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Commentary on Christus Dominus

Daniel J. Castellano


Preface [of Document]
Chapter I: Relationship of Bishops to the Universal Church
Chapter II
2.1 Diocesan Bishops
2.2 Diocesan Boundaries
2.3 Assistants in Pastoral Office of Diocesan Bishops
  2.3.1 Coadjutor and auxiliary bishops
  2.3.2 Diocesan curia
  2.3.3 Diocesan clergy
  2.3.4 Religious
Chapter III
3.1 Synods, Councils and especially Episcopal Conferences
Clarification: Apostolos suos (1998)

An issue of genuine controversy among the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council was the authority of bishops, acting as individuals and collegially with each other. Naturally, this was a matter of acute personal concern, since the Fathers were all bishops, and the Council debates were accordingly heated and sometimes intemperate. The dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium gave a general description of the role of bishops, emphasizing their participation in the concerns of the universal Church by acting collegially. Although the final text made clear that the bishops cannot act as a college without the Pope as its head, there had been so many conciliarist ideas proposed in the debates that Pope Paul judged it necessary to add a nota praevia emphasizing papal primacy with the following points:

  1. The college is not a group of equals who entrust their power to the president. The extraordinary power of the Apostles is not passed on to all the bishops, nor is there equality between the head of the college and its members.
  2. Membership in the college requires episcopal consecration and juridical, hierarchical communion with the Pope.
  3. The college has supreme and universal power only by virtue of including the Pope. The Pope alone has the competence to convoke and direct the College and approve its norms. The Roman Pontiff judges when to exercise the supreme authority collegially, and arranges and approves collegial activity at his discretion.
  4. The Roman Pontiff can always exercise his authority at will, while the College can only act collegially from time to time with the consent of its head, who alone is competent to approve such activity. The bishops cannot act as a College without their head.

This forceful assertion of papal authority was ill received by many bishops, who in fact wished to establish that bishops can act collegially on their own. Indeed, early Church history attests that many regional synods were organized without the explicit consent of the Pope (though not in opposition to him either). While there can be no extraordinary, universal authority in a council without a Pope, it was hoped by many that regional authority would be entrusted to colleges of bishops. These colleges would be permanent bodies with juridical authority over their respective regions.

In an act of defiance, the nota praevia was not placed at the head of Lumen Gentium, but instead was attached as an appendix. This enabled reformist bishops to argue later that the note was not properly part of the Council’s acts. Be that as it may, the nota was essential to winning the votes of conservative bishops, and it expressed the interpretation upon which the Pope conditioned his own consent, which is indispensable to the ecumenicity of the Council.

The norms of collegial action, and other aspects of episcopal authority, are set out in more detail in the decree titled Christus Dominus, approved in the fourth session (1965). Here we find an attempt to articulate the scope and nature of this authority while respecting the prerogatives of the Roman Pontiff.

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In the document’s preface, papal authority assumes a position of pre-eminence, as the decree affirms that the Pope has “supreme, full, immediate, and universal authority” over the universal Church and over particular Churches. “Hence, he holds a primacy of ordinary power over all the churches.” (CD, 2) The pre-Conciliar notion of papal authority has not been diminished in the slightest, a fact not likely to please the Orthodox and any others who believe the Church is over-centralized in her government. For those who wish to see greater local authority, one must ask that the Pope exercise his authority sparingly, only when the good of the universal Church certainly requires it. In this restraint, the Church might appeal to her own social principle of subsidiarity, where as much as possible is left to the competence of local authority.

The bishops themselves, however, having been appointed by the Holy Spirit, are successors of the Apostles as pastors of souls. Together with the supreme pontiff and under his authority they are sent to continue throughout the ages the work of Christ, the eternal pastor. (CD, 2)

Only bishops are called “successors of the Apostles” by the Council, consistent with Latin tradition. In the East, priests also are considered successors of the Apostles, since they too act as pastors of souls. However, only the episcopate has the priesthood in its fullness, so only bishops can be considered successors of the Apostles without qualification. A bishop’s teaching authority is proper to him, whereas with the priest it is conditioned by obedience to his bishop.

The bishops exercise their office “in communion with and under the authority of the supreme pontiff.” (CD, 3) This clear formulation remedies the concerns about ambiguity in Lumen Gentium. However, this traditional doctrine of papal primacy does not imply that there is some imperfection in a bishop’s pastoral authority, as there is with priests. Each bishop has “ordinary, proper and immediate authority” over his local particular Church. (CD, 8)

The Council recognizes that bishops may sometimes jointly provide for the common needs of various churches. “This sacred synod, therefore, attentive to the conditions of human association which have brought about a new order of things in our time, intends to determine more exactly the pastoral office of bishops...” (CD, 3)

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Chapter I: Relationship of Bishops to the Universal Church

The decree clarifies the teaching of Lumen Gentium, saying, “The order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in teaching and pastoral direction, or rather, in the episcopal order, the apostolic body continues without a break.” (CD, 4) That is, it is only in the capacity of “teaching and pastoral direction” that the episcopate succeeds the apostles, not in the extraordinary authority that the individual apostles enjoyed. Note the emphasis on temporal continuity. The present episcopate does not supplant or displace its predecessors, but rather all generations are part of a single apostolic body.

