The Hierarchical Structure of the Church | EWTN (2024)

The following words of Pope Paul VI can serve as a short synthesis of the will of Christ for the constitution and makeup of his Church:

'Christ promised and sent two elements to constitute his work, to extend in time and over all the world the kingdom founded by him and to make of redeemed mankind his Church, his mystical body, in expectation of his second and triumphal return at the end of the world. These elements are the apostolic college and the Spirit. The apostolic college works externally and objectively. It forms, one might say, the material body of the Church and gives her a visible and social structure. The Spirit works internally, within each person and within the community as a whole animating, vivifying and sanctifying. These two agents, namely the apostolic college whose successor is the sacred hierarchy, and the spirit of Christ, which makes the Church Christ's ordinary instrument in the ministry of the word and the sacraments, work together. On Pentecost morning they are seen in a marvelous harmony at the beginning of Christ's great work.'[6]

For the remainder of this article we will be concerned with the first of these two elements.

The Catholic Church teaches as a doctrine of faith that Christ gave the Church, in his apostles, a hierarchical structure of an episcopal nature and that within the hierarchy and the Church he established a primacy of authority in the successor of St. Peter.


'All the faithful, from the Pope to the child who has just been baptized share in one and the same grace.'[7] Nonetheless, when it is affirmed that the Church is a hierarchical society we are in substance saying that in spite of the 'radical or fundamental equality' which is to be found among the People of God, the Church has structures, features and differentiations by virtue of which she is a society in which there is a 'functional inequality.'[8] That is to say: not all the faithful have the same function or mission. For this reason Pope St. Pius X could say that 'the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society composed of two types of people: shepherds and sheep.'[9]

This hierarchical structure is not the result of socio-political influences but stems from the will of Christ. This has been stated solemnly by both the Council of Trent and Vatican I,[10] but it is Vatican II which has given a detailed summary: 'The Lord Jesus, having prayed at length to the Father, called to himself those whom he willed and appointed twelve to be with him, whom he might send to preach the kingdom of God (cf. Mark 3:13-19; Matthew 10:1-42). These apostles (cf. Luke 6:13) he constituted in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from amongst them (cf. John 21:15-17). He sent them first of all to the children of Israel and then to all peoples (cf. Romans 1:16), so that, sharing in his power, they might make all peoples his disciples and sanctify and govern them (cf. Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:45-48; John 20:21-23) and thus spread the Church and, administering it under the guidance of the Lord, shepherd it all days until the end of the world (cf. Matthew 28:20).[11]

Here we have the hierarchical principle of the Church established in the persons of the apostles. The Council goes on to say that this structure, which is of divine origin, is a constitutive part of the Church for all time, not just for the beginnings of the Church but for today as well. This is so, she says, by virtue of the principle of apostolic succession. 'That divine mission, which was committed by Christ to the apostles, is destined to last until the end of the world (cf. Matthew 28:20), since the gospel, which they are charged to hand on, is, for the Church, the principle of all its life for all time. For that very reason the apostles were careful to appoint successors in this hierarchically constituted society.'[12] The Council then explains in great detail and attentive to historical reality, to factual history in the words of Pope Leo XIII, how this transmission of authority and ministry was made 'to the bishops and their helpers, the priests and deacons.' This whole procedure, we are told, must be related to the will of Christ: 'He willed that the successors (of the apostles), the bishops namely, should be the shepherds in his Church until the end of the world.'[13] And finally, the Council solemnly declares: 'The sacred synod consequently teaches that the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ (Luke 10:16).[14]

'This divinely instituted hierarchy, which is composed of bishops, priests and ministers'[15] received the mission which Christ had entrusted to his apostles. 'With priests and deacons as helpers, the bishops received the charge of the community, presiding in God's stead over the flock of which they are the shepherds, in that they are teachers of doctrine, ministers of sacred worship and holders of office in government.'[16]

The sacrament of order is the way established by Christ for perpetuating in his Church this essential hierarchy[17] to which he has given the power of mission with its threefold office of teaching, sanctifying and ruling the faithful. 'The holders of office, who are invested with the sacred power, are, in fact, dedicated to promoting the interests of their brethren so that all who belong to the People of God, and are consequently endowed with true Christian dignity, may, through their free and well-ordered efforts towards a common goal, attain salvation.'[18]


[6] Paul VI, "Address to Vatican Council II," Sept. 14, 1964, A.A.S. 56 (1964), p.807.
[7] A. del Portillo, Faithful and Laity in the Church, Shannon, 1976, p.19.
[8] Ibid., p.22.
[9] St. Pius X, Encyclical Vehementer, Feb. 11, 1906, A.A.S. 39 (1906), p.8.
[10] DS 1776, 3051 (DB 966,1821).
[11] Decree on the Church, no.19
[12] Ibid., no.20
[13] Ibid., no.18
[14] Ibid., no.20
[15] Council of Trent, Session 23, c. 6, DB 1776 (DS 966)
[16] Decree on the Church, no.20
[17] Ibid., no.21 and 28
[18] Ibid., no.18

From "The Primacy Of The Pope In The Church," Reprinted from Catholic Position Papers, September, 1981 -- Japan Edition.

Seido Foundation for the
Advancement of Education
12-6 Funado-Cho, Ashiya Japan

The Hierarchical Structure of the Church | EWTN (2024)


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