A Study of Collegiality at the Second Vatican Council

Source: FSSPX News

Paul VI oversees the Council on December 8, 1965

Fr. Nicolas Cadiet has been a professor of dogmatic theology and philosophy at the seminary of Zaitzkofen for three years. Before that, he taught dogma and liturgy at the St. Pius X Seminary in Econe for seven years.

One of the novelties introduced by Vatican Council II was the doctrine on the structure of the Church. The first Vatican Council, in 1870, intended to give a complete presentation of this structure; but given the circumstances, it was forced to settle for strongly affirming the pope’s supreme, plenary and universal power over the entire Church, crowned by the attribute of infallibility that was solemnly defined at this time.

Several renowned 19th and 20th-century theologians regretted the fact that the Church’s teaching had long been placing too exclusive an accent on the papal monarchy, to the detriment of the institution of the bishops. Various historical circumstances were behind this tendency: the Gregorian reform in the 11th century, and the counterattacks against conciliarism at the time of the Great Schism, against Wycliffe’s and Hus’ denial of the Church’s hierarchy, and above all against the Protestant Reformation. They believed that the definition of 1870 accentuated this tendency.

Furthermore, there was a chronic exasperation with the Roman Curia, mainly composed of Italians and accused of ruling the Church from a distance without paying attention to the local conditions of the apostolate.

This was the atmosphere in which Vatican Council II began. And the firm intention of more than one conciliar Father was to rebalance the magisterial teaching thanks to a stronger affirmation of the prerogatives of the bishops. Hence this passage from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964), in the introduction to Chapter 3 that is devoted to “the hierarchical structure of the Church and in particular the episcopate”:

And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. Continuing in that same undertaking, this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God. (LG § 18)

A New Doctrine on the Prerogatives of the Bishops

To show the special role of the bishops in the Church, the text points out that the episcopal dignity includes prerogatives that do not come purely and simply from the pope, and that in two ways.

In the first place, it is by the rite of the episcopal consecration that one becomes a bishop. And the Council declares that this rite is a sacrament (LG §21), that is to say, that it produces its supernatural effect by the simple fact that the rite is correctly accomplished by the competent minister (the bishop) with the intention of doing what the Church does. The pope’s consent is no more required for the efficacy of the rite than for the validity of a Mass celebrated by a validly ordained priest. The power received, therefore, does not proceed from the pope, but from Christ who operates through (via) the instrument or minister.

The effect of this sacrament consists in the power to sanctify (particularly that of administering the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders), but also, says the Council, to teach and govern. It is founded on the gift of the Holy Ghost that the Apostles received directly from God on Pentecost and that is perpetuated in the rite of the episcopal consecration. The result of this sacrament is that the bishops represent Christ the Pastor: “In the bishops, therefore, for whom priests are assistants, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Supreme High Priest, is present in the midst of those who believe.”

Secondly, some of these powers received with the consecration consist in an authority that is not so much the authority of one person as that of an entire body. Indeed, although each bishop has the charge of teaching and governing his own diocese personally – this is not an issue – the Council also claims that as a body or “college”, the bishops have the authority to teach and govern the entire Church. The rite of the consecration, along with the hierarchical communion with the Catholic pope and bishops, supposedly incorporates the new bishop into this college and by that very fact, communicates a part of this authority to him.

The order of bishops that is the successor of the College of Apostles in the Magisterium and pastoral government, and in whom the apostolic body is perpetuated, united to its Leader the Roman Pontiff, and never without this Leader, is also a subject of the supreme and plenary power over the entire Church, a power that can only be exercised with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. (LG §22)

This is a rather new claim for the dignity of the bishops, for it implies that besides the pope, there is another subject (subjectum quoque) of the supreme, plenary and universal power over the Church, even if the exercise of this power remains, according to the text, closely dependent upon the pope, as in the explicit case of the Ecumenical Councils.

