Authority in the Church:
Teaching and Governing

Return to Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index
Home Page

". . . the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15).

Christ gave his apostles a supernatural authority.  He also said very solemnly: "All authority in Heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. . ." (Mt 28:18-19).  He thus commissioned the apostles to teach and govern his Church with Peter at their head.

The Pope and the bishops as their successors form the Church's hierarchy.  A hierarchy is a ranking of those in authority.  This ranking in the Church comes to us from Christ.  The basic structure was laid down by him and, as the Church grew, the structure was expanded and developed.

At the head of this hierarchy is the Pope, the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome and the head of the universal Church.  The Pope has primacy, or the "first place", in the Church.  He holds the primary authority to teach, govern, and sanctify all members of the Church.  The Pope is the visible head of the Church.  He represents Christ, the invisible head.

United with the Pope in governing the Church are the successors of the apostles, the bishops.  With the Pope the bishops are the most important authorities and teachers in the Church.  Each bishop is a shepherd, deriving his authority from Christ, and he is responsible for governing the local church, one portion of the whole flock.

This is a pastoral work to which they dedicate themselves.  It is important for us to understand that in governing they are performing a great service for our salvation.  The shepherds are serving their flock, following the example of humble service which was given when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  In fact, one of the Pope's titles is Servus Servorum Dei, which means "servant of the servants of God".

The Pope and the bishops exercise their authority whenever they teach the faithful in their care.  Our Lord commanded his apostles to teach all that he had taught.  Consequently, the bishops as their successors are fulfilling Our Lord's command when they exercise their teaching office.

Freedom, Authority, and Truth

Freedom is one of the values we most cherish.  It is given to us by God and belongs to human dignity.  The Church is the great defender of human freedom.  You might think that because there is a teaching authority in the Church, you have less freedom.  We have to think whether we mean freedom from reality or freedom within reality.  Many people confuse the two.  It would, for instance, be foolish to ignore the reality of the law of gravity and in the name of freedom walk off the roof of a skyscraper.  You want to live in reality and not in a fantasy world, which means you want to know the truth.

So it is a gift of God's mercy to have an authority whose teaching, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is truth.  Christ said: "The truth shall make you free" (Jn 8:32).

Free from Error

Because the teachings of Jesus Christ showed the way to eternal salvation, it was extremely important that they remain in their essentials free from error.  And so, Our Lord promised the Church, ". . . I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20).  He also promised to send the Holy Spirit, who ". . . will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (Jn 4:26). 

With these and other words Our Lord left his Church with the great gift of infallibility.  Infallibility means that the constant teaching of the Church about matters of faith or morals, as contained in the deposit of divine revelation, will be free from error.  This infallibility was given to the whole Church for our benefit so that we could have certainty of truth.  If we reflect briefly on the history of the Church, we will see that, even in times of great confusion, the Church's teaching remained essentially unchanged.  Why?  There is only one explanation - the Holy Spirit given to the Church by Christ has protected and guided the teaching authority of the Church.

Infallibility belongs to the whole Church, which means that the true Church of Christ can never teach a doctrine that is contrary to what Christ taught.  But infallibility also belongs in a special way to the legitimate authorities of the Church - the Pope and the bishops.  Whenever the bishops in union with the Pope teach or proclaim a matter of faith or morals as something which must be definitively held, these teachings are infallible.  The bishops with the Pope reaffirm in their own dioceses the constant and certain teachings of the Church on matters of faith and morals.

Infallibility of the Pope

Infallibility also belongs in an even more special way to the successor of St. Peter, the Pope.  When the Pope speaks alone is he always infallible?  Obviously not.  He is infallible in very definite circumstances.  For instance, he is infallible when the following conditions - which are called extraordinary - are met: (1) the Pope must be speaking on matters of faith or morals; (2) he must be speaking to the whole Church, not a particular group or segment of the Church; (3) he must be speaking ex cathedra (literally, from the chair of authority), which means he is speaking as Pope, not merely as a bishop or member of the Church; and (4) he must be intending to use his authority to pronounce an unchangeable decision.

The doctrine of papal infallibility has been accepted, at least implicitly, by the Church from the beginning.  It follows from Christ's promise to St. Peter making him the head of the Church.  To preserve effectively the teachings of Christ, St. Peter and his successors would need this guarantee from Christ.  It was not, however, defined, or officially declared a dogma of the Church, until 1870 at the First Vatican Council.  (This represents an example of the development of doctrine.  Pius XII used this gift when the doctrine of Our Lady's Assumption was declared in this manner in 1950.  Pius IX exercised this same authority when he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, before Vatican I.

