Council gave new dignity to local bishops


Diocesan bishops are not local branch plant managers of the Church, but members of a sacred college, which shares in responsibility for governance of the universal Church.


Diocesan bishops are not local branch plant managers of the Church, but members of a sacred college, which shares in responsibility for governance of the universal Church.


October 14, 2013

The third chapter of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, was the most controversial section of any document produced by the Second Vatican Council.

The vociferous, unrelenting opposition of a small minority of bishops - many of them influential - testifies to the fact that something of importance was at stake in this chapter, which focused on the nature of the hierarchy.

Moreover, chapter three is the only point in the documents of Vatican II - a council that was supposed to be "pastoral," not "dogmatic" - in which there were solemn pronouncements of Church teaching.

This chapter changed something. It changed Church teaching, not in the sense of inventing a new teaching, but rather in the sense of clearing up misconceptions that had previously existed, misconceptions that existed even among the Roman Curia.

Bishops were sometimes seen as priests who had been given added responsibilities. In this view, the consecration of a bishop was not sacramental, but rather a ceremony in which the ordained man received new responsibilities. Moreover, these responsibilities were duties that he received from the pope; the bishop was basically a local vicar of the Roman pontiff.

To some extent, this view grew out of an understanding of the First Vatican Council as having made the pope an absolute monarch over the entire Church. Partly this misunderstanding was the result of Vatican One having been summarily ended before it could deal with the nature of the bishop.

In fact, Vatican One was more nuanced. While it taught that the pope was the supreme head of the Catholic Church, including head of all the bishops, it did not teach that the pope was in effect the bishop of every diocese in the world.


The Vatican II teaching is also nuanced. For the first time, it is stated clearly that the consecration of a bishop is a sacrament through which he receives the fullness of the ordained priesthood.

The pope does have "full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church" which he can exercise unhindered (LG 22). However, in their own dioceses, the bishops are the visible source and foundation of the unity of the Church. Moreover, every bishop has a responsibility to lead the whole Church to a deeper unity in faith (LG 23).

Christ, according to Vatican II, constituted the apostles as a permanent assembly or college. Bishops, as successors of the apostles, share in Christ's power, should strive to make all people his disciples, sanctify and govern those disciples, and must shepherd the Church until the end of the world (LG 19).

Christ built the Church upon Peter, the chief cornerstone, so that the college of bishops would be one and undivided (LG 18). That college can never act without the pope's consent. The pope, meanwhile, is never obliged to act collegially.


At this point, one might ask, what is big deal about collegiality? What difference does it make?

To the first question, one needs to reiterate three things. First, the episcopacy is the fullness of the sacrament of Orders. Second, local bishops all have jurisdiction over their local Church; they are not branch plant managers.

Third, the bishops all have a responsibility for the teaching and governance of the universal Church, something not often acknowledged in recent history. Like the pope, they too, in communion with the pope who is the head of the college, have jurisdiction over the entire Church.

On a practical level, diocesan bishops sometimes felt, during their visits to Rome, that the Curia treated them as their underlings. In the Curia mindset, the Curia represented the pope and the bishops were the pope's delegates in the hinterlands. That view made diocesan bishops subservient to the Curia.

Vatican II clarified that situation, at least somewhat. Diocesan bishops have a dignity and a sharing in Christ's authority that comes from their ordination, not because of an edict from Rome.

This understanding, it should be added, gives an intrinsic dignity to the local diocesan Church.

Ultimately, the sacrament that most defines the dignity of the Christian is not whether he or she is ordained, but rather whether he or she is baptized. It is Baptism that inaugurates one into divine life. Holy Orders is a separate consecration, one different in kind from Baptism, but nevertheless one that is oriented to strengthening the life of the Holy Spirit among the baptized.


The college of bishops is real, not a figment of someone's imagination. The pope, being a servant of God's will, will want to seek the advice of his fellow bishops and act in communion with them.

Following the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI established the World Synod of Bishops to come together every couple of years and discuss an important topic in the life of the Church. Over the last 50 years, the world synods have discussed topics such as the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, the Word of God, the role of the laity, and the family.


Through our secular eyes, we might expect to see collegiality as a step towards democracy in the Church or perhaps toward local autonomy. However, the Church is not a democracy; it is an ordered communion of the baptized living in Christ.

That communion is hierarchically structured, but the hierarchy is to be a hierarchy of service. Like all other aspects of the lived reality of the Church, that service can fall short of God's will. However, to the extent that the Church is lived as a communion, rather than a conglomeration of free agents doing their own thing, it is acting in accord with God's will.