The eight-day discussion on the schema on bishops and the government of dioceses cut the cloth for the government of the Church according to the pattern that had been set down in the council’s theoretical discussions on the nature of the Church.
The new look that emerged from the deliberations on the nature of the Church was the accent on the collegiality of the bishops.
This resulted from the test vote engineered by the four council moderators which showed that well over 80 percent of the Fathers favored writing the collegiality of the bishops into the dogmatic constitution as of divine origin. It is evidently understood that the successor of St. Peter is the head of the episcopal college.
The relator who presented the schema on the bishops and government of dioceses to the council Fathers before debate was Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni, Italy. Together with Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, and Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini, of Palermo, Sicily, he was most strenuously opposed to the affirmative vote on the collegiality of the bishops and afterward audaciously declared that the unambiguous vote of Oct. 30 was null and void. His presentation of the schema gave the discussion a completely different direction than he himself had wished.
Spokesman after spokesman for the overwhelming majority of the Fathers insisted during the debate that the dogmatic ideas already clearly expressed should provide the framework for the practical regulations of the schema on the government of dioceses.
Principal interest during the schema debate centered on Chapter I, concerned with the relations of bishops and the Roman curia, and on Chapter III, dealing with episcopal conferences. Chapter II dealt with coadjutor and auxiliary bishops; Chapter IV with the boundaries of dioceses and ecclesiastical provinces. These were touchstones for a right understanding of the solidarity of the episcopal college.
The key council spokesmen who had actively promoted a pronouncement on the collegiality of the bishops made it crystal clear in the debate on applying the doctrine in practice that the idea posed no question of a movement away from the Pope or his primacy. Rather they stressed that his office should be placed in a clearer light to enhance its attractiveness for the Church and all Christendom.
The real purpose of collegiality, their interventions made clear, was to rally the bishops more closely around the Pope and to contribute immediately to an effective concentration of all the Church’s pastoral powers, subject to the rule of the pope. They noted that the Church’s legislative structure should clearly manifest the pope as the center of gravity of the episcopal college and the guarantee of its unity and solidarity in pastoral work.
Thus the discussions on the first chapter brought out that primarily involved were not the relations between the bishops and the curia, the pope’s administrative staff, but the bishops’ relations with the pope. The curia should not be a barrier between the pope and the bishops, it was stressed, nor should the impression be given that such is actually the case.
The great concern expressed by the episcopal college was that the Roman curia should not only act in legal form “in the name of the pope,” but that its work and spirit should reflect nothing but selfless service in the cause of unity in love.
The council majority gratefully took up the invitation of Pope Paul VI to study suitable norms according to which “the venerable brothers in the episcopate might be at his side in a more effective and more helpful way.” The suggestion was made in the Pope’s allocution which was given at the opening of the second session of the council.
The idea of having a supreme council of bishops at the pope’s side is gaining acceptance. Such a supreme commission of representatives of the world’s episcopate, which would take precedence over all Roman congregations, including the Holy Office, would form a kind of senate around the pope. It would not limit his primacy in any way, but it would guarantee the greater effectiveness of his role as head of the episcopal college.
The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office — its title hardly reflects Biblical simplicity — has a function that is predominantly negative: watching over deviations and punishing certain offenses. If this congregation is regarded as the summit of the exercise of papal power, then the impression arises that the pope’s task is negative.
A supreme holy council of bishops, whose main task would be the coordination of all positive efforts to spread the Gospel, would give a clearer indication that the pope, the pastor of pastors and supreme shepherd of the Church, is fully united with his brethren in the episcopate.
Obviously, this central episcopal congregation would not make up the full episcopal college. But it would be an effective symbol of collegiality, which is exercised primarily in ecumenical councils and in the absolute solidarity of all bishops with the pope and with themselves in all questions that concern the preaching of the Gospel and pastoral responsibility.
Clearly a supreme episcopal council of this nature would be a step toward centralization. But in a world that is constantly drawing closer together, such a concentration is thought necessary. At the same time it would be a counterbalance to the wholesale return to the bishops of certain powers that have been reserved by the congregations of the Roman curia.
The Apostolic See should reserve to itself only those powers that cannot be exercised by the individual bishops or regional episcopal conferences without injury to the Universal Church. Unnecessary restriction of power upsets and weakens the community of charity and pastoral effectiveness.
Everything should be regulated according to the fundamental principle of subsidiarity. This means that anything that can be dealt with on a lower level should not be reserved to a higher authority.
This subsidiarity should be so built into the structure of the Church that even a first glance will reveal that the Church is not a mere organization or collectivist or dictatorial model.
The Church is an organism whose concept of authority excludes lust for power. Ecclesiastical authority is a sway of love, a service of love, a guarantee of brotherhood in humility.
