Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Renewal 101: Episcopal rule is personal, not bureaucratic

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 14, 2023

In Phil Lawler’s post last Friday on A new Vatican move against the Latin Mass, he raised the question of whether a bishop must obey the directives of Curial officials in Rome. In theory, the answer is “No”, though in practice it can be “Yes” under various circumstances—which circumstances also include a prudential judgment about the consequences of the “No”. Let me explain.

All authority in the Church is in one important sense personal. I do not mean that ecclesiastical authority does not depend on the office held by the person. That goes without saying, but it is personal in the sense that it belongs exclusively to the one person who holds the particular office in question. The universal papal authority is exercised personally by the current Pope; the local territorial episcopal authority is exercised personally by the current bishop. The Church is not like a bureaucratic government in which, for example, the “Administration” of an American president has the right in a general sense to exercise presidential authority.

For example, the appeal in American politics against overreach by a presidential administration is to the courts. But the appeal in the Church against overreach by a Curial official is to the Pope.

Sometimes this can be a distinction without a difference, but at other times it can be very important. The officials of the Roman Curia exist to assist the current Pope in his governance of the Church. But there is a big difference between what Curial officials do on their own and what they do with the formal and signed approval of the Pope. This is why the Pope typically formally approves texts which both outline what he wants to happen and designate the Vatican office that is authorized to implement the relevant directives.

In the first instance, then, each and every bishop has a right to distinguish between what one of the Vatican Congregations is directing him to do and what the Pope actually requires him to do. A parallel case in modern politics would be a lower official distinguishing between what the current Presidential Administration demands that he do and what the law requires or allows him to do. But the risk/reward scenario is similar. Positing a difference between the two wills, either in the Church or the State, the lower official in question may decide he is right to do something other than what he has been directed to do, and he may trust his ability to do it without interference or, if interfered with, to win on appeal. Again, in most modern states, that appeal will be to the courts. In the Church, that appeal will be to the Pope himself.

Episcopal Authority

Note that, for bishops, this is not simply a problem of law or legal interpretation, because the bishop himself has personal authority deriving from his episcopal office: To his diocese he is what the pope is to the whole Church. That is, the bishop is an immediate vicar of Christ in his own diocese. He is not THE vicar of Christ for the whole Church but, unless he is overruled or removed by the pope himself, the bishop really does exercise the authority of Jesus Christ in a special way just as the apostles did, except in a manner territorially prescribed (and even the apostles mostly worked in different regions).

The Second Vatican Council sought to restore an awareness of the episcopal dignity following a long period in which a monarchical view of papal authority had gained considerable ground. For example, there is this statement in paragraph 21 of Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church):

[I]t is clear that, by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred, and the sacred character so impressed, that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person.

It is this understanding of what it means to be a bishop and a successor of the apostles which lies at the root of the right and responsibility of the bishop, even specified in Canon Law, to suspend the application of certain kinds of universal ecclesiastical laws when he believes the good of his diocese demands that suspension. This is the same Canon cited by Phil Lawler in the commentary I mentioned at the outset:

Whenever he judges that it contributes to the spiritual welfare, the diocesan Bishop can dispense the faithful from disciplinary laws, both universal laws and the particular laws made by the supreme ecclesiastical authority for his territory or his subjects. He cannot dispense from procedural laws or penal laws, nor from those whose dispensation is specially reserved to the Apostolic See or to some other authority. [Canon 87 in the current Code of Canon Law]

As this Canon presupposes, the local bishop has the direct authority of Christ over his diocese, and one canonical way in which this is recognized is that the local bishop can dispense the faithful even from universal disciplinary laws if he “judges that it contributes to the spiritual welfare” of his diocese. At the same time, of course, the Pope exercises universal and immediate jurisdiction over all the faithful, and should he decide that a local bishop has made a bad decision, he can correct it and bind the bishop to adhere to the correction. He can also, obviously, remove the bishop from office, at which point his personal episcopal governing authority ceases to exist, period.

Not a mere shadow

But the point is that this somewhat ambivalent understanding of episcopal authority is not accidental. Episcopal authority is Christ’s authority, designed to be exercised personally by each bishop, and bounded in this world only by the superior responsibility and more universal authority of the successor of Peter, who remains the head of the Church and the Vicar of Christ for the whole Church—a Church which essentially exceeds the sum of its parts. For this reason, it is not only permissible but salutary for a diocesan bishop to consider carefully what is the clear, expressed will of the Pope and what may well be the misguided zeal of the members of the Curia.

If in significant doubt, a diocesan bishop might even appeal directly to the Pope. He might speak with him on the phone or go to Rome to discuss a particular problem with him, in order to discern whether a particular course is acceptable for his own diocese. But he might also discern that he is within his rights in following the letter of what the Pope has promulgated, regardless of the interpretations of curial officials charged with assisting the pope. And of course he might understand that he has the authority to suspend or modify disciplinary laws for the good of his diocese, recognizing rightly that this is a decision with which a pope ought not lightly to interfere.

All of this is within the legitimate authority of every diocesan bishop. I grant that whether or not he will exercise his authority in this way will depend on many factors. How important is the issue in question? Is it spiritually more salutary to make exceptions for his diocese or to encourage adherence to the universal decision? Does he see in the problem at hand an abuse of curial power or the genuine will of the pope?

Or even tougher questions: Is there a constant murkiness about the present pontifical administration which merits a certain measure of objection and resistance—or, to state the matter more positively, does the state of papal/curial affairs call for greater fidelity, honesty, clarity and transparency in his own diocesan administration? Then there are the very pragmatic issues: How likely is it that pursuing his own desired course of action will create controversy or incur a Vatican correction that may do more harm than good? And, less nobly, what course of action is most conducive to his own advancement?

One problem is that when there is obvious episcopal resistance to “Rome”, this in itself can give scandal. At the same time, as several commentators have noticed over the years, it is very odd that in the name of the Council and of Synodality, Pope Francis seems to be restoring precisely the kind of pontifical administrative overreach which the Second Vatican Council tried to correct.

We are wise to recall that, were it not for the unification of Italy and the Franco-Prussian War, the First Vatican Council would have lasted longer, continuing on as planned from its consideration of the papacy to a thorough treatment of the episcopacy and the rest of the Church. It was left to Vatican II to complete this task nearly a hundred years later, by which time it may have been culturally too late for the Church to gain ground without a far more radical program of detachment, retrenchment, and mission, at least in the secularized, decadent West.

These questions are not easy to answer, and I have considered here only one small aspect of the total problem. But I believe one thing is fairly certain. A good bishop does not hide behind bureaucracy, whether the Vatican’s bureaucracy or that of his own diocese. Catholic renewal inescapably demands Catholic leaders who are clear-sighted, counter-cultural, and courageous. If either a pope or a bishop keeps doing the same predictable thing over and over again while expecting different results, I admit he is not likely to be insane. Most likely, he’s just worldly.

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: miketimmer499385 - Feb. 15, 2023 10:41 AM ET USA

    Superbly stated. I'm going to print this to reread it every day. That final paragraph nicely sums up the challenge by which we can judge the quality of our bishop's administration of sacramental care in our (arch)diocese.