Education Capsule

Presented by Mary Lou Burke

September 30, 2002





The college of bishops, which is the successor body to the apostles is the subject of supreme and full power in the universal church.

( c 336) It holds complete and preeminent authority within the church, juridic and moral authority as well as pastoral solicitude. It is the best expression of the communion of the churches which constitutes the universal church.

Bishops belong to the college of bishops by virtue of their episcopal ordination, in which they receive the fullness of the sacrament of orders. The pope is a member of the college. The college of bishops constitutes the highest teaching authority (magisterium) of the church. The college possesses infallible teaching authority:

  1. when gathered in an ecumenical council
  2. when dispersed throughout the world
  3. as long as its members agree on what is to be definitively held as true church doctrine.( c749.2) When not defining doctrine, the college still exercises authentic teaching authority (c 752).

The decrees and constitutions issued by the college (like at Second Vatican Council) are to be observed b all Christian faithful (c 754). The college also directs and coordinates the missionary effort of the Church. (c 781 & 782.1)

The college of bishops acts as a body most effectively when gathered in ecumenical council. It acts with equal authority when its members throughout the world take united action as long as that action is initiated or accepted by the pope. (c 337).

Ecumenical councils are rare, only 21 have been held in the history of the church. Since there are more than 3,000 bishops, a council is cumbersome and expensive.

Canonically the pope now has almost complete control over the councils:


Synod comes from the Greek, synodos, meaning a coming together, a meeting. Along with "council" it is used for meetings of leaders of the church from earliest times.

International synod is a representative gathering of bishops in contrast to total membership at an ecumenical council. Representative bishops to a synod are elected by national conferences of bishops. Since Vatican II usually about 200 bishop gathered. They are held in Rome about every 3 years for 3-4 weeks each and consider topics such as evangelization, catechetics, reconciliation, laity and ministerial priesthood.

The code gives a three-fold purpose for the synod of bishops

  1. to foster close ties between bishop and pope
  2. to advise the pope on matters of faith, morals and church discipline
  3. to consider the activities of the church in the world


t is viewed as advisory to the pope.

Synods take various forms, general or special, ordinary or extraordinary. Heads of the offices of the Roman curia are usually included. Synod has a permanent secretariat with general secretary and a council of bishops.


The college of cardinals elect the pope. Beyond that critical function, the title of cardinal, (Latin cardo, hinge) is largely honorific. Patriarchs of the eastern ritual churches are included in the college of cardinals but their historic and canonical authority is different and greater than that of the cardinals. There are about 130 cardinals and only those under the age of 80 years can vote in papal elections.

In early Middle Ages, the cardinals were like a cabinet to the pope and their meetings were "consistories" (consistere, to stand with). In the 11th century the college was entrusted with the duty of electing a new pope. Their meetings were known as "conclaves" (cum clave, with a key). In 1271, in order to force them to make a choice after a delay of three years, the people locked them in their meeting place until they decided on a candidate. They are still locked in for the prayerful deliberations during the election of a pope.

Cardinals are freely chosen by the pope (c 351) and assigned to one of three ranks.

  1. archbishops of major archdioceses throughout the world.
  2. Prominent members of the Roman curia
  3. Influential in church affairs.


Roman curia is the collective name for the complex of secretariats, congregations, tribunals, councils and offices which assist the pope in the exercise of his pastoral office of service to the churches and which make up the Roman Catholic Communion ( c 360).

Curia comes from curare, to take care of. Today it is the large administrative apparatus which carries on the ordinary business of the Church's central office.

Within the curia, the Secretary of State is the coordinating office with authority over both the Church's internal and external affairs.

There are nine congregations- each responsible for an area of church life: doctrine, bishops, worship and sacraments, evangelization, clergy, religious, etc.

There are three judicial bodies, tribunals or courts, several councils for various causes and offices for the administration of funds and properties.

The Code uses the terms "Apostolic See" or "Holy See" to refer to the papal office. See is from Latin sedes, seat, meaning place of authority. The Curial agencies are administrative and act in the name of and by authority of the pope, they do not have legislative authority. They issue instructions, directories and declarations. Each agency of the curia has its own internal rules.