Regional Leaders or Successors of the Apostles?


Last week Bishop Joseph Strickland quoted a few lines from my last article for Crisis review called “The Great Convergence”. I wrote this article, in part, to push back against what Bishop Athanasius Schneider calls the culture of papal-centrism we find everywhere in the modern Church. Here is the paragraph Bishop Strickland tweeted:

The West must remember that our bishops do not derive their authority from the pope. They are not the regional directors of the Vatican. They are the Successors of the Apostles in their own right. They have their own educational authority. They are shepherds of their sheep.

For this, His Excellency was treated as a schismatic, a heretic, even an apostate. This shows how much confusion there is about the papacy, even among faithful and well-informed Catholics. Apparently, many of us think that the bishops are indeed the regional directors of the Vatican. They seem to think the pope is the only one real bishop, and that he simply rents a little of his bishopric to the seven thousand ordinaries all over the world.

Obviously, this is not the case. All bishops (including the pope) derive their authority from the same source: God. Our Lord consecrated the twelve apostles as bishops. The apostles then transmitted the authority of their office to a new generation through the laying on of hands. We call this line Apostolic succession.

As the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church says:

For according to tradition, which is expressed above all in the liturgical rites and in the practice both of the Church of the East and of the West, it clearly emerges that, by means of the imposition of hands and words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred, and the sanctity so imprinted, that bishops prominently and visibly uphold the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd, and High Priest, and that they act in his person. It is therefore up to the bishops to admit newly elected members into the episcopal body through the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Lumen gentium goes on to explain:This power, which they personally exercise in the name of Christ, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, to the advantage of the Church or the faithful. .” So, yes: bishops are bishops full fledged.

It is true that bishops are subject to higher authorities, including the Pope. However, it is possible for them to exercise their episcopal office in defiance of the papacy. The Orthodox have been doing this for a thousand years.

There are nearly a thousand bishops in the East who have never been in full communion with the pope at any time in their lives. They certainly did not have permission from Rome to become bishops. Neither their consecrators nor their devotees‘ consecrators…again and again, until the Great Schism of 1054. Yet the Orthodox did the daily work of the Church (preaching the Gospel, dispensing the sacraments, etc.) without interruption for a thousand years.

The Orthodox position is far from ideal, as they will be the first to admit it. They desire reunion with the West, just as we desire reunion with the East. But a millennium of defiance open to the pope has not reduced the “bishopric quality” of their bishops one iota. Why? Because episcopal authority does not come from the pope. It comes from Christ through Apostolic Succession—through the laying on of hands.

The disagreement between Bishop Strickland and his detractors may lie in how we define the word “authority”. Bishop Strickland and I clearly use it to mean Powerful: the graces, privileges and responsibilities common to all bishops by virtue of their office. Its detractors use it to mean something more like authorisation: where bishops fall into the power structure of the Church.

Again, I think Bishop Strickland’s meaning was perfectly clear. He wasn’t saying that every bishop can do whatever he wants and go to hell with the pope. Rather, he was saying that bishops should take more responsibility for the authority—the power—that they wield. I will again quote Bishop Athanasius Schneider:

I think popes should speak infrequently, in part because the inflation of the pope’s words de facto obscures the magisterium of bishops. Through his continuous declarations, the pope has become the pivot of the daily life of the Church. However, bishops are the divinely appointed pastors for their flocks. In some ways they are quite paralyzed by this papal centrism.

That’s all I was saying, and all Bishop Strickland meant by his tweet. You may disagree, but that hardly makes him an apostate.

Yet this slander is hardly unexpected. For many Catholics, there is no middle ground between Mottramism and sedevacantism. You know the gender. They are allergic to shade. If they catch you praising burgers, they’ll accuse you of being anti-hot dog.

What drives them to such extremes? Basically, it’s the fear of ambiguity. I’m sure many readers struggle with such fears, just like me. We have no better friend than St. John Henry Newman.

When appointed a Doctor of the Church, I think Cardinal Newman should be known as the patient doctor, the patient doctor. Few men have ever asked such probing questions, and yet he never felt entitled to the answers. Newman trusted God to do what was best for his people, in his time.

Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Elizabeth Anstice about the papacy, which I found in The Quotable Newman (Sophia Institute Press, 2012). According to Cardinal Newman:

As for what Catholics say about the accusation of “Pope against Pope, and Council against Council”, it is (I suppose) this – that in a very large system you necessarily have great anomalies apparent – as in the ‘Scripture (a parallel that could be effectively resolved) and that you could begin by expecting this and acknowledging it – that some things may never have to be difficulties (for there are unsolvable difficulties in Scripture ), but that, overall, and as people approach the system, there is growing confidence in consistency.

Newman has always trusted the “system”, and this trust has brought him immense inner peace. I think peace is the real hallmark of all his writing.

We rarely find such peace among Catholics today. Why? Because we lack Newman’s patience. We insist that every question has an obvious answer (i.e. ours) and anyone who doesn’t come to that same conclusion is either an idiot or a heretic or both.

Yet, just to be clear, Bishop Strickland is not part of some wacky right-wing plot to wrest power from Pope Francis. It contributes to an ongoing discussion among church leaders about how best the church can adapt to the information age. Until 21st century, the Vicars of Christ were unable to micromanage the Church. Now, thanks to mass communication, it becomes more feasible. But just because they candoes that mean they should?

Since the Holy Father himself wishes to build a more “synodal” Church, he is obviously grappling with these same questions. Again, anyone who thinks this is an open and closed case is either seriously misled, or else they are arguing in bad faith. The Church does not have an answer at hand because it has never had this problem before. But it’s OK. Trust the system. God will do what’s best for His own people in His time.

As for me, I am a “papal minimalist”. We are in favor of a more decentralized Church, following the old Catholic principle of subsidiarity. We accept Vatican Council I, as Saint John Henry Newman did. Yet, like Newman, we also reject what might be called the Spirit of Vatican I: a rabid ultramontanism which has no origin in the Catholic tradition.

Although he sincerely believed in papal infallibility, Newman prayed that it would not be defined as dogma. “I cannot bear to think of the tyranny and cruelty of its followers,” he wrote to the Bishop of Kerry just six months before the Council closed. He didn’t worry about the pope so much as about those who act in the pope’s name. Some things never change.

Really, for us “retromontanists”, the problem is not the pope as such. The problem is that, despite their best efforts, modern popes can not micromanaging the Church. Not by themselves. This is why more and more governance of the Church – at all levels – is entrusted to the Roman Curia. Thus, nine times out of ten, when “the pope” promulgates an encyclical or a directive, its author is in reality a nameless and faceless career Vatican bureaucrat.

Here is my question for the ultramontanes: Does Petrine supremacy mean that the pope can take power away from the bishops of the world and give it to this small group of (very corrupt, insular, selfish) Italian priests? Is this what Our Lord meant when He gave Cephas the keys to Heaven? And if I question the current order of things, does that make me a schismatic?

May be. But I like what Cardinal Newman said better:

The Church is the Mother of ups and downs, of rulers and ruled alike. Terrarium Securus judicat orbis. If it declares by its various voices that the pope is infallible in certain matters, in these matters he is infallible. What the bishops and people all over the earth are saying is the truth, whatever complaint we may have against certain ecclesiastical proceedings. Let us not oppose the universal voice.

Saint John Henry Newman, ora pro nobis.

[Photo: Bishop Joseph Strickland]


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