Dear God, what’s the difference between a basilica and a cathedral?

South America is short on a few things: stable and genuine democracies, cheddar cheese, salad and competitive air travel markets. But it is certainly not short of catholic churches. Virtually every town, no matter how small, has a major catholic church as the centre piece of its plaza. The one in Baños, where we are at the moment, gets lit up a night like it’s from Disneyland.

Many of these churches are known as cathedrals. Some are known as basilicas. Some are neither. I thought that a basilica was a kind of super cathedral but it turns out I was wrong. In venn diagram terms: not all basilicas are cathedrals, though some are. Not all cathedrals are basilicas, though some are.

A basilica is a church that has had the honour of being a basilica bestowed upon it by a pope. That’s generally because it has some special relic, or is otherwise a site of pilgrimage. To use the hilarious analogy of one catholic forum, a basilica is like a soldier who has been given a medal. For example, here in Baños there’s a basilica because someone thought they saw the Virgin Mary in a local waterfall, they put a statute of her in their church and some pope or other decided that was special enough.

There’s something like 1400 basilicas in the world of which more than one in three are in Italy. Rome is home to the four ‘major’ basilicas. This includes St Peters which, remarkably, isn’t a cathedral.

A cathedral is the seat of a bishop who heads a diocese. The word comes from a Latin term that describes a bishop’s throne. There are a lot more cathedrals than there are basilicas.

Here endeth the lesson.


4 thoughts on “Dear God, what’s the difference between a basilica and a cathedral?

  1. We researched this distinction a while ago because the Catholic church in Hill Street has been known as ‘the Basilica’ as Johanna notes above. However it seems this was a misnomer [note unusual correct use of the word ‘misnomer’ here] based on its architecture: it is in fact a Cathedral – designated the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and of Saint Mary His Mother:,_Wellington

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