A Series of Essays “On the Business of Religion” by the Rev. Know-it-all
Essay One: “Catholicism Isn’t as Complicated as You May Think!”
Things are in bit of a pickle in the Catholic Church in our times. To make sense of the crisis, one must understand the structure of the Catholic church. The Catholic church is arguably the largest and among the oldest institutions in the world. It has an unbroken governance of almost two thousand years. Around 170 AD St Irenaeus of Lyon wrote:
“For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy.”(Adversus Haereses III,3.)
This is authority rests on the belief that Peter was the leader of the apostolic church. Peter was thought to have founded three churches, one in Antioch, one in Alexandria through his assistant St. Mark, and one in Rome, where he was martyred and where he was buried. This counted for a lot in the minds of the first Christians and whether you agree with the concept of Petrine authority or not, it seems certainly to have existed in some sense by the end of the first century. The Church of Rome is a very old institution. And it has become a very large institution. As of this writing it has 1,300,000,000 (one billion three hundred million) members. We constitute more than half of the Christians (2,400,000,000) in the world. Those 1.3 billion Catholics are governed by a rather small bureaucracy of just over 200 cardinals, around 6,000 bishops and perhaps 3,500 Vatican bureaucrats. This is just under 10,000 people. That comes to around one official for one million plus Catholics. The federal government of the U.S. employs around 4 million people in a country of 300 million. That’s more like one out every hundred. Each diocese has its own chancery office or pastoral center some small, some large, but these are not part of the universal governance of the church, just as state governments are not part of the federal system.
This church government is a hierarchy. Most people think of hierarchy as chain of command similar to a military structure. This is not the actual situation. The word “hierarchy“ means sacred leadership. Each diocese has more autonomy than you would think. In fact, the pope has selected local bishops only since 1871. Before that the process was much more complicated and involved much local control both civil and religious. The church does not have a chain of command. A bishop of one diocese may not go to another and order the clergy or faithful around. They have authority only over their immediate diocese unless, like the cardinals, they are otherwise designated by the pope as able to minister without the express permission of the local bishop. The essential unit of the church is the diocese, a bishop assisted in serving the faithful with his presbyters (priests) and deacons. It is really a very simple structure. The pope is simply a bishop ‒ the bishop of Rome. He has no special papal ordination, but he does exercise a universal ministry because of Peter’s mandate to “strengthen the brethren,” (Luke 22:32) The pope is the protector of the tradition and of doctrine and must assure that good and faithful men are chosen for leadership in the church.
So, where do the cardinals fit in? A cardinal is a pastor or deacon of one of the ancient churches in the city of Rome. These are called “cardinal” in the sense of “primary” or “important.” Since the middle ages, bishops, priests and even non-ordained laymen have been given the title of “cardinal’ of a church in the diocese of Rome. Because the cardinals are the pastors of Rome, they elect the bishop of Rome, who is, by his office, the pope of the universal church. At home a cardinal may be a bishop, in Rome he is a ranking pastor of an ancient church of the diocese of Rome. In sorting it out it is absolutely essential to remember that the Bishop of Rome is the Pope. The Pope is not the Bishop of Rome. A man is elected as the pastor of this ancient diocese. That is job one. His task is to maintain the sanctity and fidelity of this ancient heritage to the Gospel and to Christ so that all the other churches of the world can behold its beauty, truth and charity, and so be reassured in their work for the salvation of souls.
During the middle ages, these cardinal pastorates of the diocese of Rome were conferred on men, usually bishops, who were not always Romans, but were important bishops in their own countries. In this way popes could have representation with the crowned heads of Europe and those crowned heads could have their representatives in Rome. Thus, the Roman church became very centrally involved in the politics of Europe and the Roman (Byzantine) empire centered in Constantinople, The papacy struggled to rein in the ambitions of the monarchs of the Christian world, and in the process became a political force themselves. Dr. Rodney Stark, sociologist of religion at Baylor University speaks of the church of piety and the church of (political) power. If I read him correctly, he contends that from the time of the emperor Constantine until some point in the middle ages, the church of piety and the church of power were at odds They reconciled through the development of the monasteries. I’m not so sure. There is evidence of the church of power earlier than Constantine. Just look up the heretic Bishop Paul of Samosata and his political collaboration with the rebel queen Zenobia of Palmyra (270AD) There have been ambitious sect leaders since the first days of the faith and the church is still inseparably enmeshed in civil politics, e.g. liberation theology and the church tax of Germany. The church of power and the church of piety have always been and will always be at loggerheads, often struggling within the soul of individual Christians. Despite Jesus having said that his kingdom was not of this world, His more ambitious followers have always differed with Him on this point.