The Church Cannot Change Her Hierarchical Structure Instituted by Christ

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The Church Cannot Change Her Hierarchical Structure Instituted by Christ
The Church Cannot Change Her Hierarchical Structure Instituted by Christ

The defense of egalitarianism in the socio-political order is a philosophical error. When attempts are made to apply this egalitarianism to the Church, it becomes a theological error.

It is a theological error because Scripture clearly shows that Our Lord instituted a hierarchy to govern His Church. It is additionally erroneous because egalitarian efforts to abolish the distinctions between laity and clergy lead to an implicit denial of the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The learned Jesuit Fr. Joachim Salaverri says: “Christ gave the Apostles the authority to govern, teach, and sanctify, to which all must be subjected. He is, therefore, the author of the hierarchical society that is called the Church.”1

The theologian Fr. Adrien Gréa explains: “The first foundation, the very core of hierarchical authority, is the sacrament of Holy Orders.”2

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A Matter of Faith

In his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Dr. Ludwig Ott declares: “Christ gave His Church a hierarchical constitution.” This is a proposition of faith. Thus, it cannot be denied without falling into heresy.3

The Council of Trent declares that those who deny the existence of a hierarchical priesthood or its power to consecrate, as well as those who affirm that “in the Catholic Church a hierarchy has not been instituted by divine ordinance, which consists of the bishops, priests, and ministers” be anathema.4

Our Lord Established the Church Teaching and the Church Learning

Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself permanently established the hierarchical structure of the Church. Transforming and leveling this structure would thus alter Her very nature.

Our Lord wills that the Church be formed of two sectors: the “Church teaching” (Ecclesia docens) and the “Church learning” (Ecclesia discens). These two are complementary but are not equal.

The Church teaching consists of the Pope and the bishops. Their mission is to teach, govern, and sanctify the faithful. The Church learning consists of priests, religious and laity who must be taught, guided, and sanctified.5

This division is based on the mission received from the Savior and the plenitude of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, that is, episcopal consecration. It does not depend on knowledge or sanctity. A simple priest, nun, or lay person may be more cultured or holier than a bishop, but continues to be part of the Church learning. Such, for example, was the case of Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux. His moral authority in the Church decisively resolved the most intricate ecclesiastical problems of the day, but it was a moral authority, not an authority of jurisdiction.

Eternal and Natural Law: The Foundation of Morals and Law

Through their sacramental consecration and union with the Pope, bishops are made successors of the Apostles and receive, together with the sacramental and jurisdictional authority, the charisms and graces necessary to exercise their office. Either they are faithful or unfaithful to these graces, and thus become bishops in the image of the Good Shepherd or in the image of the Hireling.6

In times of great spiritual crises, many bishops are unfaithful to these graces. God can allow this as a chastisement for the priests and laity. Nevertheless, a bishop’s lack of fidelity does not entail automatic removal from office. Even in the case of manifest heresy and schism, such removal is effected only by a declaratory act of the competent authority, namely, the Holy See.7 When subject to such dire conditions, the faithful must obey the bishop in everything that is for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. They must resist, however, a bishop’s command to do evil.8 In such painful circumstances, and within stipulated conditions, the faithful always have the right (and at times the duty) of voicing their concern to the shepherds, and apprising the other faithful as to their opinion.9

Government in Civil Society Has Several Legitimate Forms

In order to better understand Catholic doctrine on the form of government Our Lord established for the Church, it is useful to recall Church teaching on the forms of government in general.

Catholic Social Doctrine—and wholesome philosophy as well—teaches that there are three classical forms of government, all of which are legitimate and in accordance with natural order: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas reasons that monarchy is the best form of government because it ensures peace: “The best government of a multitude is rule by one, and this is clear from the purpose of government, which is peace; for the peace and unity of his subjects are the purpose of the one who rules, and one is a better constituted cause of unity than many.”10

Nevertheless, the Angelic Doctor concludes that monarchy tempered with elements of aristocracy and democracy is the best form of government for fulfilling man’s needs.11

The Organic Monarchy of the Middle Ages

This tempered or mixed form corresponds to the organic monarchy of the Middle Ages, particularly in the thirteenth century during the reigns of Saints Louis IX of France and Ferdinand of Castile.