The idea of the bishops’ power over the entire Church is also suggested in the mention of the common solicitude of the bishops (LG §23) and of their common responsibility for the good of the entire Church, without precisely defining the limits of this solicitude and this responsibility.[1]

The Wheat Mixed in with the Chaff

Some of these affirmations were already taught by the Church, although never this solemnly; others are new.

For example, that the episcopate was instituted by the Savior and not by the Church is perfectly true. The Gospel clearly relates how Jesus chose His Apostles directly, communicated various powers to them, such as that of celebrating Mass and forgiving sins, and sent them to preach. These prerogatives were granted to all of them collectively, but never without Peter, and certain prerogatives were conferred upon him alone. He received the charge of “feeding the lambs and sheep”, that is to say, of governing the entire Church, pastors and faithful alike, but he did not receive the charge of establishing the essential structure of the Church himself; this structure was imposed by Christ in person. Such is the teaching of Leo XIII in his encyclical Satis Cognitum (1896). It is also clear that the Apostles took to themselves successors by virtue of a commandment that did not come from St. Peter but most likely from Our Lord.

In the same way, the fact that the episcopal consecration confers the power of sanctifying is nothing new. As for calling it a sacrament, while Lumen Gentium does decide upon a question that was freely disputed by theologians, it is in keeping on this point with the opinion of the majority of the Conciliar Fathers[2] and was already strongly implied by Pope Pius XII in the Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis on November 30, 1947.

We might also recall a doctrine admitted in the Church, although not recalled by Vatican II[3], that of the ordinary universal Magisterium. The unanimous teaching of the bishops in matters of Faith and morals is infallible:

This submission must be shown in an act of divine faith that cannot be limited to that which has been defined by the express decrees of the ecumenical councils or the Roman pontiffs of this Apostolic See, but must also apply to that which the ordinary magisterium of the entire Church throughout the universe transmits as divinely revealed and is consequently held with unanimous and universal consent by Catholic theologians as belonging to the Faith.[4]

It is clear that the body of bishops as a collectivity does have a special attribute of infallibility that is not that of the pope’s personal infallibility; however, this attribute of the body of bishops cannot be exercised without him, its leader, and the pope is the judge of its effective realization in each particular case.[5]

Entrance of the Bishops for the Vatican Council - 1962

A Second Subject of the Supreme and Plenary Power?

However, the claim that the body of bishops has a supreme and plenary power over the entire Church, a power that belongs to it along with its head, is not so self-evident. The arguments given to support this claim (the manifestation of the bonds of communion of the bishops in Christian Antiquity, the practice of the Councils and the participation of several bishops for an episcopal consecration) do not sufficiently support a conclusion that goes as far as to claim that the body of bishops as such has jurisdiction over the entire Church.

Indeed, the practice of the bonds of communion and the presence of several bishops for a consecration can also simply show the natural solidarity between the members of the same Catholic Church who have similar governing roles. As for the practice of local or general Councils, an expert has pointed out that “this consultation is not dictated by a constitutional requirement but rather suggested by prudential reasons of which the pope is the sole judge in view of the good of the Church.”[6] Having meetings is not necessarily the expression of a great mystery that cannot be compared to the structures of human societies. People meet to consult each other’s natural prudence; they can very well meet to consult the supernatural prudence conferred by the Holy Ghost. There is nothing mysterious about that! And there are sterile meetings in the ecclesiastical realm as well, not only in the realm of temporal matters…

We might also mention the “Preliminary Explanatory Note” added at the order of the “superior authority”, Paul VI himself, in November 1963, and inserted into the official acts of the Council as necessary for the authentic interpretation of the text. This note explains that the consecration confers an “ontological participation in the sacred functions.” This makes it possible to make a distinction between the power of government conferred by the rite of the episcopal consecration and the bishop’s actual jurisdiction over a diocese that is conferred upon him through a nomination by the pope. Some theologians conclude that the power of the college of bishops over the entire Church consists in this hint of a jurisdiction conferred by the consecration, shared by right by all the bishops, and applied according to the circumstances or determinations decided by the pope.

