Hierarchy of Catholic Churches.

This question has to do with the “rank” that are assigned to Catholic churches by the pope. What I’m wondering is, what is the next step up from Cathedral? Also, what is the rank of churches assigned by Rome, from your regular parish on up?

BTW: Cathedrals aren’t all those grand churches like Notre Dame in Paris. The old Presidio church in Monterey, which was the first church in Monterey when the Spanish Arrived, is designated a cathedral even though it holds probably less than a few hundred people. It’s also simple in architecture as well.

A cathedral, in the Roman Catholic church, is simply the church building assigned to the bishop – it’s the bishop’s “seat,” as it were. That’s the church where the bishop will normally preside, and where important diocesan festivities and events are held. It’s also where the diocesan offices will be located.

The next level up is a basilica. It’s a cathedral, but it’s also set aside or dedicated to a patron saint – Hubby the ex-priest tells me that this is something more than the average consecration. It is a church accorded certain liturgical privileges by the Pope.

The next level up from a “normal” basilica are the 13 ancient churches in Rome, of which one is St. Paul’s outside the walls. These are also basilicas.

This is all just off the top of the head; further than this requires access to a Catholic encyclopedia, and I’m too lazy to go digging for one at the moment. Maybe Tom knows more?


Well, first of all, rank is more associated with the people in the hierarchy and not in the church buildings themselves.

With the people in the hierarchy, the world is divided into dioceses (a ‘diocese’ was a province in the Roman Empire). Each diocese is headed by a bishop. The bishop of Rome is the Pope and the head bishop.

A diocese is divided into parishes. The head of the parish is a priest designated as pastor (there are lots of other priests who are not pastors – they are assistants, teachers, missionaries, etc…).

So, it goes Pope (Bishop of Rome) --> Bishop —> Pastor (who’s a priest).

Now, priests and bishops represent two of the three Holy Orders. The third is deacon, and heirarchically, deacons have no real power in the line of authority unless they’ve been designated with it on a case by case basis.

Now, some dioceses are designated as archdioceses. Usually, they were the parent diocese from which the other surrounding dioceses were split off from. The archdiocese in a local region of diocese has no real authority over the regular dioceses. Although, the bishop of an archdiocese is called an archbishop and it is a prestigious assignment for a bishop and puts him on the short list to be made a cardinal.

A cardinal is someone designated to be the elector of the next Pope. A cardinal is almost always an archbishop, and the title confers no real authoritative power over other bishops.

Now, getting back to the OP:

In each diocese the bishop (or archbishop or Pope) has his ‘home parish’ and the church building is called a cathedral. This comes from the latin word cathedra which means seat. The church has a special seat which only the bishop uses which represents his ‘seat of power.’

So, the bishop’s church, the cathedral, outranks the other churches in the dioceses, even if it’s a simple building. The archbishop’s cathedral outranks the other cathedrals in the province. Older cathedrals outrank younger ones. The Pope’s cathedral wins.

All the other parish churches within a diocese have equal ranking (although fussbudgets will argue that older parishes outrank younger ones).

Now, there’s a wrinkle in all this. The basilica. Basically, a basilica is: 1) a style of architecture; and, 2) an honorary title. As a title, it bumps a church up ahead of the other churches in the diocese but still behind the cathedral.

Check out: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02325a.htm


The City of St. Louis, MO has two cathedrals, usually referred to as “the new one” and “the old one”. The Archbishop of Saint Louis, who is a Cardinal (but doesn’t play baseball), uses the new one. The old one is maintained as a historical landmark.
Both cathedrals are basilicas. When you become a basilica, you (the bishop) are given a bell which is carried under a striped umbrella-type thing to mark the occasion. There is a fancy Latin name for it which escapes me now.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest in the US, at present, has no cathedral as the old has been abandoned and the new one, which is subject to quite a bit of controversy, isn’t anywhere near completion. So, the cathedral is wherever Cardinal Roger Mahony decides to hang his miter.

Actually, a basilica does not have to be a cathedral–it is possible that a basilica cannot be a cathedral, but I’ll have to look that up. A basilica simply recognizes a specific honor bestowed on that location (due to age/antiquity or an association with a particular saint or because it was built to honor a particular saint or event). Basilicas get special considerations (such as not being tied directly to the local diocese, being set aside for the “whole church”).

