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Chapter Ten

In Chapter Three, I mentioned the Council's teaching about "collegiality", which has to do with the relationship between the pope and bishops as rulers, individually and collectively, of the universal Church. In other words, it is about the government of the Church at the highest level, and a short excursion into the past is, I think, the best way to show why this subject was thought to need clarification.1

Collegiality is not a new doctrine in the sense of describing something that was not implicitly there before. Everything the Church teaches has always existed either in her public practice or her conscious or sub-conscious mind.

The two things about the papal-episcopal relationship understood from the beginning were, first, that Christ did not mean the government of the Church to be an absolute monarchy of the 17th/18th-century kind with the Pope as a king able to alter things at will and the bishops as Versailles-like courtiers saying "Yes" to his every whim; secondly, going to the other extreme, he was not setting up a federation of petty independent "principalities", like the medieval German empire, with each bishop reluctantly surrendering some of his power to a central authority for the sake of collective security. He intended something quite different.

The Church's constitution could perhaps best be described as a system of vice-royalties under a supreme viceroy, subject to a Monarch who has "gone away on a journey for a time", or a brotherhood of shepherds teaching and ruling together with and under a chief shepherd. 2 Were this not so, it would be impossible to explain why, the moment Constantine left the Church free to act more or less as she wished, we find, on the one hand, bishops gathering from time to time in general and local councils; on the other hand, recognition of the special position of St. Peter's successor, his right to settle disputes about doctrine and give judgements in matters of discipline. The fact that the recognition was often reluctant and sometimes resisted, only proves that the right was part of the Church's faith from the start. The popes could never have established such a right against the belief of the whole Church if that right had not been embedded in tradition, as well as explicitly stated by St. Matthew. There were no biblical critics in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries to tell people that the words "Thou art Peter and on this rock, etc." did not mean  what they seemed to mean, or were a later interpolation.

What was not precisely understood or laid down from the beginning was how far the popes' rights as supreme teachers and rulers of the universal Church extended in all their details, and how they harmonised with the rights of bishops as representatives of Christ in their individual dioceses, or groups of bishops collaborating in particular regions. This was one of those things God willed should come to light over the course of time, as the Church passed from the state of being like a mustard seed to becoming "the biggest of the garden herbs". But it was not destined to be an untroubled growth. God designed the Church to live in a world which not only bears all over it the marks of his goodness and power, but which he allows to be continually disturbed, especially in its human part, by the activities of our chief Enemy, who was to leave his mark on the development of the Church's understanding of the relationship between Pope and bishops as on so much else.

In confusing the issues, the Enemy's most useful instruments were, as always, human frailty. From time to time the cowardice, worldliness, and even in a few cases downright wickedness of certain popes provoked rebellion against their authority, while things like jealousy, ambition and national pride were the pitfalls for less holy members of the episcopate. In any quarrel involving the papacy, the temptation for unspiritual bishops is to take the side of the local government, ever anxious to limit papal authority and set up national churches. Secular rulers, one could say, are almost "by nature" averse to having any outside authority influence the people under their control.

These were the principal factors leading to the schism between western and eastern Christianity in 1054, which became all but total after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.

As the Roman empire turned into what we now call the Byzantine empire, the emperors, with the support of bishops for various reasons hostile to Rome, gradually assumed the role, in practice if not theory, of head of both Church and state.Thus was born what historians call caesaro-papism Caesar was head of both Church and state.

Caesaro-papism did not triumph without a long struggle. In the east itself there was for centuries a strong pro-papal party lead by great saints like Maximus the Confessor and Theodore of Studium. But in the end as east and west drifted culturally and politically further and further apart, the imperial government, abetted by subservient, ambitious or nationalistic clerics eventually alienated the minds of its subjects from the papacy more or less completely.

In the west, understanding of the papal office at first developed more harmoniously. The holy bishops and missionaries who brought the faith to  the barbarian invaders had set them on the right track with regard to Peter's authority. Quarrels between Church and state were mainly about practical things. It was not until the early medieval principalities began to coalesce into modern nation states that challenges to papal authority began on the theoretical level.

The first of these challenges in order of time took the form called conciliarism.

Conciliarism is the theory that the bishops gathered in general council are the highest authority in the Church. The Pope is bound to obey the council's majority vote.

From the time of the earliest Councils (the fourth and fifth centuries) there had been attempts to hold general councils without papal consent, or to legislate through them in opposition to the reigning pope. But the theory first took explicit shape in the West at the time of the Great Schism (1378-1417) and the Councils of Constance (1414-18) and Basle (1431). The Council of Constance, at which priests outnumbered bishops in the early sessions, tried to bind Pope Martin V to regular general councils; while at Basle ten years later there were attempts to impose similar restrictions on Pope Eugenius IV.

