What is the Role of the Church Hierarchy?

Jesus entrusted to His Church the task of authentically and truthfully teaching and witnessing the good news. The teaching of the Church, its ongoing life and its worship as they have been handed on from the time of the apostles to our own day--all these make up the Tradition of the Church.  Everything that contributes to holiness and helps increase the faith of God’s people is part of the Church’s tradition.

The Holy Spirit has led the Church through the centuries. The Spirit helps the Church authentically recognize and hand on what is essential to the Christian life. Jesus himself promised to be with His Church in a special way when He established the Church, choosing Peter to be chief shepherd. Thus, the Lord is the true source of all ministry in the Church. He founded the Church, gave it authority, mission, orientation, and goal.

The Church is organized along hierarchical lines to ensure the carrying on of His ministry. Hierarchy refers to the ordered grade of ordained leaders in the Catholic Church. Catholics believe that Jesus chooses to teach, to rule, and to sanctify His Church through this sacred leadership of the pope and bishops and their assistants, the priests and deacons. These men lead through service. It is Christ who empowers these ministers to proclaim the gospel in the Lord’s name; no one minister can act on his own authority. Two major benefits of hierarchical leadership are the preservation of authentic tradition and insurance that the true gospel will be spread as Christ mandated.

Today, the hierarchy continues the ministry of Peter and the apostles. Catholics believe that the successor of Peter, the pope, has a special role in the Church. As the bishop of Rome--the place where Peter ministered and was martyred--the pope has primacy over the whole Church.

The pope and the bishops form a single entity called the college of bishops. The bishops in communion with one another and with the pope have the task of teaching truthfully the word of God. They do this when they come together in an ecumenical (worldwide) council. The pope’s special role is to be a sign of unity when the bishops speak as one. He is the head. He speaks with the bishops as the voice of Jesus Christ alive in the Church.  (Also see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 874-882 and 936-939.)