An Ordinary Viewpoint

Bishops & Priests - VIII

Finished Business

When the First Vatican Council unexpectedly ended in 1870 because of the invasion and conquest of the Papal States by the forces of the King of Savoy, many of the important doctrinal matters that had been planned to be studied and proclaimed by the Council were left unfinished. The First Vatican Council did define and specify how the fonts of revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, always contained the doctrine of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, and how, in certain limited circumstances, that primacy also can involve the charism of infallibility which Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, bequeathed to His Catholic Church. However, the First Vatican Council did not have time to consider fully the revealed doctrine concerning the order of Bishops and how the episcopacy, by divine design, is related to the primacy of the Pope and to the work of the Church. This is why the Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (called in Latin "Lumen Gentium") and in its Decree on Bishops ("Christus Dominus") extensively took up this matter.

In preparation for the Second Vatican Council, several prominent theologians did significant research on this issue. Among them were Father Karl Rahner and then Father Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). Father Ratzinger at that time called attention to what he said was a "sadly neglected document", which is an "authentic commentary" on the First Vatican Council, a "key to the full meaning" of the conciliar decrees about the primacy. It was drawn up in Germany in 1875 and received the full approval of Blessed Pope Pius IX as stating what the Council intended and what the Holy See has always held. It is entitled "Collective Statement of the German Episcopate Concerning the Circular of the Imperial Chancellor" (Otto von Bismarck). The theologian Dom Olivier Rousseau, quoted by Father Ratzinger, noted that this document could be summed up in seven points.

Seven Points

The points of that document, many of which were included in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, are: 1) The Pope cannot arrogate to himself the rights of the Bishops nor substitute his power for theirs; 2) Episcopal jurisdiction has not been absorbed into papal jurisdiction; 3) The First Vatican Council did not give the Pope the fullness of the individual Bishops’ powers; 4)The Pope has not virtually taken the place of each individual Bishop; 5) The Pope, by Christ’s design for His Church, cannot in every instance assume the government that belongs to Bishops; 6) The Bishops are not the instruments or agents of the Pope; 7) The Bishops are not officials of a foreign Sovereign in their relationships with the governments of their own countries.

The Second Vatican Council states, "The College of Bishops has no authority unless it is simultaneously conceived of in terms of its head, the Roman Pontiff, Saint Peter’s Successor, and without any lessening of his power of primacy over all, pastors as well as the general faithful." But, the Council nevertheless goes on to proclaim, "Bishops govern the particular Churches entrusted to them as vicars and ambassadors of Christ. This they do by their counsel, exhortations, and example, as well as, indeed, by their authority and sacred power. This power, which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary, and immediate, although its exercise 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. In virtue of this power, Bishops have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them, and to moderate everything pertaining to the order of worship and the apostolate. The pastoral office and the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely. Nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiff, for they exercise an authority which is proper to them, and are quite correctly called prelates, heads of the people whom they govern. Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the Supreme and Universal power of the Pope. On the contrary, it is affirmed, strengthened, and vindicated thereby, since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church."

Vatican Two

The Council goes on to assert, "The order of Bishops is the successor to the College of the Apostles in teaching authority and pastoral rule, or, rather, in the episcopal order the apostolic body continues without a break. Together with its head, the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head, the episcopal order is the subject of supreme and full power over the Universal Church. But this power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff, because our Lord made Simon Peter alone the rock and keybearer of the Church (Matthew 16:18-19) and appointed him shepherd of the whole flock (John 21:15-17). It is definite, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Saint Peter (Matthew 16:19), was granted also to the College of Apostles, joined to their head (Matthew 18:18 & 28:16-20). The college of Bishops, insofar as it is composed of many, expresses the variety and universality of the People of God, but insofar as it is assembled under one head, it expresses the unity of the flock of Christ. In it, the Bishops, faithfully recognizing the primacy and pre-eminence of their head, exercise their own authority for the good of their faithful and, indeed, for the whole Church, with the Holy Spirit constantly strengthening her organic structure and inner harmony."

The Second Vatican Council, the twenty-first Ecumenical Council in the Church’s history, also remarks, "This sacred Council teaches that by episcopal consecration is conferred the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, that fullness which in the Church’s liturgical practice and in the language of the holy Fathers of the Church is undoubtedly called the high priesthood, the apex of the sacred ministry. Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the offices of teaching and of governing. These, however, of their very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college of Bishops. For from Tradition, which is expressed especially in liturgical rites and in the practice of the Church, both East and West, it is clear that by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred and the sacred character so impressed that Bishops in an eminent and visible way undertake Christ’s own role as Teacher, Shepherd, and High Priest, and that they act in His Person. Therefore, it devolves upon the Bishops themselves to admit newly elected members into the episcopal body by means of the Sacrament of Holy Orders."

Father Joseph Urtasun observes, "The sublime grandeur of the Pope and Bishops does not eliminate their human weakness... and so, while our loyalty and obedience must encourage them in the midst of their cares and troubles, we also are obliged to pray for them that they may be examples to us, their flock, (1 Peter 5:1-3) and so, they might, by God’s grace, be sanctified and thus may be able to sanctify others as their vocation calls them to do."

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