But it is only a hint of a jurisdiction, an ability to receive an actual jurisdiction, whereas LG 22 speaks of a supreme and plenary power of the college of bishops over the entire Church, a power that is the same as the pope’s, really possessed and not simply a possibility, even if it is exercised under the motion of the pope. The consecration cannot communicate a participation in this supreme and plenary power over the entire Church.

Besides, it is not even necessary in order to have this power, if we are to believe Pope Pius XII:

Even if a layman were elected pope, he could accept the election only if he were fit for ordination and willing to be ordained But the power to teach and govern, as well as the divine gift of infallibility, would be granted to him from the very moment of his acceptance, even before his ordination.[7]

We are therefore hardly convinced of the reality of this power of the college over the entire Church. As Joseph Ratzinger remarked:

We have to say, it would seem in this text (the preliminary note) that the notion of a collegiality exclusively centered on the strictly collegial act over the entire Church leads to a dead-end. Indeed, it is hard to see what positive meaning there would be in a collegiality that only legitimately signifies the plenary power because by going against it one also goes against the equally plenary power of the pope. Indeed, the meaning of collegiality cannot be to replace the monarch with a parliament, for example, but to only give the particular Churches their value and efficacy in the ecclesial structure, in other words, to promote ‘partial collegiality’. This partial collegiality is in itself of a capital importance for the whole, for it vitally represents the conciliar structure of the Church. At the right time – and this time will come – it can be exercised in the supreme form of a collegial act at an ecumenical council.[8]

The only real impact, therefore, of the Council’s affirmation of the bishops’ collegial power is an exhortation to practice “collegial” consultation at the lesser level of the Church provinces, dioceses and even parishes. The collegial structure of the body of bishops is nothing more than a model for the Church’s way of operating on every level. In other words, it is an encouragement to multiply meetings, councils, synods and other commissions. Is it really worth this much discussion on the part of 2000 Conciliar Fathers? The mountain gave birth to a mouse. One would be right to suspect that this opening towards a greater democracy had ulterior motives.

And that is exactly what the history of the Council reveals; Among the various theological theories on the structure of the Church, the most extreme held that the college of bishops was the subject of the supreme power over the Church, and that the pope was only its president. The conciliar text was intentionally worded ambiguously so that after the Council it could be interpreted in the sense of episcopal democracy.[9] Paul VI was appalled when he understood the duplicity of the theologians’ maneuver, and that was why he imposed the “Preliminary Explanatory Note”.[10]

Application of the Doctrine of Collegiality

To defend the doctrine of collegiality against its enemies, who feared the power of the pope would be weakened, Archbishop Jean-Julien Weber wrote in 1964:

The Church was instituted by Jesus according to a mode that was not adapted to her: she is a communion, a koinonia that reveals among its members both a communication of common graces to all and at the same time a differentiation of its gifts for the good of the whole. It is doubtless necessary to determine what these gifts are and what they signify, but there is no need to oppose them to each other or to eliminate some in favor of others on the pretext of safeguarding rights that are not threatened.[11]

The history of the Council shows that these threats were no illusions. The application of the Council clearly showed how real they were. In the anarchy of the 70’s, a Roman prelate told Archbishop Lefebvre: “What do you want us to do with an episcopal conference” that refuses Rome’s injunctions? In 2017, the German Bishops’ Conference decidedly purely and simply to refuse to allow the faithful of the Society of St. Pius X to celebrate their marriages, disregarding the dispositions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on March 27, 2017.

As Cardinal Vingt-Trois said on September 14, 2008, during Benedict XVI’s visit to Paris, “The pope’s relations with the bishops are not those of an employer with his employees. He is not the CEO of a multinational company coming to visit a branch office.” Between the bishops of France and the pope there are no “relations of servile subordination.” Perhaps, but who ever said there was? And why caricature the divine institution of the Church in this way?