Directly quoting Lumen Gentium (Article 22), the Council says of the episcopate: “Together with its head, the Roman pontiff, and never without this head it exists as the subject of supreme, plenary power over the universal Church. But this power cannot be exercised except with the agreement of the Roman pontiff.” Although the Pope alone can authorize an ecumenical council, “this sacred synod decrees that all bishops who are members of the episcopal college, have the right to be present at an ecumenical council.” (CD, 4) Recall, per Lumen Gentium, that communion with the Pope is a necessary condition of membership in the episcopal college. (LG, 22) Collegiate action may also be exercised in a less solemn manner, outside of ecumenical councils. The bishops can act collegially even when they are physically dispersed throughout the world, “provided that the head of the college gives them a call to collegiate action, or, at least, gives the unified action of the dispersed bishops such approval, or such unconstrained acceptance, that it becomes truly collegiate action.” (CD, 4; LG, 22) This direct quotation from Lumen Gentium reminds us that action can only be collegiate if it is in union with the Pope, since one can only belong to the College when in union with its head. This does not mean that the Pope has to be a participant in every collegiate action (though this is essential in an ecumenical council), and he need not even give explicit approval to such action, but only his “unconstrained acceptance.” This broad standard allows for the fact that many regional councils were convoked without explicit papal approval, yet their canons were nonetheless valid, since the popes did not object to such councils, and thereby gave tacit acceptance. This acceptance must be “unconstrained,” as it would not be valid for the Pope to be forced to accept a council’s acts as a fait accompli. The spirit of such a conventicle would be opposed to the head of the College, and thus would not be truly collegial.

The Second Vatican Council proposed some concrete means by which the bishops could act collegially on a regular basis. Sacrosanctum Concilium envisioned the use of territorial conferences to regulate liturgical matters, while the present decree proposes a Synod of Bishops, consisting of bishops selected from around the world, to act as a deliberative body under the Pope. “Since it shall be acting in the name of the entire Catholic episcopate, it will at the same time show that all the bishops in hierarchical communion partake of the solicitude for the universal Church.” (CD, 5)

Pope Paul’s motu proprio titled Apostolica Sollicitudo, issued in September 1965, several months before Christus Dominus was formally approved by the Council, sets out the purpose and form of the Synod of Bishops. The motu proprio makes clear that the Synod is an advisory body, whose purpose is to help inform papal decision-making. The Synod “is directly and immediately subject to the authority of the Roman pontiff,” who decides when to summon the Synod, sets its agenda, and presides over it. Although the Synod acts “in the name of the entire Catholic episcopate,” it lacks the solemn character of an ecumenical council. Indeed, its representative nature precludes it from having ecumenical status, since every bishop has the right to participate personally in an ecumenical council. Having only advisory, not legislative, authority, it is closer in nature to the patriarchal synods, where a permanent body of suffragan bishops advises the patriarch when summoned. The term “Synod” in “Synod of Bishops” should be understood to refer primarily to a standing body of bishops, as in a patriarch’s synod, not as a council convened at a fixed time.

Pope Paul’s Synod of Bishops presupposed the existence of episcopal conferences, as Synod members from the Latin rite were to be elected by each conference. The Eastern churches were to be represented by their patriarchs and metropolitans. Religious institutes were also represented. Clearly the Synod, though lacking the character of an ecumenical council, consists of all the highest authorities throughout the Church, and thus constitutes a serious attempt to permit the particular Churches to act collegially on a regular basis.

Collegial activity is not about bishops having more power, but about showing solicitude for the needs of the rest of the Church. Since bishops, by their office, ought to have concern for the universal Church, it is right for them to give counsel to the rest of the Church, yet this same concern obligates them to take responsibility for the needs of other local churches. They should give aid to churches in poorer parts of the world, and support their brother bishops suffering persecution. (CD, 6-7)

The authority of bishops with respect to papal authority is expressed as follows:

To bishops, as successors of the Apostles, in the dioceses entrusted to them, there belongs per se all the ordinary, proper, and immediate authority which is required for the exercise of their pastoral office. But this never in any way infringes upon the power which the Roman pontiff has, by virtue of his office, of reserving cases to himself or to some other authority. (CD, 8)

The bishop’s pastoral authority over his diocese is “ordinary, proper and immediate,” coming as it does from his episcopal consecration. It is not an authority merely delegated to him by the Pope, but is truly proper to his office, and is not dependent on any special legal provision. Nonetheless, although the bishop’s authority over his diocese has such perfections, this does not prevent the Pope from reserving special matters to himself, in exercise of his ordinary, proper and immediate authority over the universal Church. Naturally, it is desirable that such overrides are exercised sparingly, so that the authority of bishops is not despised, yet at the same time it cannot be denied that the Pope always possesses the authority to take such action.

Although few would dare deny the monarchical constitution of the Church, many Council Fathers found fault with the means by which the universal authority imposed itself over the bishops. In most matters, the Pope did not impose his authority personally, but through the various congregations and other bodies of the Roman Curia. Such institutions were authorized to act with papal authority in ordinary matters, though the extraordinary graces of the papacy, such as infallible definitions of doctrine, could not be delegated. Since these bodies consisted mainly of Italian clergy, often mere priests, it can be understood why bishops in other nations would resent taking orders from them, especially when they had little input or insight into their decision making.

To address such concerns, the Council proposes reorganizing the departments of the Curia, while still recognizing the Pope’s ability to delegate his authority to such bodies. Such a reorganization had already been proposed by Pope Paul in 1963, and the Council now calls for the departments to be “better adapted to the needs of the times, regions, and rites especially as regards their number, name, competence and peculiar method of' procedure, as well as the coordination of work among them.” (CD, 9)

The reform of the Roman Curia was implemented by Pope Paul in his 1967 apostolic constitution Regimini Ecclesiae universae. The number of departments actually increased, while names were changed to more clearly indicate their functions or competences; e.g., the Holy Office became the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Notably, bishops who were not cardinals could now be members of the Roman congregations.

