Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Importance of the Hierarchy in the Church

by Thomas Hurley


In this article Thomas Hurley addresses a widespread problem among Catholics today: an almost total lack of understanding of the importance of the hierarchy and institutional structure of the Church. This problem is reflected in another phenomenon that has become all too familiar among Catholics everywhere: the dismissal of bishops or even the Pope as unnecessary or irrelevant to one's personal faith.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


56 - 58 & 60

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, June 2005

In a diocese neighboring the one in which I live there was a recent controversy when the archbishop insisted that one parish regularize its canonical status by submitting to him authority over its finances, authority previously held by a lay board. The parish refused, and ultimately the archbishop removed its priest. What was most interesting and disturbing about the situation was not the problem with the status of the parish in itself, but the fact that many Catholics in the area sincerely could not understand why this "detail" mattered, and why the archbishop would make so much fuss over it. The idea that it really made a difference who had administrative control over a church seemed entirely foreign to them. This is just one vivid example of a widespread problem among Catholics today: an almost total lack of understanding of the importance of the hierarchy and institutional structure of the Church.

This same problem is reflected in another phenomenon that has become all too familiar among Catholics everywhere: the dismissal of bishops or even the Pope as unnecessary or irrelevant to one's personal faith. This type of attitude is not merely critical of individuals in the hierarchy, although it is often rooted in dissatisfaction with them. Instead, many Catholics feel that they can more or less forget about the people in the hierarchy without having any impact on their Catholic faith. Nor is this view limited to Catholics who have frequently dissented from Church teaching on a variety of issues; one hears similar sentiments from otherwise apparently faithful and orthodox practicing Catholics. In the wake of the abuse scandals I have heard comments from self-proclaimed "conservative" Catholics along the lines of "I've realized that I don't really need to think about the bishops," or "I don't think the teachings of the bishops should have any credibility now." While members of the hierarchy are certainly flawed, and frustration with and even disapprobation of them may be quite natural in some cases, the types of attitudes just described are not truly Catholic, and they represent another symptom of Catholics who fail to grasp fully the nature of the Church.

Misunderstandings such as these must be cleared up by reflections on certain fundamental truths of the Catholic Faith. This is not so much a question of teaching about truths that Catholics do not know, but truths about which they have not thought sufficiently. Many Catholics have not considered the logical consequences of some of the truths of the Faith, and the connections between those truths and real world situations involving the authority structure of the Church. It is vital that these truths be explained and these connections shown so that contemporary Catholics will possess a better understanding of the Church to which they belong.

Catholics are not and never have been just a group of people who gather together because they believe the same things. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ as an institution with a definite structure. Over time, obviously, this institution has become much more developed. Today the Church is a highly complex and organized body with its own laws and legal system. However, while the Church has developed since the first century, the fundamental structure remains the same. Jesus founded this institution with one head and a small group of leaders under that head, and the bishops and the Pope today are the successors of Peter and the Apostles. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

In fact, from the beginning of his ministry, the Lord Jesus instituted the Twelve as "the seeds of the new Israel and the beginning of the sacred hierarchy." Chosen together, they were also sent out together, and their fraternal unity would be at the service of the fraternal communion of all the faithful: they would reflect and witness to the communion of the divine persons. For this reason every bishop exercises his ministry from within the episcopal college, in communion with the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter and head of the college. So also priests exercise their ministry from within the presbyterium of the diocese, under the direction of their bishop.1

This hierarchy is the foundation of the whole structure of the Church. Without it, there would be no organized institution, but only many people trying to live by the teachings of Jesus.

It is good and necessary to strive to imitate Jesus and follow the teachings of Jesus, but by themselves these things are not enough. First of all, of course, we know that without some teaching authority to speak definitively on behalf of Jesus on earth, there are inevitably many disagreements about how exactly to follow the teachings of Jesus. In each disagreement, someone will be wrong and thus fail to follow the true teaching of Jesus. Furthermore, and even more importantly, it must be recognized that Jesus came to bring not only teaching, but above all redemption and salvation. No matter how carefully we try to live by his teaching, we cannot save ourselves. Salvation is a supernatural gift, which we can only receive from God through Jesus Christ. For that to occur, we need real contact with Jesus, and that is precisely what we can have through the Church in the sacraments. The Apostles and their successors have passed on the sacramental power given to them by Christ to priests in every generation. Without the Church structure instituted by Christ for this purpose, there would be no more sacraments, and our link to Christ would be lost. In addition, when Jesus offers us salvation through the Church, he offers us more than just external contact with him. One of the traditional terms used for the Church is the "Mystical Body of Christ." This is not just a meaningless pious phrase, but rather expresses a crucial truth. By being part of the Church we are incorporated into a mystical Body with Christ as the Head.