Referring to this period in the history of Christendom, Pope Leo XIII writes:

There was a time when the philosophy of the Gospel governed the States. In that epoch, the influence of Christian wisdom and its divine virtue permeated the laws, institutions, and customs of the people, all categories, and all relations of civil society. Then the religion instituted by Jesus Christ, solidly established in the degree of dignity due it, flourished everywhere, thanks to the favor of princes and the legitimate protection of magistrates. Then the Priesthood and the Empire were united in a happy concord and by the friendly exchange of good offices. So organized, civil society gave fruits superior to all expectations, whose memory subsists and will subsist, registered as it is in innumerable documents that no artifice of the adversaries can destroy or obscure.12

Atheistic Concept of Authority: “Power Comes From the People”

While Church doctrine accepts democracy as a legitimate form of government, the Popes nevertheless repeatedly condemn certain errors that have become increasingly associated with the concept, especially since the French Revolution.

In the eighteenth century, the so-called philosophers helped cause great social and political upheaval in France by spreading “new ideas.” Rousseau, for example, advanced the notion that authority originates in the people. The people then delegate their authority to the ruler and can revoke it whenever they so choose.

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In his encyclical Diuturnum Illud of June 29, 1881, Pope Leo XIII rejects this theory and categorically affirms:

Indeed, very many men of more recent times, walking in the footsteps of those who in a former age assumed to themselves the name of philosophers, say that all power comes from the people; so that those who exercise it in the State do so not as their own, but as delegated to them by the people, and that, by this rule, it can be revoked by the will of the very people by whom it was delegated. But from these, Catholics dissent, who affirm that the right to rule is from God, as from a natural and necessary principle.13

The same Pontiff also teaches that even when the people choose their ruler they do not confer authority on him, since authority comes from God: “And by this choice, in truth, the ruler is designated, but the rights of ruling are not thereby conferred. Nor is the authority delegated to him, but the person by whom it is to be exercised is determined upon.”14

The Pontiff presents numerous quotations from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as texts from the Fathers of the Church, to confirm the doctrine on the divine origin of authority.15

Egalitarian Concept of Democracy

Besides combating this error on the origin of governmental authority, the Popes also fight the underlying egalitarianism.

Leo XIII’s successor, Saint Pius X, condemns the false teaching of the French movement Le Sillon that democracy is the only legitimate form of government, since the other two are based on inequality and, therefore, injustice. The Pontiff says:

The Sillon,…therefore, sows amongst your Catholic youth erroneous and fatal notions upon authority, liberty and obedience. The same is to be said with regard to justice and equality. It strives, it says, to attain an era of equality, which, owing to that fact alone, would be an era of greater justice. Thus to it every inequality of condition is an injustice, or at least a diminution of justice! A principle supremely contrary to the nature of things, productive of envy and injustice and subversive of all social order. Thus democracy alone will inaugurate the reign of perfect justice! Is it not an insult to other forms of government, which are thus degraded to the rank of wretched incapables? Moreover, the Sillon goes contrary to this point in the teaching of Leo XIII.… Therefore, in teaching that justice is compatible with the three forms of government referred to, it [Leo XIII’s Encyclical Au Milieu des Sollicitudes] taught that in this respect democracy does not enjoy a special privilege. The Sillonists who contend to the contrary either refuse to hear the Church or form to themselves a conception which is not Catholic with regard to justice and equality.16

In his Christmas message of 1944, Pius XII condemns egalitarianism and makes the celebrated distinction between the people and the masses.

In a people worthy of the name all inequalities based not on whim but on the nature of things, inequalities of culture, possessions, social standing—without, of course, prejudice to justice and mutual charity—do not constitute any obstacle to the existence and the prevalence of a true spirit of union and fraternity.

On the contrary, far from impairing civil equality in any way, they give it its true meaning: namely, that before the state everyone has the right to live honorably his own personal life in the place and under the conditions in which the designs and dispositions of Providence have placed him.17

“Democracy” as an Antonym to Totalitarianism

It is also important to note another misuse of the word democracy.

The rise of dictatorships in Europe in the 1930s popularized a tendency which already existed in the nineteenth century to use the noun democracy as a synonym of liberty and an antonym of totalitarianism. This tendency became more firmly established during the Cold War to the point that even Popes have occasionally used the word in this broader sense, as opposed to its limited technical meaning designating a form of government.

