Since the pope says nothing, may the bishops speak!

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

French, italiano

74 bishops, of which 4 cardinals, have sent a letter, dated 14 April 2022, to their German counterparts in regards to the risk of schism coming from the “Synodal Path”[1]. This intervention is in itself a considerable event: some bishops, of their own initiative, take on to exercise their sollicitude of Successors of the Apostles over a part of the universal Church gangrened by the grave doctrinal errors, without first referring to the pope. In itself it is an applicable option, the pope then having all the options to intervene, approve, or contradict, but this process is totally unheard of in the Church post-Vatican II: these bishops speak, in fact, because the pope has remained silent.

The petty bishops of Vatican II

In an article from October 2019, “Where are the Successors of the Apostles?”[2], we pointed out that the bishops of today in majority find themselves, in the mist a Church in a very serious crisis, in a soft consensus, though they have in their very being of shepherds and doctors all that is necessary “to ignite a fire on the earth”, notably to embrace the Church with the love of God and with His truth.

Paradoxically, Vatican II, which was supposed to be the council of the bishops, destined to re-establish the imbalance of Vatican I, council of the pope, has only but established an other form of centralisation where the conciliar bishop surrounded by an ideological network finds himself a lot more dependent on Rome than he ever was before.

The ideological consensus is found on three levels:

  • At the top, the Synod of the Bishops, with a pure consultation value, run by ways of gathering of regular assemblies, in a very modern way, seeks in fact to establish – as the last council had established – concession agreements which for a long time concluded in a way favorable to “the hermeneutic of renewal in the continuity”, and today in a way of “progress”. The Apostolic exhortations which rely on the works of these assemblies, as good as they might have been, don’t provide an explanatory magisterium on the Creed but a teaching that goes beyond an adherence to articles of faith and therefore which can always be amended, as previously explained.
  • Below, we find the episcopal conferences, which through decisions and majority rule, carefully presented as practically unanimous decisions and it is often the case, prevents even more so important personal initiatives that diocesan shepherds could take.
  • Last, in his diocese itself, the bishop takes a sort of revenge, since the parish priest independence has been greatly diminished (they are no longer irremovable, must resign at 75 years of age, and are surrounded, sometimes replaced, by squads of laities). Yet the bishop is no Master in his kingdom: he depends indeed on collaborators and councils which reflect the main orientations of the country’s bishops.

And then, the marching orders, yesterday, collegiality, today, synodality, make no difference to the fact that the institutional centralisation has never been so strong as it is today. Practically, without exception, the Latin rite bishops are today appointed by the pope who does not hesitate and with no hesitation, synodal or not, to force any bishops who would disagree to resign, such as the bishops of Albenga, San Luis, San Rafael…

One main element of this reinforced centralisation is found in the decision taken by Paul VI, to force the diocesan bishops to give their resignation when they reach 75 years of age[3] (the pope keeping the decision to either accept or prolong the mandate of the bishop). This disposition, as it appears in canon 401, gives the Roman authority the possibility it never had to this degree to renew the episcopates. Certainly, it was always possible for a bishop, including the bishop of Rome, to freely resign from office, or also for the pope to ask him to resign for serious reasons. If the bishop resisted it even happened that he would be deposed by the pope: this happened with Pius VII and the French Bishops who refused to freely resign from their office after the Concordat of 1801 with Bonaparte. But now, since 1966, canonical law forces all bishops, thus the pope as well, to resign when reaching 75 years of age.

This mesure is actually so unbelievable that the legislative text seems to hesitate: “A diocesan bishop who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age is requested – rogatur – to present his resignation from office”, says the canon. What would happen if the bishop did not respond to the request? In fact, it is very rare that some bishops would feel strong enough to omit to present their resignation when comes the time, like the Archbishop of Buenos Aires did, Jorge Bergoglio. We can wonder if this new rule, which had never existed before[4], is perfectly in conformity with the divine constitution of the Church having been founded on the Successor of Peter and the Successors of the Apostles united to Him. To each diocesan bishop is entrusted by the Pope a portion of the flock, a particular church, of which he becomes the mystical spouse, and the sole fact of turning 75 does not seem a sufficient motive to presume that the bishop has become unable and that his “matrimonial” tie has to be broken, especially sine it is not the case for the pope. In this way, the bishops “spouse” of their Churches (Cf. 1 Tm 3,2) tend to become like prefects civil servants. Synodal spirit, where are you?