“The fathers also desire that, in view of the very nature of the pastoral office proper to the bishops, the office of legates of the Roman pontiff be more precisely determined.” (CD, 9) Papal legates, much like the Curia, had the tendency to be unnecessarily intrusive in the operations of the local Churches, rendering the bishops somewhat impotent. The legates alone could summon plenary councils in most nations, as a safeguard against Gallicanism. More problematically, they issued directives to the bishops regarding teaching and liturgy, making the bishop’s role as pastor of his local church seem an empty title. While there is no denying the right of the Pope to use legates to act on his behalf in remote parts of the Church, it would seem desirable that the mandate of such legates should always be well defined, so they do not act as effective super-bishops at their own discretion. There is strong precedent in the Church for such limitation, as the permanent legates in Constantinople always had a limited, well-defined delegation. If there was to be an ecumenical council, additional legates would have to be sent, or the permanent legates would have to receive a new commission. Similar exactitude was needed in the modern Church, not because papal authority was to be circumscribed, but because the ordinary pastoral authority of bishops was to be respected, and more direct means were now available for the papacy to engage with the bishops individually and collegially.

One of the better implemented proposals of Christus Dominus was that the Curia and legates should be “more widely taken from various regions of the Church, insofar as it is possible. In such a way the offices and central organs of the Catholic Church will exhibit a truly universal character.” (CD, 10) There is now much more diversity of nationality in the Curia, though Italians still predominate for the practical reason of language. Ironically, the substitution of the vernacular (Italian) for Latin as the dominant language in the Roman Church has slowed the internationalization of the universal authority. Still, it is not essential to this authority that there should be such representation. After all, the departments of the Curia all derive their authority from the Pope, who is universal pastor by virtue of being the bishop of Rome, Peter’s successor. Consultation with bishops, priests, and laity throughout the world may be helpful to the Pope for purposes of information or advice, but are not necessary for the exercise of universal authority.

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Chapter II

2.1 Diocesan Bishops

The document proceeds to give an idealized description of a bishop’s duties, which were already well established, and finally comes to the practical matter of the government of other apostolates in the diocese.

Various forms of the apostolate should be encouraged, and in the whole diocese or in any particular areas of it the coordination and close connection of all apostolic works should be fostered under the direction of the bishop. Thus all undertakings and organizations, be they catechetical, missionary, charitable, social, familial, educational, or anything else pursuing a pastoral aim, should be directed toward harmonious action. Thus at the same time the unity of the diocese will also be made more evident. (CD, 17)

The decree stops short of saying that everything within the diocese must be directly governed by the bishop, for that would infringe upon the rights of religious orders, but it does emphasize that no apostolate, whether lay or religious, should be undertaken without the consent of the bishop. Thus the diocese remains unified, rather than split among various independent organizations.

The faithful should be encouraged to support various works of the lay apostolate, “especially Catholic Action.” Such associations should support a supernatural objective, either directly through the promotion of religious doctrine and practice, or indirectly through “the pursuing of social aims or the performing of works of piety and charity.” (CD, 17)

“Episcopal conferences, especially national ones” (note that non-national conferences were also envisioned), should look into providing for groups such as “migrants, exiles and refugees, seafarers, air-travelers, gypsies, and others of this kind.” (CD, 18) Such people may not have regular access to a parish priest, and so other means must be sought to provide for their spiritual needs.

“In discharging their apostolic office, which concerns the salvation of souls, bishops per se enjoy full and perfect freedom and independence from any civil authority.” (CD, 19) Thus they may not be prevented from communicating with the Apostolic See, the hierarchy, or their diocese. Nonetheless, bishops should have regard for civil matters, and as their office permits, they should collaborate with public authorities “and advocate obedience to just laws and reverence for legitimately constituted authorities.”

The independence of bishops from civil authority is grounded in the fact that their authority is concerned with supernatural matters.

Since the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and pursues a spiritual and supernatural purpose, this sacred ecumenical synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority.

Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities. The civil authorities, on the other hand, whose favorable attitude toward the Church the sacred synod gratefully acknowledges and highly appreciates, are most kindly requested voluntarily to renounce the above-mentioned rights and privileges which they presently enjoy by reason of a treaty or custom, after discussing the matter with the Apostolic See. (CD, 20)

Note that the Council does not compel the civil authorities to renounce their nomination privileges, as these privileges were licitly given to them by agreement with the Church. The Church reserved to herself only the right of consecration and final decision-making authority, an authority enjoyed for centuries after the medieval lay investiture controversy. Now the Council wishes to make the bishop selection process absolutely free from civil intervention, returning the powers conceded to civil governments to their proper owner, the Church.

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2.2 Diocesan Boundaries

The Council also prescribes revising the diocesan boundaries as needed. Also, provision should be made for faithful of different language groups within a diocese, even to the extent of appointing an episcopal vicar. Such plans for revision may be made by the episcopal conferences, in consultation with the bishops affected, and subject to the approval of the Holy See.

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2.3 Assistants in Pastoral Office of Diocesan Bishops

The council sets out to define the relation of the bishop to others with pastoral duties in his diocese. These include auxiliary bishops, diocesan curia, diocesan priests, and religious orders.

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2.3.1 Coadjutor and auxiliary bishops

Since bishops are often unable to personally perform their duties throughout the diocese, either because of the size of the region or its population, or some other region, they are assisted by other bishops appointed for this purpose. Coadjutor and auxiliary bishops must act in harmony with the diocesan bishop, to preserve the unity of the diocese. The coadjutor is a more immediate assistant of the local ordinary, and the Council stipulates that he must always be named vicar general as well. (CD, 26)

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2.3.2 Diocesan curia

The diocesan curia is headed by the vicar general, though other episcopal vicars may be appointed for certain parts of the diocese, or for the faithful of a certain language. It also includes the priests who form the bishop’s council or cathedral chapter, as well as various committees, some of which may include laymen. The Council proposes that each diocesan bishop should establish a pastoral commission consisting of clergy, laymen and religious, in order “to investigate and weigh pastoral undertakings and to formulate practical conclusions regarding them.” (CD, 27)

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2.3.3 Diocesan clergy

Diocesan clergy, being attached to a particular Church, “form one presbytery and one family whose father is the bishop.” (CD, 28) Bishops are given full freedom to bestow offices and benefices among these clergy, so all privileges regarding these matters are suppressed.

