Melkite leader had plan for collegiality among bishops

June 17, 2013

Glen Argan Western Catholic Reporter

Maximos IV Saigh, the patriarch of the Melkite Catholic Church, was one of the most outspoken fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

For one thing, Patriarch Maximos was the only council father who refused to speak in Latin, giving all of his talks on the council floor in French. He was also a staunch defender of the jurisdiction of local churches and an opponent of Roman centralism.

So it was not surprising that the patriarch chose to address the council on collegiality – the issue of how bishops share in the pope's authority for the governance of the universal Church.

Earlier, in my article published in the March 25 WCR, I wrote about the straw vote held Oct. 30, 1962 in which the council fathers overwhelmingly endorsed the concept of collegiality.

I had intended to leave further consideration of that topic until this series examines the final text of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, in a couple of months from now.

In the meantime, however, Pope Francis has established a panel of eight cardinals to advise him on the governance of the universal Church. In that light, Patriarch Maximos' speech of Nov. 6, 1962 takes on a new importance.

For it was in that speech that Maximos outlined his proposal for the collaboration of the bishops in the central government of the universal Church.

The Melkite leader was unimpressed with the current system in which the successor of Peter and "the Roman clergy" are charged with governance. By "the Roman clergy," he was referring to the cardinals, particularly those in the Curia, each of whom is the titular head of a parish in the Diocese of Rome.

Cardinals Alfredo Ottaviani (left) and Josef Frings (right) offered differing views at the Second Vatican on the need for reform of the Vatican Curia.

Cardinals Alfredo Ottaviani (left) and Josef Frings (right) offered differing views at the Second Vatican on the need for reform of the Vatican Curia.

In Maximos' view, authority should lie instead with Peter and the successors of the apostles, that is, with diocesan bishops.


The patriarch called for the establishment of a representative group of the bishops to help the pope govern the universal Church. It would be made up of patriarchs, cardinal-archbishops who are the heads of dioceses and bishops chosen by national episcopal conferences.

Members of this "authentic sacred college of the universal Church" would then take turns being at the side of the pope to help him in his role of governance. All the Vatican offices would be subject to the authority of this sacred college, the head of which is, of course, the pope.

In the debate at Vatican II, other bishops made similar proposals for a permanent body of bishops from the entire world to help the pope.

Two days after Maximos spoke, Cardinal Josef Frings addressed the council, calling for a thorough reform of the Curia. In his speech, written partly by his advisor Father Joseph Ratzinger, he criticized the Holy Office "whose procedure in many respects is no longer suited to our age, harms the Church and is scandalous to many."

Moreover, Frings said there should be fewer bishops and priests in the Curia, and that the bulk of important Curia offices could be filled by the laity.


His talk was greeted by what one bishop described as "frenzied" applause.

Only minutes later, however, the head of the Holy Office, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, fired back that Frings' criticisms were based on ignorance. While papal authority is firmly based on Scripture, there is no scriptural basis for collegiality.

Ottaviani went so far as to virtually identify the authority of the Holy Office with that of the pope before launching into a blistering criticism of the four moderators of the council who were responsible for its daily running.

A few days later, Pope Paul VI and the moderators made a decision – or so it seemed to those present – to set up a conciliar commission that would present concrete proposals to the pope for a permanent role for the world's bishops in the governance of the universal Church.

However, the commission was never established and the proposals never came forward, even though the proposed commission was very much in line with what Pope Paul had requested in his talk opening the second session of Vatican II.


What did happen was that in 1965 Pope Paul established the world Synod of Bishops that meets periodically to discuss general topics given to it by the pope. While the synods held over the past 45 years have had many merits, they are not the same level of sharing in Church governance that was envisioned at Vatican II.

One might speculate that Pope Paul had decided that the time was not yet ripe for establishing a collegial body to help the pope govern the universal Church.

Collegiality has not been forgotten, but neither has it taken any decisive steps forward. Now, to everyone's surprise, Pope Francis has reopened the issue. It would seem that this issue has begun to move towards a resolution.

(Information for this article came from Joseph Famerée's article on "Bishops and Dioceses" in volume 3 of History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo, and from What Happened at Vatican II by John O'Malley.)