Biblical Studies/Christianity/Roman Catholicism/Hierarchy

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The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Saint Peter the Apostle, is the supreme pastor over the Catholic Church. Bishops, as the successors of the Apostles, share in the authority of the Roman Pontiff when they are united to him. Priests and deacons are appointed to assist each bishop in the administering of the care of the faithful. Certain Rites of the Catholic Church may be organized in a different manner.[1]

The Pontiff

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The succession of pontiffs has continued from St. Peter to Benedict XVI who is considered the 265th pontiff [2]. (Footnote: some calculations by other scholars differ, as one pontiff died before his coronation and another held the office at three separate times.) To protect the purity of the Truth handed onward from the Apostles, the Pontiff is infallible in matters of Faith and Morals in virtue of his office.[3] (Footnote: Pope Vigilius may be an example of this power at work.) The Pontiff is popularly referred to as the Pope (who should not be confused with the Coptic Pope or the Eastern Orthodox Pope of Alexandria.). The pontiff is also known by several other titles (but no longer Patriarch of the West).

The pontiff often writes documents for the instruction and management of the Church. Some of these documents are: Apostolic Constitutions, Apostolic Exhortations, Apostolic Letters (some of which are given Motu Proprio), and Encyclicals.

The Cardinals

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The Cardinals are chosen by the pontiff to be the electors of the succeeding pontiff upon the death or resignation of the pontiff. The choosing of cardinals is sometimes called the giving of red hats--referring to the official garb of cardinals. The cardinals are assigned to one of three categories: the episcopal order, the presbyteral order, and the diaconal order. This means that either there can be Cardinal Bishops, Cardinal Priests, or Cardinal Laymen. In theory then it is possible for a laymen or even a laywoman to be elevated to the cardinalate, but most often it is the practice of the Holy See to only elevate Priests or Bishops to the cardinalate. The pontiff may also choose to designate a cardinal in pectore, in which it is publicly announced that an appointment has been made, but the name is not revealed, and the person is not notified until a later date. This is frequently used in the case of appointments of clergy from countries where the Church is persecuted. Although cardinals are frequently appointed to metropolitan sees and Magisterial offices, the designation as a cardinal does not give any other significant hierarchial faculties other than the electoral function. All cardinals who are not diocesan bishops are required to reside in Rome.[4] Upon the death or resignation of the pontiff, the cardinals assemble in a conclave to elect the next pope.

At the time of this book's publication, the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, written by Pope John Paul II, governed the process of electing a new Pontiff upon the vacancy of the Holy See. Any subsequent Pontiff may revoke, amend, or replace these rules at any time he chooses.

The Bishops

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Bishops are usually the head of a see, a regional area called a diocese, which may vary greatly in size. In the case of certain papal delegates and officials, an appointment may be made to a "Titular See." The common mistake is made that Bishops are almost like a local Ponitff. Bishops in union with Rome do not enjoy their own personal infallibility because it is not the duty of the Pontiff to be in union with the Universal Bishops, it is the duty of the Universal Bishops to be in union with the Pontiff. This is because the episcopate, of the College of Bishops, is dependent on the existence of the Throne of Peter.[5]


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Bishops ordain priests through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Two categories of priests exist: diocesan and religious. A man may not be ordained a priest unless he is at least twenty-six years old, and there has been an interval of at least six months between his ordination to the diaconate and his ordination to the priesthood.[6]

Diocesan Priests

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Diocesan priests are usually assigned to one or more parishes to administer the majority of the sacraments to the faithful. Occasionally, the bishop may determine to assign a priest to assist in another diocesan task such as the administration of tribunals, the spiritual direction of an organization, or the formation or education of seminarians. Diocesan priests are directly responsible to their bishop, and take vows of chastity and obedience.

Religious Priests

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Religious priests usually live in a communal atmosphere, such as in a monastery. They may, however, be assigned to a parish or another diocesan task with the approval of the local bishop (also called the "ordinary"). Religious priests are primarily subject to the authority of a superior of the order. They may also be subject to the authority of the bishop in whose diocese they are residing and, in the case with some orders, to the bishop who has given the order permission to be founded in and administrated from his diocese.


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Deacons were first appointed by the Apostles to assist in the care of the temporal needs of the faithful. Currently, they may also partake in other duties, especially in the Liturgy of the Mass, the administering of Baptism, and the instruction of the faithful. There are two categories of deacons: transitional and permanent.

Transitional Deacons

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Transitional deacons are candidates for the priesthood who have been ordained deacons and administer in this capacity until they are ordained to the priesthood. A man may not be ordained as a transitional deacon unless he has attained the age of twenty-three. Ordination may not take place until after the fifth year of theological and philosophical studies has been completed.[7]

Permanent Deacons

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Permanent deacons may be either married or unmarried men who have devoted themselves to the work of the Church. An unmarried man must be at least twenty-five years old to be ordained. A permanent deacon must be at least thirty-five years old, must have the consent of his wife,[8] and may not marry again if his wife dies.

Other Rites of the Catholic Church

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Other Rites may be organized in a different manner. There are 6 unique liturgical traditions in the Catholic Church. They are:

  • Alexandrian
  • Antiochene
  • Armenian
  • East Syrian
  • Byzantine