According to Pius XII, the word democracy, used in this broad sense, “admits the various forms [of government] and can be realized in monarchies as well as republics.”18 The Pontiff also says: “With its pleiad of flourishing democratic communities, the Christian Middle Ages, particularly imbued with the spirit of the Church, showed that the Christian Faith knows how to create a true and proper democracy.”19

This broadening of the meaning of democracy can cause confusion. Failure to distinguish between the two uses of the word can lead one inadvertently to the condemned Sillonist position that democracy is the only form of government synonymous with liberty.

Hence the emergence of a certain wariness about and even rejection of the other legitimate forms of government. Monarchy and aristocracy are seen as regimes lacking liberty. The conceptual distortion of democracy is dangerous since it obstructs people’s understanding of the Church’s own form of government and predisposes them to accept the reformists’ clamors for a “democratic” Church as a legitimate alternative option.

The Church Is a Monarchy by the Will of Our Lord

Having thus recalled Church teaching on the forms of government and the condemned modern errors related to democracy, the Church’s form of government must now be analyzed.

In his book On the Roman Pontiff, in the chapter titled “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Monarchy of the Roman Pontiff,”20 Saint Robert Bellarmine lambastes the Protestants who, by rejecting the Primacy of Saint Peter and the Sacrament of Holy Orders, deny the Church’s hierarchical and monarchic nature.

Saint Robert Bellarmine analyzes the forms of government as such, weighing their advantages and disadvantages, and concludes that the best one in thesis is monarchy. He then goes on to ask what form of government—aristocratic, democratic, or monarchic—would be most fitting for the Church.

After careful analysis, based on the Scriptures and Doctors of the Church, he concludes that it is monarchy:

If monarchy is the best and most excellent government, as above we have shown, and it is certain that the Church of God, instituted by the most sapient prince Christ, ought to [be] best governed, who can deny that the government of it ought to be a monarchy?21

Following Saint Robert Bellarmine, Fr. Christian Pesch affirms the common teaching of theologians: “The society established by Christ is a monarchic society.”22

The Church Cannot Change Her Hierarchical Structure Instituted by Christ
“Christ specifically chose the monarchic regime for the Church and designated the person of Saint Peter as the subject of supreme authority” (Fr. Joachim Salaverri). Photo Credit: Kenneth Drake.

The Church Is a “Full and Perfect Monarchy”

If the Church has a monarchical form of government, it is important to know what kind of monarchy. Is it an absolute monarchy? A constitutional monarchy? A tempered monarchy like the organic monarchy of the Middle Ages?

Louis Cardinal Billot, S.J., makes a masterful analysis of this important issue. Following established custom, he first examines the forms of government as such according to the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Robert Bellarmine, Fr. Francisco Suárez, S.J., and other Scholastics, and then compares them to the Church’s form of government.

In passing, Cardinal Billot analyzes the “divine right of kings” theory and distinguishes it from the Church’s form of government. This theory maintained that God directly designates the sovereign, as happened in the Old Testament, and that kings, therefore, are answerable to Him alone.23

The “divine right of kings” was totally refuted by Catholic Doctors, especially Saint Robert Bellarmine and Suárez. These Doctors (whose doctrine was endorsed by the Popes) argue that while all authority comes from God, He does not directly designate either the holder of this authority or the temporal sphere’s form of government. This is left to historical circumstances and custom.

Nonetheless, says Cardinal Billot, while this is true in the temporal political sphere, that is, in societies derived from the natural order, it is not true for the Church, a society of divine origin. Indeed, he states that the Church was not born from the bottom up like civil society but was founded from the top down, directly by Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who established Her definitive form.

The scholarly Cardinal explains:

For authority [in the Church] comes directly from God through Christ, and from Christ to his Vicar, and from the Vicar of Christ it descends to the remaining prelates without the intervention of any other physical or moral person.”24

Continuing his analysis, Cardinal Billot distinguishes the Church’s form of monarchy from that suggested by Saint Thomas as the best form of government for men. The Church’s form of monarchy is pure, not mixed or tempered, he explains, because the Pope’s authority over the Universal Church is total and direct; it is not limited. The only authority above the Pope’s is that of God Himself.25

Nevertheless, the Church’s monarchy is not an absolute monarchy, Cardinal Billot explains, since bishops are not mere delegates of the Pope. Bishops enjoy an ordinary and immediate authority over their dioceses, though in submission to the Sovereign Pontiff.26

Thus, Cardinal Billot reasons, the Church’s form of government is that of a “pure monarchy coupled with an aristocracy.”27 Cardinal Billot calls this a “full and perfect monarchy.” His concluding definition reads, “by divine institution, the Church’s form of government is that of a full and perfect monarchy.”28

The Primacy of Peter Is the Theological Foundation for Pontifical Monarchy

This monarchy of the Church has its theological foundation in the Primacy of Saint Peter.

