Pope Francis has called for Palestine to be recognized as a nation, spoken skeptically on capitalism, called for the recognition of global warming as manmade, called for radical changes to the handling of annulments by the Catholic Church, and instituted reforms to the administration of the Vatican.
The actions and statements of the current Roman pontiff are not the signs of a changing church, as much of the media elite have gleefully proclaimed, but more accurately the byproduct of a different personality in the political driver’s seat of Rome, with different priorities than his predecessors.
The governance of the Roman Catholic Church is essentially unchanged since 737.
How is policy set, doctrine interpreted, and a decision made all the way down to your local parish? Here is the must-know breakdown of how the Catholic Church works.
As the Supreme Pontiff of the Holy See, the pope has wide authority over the day-to-day operations of the church. The pope sets many policies that can easily be reversed by a successor. These policies, like the recognition of Palestine as a state, do not fall under the infallibility of the pope. Only proclamations on issues of faith and morals pronounced according to strict procedure (ex cathedra) become lasting infallible doctrines of the church.
Francis has not yet made any such proclamations. Most of the pope’s actions that have garnered public attention are the equivalent of an executive order from the president, or personal statements nonbinding in the governance of the church.
Roman Curia of the Holy See
The executive administration of the Catholic Church is the Roman Curia. The Curia contains offices responsible for managing the politics of the church, the inner workings, the relationships with other faiths, the maintenance of common doctrine, the academies and colleges of the Vatican, the court system and others. Pope Francis has instituted restructuring of some Curia offices to crack down on perceived corruption.
College of Bishops
The supreme legislative body of the Catholic Church, the College of Bishops, is deemed the direct descendants of the apostles. Major interpretations of doctrine resulting in substantive policy changes in the church must be made through this body in what is called an ecumenical council (a called meeting of all the world’s bishops). The last ecumenical council was Vatican II, which ended in 1965, most remembered for subsequently allowing the liturgy to be performed in the vernacular.
College of Cardinals
The cardinals form the chief advisory body for the executive branch of the church. Most cardinals hold leadership roles in the Roman Curia, or oversee the administration as bishops of areas of major importance. The pope appoints bishops to be cardinals, and the cardinals in turn elect new popes. Out of 222 members of the college, there are 16 Americans.
The diocesan priest serves a local parish or church and is charged with shepherding the lay people of his community and administering the sacraments to them. The diocesan priests are often aided by deacons who run certain programs of that parish.
Superior General of a Religious Order
Separate from the authority of the bishops are the religious orders of the Catholic Church like the Dominicans, Franciscans, or Jesuits. There are 41 recognized orders ranging in size from fewer than 20 members to orders numbering in the tens of thousands. Each of these orders have a chief executive, referred to collectively as a superior general, though most have their own unique titles for the office. That executive reports directly to the pope.
Most larger religious orders designate executives to administer the members and communities of that order in a particular region, called a province. The provincial answers to the superior general, who in turn answers to Rome.
Superior of the Congregation
Each individual community of a religious order, whether it’s a monastery, college, or some other congregation, has a superior, or abbott, as its administrator.
The pope as political figure oversees a huge, global organization with a complex governing structure, but when you hear the punditry proclaim a new era of the Catholic Church is upon us, keep in mind the set perimeters of the church in regards to faith and morals are the same as they’ve always been.