Americans have always distrusted authority. After a visit to the United States, famous 19th-century English novelist Charles Dickens wrote that it would be impossible to have an established religion in America because of religious dissent and the broad variety expressed in freedom of opinion. “I think that the temper of the people, if it admitted of such an institution being founded amongst them, would lead them to desert it, as a matter of course, merely because it was established,” he wrote with a slight jab. 

Catholic Americans, who breathe the same cultural climate as their fellow citizens, can find that a challenge. Authority in the Catholic Church is a big deal and part of what makes Catholicism unique. One of the four “marks” of the Church is that it is “apostolic.” 

Another problem — of which the clerical sex abuse crisis has been a forceful reminder — is that even legitimate Church leaders can be weak, sinful and imprudent. For some, that seems to invalidate by extension the leaders’ legitimate teaching on what is essential for salvation: faith, morals and worship. 

Others have difficulty thinking about the Church in any other way than through the lens of politics or corporations. And we all know how well politicians and corporate executives are doing in popularity polls these days. And yet, as the Second Vatican Council points out, Scripture offers us different metaphors to help us understand the Church, and therefore the meaning and exercise of authority in it: “The inner nature of the Church is now made known to us in different images taken either from tending sheep or cultivating the land, from building or even from family life and betrothals, the images receive preparatory shaping in the books of the Prophets” ( Lumen Gentium , No. 6). 

These four pages are meant to help Catholics rethink authority in the Church for what it is: a gift. It is how Christ ensures that the means of salvation are transmitted faithfully and authentically from age to age until he comes again. When exercised properly, it is about service and sanctification. What is not to embrace about that?

This material was prepared by OSV Newsweekly staff. Dominican Sister Janet Schaeffler, a former director of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit, is project consultant.

Magisterium, and degrees 

The Church’s teaching authority is known as the Magisterium. It is called “living” because it interprets Scripture and Tradition for each generation of believers, in an uninterrupted line back to Christ himself. 

The Magisterium exercises its authority in different degrees. The highest degree is when it defines dogmas, “when it proposes truths contained in divine Revelation or having a necessary connection with them, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 88). This is called extraordinary Magisterium. 

Ordinary magisterium is that exercised by the pope alone or by the bishops teaching in communion with him “when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner,’ they propose ... a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals” (Catechism, No. 892). 

In the message of salvation there is a certain hierarchy of truths, which the Church has always recognized when it composed creeds or summaries of the truths of faith. This hierarchy does not mean that some truths pertain to faith itself less than others, but rather that some truths are based on others as of a higher priority and are illumined by them (see General Catechetical Directory, No. 43). 

For example, the existence of God, God being Triune, and the belief that God the Son became Incarnate are truths that are higher up in the hierarchy than the beliefs that Bethlehem happened to be the site of Jesus’ birth, the book of Jude belongs in Sacred Scripture or indulgences can be granted by the Church’s power of the keys. Each of these beliefs is true and cannot be denied or dismissed, but they are lower down in the hierarchy of truths than the core doctrines of the faith. 

While various degrees of response to the Magisterium are possible according to the way in which it is exercised, no response is adequate unless it is rooted in faith.

Authority in the Church

The Church has a constitution given by her founder, Jesus Christ. She is not a democracy in the sense of being an institution where authority originates with the people. Instead, authority comes from above. By the will of God, the Church is hierarchically structured. Our Lord sent the apostles to teach and rule. Along with the pope, the bishops are the only teachers constituted by divine right. Their authority comes from God; they are not delegates of the clergy or the people, nor for that matter of the pope. 

In its nature and in the way it is exercised, authority in the Church is very different from authority in civil societies. 

There are two peculiar characteristics of Church authority: it is sacred, and it is a work of service. 


It is sacred precisely inasmuch as it derives directly from Christ, and not through any democratic commission. “No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 875). 

That is the reason why we speak of “hierarchy,” which, in its Greek origin, means sacred power — “which is none other than that of Christ” (Catechism, No. 1551). It takes faith to keep the sacredness of authority before one’s mind, just as, with the Blessed Sacrament, someone lacking faith discerns no more than the natural substance of bread. 

Authority in the Church is sacred also in that it has a special sanctifying effect, when accepted out of supernatural motives. 