Thus two Popes, almost a century apart, defined on their own authority a dogma of faith, one definition coming before and one after the dogma of papal infallibility itself was defined.  This illustrates an important point.  A formal, infallible definition, either by the Pope himself or by a general council of the Church, introduces no new teaching, no new doctrine.  The Pope is not infallible because a general council said so; on the contrary, a general council could say so only because the Pope is infallible and the Church has always believed it.  Our Lady's Immaculate Conception and Assumption are not true because a Pope declared them so; a Pope could declare them so because they are true and the Church has always believed them.  Such pronouncements are simply formal and final definitions of doctrines always held by the Church.

It is important to note two things about papal infallibility.  First, not everything the Pope says is infallible.  He must be speaking according to the conditions laid down.  It follows that his private opinions or statements, even those on faith or morals, are not infallible.  It is only when he speaks as the Vicar of Christ that he can speak infallibly.  Second, infallibility should not be confused with sinless ness, or impeccability, on the part of the Pope.  the Pope is a human being and, like all of us, he can sin.  There have, in fact, been times in the past when we had sinful Popes.  We have been blessed in recent centuries with Popes whose personal holiness is great; in fact, one of them, Pius X, is a canonized saint.  Thus, we sometimes expect sinless ness in the Pope and confuse this notion with infallibility. 


The teaching office of the Church, known as the magisterium, is exercised in two ways: extra-ordinary and ordinary.  The extraordinary magisterium refers to the solemn and formal exercise of the teaching office of the Pope and the bishops and it is always authoritative.  It is infallible when the Pope alone ex cathedra, or a general council of the bishops of the world with the Pope, defines or proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.  We have already seen that both of these are rare; there have been twenty-one general councils in approximately two thousand years, and not every one of these councils has proclaimed infallible doctrine. 

The ordinary magisterium refers to the normal, regular exercise of the Church's teaching office, and it, too, is always authoritative.  For this, various forms of communication have been used throughout history.  In our times we see the ordinary magisterium used in encyclical letters of the Pope, statements from synods (meetings of some bishops with the Pope), and individual instruction from bishops to the faithful in their dioceses.

Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ. . .

When, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely (LG, 25).

The Church Governs

In this study of the Church's authority we have been concerned with matters of doctrine.  Doctrines of our faith are those elements that are the essential beliefs of our faith.  The creeds contain many of these doctrines.  But the authority of the Church is not limited to matters of doctrine, on faith and morals.  The Church also has authority to govern her members.  This authority is exercised in matters of discipline.  The Church, like any society, as the right and the need to formulate rules for her members for their own good, to lead them to holiness of life.  There rules do not pertain to our beliefs but to our actions.

If we look at some of our Church disciplines we can see how the Church governs us.  For example, the Church tells us that we may not eat meat on Ash Wednesday or the Fridays of Lent.  This is a matter of discipline and not part of our creed.  But we follow this rule because we believe that the Church should direct us in such matters for our spiritual good.  Another example is the Church law that requires us to fast (abstain from eating), except for good reason, for one hour before receiving Holy Communion.  Other examples of the Church's authority to govern are the obligation to participate in Mass on certain Holy Days and the rules concerning certain liturgical rites.  Each of these laws is a legitimate use of the Church's governing power to ensure that Christ's Church and her members will remain strong.

One further point should be made about the distinction between matters of discipline and matters of doctrine.  Matters of doctrine are those things in our faith that have been revealed to us by God and thus cannot be changed by us.  They cannot even be changed by those in authority in the Church.  But matters of discipline are those practices that have developed over time, laws made by the proper authorities, and thus they can be changed by them.  This has happened in the past and may well happen again.


We, as faithful Catholics, have an obligation to respond properly to the Church's authority.  We have an obligation to believe the doctrines of the faith if we wish to be members of the Church.  We will never completely understand the great mysteries of our faith.  They are rich in meaning and above us, and we must strive to learn more about them, to love them, to study them, and to exercise the virtue of faith.

In matters of discipline we must be obedient.  Obedience means that we should comply with the will of another who has the authority to command us.  We have already seen that the Church has such authority from Christ.  Remember that the Church speaks for Christ; the obedience and respect that we show to Christ's representatives are the same obedience and respect we would show to Christ himself.

There may be times when a particular Church law seems unclear or unwise to us.  What do we do then?  The following analogy will help you understand.  The quarterback on a foot team is in a position of authority, and the rest of the team must listen to him and obey him when he calls the play.  In fact, they trust him to make his calls wisely.  While they must understand the calls, it is not necessary that they understand why he calls a particular play at a certain time.  The other players try to understand why a call is made, but if they cannot they assume that the quarterback knows what he is doing.  In order to win the game they must follow his directions.

The faithful in the Church must act like the players on a football team.  We should strive to understand the spirit that animates the law and then obey it.  If we cannot understand it right away, we must presume that those in authority do. This is not blind obedience, for we have first tried to understand and then submitted ourselves to those who do.  We should try to understand the Church's laws and to obey them in a spirit of charity.  The authority of the Church comes from Christ, who told his apostles that his power was being given to them. 

Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

Return to Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index
Home Page