The geo-political hierarchy of the RCC is (with some regional exceptions):

  • Mission (Parish) (A parish that does not have a single pastor, but is treated as an extension of a different parish.)
  • Parish
  • Vicariate (A collection of parishes that are grouped for mutual support or decision-making within a diocese–the real power is still located at the diocese. In many cases the position of Vicar moves about within the vicariate and no specific church is singled out as the principal one. An older term for vicariate was deanery, under the guidance of a dean. I do not know whether they had assigned churches. (The vicar is not the same position as a vicar in the Church of England or Episcopal Church.))
  • Diocese The collection of parishes governed by a bishop. The cathedral is the location of the Ordinary Bishop (as opposed to an Auxiliary Bishop) who governs all the parishes within the diocese. The diocesan church is the cathedral. There are two terms rarely used in the U.S. that are related to this: a diocese (or any higher organization) may be referred to as a see and a bishop may be referred to as a metropolitan. (I don’t know exactly whether a diocese must have a cathedral. The Most Reverend Kenneth Untner of Saginaw, MI, sold off most of the episcopal trappings and spends his days living at one parish or another (boy, do his priests like that), but the cathedral continues in use for specific events of the diocese.)
  • Archdiocese The diocese, governed by an archbishop, which governs several dependent diocese. The church of the archbishop/archdiocese is also called the cathedral. An Archdiocese is the equivalent to a Province, (there may be occasions in which a Province is more or less than an Archdiocese, but I am not aware of any). If an archbishop behaves himself, he will generally be elevated to Cardinal within a few years. This allows him to vote in a papal election (if he doesn’t get too old before a vote comes up) but does not give him any more day-to-day powers.
  • Nunciature is actually not in this direct line of hierarchy. A papal nuncio is the spiritual and diplomatic envoy of the pope to a particular country or region. He has the power to transact business for the pope, but cannot order the national bishops conference to take specific actions except as he carries out the direct instructions of the pope.
  • The official cathedral of the pope is St. John Lateran in Rome. (The Basilica of St. Peter, being much larger and in Vatican City, is where the pope hangs out on a day-to-day basis, but St. John Lateran is the actual cathedral.)

There is a separate hierarchy for religious orders, but I don’t remember the exact organization or when the various abbeys, convents, friaries, etc. do or do not have to follow the orders of the local bishop. If there is a genuine interest, I’ll look it up.


Thanks everyone. I always wondered about what the designations actually meant. Now I know. Mostly this was brough up because I saw a news report on the restoration of the Basilica in Asisi and wondered how and why it was designated that.

D: re. the report about the Basilica at Assisi. This might just have referred to the architectural form of the building. ANY church of an elongated plan with a central nave and side aisles, with or without transept, is a basilica (as opposed to a rotunda, quincunx, etc.). If they meant S. Francesco in Assisi, it is indeed a basilica, architecturally. The architectural term doesn’t imply anything about ecclesiatical rank, though.

There are old Roman buildings, not Christian, which are also basilicas (where the Christians got the idea in the first place).

(To confuse things more, though, “basilica” is also an honorary title given by the Pope to certain historical buildings. So S. Francesco might be a basilica in two ways…)

I have nothing really to add, but I want to commend you for pointing out that “cathedral” does not necessarily mean “big church.” The Washington Post was recently taken to task for erroneously referring to the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Most local Catholics refer to it simply as “The Shrine”) as a Cathedral. James Cardinal Hickey’s seat is actually at the Cathedral of St. Matthew’s.

(Yes, it is somehow appropriate that Washington’s cathedral be named after a tax collector. Incidentally, the patron saint of the United States is Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception…)

Just to make things a LITTLE more clear: There is more than ONE branch of Catholicism! There are at least 2 subdivisions, and they are fairly large (100,000 +), so I just can’t fathom WHY the Roman Catholic Church is more recognized than mine…

There is more to Catholocism than the Roman Catholic Hierachy. There is also a National/Polish Catholic branch(no, it is not exclusively Polish, and it never was/will be), and the Pope has no part in our Hierachy… why, we could walk up to him and tell him to go to Hell.

It is pretty much the same, except the Church owns the land, not the Diocese or the Bishop, there are 5 Diocese in the US/Canada, 1 in Poland, and the Arch Bishop is the highest rank you could achieve. Then Bishop, then Most Reverend, Very Reverend, Reverend, Deacon, Sub Deacon, and (of course) Parishoner.

