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On the limitations of episcopal poachers

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 22, 2020

In the tenth point in my recent Corrective to the Schneider statement on the COVID vaccines, I outlined one of the limits of the episcopal teaching authority: “[B]ishops have no teaching authority outside their own dioceses, and it is an abuse of their office to make individual or joint statements pretending to answer critical moral questions for the whole Church.” A number of readers regarded this as overly restrictive of the bishop’s apostolic commission to teach the Faith, and I can see that what I wrote can be understood as too sweeping. Therefore, I want to make sure here that my intended meaning is not misunderstood. Of necessity, since nothing should be taken on my own authority, I will quote extensively from the most relevant Church documents.

Lumen Gentium

In its core Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Second Vatican Council emphasized both the enduring apostolic character of the office of bishops and the manner of its exercise. The bishop certainly is commissioned by Christ to preach the Gospel to all nations. And in union with the Pope the episcopal college can exercise a universal authority over the Church (as, for example, in an ecumenical council). But each individual bishop has jurisdiction only in the diocese to which he has been appointed.

Thus, speaking of the entire college:

[E]piscopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college. [21]


This college, insofar as it is composed of many, expresses the variety and universality of the People of God, but insofar as it is assembled under one head, it expresses the unity of the flock of Christ. In it, the bishops, faithfully recognizing the primacy and pre-eminence of their head, exercise their own authority for the good of their own faithful, and indeed of the whole Church, the Holy Spirit supporting its organic structure and harmony with moderation. [22]

But with respect to each bishop individually:

The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church. For this reason the individual bishops represent each his own church…. [23]

Thus, while “obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church” [23],

The individual bishops, who are placed in charge of particular churches, exercise their pastoral government over the portion of the People of God committed to their care, and not over other churches nor over the universal Church. [23]

Therefore, in conclusion:

Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them. [27]

Christus Dominus

Having mined the Dogmatic Constitution, we can turn to the Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus). Here the limitation of the jurisdiction of the episcopal office is rather more practically stated:

[Bishops] exercise this office individually in reference to the portions of the Lord’s flock assigned to them, each one taking care of the particular church committed to him. [3]

And finally, the following constitutes the strength and limitations of each bishop’s episcopal power:

(a) 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.

(b) The general law of the Church grants the faculty to each diocesan bishop to dispense, in a particular case, the faithful over whom they legally exercise authority as often as they judge that it contributes to their spiritual welfare, except in those cases which have been especially reserved by the supreme authority of the Church. [8, emphasis added]


Nothing that I have quoted here prevents a bishop from preaching and teaching in his own diocese, or from intellectual endeavors elsewhere that are not exercises of his teaching authority, such as giving addresses on various occasions, or writing articles for various media, and so on. In this way bishops may well exercise a solicitude for the wider church, each according to his talents, much as other bishops might help to arrange charitable works for people outside their own dioceses. Further, insofar as any bishop teaches in union with the Pope, his apostolic teaching authority has a universal validity, making it possible to recognize particular bishops as consistently reliable guides. But what all this does prohibit absolutely is any usurpation of another bishop’s teaching authority over his own diocese, or of the pope’s authority over the universal Church.

However, this is exactly the usurpation which occurs when individual bishops, either alone or in groups, make declarations on matters of faith or morals, involving complex issues on which they are not simply repeating the constant teaching of the Church, and which are worded as definitive pronouncements applying everywhere and to all. Such statements are a clear attempt to sweep aside the jurisdiction and corresponding teaching authority of all other bishops in their own dioceses, and of the Pope in the Church as a whole.

That is what I meant—and what I very definitely still do mean—by the controversial sentence in the tenth and final point of my commentary on the Schneider statement concerning the COVID vaccines, namely: “Finally, it is time to put the ‘traveling episcopal genie’ back in the bottle”—and, I might add, to seal this spirit in that bottle deep within a huge millstone, and drop it to the bottom of the sea.

Except insofar as a question has not been settled by the competent authority, Catholics are not permitted to pick and choose the conclusions they like best from among a variety of competing episcopal voices. They are to be guided by the Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff directly, or by their own bishop in union with the Pope. Now that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under a second straight pope has issued a statement which flatly denies the truth of the Schneider imposition, I hope everyone will admit this important point. It is, after all, one of the hallmarks of the Catholic mind.

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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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jan. 07, 2021 11:04 AM ET USA

    john.n.akiko7522: Your response is understandable, but it is important to distinguish between comments made by the Pope or other Vatican officials and official statements which are part of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, which is what Schneider et al categorically rejected. Catholics don't get to pick rivals to the Vicar of Christ; that's Protestantism. What we must do is evaluate statements properly to determine whether they are (a) an exercise of the Magisterium and, if so, (b) what they require of us.

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - Jan. 05, 2021 8:26 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, a series of confusing, errant, and scandalous actions and statements coming from our current supreme pontiff have taught me not to trust anything currently coming from the Vatican. That is why I turn to those who clearly still hold the fullness of the Catholic faith for guidance on difficult issues.

  • Posted by: romy1277408 - Dec. 31, 2020 5:44 PM ET USA

    It does not seem that Bishop Schneider is claiming jurisdiction over other bishops but is simply declaring what is right and just. Someone will profit from the use of the fetal cells for a vaccine to a virus that has a 99.7% recovery. Something is very odd with that.

  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Dec. 27, 2020 1:58 PM ET USA

    Hmmm. Back when the Arian heresy was rampant, Only Bishop Athanasius courageously taught the truth-- for which there were attempts against his life. (Like Abp +Viganó) But The lay Faithful trusted him more than their own cowardly silent or heretic bishops. Similarly, I (in the UK) may not be in the diocese of Tyler, Texas, but my sensus fidei trusts what Bishop Strickland says about the morality of accepting these vaccines.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Dec. 23, 2020 3:49 PM ET USA

    Only someone with proper authority can govern -- prohibit or permit, bind or loosen. It is a fallacy, however, to think that the truth or falsehood of a statement depends on the authority of the person proclaiming it (as long as the statement is not about that person). It is not even the case that governing authority and trustworthiness are the same thing. So a pope has the most authority of anyone in Christendom, but his wisdom, holiness, and trustworthiness are not necessarily the greatest.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Dec. 22, 2020 10:57 PM ET USA

    for love of the Beloved, please choose a word other than 'poacher' all things Divine Charity...thank you....maybe transgressors??