Power in the Church

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Power in the Church


The power structure of the Catholic Church is complex. Most people think of it in terms of a simple heirarchy:

  • Pope
    • Cardinals
    • Bishops
      • Priests
      • Brothers/Nuns
        • Lay People

In fact, the way power in the Church is organized is much closer to the way power is organized in a large, complex nation. There are levels (like national/provincial/local government) and heirarchies within heirarchies.

The Church is a huge entity that spans both time and space as we know them, and (of course) Eternity itself. Within the confines of the time/space continuum we are equipped to perceive, the Church is a highly-organized institution that both transcends and embraces the divisions of nations, regions, and peoples.

The chain of authority in the Church is through "Ordinaries." In general, Ordinaries are those who, by the nature of thier position, are considered to have jurisdiction under Canon Law. There is a heirarchy of jurisdictions, just as there is in civil law.

Heirarchical Clergy

The Pope

In theory, the Pope is at the top and what he says goes and he can overrule anybody or anything else and if he decides to speak "ex cathedra," he's infallible and no one can argue and that's the last word on the subject. In practice, he's closely constrained by tradition, by the size and weight of the bureaucracy that surrounds him, and by the considerations of realpolitik in a world where Catholicism has plenty of competition. Popes almost NEVER speak "ex cathedra"--the last time was in 1950 and regarded the Assumption of the Virgin. However, in spite of, (or perhaps *because* of,) the restraint with which Pontiffs have used supreme authority, they still wield enormous moral authority throughout the Church. In addition, they are, in effect, the combined Chairman of the Board and CEO for the "corporation" of all Catholic clergy. They cannot supervise every priest, monsignor, bishop, etc., personally, due to the sheer volume, but when they do choose to 'supervise,' that supervision overrides all normal chains-of-command.


All Latin Rite (“regular Catholic”) Bishops must be personally chosen and ordained by the Pope. A Bishop is consecrated to a "See" (from the Latin 'sede,' meaning 'seat') and his authority is vested in that See. There are two kinds of Bishops: "Diocesan" Bishops are given direct responsibility for an existing administrative division called a "Diocese," and "Titular" Bishops are appointed to Sees that are not associated with existing Diocese.

Diocesan Bishops are similar to a Mayor or other local head of government. Titular Bishops are appointed for many reasons, often to provide assistance to other Bishops, or to take on a special area of responsibility requiring an Episcopal level of authority.

The “home parish” of a Diocesan bishop within each diocese becomes the Cathedral Church for that diocese. Diocese are grouped into provinces, and the chief bishop of a province is the Archbishop (analogous to a Governor or other head of regional government.) The diocese and provinces of the Church do not necessarily have a strict relation to political boundaries within a nation or a state, but often they do. Within their own diocese, a bishop has supreme authority to ordain priests, to assign them to or remove them from parishes, and to otherwise govern the temporal affairs of the diocese.


Where do Cardinals fit in? The College of Cardinals actually has NO ECCLESIASTICAL AUTHORITY at all, as a body, to do anything other than elect the Pope. However, they fulfill all the "Cabinet" functions of the Church. All Cardinals are also bishops, and most of them are still in active pastoral supervision of a diocese somewhere, usually large, important diocese. They tend to get elected President of their Ecclesiastical Conferences a lot, but it's a chicken/egg thing-- do they get elevated to Cardinal because of their leadership in the Conference, or does the Conference elect them because of their elevation? It differs from place to place.

Technically, the whole College of Cardinals acts as the Pope's "privy council," or Cabinet, but in fact it is usually only the Cardinals appointed to Curial offices in Rome that form his regular Counselors. They wield their authority through their Dicasteries--the curial offices like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for the Variant (in RL Oriental, but for NS RP purposes we're just saying "variant") Churches, etc.


Variant (in RL “Oriental”) Churches are governed by “Patriarchs.” Patriarchs are empowered to ordain their own bishops, and the bishops of that church are responsible to their Patriarch. Only the Patriarch is directly subject to the authority of the Pope, and he has fairly wide latitude in governing his Church. Patriarchs are frequently also Cardinals of the Church. They may also dispense bishops under their authority to become Cardinals of the Church; if this is done, the Cardinal’s primary responsibility becomes to the Pope, rather than to their Patriarch.

Other Clergy

In addition to the heirarchical clergy (Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops) there are the priests and deacons who have taken Holy Orders, and the brothers and sisters under the vows of Religious Orders.


Priests are generally either "diocesan" or "religious." All priests are ordained, that is, they have taken Holy Orders. Diocesan priests are usually trained through a network of seminaries for the purpose of becoming "parish" priests, that is, becoming responsible for carrying out religious and sacramental duties "for the cure of souls" within an administrative division of a diocese called a "parish." "Religious" priests receive seminarial training under the care of a religious order, and take Holy Orders to serve under that order as chaplains, missionaries, etc. All priests, diocesan and religious, are empowered with the same sacramental rights and responsibilities under Canon Law.

