The Responsibility of the Bishops for the Universal Church at a time of Confusion

A bishop is a shepherd and guardian of God’s sheep. His ministry stems not only from the human legislation of Church institutions, but also from a supernatural appointment. Bishops are successors of the Apostles, and in their mission, Christ’s mission is to be fulfilled for the sanctification and salvation of souls. This creates the most important obligations, and especially in situations in which it is necessary to face the fact that a heresy has come into being.

            Today, many Catholics have become increasingly convinced that heresy has forced its way into the Church. Some of the faithful think that de facto we are already facing a schism, although it has not been de jure legitimized. In many parts of the Church, doctrines are being preached which could be understood or at least interpreted as contradictory to the deposit of faith. There are some bishops who favor far-reaching changes in the doctrine and morality of the Church. These bishops represent a significant part of the episcopal college who consistently enjoy the support of the Bishop of Rome, or at least the lack of a reaction which would correct their actions.

For this reason, a bishop who is concerned about the deposit of faith finds himself in a difficult situation. When the faith is under threat, it is he who is the first guardian of the faith and who is accountable for it before the One who appointed him. However, a bishop might fear that if he openly acted against these revisionists, he would be perceived to be in opposition to episcopal collegiality, and in turn, accused of schism[1].

What should a bishop do when a heresy arises—not only in his own particular church, but also in a wider ecclesial context?

            In such a difficult situation, there is a temptation for a bishop to protect the deposit of faith only in his diocese, leaving doctrinal problems beyond his diocese to the pope to address. However, just by this very fact he will neglect the care of guarding the deposit of faith of the universal Church to which he is obliged. Moreover, if he acquiesces to changes in doctrine or morality in other particular churches, he also does so in the universal Church. This in turn, in a real way, affects his own diocese, which is a part of and expression of that universal Church.[2]

            Legal-canonical solutions which concern those aspects of a bishop’s ministry that are included in the voice of the Magisterium don’t give clear instructions for how to act at a time of crisis.[3] Meanwhile, the history of the Church teaches us that despite the Holy Spirit’s assistance and care enjoyed by the Church and despite the assurance that the Church will survive while preserving intact the deposit of faith until the second coming of the Savior, individual bishops might fall into error (even a majority of them, as was the case during the Arian crisis). In some statements, excluding ex cathedra statements, even Saint Peter’s successor, whose particular task is to guard the deposit and to strengthen his brothers in the faith, might fall into error. This was, for example, the case of Pope Honorius I, who was condemned after his death, at the Third Council of Constantinople, for his support of the heresy of Monothelitism.[4]

            In such situations, a series of necessary questions arise. The answers might provide a possible way of reacting to a state of crisis.

            First of all, we must consider what the Church is; meaning, what the mystery of the Church is. This should be done in the context of the interrelationship between the Church and the Magisterium, since the interrelationship seems to be more ambiguous than may be commonly understood. The voice of the Magisterium is rightly considered to be the voice of the Church, but there is no absolute identity between the Magisterium and the Church.

            Next, we will consider the role and authority of the Magisterium of the Church.

Finally, we will examine the practical application of these considerations: the intervention of bishops who are concerned about the Church, so as not to shrink from the task of protecting the people of God in their own dioceses and to care for the deposit of the whole Church, while at the same time not to disrespect the college of bishops which sanctions their authority. It is important to present criteria which should be the touchstone of the proper, ecclesiastical reaction of a shepherd against threats in the Church.

The main conclusions of our analysis are as follows:

  • A diocesan bishop should guard the unity of the whole Church;
  • When an error is publicly proclaimed in a different particular church than his own, a bishop is obliged to react;
  • Silence toward heresy or other error that has arisen in another part of the universal Church is tantamount to a consent to a manifestation of this error in his own diocese;
  • When the integrity of the deposit of faith is violated, both in his own diocese and in the forum of the universal Church, an intervention is a bishop’s responsibility resulting from the mandate given by Christ Himself;


[1] This fear is justified in itself; a lack of fear could indicate the shepherd’s lack of prudence or incomprehension of his own power which was given to him by Christ in the Church, through the Church and for the benefit of the Church. This authority loses its plenipotentiary power when he opposes the Church.

[2] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion “Communionis Notio,” 7

[3] See the “Supplement” at the end of this chapter.

[4] Third Council of Constantinople, Exposition of Faith, 8.

The Church is a complex reality. The Second Vatican Council introduces this mystery using diverse images.[1] The most solemn name given to the mystery of the Church is to call it the Mystical Body of Christ, as this term best expresses the interrelationship between the human and divine elements, “For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.”[2]

            This complexity does not allow for reducing the Church to a merely human institution, nor as only a spiritual reality:

But it is not enough that the Body of the Church should be an unbroken unity; it must also be something definite and perceptible to the senses as Our predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Satis Cognitum asserts: “the Church is visible because she is a body.” Hence they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a something merely ‘pneumatological’ as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond.[3]

And then:

From what We have thus far written, and explained, Venerable Brethren, it is clear, We think, how grievously they err who arbitrarily claim that the Church is something hidden and invisible, as they also do who look upon her as a mere human institution possessing a certain disciplinary code and external ritual, but lacking power to communicate supernatural life.[4]