A body needs to have structure and the ability to act in a unified way. Jesus Christ himself, as the Head of the Body, is the ultimate unifying principle of the Church. Christ, though, chose to work through human beings, and as a result the structured nature of the Church is a necessary aspect of the Mystical Body of Christ. One can make an analogy between the hierarchy in the Church, and the bones in a physical body: the Church is far more than just the hierarchy, as the body is far more than just its bones, but both are completely necessary and must be present in their entirety to hold the body together properly. One sometimes hears presumably well-meaning people say things such as "You and I are the Church," or occasionally even the more grammatically offensive "We are Church." A real understanding of the Church, however, tells us that this is not exactly true. Individual Catholics are members of the Church, and in a certain sense it can be said that we make up the Church, but without the structure Jesus gave us to hold his Mystical Body together, Catholics would be just a group of individuals devoted to Jesus. That is not sufficient for salvation, and that is not the plan of God.

There are criteria for membership in any body, and one of the criteria for membership in the Church as the Body of Christ is acceptance of the institution of the Church as Christ founded it. We show that we are part of the Church by living within the bounds of its hierarchical structure. Scripture records that Christ not only founded a hierarchy, but gave it authority in his Church. The Catechism explains this clearly:

Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The "power of the keys" designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: "Feed my sheep." The power to "bind and loose" connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom.2

If we reject or ignore this authority structure established by Christ, we are no longer part of the body. Accepting hierarchical authority does not mean only accepting the dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic Church, although of course that is necessary. Acceptance of the teaching power alone would make all Catholics believe the same truths, but would not necessarily make the Church one body. If all Americans believed in the same ideals of freedom and justice, but did not live under the same government, one could hardly call the United States one nation. In the same way, in order for hierarchical authority to be a completely unifying principle in the Church, the hierarchy must be accepted as possessing governing authority as well. Any person or group or local church that is not under the government of the hierarchy is not fully united to the Body of Christ in the Church. As Pius XII wrote concerning the Mystical Body of Christ in his encyclical Mystici Corporis, "those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit."3

This does not mean that Catholics must never question or criticize decisions made by members of the hierarchy. While Church teachings on faith and morals must always be accepted as infallible, it has been made all too clear many times in history that bishops and even popes are not immune from prudential mistakes and even sins. In some cases, it may be appropriate to question them and perhaps even address certain actions and decisions with respectful criticism. However, it should be remembered that, regardless of their personal failings, members of the hierarchy hold a necessary office. We often hear in relation to civil government officials about the necessity of respecting the office, even if one does not respect the man. In practice, we know that all purely natural offices can in fact lose respect if the person who holds the office is bad enough. However, the offices of those in the hierarchy have a role in a supernatural reality, regardless of the personal dignity of those who hold the offices. As such, the hierarchy itself must always be respected, and every Catholic should be consciously subject to its authority.

Issues such as the administrative control that a bishop has over his diocese may seem far removed from questions of grace and salvation and the most fundamental nature of the Church. However, the distance between these realities is not nearly as great as might be supposed. All Catholics need to be brought to understand fully that where the authority of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is in question, issues of authority are never unimportant or purely administrative matters. Authority in the Church is unlike any other authority on earth. As Christians, all of us want to be united with Jesus Christ, and the hierarchical authority of the Pope and bishops helps to preserve for Catholics the unity of the Church as Christ's Mystical Body. Through humbly submitting to that authority Catholics are inconceivably exalted by being a member of that Mystical Body.

For nothing more glorious, nothing nobler, nothing surely more honorable can be imagined than to belong to the One, Holy Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church, in which we become members of One Body as venerable as it is unique; are guided by one supreme Head; are filled with one divine Spirit; are nourished during our earthly exile by one doctrine and one heavenly Bread, until at last we enter into the one, unending blessedness of heaven.4

End Notes

1 Catechism of the Catholic Church 877.

2 CCC 553.

3 Pius XII, Pope. Mystici Corporis 22.

4 Mystici Corporis 91.

Mr. Thomas Hurley has a masters degree in theological studies from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., and is a graduate of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. He has a Catholic website at and resides in Alton, Ill. This is his first article in HPR.

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