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We are in the process of examining one of the decrees approved at the third session of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church: “The Constitution on the Church.” In this article I wish to call your attention to the third chapter of this decree, entitled: “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate.” The chapter has been of rather great interest because it concerns itself with the old hierarchical order in the Romish Church. Protestants have wondered whether perhaps the pope would relinquish some of the power which, he claims, is vested in him. This chapter, it is said, will revise the old power structure of the Romish Church. 


It should be pointed out that the chapter does not basically change the old Romish position towards its pope. May I quote a few paragraphs to make this plain?

In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this sacred council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful.

But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. 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 is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman pontiff . . . . 

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, cf.

Luke 22:32,

by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment . . . .¹


In this chapter, there does appear to be greater emphasis upon the authority of the bishops within the Romish Church. It is this which has been lauded by many as a real change in Rome. The chapter points out that the bishops are successors of the twelve apostles:

. . . For this reason the apostles, appointed as rulers in this society, took care to appoint successors . . . . 

. . . Therefore, the sacred council teaches that the bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.¹

The chapter seems to teach the local authority, and almost autonomy, of the bishop in his own diocese:

The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them, and are quite correctly called “prelates,” heads of the people whom they govern. Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power, but on the contrary it is affirmed, strengthened and vindicated by it, since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church.¹

The same chapter teaches a certain “infallibility” of the bishops:

The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter. To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith.¹

The chapter also introduces the deacons as part of the Roman hierarchy.

At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed. . . . It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of funeral and burial services . . . . 

Since these duties, so very necessary to the life of the Church, can be fulfilled only with difficulty in many regions in accordance with the discipline of the Latin Church as it exists today, the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. . . . With the consent of the Roman Pontiff, this diaconate, can, in the future, be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. . . .¹

Finally, I would point out that this chapter does not at all hide the intent of the Romish Church towards the world about us (including ourselves):

Because the human race today is joining more and more into a civic, economic and social unity, it is that much the more necessary that priests, by combined effort and aid, under the leadership of the bishops and the Supreme Pontiff, wipe out every kind of separateness, so that the whole human race may be brought into the unity of the family of God.¹


It is interesting to follow the comments of both Roman Catholics and Protestants concerning this special chapter. In press accounts one detected first great enthusiasm and high favor toward the expressions of this chapter. But then came the close of the third session of the Council. The pope appeared to throw overboard all ideas of “collegiality”, and arbitrarily imposed his will over the majority of the bishops assembled at Rome. Liberal Roman Catholics and Protestants both deplored the action of the pope as that which negated the very intent of this chapter three. Notice, first, the enthusiasm:

We also have cause to rejoice at much that was said during the discussion on the Church. It is plain that the Counter Reformation’s extreme emphasis on the hierarchical structure of the Church is on the way out. No one questions the special place of the Bishops, but our emphasis now is on the Church as a Christian community, on the people of God among whom there are different callings but all of whom have a Christian vocation. This shift in attitude is of inestimable importance.² 

Chapter three of the schema De Ecclesia . . . teaches the doctrine that the episcopal college, including the pope as its head, holds the supreme ministerial power to teach and to govern in the Church. This means that the bishops are co-responsible for the teaching and policy-making of the whole Church; and even though the pope, thanks to his primacy, remains canonically independent from them, he enters into a dialogue relation with them. The chapter does not specify the precise forms in which this collegiality will find expression, but there can be little doubt that the manner and the tone assumed by the supreme ecclesiastical authority will undergo a considerable transformation.³

But then, after the last few days of the third session, came the afterthoughts:

Much more serious was the pope’s interventions with regard to the doctrine on Ecumenism, and his application of the title “Mother of the Church” so carefully rejected by the Council to Mary. It is hard to understand the pope’s motives in sending 19 “suggested emendations” for the doctrine on Ecumenism at a time when such recommendations could not be debated. At best, his action seems in bad taste, offensive to other Christians and scandalous to Catholics.4 

The treatment of the schema on ecumenism illustrates a third concern . . . . For although the Council promulgated the doctrine of collegiality, . . .the actions of the closing hours suggest that there is a vast distance between promulgating a doctrine and actually practicing it. . . .5

The debate continues. Is the old hierarchical order breaking down? I believe not. I believe that there will be less evidence of the “naked power” of the pope in the future, but he has not relinquished an iota of the power he claims to possess. The very expressions of fear by those ready enough to believe the best concerning Rome, ought to be warning enough for us.

¹ These quotations were taken from the Council Daybook, Session 3, published by the National Catholic Welfare Conference, pages 316-322. 

² James O’Gara, The Commonweal (a Roman Catholic lit liberal magazine) Feb. 7, 1964; p. 569 

³ Gregory Baum, The Commonweal, p. 130 

4 Michael Novak (a Roman Catholic), Christian Century, Dec. 9, 1964, p. 1518 

5 Robert McAfee Brown (Protestant), The Commonweal, Dec. 25, 1964; pp. 442-444