Drama at the Council: Two Church Giants Face Off on Roman Curia Powers

63rd General Congregation
November 8, 1963

Debate in the council hall reached a dramatic high point as two great men of the Church brought the chief question at issue to a head in the current consideration of the schema on bishops and the government of dioceses.

The question was whether or not the powers now exercised by the Roman curia — the central administrative body of the Church — should be returned to the bishops of dioceses.

The two sides of the issue were expressed by Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne, Germany, and Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office and president of the council’s Theological Commission.

There was no question in the mind of anyone present that this was the most dramatic day of the council to date. One clearly saw a new order in battle against an old order.

Both Cardinal Frings and Cardinal Ottaviani spoke with evident deep conviction and both were applauded by those who supported their views.

The applause would not count, of course, in deciding the question. But the question was now out in the open and, except for an extraordinary intervention of Pope Paul VI himself, it would soon be decided by ballot and, one way or another, alter the face of the Church in the future.

Cardinal Frings’ remarks, as reported in the council press office communiqué, were as follows:

“Remarks recently made in the council to the effect that the Fathers must wait for a definitive response from the Theological Commission are indeed amazing. They seem to insinuate that this commission has at its disposal sources of truth unknown to the other council Fathers. Such observations also appear to lose sight of the fact that the commissions are to function only as tools of the general congregations [council meetings] and are to execute the will of the council Fathers.

“The distinction between administrative and judicial procedures in the Roman curia should be extended to all areas, including the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. Its procedures are out of harmony with modern times, are a source of harm to the faithful and of scandal to those outside the Church. No Roman congregation should have authority to accuse, judge and condemn an individual who has had no opportunity to defend himself. With all due reverence and gratitude for the devoted individuals who spend their lives in the difficult work of the Holy Office, we feel that its methods should be basically revised.

“It would be advisable to diminish substantially the number of bishops working in curial offices. No one should be consecrated a bishop just in order to honor him or the office he holds. If a man is consecrated a bishop, then he should be a bishop and nothing else. No one is ever ordained to the priesthood as a mark of honor or gratitude.

“Not a few of the tasks of the Roman curia could be performed by laymen. Consequently, efforts should be made to use fewer bishops, fewer priests and more laymen.”

The same council press office communiqué reported the words of Cardinal Ottaviani as follows:

“The opportunity must be taken to protest most vigorously against the condemnation of the Holy Office voiced in this council hall. It should not be forgotten that the prefect of the Holy Office is none other than the sovereign pontiff himself. The criticism formulated proceeds from a lack of knowledge, not to use a stronger term, of the procedures of this sacred congregation.

“No one is ever accused, judged and condemned without a thorough previous investigation carried on with the help of competent consultors and experienced specialists. Besides, all decisions of the Holy Office are approved by the Pope personally, and thus such criticisms are a reflection on the Vicar of Christ.

“The five points recently submitted for the approval of the council Fathers were drawn up by the council moderators. They should have been submitted to the Theological Commission for careful study, and the commission would have been able to perfect certain expressions and eliminate certain obscurities.

“Those who propose the collegiality of the bishops proceed in a vicious circle since they presume that the Apostles existed and acted as a collegial body. From the collegial character of the Apostolic College they deduce the collegial character of the body of the bishops. But even learned and experienced professors of Sacred Scripture will admit that this thesis has no solid foundations in the sacred books. Defending collegiality entails some limitation of at least the exercise of the universal primacy of the Roman pontiff. The fact is that Peter only has responsibility for the whole flock of Christ. It is not the sheep who lead Peter, but it is Peter who leads the sheep.”

Coming out of the basilica after the meeting a number of bishops remarked that, after the exchange between the two Cardinals, they expect the Pope to intervene personally to settle the question.

At the U.S. bishops’ press panel following the council assembly, Father Frederick R. McManus, council faculty member at the Catholic University of America, said that it is common practice for the Holy Office to hand down decisions in marriage cases without giving the reasons which led to their decision.

Father Francis J. Connell, CSSR, another council expert, former dean of the Catholic University School of Sacred Theology, testified from his own experience that the Holy Office does not “accuse, judge and condemn” without giving an author a hearing. He said he was once reported to the Holy Office. Officials of the Holy Office wrote to him asking for his side and, after he replied, the matter was dropped.

Father Bernard Haering, CSSR, council expert, said, on the other hand, that he knew personally of the case of an author whose book had been banned by the Holy Office. He said that when the author asked what point of doctrine must be changed so that a new edition could be licitly published, no reply was given.

Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken of San Francisco said, “My experience has been that the Holy Office does indeed consult a large number of people. However, I do think that the Holy Office can be brought up-to-date.”

Opposing views on the question of bringing bishops to Rome to assist the Pope in the government of the Church were taken by two other Cardinals, Laurean Cardinal Rugambwa of Bukoba, Tanganyika, and Michael Cardinal Browne, OP, of the curia.

“The establishment of a permanent body of Bishops in Rome,” said Cardinal Rugambwa, “is called for by the social structure of modern times and particularly by a genuinely ‘redemptional’ vision of the entire world. It is not only the right but also the duty of the council to make this possible.”

Cardinal Browne answered that “against the proposal to bring Bishops to Rome to assist the Holy Father no objection can be raised on theological grounds. But the congregations constitute the curia and the curia belongs to the pope. Its cardinals, major officials, consultors and so on, are appointed, not by the Holy See but by the pope personally. If collegiality confers on all bishops a right to co-government with the pope, then he in turn has an obligation to recognize this right. This would inevitably lessen the power of the pope who would no longer have full jurisdiction. This would be contrary to the constitution ‘Pastor Aeternus’ (of the First Vatican Council). Let us take care!”