In spite of repeated condemnations, conciliarism was to trouble the Church's life and provide the basis for incipient schisms down to the end of the 18th century.

Gallicanism, conciliarism's sister movement, was simply a western form of caesaro-papism. As a theory it began to take shape under the French King Philip the Fair (1268-1314) who tried to subordinate the papacy to the French monarchy, but it got its name from the four Galan articles of belief, a special creed for the French, which Louis XIV tried to impose on his subjects in the 17th century. It was no longer possible for the French government to make the Pope a French puppet, as it had in the 14th century. The rival monarchies of Austria and Spain would not have allowed it. Louis' solution was to exclude the pope as much as possible from the life of the local Church, without actually breaking with him as Henry VIII had done.

According to the Galilean articles, the pope is not only subject to a general council, he may not touch the usages of the local church, nor may he criticise or censure anything rulers do in temporal affairs. About faith and morals, his judgements are not final until accepted by the whole Church. In Gallican practice no bull or other papal document could be published without the permission (exequatur or placet) of the local ruler.

Eventually Louis XIV withdrew the Galan articles, but they continued to be taught in French seminaries, and in the 18th century, Galilean principles  spread throughout Catholic Europe. Outside France its chief proponents were the Emperor Joseph II, his brother Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and the German ecclesiastical apologist for the theory, Nicholas von Hontheim, auxiliary bishop of Trier, who used the pen-name Febronius. According to Febronius, bishops being equals, the pope had no authority outside his own diocese; the original constitution of the Church was "collegial" not "monarchical".

In spite of this, although there is a widespread notion that papal power was steadily increasing from the early middle ages up to the Second Vatican Council, in fact papal power had been ebbing since the late 16th century, and by 1780 had reached one of its lowest points. It then looked as if a general revolt against the papacy by Europe's Catholic monarchies was about to explode, followed by the establishment of all but independent national churches, when suddenly the whole crowd of Gallicans and Febronians emperors, kings, statesmen, bishops, priests and theologians were put to flight, executed or vanished from sight in the turmoils of the French revolution. The Revolution was certainly what would be called today "a negative experience" for the Church, but it did at least do it that much service.

Although the Gallivan mentality outlasted the revolution, and in the surviving Catholic monarchies like Austria persisted down to World War I (it will no doubt never completely die), it no longer had the same vigour. Political revolutionaries now seemed to Europe's Catholic rulers more dangerous competitors for the allegiance of their subjects than ever the popes had been. Moreover, after 1850 the popes could count increasingly on the support of the ordinary faithful, with whom the railways and newspapers were bringing them into ever closer touch. Conciliarism and Gallicanism had never been popular movements. Their appeal had always been to members of the ruling classes, higher clergy, haute bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. Why should fine upstanding Frenchmen and Germans (or today, Dutchmen, Englishmen or Americans) have to defer to miserable foreigners, especially Italians?

This then was the background to the First Vatican Council's definitions of papal primacy (the popes' authority as supreme rulers of the universal Church) and infallibility (their protection from error when teaching on faith and morals). The First Vatican Council was not something that happened out of the blue; an unprovoked assertion of papal prerogative. It was the culmination of a long struggle between conflicting views about how Christ intended his Church to be governed at the highest level. Even if at times the failings of particular popes had seemed to give substance to the conciliarist or Gallican case, the vast majority of Catholics had always known "instinctively", when not explicitly, that the pope is not subject to the body of bishops (the Church is not Episcopalian), and that his authority as teacher and ruler is not exercised in a particular region only with the consent of the local episcopate or ruler; it permeates the whole Church. It was this that the First Vatican Council at last put beyond doubt.

The interruption and dispersal of the Council by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war (1870) before it had time to deal with the authority of bishops, may have resulted in many of the faithful coming to think that a bishop is merely a kind of papal delegate or representative, Like a nuncio. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to see the hundred years' lapse between the First and Second Vatican Councils as providential. Given the long tradition of conciliarism and Gallicanism in Europe, time was needed for the teaching of Vatican I about papal primacy and infallibility to sink in.

However, the rest of the work of Vatican I had still to be done. What then are the range and limits of the authority of an individual bishop, or that of all the bishops together, in relation to the Pope's own authority?

There was no uncertainty about the bishop's authority over his diocese. Once lawfully elected or appointed, and recognised by the reigning pope, a bishop rules his diocese by divine right. Except for matters specially reserved to the Holy See, the bishop does not have to ask the Pope's permission for what he says and does. In each diocese the two authorities, papal and episcopal, interpenetrate. The Pope's higher authority is designed to support, not extinguish, the bishop's exercise of his powers.

The question busying theological minds in the pre-conciliar period was whether and how the bishops in some way share individually and collectively in the government of the whole Church. They unquestionably do in a general council. But what about the rest of the time? And what is the theological foundation for such sharing?