Authority in the Church is also a work of service. It is first of all a service toward Christ, carrying on his mission. Those in authority in the Church must obey God before anything or anyone else, and must devote themselves to the fulfilment of his will. Church authority is also a service of the people, facilitating their way to — and return to — Christ. 

Therefore, the structures in the Church are not power structures, but are geared to diakonia and ministry (both words that literally mean “service”). Jesus said of himself that he “did not come to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28). 

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that “although the Church is supported by God’s gift and authority, nevertheless insofar as it is a gathering of men, in its actions some element of human imperfection appears that is not divine.” The apostles, too, had their defects, which were used by God to sanctify both them and those in regard to whom they exercised the missions given them by Christ. 

Although we have a guarantee that Christ’s truth is behind the solemn exercise of the Church’s teaching office, it would be a mistake to look for the same guarantee in relation to the ruling office. Issues of truth are not normally involved in questions of Church discipline or government. 

The presence of the Holy Spirit is nevertheless guaranteed to the Church in her government. This does not imply that each measure of government or discipline will always be an exercise of perfect prudence. The guarantee is, rather, that Christ’s will is behind measures of government, when exercised in communion.  

It also means that whoever accepts such measures in faith and responds to them is in fact doing what God wants (“He who listens to you, listens to me” [Lk 10:16].). 

Msgr. Cormac Burke, author of “Authority and Freedom in the Church” (Ignatius, $12.95)

Signs and Symbols

Four ways of understanding what the Church is — and how it relates to Jesus Christ 

  • The Church is a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ. It is a flock of which God himself foretold he would be the shepherd, and whose sheep, although ruled by human shepherds, are nevertheless continuously led and nourished by Christ himself, the Good Shepherd and the Prince of the shepherds, who gave his life for the sheep. Lumen Gentium , No. 6 
  • The Church is a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God. On that land the ancient olive tree grows whose holy roots were the Prophets and in which the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles has been brought about and will be brought about. That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly Husbandman. The true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches — that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing.
  •  Often the Church has also been called the building of God. The Lord himself compared himself to the stone which the builders rejected, but which was made into the cornerstone. On this foundation the Church is built by the apostles, and from it the Church receives durability and consolidation. This edifice has many names to describe it: the house of God in which dwells his family; the household of God in the Spirit; the dwelling place of God among men; and, especially, the holy temple. This Temple, symbolized in places of worship built out of stone, is praised by the Holy Fathers and, not without reason, is compared in the liturgy to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. As living stones we here on earth are built into it. John contemplates this holy city coming down from heaven at the renewal of the world as a bride made ready and adorned for her husband. 
  • The Church, further, “that Jerusalem which is above,” is also called “our mother.” It is described as the spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb, whom Christ “loved and for whom he delivered himself up that he might sanctify her,” whom he unites to himself by an unbreakable covenant, and whom he unceasingly “nourishes and cherishes,” and whom, once purified, he willed to be cleansed and joined to himself, subject to him in love and fidelity, and whom, finally, he filled with heavenly gifts for all eternity, in order that we may know the love of God and of Christ for us, a love which surpasses all knowledge. The Church, while on earth it journeys in a foreign land away from the Lord, is like in exile. It seeks and experiences those things which are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, where the life of the Church is hidden with Christ in God until it appears in glory with its spouse. Lumen Gentium , No. 6

Who are they? 


No: 1 

From St. Peter the Apostle through our current Pope Benedict XVI, there have been 265 pontiffs. Known as the Vicar of Christ, but also the “servant of the servants of God,” the Roman pontiff exercises “supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power” in the Church. Sounds impressive, but the purpose of the power is to serve the unity of faith in the Church. That goal would be undermined were he to exercise the power arbitrarily (see sidebar, Page 12). 


No: 8 

The title of a bishop who, second only to the pope, has the highest rank in the hierarchy of jurisdiction. He is the head of the faithful belonging to his Eastern rite throughout the world. 


No: 179 (as of June 19) 

Cardinals are no different than any other bishop except that in addition to their regular duties, they also serve as special consultants to the pope and, more importantly, are tasked with electing a new pope when the previous one dies. Only cardinals under 80 may vote. 

