Understanding Church Structure

Hierarchy and Structure in the Church

In the earliest centuries of the Church, before there was a distinction between clergy and laity, all the baptized played more significant roles than they have during the last 1500 years—including significant roles in the governance of the Church. For example, the People of God were often consulted by the bishops and even played a role in the election or the approval of elected bishops.

However, once the clergy became fully established, all important decisions were soon exercised by the Pope, bishops, and lower clergy. Further, the model they looked to for structure was imperial Rome and then to the realms of medieval kings rather than to Christianity’s own initial “house church” model.

Excerpt from speech by Rev. Donald Cozzens, September 17, 2014,for “The Elephants in the Living Room” (Detroit diocese); transcribed by Bev Parker:

“The Church’s structure, originally modeled after ancient Rome’s genius for political control, later modeled to compete with the great national monarchies of the West, has been in place for centuries. So the Church’s structure was built after studying the political structure of the Roman Empire. … And, at least from the Middle Ages, the present structural organization of the Church, consisting of dioceses and parishes, is fundamentally a feudal system. I argue, it’s the last feudal system in the West. We might think of the pope as the sovereign and bishops as his vassals. Likewise, we can consider diocesan priests as vassals to their liege lord, their bishop.

“From this perspective, a diocese and a parish can be thought of as benefices, as fiefdoms. In feudal systems, the first virtue demanded of a vassal is loyalty to his liege lord. For the vassaled bishop, his loyalty is first to the pope as Bishop of Rome. For the vassal priest, his loyalty is to his diocesan bishop. Now, loyalty to the pope and loyalty to a bishop is fundamentally a good thing. But as bishops and priests our first loyalty should be to the Gospel; it should be to Christ. … But, see, a feudal system doesn’t work when the serfs are educated. You are educated; and you read; and you think. [This] feudal system … [is] not working anymore.”

Whatever the merits of imperial and feudal institutions, the clerical bias that emerged during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages perhaps made some sense: When clergy were among the most highly educated people while the majority of the laity had little or no education, few objected when decisions in the Church were left in the hands of the clergy.

But in the 20th and 21st centuries, many of the laity are now more highly educated than the clergy. Countless lay people, especially in the West, have advanced degrees in sacred scripture, theology, pastoral ministry, and religious education, to say nothing of their expertise in other fields. Despite such qualifications, lay people today remain marginalized, with only limited access to meaningful decision-making roles within the Church.

The call of Pope Francis for collegiality not only among bishops but among bishops, priests, religious, and lay people speaks to the need for reforming our medieval Church structures to involve all the faithful, and to benefit from the gifts of the entire Church instead of only those ordained.

Church Structure: Organizational Primer

Asserting Our Rights

Church Governance

Rights and Responsibilities of the Laity