Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church


This paper will discuss the role of the Bishop inside the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops are a key position of leadership in the largest Christian body in the world that has endured centuries of different climates and circumstances. To do that, this paper will look at three topics in regard to this office. Firstly, we will discuss how the office of the Bishop came about via Apostolic succession. Secondly, we will discuss the role Bishops play as a single collegial unit. Thirdly, we will discuss the role of Bishops inside the local church.

Bishops and the Apostles

The Roman Catholic Church is well known for their understanding on church leadership. It is prescribed that the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and the College of Bishops are successors of Peter and the Apostles respectively. During Vatican II,  the document Lumen Gentium further expressed and solidified an already accepted position. It is written:

Therefore, the Sacred Council teaches that Bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ. (Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, sec 20)

Lumen Gentium outlines the process of succession through the laying of hands  and of the Holy Spirit:

For the discharging of such great duties, the apostles were enriched by Christ with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, and they passed on this spiritual gift to their helpers by the imposition of hands, and it has been transmitted down to us in Episcopal consecration. (Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, sec 21)

Very much how the Apostles received the Holy Spirit during Pentecost, each Bishop is seen to continue the tradition that is written about in the New Testament when individuals are consecrated for service. As many of the Apostles had the Holy Spirit act through them, they were able to continue the work of Christ through preaching and teaching.

Because of this, the Roman Catholic Church considers their Bishops, their leaders of the local churches scattered around the world, as a key part of church that is to be honoured and respected amongst the laity. As the Apostles were seen to be guardians and messengers of the Gospel, so too are the Bishops of the church. They are to continue to work of the Apostles, promoting Christ and bringing people to salvation. It is also written in Lumen Gentium:

Bishops, as successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord, to whom was given all power in heaven and on earth, the mission to teach all nations and to preach the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain to salvation by faith, baptism and the fulfilment of the commandments. (Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, sec 24)

Lakeman , however, points out an inconsistency in the way the office of the Bishop is described in Lumen Gentium. Looking at section 18, we read:

Christ the Lord instituted in HIs church a variety of ministries, which work for the good of the whole body. (Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, sec 18)

On the other hand, later in section 20, we read:

For they (the Apostles) not only had helpers in their ministry, but also, in order that the mission assigned to them might continue after their death, they passed on to their immediate cooperators, as if were, in the form of a testament, the duty of confirming and finishing the work begun by themselves, recommending to them that they attend to the whole flocking which the Holy Spirit placed them to shepherd the CHurch of God (Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, sec 20)

The distinction between Christ appointing the Apostles, and perhaps other ministers, and the Apostles appointing their successors leads Lakeman to make this note:

This time the office of Bishop is seen as a prudential historical decision of the apostles in order to ensure the future progress of the CHurch, not as an office already foreseen by Jesus in his establishment of the apostolic college. (Lakeman, 2013)

Hence, the office of Bishop should be seen, as by the Roman Catholics, as a development of history and necessity rather than a directive from Christ. Since the Apostles would eventually pass away, the successors would continue their good work in teaching and pastoring the church. In Scripture, Christ can been seen to charge the Apostles to “make disciples of all nations” but does not explicitly promise to “be with with you” to anyone apart from the Apostles.

However, later in the book of Acts, the Apostles can be seen to lay hands and commission individuals for the service of the Gospel and continue their work of preaching and pastoring the Early Church.

It can be seen that the leadership inside the Roman Catholic Church goes beyond administrative and logistic duties. Because of the special status afforded to the Bishops, as the Apostles successors, those leading the church are seen to do so through their teaching and pastoring of the many churches around the world.

College of Bishops

Bishops in the Roman Catholic church are seen to form a united body, with the Pope as their head. In the Lumen Gentium:

Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the Bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. (Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, sec 22)

Consequently, Bishops will find themselves a member of two Christian bodies. First as a member of this College where the Pope is the head, and secondly as a leader of their local church whom they pastor and preach to. Gaillardetz notes this and writes:

The council’s placement of the Bishop at the center of the local church stands in a certain tension with the council’s teaching that the first effect of ordination is to introduce the Bishop into the college of Bishops, even before he has been assigned to a local church. (Gaillardetz, 2006)

The question is then, which membership should a Bishop see themselves as primary? For the sake of their mission and duty, one should consider the local church, to which Bishops are placed to lead through teaching and pastoring, as primary. However, Lumen Gentium clearly states that the Bishop holds no authority apart from the one found through unity with the head, successor of Peter the Apostle, the Pope. We can find:

But the college or body of Bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. (LG, 22)

Later on, we also read:

The individual Bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church. For this reason the individual Bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity. (LG, 23)

This apparent dual structure of the Bishop’s office is not helpful in defining the Bishop’s status. On one hand, Bishops should be seen as heads of their assigned local churches but on the other hand, Bishops should see themselves as part of a separate union with other Bishops and the Pope as the head. This can be further complicated when you consider there exists Bishops who do not lead a local church!  Gaillardetz makes note of these apparently two different trajectory on where individual Bishops find themselves and concedes the following point:

