Roman Curia Sure Loser in Debate Over Bishops’ Powers

60th General Congregation
November 5, 1963

The opening discussion on the schema “On Bishops and the Government of Dioceses” in the ecumenical council indicated a short, hard-hitting battle in the week to come with the Roman curia a sure loser.

One of the clear issues was whether or not powers now exercised exclusively by the Roman curia should be returned to bishops of dioceses.

The Roman curia — the congregations and offices which assist the pope in the central administration and government of the worldwide Church — was not technically a party to the debate, since technically it has nothing to do with the council.

The Fathers of the council are such because they are bishops of varying degrees of eminence, title and powers, whether pope, cardinal, archbishop, bishop or otherwise, as set down in canon law. The members of the curia are in the council as bishops, but they obviously have not forgotten, either in the council’s preparation or in its progress, the interests of the curia. And therein the current battle lies.

All speakers at the council’s general meeting of Nov. 5 discussed the general acceptability of the schema. All of them said in effect: “The schema is generally acceptable, but …” The “but” in all except one speech was in reality an arrow that pointed directly at the heart of the curia.

The one exception was the speech made by James Francis Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, who did not touch upon the curia directly. Instead, he expressed fear over giving juridical powers to national conferences of bishops.

The other speeches made these three chief points:

1. An open accusation of tampering with the schema in a manner not in keeping with council regulations.

2. Insistence that the curia should be made more international.

3. Insistence that powers should be returned to the bishops in all things necessary for the proper government of a diocese.

Archbishop Leo Binz of St. Paul, a member of the Commission for Bishops and the Government of Dioceses, referred to the schema as “an unhappy schema” with “no real introduction, no connecting link and no real conclusion.”

This, he said, was the result of the fact that five chapters of the original schema had been deleted when it was returned from the Coordinating Commission.

He revealed that the schema was completed in March 1963, and that only the bishops near Rome and the experts of Rome were invited to review it. He said, however, that in its essence no one objected to what the document said, but rather to what it did not say.

On the matter of increased faculties in dioceses, Archbishop Binz said: “We are saying to the Holy Father that any of the faculties which we have been able to get in the past merely by presenting our request and awaiting its confirmation by return mail should be able to be granted by the bishops themselves.”

Other bishops in Rome were referring to this as “rubber stamp dispensations.”

The session opened with an announcement by the council’s secretary general, Archbishop Pericle Felici, that a booklet would be distributed with amendments proposed for the text of the schema “On Bishops and the Government of Dioceses.” He announced further that for the present discussion would be limited to the general acceptability of the schema.

Then the schema was presented by Paolo Cardinal Marella, president of the Commission on Bishops and the Government of Dioceses. It was briefly explained by Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni, Italy, who, as spokesman for the commission, outlined the history of the commission’s activities.

Achille Cardinal Lienart of Lille, France, the first to speak, said that the schema should contain a special chapter on the relationships between the pope and the college of bishops. He was referring, as later speakers in the morning were to do, to the previously decided question of the collegiality of bishops, that is, that the bishops acting together share in the power of governing the Church with the pope.

He said: “If it were made clear in the text that bishops have and exercise their power without infringing in any way on the primacy of the Roman pontiff, the text would be much more acceptable.”

Cardinal McIntyre noted that the schema devotes special attention to national conferences of bishops, that such conferences have long been in existence in some areas and that now the proposal is made to give them a defined juridical status.

(As an example, although Cardinal McIntyre did not cite this specifically, the annual national meeting of the U.S. bishops which implements its works and decisions through the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, D.C., could, if the majority agreed, decide on a certain legislation for the Church in the U.S. and make it binding for every diocese.)

“This proposal entails serious consequences,” continued Cardinal McIntyre. “It might be criticized for appearing to place undue emphasis on the part of human wisdom in the care of souls and not enough on the supernatural. Giving clearly defined juridical status to national episcopal conferences would not be without anxiety and danger. It would introduce a radical change in the structure of the Church and could easily develop into a genuine threat to the unity of the Church. We should heed St. Paul’s warning and base our faith not on human wisdom, but on the power of God.”

Cardinal McIntyre noted that, both in the modern and ancient history of the Church, the tendency to give legislative powers to conferences of bishops has led to trouble for the Church.

A basic weakness of the schema, according to Valerian Cardinal Gracias of Bombay, India, is that it provides no clear-cut definition of a diocese and fails to describe adequately the role of the bishop in his diocese. Auxiliary Bishop Narciso Jubany Arnau of Barcelona, Spain, made an identical point in his turn.

