The US Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops made a step towards banning politicians who support abortion rights from the Eucharist (Holy Communion). This step was made against the explicit position of the Vatican:

After three days of online debate, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted by three to one to draft new guidance on the eucharist. The unexpected strength of support for the move among the bishops was a rebuff to the Vatican, which had signalled its opposition.

I thought that Roman Catholic priests (including bishops) were supposed to recognize the authority of the Pope:

The pope [..] is the head of the worldwide Catholic Church and head of state or sovereign of the Vatican City State. According to Catholics, the primacy of the bishop of Rome is largely derived from his role as the apostolic successor to Saint Peter, to whom primacy was conferred by Jesus [..]. (from Wikipedia)


  • Under Roman Catholic rules, can the bishops of a country decide to go against the Pope's decision?
  • If not, does the Pope have the authority to discipline them, for instance remove them from their bishop position?
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    This question may be better suited to Christianity SE for "explanations of the beliefs and practices of a denomination or movement."
    – Rick Smith
    Jun 19, 2021 at 23:40
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    also, in addition to what @RickSmith said, people on Christianity know much more about the catholic church than most people over here Jun 20, 2021 at 1:05
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    Nevertheless, this question is about the governance and hence political structure of the church, it is "on topic" here (But I don't know enough about the church to answer. I've heard that Bishops are theoretically rather free to govern within their diocese, and the Pope only has supremacy over matters of dogma.)
    – James K
    Jun 20, 2021 at 7:57
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    @RickSmith for what it's worth, to me the question is more related to politics than to religion since the trigger is abortion rights in the US and the specifically pro-Republican inclination of the US Bishops. Also the Catholic hierarchy is certainly a form of government (one of the oldest in existence afaik). But I'm ok if people think the question should be migrated.
    – Erwan
    Jun 20, 2021 at 9:08
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    I’m voting to close this question because it should be migrated to Christanity.sx Jun 20, 2021 at 12:10

1 Answer 1


Politics in the Catholic Church is seriously byzantine (see Wikipedia's Hierarchy of the Catholic Church)...

The title 'Pope' is an honorific. Technically the Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of the Latin Church, meaning that he acts as the titular head of the Church as a whole, mainly through pride-of-place as the bishop of the central diocese of the Church. Most of the heavy work of running the Church and setting pastoral agendas is handled at the diocese (district) level by bishops. There are also patriarchs and archbishops who are (respectively) titular heads of multiple dioceses or bishops of metropolitan dioceses with extremely large populations, but that is more of a status title than an added source of power. Cardinals are bishops who have been tapped as the Pope's cabinet or privy council; they have tremendous status and influence, but not greater authority in the direct sense. Bishops sometimes form Episcopal Conferences — semi-permanent institutional bodies — where they can discuss regional issues and problems with the Catholic ministry in specific areas. And to top things off, many Bishops also belong to a Catholic order (Jesuit, Benedictine, Carmelite, Franciscan, etc), where each order has its own distinct interpretation and practice of the faith.

In other words, it's a mess. The Church is hierarchical on paper, but in practice it is a kind of spiritual oligarchy, where a caste of people putatively rich in religious idealism compete for different visions of the Holy Church. The Pope is in the unenviable position of pressuring and cajoling a bunch of strong-willed, independent idealists into something like a coherent and consistent whole, all the while presenting a face of placid unity to the outside world. It is the quintessential 'herding cats' situation; one expects a lot of yowling and scratching.

Bishops are expected to conform to the Pope's decisions, sure. But they are given a decent amount of latitude to run their diocese as they see fit, and the only real weapons the Pope has to get them to toe the line are drastic: removal from office or excommunication. There is a notable risk that drastic actions from the Holy See might produce schisms in the Church and unrest among Catholic parishioners, who often think very highly of their bishops. No church leader wants the appearance of internal strife, so all of them have the incentive to haggle and negotiate for the benefit of the faith, but it is not at all uncommon for a bishop to make a bit of a stink when he feels the Bishop of Rome is leaning in the wrong direction.

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    Yes, but the line about "every bishop belongs to a catholic order" isn't really true, Bishops must have taken Holy Orders (the holy order of bishops), but they don't need to be members of a religious order like the Fransicians, Jesuits or Benedictines.
    – James K
    Jun 20, 2021 at 19:36
  • @JamesK: You're right, that's an overstatement. Give me a bit an I'll correct it. Jun 20, 2021 at 22:43
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    I'm not sure if this is relevant. This appears to address the operational hierarchy (making sure bills are paid, etc). But religiously, a papal encyclical is not up for debate. It's issued ex cathedra, and the Pope is considered infallible in this role.
    – MSalters
    Jun 21, 2021 at 11:34
  • @MSalters: You forget that every bishop could (potentially) be Pope. The Pope is infallible in the eyes of parishioners — a carefully husbanded worldview meant to protect the authority and sanctity of the Church — but to other bishops he is an official elected from within their ranks. When the Pope lays down the law, bishops won't (usually) break it outright, but if you don't think they regularly bend and twist it to fit their own worldview and political advantage, you haven't been paying attention. Jun 21, 2021 at 13:50
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    @MSalters For the record, I'm pretty sure not all encyclicals (in fact, probably only a minority of encyclicals if any) are issued ex cathedra, because popes are very well aware of how dangerous a wrong "ex cathedra" statement is (from a practical standpoint, if not from the principle). All other papal declarations need to be accorded "due respect" in canon law, but not "assent". Jun 21, 2021 at 15:20

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