Head of a principal see, an archdiocese. In addition to full powers as bishop in his own diocese, he has limited supervisory jurisdiction and influence over the other dioceses in his province. 

A “successor of the apostles” and head of a diocese. 


No: 408,024 

Permanent deacon 

No. 35,942 

Source: 2010 Catholic Almanac

Infallibility -- what it means

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his apostles, “Where [I] am going you know the way” (Jn 14:4). 

How can we, 2,000 years later, “know the way” to hear and follow Jesus? What means did he provide by which his teaching would be preserved in its authenticity throughout the ages? 

He endowed his Church with the charism of infallibility. 

“In order to preserve the Church in the purity of faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 889). 

The New Testament tells of Christ’s decision to set up a visible, hierarchical, teaching Church, giving authority to the apostles (and to their successors, the bishops), accompanied by the promise of his presence and that of the Holy Spirit, and the guarantee that whatever is taught will faithfully express his mind and will: 

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations ... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20); “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18); “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16); “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16:13). 

Who and how 

Infallibility is not to be confused with the charism of inspiration, nor is it to be considered a source of new revelations. What matters is to “hold fast to what you have until I come” (Rv 2:25), to “guard what has been en-trusted to you” (1 Tm 6:20). 

The Church lives with the life of Christ. Her faith expresses his mind, constantly clarifying itself to us through the ages. Infallibility is therefore a possession and a prerogative of the entire Church. 

Our Lord’s words “Go, teach; I am with you always” apply to the whole body of the faithful, united in belief down through the ages. 

But the guarantee contained in these words has been more particularly given to the Magisterium — the teaching office exercised by the bishops and the pope. “It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. ... To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals” (Catechism, No. 890). 

The promise of Matthew 28:19-20, “Go and make disciples of all nations. ... I am with you always, until the end of the age,” should be seen in the light of the earlier guarantee addressed to all the apostles: “Whatever you [plural] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you [plural] loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18); and this latter promise made to the entire apostolic college should in turn be understood in the light of the prior commission made to Peter alone: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. ... Whatever you [singular] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you [singular] loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19). 

So the Second Vatican Council teaches: “This is the infallibility which the Roman pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter” ( Lumen Gentium , No. 25). 

The College of Bishops, when united in faith with the Roman pontiff, also teaches infallibly. “The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of bishops, when that body exercises the supreme Magisterium with the successor of Peter,” either in the solemn declarations of ecumenical councils or in and through their ordinary Magisterium ( Lumen Gentium , No. 25). 

The charism of infallibility enables us to hear the voice of Christ, speaking through those whom he has appointed. It is an expression of God’s mercy: to ensure that truth he has communicated remains accessible to us.

Belief and teaching 

Infallibility in belief should be distinguished from infallibility in teaching. The latter pertains to the Magisterium alone, given the conditions indicated above. Infallibility in belief, sometimes known as sensus fidei, sensus fidelium , pertains to the whole Church. 

“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” ( Lumen Gentium , No. 12). 

“By a ‘supernatural sense of faith’ the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, ‘unfailingly adheres to this faith’” (Catechism, No. 889). The body of the faithful goes beyond limits both of place and, especially, of time. The People of God always includes those of past generations, as well as those of the present moment. The former are in fact the vast majority, and it is easier to ascertain what they believed. It is that belief that marks the sensus fidelium and points infallibly to the truth. 

This should be kept in mind in evaluating sociological data about current opinion in the Church. The norm in the Church is always what God wants. It is the one faith professed by the People of God over centuries that is infallible; and in that faith we are called to communion. The faith of our fathers is a sure reference point, linking us to the teaching of Jesus “that comes down to us from the apostles,” as Eucharistic Prayer I expresses it. 

Some see pride at work in the Church’s claim to infallibility. But the claim is not proud; it is an acknowledgement of the greatness of what God has done in and through her. Pride, instead, is a danger for someone who, wanting to follow Christ, nevertheless refuses to admit any infallible organ of teaching instituted by him. 

Acceptance of the Church’s infallibility is a key test of faith in God’s providence — in this divine way of ensuring access to the message of salvation.

Adapted from an article on infallibility by Msgr. Cormac Burke, a canon lawyer and former judge of the Roman Rota, in OSV’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine.