The bishop should call his priests into pastoral dialogue as regularly as possible. Conversely, the priests ought to contribute as much as they can to diocesan projects. Some priests may be appointed to supra-parochial offices. Pastors and their assistants should collaborate with those in other parishes, and they should contact all people in their own parish, with the help of laymen. Community life is recommended for priests, especially for those in the same parish. (CD, 30)

When selecting a priest for parish administration, a bishop should consider “not only his knowledge of doctrine but also his piety, apostolic zeal and other gifts and qualities which are necessary for the proper exercise of the care of souls.” (CD, 31)

Since the parish exists “solely for the good of souls,” a bishop should have complete freedom in selecting pastors. To this end, the Council suppressed “all rights whatsoever of presentation, nomination, reservation, excepting the right of Religious—and where it exists, the law of concursus whether general or particular.” (CD, 31) Pastoral offices would be filled purely out of pastoral considerations, without regard for established privileges. More puzzling, perhaps, is the suppression of the lex concursus, the competitive examination for parochial appointments.

There had always been qualifying examinations for parish priesthood, since the beginning of the parish system in the eleventh century. At first, these were the same examinations as for attaining orders. Later, under Innocent III, there were separate examinations for benefices involving cure of souls. The Council of Trent, desiring there to be permanent parish priests who knew their parishioners, established the rule of concursus, which meant that applicants for a parish vacancy must be examined concurrently on the same day. The three synodal examiners would determine which applicants performed well enough to be candidates. The bishop would then choose the best qualified candidate for the appointment. This way, there would be no dispute about who was best suited for the appointment, and there would be no danger of the appointed person being replaced on account of later complaints by applicants claiming to have been unjustly overlooked.

Pope Pius V, in his constitution In conferendis (1567), specified that parochial appointments made without the concursus were not merely illicit, but also invalid. Unfortunately, this law was abused by men claiming that the concursus had not been properly administered. Often, there were no records of the examination, so a mere allegation might force a new concursus to be held. This jeopardized the stability of parochial appointments, which might be declared null and void pending a new examination, defeating the purpose of the Tridentine legislation.

To correct this abuse, Pope Benedict XIV issued the constitution Cum illud (1742), which required the examination to be written rather than oral, and that all applicants must be given the same questions. Appeals against unfairness by the examiners or by the bishop must be made within ten days of the appointment, and a judge could evaluate appeals only on the basis of the applicants’ written test answers, not by ordering a new concursus.

The concursus system was a strict meritocracy, much like the civil service examinations that were used in many countries. Applicants were tested in theology (moral and dogmatic), liturgy, and ecclesiastical law, with an emphasis on practical matters, and each would deliver a sermon. The examiners considered not only learning, but also age, prudence, integrity, past services, and other qualifications. The bishop had very limited discretion, since he could only choose from among the candidates that passed the exam, and even then he was obliged to pick the one who performed the best and was most worthy (dignior).

Well before the Second Vatican Council, the application of the lex concursus became limited on several fronts. For one thing, it ceased to be applied to rectors in several countries, since rectors are not, strictly speaking, parochial appointments. Second, since the Tridentine requirement applied only to appointments with benefices, there came to be many places where the general lex concursus was inapplicable, as the practice of benefices was abandoned. Still, some countries, notably the United States, imposed the concursus on permanent rectors by special law, and the concursus remained widely practiced in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Latin America until the time of Vatican II. This practice had long ceased to be universal, however, which is why the Pio-Benedictine code speaks only of “those regions” where there is a concursus: “In those regions in which provision is made for a concursus of the parishes, either by special law, according to the norms of the const. of Benedict XIV Cum Illud, 14 Dec. 1742, or by general [law], this form must be retained, unless the Apostolic See has decreed otherwise.” (CIC 1917, Canon 459, part 4)

In Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae (1966), which implemented the reforms outlined in Christus Dominus, privileges and the lex concursus were suppressed even for offices not involving the care of souls. Even popular elections were to be abrogated. Contracts with civil governments or private persons establishing such privileges were to be negotiated for cessation. (Ecclesiae sanctae, 18) Only the rights of religious orders were excepted from this reform.

The reform of parochial appointments appears to emphasize empowering bishops with full discretion over nomination and appointment. All other modes of appointment are abrogated. The Council’s ecclesiology, emphasizing the unitary power of the bishop over a diocese, seemed to favor a system where the bishop did not share the right of nomination with examiners or anyone else. While such an objective is understandable, it should be remembered that the concursus was implemented in order to guard against unjust favoritism based on personal loyalties, and to guarantee the stability of pastoral appointments for the good of souls. Restoring sole discretion to the bishops re-opens the dangers of lack of transparency and the rise of a closed social network determining appointments of like-minded fellows. The development of cliques undoubtedly has occurred in various parts of the post-Conciliar Church. A restoration of objective criteria for parochial appointments, including that of ten years experience for pastors, might be worthy of consideration, even if there are no longer many appointments with benefices.

