Office, Ecclesiastical

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According to Lumen gentium 5, the Church received from Jesus Christ the mission of announcing the kingdom of God and inaugurating it among all people. A variety of means exist by which the Church fulfills this mission; one fundamental means is through ecclesiastical office. Ecclesiastical office has existed from the beginning of the Church (see, e.g., von Campenhausen) but the concept has undergone a major transformation since the Second Vatican Council. This transformation, rooted in the theological, and particularly, ecclesiological, insights of Vatican II, allows for greater participation in the Church's mission by all the Christian faithful, ordained or lay.


The definition of ecclesiastical office as found in the Code of Canon Law (c.145.1) includes three elements:(1) a functionan ability or capacity to perform certain actions tending to a spiritual goal; (2) a stable determination of the range and limits of this function through divine or ecclesiastical ordinance; (3) a spiritual purpose.

First Element. That there must in the nature of things be found some distinction of activities in the Church follows from its constitution by Our Lord as a true society or people (see society [theology of]). The Pauline description of the Church as Body of Christ was precisely invoked by him to justify functional differentiations found from the beginning within the community.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of ministries, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of workings, but the same God, who works all things in all. Now the manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit. For as the body is one andhas many members, and all the members of the body, many as they are, form one body, so also is it with Christ. For the body is not one member, but many. Now if they were all onemember, where would the body be? But as it is, there are indeed many members, yet but one body. Now you are the body of Christ, member for member. And God indeed has placed some in the Church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers; after that miracles, then gifts of healing, services of help, power of administration, and the speaking of various tongues. (1 Cor 12.429; cf. Rom 12.48; Gal. 3.2728; Eph4.1113)

Whether society or Body or vine and branches or kingdom or people or family or household, there must be distribution of activities for the good of the whole.

This division of functions is attested in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church promulgated by Vatican II, when the council states: "As all the members of the human body, though they are many, form one body, so also are the faithful in Christ (cfr. 1 Cor. 12, 12). So in the building up of Christ's body a diversity of members and functions obtains. There is only one Spirit, who, according to His own richness and the needs of the ministries, gives His different gifts for the welfare of the Church (cfr. 1 Cor. 12, 111)" (7; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 [1965] 10).

Second Element. If the first element found in the definition of ecclesiastical office is well attested by appeal to reason and to the sources of revelation, it is not perhaps clear that the second element is necessarily attested: the stable determination of the range and limits of these functions by divine or ecclesiastical ordinance. Could it not be that Our Lord intended to bestow functions on a quite temporary basis through a transitory energizing of one or other within the community so that he who today speaks in tongues tomorrow interprets, and he who today prophesies tomorrow is endowed with no special function at all? To the Catholic mind this question is answered not so much by an appeal to the unlikelihood or unnaturalness of such a disposition in an enduring group, or to the confusion and disorder that would so easily result, but by an appeal to the evident intention of Christ in creating the original apostolate. The Catholic view has always been that Christ selected and separated, prepared and instructed the twelve to bear His Person and continue His salvific action, not only through their lifetime but until He should come again.

The history of the first age portrays a community in which the permanent apostolic function is of paramount significance. The same Paul who readily enough admits the divine provenance, the legitimacy, of charisms peremptorily by reason of his apostolic mandate regulates and restrains charismatic functioning:

What then is to be done, brethren? When you come together each of you has a hymn, has an instruction, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let it be by twos or at most by threes, and let them speak in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter let him keep silence in the church, and speak to himself and to God. Of the prophets, let two or three speak at a meeting, and let the rest act as judges. But if anything is revealed to another sitting by let the first keep silence. Thus Ilikewise teach in all the churches of the saints. Let women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted them to speak, but let them be submissive, as the Law also says. If anyone thinksthat he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things I am writing to you are the Lord's commandments. If anyone ignores this, he shall be ignored. (1 Cor 14.2638)

Paul at least is not unaware that over and above the ephemeral gifts for community sanctification there stands a stable mission entrusted to the Twelve and to him.

So when in the very early days of the community at Jerusalem there arose a practical problem, the apostles did not wait for nor seem to expect any charismatic solution but proceeded without delay to set up an institutional arrangement. To meet the complaints of the Hellenist group that their widows were being slighted in the distribution of alms, the Apostles directed the community to present to them seven suitable candidates, "that we [the Apostles] may put them in charge of this work" (Acts6.3). In the selection and investiture of the seven one can reasonably discern the beginning and the prototype of subordinate ministries with determined functions. Though some special or charismatic endowments may have been expected of those presented as candidates ("select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" [Acts 6.37]), there can be no question that the determination of the function was made by the Apostles as the established representatives and plenipotentiaries of Christ. In the Pauline Churches as time went on there was through prayer and the imposition of hands designation of those who in a permanent way functioned as bishops or presbyters (Acts 14.25:20.28: Phil 1.1; 1 Tm 3.17; 5.1719) and deacons (Phil1.1; 1 Tm 3.813) of the individual communities.

