Hierarchy of the Catholic Church: The Pope to the Laity

The Catholic Church is one of the most organized religious groups in the world. They have a well-established hierarchy with various members of the clergy holding very specific and highly defined roles. This hierarchical system allows the church to easily delegate tasks, handle disagreements and operate in a smooth and efficient manner. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church can be visualized as a pyramid with the Pope at the top-tier and the Laity at the bottom. All other positions fall somewhere in between the two.

The Pope

At the head of the Catholic Church is the Pope. He resides at the Vatican in the heart of Vatican City, an independent nation situated within the borders of Rome in Italy. The Pope is also known as the Holy See and Popes are said to be descendants of Paul, the original Pope appointed by Jesus. The Pope is the ultimate authority in the church and has the final say on all matters.

Ranking just below the Pope are Cardinals. They are considered the princes of the Church and are appointed by the Pope. When there is an opening for a new Cardinal, a candidate is chosen from the existing pool of bishops. The cardinals are part of the College of Cardinals, a special advisory group that works with the Pope. If the current Pope dies or is relieved of his duties, the College of Cardinals is responsible for choosing a successor. Only cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote. Cardinals can be identified by their red clothing and headwear.


Below cardinals are the archbishops. These are bishops that head metropolitan areas as well as those that do not. They typically oversee the activities of bishops, priests and deacons. Archbishops are there to support bishops, priests and other members of the clergy. They may occasionally participate in special services and events. Archbishops dress similarly to traditional bishops, though they may have additional tassels on their hats. Archbishops can hold important positions within the church including the roles of Apostolic Delegate, Apostolic Nuncio, Papal Legate, Patriarchal Vicar or Pontifical Delegate.


Bishops assist in ministries. They are higher ranking than priests, but lower ranking than archbishops. Archbishops are usually selected from a pool of qualifying bishop candidates. The roles and responsibilities of bishops vary from diocese to diocese, but can include supporting local priests, performing special services, performing funerals and any other number of tasks. The bishop is typically the first ranking member of the church that a member will contact after their own priest.


Priests are responsible for the day-to-day running of individual churches. They perform Sunday services and are the face of the church within the community. The priest is responsible for hearing confessions, counseling members and spreading the Word. They may perform community services both inside and outside of the church. Permission is required from the priest to use the church space for a special event such as a wedding or community function. Priests report directly to bishops.

Deacons are ordained ministers. They focus on direct service operations rather than pastoral duties. They may head outreach projects in urban areas that work with the poor or the needy. Their role is service-oriented, and deacons are usually assigned to a parish. In some churches, deacons may also serve a liturgical function in the absence of a priest, preaching homilies and non-Eucharistic liturgies or even performing a wedding, a funeral or a baptism. They may not hear confessions. A deacon may be labeled either a transitional deacon or a permanent deacon depending on whether or not he is aspiring to achieve priesthood.


At the bottom of the pyramid are the laity. This term refers to any member of the church. The term laity is derived from the Greek word Laos Theou, which means "People of God." All Christians are considered part of the laity and have the responsibility to spread the good Word. They share in the church's mission and are allowed the right to take on apostolic activities once baptized. Members of the laity may serve the church in pastoral, administrative or other capacities if they feel so inclined.

The strict structure and hierarchical categorization of the Catholic Church makes it easy for each member to know who to report to. This cuts down on confusion, eliminates repetition and helps to prevent conflict. The high degree of organization within the church has evolved over time and because the Catholic Church is one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, they've nearly perfected their hierarchy.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has remained constant for hundreds of years. The system has built-in rules regarding who is eligible to change ranks and who shall choose a successor in the event of a vacancy at any level. This strong structure forms the backbone of the Church and is one reason that the Catholic Church has persisted for so long.