Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Episcopal Reform and the Rights of the Laity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 01, 2006

In the wake of our recent reflections on reform of the episcopacy, some readers have asked how a layman’s efforts to reprove, correct or resist a bishop can fit into the Catholic obligation to be faithful to the Magisterium and obedient to those in ecclesiastical authority. That’s a very good question, but it also has a very good answer. Like all such answers, this one is rooted in the nature of the Church herself. We need to understand the Church's special relationship with truth, the nature of her teaching authority, and the rights of the faithful which grow out of these two things.

The Mystical Body, One in Truth

The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and all its members are joined to Christ. All Catholics share by their baptism in Our Lord’s threefold dignity of priest, prophet and king. Their share in the priesthood of Christ draws them to offer all that they are to the Father for the sake of the Church (Col 1:24). An essential, defining feature of the Church is the unity of Christ’s body in the truth, for it is through truth that Christ is known, loved and experienced. Our Lord Himself prayed that his disciples would be one in the truth (cf Jn 17). He also declared that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church, and He promised to be with His followers until the end of time.

Clearly, Christ’s intentions would be void if this unity in truth of the Church were to be broken—if the Church were to embrace falsehood. To ensure that this does not happen, Christ established Peter as the head of His Church, with the power of the keys and the obligation to confirm his brethren in the faith. Indeed, Christ guaranteed Peter’s fidelity by praying that he might not defect in faith (Lk 22:32). Again, this guarantee is for the sake of the unity of the Church in truth, which must persist until Christ comes. For this reason, it is clear that Peter’s authority was intended to be passed on to his successors.

Sharing with Peter in this power to nourish and govern the body of Christ in truth were the other apostles. These apostles and their successors were sent out to represent the fullness of the Church’s authority and sacramental power in various regions of the world. In union with Peter and his successors, these bishops therefore also share in the teaching authority of Christ. But it is Peter’s faith which was guaranteed by Christ, and it is Peter’s role to confirm these brothers in their faith. Therefore, bishops enjoy such teaching authority only when in union with the Pope.

The Magisterium, Its Glory and Its Limits

This ability to teach truth, possessed by the bishops of the Catholic Church in union with the Pope, is called the Church’s teaching authority, or Magisterium. As already noted, the purpose of this Magisterium is to preserve the unity of the body of Christ in truth, and this essential purpose is the key to understanding both papal infallibility and the authority of bishops when teaching in union with the Holy See. It is also the key to understanding the nature and limitations of the Magisterium itself.

First, the Magisterium is concerned with faith and morals, the areas in which a failure of the Church to remain true to Christ would be tantamount to the failure of Christ’s promises. The Magisterium is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit to be free from error in faith or morals whenever it formally binds the whole Church to the truth. Thus, when the Pope or bishops in union with him clearly intend to exercise their special authority by teaching on a matter of faith or morals to the whole Church, the resulting teaching is infallible and demands the submission of the minds and wills of all the faithful.

But when the pope or bishops express private opinions or address only small groups of people, Magisterial guarantees are not at work. Nor are they necessary, because these less weighty utterances do not bind the Church. Neither are these guarantees at work in the decisions of popes or bishops regarding Church procedures and disciplines. Procedures and disciplines are designed to address specific problems for a given time and place according to human wisdom. While humility and good order requires the faithful to obey the legitimate disciplines of the Church with regard to the practices of the spiritual life and the administration of Church institutions and personnel, there is nothing to prevent Catholics from believing that some of these disciplines are ill-advised, or from working respectfully for change.

Such disciplines, of course, would not generally be sinful even if less than ideal. There is no excuse for a Catholic to disobey his bishop or the pope (or his religious superior in a religious community) just because he does not agree with certain disciplines, the following of which cannot lead to sin. Here, there is great virtue in setting aside one’s own will in favor of the will of one’s religious superiors. One ought to remain obedient in such matters, even while working respectfully for such changes as may seem advisable.