The Church’s desire to have stability in pastoral appointments is offset by the practical need to remove pastors from time to time, either for disciplinary reasons or to adopt some other role in the diocese. This need was recognized long before the Council, so the 1917 code made a distinction between “irremovable” and “removable” pastors, with the former being more difficult to remove. The Second Vatican Council abolished this distinction:

Pastors should enjoy in their respective parishes that stability of office which the good of souls demands. The distinction between removable and irremovable pastors is to be abrogated and the procedure for transferring and removing pastors is to be re-examined and simplified. In this way the bishop, while observing natural and canonical equity, can better provide for the needs of the good of souls. (CD, 31)

Accordingly, the 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “A pastor must possess stability and therefore is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time. The diocesan bishop can appoint him only for a specific period if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.” (CIC 1983, canon 522) In the United States, the NCCB (now USCCB) approved such a decree, ratified by the Holy See in 1984, allowing bishops to appoint pastors for six-year terms.

In actual practice, there is little stability in pastoral appointments throughout much of the Church, and in the United States it is common for pastors to be removed even before the expiration of their six-year term. Part of this is due to the problem of a shortage of priests, yet often pastors are simply rotated to equivalent positions in other parishes. For one reason or another, many bishops have not taken to heart the imperative to have stability in pastoral appointments; at least, this does not seem to be a high priority. In effect, then, this part of Christus Dominus has achieved relatively little for the good of souls in parishes, except that vacancies may be filled more swiftly.

Similarly, the Council makes “concern for souls” the sole criterion for the erection or suppression of parishes at the bishop’s discretion. (CD, 32) Yet, in practice, financial considerations figure much more prominently in such decisions. This again is due in part to the unforeseen collapse in Catholic vocations and devotion that occurred after the Council.

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2.3.4 Religious

The prerogatives of religious orders were carefully protected by the Council, even amidst reforms that emphasized the supremacy of the diocesan bishop. The Council did not try to make the religious orders completely subordinate to the bishop, but instead conceived them as cooperative partners concerned with the good of the particular churches. Contrary to some post-Conciliar ideology, the Council held that the “first duty” of religious was to foster the good of the Church through “prayer, works of penance and the example of their own life.” (CD, 33) The best way to help the Church was through spiritual rather than secular works.

Religious priests “can be said in a real sense to belong to the clergy of the diocese inasmuch as they share in the care of souls and in carrying out works of the apostolate under the authority of the prelates.” Even non-ordained religious men and women “belong in a special way to the diocesan family and offer great assistance to the sacred hierarchy.” (CD, 34) The Council views religious as a valuable resource to cooperate with the diocesan clergy in the care of souls and other spiritual works.

Christus Dominus now addresses the delicate question of how this cooperation is to be achieved, while respecting the due prerogatives of prelates and religious orders. For the most part, the decree elaborates already established norms.

“All Religious should always look upon the bishops, as upon successors of the Apostles, with devoted respect and reverence.” (CD, 35) Although religious in orders are not in direct obedience to diocesan bishops, they owe the latter the honor due to their office. The Fifth Lateran Council, in its tenth session, forbade the defamation of prelates, and this decree was often invoked against unruly friars denouncing bishops. The Second Vatican Council goes further, adding: “Whenever they are legitimately called upon to undertake works of the apostolate, they are obliged to discharge their duties as active and obedient helpers of the bishops.” (CD, 35) Christian humility demands that religious submit to a bishop when he makes a legitimate request for assistance. Naturally, they must act “with due respect for the character of their institute and in keeping with their constitutions.” When permitted by their rule, superiors should even allow religious priests to take pastoral roles in parishes, to relieve the lack of diocesan clergy.

Notwithstanding the above, religious should still observe the rule of their community and remain in submission to their superiors. The participation of religious in pastoral activity is not an excuse for breaking monastic discipline. Indeed, religious have had pastoral roles in the Church for many centuries; in the Middle Ages nearly all preachers were monks, and nuns have been chiefly responsible for the religious education of children in the modern era. Sometimes, admittedly, these pastoral demands came in conflict with the missions of their orders. Monks and nuns must observe the rule of cloister, and should not be dispensed from this lightly. Other types of religious sisters and brothers, such as those in diocesan congregations, are not subject to such restrictions, and are better suited to assist the diocesan clergy in pastoral duties.

Significantly, Christus Dominus qualifies the rule of exemption, whereby certain religious communities, notably the Franciscans, Dominicans, and other important orders, are not subject to the jurisdiction of bishops. This long-standing exemption was formally recognized by the Council of Trent. In the current decree, the exemption is justified by the Pope’s prerogative to dispose of the orders “for the good of the Universal church.” (CD, 35) For example, the Franciscans are called to serve the poor throughout the world, so it is beneficial for them not to be tied permanently to a diocese, but rather to move to where there is a greatest need. Yet the exemption “refers chiefly to the internal order of their communities so that in them all things may be properly coordinated and the growth and perfection of the Religious common life promoted.” This emphasis on the purpose of exemption for the sake of internal discipline effectively helps define a scope for the exemption.

Accordingly, religious are not exempt for episcopal jurisdiction “insofar as the performance of their pastoral office and the right ordering of the care of souls requires.” (CD, 35) Once they are outside the cloister and performing pastoral duties, they are subject to the bishop’s authority. They are exempt only regarding the internal government of their communities. The presence of preaching friars in a diocese should not establish a teaching authority or pastoral office independent of the bishop. The Second Vatican Council takes care to emphasize the unity of all pastoral work under the direction of the bishop.

