Collegiality excerpt from "I Accuse the Council"

Archbishop Lefebvre conferring during Vatican II

This segment about the debate on Collegiality during the Second Vatican Council is an excerpt from Archbishop Lefebvre's book, I Accuse the Council!

Vatican II: the Second Session—Third Intervention (Oct. 1963)

Intervention connected with the notion of “Collegiality” in the schema, "The Church" (Chap.2)

This third intervention related to the question of collegiality, which some wanted to introduce into the Church’s doctrine concerning the relative powers of the pope and bishops. The term “college” had already been in use in the Church for many centuries, but all those who used it readily admitted that it meant a college of a particular nature.

The attempt to apply the term “collegiality” to the relations which united the pope and the bishops meant that an abstract and generic notion was being applied to a particular college. The “college” was in danger of no longer being considered as a particular college having an individual at its head, a person with full power vested in himself. Instead the tendency would be to diminish the autonomy of this power and to make it dependent in its exercise on the other members.

It was clear that this was the aim envisaged—to set up a permanent collegiality which would force the pope to act only when surrounded by a senate sharing in his power in an habitual and permanent way. This was, in fact, to diminish the exercise of the power of the pope.

The Church’s doctrine, on the other hand, states that for the College to be qualified to act as a college with the pope, it must be invited by the pope himself to meet and act with him. This has, in fact, only occurred in the Councils, which have been exceptional events.

Hence the emphatic interventions which occurred, in particular that of Bishop Carli.

Text of the Intervention (read publicly)

Venerable Brethren,

I am speaking on behalf of several Fathers, whose names I am handing to the General Secretariat.

It has seemed to us that if the text of Chap.2, nos.16 and 17, be retained as it is at present, the pastoral intention of the Council may be placed in grave danger.

This text, in fact, claims that the members of the College of Bishops possess a right of government, either with the Sovereign Pontiff over the universal Church or with the other bishops over the various dioceses.

From a practical point of view, collegiality would exist, both through an international Senate residing in Rome and governing the universal Church with the Sovereign Pontiff, and through the national Assemblies of Bishops possessing true rights and duties in all the dioceses of one particular nation.

In this way national or international Colleges would gradually take the place in the Church of the personal Government of a single Pastor. Several Fathers have mentioned the danger of a lessening of the power of the Sovereign Pontiff, and we are fully in agreement with them.

But we foresee another danger, even more serious, if possible: the threat of the gradual disappearance of the essential character of the bishops, namely that they are “true pastors, each one of whom feeds and governs his own flock, entrusted to him in accordance with a power proper to him alone, directly and fully contained in his Order.”

The national assemblies with their commissions would soon—and unconsciously—be feeding and governing all the flocks, so that the priests as well as the laity would find themselves placed between these two pastors: the bishop, whose authority would be theoretical, and the assembly with its commissions, which would, in fact, hold the exercise of that authority.

We could bring forward many examples of difficulties in which priests and people, and even bishops find themselves at variance.

It was certainly Our Lord’s will to found particular churches on the person of their pastor, of whom He spoke so eloquently. The universal Tradition of the Church also teaches us this, as is shown by the great beauty of the liturgy of episcopal consecration.

That is why the episcopal assemblies, based upon a moral collegiality, upon brotherly love and mutual aid, can be of great benefit to apostolic work. But if, on the contrary, they gradually take the place of the bishops because they are founded upon a legal collegiality, they can bring the greatest harm to it.

In order then to avoid transmitting to colleges the functions of the Sovereign Pontiff and of the bishops, we suggest another text in the place of nos.16 and 17, and we submit it to the Conciliar Commission.

(There follows the names of the eight Fathers of the Council who signed this intervention.)

New text suggested in the place of that in Chap.2, no.16, p.27, of the schema, "The Church"

No. 16: The Episcopal College and its head

According to the Gospel, St. Peter and the other Apostles founded a College, instituted by Our Lord Himself, insofar as they remained in communion among themselves under the authority of St. Peter. Similarly, the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, successors of the Apostles, are united among themselves.

Holy Scripture and the Tradition of the Church teach us that only in extraordinary cases did the Apostles and their successors meet together in Councils, and act as a collegiate body under the guidance of Peter or of the Roman Pontiffs. The Apostles, in fact, fulfilled their mission personally and transmitted their power to their successors as they themselves had received it from Our Lord.

The Holy Council of Trent, basing itself on these sacred traditions, confirms that the Roman Pontiff alone possesses in his own person a full, Ordinary episcopal power over the universal Church. As to the bishops. the successors of the Apostles, as true pastors, they feed and govern their own flock entrusted to them, each bishop with a personal power, direct and complete. deriving from his sacred consecration.

Thus at times the bishops also, either some of them or altogether, upon a summons from or with the approval of the Roman Pontiff, meet as a true and proper College, acting with a single authority to define and rule the interests of the universal Church or of individual churches.

