In defence of bishops

The recent flurry of words and concern over the motu proprio has involved reflection on the curia, bishops’ conferences and collegiality. To no one’s surprise, I have some strong views about them all. So, in order that the wrong impression is not gleaned by the uninitiated reader, a word of clarification is timely.

No bishops, no Church. No Eucharist. No priesthood. No absolution. You get the idea. The Vatican Council reiterated the essential truth that,

[t]he order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.
Lumen Gentium, §22

This is the basic statement of collegiality. The Council gave some further indications of how such collegiality has functioned historically, and by implication should always function:

The supreme power in the universal Church, which this college enjoys, is exercised in a solemn way in an ecumenical council. A council is never ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter; and it is prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them. This same collegiate power can be exercised together with the pope by the bishops living in all parts of the world, provided that the head of the college calls them to collegiate action, or at least approves of or freely accepts the united action of the scattered bishops, so that it is thereby made a collegiate act.
Lumen Gentium, §22

Collegiality is most active and substantial at an ecumenical council, at which the bishops act in concert with and under the guidance of the pope. For this reason alone those who reject Vatican II completely need to be very careful indeed. One must not confuse the Council with the post-council (nor indeed the “council of the media” of which Pope Benedict spoke). We know that many an English bishop found the post-conciliar reforms, which claimed the mandate of the council, utterly confounding. Cardinal Heenan and Archbishop Grimshaw come immediately to mind.

Otherwise collegiality involves a particular invocation of it by the pope in a particular context, or that “at least [he] approves of or freely accepts the united action of the scattered bishops, so that it is thereby made a collegiate act.” All these contexts imply what might be called an active or deliberate, or even extraordinary, collegiality.

There is also what we might call a passive or ordinary collegiality. This is what we should examine more carefully. The Council Fathers continued:

The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church. For this reason the individual bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity.

The individual bishops, who are placed in charge of particular churches, exercise their pastoral government over the portion of the People of God committed to their care, and not over other churches nor over the universal Church.
Lumen Gentium, §23

Within their own dioceses or local churches bishops are thus, again we might say, types and icons of the papal primacy as it relates to the universal Church. The bishop has a sovereignty within his diocese that can only be outweighed by the supreme pontiff as universal pastor of the Body of Christ on earth. This is the ordinary collegiality the council speaks of: the bishop shepherding his particular flock in a way that images and draws light from the pope’s role as Chief Shepherd of the Universal Church. Moreover, the pope is not the world’s bishop, let alone the world’s parish priest. The burden and privilege of immediate shepherding of a particular flock belongs by right to its own bishop.

Of course the bishop shepherds his local flock with an eye to the universal flock. The council teaches that bishops are,

to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church, to instruct the faithful to love for the whole mystical body of Christ, especially for its poor and sorrowing members and for those who are suffering persecution for justice’s sake, and finally to promote every activity that is of interest to the whole Church, especially that the faith may take increase and the light of full truth appear to all men. And this also is important, that by governing well their own church as a portion of the universal Church, they themselves are effectively contributing to the welfare of the whole Mystical Body, which is also the body of the churches.
Lumen Gentium, §23

After the council, the novel phenomenon of bishops’ conferences was established. This must have sounded good at the time. Yet, given the conciliar teaching on collegiality, it is hard to justify their existence.

Historically local episcopal collegiality was exercised through regional councils and synods. These met, decreed, and dissolved. They had no permanent existence. The Council Fathers later decreed that, beyond councils and synods which are convened to deal with specific issues, such regional collegiality should abide in an ongoing way through bishops’ conferences:

Therefore, this sacred synod considers it to be supremely fitting that everywhere bishops belonging to the same nation or region form an association which would meet at fixed times. Thus, when the insights of prudence and experience have been shared and views exchanged, there will emerge a holy union of energies in the service of the common good of the churches.
Christus Dominus, §37

The next section of this conciliar decree on bishops spells out the details of such conferences, which it envisages as making decisions on practical and pastoral matters, not doctrine per se. Nevertheless Pope John Paul II further clarified that the unanimous decisions of such conference evidence an “authentic magisterium”. Without such unanimity their minimum two-thirds-majority decisions, when ratified by the pope, have a binding nature though they fall short of the fullness of what constitutes authentic magisterium. [See Apostolos suos (1998), §22]