Father Salaverri attests to this: “On the institution of the Church as a monarchy: Christ specifically chose the monarchic regime for the Church and designated the person of Saint Peter as the subject of supreme authority.”29 Father Pesch does likewise: “Christ, by establishing the apostolic college under the primacy of Peter, with authority of jurisdiction and order, founded a religious, hierarchical, and monarchic society that we call His Church.”30

The Church Cannot Change Her Hierarchical Structure Instituted by Christ

Modernists Denied That the Early Church Was a Monarchy

On December 26, 1910, Saint Pius X, in the Letter Ex quo, nono labente to the Apostolic Delegates of the Orient, condemned the modernist theory that the early Church did not have a monarchic form of government:

“No less falsely we are asked to believe that in the first centuries the Catholic Church was not the government of one man, that is a monarchy; that the primacy of the Roman Church is not founded on any valid arguments.”31

The Church’s “Full and Perfect Monarchy” Will Last Until the End of Time

This “full and perfect monarchy” of the Church cannot change.

Cardinal Billot explains in the study mentioned above that the Church’s form of government was established by God not in an indirect and indistinct manner as was the case in the civil sphere, but in a direct and precise manner. Thus, it is perfect and permanent. It cannot be modified.32

On this unchangeability, Leo XIII teaches:

Only the Church of Jesus Christ has been able to preserve, and surely will preserve unto the consummation of time, her form of government. Founded by Him Who was, Who is, and Who will be forever (Heb. 13:8), She has received from Him, since Her very origin, all that She requires for the pursuing of Her divine mission across the changeable ocean of human affairs. And, far from wishing to transform Her essential constitution, She has not the power even to relinquish the conditions of true liberty and sovereign independence with which Providence has endowed Her in the general interest of souls.”33

The Church Is Not a Democracy

The Church never was, is not, and never will be a democracy. Her form of government as instituted by Our Lord is that of a full and perfect monarchy. Were this to change, She would no longer be the Church.

Thus, quoting Cardinal Journet once again, “to call the Church’s government ‘democratic’ is certainly wrong.”34


This article is a chapter of the book, I Have Weathered Other Storms: A Response to the Scandals and Democratic Reforms That Threaten the Catholic Church by the TFP Committee on American Issues.