The Rights of the Faithful

With regard to the prudential judgments of popes and bishops on this or that human situation, less deference is required. There is nothing to prevent a layman from believing a pope or bishop to be wrong, for example, in his assessment of social, economic or political policies, or of broader cultural issues. Here a layman may prefer to follow his own judgment, and even to argue against the position of a pope or bishop. Charity is especially required in such cases, but ultimately it is a matter of prudence how seriously to take a given episcopal or papal opinion on such policy matters.

Indeed, in most areas relating both to family life and life in the world, the responsibility of the laity to make judgments and implement the best possible policies cannot be legitimately ceded to churchmen. This is the layman’s province. He benefits greatly by understanding the authentic principles taught by the Church’s Magisterium about man and morality. In fact, he is obliged to follow these principles. But within this moral framework, he is also obliged by his state in life to make the final decisions in prudential matters of policy, for which he has ultimate responsibility.

Such matters are outside the essential life of the Church, but the laity have rights even within the Church herself. We recall again the purpose of the Magisterium to serve the unity in truth of the body of Christ. Indeed, the purpose of all ecclesiastical authority is to serve the building up of this same body. Within the Church herself, therefore, the purposes and duties of spiritual leadership are linked to corresponding rights among all the faithful. Thus, the faithful have the right to sound Catholic teaching, proper administration of the sacraments, reverent liturgies in accordance with due norms, and, in general, authentic Catholic nourishment in the spiritual life.

These rights are the basis of many of the provisions of Canon Law. Regardless of the mechanisms for enforcement, Canon Law has always been concerned with the ordering of the Church, the rights of the faithful, and the duties of ecclesiastical persons with respect to these rights. The first part of the current Code of Canon Law devotes two major sections to the rights and responsibilities of all the faithful and of the laity in particular. Moreover, Canon Law also recognizes the right of the faithful to make their views known on matters affecting the life of the Church. This is stated clearly in Canon 212, Section 3:


They have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ's faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.

Acute Problems

This right and duty of the faithful to make their views known can become acute when, on a matter of faith or morals, a bishop, theologian, pastor or religious superior actually teaches contrary to the Magisterium or attempts to impose programs or liturgical rules which contradict or undermine what has been taught or otherwise put in force by the Holy See. Direct contradictions of Church teaching which demand the assent of the faithful are thankfully rare, but preaching, teaching, writing, programs and liturgical practices which deviate from or undermine the official positions of the universal Church are not so rare. Such deviations are frequent wherever bishops, theologians, pastors and religious superiors are sadly influenced by the mindset and values of the prevailing culture.

These deviations put the faithful in a difficult position, leaving them little choice but to passively or actively resist. In some cases, there may be complex matters of interpretation at stake, and for this reason the benefit of the doubt must always be given to those in authority. But at other times, false teachings, broken rules, or compromised values are so clear that fraternal correction, passive resistance, or even public protest and organized opposition are not only justified but required. Canon Law itself provides procedures for redress of grievances, as well as penalties for ecclesiastical persons who fail in their duties or abuse the rights of the faithful. If there is at times a lack of zeal in enforcement of the provisions of Canon Law, this is simply further evidence of the need for reform.


The faults of bishops do not exempt lay people or other ecclesiastical subordinates from their own responsibility to remain faithful to the Magisterium of the Church—their weighty responsibility to do their part to preserve and protect the unity in truth of the body of Christ. With all these considerations in mind, a well-formed Catholic will know when he is required to submit his mind and will to formal teachings of the Magisterium, when he may work for change in disciplines which he believes could be improved, when he may disagree with the prudential judgments and policy preferences of bishops, and when he must sadly resist and even attempt to correct a wayward ecclesiastical superior in one way or another.

It takes theological understanding, spiritual formation, personal detachment, prudence and humility to make the right judgments in these matters. Because of their own weakness and fallibility, faithful Catholics ought to be slow to criticize and slower to act against their bishops. But for all that, the faithful are not without responsibility in spiritual matters. They too are called in some way to share in the roles of priest, prophet and king. At times they may correctly feel compelled to exercise the right, or even perform the duty, of making known to their pastors and to others their views “on matters which concern the good of the Church.”


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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