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Where are Vatican II theology and authentic collegiality when you need them?

There has been, throughout this pontificate, a progressive undermining of the authority of diocesan bishops, which goes contrary to the teachings of Vatican II, the Code of Canon Law, and the Catechism.

Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of bishops' conferences from around the world at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In the interests of full disclosure, let me make the following declarations at the outset of this essay. I am not a Rad-Trad; I am not a Glad-Trad; I am not a Sad-Trad. I am not a Trad at all (although I do offer Holy Mass in the usus antiquior when asked). Further, this article is not about the ongoing draconian assaults on devotees of the “old Mass” – although it is the jumping off point.

Objective observers are justifiably stunned at the obsessive persistence with which Pope Francis and Cardinal Arthur Roche are pursuing their campaign against the celebration of the Tridentine Mass. What I want to consider at the present moment, however, is how there has been a progressive undermining of the authority of diocesan bishops – which has been happening slowly but surely throughout this pontificate in various contexts.

So, let us place front and center the authoritative teaching of the Church as enunciated at Vatican II and memorialized in subsequent documents.

From the Second Vatican Council:

A bishop, marked with the fullness of the sacrament of Orders is “the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood,” especially in the Eucharist, which he offers or causes to be offered, and by which the Church continually lives and grows (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 26).

Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them…. This power, which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church… (Lumen Gentium, 27).

[Bishops 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 (Decree concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, 15).

From Code of Canon Law (1983):

Can. 381 §1. A diocesan bishop in the diocese entrusted to him has all ordinary, proper, and immediate power which is required for the exercise of his pastoral function except for cases which the law or a decree of the Supreme Pontiff reserves to the supreme authority or to another ecclesiastical authority.

Can. 383 §1. In exercising the function of a pastor, a diocesan bishop is to show himself concerned for all the Christian faithful entrusted to his care, of whatever age, condition, or nationality they are, whether living in the territory or staying there temporarily. . . ,

§2. If he has faithful of a different rite in his diocese, he is to provide for their spiritual needs either through priests or parishes of the same rite or through an episcopal vicar.

Can. 384. With special solicitude, a diocesan bishop is to attend to presbyters and listen to them as assistants and counselors. He is to protect their rights and take care that they correctly fulfill the obligations proper to their state and that the means and institutions which they need to foster spiritual and intellectual life are available to them.

Can. 387. Since the diocesan bishop is mindful of his obligation to show an example of holiness in charity, humility, and simplicity of life, he is to strive to promote in every way the holiness of the Christian faithful according to the proper vocation of each. Since he is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, he is to endeavor constantly that the Christian faithful entrusted to his care grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments and that they understand and live the paschal mystery.

Can. 391 §1. It is for the diocesan bishop to govern the particular church entrusted to him with legislative, executive, and judicial power according to the norm of law.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

886. “The individual bishops are the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular Churches.” As such, they “exercise their pastoral office over the portion of the People of God assigned to them,” assisted by priests and deacons. But, as a member of the episcopal college, each bishop shares in the concern for all the Churches. The bishops exercise this care first “by ruling well their own Churches as portions of the universal Church,” and so contributing “to the welfare of the whole Mystical Body, which, from another point of view, is a corporate body of Churches.” They extend it especially to the poor, to those persecuted for the faith, as well as to missionaries who are working throughout the world.

894. “The bishops, as vicars and legates of Christ, govern the particular Churches assigned to them by their counsels, exhortations, and example, but over and above that also by the authority and sacred power” which indeed they ought to exercise so as to edify, in the spirit of service which is that of their Master.

895. “The power which they exercise personally in the name of Christ, is proper, ordinary, and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately controlled by the supreme authority of the Church.” But the bishops should not be thought of as vicars of the Pope. His ordinary and immediate authority over the whole Church does not annul, but on the contrary confirms and defends that of the bishops. Their authority must be exercised in communion with the whole Church under the guidance of the Pope.

1560. As Christ’s vicar, each bishop has the pastoral care of the particular Church entrusted to him. . . .

Pulling all these various threads together, what emerges is an impressive and beautiful tapestry depicting the Church’s understanding of the ministry of a diocesan bishop. He is (or should be):

• aware of the sacred power conferred on him through episcopal consecration;

• a true vicar of Christ for his diocese;

• the steward of the sacramental and liturgical life of the local church;

• concerned about all the faithful, excluding no individuals or groups;

• one who listens to and knows his priests.

Now, we know that the Pope has been castigating opponents of his various and sundry plans with his neologism of “backwardism” (or, “going backward” or “backward looking”). However, his delimiting of the authority of bishops is, ironically, returning to a pre-Vatican II “job description” of an Ordinary – viewed and treated as little more than a “branch manager” of the Pope – and not as the “vicar of Christ” in and for his local church.

Furthermore, his actions fly in the face of his much-vaunted promotion of “collegiality” and “synodality,” which are categorically opposed to the proclamation of decrees (e.g., motu proprios and rescripts) from on high, soliciting no input in advance and expecting lock-step acceptance and enforcement.

What other examples do we find of Francis’ pre-Vatican II treatment of bishops?

• Bishops can no longer establish communities of consecrated life without the explicit approval of the appropriate Roman dicastery.

• The Ordinary of Toulon-Fréjus was prohibited from ordaining men to the Sacred Priesthood this past spring.

