A common misconception about the Catholic Church is that it is highly centralised in its organisation, as if all Catholic institutions and activities were owned and operated as one. In fact, the situation is very different. As the following description shows, it is an intricate and, at first sight, bewildering complex of groups and individuals, each with a defined autonomy and accountability according to the Code of Canon Law, the fundamental legislative document of the Church.
All who have been baptised have rights and responsibilities in the Church, whether or not they have been ordained (as bishops, priests or deacons), or taken religious vows (see below). Their activity in the Church is succinctly expressed in the following excerpt from the Code of Canon Law:
- Since they share the Church's mission, all Christ's faithful have the right to promote and support apostolic action, by their own initiative, undertaken according to their state and condition. No initiative, however, can lay claim to the title "Catholic" without the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority.
- Christ's faithful may freely establish and direct associations which serve charitable or pious purposes or which foster the Christian vocation in the world, and they may hold meetings to pursue these purposes by common effort.
In Australia, there are thirty-three dioceses in union with the Pope. The Church defines a diocese as "a portion of the people of God, which is entrusted to a bishop..." or, as "a community of Christ's faithful in communion of faith and sacraments with their bishop...". A diocese usually has a defined territory and comprises all the Catholics who live there: such is the case with twenty-eight of the Australian dioceses. However, there are also five dioceses covering the whole country: one each for those who belong to the Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite and Ukrainian rites and one for those who are serving in the Australian Defence Forces.
The bishop "governs the particular church (diocese) entrusted to him with legislative, executive and judicial power, in accordance with the law." The last phrase is important: not only are some matters regularly reserved to the Pope, but in other matters the rights and responsibilities of individuals or groups within the Church are legally defined. In addition to his governing office, the bishop is his diocese's chief teacher of doctrine and leader of public worship. A bishop's involvement in the activities and institutions in his diocese is, in some instances, no more than consent and encouragement; in others, advice and guidance; and, in others, full ownership and direction.
Dioceses are divided into parishes, each headed by a parish priest, appointed by and accountable to the bishop. A parish is "a certain community of Christ's faithful, stably established within a particular Church". Like dioceses, parishes are usually territorial, but need not be. According to church law, a parish is a juridical person and can own and operate property and institutions. In Australia, most parish property is owned by a diocesan body recognised in state law.
In church law, these groups are known as Institutes of Consecrated Life or Societies of Apostolic Life. Their members live in community and bind themselves to a way of life under vows. They are governed according to their own constitutions, which are usually approved by the Pope, in some cases by the local bishop. They cannot work in a diocese without the consent of the bishop. They can own and operate property and institutions. In Australia, their assets are usually held by their own body recognised in state law.
A national organisation, Catholic Religious Australia (the public name of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes), facilitates cooperation and fellowship among the more than 175 such groups active in Australia today.
Provinces and Metropolitans
A province is a grouping of several neighbouring dioceses, formed to promote common pastoral action in the region. The senior diocese is known as metropolitan, the others as suffragan. The bishop of the senior diocese is also known as the Metropolitan and has certain limited functions, but no powers of governance outside his own diocese. In Australia, there are five provinces: Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. These roughly correspond to state boundaries, which, among other considerations, enables the bishops to cooperate in matters involving that level of secular .