Clear that up a bit?

-Wash, Rinse, Maim.

I can add a little detail of confirmation; A church doesn’t have to be a cathedral to become a basilica. Our little parish home at Notre Dame became a minor basilica in 1993. It’s cathedral-shaped (a classic Cathedral is cruciform), but the bishop’s seat is over in Ft. Wayne. I think all stateside basilicas are “minor” and the “majors” are mostly in Rome.

Errrr… The Roman Catholic Church is bigger than the Polish National Catholic Church by several orders of magnitude, and is older than the Polish National Catholic Church by more than one.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

FTR, the Episcopal Church uses similar structures to the above. Some details:

Like modern Roman Catholicism, the vocational diaconate is in place. I.e., you do have deacons who are not just priests-in-training. A deacon’s job is a ministry of service of some sort; they also have certain roles in the standard Eucharistic service (notably to read the Gospel).

Each parish has a Rector (equivalent to the R.C. and Protestant pastor), who is the priest in charge of the parish, and a Vestry, elected lay board, who together govern the parish. Note that several small churches can band together as one parish.

The diocese has a Bishop (Ordinary, which means “one who ordains” not “not unusual”) and can have a Bishop Coadjutor (vice-bishop who will succeed when the Ordinary retires) or Bishop Suffragan (who assists and will not succeed unless specifically elected to the job). Retired Bishops who want to work part-time are Auxiliary Bishops (more or less to give them more respect than Suffragan). Most dioceses are broken down into deaneries, with one priest, usually the senior one, as Dean. Deans are formally addressed as Very Reverend. One priest usually serves as the Bishop’s assistant for small parishes and mission work, and is the Archdeacon (formal address: Venerable). Formal address for any bishop is Right Reverend (in the R.C. it’s Most Reverend).

Each Anglican church (denominational usage) has a chief honcho. Most of them consist of one Province and have an Archbishop (Most Reverend) as head of Province and of Church. The U.S. has nine Provinces, U.K. and Ireland have two, Canada and Australia have four. Outside the U.S., each Province has an Archbishop, and the chief honcho of the national church has some specialized title, usually Primate of (All) N-land or a variation on it. In the U.S., where there was a dislike of Archbishops after the Revolution, we have a Presiding Bishop, who gets Most Reverend in formal address but does not have the authority over individual bishops that an Archbishop does. (Like Anglican and R.C. Archbishops, though, he is the chief minister when a new bishop is being consecrated as a bishop.)

Obviously we do not have a Pope or Cardinals, and not being historically entitled to them, do not have Patriarchs as Eastern Rite Catholics, Venice, and Orthodox have. The Archbishop of Canterbury functions for the Anglican Communion much like the Queen for the Commonwealth, as a living focus for loyalty and not much else. He does, however, have two privileges: he convenes and presides over the decennial Lambeth Conferences of the whole communion, and gets to write the formal letters sent out after them and in their name. This is going to be a big deal this year, since last year’s Lambeth had some hot-button issues and he has been taking a long time trying to come up with a consensus statement that will maintain unity and still say something useful. (These letters are not binding as the Pope’s are on Catholics, but have a lot of moral force.)

Just to throw in my $.02 (even though I’m not Catholic)–

The smallest Cathedral in the world is a one-room church in some Godforsaken town in Missouri (read that somewhere). Apparently the bishop who presides there is the bishop of the Archdiocese of Hucky Puddle, MO or something.

What’s a Monsignor? My dictionary is uninformative.

um… an arch diocese is just a large diocese.

A monsignor is an honorary title usually bestowed to priests who have served as pastors for a long time. It is of slightly higher rank than your garden variety priest, but really carries no other added reponsibilities. You do get wear a red-trimmed cassock and you get a different hat.
In the Roman Catholic Church, monsignors are styled “Right Reverend” while priests are just “Reverend”

Here in Montreal we have inhales Notre-Dame Basilica (big old church on Place d’Armes by the Old Port), Mary Queen of the World Cathedral (big ugly church by Place du Canada downtown), and St Joseph’s Oratory, which is like the biggest church in Canada or something. What’s an oratory, exactly? (The oratory was built by Frere André, who was later made a blessed because he could supposedly cure the disabled.)

Not to be confused with Christ Church cathedral, which is the seat of the Anglican diocese…