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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Supreme Authority of the Church (Part II)

In the previous issue, we had an overview of the nature of the supreme authority of the Church, personified in the Petrine Office. Not in vain did our Lord pronounce those solemn words to Peter in Caesarea Philippi, after the latter had made his equally solemn profession of faith: “Thou art Peter (Rock) and upon this rock I shall build my Church…Whatever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever though shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” In this issue we will tackle the more practical questions of the acquisition, exercise and loss of such power.

a. Acquisition and Loss of Papal Power

1) Acquisition — The Roman Pontiff obtains full and supreme power in the Church by means of legitimate election accepted by him together with episcopal consecration (c.332, §1 in principio). Thus, two elements must concur for the full constitution of papal power:

a) Legitimate election followed by acceptance by him. Because there is no one superior to the Pope who could confer the office or confirm his election to it, he takes office canonically by accepting legitimate election during the so-called conclave by the Cardinal electors of the Catholic Church.

b) Episcopal consecration of the elected pope; therefore, one who is already a bishop obtains this same power from the moment he accepts his election to the pontificate, but if the one elected lacks episcopal character, he is to be ordained a bishop immediately (c.332, §1 in fine). In other words, the Law provides for the possibility of a non-bishop being elected to the papacy (historically this indeed had happened), although with the present system of the Cardinal electors choosing from among their ranks, this provision finds very little applicability.

2) Loss of Papal Power. The papal office, in principle, is for life; thus it can be lost only in two ways:

a) Death—This is the most common and is so obvious that the CIC does not even mention it.

b) Resignation — This is the only case considered by c.332, §2, for which the following are the requirements for validity:
1º that he makes the resignation freely — Therefore, like any juridic act, the resignation must be free and not have any of the defects that invalidate such act (cf. cc.124-128; 187-189).
2º that it be duly manifested — For the necessary juridic certainty, the Code requires that the will to resign be formally manifested. However, the resignation need not be accepted by anyone, a consequence of the principle that Romanus Pontifex a nemine iudicatur.

b. The Juridical Government of the universal Church during a sede vacante or sede prorsus impedita

What happens when the Roman Pontiff dies or legitimately resigns? The Code is taxative:
Can.335 — When the Roman See is vacant or entirely impeded nothing is to be innovated in the governance of the universal Church; however, special laws enacted for these circumstances are to be observed.
In the first place, c.335 lays down the general principle: Sede vacante nihil innovetur—which is applicable also to the dioceses and particular Churches (c.428, §1). In the second place, it remits to special laws the regulation of the juridical government of the universal Church during the two situations mentioned:

1) Sede vacante — This is the situation that results when papal power is lost either by death or valid and legitimate resignation of the Roman Pontiff as previously described. The special law for this situation is the Apost. Const. Romano Pontifici eligendo (RPE), promulgated by Paul VI in 1.X.1975. The juridical government of the universal Church during this period, regulated in the five chapters comprising the first part of this document, can be summarized as follows:

a) The government of the universal Church is entrusted to the College of Cardinals, but only for ordinary and urgent matters, while preparing what is necessary for the election of a new Pope.
b) The key administrator for the day-to-day affairs of the universal Church is the
Camerlengo or Chamberlain, assisted by three other cardinals; while the administration of the diocese of Rome falls on the Vicar for the Diocese of Rome.
c) Specific applications of the general principle: sede vacante nihil innovetur.

2) Entirely impeded —No canonical characterization is given separately for the Roman See, but the norm given for all episcopal see in general can be applied servatis de iure servandis:

c.412—An episcopal see is understood to be impeded if by reason of captivity, banishment, exile or incapacity, the diocesan bishop is wholly prevented from fulfilling his pastoral function in the diocese, and cannot communicate with the people of his diocese even by letter.
No special provision for the juridical government of the universal Church in this situation exists either; hence, what is laid down by the RPE for the case of sede vacante can be applied, servatis de iure servandis.

c. Extension and Limits of Papal Power

To speak of extension and limitation of the exercise of papal power is tantamount to speaking about primacy and hierarchical communion, and these notions are regulated in c.333, §§1 and 2 respectively.

