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Vatican II on Bishops: The Bishops Themselves

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 07, 2010

The sixth document issued by Vatican II—the first coming out of its 1965 sessions—was the Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus), promulgated on October 28th. I’ll cover this in two parts. Since the most highly-developed section of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church dealt with the episcopate, Christus Dominus is based on the same dogmatic principles, enabling us to move directly into its primarily pastoral purpose.

After a brief first chapter on the place of bishops in the universal church, the second and central chapter, “Bishops and their Particular Churches or Dioceses”, is primarily devoted to explaining how this ordinary power is to be exercised. The first sub-section of this chapter focuses on the bishops themselves. One of the most important concepts developed at Vatican II was the ordinary power of bishops who, while operating under the authority of the pope, are nonetheless vicars of Christ in their own dioceses: “Individual bishops who have been entrusted with the care of a particular church—under the authority of the supreme pontiff—feed their sheep in the name of the Lord as their own, ordinary, and immediate pastors, performing for them the office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing” (11).

With respect to their teaching office, bishops should first announce the Gospel, expound the whole mystery of Christ, and explain how to give glory to God and attain eternal happiness. They are also to show “that earthly goods and human institutions…are also disposed for man’s salvation.” To this end, they are to teach “according to the doctrine of the Church” the value of the human person (his freedom and bodily life), the family (its unity and stability), the procreation and education of children, civil society (laws, professions, labor and leisure, the arts, technical innovations, poverty and affluence), and they should “set forth the ways by which are to be answered” the most serious questions concerning “the ownership, increase, and just distribution of material goods, peace and war, and brotherly relations among all countries” (12).

As a practical matter, the bishops should teach in a manner “adapted to the needs of the times, that is to say, in a manner that will respond to the difficulties and questions by which people are especially burdened and troubled.” They must guard Catholic doctrine, “teaching the faithful to defend and propagate it”. They should show solicitude for all people, whether believers or not, and a special concern for the poor. They should lead the way in “dialogue” (“conversations on salvation”) with non-believers. They should make use of all forms of media. And they must provide for sound catechetics through schools, institutes and CCD programs, and for the proper training of catechists. (13)

With respect to their office of sanctifying, the bishops must be supremely confident that, since they possess the fullness of Orders, they are the “principal dispensers of the mysteries of God, as well as being the governors, promoters, and guardians of the entire liturgical life in the church committed to them” (15). They must be “diligent in fostering holiness among their clerics, religious, and laity” and mindful of their obligation to give “an example of holiness in charity, humility, and simplicity of life” (15).

In exercising his office of “father and pastor” (which is the rubric under which the Council addresses the concept of “governing” in this document), bishops should especially “be solicitous for the spiritual, intellectual and material welfare of the priests so that the latter can live holy and pious lives and fulfill their ministry faithfully and fruitfully” (16). They should encourage institutes and meetings for priestly renewal and deeper study. In addition, bishops should encourage various forms of the apostolate, urging the laity to “assume their duty of carrying on the apostolate”, promoting and supporting associations which “either directly or indirectly pursue a supernatural objective”, that is, associations devoted to the Gospel, Christian doctrine, public worship, social goods, works of piety and charity—all properly coordinated under episcopal authority so they may be brought into harmonious action. (17)

The Council recommends that all these apostolic activities “should be properly adapted to the needs of the present day with regard not only for man’s spiritual and moral circumstances but also for his social, demographic, and economic conditions”, and so the Fathers recommend “religious and social research, through offices of pastoral sociology” (17). In addition, both individual bishops and episcopal conferences are urged to show “special concern” for those who “on account of their way of life cannot sufficiently make use of the common and ordinary pastoral care of parish priests”, such as migrants, exiles, refugees, seafarers, air-travelers, gypsies, and so on. (18)

This first sub-section of this central chapter closes by insisting that bishops are to be completely independent of and unhindered by civil authority in the discharge of their duties, including their communication with the Holy See, each other, and the faithful (19). Accordingly, the Council states that rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation or designation for the office of bishop should no longer be granted to civil authorities, and that civil authorities which have in the past negotiated such rights should give them up freely after discussion with the Apostolic See. (20)

Previous in series: Vatican II on Ecumenism: Practice
Next in series: Vatican II on Bishops: Episcopal Collaborators

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: - May. 07, 2010 6:21 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, I wonder if the "adaptations" clause may have been misinterpreted by some? Maybe the "special concern" clause, along with the “on account of their way of life cannot sufficiently make use of the common and ordinary pastoral care of parish priests” has been used a a license to depart from traditional pastoral care?