Diminished bishops, the new ultramontanism and the synodal process

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Thanks to the Franco-Prussian War, the I Vatican Council was suspended in October 1870 and was never convened. Before its unforeseen end, Vatican I did important work: it defined the universal scope of papal jurisdiction (and thus frustrated the New Nationalists’ claims to authority over the Church) while setting out the precise and limited circumstances in which the bishop of Rome can teach infallibly on matters of faith and morals. Nevertheless, the abrupt adjournment of the council led to an imbalance in the self-understanding of the Church: Catholicism found itself with a strong theology of the papacy but a weak theology of the episcopate.

As I explain in Sanctifying the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Fundamental Books), the Second Vatican Council considered this imbalance Lumen gentium (Light of the Nations), its dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which underlined several crucial points: the bishops of the Church are the heirs of the apostles; the “college” of bishops is the contemporary expression of the apostolic “college” of Acts 15; and this episcopal college, with and under its head, the bishop of Rome, has “supreme and plenary power over the universal Church” (LG 22).

This means, among other things, that the local bishops are true vicars of Christ in their local Churches. Ordained to teach, sanctify, and govern, bishops are not merely branch managers of the Catholic Church, Inc., carrying out orders from Roman headquarters. By their receipt of Orders in the highest degree, and by virtue of their communion with the Bishop of Rome, a local bishop is empowered to lead all the People of God entrusted to his care, so that all the baptized in his diocese are called to mission, equipped for mission and sacramentally supported in their evangelization efforts.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said then in a reflection on the achievements of Vatican II, Lumen gentium “reinserted throughout the Church a doctrine of [papal] primacy” which had “dangerously isolated” itself from the world episcopate, even as it “fitted into the one mystery of the Body of Christ a too isolated conception of the hierarchy. In these and other ways, Vatican II complemented the work of Vatican I in expressing the Church’s self-understanding in a holistic and integrated way that drew on the vast riches of Scripture and tradition. This was no small feat, and it justified a century and a half of serious theological work, often undertaken under difficult circumstances.

Yet the question must be asked: is Vatican II’s accomplishment in reasserting the authority of bishops undermined by the current preparatory process for the 2023 and 2024 “Synod on Synodality”?

Concerns about this have been exacerbated by the publication of the Work document for the “continental stage” of the preparation of the synod: a series of assemblies which follow the local and national “stages” of this long process.

In the Work document, bishops are minority participants in continental consultations which must include (in addition to bishops, priests, consecrated religious and active lay people) “people living in conditions of poverty or marginalization, and those who are in direct contact with these groups and individuals; fraternal delegates from other Christian denominations; representatives of other religions and religious traditions; and some people with no religious affiliation. And what do the bishops do in these continental assemblies? “They are invited to identify the appropriate means to carry out the task of validation and approval” of the “Final Document” of each continental assembly, “ensuring that it is the fruit of an authentically synodal journey, respectful of the process that has taken place and faithful to the diverse voices of the People of God in each continent”.

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That is, bishops are note takers, not teachers; secretary-archivists, not guarantors of orthodoxy; messengers, not apostolic leaders.

Serious concerns about this diminishing of the episcopal vocation, which contrasts starkly with the teaching of Vatican II in Lumen gentium, are further intensified by reports that at the final assembly of the synod in Rome (presumably in 2024) there will be no voting on the proposals by the bishops present – ​​the normal way in which a synod expresses its judgments. On the contrary, the reports of the bishops’ discussions will be prepared — by the General Secretariat of the Synod who designed this process? – and delivered to the Pope, who will then draft a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (the document that completes the work of a Synod) as he sees fit.

Thus, extreme ultramontanism – a form of papal autocracy that could make Blessed Pius IX blush – is superimposed on the depreciation of the world episcopate.

It has nothing to do with Vatican II. Bishops should make this known by asking for the restoration of their authority in this process.

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