Monday, September 14, 2009

The Supreme Authority in the Church (Part I)

At times, the question has been asked in what consists the authority of the Pope, the Bishops and—for that matter—the Episcopal Conference. I shall attempt to clarify this matter in a series of articles, since the whole matter of ecclesiastical authority is too broad a topic to tackle in one article.

BY supreme authority in the Church we mean that ecclesiastical power that is not subordinated to any other, and on which all other powers in the Church depend. Thus, the following discussion presupposes the previous consideration of the reality of the sacra potestas and its relation with the power of Orders and the power of jurisdiction (already tackled in an earlier issue of CBCP Monitor). Here we shall deal with the question of who is/are the subject/subjects of the supreme power in the Church. It has been noted that while Lumen Gentium had made major strides in placing the role and exercise of the supreme power in the Church in a larger perspective, it has not resolved this critical issue.

The classical and current answer can be summarized in three theses, each one with different nuances that can even give rise to further subdivisions of varying worth.

1st The Roman Pontiff as the Subject of the Supreme Authority in the Church

This is a classic position, defended in the Modern Era by authors like Cajetan and other Post-Tridentine theologians and canonists, and by a minority during Vatican Council II. It focuses solely on the Pope. According to this thesis, all the power of jurisdiction in the Church descends vertically from the Roman Pontiff via a predominantly juridical path—the missio canonica—, such that the sacramental origin of such power is relegated to a secondary plane, if at all admitted.

In this conception, the episcopal power of jurisdiction—even if its divine origin is admitted—is transmitted immediately by the Roman Pontiff through the canonical mission, and only in a mediate way by divine institution. Thus, the defenders of this thesis hold that only resident Bishops enjoy the power of jurisdiction—since only they receive a missio canonica from the Pope—and only they have the right to participate in an Ecumenical Council.

After Vatican II and at present, it has become very difficult to defend this position. According to the Council, both the Pope, as well as the Episcopal College under him, are subjects of the supreme and full power over the Church. But the defenders of this thesis have tried to keep its viability by affirming that the subject of the supreme power in the Church—at least in an absolute and proper sense, or in a principal and original sense—can only be one and that is the Roman Pontiff. According to them, the College of Bishops only is subject of such supreme power when the Pope communicates it to them and makes them participate in it—i.e., only in a relative and participative sense, and thus secondary, accessory and contingent.

2nd The College of Bishops as Subject of the Supreme Power in the Church

Putting aside the Conciliarist formulations that this thesis had in the Pre-Tridentine era, this position had been defended in more recent times by some authors trying to make it compatible with the doctrine of Vatican II. Presently it is mostly defended by dogmatic theologians and by a few canonists. They would want to take the doctrine of episcopal collegiality to its ultimate consequences, while trying to respect the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff.

According to this thesis, the sole subject of the supreme power in the Church is the Episcopal College—always with the Pope and under him. This power is, however, exercised in two ways:

1) Personally—by the Pope, by virtue of his office as Head of the College. In this case, the exercise of the power is totally concentrated in the Head of the College. Thus, the Pope acts as Head of the College and even as representative of the College, but not in a delegated sense (since his power does not come from the other members of the College) but rather in a corporate sense (as really standing for the whole College). In other words, the Pope functions authentically not as an independent agent but as successor of Peter—i.e., head of the college.

2) Collegially—by the whole body of the bishops, together with and under its Head. It has also been pointed out that since the Episcopal College always exists and is an essential element of the divine constitution of the Church, different modes of collegial action—aside from those commonly known and mentioned in the CIC, e.g. Ecumenical Councils and Synods—can take place, which the Head of the College should foster.

Aside from the previously mentioned reason of defending episcopal collegiality, the defenders of this thesis also adduce reasons of ecumenism, insofar as this conception—to their mind—could make the Petrine ministry more acceptable to some separated Churches.

3rd Two Inadequately Distinct Subjects of Supreme Power: the Roman Pontiff and the Episcopal College

This thesis had been defended already during the deliberations of Vatican Council I, re-proposed during Vatican II and continues to be defended at present. In effect, Vatican II had affirmed that the Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office, had full, supreme and universal power over the Church, and later adds that the College of Bishops, together with its Head, the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head, is also subject—“subiectum quoque”— of the supreme and full power over the universal Church (LG, n.22). Nevertheless, the position needs to be defended from the juridic-doctrinal point of view.

For its defenders, two apparently contradictory factors needed to be reconciled. On the one hand, the principle that in a society there can only be one supreme power, since were there to be several, one of them would limit the others that would then cease to be supreme. On the other hand, there are texts of the Magisterium—among them that of Lumen Gentium—that affirm the existence of two subjects of the supreme power: the Roman Pontiff and also the College of Bishops. According to these authors, in order to harmonize these two seemingly opposing factors, we have to affirm the existence of two subjects of supreme power in the Church, but at the same time establish an inadequate distinction between them—since the Roman Pontiff is present in both, either as the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church or as the Head of the Episcopal College. As the Council itself would explain, “it is not a distinction between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops taken together, but between the Roman Pontiff by himself and the Roman Pontiff along with the bishops.” Neither should we forget that, as the Council itself clearly affirms, the Roman Pontiff always enjoys freedom of action in the exercise of this supreme power—either alone or with the College.


Each one of the aforementioned theses attempts to explain, in the theoretical and speculative plane, the question of the subject of the supreme power in the Church. Each one attempts to emphasize particular aspects of the constitution and government of the Church. Thus, while the first thesis maximally defends and guarantees the institution and rights of the Primacy, the second thesis in contrast attempts to strengthen the nature and power of episcopal collegiality with and under the Pope; while the third thesis tries to find an equilibrium between the two positions.

In conclusion we can say that insofar as each one of the aforementioned theses respects the data of Revelation and the Magisterium, it can be accepted to explain juridic realities that—being rooted in the mystery of the Church—are not easily reducible to facile simplifications or neat systematizations.

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