Regional episcopal conferences should become more effective instruments for a common pastoral work. From ancient times bishops of a region have held regular consultations on common problems, and they made decisions binding on all. These decisions were made in regular synods that were more than mere conferences, or through permanently constituted synods of patriarchates, in which the bishops were represented. This synodal system remains the norm in the Eastern Rite patriarchates today, both Catholic and separated.
Consecration as a bishop effects incorporation in the episcopal college. It carries with it an obligation of solidarity that has a special sacredness, as it is based on the highest grade of the sacrament of Orders. Thus it follows that the bishops do not only pledge themselves as individuals, each acting only for himself, to respect the vertical relationship of subordination to the head of the episcopal college, the pope. At the same time, rather, they enter together into what could be called a horizontal community of pastoral work devised according to a common plan, one which facilitates the organic union with the pope.
The effective unity of the Church in all its offices and functions calls for an organic union of members. This makes easier any needed unity of action in various regions, countries and continents, as well as an organically functioning subordination to the center of Christendom.
Properly organized episcopal conferences not only facilitate pastoral planning in common for a given region. They also contribute to an effective horizontal relationship with other episcopates with a view to mutual help.
The discussions in St. Peter’s have not yet revealed clearly the extent of the jurisdiction to be accorded to episcopal conferences or how far conference decisions will oblige individual bishops by force of law.
A small minority, dead against the very concept of episcopal collegiality, rejects any such binding force. It invokes instead the idea that there are only two columns of “monarchical” authority — the pope for the Universal Church and the local bishop for his diocese. Except for the pope, they insist, nobody should curtail the “monarchical power” of the bishop in his own diocese.
Many vigorous proponents of collegiality (on the basis of episcopal consecration) emphasize as a practical consequence of their view that first consideration should not be given to jurisdiction and the might of law. Instead of merely juridical considerations, they see moral unanimity as a greater bond and motive for action for regional episcopal conferences. Such moral unanimity, according to this view, is undoubtedly a consequence of the sacrament of Orders and the unity of the Church.
Thus they hold it a misconception to consider the idea of episcopal collegiality primarily from the standpoint of the force of law and the exercise of legislative power. They argue that if an episcopal conference were to enact too many laws, this would obscure the moral obligation to pastoral solidarity that stems from the essence of the Church and the episcopate — to say nothing of the fact that setting up bishops’ conferences as essentially legalistic bodies would alienate the sympathy of many persons.
The council, however, has witnessed general agreement that any realistic consideration of the human element calls for some indispensable minimum of juridical structure. Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne pointed out that despite the lack of any hard and fast juridical presentation, and with a minimum of coercion, many pastorally significant achievements have resulted from the annual conferences of the bishops of Germany. He added that the bishops’ conferences of the United States and Canada have accomplished even more.
Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Primate of Poland, created the greatest impression on the council Fathers by his remarks on this subject. He drew attention to the fact that the Polish bishops’ conference had proved itself effective and necessary in every way, especially in times of difficult pastoral conditions. And he said that the Polish bishops’ body, well organized and well conceived, is based on the premise of solidarity. Cardinal Wyszynski’s intervention drew major applause.
According to an expression used by Pope Paul while he was still Archbishop of Milan, the Church of the Second Vatican Council “is laying aside the mantle of royalty.” Thus canon law stipulations about bishops and the government of their dioceses must be given a pre-eminently pastoral imprint stressing humble service instead of stressing authority.
If the good of souls demands the resignation of a bishop from his office, the Roman curia should not have to bear the blame. The majority of the council Fathers clearly hold that precisely because of his position as a father in his diocese, a bishop must resign when he can no longer meet the demands of his office as chief shepherd.
It is not yet clear how this matter can be regulated by law. But the discussion in the council has served well to arouse in the bishops of the world — though there are always exceptions — a new insight bringing about greater readiness to take the initiative themselves, in the interests of their people, to ask for coadjutors or to arrange for division of a diocese that is too large or merger of Sees that are too small.
The council Fathers in general have shown — partly in reaction to isolated expressions of a surviving monarchical or feudal mentality — a conscience which gives a decisive “yes” to the challenge of self-denial and the abandonment of a power mentality.
In short, it is a “yes” to selfless service. This conscience corresponds to the high ideal of episcopal consecration and a sacred sense of collegiality in shouldering responsibility and rendering obedience. It is more than a guideline for legislation. It is above all a guarantee that such legislation will be morally effective.
Father Bernard Haering, CSSR.
Father Haering is professor of moral theology at the Accademia Alfonsiana, Redemptorist higher institute in Rome, a theological expert of the Second Vatican Council and author of “The Johannine Council.”