What Hierarchy Really Means

What is Pope Francis doing, with his gestures, interviews, and wild synods? To understand this pope, we first need to understand the papacy. To do that, let us consider two versions of what “hierarchy” means.

In the first version, hierarchy simply means authority. Hierarchy means that the Pope is the main guy in the universal church, the priest is the main guy in the parish, and maybe the bishop ought to be the main guy in the metropolitan area.

An aspect of this view of hierarchy was expressed before the conclave that elected Francis, when several Catholic authors called for an “evangelizer-in-chief.” As the main guy, so the idea went, the Pope ought to be the public face of the Church to outsiders. On the one hand, that means he should have the best, clearest explanations. On the other hand, he should also be the most attractive example.

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Francis neatly falls into this discussion. His various gestures, on the one hand, have made him shockingly popular, so it seems he is trying to be evangelizer-in-chief by being the most attractive example. But on the other hand, his positions on many issues are quite unclear (at least for the majority, who do not read carefully). At best, he seems to be erring on the side of example, without clarity. At worst, he seems to be winning popularity in part through obscuring what makes Catholicism unpopular.

Behind this debate stands a certain mythology about St. John Paul II. He was handsome. We remember the huge outpouring of love and respect when he died. “Theology of the Body” (at least so the story goes) put Catholic sexual ethics in a popular key. JPII seemed to be the perfect evangelizer-in-chief: clear and popular.

But this mythology doesn’t match the history. In 2004, a year before he died, I was in a graduate seminar with an influential senior scholar. He was talking about the outpouring of love when John XXIII died, and he said—I’ll never forget—“there will be no such outpouring when this pope dies.” Until he died, John Paul II was not popular outside the Church. Part of the contrast with Francis is that JPII’s clarity, especially on sexual ethics, made him hated. Think of Sinead O’Connor tearing up his picture on Saturday Night Live. That was a popular gesture.

John Paul II was not evangelizer-in-chief. Rather, John Paul II was important not because he evangelized the culture, but because he evangelized the Church. He was not nearly as important to the outside as he was to the inside. To understand any pope—John Paul II, Francis, Benedict XVI, or anyone else—we need a different understanding of how the Church is “hierarchical.”

There is an old story in which Mother Teresa asked to be driven through the worst slums of a city, with the bishop of that city beside her. Several times she told the driver to stop, so she could go into the bars: to hand out rosaries and miraculous medals, and to scold the girls about how bad the boys are. Then one time she had the car stop, turned to the bishop, handed him her bundle of rosaries and medals, and said, “Now you do it.” This is the truly Catholic understanding of hierarchy: now you do it.

Properly speaking, a group with one leader and many followers is not a hierarchy. A hierarchy involves many levels. The top communicates to the bottom through intermediaries. As Francis has said, “Like the oil upon the head, that ran down upon the beard of Aaron: that went down to the hem of his garments” (Ps 133:2).

We often think of the Pope in terms of Jesus’s words to Peter after his confession of faith, “On this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). By itself, we might get the idea that everything takes its place by direct contact with the Pope. But the Tradition often focuses more on Jesus’s words to Peter at the Last Supper: “I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not; and when you are converted, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:32).

The traditional title for the Pope is not “evangelizer-in-chief” but “servant of the servants of God.” The Pope is the rock who holds the Church firm because he holds in place his brethren, the bishops, who are the “foundation” of “the household of God” (Eph 2:19-20). His central task is not to spread the Gospel, but to strengthen the bishops: to be servant to the servants. He must be missionary above all because he must teach everyone else to be missionary. Until very recently, the Pope did not even have the technology to speak to anyone outside his diocese except the bishops: he just sent them letters.

Nor is evangelization the most central task of the bishops. Their appointed task (as servants) is to keep the faithful strong, through clarity of doctrine, the administration of the sacraments, and governance that promotes true communion within the Church. And since the bishops cannot reach all the faithful, they work through the priests: the Catholic understanding of the presbyterate is precisely that they make the bishop present to the faithful. This is hierarchy.

Evangelization is the mission of all the faithful, each according to his particular gifts and opportunities. The Pope’s job is not to handle evangelization for us. The Pope’s job is, like Mother Teresa, to set an example, hand on the tools, and say to the rest of the Church, “Now you do it!”

This is what John Paul II did, and why his papacy was so enormously important to the modern history of the Church. He did not evangelize the world. He evangelized the evangelizers, encouraged a new generation of bishops, and spoke to the faithful who were listening. Theology of the Body taught the evangelizers. World Youth Day was not a “seeker-friendly” event: he told us, “do not be afraid to be the martyrs of the next millennium.”

St. John Paul II did his job, which is to preach to the choir. It is the choir’s job to internalize that preaching and pass it on to others, and so to bring others into the sacramental communion of the Church. The Mass is not supposed to be a popular, “seeker-friendly” event. It’s supposed to sanctify the faithful, evangelize the evangelizers.

“Preaching to the choir” is a term of abuse, because it implies you’re only speaking to those who already agree with you. But that’s nonsense, contrary to the whole Catholic way of life. “Choir” originally refers to the monks praying the liturgy. But the liturgy is endlessly repetitive: the same things, over and over again, year after year, month after month, week after week, day after day. Why all this repetition? Because it is the nature of the Christian life that we need to rediscover the faith again and again, in order for it to penetrate deeper and deeper into our souls. The choir needs preaching.

The same is true of the sacraments. Baptism and Confirmation may be once for all, but the Eucharist and Confession have to be repeated over and over again—because saints are formed through repetition. The choir needs preaching.

The central confusion about Pope Francis is based on this misunderstanding of hierarchy. Francis is accused of speaking unclearly to those outside the Church. But it is unclear whether Francis has even been speaking to those outside the Church. Even his interviews make most sense, not as a papal statement to the world (he has the technology to do that without the medium of an interviewer), but as an example, like Mother Teresa saying to the bishop, “now you do it.” He has shown us what it is like to sit with a non-believer and try to walk him gently towards faith. The point of the interview is not that now Francis has said everything there is to be said—the point is that he turns to the rest of us and says, “now you do it.” He is preaching to the choir.

And the choir needs preaching. Various Catholic voices have cried foul. It is remarkable how often those cries involve something along the lines of, “because of what Francis has done, people are coming to me and asking for explanations!” Well, yes. That is the obligation of every Catholic: to explain the faith to those who cross our path. It is not the job of the Pope to do this for us. It is the job of the Pope to encourage us to do it.

The fact that people are so bent out of shape about the Pope making us explain our faith suggests that we need more encouragement, not less. The choir needs preaching. We have clarity of teaching; what we need now is the encouragement to go out and preach.

The Synod was a mess, to be sure. But to what end? Was the Pope trying to send a message to the world? Or was the Pope doing his job, which is to demand that the bishops stand up and start acting like bishops: not by bickering about each other in the press, but by having a serious conversation with one another about their own vocation as bishops, and how they can better serve the faithful.

That the Synod went so badly is, to many, a sign that Francis shouldn’t have let it happen. But Francis, especially in his magnificent closing homily, seems to take it as a sign that the bishops need a lot more practice acting like bishops. They need the Pope, not to take the keys and walk away, but to hand them the rosaries and miraculous medals and tell them: “now you do it.” Go out into all the world and make disciples of all nations.


  • Eric Johnston

    Eric Johnston is a father of five who teaches theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University. His principal work is on Thomas Aquinas’s theology of marriage, as well as related topics in social thought and the theology of nature and grace. He blogs on spiritual theology at professorjohnston.com.

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