The Hierarchy in Catholicism
Jesus Christ is the invisible head of the church, and by his authority, the Pope is the visible head. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is a structure of authority that weaves its way from pope to parish priest.
Over the centuries, the Bishop of Rome became the leading authority in both civil and religious matters and assumed the title “Pope” from the Latin papa and the Greek pappas, meaning “father.” The pope is the successor to St. Peter, thus the shepherd of all Christians and the representative (or vicar) of Christ.
The pope's supremacy is grounded in Matthew 16:18–19, but this supremacy is not recognized outside the Roman Catholic Church. But the church holds that God will not permit the pope to make an error in a solemn official declaration concerning a matter of faith or morality. However, the First Vatican Council created the doctrine of papal infallibility, with the bishops voting 533 in favor and only two against. (Actually, some sixty bishops in the minority did not want to vote for the doctrine, and because they did not want to expose their dissent publicly by voting negative, they packed up and left Rome.) The pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra — literally “from the chair” or his position of authority.
Despite the controversy concerning papal infallibility, the Pope is recognized as having supreme religious authority. The College of Cardinals elects a new Pope when the one in office dies.
Each local church is attached to a district called a parish. A priest runs the parish and is a liturgical leader and pastor. He is responsible for the administration of the sacraments, including the Mass. A priest hears confessions and assigns penance.
A group of parishes in a region are called a diocese and are presided over by a bishop. Bishops are priests nominated by other bishops and appointed to their office by the Pope. Traditionally, a bishop was a teacher and leader of worship, but today a bishop is more of a manager and administrator.
Cardinals are bishops who have been chosen and elevated to this position by the Pope. They join the College of Cardinals, which is a group of approximately 120 bishops who have also been elevated to cardinal. Membership of the college is divided among those who hold office in the Vatican and those who are bishops in major cities in the world. The United States has eight cardinals.
The sacred College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church is, in essence, the electoral college of the papacy. Its members are appointed by the pope. A cardinal's insignia resemble those of the bishop, except for a red, broad-brimmed, tasseled hat.