Church Organization
Church Organization

Catholic Church Organization

The COUNCIL OF TRENT did not implement any changes to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (these, however, were implemented by reforms on a national basis, such as the Spanish church reform of 1495, the Netherlands church reform of 1559 etc.). At the top of the Catholic Church, of course was the POPE, elected for lifetime by a council of CARDINALS referred to as CONCLAVE. As Italy had a higher density of bishoprics and as many non-Italian bishops shunned the effort to travel to Italy, conclaves were dominated by Italian bishops, and usually Italians were elected popes.
Only the pope had the power to appoint cardinals, usually from the rank of bishops; popes at times appointed lower-rank clergymen or even laymen cardinals, because they were relatives (nepotism) or because the popes were bribed. The Council of Trent attempted to abolish these malpractices by emphasizing church discipline; however as there was no instance supervising papal action, the abuses continued.
Popes had wide-ranging powers, they could excommunicate individuals, give guidelines to the entire Catholic clergy (unually in the form of ENCYCLICALS, silence individual priests by ordering them to stop preaching etc.

The only official function of a Cardinal was his right to participate in a Conclave. Many Cardinals served in the papal administration or in papal diplomacy (as PAPAL LEGATE or NUNCIO).

The next level in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is that of the ARCHBISHOP. In the middle ages, countries were concerned about their political independence and NATIONAL CHURCHES emerged. The top-ranking official in such a national church is (respectively are) the archbishop(s). An archbishop has some disciplinary authority over his suffragan bishops; his district of responsibility is referred to as ARCHDIOCESIS.

The BISHOPS are responsible for the clergy and the monasteries in their respective districts referred to as DIOCESES (sing.: diocesis). They could take disciplinary measures against individual monks; for instance Archbishop Albrecht II. of Mainz ordered Tetzel to stop selling letters of indulgence and to return in his monastery. They also could (and did) send guidelines in form of PASTORAL LETTERS, to be read during mass by the priests of their diocesis.

PRIESTS were responsible of the respective PARISH.

In the high middle ages, Kings were dependent on bishops and abbots to help in state administration, as the kings lacked proper education. In those days, service was paid for in land; over time these fiefs had become hereditary (i.e. permanent property of the holder of the resppective church office, i.e. the bishop, abbot etc.). So the Bishop of M&UUml;nster, for instance, was bishop over a diocese and secular territorial lord over what is referred to as the STIFT or PRINCEBISHOPRIC OF MÜNSTER. This, however, was not within his function as clergyman, rather a historical coincidence.

Candidates for the positions of priests, bishops etc. had to undergo an education, as well as to take vows and be ordained.

There were exceptions - bishoprics or monasteries EXEMPTED from an archdiocesis; MILITANT ORDERS which had the function of a diocesis or archdiocesis (in Spain these were deprived of these responsibilities by the CHURCH REFORM of 1495.

The INQUISITION was an institution redefined by the Council of Trent, given a far-reaching authority of supervising the belief of the population in order to eliminate heresy. It was abolished during the 18th, in some countries during the early 19th century.

The Catholic UNIVERSITIES had a function too, often asked to give their experties as to if certain publications contained heretic concepts or not; the universities could place publications on the INDEX LIBRORUM PROHIBITORUM. Universities were church institutions; the concept of state universities or privately (i.e. not church) owned universities is a child of the ENLIGHTENMENT.


This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on January 10th 2003, last revised on November 15th 2004

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