            This teaching is also confirmed by the Second Vatican Council:

Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather, they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element.[5]

            It is exactly the Catholic Church itself which has the aforementioned status and character that the declaration Dominus Iesus reminds us of:

Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him…. The Christian faithful are, therefore, not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection—divided, yet in some way one—of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach.[6]

            A deep awareness of and rootedness in this truth raises a justified fear in the hearts of many shepherds of coming out against this very true Church and its rulings. Taking into consideration the nature of the unity of the Divine and human elements in the Church, it is difficult to oppose the purported voice of the Magisterium, while taking a stand of fidelity to the Church. There is a fear of separating the spiritual Church from its visible structures. A strict identification of the voice of the Magisterium with the voice of Christ himself might seem a safer course—regardless of the content that may be given by the Magisterium at a given moment.

            This fear of separating these two elements of the Church is connected with two errors that are common in our times. First, the Church is equated with the hierarchy; or, alternatively, with the Church’s Magisterium; second, a perhaps unconscious tendency to equate the hierarchy and the Magisterium. However, the Church teaches that, “One must not think, however, that this ordered or ‘organic’ structure of the body of the Church contains only hierarchical elements and with them is complete; or, as an opposite opinion holds, that it is composed only of those who enjoy charismatic gifts—though members gifted with miraculous powers will never be lacking in the Church.”[7]

            The one who becomes a bishop does so as a member and fruit of this Mother Church—as a member of this community of faith that gave birth to him, has led and chosen him. This “line of ascension,” proper to a bishop, should never be omitted and silenced nor crossed out by another dimension of power, sanctification, or Christological birthmark, which are given to him by the power of consecration. Therefore, it is necessary to remember that a bishop is a man of the Church first of all, born of the Church and called by the Church to build, to govern, and to serve, and first and foremost, to be a good father in it.

            This distinction and hierarchical submission of the bishops to the primacy of the Church allows us to avoid the error of equating the divine and human elements without separating them. This distinction is rooted in the biblical image of the Body and Head, which, although inseparable, are not identical: “And thus, just as the head and members of a living body, though not identical, are inseparable, so too Christ and the Church can neither be confused nor separated, and constitute a single ‘whole Christ.’ This same inseparability is also expressed in the New Testament by the analogy of the Church as the Bride of Christ.”[8]

For this reason, the Church is called the “Mystical Body of Christ” and not a physical Body of Christ, so as not to give a reason for equating either the rulings of the Magisterium or the way of life of the members of the Church with the expression of Christ’s divine existence in the Church. As a Christian, though he is united with Christ through the Sacraments, when exercising his own will and reason, he can act in a way that does not befit, or even opposes, Christ’s will; and thus, the shepherd, who by Christ’s will manifests His authority and dignity, might—apart from when he overtly exercises the charism of infallibility—express himself in a way contrary to Christ. Pius XII reminds us of this in a synthetic way:

For there are some who neglect the fact that the Apostle Paul has used metaphorical language in speaking of this doctrine, and failing to distinguish as they should the precise and proper meaning of the terms the physical body, the social body, and the Mystical Body, arrive at a distorted idea of unity. They make the Divine Redeemer and the members of the Church coalesce in one physical person, and while they bestow divine attributes on man, they make Christ our Lord subject to error and to human inclination to evil. But Catholic faith and the writings of the holy Fathers reject such false teaching as impious and sacrilegious; and to the mind of the Apostle of the Gentiles it is equally abhorrent, for although he brings Christ and His Mystical Body into a wonderfully intimate union, he nevertheless distinguishes one from the other as Bridegroom from Bride.[9]

            In consequence, the teaching of the Magisterium cannot be accepted or rejected at will. The exposition of the Church’s Magisterium must not be treated as something discretionary and loosely associated with the revealed objective truth. The Magisterium, while not identical with Christ and thereby lacking His prerogatives and nature, by its unity with Him and in His power, is equipped with the charism that allows His will to be carried out.

            In a precise way, the charism of infallibility, which is a particular gift to guard the deposit of faith, belongs to the Church. The College of Bishops and the pope enjoy this charism, not as their own, but as a form of the particular realization of the infallibility of the Church.[10]

To summarise:

            1) A shepherd’s concern not to criticize the Magisterium or the pope’s rulings is justified because of the sense of fidelity to the Church and because of the collegiality of the episcopal office.

            2) The Church is not merely a human institution, but human and divine.

3) The shepherds are called to protect the people of God through Christ’s mandate and are able to fulfill this task through the Holy Spirit.

            4) The Magisterium of the Church is equipped with gifts and charisms which serve to guard the deposit of faith.

            5) Except for solemn doctrinal and moral rulings which are guaranteed to be true, the voice of the Magisterium may not always be identical to the revealed objective truth.

            6) It does not follow from this fallibility that the Magisterium can be disregarded in issues other than dogmatic rulings.

            7) This imposes on individual bishops the duty of seeking the purity and unity of Church doctrine in such a way as not to go beyond the Magisterium, nor withdrawing from the defense of the good of the whole Church.

