1. The ministers of the Church fall into three classes of distinct dignity and power: bishops, priests, and deacons (Council of Trent, 23 c. 4. Can. 6).
These were foreshadowed in the high priest, the priests, and the Levites of the Temple, as well as in Our Lord, the apostles, and disciples. To the apostles Our Lord said: “As the Father hath sent Me, so I send you” (John xx. 21); to the disciples merely: “Go, behold I send you” (Luke x. 3). The apostles were sent to all the nations of the earth (Matt. xxviii. 20); the disciples only to those places where the Lord was Himself to go (Luke x. 1). The bishops are now the successors of the apostles (Council of Trent, xxiii. 4); hence the bishops are of higher rank than priests because they belong to a higher order of the clergy and have higher orders; besides that they have greater powers, being the only real pastors of the flock, and in virtue of their jurisdiction deciding how far any one else may share in their government of those committed to their charge. “The bishop alone can give orders,” says St. Jerome, and according to St. Cyprian he is the only ordinary minister of Confirmation. The Council of Trent assigned to bishops many other privileges beyond those enjoyed by the other ministers of the Church. In addition they have a judicial vote in councils. Priests rank higher than deacons, having higher orders and greater powers; they can offer the holy sacrifice, and forgive sins, while deacons can only baptize, preach, and give communion.
2. This hierarchy was in force in the time of the apostles.
We see in the Scriptures Timothy appointed with powers to judge priests (1 Tim. v. 19), to ordain them (1 Tim. v. 22), and to appoint them to various cities (Tit. i. 5). St. Ignatius of Antioch (107 A.D.) names the three orders: “Let all obey the bishops as Jesus obeyed the Father; let them obey the priests as the apostles, and honor the deacons as being the messengers of God.” Similar expressions occur in Clement of Rome (100 A.D.), and Clement of Alexandria (217 A.D.). There was, however, a certain vagueness in the use of terms in the time of the apostles; priests were called “elders” or “overseers.” The former title owed its origin to the Jewish converts, the latter to the heathen. In every community there were several priests (1 Tim. iv. 14), of whom one was the superior or “high priest,” known in later times as the bishop. He was often called priest merely because he was in reality a priest; even the apostles Peter and John called themselves priests (1 Pet. v. 1; 2 John i. 1).
3. The episcopal and priestly office was instituted by Christ Himself; the diaconate by the apostles.
The deacons were appointed by the apostles to distribute alms, and were consecrated to this duty by the laying on of hands, accompanied with prayer (Acts vi. 6); they also had spiritual functions as preaching (as in the case of St. Stephen) and baptizing (as in the case of St. Philip). In the early ages there were also deaconesses widows who tended the sick and taught young girls. They were no part of the hierarchy, since it was a fixed principle in the Church that no woman should preach (1 Cor. xiv. 34), because she is subject to man and was first led astray in paradise (1 Tim. ii. 12, etc.).
4. Besides these three classes there are other degrees varying in their powers: for example, Pope, cardinals, archbishops.
The distribution of authority is the basis of this classification: all, without exception, owe obedience to the Pope; the bishop rules all the clergy of his diocese; the clergy are in authority over those committed to their charge (1 Pet. v. 5; Heb. xiii. 17). The Church has its differences of rank like an army (Council of Trent, xxiii. 24); without these grades it would be a society without organization.
This article, 6. THE HIERARCHY OF THE CHURCH is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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