. In any other jurisdiction canonically equivalent to a diocese but not canonically erected as such (prelature, vicariate, ordinariate, prefecture, apostolic administration), the church that serves this function is correctly called the "principal church" of the respective entity—though some have coopted the term "cathedral" anyway. The Catholic Church also uses the following terms.

  • A pro-cathedral is a parish or other church used temporarily as a cathedral, usually while the cathedral of a diocese is under construction, renovation, or repair. This designation applies only as long as the temporary use continues.
  • A co-cathedral is a second cathedral in a diocese that has two sees. This situation can arise in various ways such as a merger of two former dioceses, preparation to split a diocese, or perceived need to perform cathedral functions in a second location due to the expanse of the diocesan territory.
  • A proto-cathedral is the former cathedral of a transferred see.

The cathedral church of a metropolitan bishop is called a metropolitan cathedral.

The term "cathedral" actually carries no implication as to the size or ornateness of the building. Nevertheless, most cathedrals are particularly impressive edifices. Thus, the term "cathedral" is often applied colloquially to any large and impressive church, regardless of whether it functions as a cathedral, such as the Crystal Cathedral in California or the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø, Norway. Although the builders of Crystal Cathedral never intended the building to be a true cathedral, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange purchased the building and the surrounding campus in February 2012 for use as a new cathedral church. The building is now under renovation and restoration for solemn dedication under the title "Christ Cathedral"[4] in 2019.

Etymology and definition

The cathedra of the Pope as Bishop of Rome, Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran

The word "cathedral" is derived from the French cathédrale, from the Latin cathedra ("seat"), from the Greek καθέδρα kathédra, "seat, bench", from κατά kata "down" and ἕδρα hedra "seat, base, chair."

The word refers to the presence and prominence of the bishop's or archbishop's chair or throne, raised above both clergy and laity, and originally located facing the congregation from behind the High Altar. In the ancient world, the chair, on a raised dais, was the distinctive mark of a teacher or rhetor and thus symbolises the bishop's role as teacher. A raised throne within a basilican hall was also definitive for a Late Antique presiding magistrate; and so the cathedra also symbolises the bishop's role in governing his diocese.

The episcopal throne embodies the principle that only a bishop makes a cathedral, and this still applies even in those churches that no longer have bishops, but retain cathedral dignity and functions in ancient churches over which bishops formerly presided. But the throne can also embody the principle that a cathedral makes a bishop; both specifically, in that the bishop is elected within the cathedral and is inaugurated by being enthroned within the cathedral by acclamation of clergy and laity; and also generally, in that the bishops' essential qualifications of regular prayer, higher learning and musical worship were for many centuries, primarily accessible through cathedral functions. In this there is a distinction between those church traditions, predominantly those of Eastern Orthodox Christianity but formerly also including Celtic churches in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, whose bishops came to be made in monasteries; and those church traditions whose bishops have tended predominantly to arise through the ranks of cathedral clergy.[5]