Dear Theologika,

Can you explain why there are so many types of religious leaders in the Catholic Church? Pope? Bishop? Priest? Deacon? Who are they and what do they do? The Christian church down the road from me just has a minister. They choose their own leaders and it seems to work well. Why don’t Catholics do it that simply?


Dear Josie,

Thanks for your question. As you noted, the structure of leadership in the Catholic Church is more complex that that of small Protestant communities. I’ll try to make it a bit clearer.

The first thing to remember is that the structure of the Church has developed over a period of about 2,000 years. The Church started as a group of Jewish followers of a traveling preacher/teacher who lived in Palestine under Roman occupation. It was pretty simple at first. Communities of believers gathered around the small group of men who had been closest to Jesus. These men had been told by Jesus to go out and teach what they had seen and heard. They were called the Apostles because Jesus personally sent them out. (Paul was not one of the original group, but Jesus sent him too, so he came to be known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Mary Magdalene, sent by Jesus to the disciples as witness to the resurrection, is also named as an Apostle: the Apostle to the Apostles.)

Each of the Apostles started communities of believers wherever they went. Those communities looked to their founders for leadership. As the numbers of believers grew larger, leading the communities got more challenging. So the Apostles appointed other people to help as administrators. The administrators made sure everyone got the help and support they needed, especially the poor in the community.

After around 300 years, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the legal religion of the empire, the Church adopted the administrative system of the empire. Christian leaders had already developed a multilevel system in practice. Now it was formalized and the leadership was called the Hierarchy. This term simply means that it was not organized as a democratic or representative system of governance. The hierarchical system encouraged both efficiency and accountability. Everyone knew who was responsible for what types of activities and decisions.

The system we have today resulted from that long-ago organizational decision.

The Hierarchy Today

Today, members of the hierarchy, under the leadership of the Pope, are responsible for teaching the faith, handling the administrative and leadership aspects of the life of the community, and guiding their communities into a life of holiness.

Those who are the immediate successors of the Apostles are called Bishops. These men are responsible for leadership of a specific geographic region (a diocese) that includes many smaller parish communities. They also share in responsibility to care for the entire Church with other bishops.

Those who lead smaller local parish communities in the celebration of Eucharist (the Mass) are called Priests. These men are ordained to serve as co-workers to a bishop in caring for a smaller community within a diocese. They also anoint the sick, baptize, offer forgiveness of sin through Reconciliation, and witness marriages.

Those who work directly under the Bishop and focus on social justice and the needs of the larger community are called Deacons. The diaconate is focused on service. Deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach, baptize, witness marriages, preside at burials, and bring the needs of the world to the attention of the community. Married persons may be ordained to this ministry.

The Bishop of Rome, headquarters of the Roman Catholic community, is called the Pope. Pope is an English version of the name used for him in Italian, Papa (father).

The Pope is elected by a group who represent the entire worldwide church. These people are called Cardinals. Most are also bishops, but that was not necessarily requirement historically.

Bishops, priests and deacons are ordained members of the clergy. They have been given a special role within the community and receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Working Together as a Group

Simply having a variety of leaders of the community does not assure smooth functioning of the group, so there are a variety of levels of administration as well.

Within a diocese, a group of priests known as the Priest’s Senate may be elected by their fellow priests to serve as an advisory council for their bishop. This group may also be called a Diocesan Presbyterium.

Groups of bishops also meet. They may meet to discuss and decide on questions of belief, practice and liturgy for a geographic area in which they have leadership responsibility, or they may meet on a worldwide basis. These groups are called Synods. Synods do not require all of the bishops of the world to gather and they happen more frequently than ecumenical councils.

Another type of meeting of bishops, the Ecumenical Council,  happens rarely. The most recent of these took place at the Vatican in the 1960s. In the Councils, bishops from around the world meet to decide questions of belief and practice. The agreements they reach and the documents they produce shape the beliefs and practices of the Church. The Nicene Creed, for example, was developed at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and defined Christian beliefs about the relationship between Jesus and the Father, among other issues. Ecumenical Councils include representatives from both Eastern and Western Catholic Churches.

Why doesn’t the Church have the same kind of simple organization as the church down the street? It comes down to a question of how a group of believers who began to number in the tens of thousands decided to organize themselves to maintain their existence as one community of faith. As the faith spread to many cultures and even continents around the world, the central nature of the leadership has helped keep believers all on the same page in terms of the basics of their faith and the way it is expressed. We no longer all pray in the same language, but we all share the same beliefs and pray using the same liturgy to worship the same God, under the leadership of an ordained clergy that takes the same form around the world. It’s not a democracy, but it’s worked fairly well for a very long time. It may become more representative in future years, but we’ll have to await the guidance of the  Holy Spirit for the timing of any major changes.

Many blessings be yours,


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