The Latest Confusion in Rome

The draft of the new Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium (PE), contains doctrinal imprecisions that have grave implications for the correct understanding of the relationship between the pope and the College of Bishops. The second chapter, “Criteria and Principles for the Roman Curia,” invokes the Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, yet ignores the clear teaching of the Preliminary Note of Explanation that was published as an appendix at the specific instruction of Pope Paul VI.

The Secretary General of the Council, Pericle Felici, informed the Council Fathers that Paul VI directed that “the doctrine set forth in Chapter III ought to be explained and understood in accordance with the meaning and intent of this explanatory note.” Chapter III is entitled “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate.”

The question is the proper understanding of the relationship between the pope and the bishops as a “college.” Does the College of Bishops exist apart from and independently from the Roman pontiff? Can the College act as a body apart from and in contradistinction to the pope?

            PE states: “The Curia is at the service of the Pope and the college of bishops, which ‘with the successor of Peter govern the house of the living God’ (LG 18). The Curia exercises this service to the bishops in their particular churches in respect for collegiality, sinodality, and subsidiarity, which are owed to the successors of the apostles. On the basis of the Ecclesiology of Vatican II, the College of Bishops can entrust this task to the Curia either temporarily or permanently.” (emphasis added)

            PE cautions: “This service of the Curia to the mission of the bishops and to communio is not based on an attitude of supervision or control and neither in deciding as a superior authority.”

It continues: “Every Dicastery fulfills its own mission in virtue of the power that it has received from the Supreme Pontiff and from the College of Bishops, which, according to the Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, guides the Church together with the successor of Peter (cf. LG 22,2).” (emphasis added)

            Praedicate Evangelium is making a mistaken distinction between the pope and the bishops considered as a college. The Preliminary Note of Explanation to Lumen Gentium states:

The College, which does not exist without the head, is said ‘to exist also as the subject of supreme and full power in the universal Church.’ This must be admitted of necessity so that the fullness of power belonging to the Roman Pontiff is not called into question. For the College, always and of necessity, includes its head, because in the college he preserves unhindered his function as Christ’s Vicar and as Pastor of the universal Church. In other words, it is not a distinction between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops taken collectively, but a distinction between the Roman Pontiff taken separately and the Roman Pontiff together with the bishops. (emphases added)

The pope addresses the Roman Curia, 12/21/18

The Preliminary Note continues: “As Supreme Pastor of the Church, the Supreme Pontiff can always exercise his power at will, as his very office demands. Though it is always in existence, the College is not as a result permanently engaged in strictly collegial activity; the Church’s Tradition makes this clear. In other words, the College is not always ‘fully active [in actu pleno]’; rather, it acts as a college in the strict sense only from time to time and only with the consent of its head.

The College of Bishops, therefore, does not “entrust” any “task to the Roman Curia either temporarily or permanently” unless called upon to do so as a college by the pope. Each and every act of such entrustment of tasks must include the pope’s approval of such an act; he is the head of the College of Bishops, and the college cannot act as a body against the decision of its head.

The College of Bishops can act only cum Petro et sub Petro, with Peter and under Peter. The Preliminary Note states: “The phrase ‘with the consent of its head’ is used to avoid the idea of dependence on some kind of outsider; the term ‘consent’ suggests rather communion between the head and the members, and implies the need for an act which belongs properly to the competence of the head.” (emphasis added)

The Roman Curia is, in fact, an arm of the pope, not of the bishops of the world. Canon 360 states: “The Supreme Pontiff usually conducts the business of the universal Church through the Roman Curia, which acts in his name and with his authority for the good and for the service of the Churches.” The pope, acting ordinarily through his Curia, is the “superior authority” in the Church that makes decisions that involve the “supervision and control” of the members of the college of bishops. This is the meaning of papal supremacy in the Church.

The Roman Curia is not called the “Curia of the Pope and the College of Bishops” for a reason. Every diocesan bishop has his own curia. The Roman Curia depends upon the pope alone and assists him in carrying out his divinely given mission.

The Roman Pontiff is the Supreme Pastor and Visible Head of the Church on earth. Pastor Bonus, the Apostolic Constitution presently governing the Roman Curia states: “The Roman Curia is the complex of dicasteries and institutes which help the Roman Pontiff in the exercise of his supreme pastoral function for the good and service of the whole Church and of the Particular Churches.”

The confusion and disorder that would be introduced into the Church by even implying that the College of Bishops can act separately from the pope and has some role in delegating authority to the Roman Curia must be avoided. It is a clear contradiction of perennial Catholic doctrine as taught most recently by the Second Vatican Council.

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.

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