            The practical applications of this defense seem to be particularly problematic. To determine this, it is first of all necessary to remember what authority the following have in the Church: the pope, the college of bishops and individual bishops. It is necessary to decide in which cases and to what degree it is possible for each to fall into error. Then we will be able to specify what interventions are possible and to what degree and what interventions each are obliged to make if an error occurs. For the sake of form, we are going to treat these three issues synthetically.

[1] See Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Ch. 1.

[2] Lumen Gentium, 8.

[3] Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 13.

[4] Mystici Corporis, 64

[5] Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 8.

[6] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, 17.

[7] Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 17.

[8] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, 16.

[9] Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 86.

[10] cf. Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, 36.

             “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on”[1] belongs to the Magisterium of the Church, which is constituted by the bishops in communion with the pope. The Magisterium carries out this task in an authoritative way on behalf of Christ, which doesn’t mean that it is equal with or above the Word of God and Church Tradition, but that it is to serve the task of preserving the purity and immutability of the deposit of faith.[2]

            For this reason, the faithful are obliged to be submissive to the Magisterium. However, as was shown above, neither the divine delegation of authority to the community of Apostles with Peter at the head, nor the continuation of the apostolic mission by the college of bishops in unity with the pope, nor the assistance of the Holy Spirit in equipping the Church with the charism of infallibility, guarantee that each statement by a part of the college or by the pope enjoys infallibility by its nature.

Competence and the scope of papal authority

            The Bishop of Rome is the visible head of the Church. He has ordinary, proper and immediate authority. The Holy See is not subject to anyone, nor can it be judged by anyone. However, history shows that a pope can also commit an error in his ordinary teaching. The infallibility of the pope applies only when his teaching has the character of ex cathedra teaching. Moreover, the charism of papal infallibility is a way of fulfilling the infallibility of the Church and is meant to serve as a guardian of the deposit of faith. Therefore, this charism does not extend to the creation of new doctrine, but to guard the deposit of faith. It is applied in cases where the pope resolves a disputed issue concerning the immutable teaching of the Church which has not been definitively formulated before. Thus, all the faithful owe obedience of supernatural faith to ex cathedra pronouncements by the pope. Questioning such a ruling is de facto a schismatic act.

We also owe the obedience of faith to the ordinary papal Magisterium. Nevertheless, in a case in which reason enlightened by the faith perceives a doubt concerning the preservation of continuity between the perennial deposit and the present teaching, or at least its interpretation, the faithful are obliged to reveal these doubts to their shepherds in the spirit of responsibility for the Church:

Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare to be teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church… According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.[3]

Such an act is authorized by the binding authority of conscience:

Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise…. [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.[4]

            The college of bishops and individual bishops are especially obliged to react should doubts arise concerning the ordinary teaching of the pope that might not preserve continuity with previous teachings. While no one in the Church is superior to the pope as an authority, the pope’s teaching takes place at various levels of authority, and questioning or rejecting a problematic teaching in no way violates the duty of bishops to remain in communion with the pope. It is permitted and actually a duty to ask questions and request clarification of doubtful matters, as it might occur that a bishop’s or the faithful’s discernment that there is a rupture of continuity is merely deceptive. The Holy See is obliged to resolve the doubts of bishops and the faithful in such cases (although he has the supreme authority, the Bishop of Rome exercises it with the college of bishops).

            In the absence of explanations and if doubts persist and the conscience continues to entertain a conviction that a new teaching is contradictory to the previous deposit, a bishop has the right to refrain from implementing the teaching, and pointing out the existing conflict to the faithful, so not to stir anxiety or doubt among the faithful, as long as the bishop continues to remain in unity with the pope and the college. In other words, it is just for the sake of collegiality and unity of the Church that a bishop has the right to express doubt and keep watch over the immutable deposit of faith.

The competence and scope of the authority of the College

            As has already been stated earlier, the college of bishops maintains its own validity by always acting in unity with the pope. The college of bishops can teach in a solemn way, as is done at councils. Such a gathering also preserves its own validity by acting in unity with the Bishop of Rome. Although the college of bishops must maintain doctrinal and moral unity with the Holy See, this is always on condition that the Holy See itself maintains fidelity and continuity with the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church.

            Thus, if an episcopal body (a conference of bishops or a local synod) gave rulings which provoke doubt about their orthodoxy, maintaining continuity or unity with the previous deposit, etc., the first one who should react and point out an error is the Bishop of Rome. If he does not condemn such an error or even approves of it, but among other bishops such rulings are deemed to be erroneous, then those bishops, both collectively and individually, are obliged to react.

            For example, such a situation might arise with the Synodal Path in Germany, or with the introduction of the ritual of blessing for homosexual couples by the Episcopate of Belgium. In such situations, the orthodox bishops should admonish those bishops who have introduced erroneous teachings and appeal to the Holy See, asking for an unambiguous resolution for the good and unity of the Holy Church and for the salvation of souls.

The authority and competence of bishops

            A bishop has his ordinary, proper and immediate authority in his own diocese. This means that, although the validation of his authority is connected with exercising it in a collegial unity with the whole College and their head, his authority in the diocese is not a delegated power. The bishop, therefore, while exercising his authority to govern in his diocese in an ordinary way, does the task of the Magisterium of the Church.

