This is the second-to-last post in my series on Catholic Theology from an Evangelical perspective. In case it’s not already patently obvious, systematic theology is not my area of expertise. My concentration at Wheaton is Old Testament. These reflections are the fruit of a course I took this summer at Notre Dame in Christian Doctrine with Dr. John Cavadini. Though I’m far more at home in biblical studies, this class was a delightful opportunity to explore unfamiliar territory. I’ve learned so much about the key areas of disagreement between Catholics and Protestants, and I hope you have, too!
One of the most obvious differences between Protestants and Catholics is church structure. Hierarchy of any kind is not at all in vogue in our culture. In American Protestant churches, especially among Evangelicals, the democratic ideal has won the day. Congregational meetings include voting, elder and deacon boards reign in the authority of the Pastor, and if people don’t like how things are going, they find another place to worship. For Evangelicals the hierarchy of the Catholic Church seems foreign. But before we talk about the structure of the Church, we need to say a few words about what the Church actually is.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes the Church as a mystery, created by Christ, into which he brings people by setting them free from sin and death. The Church is not a club or voluntary organization. It is ordained by God to carry out his mission in the world by preserving and teaching the true faith. The Catholic Church recognizes the diversity of gifts that make up the body of Christ. In no way are those with organizational and leadership gifts exalted over those with “charismatic” gifts. Both are needed for a healthy Church to function. The Church is not perfect, but in the process of becoming what God has designed it to be.
The CCC teaches that the Church is the people of God, made up of those who have been baptized and therefore have taken on Christ’s mission (§871). Believers enjoy “a true equality with regard to dignity” and all participate in the work of the Church by exercising their spiritual gifts (§872). However, the offices of “teaching, sanctifying, and governing” the Church have been entrusted “to the apostles and their successors” (§873). This authority for bishops, priests, and deacons is derived from Christ himself (§874–875), who modeled servant leadership (§876). Bishops do not wield authority on their own, but as members of the collective group of bishops (called the “episcopal college”) under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, who is thought to be St. Peter’s successor (§877). Each bishop personally bears witness to the gospel as they serve the Church (§878–879).
The idea of the episcopal college is modeled after the 12 disciples of Jesus, and Peter’s headship over the 12 is based on his profession of faith, to which Jesus responded “on this rock I will build my Church” (§880–881; Matt 16:18–19). The Bishop of Rome, who succeeds Peter in authority, is called the “Pope” (§882; cf. 869, 936). He unifies the Church, and “as pastor of the entire church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (§882; cf. 937). Whenever the episcopal college agrees with the Pope, they, too, exercise this authority through universal and ecumenical councils (§883–884).
However, lest we think of this “power” exercised by the Pope and Bishops from a worldly point of view, it’s important to understand that their “power” is a responsibility to serve the Church and to protect her from error. Their service is one of great personal sacrifice. Each is committed to lifelong celibacy, modeling, in a sense, Christ’s marriage to the Church.
Like the Pope, bishops are the symbol of unity for their own diocese. They care for their members and meet with larger groups of bishops (“ecclesiastical provinces,” “patriarchates,” or “regions”; §887; cf. 938). A bishop’s primary responsibility is preaching, ensuring that the congregation clings to the faith “under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium” (§888–889).* The other responsibilities of a bishop include “sanctifying” the Church through providing Holy Communion, praying, and serving (§893). Priests or deacons may be involved in service, but ultimately the bishops are responsible for what takes place (§1369; 939). Bishops also exercise governing authority to the degree that they are “in communion with the whole Church under the guidance of the Pope” (§894–895). In other words, the authority of the bishops is a communal authority. A bishop cannot strike out on his own and expect to be obeyed. His compassionate (and submissive) leadership guides his congregation in the way of truth (§896).
One controversial teaching of the Catholic Church is the “infallibility” of the Pope and the bishops when they agree together on doctrine. It may be helpful to know that only twice in church history has the Pope pronounced a doctrine as infallible (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary). [Note: a few other instances may be cited, but these two are the only undisputed occasions]. This “infallibility” cannot extend beyond the teaching of Scripture (§891–892), though it may be related typologically to it (as it is in both of the above cases). The Pope’s infallibility is derived from the infallibility of Scripture. Like a plumb line for the Church at large, the Church in Rome sets the standard to which all Catholic Churches must adhere (§834; again based on Matt 16:18–19).
For Catholics this hierarchy is very biblical. Based on Jesus’ choice of 12 apostles and his exaltation of Peter, Catholics recognize an unbroken succession of authority that has been passed down to the present day and now resides in the Pope (bishop of Rome) and the episcopal college (bishops around the world). The appointment of bishops, priests and deacons corresponds to New Testament guidelines for bishops, elders (or presbyters), and deacons. Catholics take seriously the unity of the Church and the accountability required to preserve true teaching. All authority is derived from Christ and used in service of the Church, not for personal gain. To the extent that this ideal is realized, one can say that the structure is biblically-derived.
Even the most egalitarian and congregational Protestant Church has some authority structure. We may use different titles for those invested with authority in the Church, but we share the concern for unity, sound teaching, compassionate ministry, and purity of example. Authority and submission are biblical concepts, when exercised properly. No system is perfect, of course, but the diversity of models for Church governance should make us hesitant to condemn any one model as inadequate. Whether particular doctrines thought to be pure by the Magisterium truly are biblical is another question, but the structure itself need not be rejected out of hand.
* Dr. Cavadini explained it to me this way: “The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church. It first and foremost belongs to the whole Church, but it is exercised on behalf of the Church by the successors of the apostles (i.e. the bishops) in communion with and in union with the successor of Peter (i.e. the pope). The Magisterium makes decisions about what is authentic Christian teaching when necessary.” The CCC says that the bishops responsible for teaching must “preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (§890).