The episcopal conferences do not obey, but they tyrannize the bishops who dare not protest against the collective decisions, in such a way that their authority is as it were confiscated.[12] In parishes, the authority of the pastor is demolished by a parish council or by tyrannical persons. Various movements demand the ordination of women and an adaptation of the Church’s moral teaching to contemporary norms in the name of Vatican Council II. They have heard so much talk of the attributes of the laity!

In the face of this spectacle, is it really impertinent to point out that, despite the irritated comments from Archbishop Weber or from Pope John XXIII who berated the “prophets of doom”[13], Cassandra was right once again?

The International Theological Commission, in its 2014 document on the sensus fidei, observed that “on certain occasions, the reception of the teaching of the magisterium by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance; in these situations, it is necessary to act appropriately on both sides. The faithful should reflect upon the teaching that has been given and do their best to understand and accept it. Resisting on principle to a teaching of the magisterium is incompatible with an authentic sensus fidei. The magisterium should also reflect upon the teaching that has been given and examine whether it would not be best to clarify or reword it in order to communicate its essential message more effectively.”[14]

The faithful and clergy who, ever since the 1970’s, have sought in the fiasco of the Church to preserve a liturgy, discipline and teaching in keeping with the Church’s Tradition have certainly proven their sensus fidei. They can legitimately expect the magisterial authority to examine whether it would not be best to “clarify or reword” the Council, in order to correct the evil at its root.

-- Fr. Nicolas Cadiet


[1] Cf. also the decree Christus Dominus, October 28, 1965, §3.

[2] A vote on this question during the Council on October 30, 1963, shows that 2123 to 34 Fathers were in favor of asserting that the episcopate is the highest degree of the sacrament of Holy Orders.

[3] They did not wish to offer a definite answer as to whether the ordinary universal magisterium was or was not to be considered strictly as a collegial act. Cf. Joseph Ratzinger “Episcopal Collegiality, Theological Development.

[4] Pius IX, Letter Tuas Libenter to the archbishop of Munich-Freising, December 21, 1863. Cf. also Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, April 24, 1870.

[5] Cf. Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, November 1, 1950, for the solemn definition of Our Lady’s Assumption: “This ‘outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful,’ affirming that the bodily Assumption of God's Mother into heaven can be defined as a dogma of faith.” It was the pope’s responsibility to conduct this consultation and judge its results.

[6] Fr. Umberto Betti, OFM, “The Pope and the Other Members of the College”.

[7] Pius XII, Speech to the participants in the 2nd World Congress for the Apostolate of the Laity, October 5, 1957.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 786.

[9] See the testimony of Edward Schillebeeckx, OP: “During the second session,” he explains, “he told an expert from the Theology Commission that he was displeased at seeing what seemed to be the moderate liberal view on collegiality presented in the outline; personally, he preferred the extreme liberal view. ‘We express ourselves diplomatically,’ the expert responded, ‘but after the Council we will draw from the text the conclusions implied in it.’ Fr. Schillebeeckx found this tactic ‘dishonest’.” Ralph Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber.

[10] For the story of this entire episode in the Council, see Ralph Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber. Indications on Paul VI’s reaction in more muted terms but with more references in Giuseppe Albergio (editor), Histoire du Concile Vatican II, vol. 1V, Cerf-Peeters, Paris-Louvain, 2003, p. 531-532.

[11] Jean-Julien Weber, “Les Apôtres ont-ils formé un collège?”, in the ecclesiastical bulletin of the diocese of Strasburg, 1964.

[12] Cf. Archbishop Lefebvre, Open Letter to Confused Catholics, ch. 13.

[13] John XXIII, Speech for the solemn opening of Vatican Council II, October 11, 1962.

[14] Interntional Theological Commission, “The Sensus Fidei in the life of the Church”, 2014, § 80.