On the Way to Christus Dominus

(From Neil) As Todd reminded us, the first chapter of Christus Dominus says, “By virtue of sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college, bishops are constituted as members of the episcopal body.” This “order of bishops” succeeds the “college of apostles,” and we can speak of a “collegiate power in union with the pope.” What does all this college-talk mean? I’m sorry to say that figuring this out might mean going through a bit of history. But at least I can offer the distinguished Assumptionist theologian George Tavard as a guide (see The Jurist 64 [2004] 82-115).

We’ll begin with the announcement of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII on January 25, 1959. An Antepreparatory Commission then gathered recommendations from bishops, superior generals, Roman dicasteries, and universities. These recommendations now fill sixteen rather thick volumes. Fr Tavard tells us that we can sense a general expectation that Vatican II would complete the work of Vatican I by unfolding a doctrine of the episcopate. For instance, Archbishop Emile Guerry of Cambrai would elaborate that, in his opinion, bishops were members of an episcopal college that succeeded the apostolic college. They were “sponsors” of the gospel mission to the world, bearing the weight of the whole Church in communion and solidarity with (and under) the bishop of Rome. Many bishops also happened to think that the centralization of Church government under Pius XII had gone too far.

Fifteen conciliar commissions were created on the feast of Pentecost, June 5, 1960; the Theological Commission drafted the schema De Ecclesia. The Council itself began on October 11, 1962. De Ecclesia was presented on Friday, November 30, 1962. The reception was chilly – Emile-Joseph de Smedt, Bishop of Bruges, described the text as expressing “triumphalismus, clericalismus, jurisidicismus.” The question of episcopal collegiality soon came up in the following debates. In a written communication, the Melkite bishop of Aleppo, Athanase Toutoungy, presented the venerable Eastern theology of collegiality: “In each of the Churches one recognizes the complete notion of the universal Church, … and … in the universal Church one finds the lineaments of each of the particular Churches.” John XXIII had hoped that the Council would end by Christmas. This proved to be impossible; the Council outlasted Good Pope John, who went to his reward on June 3, 1963. He was followed by Pope Paul VI.

During the Second Session of the Council, it became clear that the bishops were not in agreement about collegiality. Between October 4 and October 15, 31 bishops spoke in favor of the doctrine, 18 expressed reservations, and two speakers were entirely negative. One of the latter was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who worried that collegiality would destroy papal primacy and conferences of bishops would ruin the authority of the bishop in his diocese. This would not be Lefebvre’s last worry. But the majority seemed to support the idea that there was an episcopal college in succession to the apostolic college. One would enter this college by a sacramental episcopal ordination. This college was inseparable from the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome who was its head. The Church only possessed one supreme authority whether exercised by a Council or the pope by himself, but never in isolation from the college. And all political analogies, noted this majority, were inadequate.

Cardinal Leo-Joseph Suenens, moderator of the session, forced a vote on five questions on October 15, 1963. One of them invited approval or disapproval of the claim that the college of bishops succeeds the college of apostles in the tasks of evangelization, sanctification, and pastoral care, and that it has authority over the entire Church with its head, the bishop of Rome. The vote was 1808 to 336. But among the opponents were the secretary, vice president, and president of the Doctrinal Commission. The president, the formidable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, claimed that the apostles had never acted collegially, with only the possible exception of the Council of Jerusalem.

So, as Fr Tavard says, the intersession between the second and third sessions “was a theatre of considerable agitation. There was intense lobbying around the pope by cardinals and bishops who systematically opposed the doctrine of collegiality.” The fateful Third Session began on September 14, 1964. It was announced that the overall vote on the revised text De Ecclesia, now in the form of the constitution Lumen Gentium, would take place on September 30th. A representative of those who had difficulties with collegiality was unusually allowed to speak alongside the presentations of Lumen Gentium – Bishop Franjo Franic, Bishop of Split (Yugoslavia), did his best to show that collegiality was a theological novelty that contradicted the teachings of Vatican I. But the vote on sections 18-23 of Lumen Gentium, which would establish collegiality, was 1624 to 42, with 572 others giving a placet iuxta modum (in other words, a “yes” with a proposed amendment).

The principle of episcopal collegiality comes from three doctrinal convictions, all expressed in Lumen Gentium. The Lord, it is believed, is present in the ministry of bishops. The sacramental character of episcopal ordination means that “bishops, in a resplendent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd, and priest, and act as his representatives.” And the bishop of Rome is the visible head of the episcopal body. In his closing address to the Third Session, Paul VI repeated that the doctrine of episcopal collegiality did not nullify papal primacy, but meant that the Church’s government was “at the same time monarchical and hierarchical.” Paul said that he intended to facilitate episcopal collegiality by creating appropriate commissions and reforming the Roman Curia.

The Fourth Session of Vatican II began on September 14, 1965. On the very next day, Paul VI, in order to “tighten the bonds of our union with the bishops,” created the Synod of Bishops. The Council never revisited the debate on episcopal collegiality. It perhaps further hinted at the relevance of collegiality in Gaudium et Spes, which suggested that the mission of the Church required that “all who constitute the one People of God will be able to engage in ever more fruitful dialogue, whether they are pastors or other members of the faithful.” More explicitly, the decree Christus Dominus, promulgated on October 28, 1965, at the end of the session, endorsed the creation of the Synod of Bishops: “This council, as it will be representative of the whole Catholic episcopate, will bear testimony to the participation of all bishops in hierarchical communion in the care of the universal Church.”

We can ask whether the Synod of Bishops has succeeded in this task. In a 1996 lecture, Archbishop John Quinn said, “Many Bishops feel that issues which they would like to discuss responsibly cannot come up.” We can also ask if the collegial principle extends to a particular Church itself, so that the priests of a diocese share responsibility with their bishop for the care of the diocese. “All priests, in union with bishops, so share in one and the same priesthood and ministry of Christ that the very unity of their consecration and mission requires their hierarchical communion with the order of bishops” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 7).

Well, what do you think?



About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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