It was to answer these two questions that theologians began examining the idea that all the bishops together, with and under the Pope, form a "college or permanent body" just as the apostles with and under St. Peter formed a college or permanent body.

The difficulty the Council had in shaping its teaching the full implications and mode of application are still subject of fierce debate was due to two causes. The first was having committed itself to not issuing formal definitions. The second was the tendency of people today to think about nearly everything in political terms including, it seems, not a few of those taking part in the Council.

The essential point to grasp is that the "college" does not mean the bishops  apart from the Pope. The college is not like the U.S. congress vis-à-vis the president, or the English parliament in the past vis-a-vis the monarch. Without the Pope, its chief member and head, there is no college. Papal primacy and episcopal collegiality are complementary not antithetical notions.

How precisely, then, do bishops share in the government of the universal Church?

The first way of course is by ruling their own dioceses well. After that, "collegial" government is a matter of bishops having an out-turned cooperative attitude rather than of their possessing hitherto unknown rights and powers. The words the Council repeatedly uses are concern and "solicitude". A bishop's interest in the Church is not meant to stop at the boundaries of his diocese. Bishops, it says, should show a concern and solicitude for the good of the whole Church. On the Pope's side, collegiality implies widespread consultation, even if it is not obligatory. It is up to the Pope to decide when to exercise his supreme authority personally or with the help of the rest of the college.

There has always been more co-operation and consultation in both directions than is generally realised. History gives us many examples (St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Eusebius of Vercelli, St. Boniface; or nearer our own times Cardinal Lavigerie) of bishops acting outside their own diocese to help fellow bishops or the Church as a whole. Just as frequent have been the cases of popes turning to individual bishops for advice or consulting the entire episcopate. Popes regularly consult the college of cardinals.

To make all this clearer, in the years since the Council, the Church has drawn a distinction between strictly collegial acts and expressions of the collegial spirit.3

Strictly collegial acts have to be done by the college as a whole. The general council is the most obvious instance. But here too we must realise that, like the college, there can be no lawful general council apart from the pope. To be a true general council, it must be summoned or subsequently recognised by a pope. Nor are general councils intended for the day-to-day government of the Church. They are called to deal with emergencies or particular problems, and only those of its acts ratified by the Holy See have force.

The only other strictly collegial act that Vatican II seems to foresee is a pope asking die whole episcopate to assent to some undertaking or proposition without leaving their dioceses.

On the other hand, when a bishop sends priests, money or other aid to areas where they are in short supply, he is showing a collegial spirit. So are the bishops of a particular country or region when they act in concert. Their  actions are not actions of the college. The college is indivisible. A part cannot act for the whole.

This applies to episcopal conferences. Encouraged by Pius XII and made mandatory by the Council, episcopal conferences are an important expression of the collegial spirit, but are not part of the Church's fundamental constitution. The fundamental authorities remain the individual bishop and the Pope, or the Pope and all the bishops together.

In keeping with the spirit of collegiality Pope Paul gave bishops and national hierarchies powers of decision in an increasing number of cases hitherto reserved to the Holy See. Although these transfers of power are not irrevocable, they necessarily enhance the authority of the local bishop or episcopate in fact as well as in the eyes of his flock.

The internationalisation of the Roman curia was another of Pope Paul's measures to promote the spirit of collegiality. The purpose was to involve bishops and priests from as many different parts of the world as possible in papal government. By 1985 the number of Italians had been reduced from 88% to 44%, and in the lower ranks from 56% to 23%. The Italian component would be lower still, no doubt, if conditions of work were more attractive. Reasonable accommodation in Rome is hard to come by and expensive when found, curial salaries are low, and not everyone likes spaghetti.

However the most significant expression of the collegial spirit is unquestionably the Episcopal Synod, which Pope Paul set up during the last session of the Council (Sept. 1965), and it was officially established by his motu propel  "Apostolica Sollicitudo" a few days later.

The Synod provides for the regular meeting in Rome every three or four years of a selection of bishops representing the entire Catholic episcopate for (in the words of Pope Paul) "consultation and collaboration when this seems opportune to us for the general good of the Church". After extensive consultation the Pope chooses the subject for discussion, and about a year later sums up the particular meeting's work in a document (apostolic exhortation) to the whole Church. A permanent general secretariat, supervised by an elected council of bishops, organises the meetings and ties up the loose ends. The Synod is a strictly advisory body, though John Paul II has hinted that he might give a particular meeting deliberative powers like a general council if circumstances seemed to call for it.

Where Vatican II teaching about collegiality is seen as complementary to Vatican I teaching about papal primacy and infallibility, the results will surely be good. Among other things it should make reunion between Catholics and Orthodox easier.

