07 March 2013

Vatican II: Lumen Gentium III

We now have the opportunity to explore what the Council Fathers actually say about another one of those "Spirit of Vatican II" topics: collegiality and the nature of the episcopate.  According to the "Spirit of Vatican II", the Council did away with all of that papal primacy nonsense and decreed that the bishops should all vote on everything (just a stepping stone to a purely democratic Church).  This, of course, is nonsense and not at all what Lumen Gentium says.

The chapter on the Church hierarchy begins by setting forth the historical basis for apostolic succession.  From the start, the Fathers make it clear that the primacy given to Peter remains effective to this day.  Thus, we find in paragraph 19: "And the apostles, by preaching the Gospel everywhere, and it being accepted by their hearers under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gather together the universal Church, which the Lord established on the apostles and built upon blessed Peter, their chief, Christ Jesus Himself being the supreme cornerstone."

From the historical basis, the Fathers then turned to a (quite edifying) exposition of the special role of bishops as successors to the apostles and of priests and deacons as their assistants.  We then arrive at the discussion of the collegial nature of the episcopate:
Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the Episcopal order; and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character.
Much as the "Spirit of Vatican II" folks would like the section to end there, there is more:
But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope's power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. 
 Later, in paragraph 25, we find:
But when either the Roman Pontiff or the Body of Bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accordance with Revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with, that is, the Revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops and especially in care of the Roman Pontiff himself, and which under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church.
One of the more drastic changes brought about by this idea of collegiality has been the increase in number of and authority wielded by national bishops' conferences.  On a basic level, these conferences make sense -- given the common issues facing all of the bishops in a particular country, it would seem prudent for bishops to come together to develop common strategies.  But nothing in the Council documents states that national conferences of bishops should even exist, let alone wield as much influence as they do.

In fact, the Council fathers clearly believe that a bishop still has complete authority over what happens in his diocese:
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. (Par. 23)
Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power, which indeed they use only for the edification of their flock in truth and holiness, remembering that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the chief become as the servant. (Par. 27)
Don't get me wrong -- I very much appreciate the path down which the USCCB has been moving in recent years, with the revision of the English translation of the Mass and their strong words in defense of religious liberty, the right to life, traditional marriage, etc.  However, for much of its existence prior to a few years ago, it was part of the problem, not the solution -- primarily by issuing poorly-worded and poorly-conceived documents that they intended the Church in America to follow.

I really need to get a move on in this series, as I have other things I would like to hit before Holy Week and I still have the other two constitutions from Vatican II to cover.  I have to limit myself to two more posts on Lumen Gentium, even though there are many more worthwhile topics: one on the laity and the universal call to holiness, and the other on the Blessed Mother.

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