Bishops, our suffering, bishops, our hope

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

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The council praised them. It is hard today to see why. Yet, in the great dereliction the Church is living today, in hope we naturally turned to the shepherd and doctors who have everything needed to “cast fire on the earth”.

Vatican II, the Council that exalted the episcopate

After Vatican I, the papal council which was to conclude too early to go beyond the definition of pontifical infallibility, Vatican II was going to be a council that would restore balance, the council of the bishops, so it was said, as it opened.

A participation by the episcopal consecration to the universal jurisdiction

As seen with the recognition of the episcopal sacramentality (Lumen Gentium, n. 21), it did not raise any passionate debate. On the other hand, its affirmation was followed by what we can describe as a doctrinal sleigh of hand. Instead of saying that the episcopal consecration gives a capacity to receive a jurisdiction[1] over a particular part of the Christian people (usually a diocese), Lumen gentium said that the “episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” In other words, through the episcopal consecration alone is directly conferred an “office of teaching that is to say a jurisdiction, whose actual exercise will be determined by the nomination at the head of a diocese. An exercise determined by the nomination as diocesan bishop, but not exactly reduced to, if we rightly interpret this document difficult to understand. It gives indeed to each bishop a participation to the universal jurisdiction, and not only this solicitude over the whole Church attributed by the traditional doctrine (Pius XII, Fidei Donum, 21 April 1957). Lumen gentium in its number 23 actually reminds us of this traditional universal solicitude in act, but by connecting it to a universal jurisdiction in potency: “even if it does not exercise by an act of jurisdiction”.

An episcopal college, pope and bishops, subject to the universal jurisdiction?

This participation of each bishop in the jurisdiction over the whole Church leads to the doctrine on collegiality, against which the conciliar minority fought particularly, though without success, because it saw in it a parliamentary tendency they considered, rightly, in opposition to pontifical primacy.

The intention of the bishops at Vatican II seemed to have been to give the whole of the episcopate united with the pope a permanent collegial power over the all church. To do so, a formally erected college needed to be established. The affirmation that the college of the Apostles, supposably having continuously exercised a collegial pastoral government, was being continued with the episcopal college, seemed enough to establish that the whole of the bishops made up, even when not gathering in a council, a formal episcopal college exercising this same universal government. In the key passage on this subject, n. 22 of Lumen Gentium, two distinct terms were carefully used, “order” and “college”, “the order of bishops” and “the apostolic college”, but also a generic term, “body”, “apostolic body” and “episcopal body”: “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter […]. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head” [text quoted italicized by us]. If we understood well, the episcopate united to the pope is no longer a subject of infallibility, as it was affirmed traditionally (the pope alone being the other subject of this infallibility), but it is also a subject of the full power over the whole Church.

Diocesan bishops hold their jurisdiction immediately from Christ and not through the pope

To be logical with what was just said – that is that each bishop, according to Lumen Gentium, receives at the time of his consecration a participation to the universal jurisdiction – Lumen Gentium took a stand, more clearly, over the origin of the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishops. The Constitution on the Church, n. 27, called them vicari et legati Christi, vicar and envoy of Christ, which would not have stood out if the title of “Vicar of Christ” had till now usually been reserved for the pope[2]. But in n. 27 we read: the power, potestas, that the diocesan bishops exercise in Christ’s name is “proper, ordinary and immediate” [text quoted italicized by us]. The word potestas is less precise and most of all less technical than the one of juridictio (the power to govern), but it is definitely the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop that is the subject here, as we can see from the classical use of the two adjectives to qualify episcopal jurisdiction, which is indeed “proper” (exercised by the titular, in this case the bishop, in his name and not by delegation) and “ordinary” (inherent to the function, in this case his diocesan episcopal function).

On the other end the third qualification, “immediate”, is a considerable novelty. Pius XII, indeed, had taught in three occasions that the jurisdiction of divine right of the successors of the Apostles, emanating from Christ (as any jurisdiction for that matter), is received through the Successor of Peter, through his mediation. In Mystici Corporis, 29 June 1943: “Although enjoying the ordinary power of jurisdiction which they receive directly [quoted text italicized by us] from the same Supreme Pontiff.” And, in this context of schism of the Chinese patriotic Church, in Ad sinarum gentem, 7 October 1954: “the power of jurisdiction [in general but particularly for diocesan bishops], which is conferred upon the Supreme Pontiff directly by divine rights, flows to the Bishops by the same right, but only through the Successor of St. Peter;” and also in Ad apostolorum Principis, 29 June 1958: “The jurisdiction passes to bishops only through the Roman Pontiff.”

As to correct its affirmation that the jurisdiction is given immediately to the diocesan bishop by Christ, Lumen Gentium actually added: “its exercise (of this power) is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful[3].”