Such is the constant and unanimous Tradition of the Catholic Church and no one can call it in question. Such is the ineffable and wonderful Constitution of the Church. which has remained unchangeable up to the present day and is destined to remain so up to the end of time, in accordance with Our Lord’s promises.

It is true that present circumstances make it advisable for the bishops to meet more frequently, united in the charity of Christ, in order to share in common their thoughts, desires. decisions, and pastoral cares, keeping always perfect unity, however, without diminishing the power of the Roman Pontiff, or that of each individual bishop.

Commentary on the session by Archbishop Lefebvre

The result of these interventions was an important modification of the text, but it was not yet, however, completely satisfactory. The Holy Father was therefore respectfully urged to make a clear statement which would avoid any ambiguous interpretation of the text. And it was the insertion of the nota explicative that restored the traditional teaching. This note was very unwillingly accepted in Liberal circles. Henceforth it forms part of the Acts of the Council and modifies Chap.2 of the schema, The Church.

Fourth Intervention (Nov. 6, 1963)

On the schema for the decree, "The Bishops and Government of the Dioceses"

This intervention concerned the schema entitled De Pastorali Munere Episcoporum in Ecclesia. This schema returned to the relations of the bishops with the pope and again tried to introduce new formulae which would limit the freedom of the pope in the exercise of his functions.

In the schema proposed, it was stated on p.6, no.3, lines 16-20:

The power of the Roman Pontiff remaining unchanged as regards reserving to himself in all things the causes that he himself shall judge fit to retain, whether they come within his jurisdiction of their very nature, or to keep the unity of the Church..."

The second reason mentioned here introduced a new element which changed Canon 220 [1917 Code of Canon Law—Ed.]. The latter says, in effect:

Those causes are called major which because of their importance revert to the Roman Pontiff alone, whether by their nature or whether by a positive law."

Thus, instead of a positive law which is none other than Canon Law, a criterion was introduced which would allow the powers that the pope reserves to himself—“the guardianship of the unity of the Church”—to be contested.

Moreover, on p.7 of the schema the question arises of the choice of the bishops who could assist the Roman Congregations by their work. A distinctly democratic climate was introduced here:

Bishops of different nations, each designated by his national episcopal conference, shall be nominated by the Apostolic See in the various Congregations."

Text of the Intervention

Venerable Fathers,

The introduction clearly states: “The Second Vatican Council now begins to deal with subjects which are strictly and truly pastoral.” Nevertheless, these subjects cannot be studied thoroughly and honestly unless one bases one’s examination on definite theological principles.

Thus two statements must be made, in my opinion, about Chap.1, which deals with the relations between the bishops and the Sovereign Pontiff.

1. As it has been drawn up, this chapter is clearly based—and that most excellently—on principles of divine Catholic doctrine which are certain and already defined, especially by the First Vatican Council.

Furthermore, this chapter is in very close agreement with the words of the Sovereign Pontiff in his recent addresses.

Speaking of the bishops associated with him in the exercise of his functions, the Sovereign Pontiff explicitly used the phrase “in conformity with the reaching of the Church and with Canon Law.” The judgment of the Sovereign Pontiff in no way postulates a new principle. Canon 230 had already declared:

The Most Reverend and Most Eminent Cardinals form the Senate of the Roman Pontiff and assist him in the government of the Church as his principal counselors and auxiliaries.”

Nevertheless, in order to safeguard in every way what are certain basic principles, two amendments seem to me to be essential:

p.6, line 16: for the words 'or to keep the unity of the Church,' let the terms of Canon Law, Canon 220, be substituted, 'or by positive law.' "

p.7, lines 12-23: let the words 'should be designated by the national episcopal conference' be re-worded in order to safeguard fully the liberty of the Sovereign Pontiff in the exercise of his power."

2. As the relations between the bishops and the Sovereign Pontiff must be based upon principles which are absolutely certain, in no way can mention be made of the principle of juridical collegiality. In fact, as His Eminence Cardinal Brown pointed out, this principle of juridical collegiality cannot be proved.

If, by some miracle, this principle should be discovered in this Council, and solemnly affirmed, it would then be logically necessary to assent, as one of the Fathers has almost declared:

The Roman Church has erred in not knowing the fundamental principle of her divine Constitution, namely, the principle of juridical collegiality. And that over many centuries."

Logically, too, it would have to be stated that the Roman Pontiffs have abused their power up to the present day, by denying to the bishops rights which are theirs by divine law. Could we not then say to the Sovereign Pontiff what some have said to him in equivalent terms: “Pay what thou owest”?

Now, this is grotesque and without the slightest foundation.

To conclude: if we are speaking of moral collegiality, who will deny it? Everyone admits it. But such collegiality only produces moral relations. If we are speaking of juridical collegiality, on the other hand, then, as Bishop Carli has said so well:

It can be proved neither by Holy Scripture, nor by theology, nor by history.”

It is thus more prudent not to have recourse to this principle, since it is by no means certain.


1 Cf. the definitive text of the constitution Lumen Gentium, nos.22-23.