Unfortunately, the doctrines of the two councils were widely interpreted as being in some way contradictory collegiality can only be achieved by reducing papal authority and used in the interests of a revived conciliarism and Gallicanism.

At the end of the Council, many had hoped that the Synods could be turned into general councils dictating to the Pope every three or four years. This was particularly apparent at the first "trial-run" Synod in 1967. Before it began, the idea had been put about that the Pope would use the occasion to divest himself of some of his powers. Hopes for this ran high at the Third World Congress of the Laity meeting in Rome at the same time. I have not been able to discover who it was who thought it would be a good idea to have this clamorous assembly  imbued with the conviction that authority and infalli­bility reside in the last resort in "the community" coincide with the first Synod. But the intention seems to have been to stage a replay of the French Estates General in 1789. The Laity Congress's preposterous demands and attacks on authority were in the best tradition of French histrionics.4

In a more restrained way, a similarly anti-Roman mentality prevailed in the Synod hall. The agenda prepared by the Holy See was rejected and the Synod appointed a commission of theologians and bishops "to express the mind of the Synod on theological questions". There were also requests for a permanent theological commission in Rome. In the thinking of some at least, it was to be a rival to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, responsible to the Synod rather than the Pope, could be a base from which to fight "Roman theology" on its home territory. But Pope Paul stood firm. When he set up the International Theological Commission a year later, it was firmly under his authority and remains an advisory body. During the last eleven years of his pontificate he also outwitted the attempts to turn the Synod into a permanent general council, giving it the form it has today. This, in the circumstances, was no mean achievement for which Paul VI deserves more credit as a ruler than he usually gets. The extent of his success can be measured by the annoyance of his opponents. In an interview in 1992, Cardinal Köenig, the retired Archbishop of Vienna, was complaining that "episcopal collegiality is simply not working. The Synod of Bishops is just a makeshift?' (The Tablet, 17th Oct. 1992)

Meanwhile, as the 1980s progressed and hopes of getting control of the Church at the centre faded, the forces of dissent concentrated on measures to increase the authority and independence of the "local" churches. The term "local" or "particular" church did not here mean the local diocese. It meant the national or regional collectivity of dioceses under the leadership of the  local national episcopal conference, only too many of which have proved to be more under the control of bureaucrats than bishops.

Already at the Council, Cardinal Ottaviani had pointed out that, while bishops are successors of the apostles, episcopal conferences have no such precedent, and Lumen Gentium (Art.25) and the 1983 Code of Canon Law (can. 455) have drawn out the implications.5 Conferences have authority when they reiterate universal Church teaching; in all other cases "the competence of each diocesan bishop remains intact." In spite of this, attempts to separate individual bishops from Rome by subordinating them to the dictates of the conference continued, and with the 1980s a move began to enhance the conferences' teaching authority. At the end of the 1985 Synod, the head of the U.S. Episcopal Conference asked the Pope to set up a commission of inquiry into their theological status. This in itself was quite legitimate and the motives of the bishop in question may have been perfectly good. But, with at least some, the idea seems to have been that episcopal conferences should have locally the same kind of binding doctrinal authority as general councils have for the whole Church. John Paul II set up the commission as asked and eventually, 13 years Later, on the basis of its investigations, issued his motu proprio Apostolos Suos, of which Art. 18. says,"Episcopal conferences with their commissions and offices exist to be a help to the bishops but not to substitute for them."

However, a single papal document cannot check a widespread movement, and neo-Gallicanisrn is likely to remain a problem for the Church during the 21st century as it was during the 17th and 18th centuries.6

Notes to Chapter Ten

1. The doctrine is expounded in the two documents Lumen Qntium on the Church, and Christus Dominus, the decree on bishops.

2. The Western democratic tradition's suspicion of monarchy is a mixture of two constituents, one good and one bad; distrust of a disordered form of monarchy, and aversion to any kind of sovereignty not having its origin in oneself  each man must be his own absolute monarch.

3. In making the idea its own, the Council did nor use the noun "collegiality", though it has become the accepted term for both forms of episcopal participation.

4. "It was appalling", a curial monsignor who had been present once said to me. Without actually blanching, he sounded a bit like someone who had witnessed the Paris mob invading the Tuileries.

5. Fr. Congar had also foreseen problems. Such conferences, he maintained, at the time of the Council, "must not obliterate the personal responsibility of bishops by imposing  on them the dictates of an organisation, nor must they even remotely threaten Catholic unity." Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, p. 90.

6. I first became aware of this revived Gallicanism at a U.S. bishops' press conference during one of the Synods in the 1980s. A journalist asked the then head of the U.S. conference what the U.S. bishops would do if the Holy See insisted on their making a really serious effort to preach Humanae Vitae. The answer was roughly: "I don't think the Holy See would want to take on a really big episcopal conference these days".


Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017

Version: 31st March 2017

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