            This results from the fact that a diocese is not only an element of the universal Church, but  the realization of the Church with all its essential elements.[5] Particular churches are both part of the people of God and make the universal Church present, and as particular churches, they are entrusted to a diocesan bishop’s care and to the priests who work with him.[6] Therefore, a bishop who has been entrusted with a particular church can exercise his pastoral office only in reference to this part of the people of God. He has no authority to govern either other Churches or the universal Church. However, this does not release him from his duty of taking care of the whole Church together with other bishops.[7]

            For “bishops as members of the episcopal College, which is the successor of the Apostolic College, are intimately united to Jesus Christ, who continues to choose and to send out his Apostles. As a successor of the Apostles, by virtue of his episcopal ordination and through hierarchical communion, the Bishop is the visible principle and guarantee of unity in his particular Church” (the Congregation for Bishops, Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops Apostolorum Succesores, Introduction) but at the same time each bishop is responsible for the whole universal Church and owes it care and help:

For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church, to instruct the faithful to love for the whole mystical body of Christ, especially for its poor and sorrowing members and for those who are suffering persecution for justice’s sake.[8]

If a diocesan bishop, for example, opposes the blessing of homosexual unions, seeing in this act a rupture with the traditional anthropological teaching of the Church and with the teaching about the gravity of sin and about the dignity of marriage, but fails to issue a public correction because he sees the approval of the Holy See of the Belgian Church that introduced such a rite as normative and binding, then such a silent bishop has acquiesced to a possible fulfillment of this norm in his own diocese and he is responsible for this act of blessing.

            Even if now he hopes that his diocese won’t be affected by such an error while he exercises the pastoral office, then he is responsible for introducing this norm in the future—possibly while his successor is exercising the office—because it is him, not his successor, who maintained silence when such an error arose in another part of the universal Church—and a particular church is a real manifestation of the universal Church, not a detached and autonomous part.

            Considering then the nature of collegiality and the structure of the universal Church, it is necessary to point out that collegiality is not intended to submit bishops to liberal errors approved by higher authority, but is supposed to serve to secure unity. Collegiality is not broken by a bishop who opposes German bishops or Belgian bishops’ new ideas, but by these German and Belgian bishops. As a corollary, the particularity of churches cannot serve to build up a false conviction of security on “their own” territory, but is an obligation to care for the universal Church, too. Therefore, it is erroneous to set in opposition or dichotomy the particularity and universality of the Church. The care of a particular church is always the care of the universal Church and vice versa.

            The duty of a bishop to preach true doctrine in his own particular church is also an obligation to the purity of the doctrine of the whole Church. Therefore, guarding the doctrine and intervening when the integrity of the deposit of faith is broken, both in his own diocese and in the forum of the universal Church, is not only a right resulting from the Divine mandate to exercise the episcopal office, but also an obligation because of Christ’s mission.

            To sum up, in an exceptional situation in which the pope or part of the College of Bishops (even a larger part) in unity with and under the approval of the pope, or in which particular bishops, at least with the tacit approval of the pope, express views that break with settled doctrine of the Church—or at least have every appearance of breaking with it—then if they want to both fulfill the duty of guarding the doctrine in their own dioceses and desire to care for the universal Church, the bishops stand before the problem of taking care of preserving collegial unity with the Church and with its Magisterium. When in response to the ensuing problems in the above-mentioned areas, despite their own perception concerning the real preservation of the deposit of faith, they submit to some doubtful statements or at least maintain reserved silence, then, they preserve a “unity” which is only external and ostensible. A reaction that would directly question the pope’s and the college’s errors would be treated as leading towards a schism.

            Given these realities, the most ideal solution would make it possible to preserve unity with the pope and the college of bishops, but would not lead to abdicating responsibility for guarding the deposit of faith in each diocese, nor from the care of the good of the universal Church. Such a solution would entail several steps: (1) a clear and unambiguous expression of doubt, maintaining respect towards the pope and the college; (2) a clear recollection and expression of the perennial teaching of the Church; (3) a demonstration of the lack of continuity and cohesion in the proposed policies or reforms, and (4) if necessary, for the sake of collegiality and fidelity to the Church, a refusal to put them into effect, while expressing the reasons for taking such a stance; namely, the preservation of fidelity to the Church and to the deposit of faith that was given to the Church by Christ and that the Church has no right to change. This is not only the right but also the duty of every bishop, which stems from his supernatural vocation and from episcopal collegiality itself.

[1] Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 10.

[2] Ibid.

[3] CIC, can. 212, § 1 and 3.

[4] CCC, 1778, citing St. John Henry Newman.

[5] See the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, Comunionis Notio, 7.

[6] cf. Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church Christus Dominus, 11.

[7] cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 23.

[8] cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 23.

            The above analysis demonstrates that bishops are responsible for guarding the deposit of faith both in their own dioceses and in the forum of the universal Church. This should be carried out in different spheres in different ways. In an exceptional situation an admonition of a brother bishop is necessary and could even be made to the head of the college of bishops.

It remains to indicate situations in which intervention is necessary for the sake of preserving fidelity to the mission and service of the successors of the Apostles.

