What is the structure of the church and what do the people in it do?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Tuesday 20, November 2012 | Category:   Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

The word we’re looking for is hierarchy. It means “rule by priests” and describes the system of clergy that governs the church. Technically it’s more like “rule by bishop”: Even the pope is bishop of Rome, and no matter how fancy the hat of a cardinal it’s the territorially governing bishops who get the job done. Bishops (Greek episkopoi = "supervisors") were established in the 1st century to preserve church unity over widening areas. Priests and deacons, whose influence is very parochial—local and parish-focused—work for the bishop and declare obedience to him.

A flow chart would help, and if there is one on the walls of the Vatican, I’d love a copy. In the meantime: Think of the pope as first among bishops. Bishops are Vicars of Christ, which means they, like the pope, have the same Boss. When all the bishops get together, as with the Vatican or Lateran or Tridentine Councils, their authority is the highest the church can express.

Cardinals
CARDINALS in St. Peter's Basilica.

Cardinals were originally priests with permanent parish assignments. By the Middle Ages, the term, meaning “hinge,” denoted priests assigned to important locations (think Los Angeles, Chicago, New York in today’s terms). Cardinals became electors of the pope in the 11th century by decree of Pope Nicholas II. In the 16th century Pope Sixtus V limited the number of cardinals to 70, matching Moses’ assembly of elders (Numbers 11:16). The 1917 Code of Canon Law made it imperative for cardinals to be chosen from the clergy—previously a layman could be designated. Pope John XXIII shrunk the pool to bishops in 1962 and eliminated the numerical ceiling. The College of Cardinals functions primarily as a consulting body for the pope.

The Roman Curia is a bureaucracy that runs everything from diplomatic affairs (Vatican City is the world’s smallest sovereign state) to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Vatican newspaper. These offices have traditionally been filled by archbishops and cardinals. (There’s no canonical reason why women could not hold these positions in the future.)

Religious orders sweep this flow chart to the floor. There are four broad categories of orders: monastic, canonical, mendicant, and apostolic. Monasteries may be autonomous in their governance, while most orders have central authorities. Some groups are limited territorially, and few universal claims can be made about what they do and how they do it. Somewhere along the chain, though, you can bet someone is accountable to Rome.

Scripture
Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17-25; Titus 1:5-9;1 Peter 5:1-5

Online
Episkopë and Episkopos: The New Testament Evidence” by Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S.

Books
Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church by Thomas Reese, S.J. (Harvard University Press, 1998)
All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks by John L. Allen, Jr. (Doubleday Religion, 2004)

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