How to Be a Seventeenth Century Bishop

from Neil


Todd has commented that his Vatican II posts seem to lower blog traffic. I’m not sure why. I wonder if, a generation after the council, the language of Vatican II now seems so familiar, so commonplace, that it has lost any real traction with our lives. On one hand, we find it hard to believe that at one time the secretary, vice president, and president of the Doctrinal Commission at the council actually opposed the doctrine of collegiality. On the other hand, we might find it increasingly difficult to translate the doctrine of collegiality into any concrete practical action in the here and now. We simply look up, pause for a few seconds of hushed silence, and move on. I’d like to show that Todd’s discussion of Christus Dominus is important by discussing a Tridentine view of the episcopacy. I hasten to say that I’m not trying to achieve a chiaroscuro effect – the Tridentine view might strike us as undeveloped in certain aspects, but it certainly contains unexpected riches as well. The point is that it is, at least in part, different. By grasping this difference, we can return to the documents of Vatican II with a renewed awareness that they are not just more of the same. And you might find that you have something to say.

For reasons of convenience, I’ll focus only on France (I’m indebted to the work of Alison Forrestal, by the way). The Council of Trent’s focus on bishops as ecclesiastical governors and the development of a disciplined and educated clergy had run into a roadblock. In France, one generally became a bishop after service to the crown or by showing talent in securing and preserving order in the provinces. It will not surprise you to learn that this was not exactly conducive to the selection of good shepherds. The roadblock was at least in part removed through the efforts of Pierre de Bérulle, who established the Congregation of the Oratory in France in 1611 and influenced many others, including Vincent de Paul, who founded the Congregation of the Mission in 1625, and Jean-Jacques Olier, who established the Sulpician Congregation in 1645. By the late 1700’s, a majority of the French episcopate had been schooled in the Sulpician seminary in Paris. These founders were not simply founders – they provided a good deal of spiritual counsel to bishops and advised the crown on episcopal nominations (they were not miracle-workers, though, and Bérulle would eventually get fed up with the less heavenly minded Richelieu).

What was a good bishop to Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle? Bérulle’s thought drew heavily, if not exclusively, on the mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius and focused upon the importance of the hierarchical structure of divine and human relations and the significance of self-renunciation for an ascent to God. The hierarchical emphasis elevated the mediatorial role of the priestly office – “a power so elevated that even the angels in their state of glory are not worthy of it” and “the origin of all the holiness which must be in the church of God.” And the coupling of hierarchy and self-renunciation meant that priests, as the “divinisers” of others, had to imitate the total abnegation of Christ’s self-surrender on the cross.

Furthermore, priests had to obey their bishops. Bérulle was no supporter of ecclesiastical democracy. Drawing on Dionysian hierarchy once again, Bérulle claimed that priests were earthly angels acting as “mediators on earth of God’s counsels on his souls and works,” but, correspondingly, bishops were the earthly manifestation of the archangels and in command of the priests. Bishops were responsible for being closest to God and had to mediate their knowledge of the divine truths to those under them through teaching and the administration of orders and confirmation. They were to be the most divinised of all, and Bérulle put pressure on bishops to be more intensely holy than anyone else. Then they would be more receptive to the divine will and more capable of revealing it to their charges. Above all, this required worldly detachment: “Hierarchs must therefore use their hierarchical power only in the measure that they are moved by the Thearchy … for it would be sacrilege for holy initiators … to act even once against the sacred ordinances of the One who is the principle of their own initiation.”

To his credit, Bérulle’s call for bishops to be hierarchical exemplars possessing supreme levels of “authority, holiness and light” is the perfect cure for ecclesiastical ambition. Jean-Jacques Olier would likewise emphasize the priest’s mediatorial role, which similarly required a Christlike self-renunciation. To Olier, the priest was the sacrament of Jesus Christ who mediated grace to the people, chiefly through the Eucharist, and a victim who offered his whole self in servitude to God for the sins of the world. Olier’s view of the episcopacy, presented in his 1651 Projet de l’establissement d’un séminaire dans un diocèse, was also hierarchical, with bishops at the summit mediating “holy grandeur.” The bishop was father, leader, and head (chef) to his priests. This father image is Pauline (e.g., 1 Thess 2:11-12) and grounded ecclesiastical obedience upon a child’s goodwill towards and love for a benevolent patriarch. The more important images seem to be those of leader and head of the clergy and have to do with sacramental order – the flowing of grace “from the leader (head) into the members by his natural joints and by his ligaments, his veins and his nerves prepared for the distribution of spirits and for the communication of his life.” Bishops had a special grace that priests needed for full sanctity, and, through the priests, “the spirit of the holy prelate releases sanctification in the people.” This hierarchical transmission could only be hindered by personal interests, and, for Olier, a good bishop needed the virtues of piety, a distrust of the world, frugality, honesty, zeal, hatred of sin, and humility. With the deepest self-renunciation, the episcopal spirit could operate with perfect freedom.

Perhaps you’ve read much that you’ve admired, and much that you would question (Olier was, unsurprisingly, a strong supporter of monarchical authority). A recent article in Theological Studies by Edward P. Hahnenberg claims that this Sulpician tradition coming from Bérulle and Olier “shaped seminaries throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.” But Hahnenberg is mostly (not completely) critical. He writes, “Clouded by a phenomenological, cultic understanding of the priest as mediator, this approach translated Christ’s self-sacrifice into a spirituality of denial: the priest was other-worldly, a man set apart for the things of God.” Hahnenberg worries that “its effect was to locate the priest outside the community of believers” in a privileged (if demanding) state of “quasi-identification” with Christ. These tendencies would be intensified with bishops.

I’ll leave you with a couple questions: What, if anything, should we learn today from Bérulle and Olier? With their views in the background, what can we now say about the importance of Christus Dominus (and Todd’s commentary)?

About catholicsensibility

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