            An intervention of the highest priority is required in any situation in which errors are propagated which stand in glaring contradiction to the deposit of faith. Of course, this does not only concern situations in which dogmas are directly challenged, which are not usually encountered; but also, for example, when they are re-interpreted in a way which breaks with the traditional understanding of dogmatic formulations or non-dogmatic teachings which are directly or indirectly connected to or result from the immutable deposit. One example of the latter is the demand to ordain women as priests or deacons. The subject of female ordination was formally closed by St. John Paul II, albeit not dogmatized, based on the truth about the nature of holy orders, which is richly documented and has been repeatedly confirmed in Church teaching.

            Ambiguous expressions in magisterial documents also require intervention. The ambiguity of a doctrinal or moral expression or even a pastoral postulate should not automatically be deemed to make it somehow conformable to orthodoxy. Indeed, the perceived possibility of an orthodox interpretation is often put forward as an argument for relieving the bishop from his duty of intervention, even though the corresponding possibility of heterodox interpretation by that fact invalidates any attempt to fit such an expression into orthodoxy, while practically creating a real threat of legitimizing an error.

            A clear example of the poisonous fruit which results from a teaching that breaks with existing Church practice can be seen in the thesis of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, on the possibility of admitting the divorced living in non-sacramental unions to Communion. The Vatican approved, via endorsing the Buenos Aires statement, the offering of Communion to people remaining in mortal sin or in an objectively disordered situation. Scandalously, this went unchallenged by many orthodox bishops who chose to remain silent.

            Another category of such situations are erroneous customs that spread without meeting with disapproval or correction by the shepherds. The most common situations of this type are various liturgical experiments which are incompatible with the gravity of and are connected with the essence of the Holy Sacrament. Customs, rites or moral norms in the Church have always resulted from, and are reflections of, the revealed truth. Sanctioning customs which are detached from and do not express the revealed truth leads to erroneous conceptions about the very essence of the truth which is supposed to be expressed. Celebrating Mass in a way that makes it resemble a concert or a memorial meal, over time non-verbally and naturally forms such a trivializing perception in those who attend.

            Also requiring intervention are serious errors which may not concern particular articles of faith, but rather a global way of understanding the whole supernatural reality of the Church. This means such things as if the primary mission of the Church is not eternal salvation, but building up worldly well-being, whether economic, ecological, social, etc.; an erroneous understanding of synodality which stands opposite of hierarchism; an erroneous understanding of the sense of faith in which each baptized person has the same competence in discernment of spiritual and ecclesiastic matters; identification of the collective awareness of the faithful with the voice of the Holy Spirit; and so on. These kinds of systematic errors result from an inversion in which the deposit of faith is not an element forming the understanding of the faithful, but the understanding of the faithful (formed by the spirit of this world) becomes a criterion of understanding the deposit of faith.

            Also, demands which open up room for new errors coming into existence and being given approval require intervention. Such a demand is, for example, a falsely understood theological pluralism. We have always had a kind of pluralism which means we can understand individual truths of faith in different but complementary ways; e.g., the truth about the redemptive meaning of the Sacrifice of the Cross can be understood in the principles of atonement, propitiation, fulfillment, unification, etc. Theological pluralism, however, is increasingly understood as a justification of the co-existence of various theological propositions which not only contradict each other, but also do not maintain integrity with the deposit of faith.

            The last issue which should be addressed is awareness of the difference between intentions and their validity. The fact that decision-makers in the Church may have good intentions is not an argument for the validity or proper direction of changes made. Just as the end does not justify the means, good intentions (means) do not guarantee the rightness of the end (an improper solution).

            The consequences of a shepherd’s actions—or the consequences of his inaction—are of the greatest importance for the spiritual well-being of the faithful. They can affect them for decades, and in special cases for even longer periods. In history, there are plenty of examples of the perpetuation of exceptionally good or exceptionally bad customs in a particular church. Even if a bishop himself does not introduce any reformist solutions in his diocese, he cannot be content with passively watching how the faith and morals of the faithful are shaped from the outside, by the example of others. In hindsight, it is easy to prove that the problems which appear in various places of the Church today have their origin in the negligence or erroneous decisions of the past. Each bishop awaits the judgment of history, which shows holiness or the opposite better than the judgment of his contemporaries. Each shepherd, however, will have to give an account of his rule before yet another court—the judgment of Christ himself, as the One who entrusted him with authority in his diocese through the Church. While one can hide his own actions or lack thereof from people, sometimes even successfully using the principle of collegiality, it will not be possible before this Judge. His judgment will be on each shepherd’s personal responsibility for how, if at all, he cared of the souls of the faithful entrusted to his authority.

Theological-historical outline

            The word “bishop” derives from the Greek term ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos), which means guardian, caretaker, administrator, guard, sentry, shepherd. In this term, the Christian tradition synthetically recognizes the functions of a prophet, a priest and king assigned to Church superiors. The Council of Trent teaches that “bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles, principally belong to this hierarchical order; that they are placed, as the same apostle says, by the Holy Ghost, to rule the Church of God.”[1] This teaching has been confirmed and repeated many times by the Magisterium of the Church.