Priests can confer all Sacraments except Holy Orders, which must be conferred by a Bishop (or, in the case of a Bishop, the Pope or a Patriarch.) The level of power and responsibility any individual priest may have varies in relation to their particular job.

The Monsignori

The title "Monsignor" when applied to an ordinary priest, simply means that the individual has had a special honor conferred upon them by the Pope. It bears no relation to a specific role of authority in the heirarchy, however, Monsignori are accorded great respect. (Incidentally, "Monsignor" is also the familiar, less-formal form of address for members of the heirarchical clergy, all Bishops and Cardinals are, by definition, Monsignors.)


The diaconate was allowed to lapse as an office within the Latin Rite Church, until revived as part of the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. Deacons are essentially "assistant priests," but their Holy Orders confer no sacramental powers or authority. They can assist priests in all sacramental functions, as well as preaching and exercising a good many non-sacramental managerial and administrative functions for parishes, charities, missions, institutions, etc. Deacons may be married.

Religious Brothers and Nuns

Religious brothers and nuns under permanent vows are also considered clergy, although they have no sacramental authority. "Permanent vows" are life vows (including celibacy) to Institutes of Consecrated Life or Societies of Apostolic Life. Such vows establish a legal relationship under Canon Law between the individual and the Church. Within each Religious Order there is a heirarchy of Ordinaries that defines authority. Such Ordinaries may or may not be ordained as priests (in the case of female Orders, they are not, naturally,) but have similar spiritual authority (without sacramental authority) over those under their care.

Governance Organizations

Governance organizations do not have the de jure status of Ordinaries within the Church heirarchy, but they do have enormous administrative power.

The Curia

The Curia are the "ministries" (in effect) through which the Church as a whole is governed. Although they do not have "Ordinarial" jurisdiction over individuals, the Dicasteries and Tribunals have juridical "competence" over whole areas of Canon Law throughout the entire Church. In addition to the Dicasteries, the Curia includes administrative offices such as the Prefecture for Economic Affairs and the Governatorato (the bureacracy that administers the Vatican city-state,) as well as a variety of Councils and Offices charged with particular responsibilities either within the Papal administration, or over the Church as a whole.

The Synod of Bishops

After the Pope, in technical Ecclesiastical authority, comes the Synod of Bishops, which is all the Latin Rite Catholic bishops in the world, meeting in a body, nominally under Papal supervision and only with Papal consent. The Synod is more or less the "national legislature," if you want to think of it that way. However, it meets only ever few years, and in the mean time its business is done in Rome by the General Secretariat of the Synod, which is elected by the whole Synod.

Ecclesiastical Conferences

Next comes the regional Ecclesiastical Conferences authorized by the Pope and the Synod. In practice most of the "regions" are nations, but in a few cases they are multi-national. Think of these as "state/provincial government," of the Church, roughly. They actually exercise considerable autonomy over the Church affairs of their region, they elect their own Presidents and other officers, and they are charged with the well-being of all the diocese and churches in their regions. Each substantially-sized nation can be assumed to have its own Ecclesiastical Conference, and the President of that Conference is, de facto, the highest Church authority for the Catholic Church in that nation, under the Synod and the Pope. Large jurisdictions may have smaller regional Conferences organized within their authority.

The Laity

Lay Catholics in general have no Ordinarial authority, but may hold some administrative offices.

Institutional Management

Although most large educational, health care, and charitable institutions remain under the jurisdiction of Religious Orders and the Diocesan heirarcy, since Vatican II more and more lay individuals have become involved in the leadership and management of these institutions. Such individuals can come to hold considerable influence within the Church. In addition, more and more institutions are being formed under the auspices of Lay Orders and Societies, some of which have considerable influence.

Associations and Lay Orders

Associations and Lay Orders are organizations within the Church open to the laity. They are always under the authority of either a personal prelature (a clerical leader appointed by the Pope,) a Diocesan Bishop, or a Religious Order. However, within the organizations, many leadership functions are fulfilled by lay individuals. Again, depending on the size and financial resources involved in such organizations, lay individuals can weild considerable power. Such associations do not, however, have juridical or spiritual authority within the Church beyond their own membership.

Such groups vary from very public "mutual assistance" lodge-type organizations like the Knights of Columbus, to Oblate or Tertiary devotees of Monastic orders such as the Dominicans or Benedictines, to groups established for specific missions among the laity, such as the devotion to the Rosary, or the promotion of Catholic ideals of secular life. As with monastic Religious Orders, some organizations abjure publicity and hold their disciplines rigidly within the confines of their own membership, a practice which has occasionally given rise among the vulgar and the anti-Catholic to the belief that they are "secret societies" with worldwide political or social agendas.

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