All Religious, exempt and non-exempt, are subject to the authority of the local Ordinaries in those things which pertain to the public exercise of divine worship-except where differences in rites are concerned-the care of souls, the sacred preaching intended for the people, the religious and moral education of the Christian faithful, especially of the children, catechetical instruction and liturgical formation. They are subject to the local Ordinary also in what pertains to the decorum proper to the clerical state as well as in the various works which concern the exercise of the sacred apostolate. Catholic schools conducted by Religious are also subject to the authority of the local Ordinaries for purposes of general policy-making and vigilance, but the right of Religious to direct them remains intact. Religious also are bound to observe all those things which councils or conferences of bishops shall legitimately prescribe for observance by all. (CD, 35)

This clear articulation of the supremacy of the bishop in pastoral matters, including public liturgy, preaching, catechesis, and clerical decorum, is not motivated solely by a desire to consolidate episcopal authority over the orders. Rather, it is also to help the orders return to the missions envisioned by their founders, as would be articulated in Perfectae Caritatis.

The coordination of activities between religious communities and with the diocesan clergy should be supervised by the competent ecclesiastical authority. “The Apostolic See is competent to supervise this coordination for the universal Church; sacred pastors are competent in their own respective dioceses: and patriarchal synods and episcopal conferences in their own territory.” (CD, 35) When the religious are to undertake works of the apostolate, there should first be consultation between bishops and superiors (or their respective conferences). To this end, bishops and superiors should meet regularly to discuss affairs in their territory.

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Chapter III

3.1 Synods, Councils, and especially Episcopal Conferences

Arguably the most important aspect of Christus Dominus was its encouragement of regional councils (also called synods) and conferences of bishops, so that bishops should exercise their collegial duty to the Church outside their own dioceses, and so that ecclesiastical policies in a region may be coordinated with a unified voice.

From the earliest centuries, various parts of the Church organized regional synods or councils, which would pronounce on matters of doctrine and discipline. This legislative authority extended over the domain of the bishops attending, and of course was subject to review by the universal authority, namely the Pope and the ecumenical councils. Many of the regional councils were greatly esteemed for their faith and wisdom, so that their decrees and canons, in many instances, were eventually adopted by the entire Church (or at least all of the West or the East) in medieval codes.

By the early modern period, regional councils had become much less frequent, as doctrinal and canonical uniformity was imposed over the entire West by papal authority. Regional or particular councils seemed necessary only for local policy-making or pastoral matters. Two types of council were specially defined: the provincial council and the plenary council. A provincial council consists of all bishops in an ecclesiastical province, headed by the metropolitan. It has no power to define faith or heresy, but otherwise has legislative authority in that province, to the extent compatible with the Church’s general law. A plenary council consists of all bishops and other invited clergy, religious and laity in a given region, usually a country. Only bishops may vote, but all may speak. It has legislative authority for the Church in that region, subject to the Church’s general law and to ratification by the Apostolic See.

It should not be thought that Rome tried to suppress regional councils. On the contrary, the Lateran councils (dominated by the Popes) imposed the penalty of suspension on metropolitans who did not convene provincial councils, and the Council of Trent ordered that such councils should be convoked every three years. These canons were routinely ignored and unenforced, as local authorities saw little need for the trouble and cost of such synods. The United States had a series of plenary councils in the late nineteenth century, but these soon gave way, there and elsewhere in the Church, to informal meetings or conferences of bishops. Such frequent meetings were made possible by improvements in modern transportation. In some countries, these conferences of bishops were formally organized institutions, though they did not have the legislative authority of a council.

“This sacred ecumenical synod earnestly desires that the venerable institution of synods and councils flourish with fresh vigor.” (CD, 36) The Second Vatican Council sought to make the episcopal conferences into permanent bodies, with the power to convene plenary councils as needed. Thus the Council, and the subsequent 1983 Code of Canon Law, would define the authority of episcopal conferences, hopefully encouraging a revival of regional conciliar activity.

“An episcopal conference is, as it were, an assembly (coetus) in which the bishops of a given nation or territory jointly exercise their pastoral office...” (CD, 38) The term coetus (union; meeting; assembly) is sometimes misleadingly translated as “council,” but the Latin clearly distinguishes the episcopal conference from a concilium or synodus. A conference is not a council or synod, but a mere assembly of bishops, having no more authority than what the bishops possess in aggregation. Its role is strictly pastoral, not legislative, though pastoral activity may extend to prescribing regional policies in liturgical matters, as envisioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Significantly, the conferences are mostly defined by national boundaries. Fears of Gallicanism are allayed both by historical circumstances and by the relatively limited powers of conferences.

Members of the episcopal conference are all local Ordinaries of every rite—excluding vicar generals—and coadjutors, auxiliaries and other titular bishops who perform a special work entrusted to them by the Apostolic See or the episcopal conferences. Other titular bishops, legates of the Roman pontiff, because of their exceptional office in the territory are not de iure members of the conferences. Local Ordinaries and coadjutors hold a deliberative vote. Auxiliaries and other bishops who have a right to attend the conference will hold either a deliberative or a consultative vote, as the statutes of the conference determine. (CD, 38)

These requirements are contained in Canon 450 of the 1983 Code, with one significant modification: “Ordinaries of another rite can also be invited though in such a way that they have only a consultative vote unless the statutes of the conference of bishops decree otherwise.”

The statutes of each conference, establishing conference rules and offices, are to be approved by the Apostolic See.

Decisions of the episcopal conference, provided they have been approved legitimately and by the votes of at least two-thirds of the prelates who have a deliberative vote in the conference, and have been recognized by the Apostolic See, are to have juridically binding force only in those cases prescribed by the common law or determined by a special mandate of the Apostolic See, given either spontaneously or in response to a petition of the conference itself. (CD, 38)

A papally ratified decision of the episcopal conference is legally binding only where prescribed by common law or a special papal mandate. The conference thus has no legislative power of its own, but is wholly derivative from common law and papal delegation. This is a guard against Gallicanism, as the conferences have no power but what the Holy See concedes to them, either through canon law or through special mandate.