            By the will of Christ, bishops, as successors of the Apostles, are witnesses and continuators of the mystery of the Church.[2] Thus, similarly as Christ’s life and actions were reflections of the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit in the world, so bishops are signs of the presence and actions of the whole Holy Trinity.[3]

Because of this Trinitarian shaping of his existence, every Bishop in his ministry is committed to keeping watch over the whole flock with love, for he has been placed in their midst by the Spirit to govern the Church of God: in the name of the Father, whose image he represents; in the name of Jesus Christ his Son, by whom he has been established as teacher, priest and shepherd; in the name of the Holy Spirit, who gives life to the Church and by his power strengthens us in our human weakness.[4]

From this trinitarian constitution of the bishop’s office, it follows that a bishop appears in the Church and emerges from the Church as the one who expresses the redemptive vitality continuously activated by the Holy Spirit and as the one who is supposed to teach, sanctify, and lead the people of God who were entrusted to him by God until the return of Christ.[5]

            St. Augustine comments in the same spirit when he explains St. Paul’s words:

It is to this the apostle refers when he says, “He that desireth the episcopate desireth a good work.” He wished to show that the episcopate is the title of a work, not of an honor. It is a Greek word, and signifies that he who governs superintends or takes care of those whom he governs: for ἐπί means over, and σκοπεῖν, to see; therefore ἐπισκοπεῖν means “to oversee.” So that he who loves to govern rather than to do good is no bishop.[6]

In the same way St. Augustine explains the meaning of the elevated position of a bishop:

This is exactly Jerusalem. It has guardians. As it has workers who build, who labor in order to build it, so it also has guardians. Since the Apostle’s words refer to the guardianship: “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts may be corrupted from a sincere [and pure] commitment to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). He protected, he was a guardian, he did his best to take care of those he led. Bishops do the same. Because of that a higher place was prepared for bishops so that they could look from above and watch over people. What in Greek is expressed by the word “bishop,” in Latin means “guarding”; for he guards, they looks down from above at their people. … from this elevated place they realize in great detail that there is danger, unless in their hearts they stand in such a way as to be with humility under your feet.[7]

Hence, St. Augustine after St. Paul the Apostle (Tit 1:9) points out that only he can be chosen as a bishop who in the Church hands down healthy doctrine (doctrina sana) which builds up the faith of all the listeners and convinces those who oppose it.[8] However, in the negative dimension, the preaching of the world of God should protect and guard Catholics against teachings contrary to Church doctrine which are propagated by heretics whom St. Augustine called mind deceivers (vaniloqui et mentium seductores).[9]

            Therefore, a bishop cannot be made equal with other members of the Church. His duty, commissioned by Christ, places him as the leader of the people of God. Speaking more vividly, the establishment of the bishop’s office is the establishment of the hierarchical order in the Church which cannot be replaced or made equal with the synodal order in its new, modern understanding:

For in the Church there is such an order: some go ahead and some follow them. Those who go first set an example to those following them. Those who follow them imitate those who go first. Do those, who set an example to those going behind them, follow nobody? If they followed nobody they would lose their way. They follow somebody: Christ himself. Well, those who are better in the Church and who have nobody among people to imitate because by making progress they have outdistanced everybody, they have only Christ as an example and will follow him to the end. And you have seen steps presented by Paul the Apostle one by one, “Therefore, I urge you, be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4:16). Therefore, let those who put their feet strongly on a rock be an example to the faithful.[10]

            This hierarchical order is supposed to serve the whole Church; therefore, bishops are particularly obliged to seek with care and examine if they are not a scandal to the faithful and if they are not anti-witnesses. Already Origen asks:

Do you think that they who fill the priestly office and boast of their priestly rank [ordo] “advance according to their order”? Do you think likewise that the deacons “advance according to the order” of their ministry? Why, then, do we often hear people blaspheme and say: Behold, what a fine bishop! Or, what a fine priest! Or, what a fine deacon! Are not such things said when either a priest or a minister of God has been seen going contrary to his order in some matter?[11]

Thus, the office gives the supreme power over the people of God but doesn’t guarantee its automatic realization. It might happen that among hierarchs, who have been placed as leaders of the people of God, there are those who don’t guard their sheep.

            The bishop’s care of the people of God especially concerns the particular church entrusted to him. The Second Vatican Council teaches:

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. But each of them, as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church. For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church.[12]

The mutual care of all the bishops for the Church is realized in their collegiality, “And the Sacred Council teaches that by Episcopal consecration the fullness of the sacrament of Orders is conferred, that fullness of power, namely, which both in the Church’s liturgical practice and in the language of the Fathers of the Church is called the high priesthood, the supreme power of the sacred ministry. But Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 21).

            On the one hand, collegiality for a bishop means that in terms of power he has competence regarding his own diocese, but always and only in unity with the whole Church. He has no jurisdictional power or power of teaching regarding the whole Church. On the other hand, he is obliged to care for the faith of the whole people of God. Thus, a bishop although he has no power to judge his other brother bishops and no power to correct them in an authoritarian way, is obliged to keep watch over the purity of the doctrine and of the whole Church and react to errors appearing in other bishops’ teaching.

