Parishes, Dioceses and More

How Does the Structure of the Catholic Church shape ParishSOFT?

ParishSOFT is designed to function within the unique structure of the Catholic Church, and so it is helpful to have a basic understanding of church structure and hierarchy as you provide support to our callers.

The Papacy

The Catholic Church is headed by the Pope, who has the power to set the laws of the Catholic Church. The Pope is also the head of an independent nation called Vatican City which is located in Rome. The Pope has a large body of officials in varying ranks, called the Curia, who are practically responsible for making day-to-day decisions under the Pope's authority. The Pope, through the Curia, sets the rules that Catholic churches are required to follow, which form the basis for how ParishSOFT stores data. Changes that affect what our software needs to include are rare but do happen from time to time.

Dioceses and Bishops

The basic unit of the Catholic church is the diocese, headed by a bishop. A diocese is based in a specific city and covers a substantial area and population--in the USA a typical diocese has between 100,000 and 500,000 Catholics (although they range in size from 6,000 to 1.4 million Catholics). Each bishop is responsible to serve the spiritual needs of people in his diocese and also for the financial affairs of the diocese and the churches in it.

In most cases, the bishop has the right under both church and US law to control parish property and income. In practice, bishops give varying degrees of freedom to individual parishes, but still take an active role in overseeing financial affairs in parishes. Our Accounting and Family Suite programs are designed to help the bishop's staff understand the state of their diocese and ensure that all parishes are following church and civil law. Many features of our software are based around the need to provide an integrated database for a whole diocese. 

Parishes and Pastors

A diocese is divided into parishes, smaller areas which are each headed by a priest called a pastor. Each parish has at least one church, and most people think of "parish" and "church" as synonyms. Each pastor is responsible for keeping track of the sacraments celebrated in their parish and for managing both the pastoral needs of their parishioners and the financial affairs of the parish and church. Our Membership and Accounting teams provide support to parish staff who are using our software.

In some cases, a diocese has purchased our software and required parishes to use it. These parishes have access to the features that work across dioceses, but in some cases they are using software they didn't ask for or choose. In other cases, parishes purchase ParishSOFT independently of their diocese. These parishes don't have access to every feature (for example, they can't look up families registered to other parishes).

The pastor is officially the final authority for business decisions in the parish, but most parishes have a business manager who manages the business of the parish. We are more likely to work with the business manager than the pastor. However, the pastor always has the right to any data related to the parish and can authorize anyone to access ParishSOFT. 


According to church law, parishes are defined geographically. A Catholic lives in a parish just like they live in a particular county. In the US, Catholics often chose to become active in a parish different from the one they actually lived in. This led to the idea of registration. A Catholic family can register with a parish they want to be identified with. In practice, this identifies them as part of that parish even if they live in the boundaries of a different parish. Registration is used almost everywhere in the US and we use registration status as a basic category. However, it's not part of Catholic law and a person who is not registered anywhere can call on the pastor of the parish they live when in need.


Many parishes are also served by deacons. In the Catholic church, a deacon is an ordained clergyman who can officially preside at baptisms, marriages, and funerals. A deacon must be at least 35 and go through several years of training before being ordained. Deacons are usually volunteers but they serve for life. Deacons normally have full-time careers, and a deacon who works in IT may be asked to do tech support for their parish.

Other Terms

Dioceses and parishes are the basic units of the church, but there are other terms and ranks that you may run into.


A cardinal is appointed for life by the pope. The Cardinals are the highest-ranking people in the church below the Pope, The specific rules about who can be a cardinal and what cardinals can vote in papal elections have changed over the centuries. Today, almost all cardinals are clergy with long careers in church leadership. Cardinals over 80 do not vote for a new pope. The maximum number of cardinals who vote for the pope is limited to 120, and the number of cardinals under 80 is normally around this number. There are currently about 100 additional cardinals over 80.


An archbishop is the head of an archdiocese. An archdiocese is generally larger than the dioceses around it. Each diocese is normally assigned to an archdiocese, but the archbishop has a very limited role in the oversight of other dioceses. 


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