Yet the current code of canon law does give the episcopal conference the power, indeed, the “responsibility” to convene a plenary council for all the particular churches in its territory. (CIC 1983, c. 441) Plenary and provincial councils, as mentioned, “possesses the power of governance, especially legislative power” in the domains of morals, discipline and pastoral action. (CIC 1983, c. 445) Historically, plenary councils have even pronounced on matters of faith, subject to review by the Holy See.

Although the post-Conciliar period has witnessed abundant activity by the episcopal conferences, hardly any use has been made of provincial and plenary councils or synods, though this was the Council’s professed motive for organizing the conferences. Provincial councils are rarely summoned, and even the 1917 Code’s prescription for such councils to be held every twenty years (CIC 1917, c. 283) remains a dead letter. Instead, some ecclesiastical provinces have juridically informal conferences which are “provincial councils” only in name. Plenary councils have all but disappeared after Vatican II, though there are some notable exceptions (Philippines, 1991; Poland, 1999).

Instead of plenary councils, we only have annual “plenary meetings” of episcopal conferences (c. 453). The episcopal conference has no power save what is given to it by universal law or by the Pope’s special mandate. Otherwise, “the competence of each diocesan bishop remains intact, nor is a conference or its president able to act in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given consent.” (CIC 1983, c. 455) Truly, then, the conference of bishops is nothing more than an “assembly of bishops” (coetus Episcoporum). (CIC 1983, c. 447)

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Clarification: Apostolos suos (1998)

Notwithstanding the juridical weakness of episcopal conferences, they have in effect enjoyed considerable legislative power, as their decrees are routinely ratified by the Holy See with little or no modification. On the contrary, there have been numerous complaints that the episcopal conferences have too much power, to the point of undermining the authority of individual diocesan bishops. To address such concerns, Bl. Pope John Paul II clarified the theological and juridical status of episcopal conferences in Apostolos suos (1998).

When the Bishops of a territory jointly exercise certain pastoral functions for the good of their faithful, such joint exercise of the episcopal ministry is a concrete application of collegial spirit (affectus collegialis), which “is the soul of the collaboration between the Bishops at the regional, national and international levels.” Nonetheless, this territorially based exercise of the episcopal ministry never takes on the collegial nature proper to the actions of the order of Bishops as such, which alone holds the supreme power over the whole Church. (Apostolos suos, 12)

Although all joint action by bishops is “collegial” in the sense of being collaborative and in the spirit of episcopal fraternity, it is not properly “collegial” in the sense of being an act of the College of Bishops. The college proper to the episcopal order necessarily involves all the bishops throughout the world, and that College alone holds supreme power. This raises the question, then, of what power regional conferences can hold, as they seem to be somewhere between the individual diocesan bishop and the universal authority of the Church.

Pope John Paul answers that the power of episcopal conferences comes from the areas of competence entrusted to them by the Pope, on the basis of their power as individual bishops.

The binding effect of the acts of the episcopal ministry jointly exercised within Conferences of Bishops and in communion with the Apostolic See derives from the fact that the latter has constituted the former and has entrusted to them, on the basis of the sacred power of the individual Bishops, specific areas of competence. (Apostolos suos, 13)

This principle will receive further elaboration, but the basic notion is that the conference derives its power entirely from the fact that the Pope has commissioned a certain group of bishops to apply their individual authority collectively. The conference’s power derives entirely from the individual bishops and from the Pope. There is no intermediate “conferential” authority.

Since the conference’s power is entirely derivative of that of the bishops, as commissioned by the Pope, it should never become an entity that is independent of the individual bishops.

...excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions be avoided. The essential fact must be kept in mind that the Episcopal Conferences with their commissions and offices exist to be of help to the Bishops and not to substitute for them. (Apostolos suos, 18)

The conference should exercise authority only when all bishops are in session (i.e., at the plenary session). It cannot substitute for the bishops, as it is nothing more than their aggregation.

If the conference has no more power than that of its constituent bishops, how can it claim authority to compel compliance in individual dioceses? The Pope answers that this is just a particular case of the more general principles by which the authority of a local ordinary is circumscribed. Canon law states:

A diocesan Bishop in the diocese committed to him possesses all the ordinary, proper and immediate power which is required for the exercise of his pastoral office except for those cases which the law or a decree of the Supreme Pontiff reserves to the supreme authority of the Church or to some other ecclesiastical authority. (CIC 1983, c. 381)

The episcopal conference is just one means by which the Pope reserves some of the diocesan bishop’s ordinary power to another ecclesiastical authority. This other authority is duly constituted by the Pope, and so it derives its authority from the Pope in that sense, though the substance of its competency pertains to those ordinary powers of diocesan bishops that have been reserved.

In the Episcopal Conference the Bishops jointly exercise the episcopal ministry for the good of the faithful of the territory of the Conference; but, for that exercise to be legitimate and binding on the individual Bishops, there is needed the intervention of the supreme authority of the Church which, through universal law or particular mandates, entrusts determined questions to the deliberation of the Episcopal Conference. Bishops, whether individually or united in Conference, cannot autonomously limit their own sacred power in favor of the Episcopal Conference, and even less can they do so in favor of one of its parts, whether the permanent council or a commission or the president. (Apostolos suos, 20)

The bishops have no right to delegate some of their ordinary episcopal power to a conference or other body. Only the supreme authority (the Pope or an ecumenical council) can do this.

Prior to Apostolos suos, it was argued by some, notably Cardinal Ratzinger, that conferences as such had no teaching authority, for fear that this would imply an intermediate magisterium between the teaching power of bishops and of the universal Church. Given the clarification in this encyclical that the powers of the conference are just those proper to individual bishops, there seems to be no obstacle to granting that the Pope may reserve some of a bishop’s teaching authority (munus docendi) to the conference, not just his governing authority (munus regendi).

