Support for Collegiality of Bishops, Permanent Deacons Emerges at Council

 42nd General Congregation
October 7, 1963

 The second week of the second session of the ecumenical council began with speakers who favor a permanent diaconate and the concept of the collegiality of the bishops.

The first to speak at the 4th general meeting (Oct. 7) was Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, Archbishop of Genoa, Italy. He was also one of the most significant speakers because his position in favor of the doctrine of the collegiality of bishops was regarded as a sign that the Italian episcopate is not as opposed to this part of the schema “On the Nature of the Church” as had been generally assumed.

The collegiality of the bishops means that they as a whole, in union with the pope, can act with supreme authority. It means that in addition to the jurisdiction which a bishop exercises in his own diocese, he has a responsibility as a member of the collectivity of bishops in the life of the total Church.

According to Cardinal Siri this concept of collegiality, which he maintained is clear from the practice of past councils and in their interpretation of various Scriptural texts, would be an effective contribution to solidarity, mutual union, charity and reciprocal assistance among bishops.

He put down any fears that the doctrine of the collegiality of the bishops would lessen in any way the primacy of the pope. Instead, he said, collegiality emphasizes the primacy, since there can be no genuine collegiality among bishops except in union with the Roman Pontiff. He praised the schema for its clear expression of these notions.

Paul Cardinal Leger, Archbishop of Montreal, followed Cardinal Siri. He stressed the favorable attitude toward the schema which, he said, is “of exceptional importance.” He also debunked any fears of weakening the doctrine of the primacy of the pope, saying that “a clear knowledge of the body shows the importance of the head.”

He added the suggestion that the idea of the “ministry” of the bishops should be emphasized. In relation to this he said that bishops should endeavor to avoid manifestations of “medieval splendor” which, he declared, are out of place today when stress is being given to the spiritual aspects of the Church’s mission.

Franziskus Cardinal Koenig, Archbishop of Vienna, speaking next, pointed out that the notion of the college of Bishops governing the Church in union with the Roman Pontiff is not new. He said it has foundations in tradition, in theology, in the present practice of the Eastern Rites and in Canon 218 of the Code of Canon Law, which treats of the supreme jurisdiction of the episcopate in an ecumenical council.

According to this last reference, the law provides that a council must be convoked and presided over by the pope or his legate and that its decrees must have his approval. But once the pronouncements and decisions of the council are promulgated, their authority is not papal alone but is conciliar, that is, by the authority of the bishops together with the pope.

The fourth speaker, Julius Cardinal Doepfner, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany, turned to the question of the permanent diaconate. He took just the opposite position from that expressed by Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, and Antonio Cardinal Bacci of the Vatican administrative staff at the previous assembly.

The schema cannot pass over the question of the place of deacons in the Church in silence, Cardinal Doepfner said, because the schema treats of the hierarchical structure of the Church in which deacons have a necessary place.

“One cannot speak of the episcopate and the priesthood,” he said, “without also speaking of the diaconate.” Countering Cardinal Spellman’s objection that a permanent diaconate would raise the difficulty of special seminaries, Cardinal Doepfner said that the present text gives only the dogmatic foundations for a possible change in Church practice, but does not enter into any disciplinary considerations. All it does, he said, is to make it possible for competent authority, under the guidance of the Holy See, to make provisions for special regions where the presence of deacons could in many ways make up for the prolonged scarcity of priests.

Instituting the order of deacon as a permanent rank, he said, could possibly entail danger for the tradition of clerical celibacy, but only if the choice of such deacons were made indiscriminately. The restoration of a permanent diaconate necessarily involves many questions, he added, but the schema only opens the way to the necessary solutions.

Albert Cardinal Meyer, Archbishop of Chicago, brought back to the floor the consideration of the collegiality of the bishops.

The idea of collegiality is a juridical one, he said, and the New Testament is not a code of law, and thus “does not provide juridical explanations.” But it is a fact, he added, that the unity of the new people of God was reflected in the Apostles, not as individuals, but as a group.

Cardinal Meyer, a recognized Scripture scholar, noted that all of Christ’s mandates to the Apostles were expressed in the plural. The Apostles, furthermore, acted as a college in the choice of a successor to Judas. Here and elsewhere, he said, the collegiality of the bishops is stated as clearly as is the foundation of the Church on Peter.

Joseph Cardinal Lefebvre, Archbishop of Bourges, France, added his voice to that of his colleagues in favor of the collegiality of the bishops. He urged that “the council should inquire into truth without fear and seek what Christ wants of us: closer union among the bishops of the Church in union with the Vicar of Christ.”

Bernard Cardinal Alfrink, Archbishop of Utrecht, the Netherlands, then took the floor to say that a clear statement of the collegiality of the episcopate is absolutely necessary. The chief burden of his remarks, however, seemed to be to correct a misinterpretation of a statement he had made earlier in the council which made him appear opposed to the concept of collegiality.

Laurean Cardinal Rugambwa, Bishop of Bukoba, gave the notion of the collegiality of the bishops a missionary application when he rose next in turn to speak. “When individual bishops become members of the episcopal college, they acquire some power over the Universal Church,” he said. “No bishop can say that he is not interested in the salvation of the entire world.”

Melkite Rite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh of Antioch placed the same concept in the light of intended unity between the Eastern and Western Churches. The First Vatican Council defined the papal primacy, he remarked, speaking in French, but abusive interpretations have deformed this necessary concept. The obstacle to unity is not the doctrine of the primacy itself but excesses of interpretation and concrete practice. He urged that this council, which proposes to pave the way to union, should not simply repeat the First Vatican Council statement on the primacy but should clarify and complete that doctrine in the light of the “unquestioned rights of the episcopate.”

Patriarch Maximos followed this with several points which he wanted to underline, the most challenging of which was that “the appointment of bishops is not restricted by divine right to the Roman Pontiff.” What has been a contingent fact of the Western Church, he said, should not be made a rule of law for the entire world.

Actually, the appointment of bishops in the Eastern Catholic Churches is done by synods of bishops. Their elections are then simply confirmed by the Pope.

Not all in this assembly favored the restoration of the permanent diaconate. Bishop Pietro Massa, exiled Bishop of Nanyang, China, who now resides in Genoa, expressed opposition. It is said that deacons could distribute Holy Communion, he noted. But he said this useful function would be seriously hampered by the fact that they could not hear confessions. If deacons were bound to celibacy, most of them would want to become priests, he claimed. If celibacy were not required, then the number of vocations to the priesthood might drop. There would be the question of financial burden, he said, since married deacons would have families to support.

Bishop John Abasolo y Lecue of Vijayapuram, India, asked that the text of the schema emphasize the fact that Christ instituted various ministries of the Church.

Archbishop Ermenegildo Florit of Florence and Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, both favored the teaching of the collegiality of the bishops. Both submitted amendments to the text.

Auxiliary Bishop Carmela Zazinovic of Krk, Yugoslavia, on the contrary, rose as the first dissenting voice. The bishops as a body are unequal to the task of governing the Church, he said. Insistence on collegiality could weaken the primacy. It would be better to make no change in the traditional practice, according to Bishop Zazinovic.

Bishop George Beck, A.A., of Salford, England, asked for a clear definition of the “Christian priesthood” in the text. He had particularly in mind future discussion of the “universal priesthood of the laity.”

Bishop Jan van Dodewaard of Haarlem, Holland, the last to speak in the day’s assembly, stated that when one speaks of the pope and the college of bishops, there is no intention of disjoining one from the other. The power enjoyed by the bishops in the council, he said, is not theirs merely by delegation from the pope, but their position in the Church.

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