How is the Church governed?

A question that keeps coming up for me regarding the synod on synodality is, “What do you mean by X?” X could be lay participation; women’s decision-making; hierarchical ministry; governance; the development of doctrine; the sensus fidei. People can use the same terms with different meanings that significantly change the substance of the argument. Two people may agree that women’s participation in the Church must be acknowledged and honored, for example, but if one means that women’s ordination ought to be adopted, and the other means that women can provide valuable insight to the hierarchy, they are not saying the same thing. Today I am asking what people mean by governance.

An essay by Nicholas Healy in the Synodality issue of Communio (Winter 2021) prompted this post. In it, Healy reminds us that “Hierarchical ministry is not delegated or authorized by members of the Church; it is a gift of grace.” Healy argues that much of the language used about synodality today neglects this central fact, and in doing so, reduces hierarchical authority to a power or authority that comes from below, from the consent of the governed, if you will. “The relevant documents… convey the impression of a theologically impermissible democratization of governance and magisterial judgment in the Church,” he writes. His concern is that the organizers of the synod seem to view the governance of Christ’s Church, explicitly entrusted by Jesus to his Apostles and their successors, as something that any of the faithful could do. On the contrary, “The authority to teach and govern the Church is a sacramental gift,” he writes, and, “For this reason, there is a dimension of apostolic authority that cannot be delegated or shared.” I agree with all of these statements, and/ but I want to look at how Catholics experience governance at the parish level, and how (or whether) the laity can assist pastors in this.

When a man is ordained a priest, he becomes possessed of an office that is granted by Christ. The prayer of ordination asks that the men be “faithful stewards of [God’s] mysteries” so that their people may be “renewed through the cleansing waters of rebirth and refreshed from your altar; so that sinners may be reconciled and the sick raised up.” The ordained are “helpers” to assist the bishop in his priesthood, “co-workers in [their] Order.” It is for the whole Church that men are ordained priests, and specifically it is so that the faithful may receive the sacraments. But if the priesthood is more about being than doing (which I would argue), then much of the current conversation about governance could benefit from a deeper understanding of the identity of the ordained rather than focusing on what Stephen White likes to call “the stuff they do.”

The Church: Lay and Ordained

The section of the Catechism on Christ’s Faithful (Hierarchy, Laity, Consecrated Life) begins with three paragraphs acknowledging the shared mission of all the faithful even while differences exist among the orders. We all participate in the common priesthood of all the faithful, but this differs essentially from the ministerial priesthood (c.f. 1547). The differences are meant for our good: “The very differences which the Lord has willed to put between the members of his body serve its unity and mission” (873). Addressing ecclesial ministry specifically, it reads, “From [Christ], [ministers of grace] receive the mission and faculty (“the sacred power”) to act in persona Christi Capitis,” and bishops are “authorized and empowered by Christ” (875). The Catechism then goes into the teaching, sanctifying, and governing aspects of the episcopate. It notes, “The power which [bishops] exercise personally in the name of Christ, is proper, ordinary, and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately controlled by the supreme authority of the Church” (895). The bishop is exhorted to follow the example of the Good Shepherd and the faithful are exhorted to follow the bishop.

Lumen Gentium (LG) addresses the bishop’s role in the hierarchical structure of the Church in this way: “Bishops, therefore, with their helpers, the priests and deacons, have taken up the service of the community, presiding in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing” (20). The preaching of the Gospel is to hold an “eminent place” in the bishop’s duties, and it is his responsibility to regulate the celebration of the Eucharist in his diocese (25, 26). By virtue of the power of governance, LG notes that bishops, “have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the apostolate” (27). Of course, LG also notes that bishops must be in union with the Holy Father, so they model obedience as well as command (22).

Next, LG addresses others who are brought in to share in the bishop’s ministry to different degrees—priests and deacons. Priests support the bishop by “mak[ing] him present in a certain sense in the individual local congregations” and discharging “his duties and the burden of his care” (28). That is a fairly all-encompassing mandate for a priest—basically, stand in for the bishop at the parish level. Who a priest is takes a certain precedence here over what he does. A deacon’s tasks, in contrast, are laid out: “It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services” (29). The difference in the two descriptions—one, somewhat poetic and theoretical; the other a list of “stuff you are to do”— points to a significant difference between the two ordinations. (n.b. Canon law does spell out a number of things that pastors are to do.)