The joint exercise of the episcopal ministry also involves the teaching office. The Code of Canon Law establishes the fundamental norm in this regard: “Although they do not enjoy infallible teaching authority, the Bishops in communion with the head and members of the college, whether as individuals or gathered in Conferences of Bishops or in particular councils, are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the faithful entrusted to their care; the faithful must adhere to the authentic teaching of their own Bishops with a sense of religious respect (religioso animi obsequio).”[c. 753] Apart from this general norm the Code also establishes, more concretely, some areas of doctrinal competence of the Conferences of Bishops, such as providing “that catechisms are issued for its own territory if such seems useful, with the prior approval of the Apostolic See,”[c. 775] and the approval of editions of the books of Sacred Scripture and their translations. (Apostolos suos, 21)

The teaching office exercised through episcopal conferences is not something incidental, but is essential to the conferences’ mission of providing for the common good of the faithful. Thus the bishops in each conference “must take special care to follow the Magisterium of the universal Church and to communicate it opportunely to the people entrusted to them.” (Apostolos suos, 21)

Doctrinal declarations by episcopal conferences, even when “in communion with the Apostolic See,” nonetheless “do not have the characteristics of a universal Magisterium.” Accordingly, such pronouncements should not be used interfere with the doctrinal work of bishops in other countries. (Apostolos suos, 22)

What then, is the obedience that Catholics owe to doctrinal statements made by episcopal conferences? The motu proprio clarifies:

...when the doctrinal declarations of Episcopal Conferences are approved unanimously, they may certainly be issued in the name of the Conferences themselves, and the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic Magisterium of their own Bishops. However, if this unanimity is lacking, a majority alone of the Bishops of a Conference cannot issue a declaration as authentic teaching of the Conference to which all the faithful of the territory would have to adhere, unless it obtains the recognition of the Apostolic See, which will not give it if the majority requesting it is not substantial. The intervention of the Apostolic See is analogous to that required by the law in order for the Episcopal Conference to issue general decrees. (Apostolos suos, 22)

For doctrinal matters (as opposed to mere matters of governance), full unanimity is required, since the conference has no teaching authority other than what it receives from the bishops by delegation of the Pope. When it has such unanimity, it may make declarations in its own name, and the faithful must accept it as they would the “Magisterium of their own Bishops,” since it is in fact nothing other than the magisterium of their bishops. Yet a majority of the conference has no authority to compel the assent of dissenting dioceses. This can only come from the Apostolic See, which has universal authority. Similarly, the conference cannot issue general decrees by its own authority (since the constituent bishops have no such authority), but only by papal intervention (the special mandate mentioned earlier [CD, 38]).

This requirement of unanimity in doctrinal matters suggests that the teaching office of bishops is not properly alienable, though their governing powers might be alienable. When a diocesan bishop disagrees with a conference’s doctrinal statement, the conference cannot compel assent by its authority, thus the dissenting bishop’s teaching authority has not been transferred to the conference, not even by the Pope. Instead, the Pope may give sanction to the statement or decree with his own universal authority, making it binding throughout the territory.

The motu proprio confirms our inference about the special nature of the teaching office, adding:

The very nature of the teaching office of Bishops requires that, when they exercise it jointly through the Episcopal Conference, this be done in the plenary assembly. Smaller bodies—the permanent council, a commission or other offices—do not have the authority to carry out acts of authentic Magisterium either in their own name or in the name of the Conference, and not even as a task assigned to them by the Conference. (Apostolos suos, 23)

Again, we find that the teaching office is proper to each bishop, and cannot be delegated to anyone. Thus, teaching acts of conferences are really joint exercises of the teaching office of the constituent bishops. Since this magisterium is inalienable, it can only be exercised in the plenary assembly, when all the bishops are present. Bureaucratic organs of the conference, therefore, can have no authentic teaching authority whatsoever, even if the bishops should pretend to delegate this to them.

Apostolos suos preserves the integrity of the bishops’ teaching authority against claims made by conferences and their bureaucracies. A conference may override a bishop only if it receives the Pope’s special mandate, but never by its own authority.

Yet the episcopal conferences have the legal right to convene particular councils, which do have their own proper legislative authority (CIC 1983, c. 445), and historically such councils have issued locally binding decrees on doctrinal matters, even against dissenting bishops. It seems strange that those who complain of the episcopal conferences’ juridical weakness and dependence on papal review do not encourage use of this canonical recourse, as prescribed by Vatican II and earlier ecumenical councils. Instead, the conferences have acted as surrogate particular councils, though lacking the juridical authority of the latter.

This bureaucratic means of governance, issuing non-binding pastoral statements and vague calls for action instead of definite decrees and canons, is far from a satisfactory fulfillment of the Council’s vision. The annual plenary sessions of national conferences were supposed to, in part, be preparations for the next plenary council. Christus Dominus also prescribed a reorganization of ecclesiastical provinces (CD, 39-40), yet this reform too has been rendered impotent, due to the continued neglect of the institution of provincial councils. A purely deliberative body, the episcopal conference, has become an end in itself instead of a means to an end. Some bishops have even expressed concern that particular councils would diminish the authority of conferences.

Yet the uncertain authority of conferences, so confusing to ordinary Catholics, is not much use as a public authority. The Church might be better served if bishops in provincial and national conferences occasionally directed their activity toward definite action in duly convened particular councils. Admittedly, there are serious obstacles to this course of action, not least of which is the danger that such councils might result in pandering to the mass media and special interests hostile to the Church, limiting the bishops’ effective freedom of action. Still, fear of detraction should not impede the Church from tending to her internal government. Indeed, the neglect of authoritative action will likely worsen the problem of dissension in the long run.

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© 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org