Supreme pontiff -- and supreme pastor 

Peter appears throughout the Gospels as the leader and spokesman of the other apostles. His special place among them was acknowledged by all from the start. “Even among the apostles, there was a certain distinction in power within an equality of honor, and while the choice of all was identical, to one alone pre-eminence was given over all the others” (St. Leo the Great). 

The primacy given to Peter and to each pope as his successor cannot be reduced to one of honor. It is a primacy of rule and government over the whole flock of Jesus (see Jn 10:16), by which the pope has immediate jurisdiction over each portion of the people of God, over each particular church and diocese. 

He is the first teacher of the Faith, with a God-given responsibility to defend it, and with special divine aid in doing so. But he is also the first ruler and legislator. The “power of the keys” entrusted to him (see Mt 16:19) opens the doors of heaven for us. 

The Gospels seem to make a point of not hiding Peter’s defects and failures. But these did not prevent Christ from choosing him nor stop others from accepting his authority. The lesson is clear: Respect, loyalty and obedience toward the pope, whoever he may be, cannot depend on any impression or evidence of his human wisdom or sanctity. 

Christ did not guarantee to preserve the pope from the possibility of giving bad example, but simply from that of leading people astray by his teaching. 

We are not united to the pope, and through him to Christ, unless united to what he indicates in his role as supreme pastor. Attachment to the pope is a sign, test and condition of attachment to Christ and full union with him.

Excerpted from an article on papal titles by Msgr. Cormac Burke, a canon lawyer and former judge of the Roman Rota, in OSV’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine.

Can I dissent? 

“Most of the difficulty arises in the sphere of noninfallible teaching, which ... is reformable. Such teaching is not proposed as the word of God, nor does the Church ask its members to submit with the assent of faith. Rather, the Church asks for what is called in official documents obsequium animi religiosum — a term which, depending on the context, can be suitably translated by ‘religious submission of the mind,’ ‘respectful readiness to accept,’ or some such phrase. This term actually includes a whole range of responses that vary according to the context of the teaching, its relationship to the Gospel, the kind of biblical and traditional support behind it, the degree of assent given to it in the church at large, the person or office from which the teaching comes, the kind of document in which it appears, the constancy of the teaching, and the emphasis given to the teaching in the text or texts. Because the matter is so complex, one cannot make any general statement about what precisely amounts to ‘religious submission of the mind.’ 

“Normally, the response of the Catholic to official but noninfallible teaching will be something more than a respectful hearing and something less than a full commitment of faith. Unless one has serious reasons for thinking that the magisterium has erred in the particular case, conscience will prompt one to submit on the basis that the magisterium is generally trustworthy. Some have compared the guidance of the magisterium in such matters to that of a doctor or lawyer, but the differences are important. The doctor or lawyer is not divinely commissioned and the content of such professional advice would normally have little relation to salvation. Because of the promise of Christ to be with the pastors of the Church when they teach in the area of faith and morals, we have special assurances that in following them we are not being led astray. 

“With respect to noninfallible teaching, therefore, there are two possible errors. One would be to treat it as if it were infallible. Such an excessive emphasis could overtax the individual’s capacity to assent and could lead to a real crisis of faith in the event of a later change of doctrine. The opposite error would be to treat noninfallible magisterial teaching as though it were simply a matter of theological opinion. This would be an error for the reasons already explained. The hierarchy is not just a group of theorists, but a body of pastors who are sacramentally ordained and commissioned as teachers of the faith. 

“Which of the two errors is the greater temptation for American Catholics? In the generation before Vatican II, when they were still something of a foreign enclave, American Catholics gloried in their obedience to their clergy and to Rome. An exaggerated conformism still persists in certain circles. But the more prevalent danger today is that of excessive distrust.” 

Excerpt from Cardinal Avery Dulles, “Authority and Conscience”

For More Information

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 871-913, 2032-2040 
  • Lumen Gentium , Second Vatican Council 
  • The Acts of the Apostles, especially chapters 1-15 
  •  “Church: Nature, Origin, and Structure of,” in Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine

This is the seventh in a 12-part series. The next, on what makes Catholics unique, appears Aug. 8.