Vatican II on Bishops: Episcopal Collaborators
After a very brief sub-section in which the Council comments on the need to revise the boundaries of dioceses to take into account current population patterns and pastoral needs, The Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church proceeds to the third section of its central chapter, “Assistants in the Pastoral Office of the Diocesan Bishops”. Under the heading of “Coadjutor and Auxiliary Bishops”, the Council indicates that bishops should not hesitate to request auxiliaries to better fulfill the needs of their dioceses, and that both coadjutors and auxiliary bishops should be given the faculties they need to perform their roles and manifest their episcopal dignity, while making a point of operating together with the ordinary in single-minded agreement.
Under the heading of “The Diocesan Curia and Commissions”, stress is placed on the importance of the diocesan curia and, in particular, the office of vicar general, to the administration of a diocese. In addition, the Fathers recommend the establishment of a pastoral council in each diocese, consisting of priests, religious and laity, to foster more fruitful examination of pastoral conditions and more effective solutions to pastoral problems (27).
Under the heading of “The Diocesan Clergy”, the Council emphasizes the importance of pastors as direct collaborators with the local bishop in his office of teaching, sanctifying and governing. Community life for priests is recommended wherever possible. Pastors are to be imbued with a missionary zeal to reach out to all within the parish boundaries. Preaching and catechetical instruction are to be used to “bring the faithful to a full knowledge of the mystery of salvation” (30). Pastors should make the “Eucharistic Sacrifice” central to the community, labor to ensure frequent reception of the sacraments by the faithful, and stress especially the sacrament of Penance (30). To facilitate effective governance by the bishop, all local rights of presentation, nomination, and reservation of pastors are to be suppressed, and the distinction between removable and irremovable pastors is to be abrogated. (31)
Under the heading of “Religious”, the Council makes the point that, with respect to the care of souls within a diocese, all religious must collaborate with the local bishop, and are “obliged to discharge their duties as active and obedient helpers of the bishops”, whom they should revere as successors of the Apostles. Indeed, all religious “are subject to the authority of the local Ordinaries” in public worship, the care of souls, preaching to the faithful, religious and moral education of the faithful, catechectical instruction, liturgical formation, and clerical decorum—and insofar as they run schools, they are subject to the Ordinaries for overall school policy. (35)
The third and final chapter is entitled “Concerning Bishops Cooperating for the Common Good of Many Churches”. This is very brief, but it is here that the Council recommends both the more frequent use of synods of bishops (36) and the establishment of episcopal conferences, where they do not yet exist, for each nation or region (37). In the specific guidelines for such conferences, permanent bureaucracies are not mentioned. An episcopal conference is “a council in which the bishops of a given nation or territory jointly exercise their pastoral office”. It consists of all local Ordinaries. Its decisions are to be reached by a two-thirds majority vote and “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” (37).
Christus Dominus closes by mandating that its provisions be taken into account in the revision of the Code of Canon Law, and that directories should be drawn up for the care of souls generally, for individual groups in special circumstances, and for general catechetical instruction to assist bishops and pastors in the discharge of their duties. (44)
In conclusion, it may be worth pointing out that a number of provisions of this document have become key battlegrounds in Church governance. Thus the emphasis on pastoral councils, clearly designed to increase the bishop’s ability to make sound judgments regarding the needs of his diocese, has led at times to reimagining the Church as a democratic institution, while undermining the willingness of some bishops to provide firm leadership. Institutes and programs for priestly renewal and study have often been used to inculcate Modernism, which is still shamefully dominant in Catholic university and religious life. The use of sociological studies has been exploited by many commentators to argue that the Church should change her teachings to match the shortcomings common to particular cultures, rather than to show where more work must be done to transform the lives of the faithful according to eternal principles. “Dialogue” has often served as an excuse for a lack of clarity, rather than becoming a true “conversation on salvation”, which is how the Council defined it. To rediscover the intentions of the Council, these errors in pastoral conception and administration must be corrected.
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