            This action, which comes down to brotherly correction, constitutes a state of emergency in pastoral care, which however, is sanctioned by both the Scripture and the tradition of the Church. Already St. Paul reminds Timothy of this duty:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.[13]

In the same spirit, St. Gregory the Great directs his teaching to pastors:

For, as incautious speaking leads into error, so indiscreet silence leaves in error those who might have been instructed. For often improvident rulers, fearing to lose human favour, shrink timidly from speaking freely the things that are right; and, according to the voice of the Truth, serve unto the custody of the flock by no mean with the zeal of shepherds, but in the way of hirelings; since they fly when the wolf comes if they hide themselves under silence.[14]      

            This correction applies not only to subordinates but also to those equal to them in terms of exercised power and also to the superiors, which is evidenced by St. Paul’s admonition of St. Peter in the Epistle to the Galatians (cf. Gal 2:11-14) and the tradition of the interpretation of this text. St. Thomas Aquinas comments on it in the following way:

If the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”[15]

Legal-canonical outline

Collegially, the order of Bishops is, “together with its head, the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head, the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church.” As it is well known, in teaching this doctrine, the Second Vatican Council likewise noted that the Successor of Peter fully retains “his power of primacy over all, pastors as well as the general faithful. For 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 can always exercise this power freely.”[16]

These words quoted from the apostolic letter by John Paul II in 1998 remind us of the unity of the whole college of bishops, headed by the pope as the Bishop of Rome (the Bishop of the Diocese of Rome). He leads the Church in cooperation with the rest of the bishops and it is a continuation of the College of the Twelve Apostles (Apostolic College) which was headed by St. Peter the Apostle. The authority of the College was expressed by Christ this way, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18).

            The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council emphasised:

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.[17]

This truth expressed by the Fathers of the Council was developed by the present code of canon law when it states:

Bishops, who by divine institution succeed to the place of the Apostles through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to them, are constituted pastors in the Church, so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and ministers of governance. Through episcopal consecration itself, bishops receive with the function of sanctifying also the functions of teaching and governing.[18]

            Thus, a bishop’s duty as a teacher of the faith is to guard the deposit of faith (depositum fidei) in his particular church, which means the revealed truths of the faith and morality (contained in the Bible and Apostolic Tradition). St. Paul presented this task when he wrote to Bishop Timothy, “Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us” (2 Tim 1:14). Whereas in the previously mentioned motu proprio, St. John Paul II described the duty of sanctification this way:

The individual Bishop too, as “steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood,” in the exercise of his office of sanctifying contributes greatly to the Church’s work of glorifying God and making men holy. This is a work of the whole Church of Christ, acting in every legitimate liturgical celebration carried out in communion with the Bishop and under his direction.[19]

            Thus, a diocesan bishop after the Second Vatican Council is perceived more as a shepherd than an administrator, although his administrative activity was precisely specified in Church documents. The Holy See underlined the scope and responsibility of this service in different documents including the Council Decree Christus Dominus of 1965 and the Instruction Ecclesiae Imago of 1973 by the Congregation for Bishops. Then, the pastoral service of bishops was articulated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, in the post-conciliar apostolic exhortation Pastores Gregis by John Paul II in 2003 and above all in the Directory Apostolorum Successores of 2005 issued by the Congregation for Bishops.

            The Code legislator also specified that “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.”[20] Under the notion of ordinary power the Church understands the one associated with the office (and not delegated to a particular person) which for a diocesan bishop is proper and not substitute.[21] Therefore, a diocesan bishop as a successor of the Apostle in the particular church entrusted to him acts in his own name, not in the name of the pope. He should, however, maintain unity with the Bishop of Rome. But the immediate power is joined with the right to immediate action towards the fold entrusted to him and not only through one-man or group organs which function within a diocese (a vicar general, an episcopal vicar, a diocesan synod, a diocesan curia, an ecclesiastical court, etc.). Likewise, each of the faithful of the particular church has the right to turn to his bishop directly.

            The diocesan bishop, as a successor of the Apostles, receives a triple power: legislative, executive, and judicial. “The bishop exercises legislative power himself.” He exercises executive and judicial power himself or through the aforementioned organs.[22] The Code specifies that “in exercising the function of a pastor, a diocesan bishop is to show himself concerned for all the Christian faithful entrusted to his care.”[23] The Code lists also such pastoral duties of a bishop as: care of presbyters; care of priestly and monastic vocations; preaching the whole of Christian doctrine and morality, and care of “the homily and catechetical instruction”; care of the spiritual growth of the faithful “through the celebration of the sacraments”; supporting “various forms of the apostolate in the diocese”; visitations.[24] The wide scope of the power of dispensation from the Church law entrusted to bishops should also be mentioned.[25] Moreover, a diocesan bishop

must protect the unity of the universal Church, a bishop is bound to promote the common discipline of the whole Church, and therefore, to urge the observance of all ecclesiastical laws. He is to exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially regarding the ministry of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and the veneration of the saints, and the administration of goods.[26]

Therefore, his is the care of the unity of the Church expressed in the unity of the faith, sound discipline, and worthy celebration of the sacraments.