My point is that theologically and pastorally, the bishop in his own diocese is of more more importance and has far more authority than a bishops’ conference over its region. Tradition alone enshrines the authority of the bishop in his own diocese, and moreover, as the council recognised, it bids him to centre his attention on his own diocese, not on his neighbours’. Such a specific focus is expanded at councils and synods, at which we might say a bishop answers a call to exercise his pastoral oversight for the benefit of the wider Church, in specific circumstances and to meet particular needs.

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, my local bishop

In recent years we have heard how bishops’ conferences have been able to limit the authority of a bishop in his own diocese by subtly, or not so subtly, coercing him into to following the majority opinion, even if that opinion is not actually the majority but merely the loudest and strongest. No one likes to break ranks. Such bodies have a way of later exacting their pound of flesh from those of its members who do not toe the line. In some countries such conferences can exacerbate national or tribal sentiment and conflict. God forbid that such conferences ever lead to the ethnic/national churches of the east. For all their liturgical vigour, all too often they have been the slave of political and secular forces in their own nation. We do not need to replicate such an error. Already we are as we see some conferences conforming their teaching to the loudest and most aggressive forces in secular society, usually on moral issues.

So this is the background to my concern over the devolution of power to bishops’ conferences. They are a novel, untraditional construct that too often mitigates, detrimentally, the traditional, doctrinally-mandated authority of a bishop in his own diocese. The conscience-driven bishop, who disagrees with the majority decision, is under immense coercive but covert pressure to conform. Far better a rogue bishop who gets his own ill way in his diocese. There have always been ways of dealing with him.

There are real, practical advantages to the sharing of resources that a bishops’ conference facilitates. But one does not need the conference structure as it now is to achieve this desirable end. Modern communications allow for other means for achieving it.

God save and defend  the bishop as the true pastor of his diocese. This must be the bedrock of true collegiality.


Join the Conversation

  1. You are of course absolutely right Father, and you are fortunate in your Bishop. I think the main concern is the remains of the so called
    Magic Circle of post conciliar bishops. I remember Cardinal Heenan well from his days in Liverpool, but now we have Cardinal Nichols, a Pope Francis appointee, and believe me, the Cardinal is no Cardinal Heenan. This is my worry.
    Interesting times.

    1. Gertrude,
      Why do you impliedly express disapproval of Cardinal Nichols, because he has been appointed by Pope Francis, and compare him unfavourably with the late Cardinal Heenan ?

  2. It is not disapproval of Cardinal Nichols, it is his acknowledged liberalism which I confess many people welcome, and regarding comparison with Cardinal Heenan there really is no comparison. They are two different Cardinals from different era’s. Cardinal Heenan was an upholder of tradition before times when there was a dividing line between tradition and modernists. In that respect, Cardinal Nichols is a very different Cardinal. This is really not a disapproval, just a recognition of two very different men serving in very different pontificates.

  3. I am reassured to learn that Cardinal Nichols does have a right to have, and to express, his views after all, whatever label, liberal or otherwise, one may wish to apply to them.

    1. As a matter of strict correctness, no prelate or pastor has any “right” to express “his views”. Part of the package with ordination is the obligation to teach the Faith not one’s own views. Of course, where it is not a matter of Church teaching there is more liberty. That said, clergy are advised to be discerning and discreet in what they say on political matters unless they are confronted with an egregious case of injustice or immorality. Pax.

  4. “clergy are advised to be discerning and discreet in what they say on political matters unless they are confronted……etc”. Does this apply to a Pope as well? Just sayin…

  5. I am afraid that bishops are never shy about stating their views, whether they be liberal, conservative or otherwise. When they gathered in Rome for the Family Synod of Bishops, reportedly divergent views were forthcoming among them during their discussions on the reception of Communion for divorced and remarried persons.

