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The references I've seen so far have alternated primacy between one and the other.

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There is no need to capitalize unless you are referring to a specific building. –  Emre Apr 10 '11 at 21:44
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4 Answers

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A basilica was originally, in Hellenistic Greece, a tribunal administering justice on behalf of the king (βασιλέως - basileus). The word and the thing were adopted by the Romans after annexing Macedonia in the 2nd Century BC. The archeological site of Pompeii, for instance, has the remains of a large basilica which served as a tribunal, and a few hundred meters away in the modern city of Pompeii a catholic basilica.

When Constantine instituted the christian faith as the Empire’s official religion (4th century A.D.)1, he erected a number of large churches which were then named basilicas. The current Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome replaces a previous building built precisely by Constantine. As a general rule basilicas are the highest ranking churches and are declared so by the Pope. Some high profile basilicas are built on top of the burials of notable saints (St Peter's, St Francesco of Assisi, St Vasily in Moscow, St Paul Outside the Walls...)


Cathedrals, on the other hand, were typically built during the Middle Ages. They are headed by a bishop. However, if this bishop is head of his diocese, then his cathedral outranks any basilica in his diocese.

Neither cathedrals nor basilicas are restricted to the Catholic faith: see St. Basil's in Moscow, of the Russian Orthodox Church (remarkably sometimes translated as basilica; sometimes to cathedral).

1 He also decided we would rest on Sundays ;-)

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Thanks, the outranking thing is probably why I see them given different emphasis. –  Rich Homolka Apr 13 '11 at 10:28
    
@SriAtluru. I fail to understand how you "differ" from my statement "As a general rule basilicas are the highest ranking churches and are declared so by the Pope." Plese also consider this authoritative source: "The papal or major basilicas outrank in precedence all other churches. Other rankings put the cathedral (or co-cathedral) of a bishop ahead of all other churches in the same diocese, even if they have the title of basilica.". –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 10 '11 at 19:14
    
Yeah. My bad. Wrong interpretation. Sorry. –  Sri Atluru Jun 10 '11 at 19:56
    
@Sri Atluru. No prob. You had me read that very interesting wikipedia articles about St Louis Basilica. I had no idea it had been designated a basilica by John-Paul II. Cheers. Coincidently there is another St Louis Cathedral close to where I live at the moment in Tunis. I don't think it has St Louis tomb though, although he surely died here in 1270 AD. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 10 '11 at 20:06
    
You should see the basilica at St. Louis. It is really really beautiful. One of the few places where the moment you go in, you feel you are in the midst of something awesome.When I told about it to my grandpa, he said they were larger and more beautiful basilicas in europe, especially in Italy and France. Visiting the basilica in Lourdes is on my to-do list. We used to have a small statue of Mary, which was made in Lourdes, in our prayer room back in India. –  Sri Atluru Jun 10 '11 at 21:17
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A cathedra (Latin, "chair", from Greek, kathedra, "seat") or bishop's throne is the chair or throne of a bishop.

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And 'cathedral' is the adjective: cathedral church was shortened to cathedral –  TimLymington Aug 4 '11 at 16:48
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A cathedral is the principal church of a diocese, while basilica is the name given to certain churches granted special privileges by the pope.

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A cathedral is the proper term a church that is home to a bishop. A basilica may refer to anything from a church's architecture to its importance to the pope, depending on its type. The Holy Roman Catholic Church categorizes basilica according to their function: palace, a papal seat of authority, etc. Some cathedrals are also called basilica, but it's generally the case that a basilica outranks a cathedral in matters of church authority.

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Throw in "minster" for more confusion. I think "cathedral" is the only one of the three that has a single unambiguous definition. A "cathedral church" is a a church that contains a "cathedra", or Bishop's seat. –  Colin Fine Apr 10 '11 at 22:48
    
Minister is just anglo-saxon for cathedral –  mgb Apr 11 '11 at 4:38
    
@Martin Becket - see yorkminster.org/general/faqs for their definition of minster. Wikipedia doesn't seem to totally agree. –  neil May 24 '11 at 11:54
    
@neil - true, I should have said major church - although I can't think of a minster that isn't (or wasn't) a cathedral –  mgb May 24 '11 at 12:59
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