Third Element. The third and final element in an ecclesiastical office is that of its spiritual purpose. The determined function is not merely a service, an accommodation to the needs of others, a labor for the benefit of others, as would be the ministrations of a waiter, an usher, a clerk, an attendant, but a ministration that brings life or helps to maintain life, that directs in the way of God. So the one who holds an office does truly serve, does truly benefit others, but as the father or the guardian who stands in the place of the father serves the family. The basis and justification for all this goes back directly to the role of Christ Himself in the economy of salvation. He came not to be the object of ministrations, but as a minister, a servant, to give His life as a ransom for many, without in the least hesitating to accept the designation of Lord and Master ("You call me Master and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If, therefore, I the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash the feet of one another"Jn 13.1314). In the Christian scheme of things, paradoxical though it may seem, there is no incompatibility between service and power: it is not to "lord it over them" (Mt 20.25) that some are vested with authority in the community, but that they may more effectively serve by standing in His place to whom "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given" (Mt 28.18). From the days of the Apostles and at the level of the apostolic commission given them, those who hold office in virtue of a power received from on high (Acts 1.8) are to exercise a function that connotes a corresponding obligation on the part of the other members to receive this ministration. There is at once power and lowliness, authority and humility, modesty and majesty in one who says in Christ's name: "If I do not wash thee, thou shalt have no part with me" (Jn 13.8).

That offices in the Church connote at once power and service is the repeated teaching of Vatican Council II: "For those ministers, who are endowed with sacred power, serve their brethren in order that all who are of the people of God and therefore enjoy a true Christian dignity, working toward a common goal freely and in an orderly way, may arrive at salvation. That functionhowever which the Lord committed to the shepherds of His people is a true service, which in S. Scripture is significantly called 'diakonia.' or ministry. Bishopsgovern the particular Churches by their authority and sacred power, which they use only for the development of their flock in truth and holiness, remembering that he who is greater should become the lesser and he who is chief become as the servant. A bishop must keep before his eyes the example of the Good Shepherd, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to lay down His life for His sheep (cfr. lo. 10,11)" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church 18, 24, 27; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 [1965] 2122, 29, 3233).

Finally, the existence of offices so described implies no denial of the fact that there will always be room and welcome in the Church for those who without participating in the ordinary, institutional authority of the Church are mysteriously and charismatically called to providential tasks of reformation, renewal, aggiornamento. Of these charismatic gifts Vatican Council II remarks, "whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation, for they are especially suited to and useful for the needs of the Church.Judgment however as to their genuineness and proper use belongs to those who are leaders of the Church and to whom in particular it belongs not, indeed, to extinguish the Spirit but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church 12; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 [1965] 1617).

See Also: authority, ecclesiastical; bishop (in the church); mystical body of christ; primacy of the pope.

Bibliography: r. naz, Dictionnaire de droit canonique, ed. r. naz, 7 v. (Paris 193565) 6:10741105. h. zeller et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 1:451457. m. schmaus, ibid. 5:386387. k. mÖrsdorf, ibid. 6:188192. j. colson, Les Fonctions ecclésiales aux deux premiers siècles (Bruges 1956). h. von campenhausen, Kirchliches Amt und geistliche Vollmacht in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (Tübingen 1953). w. michaelis, Das Ältestenamt der christlichen Gemeinde im Licht der Heiligen Schrift (Bern 1953). h. asmussen, Die Kirche und das Amt (Munich 1939). d. e. heintschel, The Mediaeval Concept of an Ecclesiastical Office (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 363; Washington, D.C. 1956).

[s. e. donlon/eds.]

Canon Law

Current Comprehension. Canon 145, §1 offers the following succinct definition: "An ecclesiastical office is any function constituted in a stable manner by divine or ecclesiastical ordinance to be exercised for a spiritual purpose." Under the previous Code of Canon Law, an ecclesiastical office involved participation either in the power of governance (power of jurisdiction) or in the power of orders and, in as much as only clerics could receive these, clerics alone could hold an ecclesiastical office. Such participation in the power of governance or of orders is no longer required for all offices; as one consequence, therefore, lay men and women may acquire certain ecclesiastical offices for which they are capable.

The definition of office includes three elements: a function (munus, pl. munera ), constituted in a stable manner by divine or ecclesiastical ordinance and serving a spiritual purpose. First and fundamentally, an office is a function, a munus. A variety of functions exist in the Church and all the baptized, in virtue of that sacrament and through their exercise of these functions, participate in the Church's mission. These functions have been understood in terms of the threefold munera (or functions) of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet, and ruler. Thus, an ecclesiastical office serves to fulfill the mission of the Church following the example of Jesus Christ in the exercise of the common and ministerial priesthoods; the proclamation of the Word of God; and in the governance of the People of God.