Bishops by divine right

On the duties of bishops, Vatican II still reminded very important truths. The Church being missionary in nature (Redemptoris missio n. 5), the main task of the Successors of the Apostles is to make known the Gospel message. The bishops are first of all the “preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ” (Lumen gentium, n. 25). When pope and bishops teach together, whether at a council or dispersed but speaking in one single voice, in what is called the “universal ordinary magisterium”, the care of all and each of the bishops for the whole of the flock comes naturally, without insistence.

But in addition, this sollicitude thus exercised for the whole Church characterizes them in anything they do: legitimate successors of the Apostles, “the bishops are obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church.” (Lumen gentian, n. 23 § 2). By saying this, the Council referred to the Encyclical Fidei donum of Pius XII, on the missions, from 21 April 1957, which insisted on the bishops to engage some of their priests to leave for the mission: the life of the universal Church is of the particular responsibility of each of them[5].

The universal office of the pope does not assimilate other bishops’ contribution: such is the true synodality. The bishops manifest their communion with the Bishop of Rome and the communion that exists between them either by participating to the Magisterium and pastoral care of the Successor of Peter or by agreeing to it.

Preventive communion

But what happens when the pope remains silent when he should speak? For as long as Pius VI had not made known his condemnation of the oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the bishops of France have compensated by their instructions and their example. Today, we could call these negligence of “silences of the pope” in regards to moral doctrine (Amoris lætitia which does not defend the indissolubility of marriage), in regards to the rule of faith represented by the liturgy (Traditions custodes which denies the Tridentine liturgy its quality of lex orandi), in regards to the erring ways to be condemned (the German “Synodal Path” among many others). In this case, doesn’t the communion with the pope – a communion which is preventive, in a way – consist for the Successors of the Apostles in speaking, not in lieu of the Successor of Peter, but in the expectation of the approbation or infirmation that he will exercise one day by vertu of his charism? In other words and in concrete terms, doesn’t the act of communion for the bishops consist in speaking so that the pope no longer remains silent?

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Lk 22, 31-32). When Peter, for whatever reason, disappears or shies away from his responsibilities, his brothers must appeal to him any way they can so that he may confirm them. By saying this, we are not encouraging any kind of conciliarism (which held that the bishops, gathered in a council, may judge of the pope). And, as a matter of fact, wasn’t the Council of Constance which served the conciliarism of the Gallicans, an extreme and desperate tentative to make sure a pope confirm his brothers – which it actually succeeded in doing so by deposing Gregory XII, Benedict XIII, John XXIII, to elect Martin V? So much it is true that the universal sollicitude of the bishops cannot be imagined outside the one of the pope, including the most contradictory of this sollicitude, where particular bishops find themselves apparently more catholic than the pope.

These 74 bishops (of which 4 cardinals: Arinze, Napier, Burke, Pell), a majority being from the United States (Samuel Aquila, Salvatore Cordileone, etc.), but also from Africa, thus make an important step towards the condemnation of heresies that are deeply wounding the Church. Whatever way we may go tomorrow to straighten out the Church, the various steps which will lead to this true reform sub Petro, the intervention of the pars senior of the episcopate will be crucial, as it always was throughout history.

Abbé Claude Barthe

[1] Over 70 bishops warn German bishops that ‘Synodal Path’ will lead to ‘schism’ – LifeSite (lifesitenews.com)
[2] Res-novae n°12.
[3] Motu proprio Ecclesiæ sanctæ, 6 August 1966, n. 11 ; Rescript, 5 November 2014.
[4] And which goes beyond the instructions of the Council: the Decree Christus Dominus simply mentioned that the diocesan bishops« 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” (n. 21).
[5] It is amusing to note that Mgr Marcel Lefebvre, then Archbishop of Dakar and Apostolic Delegate for French-speaking Africa, is often presented as one of the main contributor to this encyclical.