Hurray for hierarchy

Monday, 25 March 2013 00:16 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Last week, the whole world witnessed the ordination of a new Catholic Pope with many firsts. After almost thousand years, the papal legacy has shifted from Europe to Latin America. Some even speculated the remote possibility of an Asian Pope or in some media a Sri Lankan Pope.

It is an opportune time to have a managerial and structural look at the Catholic Church, specially focusing on the often criticised term, hierarchy. Today’s column is an amateur attempt to do so from a non-theological but a pragmatic perspective.


Around 340,000 people have gathered in Vatican Square to attend the inauguration mass for the new Pope Francis, formerly known as Jorge Mario Borgoglio, chosen last week by his fellow cardinals is heading for change. He is the 266th and current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, elected on 13 March 2013. As such, he is both head of the Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State.

Pope Francis inherits one of the world’s oldest hierarchies. The experts say there are only two consistent long-standing hierarchies in the world. One is military. The other is the Catholic Church. Let’s look at the details of the latter.

Hierarchy in focus

According to dictionary definitions, hierarchy is any system of persons or things ranked one above another. It is also a way of governance. It can further be described as an organised body of ecclesiastical officials in successive ranks or orders. It origins lie in the Greek term hierarches, meaning ‘leader of sacred rites’.

A hierarchy can link entities either directly or indirectly, and either vertically or horizontally. It connects subordinates to superiors showing the reporting relationships. It is a vital part of the broad managerial pillar called organising.

Organising is important because it follows the management function of planning. Planning and strategy define what to do; organising defines how to do it. Organisation structure is a tool that managers use to harness resources for getting things accomplished. It can also be described as the deployment of organisational resources to achieve strategic goals.

This is reflected in the organisation’s division of labour into specific departments and jobs, formal lines of authority, and mechanisms for coordinating diverse organisation tasks. Work specialisation, sometimes called division of labour, is the degree to which organisational tasks are subdivided into separate jobs.

Centralisation and decentralisation pertain to the hierarchical level at which decisions are made. Centralisation means that decision authority is located near the top of the organisation. With decentralisation, decision authority is pushed downward to lower organisation levels. In the Catholic Church, a heavy focus on centralisation can be seen, with Rome playing a dominant role.

Hierarchy in the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church describes as its hierarchy its bishops, priests and deacons. In the Church context, which is commonly referred to as the ecclesiastical context, the term ‘hierarchy’ commonly means the body of persons who exercise authority within a Christian church. In the Catholic Church, authority rests chiefly with the bishops, while priests and deacons serve as their assistants, co-workers or helpers.

The Catholic Church comprised, more than 2800 dioceses, each overseen by a bishop. Dioceses are divided into individual communities called parishes, each staffed by one or more priests. Priests may be assisted by deacons. All clergy, including deacons, priests, and bishops, may preach, teach, baptise, witness marriages and conduct funeral liturgies. Only priests and bishops can celebrate the sacraments of the Eucharist (though others may be ministers of Holy Communion), Reconciliation (Penance), Confirmation (priests may administer this sacrament with prior ecclesiastical approval), and Anointing of the Sick. Only bishops can administer the sacrament of Holy Orders, which ordains someone into the clergy.

The common understanding is that everyone who is “baptised” is a part of Catholic Church. For the sake of categorisation and clarity, it becomes necessary to segregate these people associated with the church into groups and reporting relationships.

Liturgical ranks range downward: Bishop, Priest and Deacon. Only a bishop may administer the Sacrament of Holy Orders and is the preferred minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation. He is the only one empowered to absolve someone who is under excommunication for abortion. A priest may administer the other five and Confirmation under special circumstances. A Deacon may assist in the Mass, parish duties, and preach the Gospel.

Command and control

The chain of command essentially is an unbroken line of authority that links all persons in an organisation and shows who reports to whom. The span of management is the number of employees reporting to a supervisor. Sometimes called the span of control, this characteristic of structure determines how closely a supervisor can monitor subordinates. The average span of control used in an organisation determines whether the structure is tall or flat. A tall structure has an overall narrow span and more hierarchical levels. A flat structure has a wide span, is horizontally dispersed, and has fewer hierarchical levels. What Pope Francis inherits has a tall structure having six essential layers. Figure 1 shows the details.

As we know, the Pope is the head of the church, based at the Vatican. Catholics believe that the Pope is infallible in defining matters of faith and morals.

Cardinals are appointed by the Pope. Around 180 cardinals worldwide make up the College of Cardinals. As a body, it advises the Pope and, on his death, elects a new pope. That’s what we saw happening recently. The archbishop is a bishop of a main or metropolitan diocese, also called an archdiocese. A cardinal can concurrently hold the title.

A bishop, like a priest, is ordained to a particular station. He is a teacher of church doctrine, a priest of sacred worship, and a minister of church government. A priest is an ordained minister who can administer most of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, baptism, and marriage. He can be with a particular religious order or committed to serving a congregation. A deacon can be either transitional or other. A transitional deacon is a seminarian studying for the priesthood. A permanent deacon can be married and assists a priest by performing some of the sacraments.

The laity obviously comprises the vast majority. According to the Census Bureau of USA, world has more than 1,185,000,000 Roman Catholics in the world. In fact one out of every six is a Roman Catholic. They are guided by the approach some often describe as “pray, pay and obey”.

Features of hierarchy in Catholic Church

I am aware of the sensitivity of the subject. What I did was to refer to the online sources referring to Modern Catholic Dictionary by Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J. According to him, the real head of Catholic Church is Jesus Christ. The Pope is Christ’s physical manifestation.

The first Pope is well known as St. Peter. The current Pope is the successor of the early apostles of Christ. Three powers are included under the Catholic hierarchy: teaching, pastoral, and sacerdotal. They correspond to the threefold office laid on Christ as man for the redemption of the world; the office of prophet or teacher, the pastoral or royal office of ruler, and the priestly office of sanctifying the faithful.

As the document further explains, Jesus transferred this threefold office, with the corresponding powers, to the Apostles and their successors. A man enters the hierarchy by Episcopal ordination when he receives the fullness of the priesthood. But he depends on collegial union with the Bishop of Rome and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy for actually being able to exercise the two other powers of teaching divine truth and of legitimately ruling the believers under his jurisdiction.

Managerial highlights of Catholic hierarchy

As one of my academic colleagues based in the UK remarked, God is much more useful than thousands of CCTVs, being omnipotent and omnipresent. The key controlling factor is the fear of God and adherence to the doctrines. Thus, faith-based controlling works very well in the Catholic Church.

As in the case of many hierarchies, it has its inherent shortcomings as well. Geographical diversity with associated complexities makes it difficult to cater for a changing world. The ongoing debate between ‘pro-life” (anti-abortion) and ‘pro-choice’ (for-abortion) groups is an example how Church faces a challenging times with regard to maintaining a balance traditions and modernity. Its male-dominant nature with no provision for women priesthood is another often criticised aspect.

For me it is paradoxical, as Catholic Church pays highest homage to Mary, the mother of Jesus and invites people to “come to her”. Such a maternal or feminine appeal should result in more scope for women to collaborate and contribute. Of course, we have glorious women of Mother Teresa’s fame, who silently devoted their lives for the betterment of humanity.

Way forward

The Catholic Church is an interesting case study for management learners. Despite issues, scandals and controversies, it has sustained itself for more than 2,000 years. With its clear mission with heaven in mind, it will move along, now with a new leadership. We in Sri Lanka with a 7% Catholic population can look forward to a meaningful engagement with a pro-poor Pope with fresh thinking, heading an age-old hierarchy.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on [email protected] or

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