The second element concerns the recognition of a particular function as of particular importance or necessity for the Church: the function is constituted an office by divine or ecclesiastical ordinance. Church teaching has determined that certain offices derive from the intention of Jesus Christfor example, the office of the bishop of Rome (the Petrine ministry), the college of bishops, and the office of diocesan bishop. Other offices are established by the competent Church authorityfor example, the office of chancellor or finance officer in a diocese; the office of superior in an institute of consecrated life or a society of apostolic life. Determination of "competent authority" derives from an examination of the law or of the decree that establishes the office. For example, the diocesan bishop appoints an individual chancellor of the diocese, an office established by the code itself (see cc. 470 and 482). The bishop may establish particular offices for his own diocese. The approved constitutions of an institute of consecrated life determine the appointment of superiors.

The "stability" of an office needs to be understood from two perspectives. First, the function that is designated an office implies that this is an ongoing task, useful for the Church not just for one particular occasion or purpose but also for the foreseeable future. The office will have an incumbent who will exercise its functions and who will be replaced, when necessary and according to the appropriate norms, by another incumbent. Second, in order for an individual to fulfill the task appropriately, the person needs some assurance of personal stability in the office to assure its proper exercise. This stability applies even when an individual is appointed at the prudent discretion of a competent Church authority; the latter needs a just cause to remove an individual from an office (seec. 194, §3.). Two further points: first, an office requires a "job description," that is, a listing of the obligations and rights associated with that particular function. Second, an individual exercising an office does so not on personal initiative but rather in response to a request from some person or group in the Church (for example, a general chapter of an institute of consecrated life electing an individual as superior; a bishop appointing an individual finance officer for his diocese).

The third element is a spiritual purpose. Office as such aims at the service of the Christian faithfulthe reason for its existence. Therefore, an individual accepts and exercises an office in the Church not for personal benefit but for service. The individual officeholder acts on behalf of the Church, participating in the mission that Jesus Christ entrusted to the Church.

Implications of Ecclesiastical Office. From the perspective of these constitutive elements of ecclesiastical office, specific implications need due emphasis. These implications reflect the importance of an office for the Church and for fulfilling her mission and are necessary for the valid exercise of the tasks associated with a specific office.

First, the competent ecclesiastical authority must provide for an office in writingthe individual does not simply assume the office acting alone. A variety of means exist for such provisionthrough free conferral by a competent authority; through installation by competent authority, when an individual or a group has a right to present a person for an office; through electionwith confirmation by competent authority if necessary or through simple acceptance of the office if no confirmation is necessary (see cc. 146156).

Second, an individual must be qualified for an officefundamentally, the individual must be in communion with the Church (that is, at the minimum, the individual is a baptized Christian, not necessarily Catholic. Some commentators, however, hold that 'communion' here implies the individual is Catholic. See c. 205 which refers to "full communion"). In addition, the person must possess the qualities required for the specific office in question (see c.149). Certain offices entailing "the full care of souls" require that the incumbent have received priestly ordination (c. 150).

Third, an ecclesiastical office is lost through a variety of means: lapse of a specific period of time; reaching a specific age determined by law; resignation; transfer; removal; privation (see c. 184), and by death.

For the first twoterm and agethe competent authority must communicate such loss of office to the incumbent in writing (c. 186). To resign an office an incumbent must be mentally competent as well as not subject to grave fear unjustly inflicted or as a result of malice, error, or simony. To effect a transfer, the competent authority must have the capacity to provide for both officesthe one being vacated and the one being assumed. If the incumbent is unwilling, the competent authority must have grave cause and follow proper procedure. The code provides one example of such a procedure in canons 17401752, which concern the transfer of pastors.

Privation refers to loss of office as a penalty; removal does not necessarily imply the incumbent has incurred a penalty.

Removal occurs either by decree of the competent authority or by the law itself. As already noted, the competent authority needs a just cause to replace an individual appointed at the authority's prudent discretion. More serious reasons are needed to replace an individual appointed either for an indefinite or determined time. The law itself, in canon 194, §1, removes from office a person who has lost the clerical state; one who has "publicly defected from the Catholic faith or from the communion of the Church"; and a cleric who has attempted marriage.

For privation, the competent authority must follow the norms of law. These norms include "The Application of Penalties" in canons 13411353 and canons 17171728 of "The Penal Process."

In order to maintain justice, the code requires that, in all these cases, competent authority must respect contractual obligations as well as to ensure the individual's decent support.

Bibliography: j. provost, "Ecclesiastical Offices [cc. 145196]," in New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, ed. j. beal, j. coriden, and t. green (New York/Mahwah 2000) 195229. h. von campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Peabody, Mass. 1997).

[r. j. kaslyn]

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Office, Ecclesiastical

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