Stuff the Ordained Do

Being cannot be entirely divorced from doing. If a priest never says Mass or hears confession, he is also failing to be who he is. One of my good friends from my time at the USCCB, Fr. Joseph Cazanavette (God rest his soul) remarked that priests who work in an office ought to commit themselves to saying Mass and hearing confessions somewhere, in order to ensure that they do not forget who they are. Notice the two things that Fr. Joseph said and that I “instinctively” wrote: say Mass and hear confessions. It seems to me that a priest may keep himself firmly on the right path by performing those two “tasks” regularly. These are also explicitly mentioned in the Rite of Ordination: “celebrate faithfully and reverently… the mysteries of Christ, especially the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation…” Where does governance fall in the list of things that a priest needs to do in order to be himself? It can’t be very high, since younger priests are often assigned to parishes with an older priest, who is the pastor and exercises most of the authority, and priests outside of the parish structure (like Fr. Joseph when he was working at the USCCB) don’t really have anything to govern. In addition, as we have seen in recent years, even a bishop may be deprived of the governance of his diocese without this touching the essence of who he is as a successor of the Apostles. So it seems like the power of governance is somehow… less essential?

A priest who is a pastor certainly governs a parish. “The buck stops there,” if you will, and no one really questions that, especially when things go wrong. It’s always the pastor’s fault, right? A pastor doesn’t need to consult any of the laity at the parish, for example, about arranging times for Mass or confession, or determining how candidates for Baptism will be instructed. He might do well to consult, but he does not have to. Besides dealing with the parish finances (he does have to have a finance council) there is no sort of consultation or listening that is mandated at the parish level. If someone wants to do something at the parish (or the school, if there is one), they always have to “ask Father So-and-So.” This means that most Catholics live with a pretty strict hierarchical system at the parish level. (I am sure that there are exceptions.) My question is: Does the hierarchical structure of the universal church necessarily entail this concrete situation at the parish level? Does Father really need to do or decide all of these things? I am not sure.

Pastoral Leadership

A pastor has to be a good leader or his parish will struggle. A good leader raises up those around him. He is confident in his judgments and competent in those areas he needs to be, or else he recognizes where he is not competent and seeks expert guidance. He listens to others and incorporates their ideas into the larger picture. He can take constructive criticism and he apologizes when he has been wrong. A pastor who is a good leader sets an example of prayer, charity, and humility for the parish. He makes decisions, determines the way forward, and sets the example of holiness and zeal for his congregation. He accepts the burden of responsibility that comes with making decisions. A pastor who is a strong leader with natural authority is a great blessing, because it means that the congregation can relax a little, trusting that the parish is in good hands (even if they may disagree with this or that decision). On the other hand, when a pastor is overly diffident, not confident about his decisions, or always deferring to a strong personality in the parish (whether another cleric or a lay person), then the congregation may get… antsy. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s not good.

There will always be a gap between what the ideal pastor should be and what an individual pastor is. He may be limited by many factors: his personality type, past experience, mental illness, disability, family of origin, various wounds, addiction, doubt—and of course, every pastor is limited by his own sins and temptations. He may also be limited by isolation; He may not have anyone in his life that can offer the kinds of little corrections that spouses, for example, can offer one another (corrections within a context of love). One of my questions, then, is how the laity can assist pastors in becoming who they could/ should be. How can we help to lessen the gap between the ideal and the real? Can members of the parish make it possible for Father to get in a holy hour every day by cutting down the time he has to work on x, y, or z? or what can the congregation do that would make it possible for Father to be able to go on a long bike ride every week? If we truly care about the wellbeing of our priests, we should be able to find ways to help them to be who they are called to be.

Christ did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a random for many; In Christianity, to reign is to serve. A priest who is given authority by God, then, is not given authority in order that he may do whatever he wants, but rather, for the sake of the Church. He must serve by commanding—a paradox. “This authority is not an oppressive domination but a spirit of and a willingness to serve. This dual aspect — authority and service — is the reference point for the munus regendi of the priest who must always commit himself to a coherent exercise of his participation in the condition of Christ, Head and Shepherd of the flock.”[1] A father orders his son to clean his room, for example, and thereby serves the family and even the son himself. When I was a teacher, I ordered my students to complete essays, take tests, and do their homework. If I had not done so, I would not have been doing my job. Having the authority to order things rightly and refusing to use it is just as wrong as abusing your authority. A priest (bishop, pope) is called to use his authority for the common good. But what happens when the person with authority is not using it rightly? That’s what I want to think about in my next column.


Special thanks for Rev. Randy Stice for his input!


[1] The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, 1999


Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash