Council Debates Authority of Local Bishops Over Religious Communities

83rd General Congregation
September 18, 1964

Council Fathers began debate on one of the most sensitive areas of the Church’s institutional life, the exemption of certain religious communities from the full authority of local bishops.

Three Jesuit bishops and a Dominican cardinal sprang to the defense of such exemptions at the council’s third working meeting of the current session.

It became clear from their remarks that the schema on the pastoral duties of bishops attempts to give more power to local bishops over the work of priests who are members of exempt religious congregations, while leaving these congregations full autonomy in their internal life.

Debate on this schema began after three final speakers wound up debate on the chapter in the schema on the nature of the Church dealing with Our Lady.

Coadjutor Archbishop Pierre Veuillot of Paris, presenting the report of the Commission for Bishops and the Government of Dioceses, which had drawn up the schema, announced that it contained a new article on the appointment of bishops. This amounted to a declaration of independence from civil authorities in the matter of naming bishops.

The schema urges those who now have the power to name bishops to give it up. (This appeared to refer to the Spanish government. However, the Spanish government’s power of naming bishops is closely circumscribed and qualified.)

The schema also makes it clear that it does not prejudice agreements giving certain governments the right to review episcopal appointments. (Most of the recently concluded pacts give governments the right to make objections to episcopal nominations before they are made public.)

Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston was present at a meeting for the first time this session. He told a priest acquaintance that he had come especially to make interventions during the debate on the council’s statements regarding the Jews and religious liberty.

The day’s debate began with a speech by Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne, Germany. Through an error he was the first speaker to be called, although he had prepared to address the council’s Theological Commission rather than the council itself. The topic at this point was the chapter on Mary.

Cardinal Frings said the debate on the chapter on the Blessed Virgin had shown it would be impossible to secure the necessary majority to approve it. Therefore, a compromise would be necessary, and all should be ready to sacrifice personal opinions, he said.

Two other speakers benefited from the regulation providing that a council Father may speak in the name of at least 70 other Fathers after the formal debate has ended.

Bernard Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, the Netherlands, said much confusion over the chapter on Mary stemmed from confusion over the chapter’s purpose, which was doctrinal rather than devotional. The task of the council, he said, is to determine what is taught and not what is thought. In this regard, he continued, the Fathers must recall that the conciliar decree will be binding, and they must be aware that there is no question of stating too much or too little, but only of stating what is true.

Cardinal Alfrink, a Scripture scholar, said Mary is not mediatrix in the strict spiritual sense, although Catholics grant that she had a very personal role in the plan of God. He asked whether it is proper to retain a title that might cause confusion and widen the gap between the Church and non-Catholics.

The third speaker offered a rebuttal to an attack made the previous day by Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo of Cuernavaca, Mexico, on Mary’s title as “Mother of the Church.”

Bishop Laureano Castan Lacoma of Siguenza, Spain, speaking in the name of 80 bishops, deplored Bishop Mendez’ “levity” in asserting that if Mary is the Mother of the Church — which is in turn the mother of men — then Mary is our grandmother. He said the same sort of logic if applied to the hierarchical structure of the Church would make bishops grandfathers, since bishops are the fathers of priests and priests are fathers of the laity.

The council Fathers were deprived of some of the expected debate when arguments for and against the controversial chapter three of the schema were delivered in printed form. This chapter deals with the collegiality of the bishops, the central point at issue in the council.

Archbishop Pietro Parente, a top official of the Congregation of the Holy Office, presented the favorable arguments, and Bishop Frane Franic of Split, Yugoslavia, set forth the difficulties in the chapter.

The council also approved chapter two of the schema on the Church, which it had approved section by section the previous day, by a vote of 1,615 to 19. There were 553 who favored the chapter with reservations, and three votes were null. The total votes cast were 2,190.

Archbishop Pericle Felici, general secretary of the council, announced that although the vote of unqualified approval was well beyond the required two-thirds, the commission would carefully study all suggested changes offered by those who had reservations.

In his explanation of the schema on the pastoral duties of bishops, Archbishop Veuillot emphasized that the schema’s theological doctrine was necessarily founded on the theology the bishops expounded in the schema on the nature of the Church. (Voting on the latter schema’s chapter dealing with bishops was to open Sept. 21.) Archbishop Veuillot pointed out that if any pertinent part of this fundamental schema were changed by the council, then the text he was presenting would also have to be changed.

He said the schema distinguished between the power of bishops and their ministry.

The day’s moderator, Julius Cardinal Doepfner of Munich and Freising, Germany, urged speakers to stick to the point. As events were to show, he was prepared to make them do so.

Paul Cardinal Richaud of Bordeaux, France, led the speakers’ list. He complained that the schema left too many problems to the Commission for the Revision of Canon Law. The council, he said, should give the commission sufficient guidance on what is to be done and the go-ahead to do it. Among problems to be dealt with, he said, were the competence of national episcopal conferences and the use of archbishops as courts of appeal for disagreements in an individual diocese.

Michael Cardinal Browne, O.P., a member of the Roman curia, opened fire on the schema’s treatment of exempt religious orders. A Dominican, he is a member of the first active order to be exempted from full authority of local bishops and made subject directly to the Holy See.

Cardinal Browne took the exact opposite tack from Cardinal Richaud, urging that all treatment of Religious should be left for the projected revision of canon law. The schema, he said, makes Religious too rigorously subject to local bishops. He asserted that the international apostolate carried out by Religious should not be confined by the authority of bishops.

Cardinal Browne objected to what he called the schema’s presupposition that the mission of preaching comes from episcopal consecration.

Three Jesuits rallied around Cardinal Browne in his defense of the exemption of Religious: Archbishop Frederick Melendro, S.J., of Anking, China; Bishop James Corboy, S.J., of Monze, Northern Rhodesia; and Massachusetts-born Bishop John McEleney, S.J., of Kingston, Jamaica. Archbishop Melendro asserted that Religious cannot have two superiors, their religious superior and the local bishop. He also urged that there be regular ecumenical councils.

Cardinal Doepfner stepped in when he judged Archbishop Melendro was getting off the subject under debate, and when Archbishop Melendro again wavered from the subject, Cardinal Doepfner asked him to step down and hand in his speech.

Bishop Corboy criticized the schema for speaking with too little force of the general authority of bishops and too much force of the particular authority of bishops over Religious. He said the fundamental weakness of the schema is its failure to provide an adequate justification for exemption. He said any weakening of exemptions would weaken the Church’s missionary effort.

Bishop McEleney opened with the assertion that difficulties between Religious and bishops in matters of the apostolate cannot be avoided. He said he saw two ways of dealing with such unavoidable difficulties. One would be to diminish the pope’s authority over Religious. This, he said, would lead to a crisis in religious life and consequent harm to both the Church and the diocese. Yet this was the method put forward by the schema, he stated. The other way would be to erect a special commission to handle such difficulties, he said, and suggested that the schema be recast along this line.

Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni, Italy, one of the council’s most frequently heard bishops, attacked the handling of collegiality. He said the schema assumes that a bishop exists first for the whole Church and then for his own diocese, whereas the contrary is correct. He pointed out that persons exist first and organizations afterward.

In support of his thesis that a bishop derives his relationship to the universal Church from his relationship to his own diocese, he pointed to the history of the institution of titular bishops. When the Church began creating titular bishops, it emphasized that they were attached to a real — though defunct — diocese. He also urged the council to beware of treating Our Lady with extreme caution and treating bishops with extreme liberality.

Bishop Jean Rupp of Monaco complained that the schema fails to take into account the modern phenomenon of migration which carries the people from diocese to diocese in numbers undreamed of in past ages.

Bishop Antonio Pildain Zapain of the Canary Islands asked that the Holy See be assured of complete freedom in the appointment of bishops. Cardinal Doepfner called him to order when he appeared to stray from the point at issue.

Archbishop Armando Fares of Catanzaro, Italy, urged that the schema declare that the chief pastoral duty of bishops is that of protecting their flock from error. He also complained that the schema, in abolishing a direct link between some dioceses and the Holy See and making all dependent upon metropolitan Sees, was not showing sufficient respect for the dignity of some of these Sees.

Bishop Maksimilijan Drzecnik of Maribor, Yugoslavia, asked for inclusion of a chapter on pastoral sociology. He said each diocese should have a commission on pastoral sociology to gather information on and study the religious life of the diocese.

Bishop Brian Foeley of Lancaster, England, asked for more emphasis on the pastoral care of souls. Recalling that L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican City daily, had praised a priest for visiting 620 families in a year, he said in his opinion that was nothing more than his simple duty. Cardinal Doepfner called him to order.

Bishop Federico Kaiser for Caraveli, Peru, asserted that bishops who feel they have too few priests to spare any for the missions should recall Christ’s words about giving clothes to the poor: Christians were to give away one tunic not if they had many but if they had only two.

Archbishop Robert E. Lucey of San Antonio, Tex., recalled the statement of Pope St. Pius X that religious ignorance was so prevalent among the faithful that the duty of catechetical teaching must have been either poorly performed or entirely neglected. He urged the importance of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

Cardinal Doepfner interrupted Archbishop Lucey to ask what points in the schema he would like to see changed. Archbishop Lucey replied simply, “dixi” (I have spoken), and returned to his place.

When asked later whether he thought Cardinal Doepfner had acted correctly, he replied smilingly: “Cardinals are never wrong.”

Bishop Manuel Larrain Errazuriz of Talca, Chile, offered a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit at the opening of the meeting. The Gospel was enthroned by Bishop Wilhelm Kempf of Limburg, Germany.

*          *          *          *

An American archbishop indicated here that the ecumenical council was in favor of establishing some kind of international body of bishops to cooperate with the Pope in the government of the universal Church, and said that thus it is up to the Pope to make the next move.

Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken of San Francisco, the prelate in charge of the American Hierarchy’s press panel, spoke on this aspect of collegiality at a press panel session on the eve of the week designated for the council’s vote on the third chapter of the schema, or draft statement, on the nature of the Church.

Archbishop McGucken told the press that this third chapter expresses the desire of the council Fathers to participate in the government of the whole Church.

“It would seem then,” he said, “that the next move would be up to the Pope to set up a group of bishops for this purpose.”

The San Francisco prelate also said:

“The improvement in communications, the proximity of peoples and the like demand more collaboration than was possible through the old practice of a periodic consistory in Rome. Nor is the Roman curia sufficiently international to know the needs of all areas of the Church. Besides, it is not an obligation of office for the curia, as it is for the bishops.”

The consensus of the bishops that they desire to take part in the government of the whole Church is contained in the third chapter’s 21st, 22nd and 23rd paragraphs, in which the doctrine of episcopal collegiality is expressed, it was revealed at the press panel session.

Various panel members indicated that while the chapter expressed the bishops’ desire to cooperate with the Pope in the government of the Church, it was not clear what form of participation the bishops were seeking. Father Frederick R. McManus, canon law professor at the Catholic University of America, Washington, disclosed that the schema does not use the word senate. He said the Latin word used is coetus, which means “assembly” or “body” rather than “senate.”

Father McManus said this word was previously approved by the council. It is contained in the second article of the schema’s first chapter, which was voted on favorably, he said. He indicated he expected that since the word coetus is mentioned again in the third chapter, it would be approved there as well. But he reiterated that this provision for a bishops’ “assembly” is not at all specific.

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