  1. Salaverri, De Ecclesia Christi, in VV.AA, Sacrae Theologiae Summa, Vol. I, p. 543.
  2. Fr. Adrien Gréa, De L’Église et de Sa Divine Constitution (Brussels: Société Génerale de Librarie Catholique, 1885), p.100.
  3. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974), p. 276.
  4. Denzinger, no. 966.
  5. The Church has two hierarchies by divine institution: the Hierarchy of Order, and the Hierarchy of Jurisdiction. The first is focused on the sanctification of souls through the celebration of the Mass and the administration of the Sacraments. To it belong bishops, priests, and deacons. The second is focused on governing the faithful toward salvation by an authoritative teaching of the Faith, the promulgation of laws, the issuing of legal judgments, and the application of canonical penalties (powers to teach, legislate, judge, and enforce); to this Hierarchy of Jurisdiction belong the Pope and the bishops in the external forum and authorized confessors exclusively in the internal forum. (Cf. s.v. Ecclesia docens, Ecclesia discens, and “Hierarchy” in Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, pp. 83, 124-125; Salaverri, De Ecclesia Christi, in VV.AA, Sacrae Theologiae Summa, Vol. I, no. 344).
    There is also a third hierarchy called the Hierarchy of Honor, established by the Church Herself. This hierarchy is made up by all ecclesiastical dignitaries according to the precedence and liturgical honors to which they are entitled. At the head of this hierarchy is, evidently, the Pope, who in addition to the primacy of jurisdiction also holds the primacy of honor. The Pope is followed by the cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, primates, bishops, monsignors, canons, and other dignitaries, both in the Latin and Eastern rites.
  6. See the Introduction.
  7. Canon 194 (1983 Code); Canon 2314, § 1 (1917 Code).
  8. St. Thomas Aquinas states: “If the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.” Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 33, a. 4, ad 2.
  9. Cf. Canon 212, § 3.
  10. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1960), Book IV, p. 291. This is the common thought of Catholic authors and is taught by the Popes. See Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII (York, Penn.: The American TFP, 1993), Appendix IV, pp. 391-418.
  11. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Governance of Rulers, Gerald Phelan, trans. (Toronto: St. Michael’s College Philosophy Texts, 1935), pp. 37-39.
  12. Leo XIII, Encyclical Immortale Dei, no. 21.
  13. Leo XIII, Encyclical Diuturnum Illud, in Joseph Husslein, S.J., Ed., Social Wellsprings: Fourteen Epochal Documents by Pope Leo XIII (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1940), p. 50.
  14. Ibid., p. 51.
  15. Ibid., pp. 51-52.
  16. Pius X, Apostolic Letter Notre Charge Apostolique, in American Catholic Quarterly Review, Oct. 1910, pp. 700-701.
  17. Vincent A. Yzermans, ed., The Major Addresses of Pope Pius XII (St. Paul: North Central Publishing Co., 1961), Vol. 2, pp. 81-82.
  18. Ibid., pp. 80, 82.
  19. Pius XII, “Inaugurazione dell’Anno Giuridico della Sacra Romana Rota,” in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi di Sua Santità Pio XII (Vatican: Tipografia Poliglota Vaticana, 1964), Vol. VII, p. 206.
  20. St. Robert Bellarmine, in Bellarmine Extracts on Politics and Government from the Supreme Pontiff from Third General Controversy, George Albert Moore, Trans., Ed. (Chevy Chase, Md: The Country Dollar Press, undated).
  21. Ibid., p. 37.
  22. Christian Pesch, S. J., “De Ecclesia Christi” in Compendium Theologiae Dogmaticae, Vol. I, p. 141. Cf. J.M. Hervé, Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae (Paris: Berche et Pagis, Editores, 1952), Vol. I, pp. 306, 336, 345; L. Lercher, S.J., Institutiones Theologiae Dogmaticae (Barcelona: Herder, 1945), Vol. I, p. 163; also, Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, Vol. I, pp. 422-423.
  23. This theory was adopted by certain Protestant rulers. In England, for example, it was adopted particularly by James I and his son, Charles I.
  24. Louis Cardinal Billot, S.J., Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi (Rome: Aedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1927), Vol. 1. p. 524.
  25. To say that the authority of the Pope is limited by no other authority on earth does not mean it is discretionary or arbitrary. The Pope, like every man, is subject to moral precepts and especially to the obligations of his office. In other words, as Vicar of Christ, he may not impose his own will on the Church. He can only carry out the will of the One he represents. The will of Christ is clearly manifested in the New Testament, in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and in the documents issued by the ordinary and extraordinary Magisterium of the Church. It is made even more explicit by Catholic theology.
  26. On the direct authority of the Pope over the whole Church, St. Thomas asks how it is possible for a dual jurisdiction, that of the Pope and that of the bishop, to be exerted over the same diocese and the same faithful. He explains that if the two jurisdictions were equal, there would be a conflict and it would not be possible. But this is not the case, since the jurisdictions of the Pope and the bishop are distinct: The first is superior and principal, the second is inferior and subordinate. Both have the same end, and function in harmony (In IV Sententiarum, D. 17, Q.3 a.3., q. 5 ad 3um, in Billot, Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi, p. 644).
  27. Monarchia pura aristocratiae coniuncta.” Billot, Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi, p. 531.
  28. Et ideo regimen Ecclesiae dicendum est divina institutione exactum ad formam plenae perfectaeque monarchiae,” ibid., p. 535. Our emphasis.
  29. Salaverri, De Ecclesia Christi, inVV.AA, Sacrae Theologiae Summa,Vol. I, no. 162.
  30. Pesch, “De Ecclesia Christi” in Compendium Theologiae Dogmaticae, p. 145.
  31. The Monks of Solesmes, The Church (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1980) p. 392.
  32. Billot, Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi, p. 526.
  33. Leo XIII, Encyclical Au Milieu de Sollicitudes, Feb. 16, 1892, n. 17.
  34. Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, Vol. I, p. 422.

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