Education Capsule

Presented by Mary Lou Burke

September 16, 2002




The Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchical church. "Hierarchy" comes from the Greek word hiercs, sacred and arche, rule or power The term does not imply domination, for Jesus himself forbade that any of his disciples should "lord it over" others, leaders are to serve the others. (Mt 20:25-28, Mk 1, 42-45, Lk 22:25-27).


Within the Church the pope speaks and acts with apparently unlimited authority. The highest authority in the Roman Catholic Church is collegiate, not monarchical. The college of bishops, with the pope as its head, is the subject of supreme authority in the church. The concept of collegiate responsibility for the church at the highest level is key because of its biblical warrant and because it reflects the nature of the universal church as a communion of churches ( communio ecclesiarum).


The preferred title for the pope is "Roman Pontiff" (Pontiff from pons, bridge and facere, to make), one who bridged the chasm between the gods and humankind. The canonical title is "Supreme Pontiff". The most commonly used term, "pope" comes from Greek pappas and Latin papa, father and is the source for the more formal title "Holy Father".


In virtue of that sacramental office the Bishop of the Church of Rome, he is the successor of Peter, head of the college of bishops and pastor of the universal church on earth.

Canon 331 describes his authority as

While this canonical description is maximal it is limited by many factors.



Canon 333 summarizes the relationship of the pope to the Churches of the Roman Catholic communion. In addition to possessing supreme authority over the universal church. he also has authority in each and every one of the particular churches that make up the universal church. His authority compliments the authority of the local bishop. It is intended to affirm and preserve the bishop's authority. Primacy gives the pope the power to intervene in the life of the local church when exceptional circumstances make is necessary; "reserve power' in emergency situations.

He is the highest authority, the 'court of last resort' there is no appeal from his decision (c 333.3, 1372, 1629.1) He is subject to no one's judgment, (c 1404).



The canons say that the pope possesses infallible teaching authority, is the supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful(c 749)

supervises the sacred liturgy (c 838), defines what is valid and licit in the sacramental celebrations (c 841) is supreme judge for the whole Catholic world (c1442) any case may be appealed to him at any time (c 1417,1) is the supreme administrator and steward of all the Church's temporal goods ( c 1273)receives the obedience of all clerics (c 272) and religious ( c 590.2) convokes and controls ecumenical councils ( c 338) reviews decrees of particular councils and episcopal conferences before they can be

promulgated ( c 446, 445) appoints or confirms all bishops ( 377.1) receives report on the state of each diocese from the bishop every 5 years. (c 399.1) reserves to himself dispensations from clerical celibacy (C 291), from non-consummated marriages (c 1142), from irregularities for sacred orders (1 104) and certain marriage impediments (c 1078)


The pope functions as the principal rule-making authority, the supreme legislator. Most Catholics all over the world are influenced much more by the pope than by their own bishop. The pope obtains his office by means of two events

  1. his ordination as a bishop
  2. his acceptance of his election by the College of Cardinals (c 332.1)

It is customary for the pope to serve for life, but he can resign from office if he chooses (c 332.2

Bishops, cardinals and others provide assistance in his many duties. The various groups that make up the Roman curia carry out specific tasks, within limited canonical limits in the name of and by the authority of the pope (c 334).