In addition, the Vatican II Fathers, in the same line as this movement of episcopal auto-affirmation, have worked towards reducing whatever barriers other powers could represent. In this way, the exemption of religious (from the jurisdiction of the bishop) who participate in the pastoral life of the diocese is cut back: usually it was said that they were subjected to “the authority” of the bishop for the good organization of pastoral life; the Council added that they are subjected to his “jurisdiction” for this same diocesan pastoral organization (decree Christus Dominus on the subject of the pastoral responsibility of bishops, n. 35). But, most of all, n. 31 of Christus Dominus practically suppressed the traditional immovability enjoyed by a large number of parish priests: “the procedure for transferring and removing pastors is to be re-examined and simplified. In this way the bishop, while observing natural and canonical equity, can better provide for the needs of the good of souls.” Christus Dominus yet said that “each parish priest must enjoy, in his office, the stability which the good of the souls demands”. Thanks to this ‘stability”, Canon 522 of the new Code of Canon Law tried to find a second-rate for immovability, a sort of permanent contract: “A pastor must possess stability and therefore is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time.” Except that Canon 522 adds: “The diocesan bishop can appoint him for a specific period only if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.” Which is most of the time always the case. The movability of parish priests has therefore become, along with the Council’s intention and via the decisions of the episcopal conference, the rule. For example, the curial charge is generally conferred in France for 6 years, with possible renewals, which inevitably make this office look like a position in the civil service.

Ever powerful, pope disciplines bishops

History will probably tell that conciliar popes have enjoyed an authority larger than their predecessors, all else being equal and in a very different context, a little bit like leaders of democrats have more powers than the princes they have replaced. Like Louis XVIII of France granted the Charter, Paul VI in the beginning of the last session of the council, through the motu proprio Apostolica sollicitudo, 15 September 1965, instituted the Synod of Bishops which appeared as the main body of the episcopal collegiality, and which at the same time limited him singularly. The pope gave himself a counsel, called Synod of Bishops, of which the assemblies composed in their majority by episcopal conferences would gather upon his request; it was to decide of the order of the day; it was only to have consultation value, the pope could exceptionally give it deliberative power, but then keeping for himself to ratify its decisions. A decision which was ratified by the Council (Christus Dominus, n. 5).

Yet this Synod does not have a minor role in the Church after Vatican II. Its regular assemblies, in the image of what happens in modern societies, go along with elaborating compromise agreements which today replace de facto the traditional obedience of faith, cement of communion to Christ. All this, in this synods, with a heavy dose of manipulation, as one must admit, either in a way of moderation of progressive advances when the Roman line was “the hermeneutic of renewal in the continuity” (under Benedict XVI, John Paul II and even under Paul VI), or on the contrary in a plain progressive way, when it finds its inspiration, as in the case today under Francis, of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” Conservative forces are in any case penalized by the fact that the Synod, just like the last council, remains on a pastoral mode, and that all strictly doctrinal criticism (in the form of a question, like the dubia for example) remains pointless.

Moreover, Paul VI increased his authority over the episcopate with an other interpretation of the Council. The decree Christus Dominus, n. 21, wanted “diocesan bishops and others regarded in law as their equals, who have become less capable of fulfilling their duties properly because of the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason, are earnestly requested to offer their resignation from office either at their own initiative or upon the invitation of the competent authority.” Paul VI set the age of resignation at 75 years old, for all bishops, but not the bishop of Rome. He decided that the diocesan bishops and their pairs will be “earnestly requested of their own free will to tender their resignation from office not later than at the completion of their 75th year of age” (Apostolic letter Ecclesiæ Sanctæ, n. 11). What was later inscribed in Canon 401 of the 1983 Code. The pope was not concerned by this obligation, since no one has the right to make this earnest request to him.

Certainly, the bishops are not strictly obliged to present their resignation, but in fact they all comply with this rule (the only example of refusal to present his resignation was the one of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, in 2011, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio). This gives Rome a capacity to renew the episcopates it never had before to this degree. As a result, the bishop, “spouse” of his Church (cf. 2 Tm 3, 2), tends to become a sort of temporary civil servant prefect. Even more so under the present pontificate, overly centralizing, where the shepherd of a diocese considers himself as a simple representative of the pope, as seen for example with the enforcement of Traditiones custodes, despite all opposite statements.

And cornered by a system of majority rule

In addition, if the Synod granted by Paul VI appeared as the principal body of collegiality, the episcopal conferences generalized by Christus Dominus (n. 37), gathering the bishops of a country or a territory, are also considered as witnesses of collegiality. We realized that if this is to increase (theoretically) the collective role of the bishops, it is an instrument of reduction, self-reduction therefore, of their individual authority.