In this 63rd general congregation of Nov. 8, the first chapter of the schema on bishops and diocesan government was concluded and the discussion passed on to the second chapter. The first chapter concerns the relationships of bishops with the Roman curia and the role of bishops in the government of the Church. The second deals with coadjutor and auxiliary bishops appointed to assist a bishop who is unable to govern a diocese alone because of old age, ill health, vastness of territory or excessive number of faithful.

Thus there were two moderators to preside over the discussions at this meeting, following the rule established by the four moderators that one of them would continue presiding over each separate issue. Leo Cardinal Suenens of Malines-Brussels had presided over consideration of the schema as a whole. Gregorio Cardinal Agagianian, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, presided over discussion of the first chapter. Giocomo Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, Italy, was to preside over discussion of the second chapter.

During the meeting a text was distributed in the council hall on “The Attitude of Catholics toward Non­Christians, particularly toward the Jews.” This was proposed as a special chapter to be added to the schema on “Ecumenism.” It will be discussed on the council floor at a time which is to be determined by the council moderators.

Fifteen Fathers, including Cardinals Frings, Ottaviani, Rugambwa and Browne, addressed the assembly on the first chapter of the schema. The last two speakers of the day, Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo, Italy, and Jose Cardinal Garibi y Rivera of Guadalajara, Mexico, addressed the assembly on the second chapter of the schema.

Jaime Cardinal de Barros Camara of Rio de Janeiro, speaking in the name of Carlos Cardinal de Vasconcellos Motta of Sao Paulo and 110 Brazilian bishops, said: “It is very important to provide bishops with the power to dispense from the general laws of the Church in particular circumstances. This power is really necessary and there would be no objection to the proviso that a report on the use of this faculty should be submitted annually to the Holy See.”

On another matter he suggested that “when speaking of the congregations of the curia the term ‘sacred’ should be abolished and reference should be made only to the ‘Roman congregations’ or to the ‘Roman curia.’”

Referring to the proposal that bishops share in the government of the Universal Church, Cardinal Lercaro said that “this proposal supposes that the matter will be decided by the authority of the Roman pontiff, since the council can do no more than offer a suggestion or make a recommendation.”

Maronite Rite Bishop Antoine Khoreiche of Saida, Lebanon, objected to the phrase “without prejudice to the rights and privileges of Orientals.” He declared that “the Church of Christ is not two but one. Therefore, there should be but one law for the whole Church lest the Orientals appear to be second-class members of the Church.”

Auxiliary Bishop Anastasio Granados Garcia of Toledo, Spain, said that the text of the schema should consider the bishop in relation to his diocese instead of in relation to the general body of bishops.

“It is not yet proved that bishops have authority over their dioceses only through their communion with the College of Bishops,” objected Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil. “Until that proof is forthcoming, we should adhere strictly to the teachings of the First Vatican Council.”

Bishop Vittorio Costantini of Sessa Aurunca, Italy, favored the plan to broaden the powers of bishops but said “this should not be attained by merely criticizing the curia.”

Pope John summoned the council for the updating of the Church, Bishop Eugene D’Souza of Bhopal, India, observed, and the curia is no exception. “The curia can stand reform in its procedures so as to get more in step with the world of today,” he said.

Bishop Joseph Schoiswohl of Graz-Seckau, Austria, repeated the principle that had been brought out several days earlier by Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. “The principle of subsidiarity whereby a lower society does not yield to a higher in anything it can do by itself is as applicable to the Church as it is to civil society,” Bishop Schoiswohl said.

Bishop Eduardo Martinez Gonzales of Zamora, Spain, also raised an objection which had been voiced several times before, namely, that the present text could not be decided before definitive declarations had been made on the nature of the episcopate, its sacramental character and the question of collegiality.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, CSSp, superior general of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, said there is no need to create a new body of bishops in Rome since the pope already has the College of Cardinals to assist him in the government of the Church.

The last speaker on chapter one of the schema was Archbishop Carlos Rodriquez-Quiros of San Jose, Costa Rica, who said: “The great difficulty in the present schema is in reconciling the powers of individual bishops and the primacy of the Roman pontiff. The bishop is a natural subject of authority in the Church; the pope of the entire Church and the bishop under the pope for individual dioceses. The more fully a bishop exercises jurisdiction in his own diocese, the greater is his contribution to unity of faith, holiness and government.”

Discussion of the second chapter was opened by Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo, Italy, who made three points.

First, he objected that the schema, by assigning the same rights to coadjutor bishops as those held by residential bishops, creates a conflict of authority.

His second point was that there should be no distinction between the Latin and Oriental Church. The wording of the schema, he said, insinuates a separation of the Orientals from the Apostolic See.

In his final point he said: “1t is wrong to insist on resignation for ailing and aging bishops. Some sick men with great virtue do more good for the Church than some healthier young men. The pope is the bishop of the Universal Church, yet no one dreams of suggesting that he resign. Pope Leo XIII died at the age of 93 and John XXIII was almost 80 when he became pope.” The schema recommends compulsory resignation of bishops at 75 years of age.

Cardinal Garibi said: “It would be sufficient to exhort ailing bishops, not to resign, but generously to follow the recommendations of the Holy See. We should not speak about a bishop ‘resigning’ but rather speak of them as ‘leaving office.’”

Msgr. James I. Tucek
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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