1) The Primacy — This term refers to a complex relationship that exists between the Petrine Office, Pastor of the universal Church, and the individual Bishops who are also Pastors of the particular Churches.
Can.333, §1 — The Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office, not only has power in the universal Church but also possesses a primacy of ordinary power over all particular Churches and groupings of churches by which the proper, ordinary and immediate power which bishops possess in the particular churches entrusted to their care is both strengthened and safeguarded.

This paragraph of c.333 establishes the two important aspects regarding the extension of papal power:

a) The Primacy of the Roman Pontiff extends not only over the universal Church in its totality, but also to each and every one of the particular Churches and groupings thereof. This is really nothing else but a manifestation of the immediate character of the power that corresponds to the Pope by virtue of his office.
b) Such Primacy does not undermine the equally ordinary, proper and immediate power of the Bishops in their respective particular Churches (c.381, §1). On the contrary, the latter is both strengthened and safeguarded (c.333, §1; cf. LG, n.27).

2) Hierarchical Communion — If the extension of the papal power is best expressed by the notion of papal primacy (in the context of the communio ecclesiarum), the limits of the exercise of such power is best expressed by the notion of communio hierarchica, as laid down in the next paragraph of c.333.

Can.333, §2 — The Roman Pontiff, in fulfilling the office of the supreme pastor of the Church, is always united in communion with the other bishops and with the universal Church; however, he has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to determine the manner, either personal or collegial, of exercising this function.

What this paragraph establishes is that the exercise of the primacy of power is not exempted from the communion in the Church, and that the Pope—as Head of the Church—cannot separate himself from the body of the Bishops or from the body of the universal Church.

d. Assistance in Exercising the Papal Primacy

Can.334 — In exercising his office the Roman Pontiff is assisted by the bishops who aid him in various ways and among these is the synod of bishops; moreover the cardinals assist him as do other persons and other institutes according to the needs of the times; all these persons and institutes, in his name and by his authority, carry out the task committed to them for the good of all the churches, according to the norms defined by law.

1) Nature of the Assistance. Before going deeper into the specific institutions that help the Roman Pontiff, it is important to make some clarifications.

a) Personal exercise of Primacy. During the redaction of the canon, it was made clear that the canon was dealing with the personal—not collegial—exercise of the supreme power. Thus, here we are dealing with collaborators of the Pope in his own government of the universal Church.

b) Wide latitude of possibilities. Aside from the synod of Bishops, which is mentioned specifically, the canon does not concretize the way this collaboration is to be made, giving the Pope a wide latitude of possibilities as far as calling to his assistance other persons and other institutes according to the needs of the times.

3) Vicariate power of jurisdiction. The canon states that all these persons and institutes carry out the task committed to them by the Pope in his name and by his authority (...) according to the norms defined by law. Thus we are dealing with vicariate (in the strict sense) power of jurisdiction.

b. Specific Forms of Collaboration

Even if c.334 does not mention any specific forms of collaboration, aside from the synod of bishops, the following Chapters of the same Section I (Supreme Church Authority) deal with specific institutions:

1) The Synod of Bishops — dealt with in Chapter II (cc.342-348).
2) The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church — dealt with in Chapter III (cc.349-359).
3) The Roman Curia — dealt with in Chapter IV (cc.360-361).
4) The Legates of the Roman Pontiff — dealt with in Chapter V (cc.362-367).

Without getting into the details, suffice it to say at this point that all these forms of collaboration—e.g., the Vatican dicasteries or congregations, the papal nuncios—act in the name and authority of the Pope. Of special mention are the congregations of the Holy See, which—in most cases—issue documents (e.g., instructions and decrees) which have the full force of something issued by the Pope himself.