• The diocesan seminary in San Rafael (Argentina) was ordered closed by Roman authorities.

• Communities of women Religious have been shut down and, in some instances, the Sisters have been summarily dismissed from religious life – with no right of appeal.

• Bishops have been removed from office with no explanations given – and again, with no appeal possible.

• And on the liturgical front: Bishops have been told they must move Masses in the Extraordinary Form out of parish churches; there are to be no advertisements in parish bulletins for such Masses; young priests desirous of celebrating the older rite must be approved by Rome, etc. – ad nauseam.

This list is hardly exhaustive, although it is certainly exhausting. These actions are violations of the rights of bishops, as well as the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that decisions ought to be made at the lowest level possible, lest one engage in an extremely unhealthy micro-management. If a bishop is not competent to determine how and when a new religious family can be established; if he does not have a good understanding of his priesthood candidates; if he doesn’t know his priests well enough to determine who should or should not offer Mass in the “old” rite – then he shouldn’t be an Ordinary.

Truth be told, bishops had more authority to administer their dioceses under the supposedly authoritarian Pius IX than under Francis.

All of which leads to the basic question: Why have so many bishops rolled over, playing dead? Supine before the usurpation of their sacramental and canonical rights? Why are they not banding together and producing a paper outlining their rights and obligations according to the theology of the Second Vatican Council?

Some bishops, however, have been taking the advice given by Francis in the early weeks of his pontificate. In a meeting with liberal, disgruntled nuns from Latin America, who were grousing about Curial “interference” in their lives, Francis noted that, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he got an inquiry or directive from Rome that he didn’t like, he wrote back thanking the dicastery in question for their solicitude. If a second intervention occurred, he indicated the matter was still being studied. Thus, bishops who have no intention of reining in the usus antiquior, are still “studying” the matter.

Word has it that Cardinal Roche is actually calling bishops to press them into compliance. And here we thought that with the reforms of the 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate Evanglium, the Curia was to be at the service of the local churches, not their master.

Some years ago in Rome, over dinner, a venerable cardinal opined that the greatest weakness of John Paul II was that “he trusts his bishops too much.” It would seem that one of this Pope’s many weaknesses is that he doesn’t trust his bishops enough – or maybe not at all! Or, at least not the orthodox ones.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 270 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. Within families, the “father” is individually and personally duty-bound to non-negotiable core responsibilities.

    And, within the Church, bishops are likewise individually and personally bound and accountable (as shown above). Speaking hypothetically, the problem with intellectually compromised persons in power, whether political or ecclesial, is the temptation to forget the fatherhood thing, because of the overwhelming tsunami of generalized catastrophes of all kinds. Myopically conceptualized as “structures of sin,” our cultural wreckage is flagged quite apart from an at least equal focus on the interior and sacramental life. (Eucharistic coherence and stuff like that!)

    The easy answer—and much of the problem itself—is collectivizing word games, whether political, or ecclesial in the form of presumptive/pre-emptive national bishops’ conferences, or expansive synodism (undermined synods), or unilateral dictats by pseudo-Catholic presidents, or fatwas by imams, or whatever.

    The truth is that the Catholic Social Teaching (CST), for example, is centered (!) on the concrete and “transcendent dignity of each (!) human person,” without exception. (Likewise, and even more so, is the role of each bishop as a personal “successor of the apostles” commissioned by the Incarnate Christ) Then, a CST which is more steadfastly concentric (!) than backwardly (!) progressive—the family, broader solidarity and subsidiarity (always together!), and the wraparound “common good” as something more than any reductive editing announced by alphabet-soup or rabbit-hole cardinals.

    Instead, this is a crucifying calling: both mercy and truth together, both the commandments and the beatitudes together, and both the papacy and episcopal collegiality (Vatican I/Vatican II) together.

    A QUESTION: Is the handicap of many “supine” bishops partly the fact that too many were trained in post-Vatican II seminaries which preached the virtual “spirit of Vatican II” while shelving the real and voted Documents of Vatican II? The silence of well-groomed “fraternal collegiality”?

  2. I am inclined to accept propositions put forward by Fr. Stravinckus and, in this instance, do so as well.

    I, therefore, conclude that Bergoglio and Roche have no idea at all what the ministry of the bishop is in the Catholic Church. Bergoglio’s initial inclinations to turn down calls to the episcopacy were not misplaced at all. He should have followed his own conscience.

  3. “All of which leads to the basic question: Why have so many bishops rolled over, playing dead? Supine before the usurpation of their sacramental and canonical rights? Why are they not banding together and producing a paper outlining their rights and obligations according to the theology of the Second Vatican Council?”

    The answer is self-evident: because the vast majority of them are faithless hirelings whose overwhelming concern is the promotion and advancement of their ecclesiastical career and their material well-being and personal comfort. They most emphatically WANT to be a “branch manager” of the Pope” because going along to get along is precisely how they got to be bishops in the first place.

    If you think this is wrong, then try this simple test. Can you name even three bishops right now who speak, teach, and act publicly — for all the world to see — that they are in actual fact “vicars of Christ in and for their local church”? Three, that is, apart from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and Bishop Thomas Paprocki? I didn’t think so. So let’s cut the cant about the smokescreen of “Vatican II theology and authentic collegiality”.

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