Unfortunately, these two different versions of episcopal collegiality, one setting the college over the church, and the other seeing the college as a concentrated manifestation of the universal church, were never really reconciled in the council documents. (Gaillardetz, 2006)

On the other hand, McAleese sees things differently and unifies the two trajectories. She writes:

What is clarified, ending decades of controversy, is that the Bishops are not mere delegates of the Pope charged only with powers of governance over their particular churches. Instead, they serve individually by divine authority and collectively they constitute the College of Bishops which has, also by divine authority, ‘supreme and full power over the universal church’. (McAleese, 2012)

In this interpretation, Bishops can be seen as delegates, after being ordained by Rome and granted authority, going into the church communities world to make disciples in order to unify them to the universal Roman church. This is in line with what we see in Scripture as the Apostles go out to minister to believers, rather than Apostles coming out from the communities.

Bishops in the local church

In the previous section, this essay discussed the tension of having Bishops as members of the College, headed by the Pope, and their local church. In many cases, there have been Bishops who do not minister to the area they have been ordained to or have no local church they have been assigned to. These are titular Bishops. Gaillardetz comments on this:

Granting titular sees to Bishops who will not serve as pastoral leaders to local churches obscures an authentic theology of the episcopate in two ways. First, it trivializes the relationship between a Bishop and his local community. How can one speak meaningfully of a Bishop’s “communion” with a non-existent community? Second, it transforms what is properly a sacramental ministry within the church in an honorary or administrative title. (Gaillardetz, 2006)

As the foundations of the office of the Bishop are successorship of Apostles who were sent out to bring communities to follow Christ, it does seem counter productive and incompatible that a Bishop would have no involvement in ministering to a community.

For the Bishops who do find themselves ordained for service in a local church, Gaillardetz suggests there still may be problems. He writes:

The current procedure for appointing Bishops places most of the responsibility not on the local church but on the papal nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops. THe nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops, in turn, are often influenced more by the opinions of prominent church leaders, “Bishop makers,” than by the needs of the local community and its own sense of who would be most suitable to lead. (Gaillardetz, 2006)

This is in stark contrast with Early Church practice where it was inconceivable that a Bishop would be ordained without the support of the local church (Gaillardetz, 2006).

However despite this less than perfect practice, there is clear teachings on the roles of Diocesan Bishops (Bishops who have been ordained to serve in a local church). In Christus Dominus, we read about a primary duty of Bishops:

In exercising their duty of teaching-which is conspicuous among the principal duties of Bishops -they should announce the Gospel of Christ to men, calling them to a faith in the power of the Spirit or confirming them in a living faith. They should expound the whole mystery of Christ to them, namely, those truths the ignorance of which is ignorance of Christ. At the same time they should point out the divinely revealed way to give glory to God and thereby to attain to eternal happiness (Paul VI, Christus Dominus, sec 12)

Again, there is great emphasis on the intention that Bishops are to be more than administrators of church affairs but rather, effectively, leaders of their community on matters of faith and furthering the Gospel. Unfortunately, due to communities expanding and shrinking over time, it is impossible for Bishops to execute their duties without assistance. This is why Christus Dominus devotes a section on “Assistants in the Pastoral Office of the Diocesan Bishops”.

The Diocesan Bishop is given the freedom to request for assistants in the form of either Auxiliary Bishops (assistants with no right of succession) and/or Coadjutor Bishops (assistants with right of succession). Regardless of who is assisting the Diocesan Bishop, he remains the highest authority inside the local church, apart from the authority of the universal church.

In these functions, Roman Catholic Bishops should not be hampered in their mission and service to the local church and continue to be afforded the freedom to see out that mission in bringing the Gospel to the community. With support and authority given by the universal church, effectively the Pope, Bishops represent Christ to the community and be successful in furthering in Gospel.


The office of the Bishop may seem like a mystery to those outside the Roman Catholic body. However, it remains to be an office that is held in high esteem by many of the clergy of the church. The environments, that Bishops currently serve in, may have changed but the duties and mission of these ordained individuals remain to what was in beginning when Jesus Christ called his Apostles together after his resurrection.


Gaillardetz R. R. (2006). The Church in the Making. Mahwah, New Jersey. Paulist Press. Digital.

Lakeland P. (2013). A Council That WIll Never End. Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press. Digital.

McAleese M. (2012). Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law.  Dublin. The Columbia Press. Digital.

Paul VI. (1964). Lumen Gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church]. Accessed 13 October, 2016.

Paul VI. (1965). Christus Dominus [Decree concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the CHurch]. Accessed 13 October, 2016.

Clarification: Digital refers to a reference that was access via a digital source (e.g. a Kindle book)