An accusation of tampering with the schema was made by Paul Cardinal Richaud of Bordeaux, France; Bishop Giuseppe Gargitter of Bressanone, Italy; Bishop Jean Rupp of Monaco and Bishop Pablo Correa Leon of Cucuta, Colombia.

Cardinal Richaud said: “The schema as it stands seems to be somewhat out of harmony with the intentions of those who prepared it.”

On the question of national episcopal conferences, he complained first of all that the schema fails to give an accurate concept or to offer a theological foundation for them “according to our recently accepted doctrines on the sacramentality of the episcopate and the collegiality of the bishops of the Church.”

He added: “Naturally, certain questions dealing with faith and with unity of discipline throughout the Church would be beyond the competence of national episcopal conferences. Nonetheless, there are many points which could be more accurately evaluated and more prudently decided by those having firsthand knowledge of concrete situations.”

Bishop Gargitter was more open in his charge, saying: “The text as we have it now is certainly not the one drawn up by the preparatory commission. It expounds its doctrine under the one-sided light of insistence on the rights and the central organs of the Roman curia. On the contrary, it should proceed under the light of basic theological principles on the episcopate and should follow a practical and juridical order in its presentation. “It is completely inadequate on some basic fundamental questions such as the necessary decentralization and internationalization of the curia. The role of the curia should be discussed in the light and the spirit of the discourse of His Holiness on Sept. 21 [to the Roman curia].”

In a more humorous vein, provoking repeated laughter from the assembly, Bishop Rupp acclaimed the schema as “a shining model of Roman brevity.”

He said: “The original text drawn up by the preparatory commission was much more complete and well balanced. But the text has undergone several surgical operations, with the result that we no longer have that clear and definite version which was the fruit of the preliminary discussions of the commission.

“The present text contains few new elements. And even when it offers new solutions for problems, it almost immediately indicates a loophole through which it will be possible to escape applying the principle indicated. The very important question of an obligatory retirement age for members of the hierarchy is touched upon … and then left hanging in the air.

“Regarding the reorganization of dioceses, the text lays down a most general principle when it states harmlessly that dioceses shall be neither too large nor too small.”

Bishop Jubany, apart from the complaint that the schema fails to deal with the relationships of bishops with the pope, added that it should be “complemented with a treatment of the various administrative organs which the bishop uses in the discharge of his pastoral duties.”

No one questions the right of the pope to reserve certain cases to his own forum, the Roman curia, said Archbishop Louis de Bazelaire de Ruppiere of Chambery, France. But he did question whether such reservations, although perhaps necessary in the past, continue to be required on such a large scale today.

He said: “Without prejudice to the primatial jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff, individual bishops should have whatever powers are required for the proper discharge of their pastoral mission.”

This notion that increasing the powers of bishops is not something to be “granted” but rather to be “returned” was noted also by Bishop Correa and Archbishop Maurice Baudoux of St. Boniface, Man.

Bishop Correa first complained about the manner of the schema’s preparation, saying that “it is regrettable that fully one-half of the members of the preparatory commission were not given an opportunity to express their mind on the text of the schema now submitted to the council, and that the report read in the name of the commission this morning was not drawn up in conformity with the requirements of the procedural rules of the council, that is to say, reflecting the viewpoints of the majority.”

He further criticized the schema’s tendency “to regard the ‘faculties’ of bishops as gracious concessions and not as something demanded by the pastoral tasks assigned to them by their appointment.”

The schema was criticized for being too theoretical and unrealistic by Archbishop Gabriel Garrone of Toulouse, France. “More emphasis,” he said, “should be placed on conditions in the world today and on the absolute need of bishops to maintain constant contacts with each other and with the Holy See. The complexities of modem life are such that few problems can find adequate solutions within the confines of one individual diocese.”

Archbishop Francois Marty of Rheims, France, and Archbishop Baudoux both proposed radical revision of the schema.

“The whole presentation of the doctrine of this schema,” Archbishop Marty said, “should proceed from the basic notion of episcopal collegiality in the light of the discussions on the schema on the Church. The practical exercise of this collegiality demands that individual bishops have a direct share in the solution of problems and that, consequently, they be summoned to meetings and enjoy proper representation on the central administrative boards of whatever association is set up for this purpose.”

Archbishop Baudoux said similarly: “The schema is in need of radical revision. It is all too evident that the text was completed before our recent discussions on the collegiality of the bishops.”

On the matter of the powers of bishops, Archbishop Baudoux added: “The approach used in the present text amounts to a downgrading of bishops because it speaks of a ‘grant’ of faculties to them.”

Msgr. James I. Tucek
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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