In reality, the gathering of bishops to share and take decisions is totally traditional, except that this took place in the past in a Church where the first issue was the transmission of the message of Christ. The synods or the particular, national or regional councils of the past, meeting occasionally to debate questions of faith (subject to the approbation of the pope) or pastoral issues in the classical sense, meaning in direct relation with faith, was not at all reductive, on the contrary, of episcopal authority. But the current conferences are permanent organizations, made heavy also by very constraining administrations handling in this particular way topics on pastoral organizations. Administrations whose decisions impose themselves, at least by moral obligation, to all of its members.

The fact is that we evolve today in the Church outside the magisterium which no longer imposes itself permanently as it used to, either to clarify what is the truth to be believed, the moral law to be followed, or to condemn the error. The communion of faith is replaced by a large movement of majority rule, similar to the one found in modern societies, which places the bishops in a corner. The episcopal conference trains its members from the top, and the network of bodies and boards involved in the administration of the diocese hinders the bishop from the bottom. Only in secret a bishop will be able to be non conformist, as for example the one who encourages some of his priests to use a traditional catechism instead of the official manuals used in the diocese. An other example is the bishop who allows a decent space for the liturgy or for traditional priests, or again one who organizes a classic seminary. Misconduct on the periphery of what has become a “system”, these bishops are only tolerated until Rome intervenes to set the diocese back on the common track (Albenga, San Luis, Ciudad del Este, San Rafael, Fréjus-Toulon).

Unreliable shepherds as we said in the beginning of this article: the extreme secularization which makes them today unknown figures among the general public, and the ralliement to the democratic society they cultivate even by doing more than what they require of them (as in the issue of sexual scandals, or the Covid crisis), makes them specters of bishops, and even often terrorized ones. In addition to all this the fact that these successors of the Apostles who keep the Word silent or speak it with hesitation no longer preside but over skeletal presbyteriums, with the exception of few still flourishing clerical entities, and over communities of faithful ever so diminishing numbers, with the exception of few clusters still thriving.

 Yet, Bishops awaiting confirmation in the faith

“And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” (Lk 22, 31-32)

The hope Catholics aware of the state of dereliction of the Church have today is a dry hope, like spiritual authors qualify a hope that exist without sensible consolations.

It is in a way founded on a sort of syllogism of faith which promises them that their shepherds cannot indefinitely remain in this negligent state:

  • They indeed strongly believe, these Catholics, in the Word of Christ which insures us the gates of hell – today represented precisely by the fact that the magisterium remains silent and no longer condemn error-, will not prevail against his spouse.
  • But, the divine constitution of this Church rests on the bishop of Rome, Successor of Peter, and on the other bishops united to the pope, Successors of the Apostles.
  • Therefore, it is certain that the bishops will repel the present assault of hell, particularly the one who is first among them, who from silent will become once again the instruments of the Word.

Certainly, there is a paradox in imploring shepherds to be truly what they should be, shepherds, since what is criticized is actually their own teaching, whether assumed or tolerated, but not condemned (ecumenism, religious liberty, Amoris lætitia, the transformation of the Church in a synodal Church). Ultimately, what is expected of the bishops is a retraction, in one way or another. Why, some will say? Isn’t it, in the end, the pope that will confirm his brothers? Thus shouldn’t we be waiting for the pope to be the first to react? Surely, and that’s just it, these brothers that he must confirm, they are first the bishops. Who, till then, keep all their responsibilities as bishops, even if the pope does not confirm them, at least not yet. Already, they can and even must intervene in the name of their solicitude of shepherds of the Church. We had suggested to call this words of the bishops condemning the error when the pope does not do it (yet), acts of considerate communion[4]: these shepherds in this way demonstrate they are united to the pope, most probably to the pope that is to come, who cannot not fulfill his duty one day. In doing so, and by the fact itself, even more so than all the faithful and priests together, these bishops have the duty to prepare the ways of a restoration of the magisterium.

Father Claude Barthe

[1] Vatican II has not formally abandoned the distinction between order and jurisdiction, which remains in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, even if the imprecisions which we mention have lead some authors to hold that the distinction is obsolete. See: Laurent Villemin, Pouvoir dordre et pouvoir de juridiction. Histoire théologique de leur distinction, préface par Patrick Valdrini, postscript by Hervé Legrand, Cerf, coll. « Cogitatio Fidei », 2003.

[2] Until Pope Francis took out the title of “Vicar of Christ” all together from the 2020 Pontifical yearbook, the Holy See’s directory, and moved it to a footnote under the mention of “historic title”.

[3] Based on this restriction, some theologians and canonists, such as Alphonse Borras mentioned thereafter, hold that Vatican II did not decide on this matter. It is true that a pastoral council, by definition does not define, if we may say and therefore does not settle issues or questions…

[4] Since the pope says nothing, may the bishops speak! – Res Novae – Perspectives romaines