    1. Indeed it seems that is true; and that is why that Synod and its aftermath have been so problematic, causing confusion and disquiet on a topic on which Church teaching has been quite clear. Mind you, a complicating factor is the modern media: not just that it can distort the message, but that things that would never have made public attention till perhaps much later are now streamed almost in real time to our homes. Councils and synods have always been debating shops, but what made public notice was their final decision, their teaching.. But we all soldier on. Pax.

  6. Just so.
    But in the aftermath of Amoris Laetitia with its many eager theological and canonical interpreters,professional,lay, amateur,and of the kitchen variety, where in practice do the lay faithful stand ?
    Hence, the dear Cardinal Nichols can hardly be blamed if he throws in his worthy observations. With such heavyweights in the field, why should not the humble blogger also diffidently chance his arm ?

    1. Well, it is a bishop’s duty to teach and defend the faith where it has been definitively settled. Communion is and ever has been denied to those in mortal sin; to give it to them would be spiritual poison as they would “eat judgment on themselves” as St Paul puts it. The remedy is clear: repentance, firm purpose of amendment and absolution. It is the amendment for the remarried divorcees that is the problem, of course.

      So some think that it is more pastoral to let them have what would be poison to them. The Church does not, and bishops should say so. After all, there is a saint who went without Communion for thirty years, even to death, because he could not amend his life despite his struggles. His martyrdom absolved him and gave him heaven. Heaven is what it is all about. But people insists they have rights…

      Read about that saint here –

  7. I had not heard of this extraordinary saint which really focuses on overpowering addiction. It says little of the confessor who refused St Mark Ji Tianxiang absolution in his particular circumstances or of the pastoral role of the Catholic Church.
    There are to-day other such ‘uncontrollable’ addictions, apart from drink, with similar moral implications, in which I guess confessors are equally unready to deal with such as sado masochistic practices, often starting from school experiences, in which people are caught up -as witness the phenomenal success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. [As a lawyer I am aware of this problem from the so- called ‘Spanner Case’ in the UK.]

    If St Mark Ji Tianxiang could not give up his drugs, cannot these people, and those in irregular unions, also say we cannot give up our habit ?

    1. Indeed they might, though to what degree they would be honest as opposed to shirking their duty is something only they would know. But the difference is St Mark JT submitted to the discipline and we honour him as a saint. He was nothing if not truly humble.

      Thankfully I have never read/seen 50 Shades; nor had I heard of the Spanner Case. I just googled it… oh dear. Another world…

  8. Back to square one I suppose. While the Church does not ever presume to say that an individual person is in a subjective state of mortal sin, the only barrier to the worthy reception of the Eucharist, it suffices for the same Church to say that divorced and remarried persons living together are in an objective state of mortal sin, thereby extending the moral criteria for worthy reception,whatever their subjective state. It is this conundrum which baffles most people and the issue I presume which Amoris Laetitia aimed to address together with its practical application by bishops and confessors on the ground.

    1. It is indeed difficult, and any good pastor will want try balance justice with mercy, where he can. But there is no easy solution. If a remarried divorcee cannot break off a new “marriage” (say, due to children) s/he can resolve to live as brother/sister with the new partner. That would allow for communion. It is the only possible way to allow for communion in such a situation. Pax.

      1. Sadly, this is the case. I am happy that these difficult issues can be raised and discussed with respect on this blog without the friction and invective characteristic of exchanges on some other Catholic blogs by persons ready to attack even the Pope because his utterances do not accord with their own individualistic views of what Catholicism should be.

        1. One of the great advantages of social media like blogs is that they give the usually-unheard a voice. Alas, occasionally there are some who perhaps should remain unheard, or—more usually—do not have the formation to engage in a reasoned debate. We can all have our temperamental lapses, of course, but when temperament rules reason discussion will not be constructive or, at the very least, illuminating. One of the difficulties even for me is wading through the immense onrush of information and working out what is helpful and what is propaganda, what is sound and what is dangerous, what are legitimate concerns and what are entrenched hobby horses immune to reason. I am hardly Brain of Britain nut I have the advantage of a little more time to wade through it; I feel for those who rely on summaries and filters to get their information. So much of it is not helpful at all.


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