You’ve probably noticed that the Catholic Church has a great deal of structure to it, particularly when compared to other Christian denominations. Contrary to popular modern social structures, the Church has a hierarchical order to it. Let’s take a look at why we have a hierarchy and how it serves our greater good.
It is sometimes thought that the Second Vatican Council did away with – or at least trimmed down – the hierarchy of the Church, however, this is not the case. One of the most important documents to come out of Vatican II is called Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (LG). Lumen Gentium essentially outlines the role of the Church for salvation and the role of each person in that shared mission. Chapter three of Lumen Gentium is titled “The Church is Hierarchical” and thoroughly explains how this structure helps all of us in advancing our mission of saving souls while on this earth.
The first and most important point to understand is that Jesus Himself set up the structure of the Church. This was not something that men decided to take upon themselves. Knowing how faulty we are, Jesus took care of it for us. We see in Matthew 16:17-18 that Jesus tells Peter that He is now the rock upon which Jesus is building His Church and that Peter will hold the “keys to the Kingdom.” It is here that Jesus names Peter the first pope, head of the Church, and the physical representation of Jesus on Earth. “He placed blessed Peter over the rest of the apostles, and in him he instituted a perpetual and visible principle and foundation for the unity of faith and communion” (LG #18). Indeed, Peter was placed over the other apostles as the pope, but each of the apostles were also given a specific role in the hierarchy. Under Peter, the apostles were given the task of emulating Jesus’ role as shepherd, becoming our earthly shepherds, the bishops. “[It] was his will that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in his church right to the end of the world” (LG #18). Knowing our nature as likened to a flock of sheep, Jesus rightly and wisely provided us with shepherds, or leaders, so as not to be led astray.
What does the appointment of the first pope and bishops have to do with us today? In setting up this hierarchical structure from the very beginning, Jesus established a line of succession in our leadership so we can trust that it remains faithful to the intent of the mission of the Church. Each of our bishops and popes can be traced back, one by one, in a direct line of succession all the way to Peter and the apostles. “The bishops, as successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord, to whom all power in heaven and on earth has been given, the mission to teach all nations and to preach the gospel to every creature, so that all may gain salvation through faith, baptism and the keeping of the commandments”
(LG #24). Having gone through years of priesthood and formation, our bishops are our true leaders in the faith, and we are not a flock left to our own devices. “They are the authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people entrusted to them the faith to be believed and put into practice; they illustrate this faith in the light of the Holy Spirit, drawing out of the treasury of revelation things new and old, they make it bear fruit and they vigilantly ward off errors that are threatening to their flock” (LG #25).
Under our bishops, fall our pastors and priests. These men serve as our particular leaders in our particular communities. Their job is to participate in the mission of the Church by ministering to the people on a much more personal and direct level. They are called to be obedient to the pope and their bishop in order to maintain the unity of the Church. “Like fathers in Christ, they are to look after the faithful whom they have spiritually brought to birth by baptism and by their teaching”
We, the laity, have our own role in this hierarchy and by virtue of this role, we are also called to obedience. Again, along with hierarchy, obedience is not a popular concept in our modern era. However, Jesus knew we would be easily led astray, which is why He set our Church up in this way. This means that we are to give our assent to whatever our leadership is teaching us with complete trust in Jesus’ system and its protection under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If we do not fully understand or agree with a specific teaching, we are asked to trust and pray for our understanding to be enlightened and developed.
I cannot discuss the hierarchical nature of the Church without acknowledging that our priests, bishops, and the pope are human beings and therefore sinners, as we all are. Throughout all of history, our leaders have sinned and made mistakes, and some have even engaged in abhorrent behavior. Many have left the Church for some of these reasons and all of us should be appalled by the most serious sins committed. Again, this has been going on since our very foundation. Recall that Peter, after being named pope, denied Jesus three times. Every single one of the apostles (bishops), aside from John, abandoned Jesus in the final moments of His passion and crucifixion. Jesus knew what we would face over the years with human leadership. Thus, we are Catholic because we believe in the teachings of the one, true Church established by Jesus Christ, and NOT because of any individual person. If we seek to choose a religion based on the perfection of its leadership, we will never find a home. Therefore, we ought to remain faithful to our Mother Church and pray for our leadership, that they may be led by the Holy Spirit in order to properly and effectively carry out the mission of the salvation of souls.
My challenge for this week is something a little more on the fun side. Go to this link and sign up: https://flocknote.com/popes/. Throughout the year, you will receive regular emails that provide short and often humorous history lessons on every single pope throughout Church history, beginning with St. Peter and ending with Pope Francis. They also do not shy away from including who were the bad popes along with the good ones. Through this activity, you will be able to see how succession works, how sin has entered the Church through man, and how God has worked through it all.