            Bishops exercise their power in unity with other bishops. The Code specifies that:

A conference of bishops, a permanent institution, is a group of bishops of some nation or certain territory who jointly exercise certain pastoral functions for the Christian faithful of their territory in order to promote the greater good which the Church offers to humanity, especially through forms and programs of the apostolate fittingly adapted to the circumstances of time and place, according to the norm of law.[27]

            The role of the conference of bishops (the conference of the episcopate) was theologically elaborated in the motu proprio Apostolos Suos by John Paul II in 1998. Clause 15 of this document reads as follows:

The Council clearly highlighted the need in our day for harmonizing the strengths deriving from the interchange of prudence and experience within the Episcopal Conference, since “Bishops are frequently unable to fulfill their office suitably and fruitfully unless they work more harmoniously and closely every day with other Bishops.” It is not possible to give an exhaustive list of the issues which require such cooperation but it escapes no one that issues which currently call for the joint action of Bishops include the promotion and safeguarding of faith and morals, the translation of liturgical books, the promotion and formation of priestly vocations, the preparation of catechetical aids, the promotion and safeguarding of Catholic universities and other educational centers, the ecumenical task, relations with civil authorities, the defense of human life, of peace, and of human rights, also in order to ensure their protection in civil legislation, the promotion of social justice, the use of the means of social communication, etc.

            The Code’s clarification is also important: “A conference of bishops can only issue general [and executive] decrees in cases where universal law has prescribed it or a special mandate of the Apostolic See has been established.” In other cases, e.g., with issued resolutions, “the competence of each diocesan bishop remains intact” in his particular church.[28]

            Apart from diocesan bishops, other bishops (the so-called titular bishops) are also due to distinguish themselves by the care of the particular and universal churches. A coadjutor bishop (a bishop with the right of succession in the post of a diocesan bishop) and auxiliary bishops have the task of “assist[ing] the diocesan bishop in the entire governance of the diocese and take his place if he is absent or impeded.”[29] They can have special tasks entrusted to them and exercise executive power in the diocese in the role of general vicars and episcopal vicars.[30] Whereas those bishops who presented their resignation from office and had it accepted by the Bishop of Rome, retain the title of bishop emeritus.[31]

            At the end of the aforementioned Instruction Ecclesiae Imago, the Congregation of Bishops summed up the pastoral mission of a bishop:

The most for a bishop: to take the first place means to reach out, to preside means to serve, to govern means to love, while respect corresponds to duty (burden). The office of a bishop doesn’t constitute a foundation of temporary honors any more but it is a burden which weighs down the shoulders of a bishop, purifying his dignity from any kind of filth of exterior vanity and secular reign.

            Similar words are contained in the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops by the Holy See in which the responsibility the bishops hold for their office is mentioned: “The Lord Jesus always assists his Church and his ministers, especially the Bishops to whom he has entrusted the governance of the Church. With the office, He imparts grace; together with the burden, He provides the strength to carry it.”[32] These words from the documents fit into the mold of the observation by Pope Boniface VIII, “Rationi congruit, ut succedat in onere, qui substituitur in honore,” which can be translated as: “It is fitting that the one who assumes the office has also assumed the burden associated with it.”

[1] The Council of Trent, The True and Catholic Doctrine, Touching the Sacrament of Order, Ch. IV, cf. CCC 861.

[2] cf. John Paul II, Pastores Gregis, 1.

[3] cf. John Paul II, Pastores Gregis, 7.

[4] John Paul II, Pastores Gregis, 7.

[5] cf. Acts 13:1-3; John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 28

[6] Augustine, De civitate Dei contra paganos XIX, 19, CCL 48, ed. B. Dombard—A. Kalb, Turnholti 1955, 686-687

[7] Augustine, Enarratio in Ps. 126, 3, NBA 28, ed. V. Tarulli, Roma 1977, 140-142.

[8] See Augustine, Enarratio in Ps. 67, 39, NBA 26, 620, PSP 39, 186; Augustine, Sermo 178, 1, 1, PL 38, 961.

[9] Enarratio in Ps. 67, 39, NBA 26, 620, PSP 39, 186.

[10] Augustine, Enarratio in Ps. 39, 6, NBA 25, 938.

[11] CHECK Origen, Homilies on Numbers (2,1), transl. Thomash P. Scheck,

[12] Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 23.

[13] 2 Timothy 4:1-5.

[14] S. Gregory I, Liber Regulae Pastoralis, pars II, cap. 4.

[15] S. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 33, a. 4, ad 2.

[16] Motu Proprio Apostolos Suos, No 9; cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 20.

[17] Decree Christus Dominus, 11.

[18] Can. 375 of the Code of Canon Law of 1983.

[19] Motu proprio Apostolos Suos, 11.

[20] Can. 381 §1.

[21] Can. 131.

[22] Can. 391.

[23] Can. 383.

[24] Can. 384–87, 394, 396–98.

[25] See Vatican II, Christus Dominus, 8b; Can. 87.

[26] Can. 392; Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 23.

[27] Can. 447.

[28] Can. 455.

[29] Can. 405.

[30] Can. 406.

[31] Can. 401–2.

[32] Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, Apostolorum successores, 231.

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