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Thanks to the Franco-Prussian War, the First Vatican Council was suspended in October 1870 and never reconvened. Before its unanticipated end, Vatican I did important work: It defined the universal scope of papal jurisdiction (and thus frustrated the claims of the new nationalists to authority over the Church) while spelling out the precise, limited circumstances in which the Bishop of Rome can teach infallibly on matters of faith and morals. Nonetheless, the council’s abrupt adjournment led to an imbalance in the Church’s self-understanding: Catholicism was left with a strong theology of the papacy but a weak theology of the episcopate.

As I explain in To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books), the Second Vatican Council addressed this imbalance in Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which made several crucial points: The Church’s bishops 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 full power over the universal Church” (LG 22).

Among other things, this means that local bishops are genuine vicars of Christ in their local churches. Ordained to teach, sanctify, and govern, the bishops are not mere branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc., executing orders from Roman corporate headquarters. Through their reception of Holy Orders in the highest degree, and because of their communion with the Bishop of Rome, a local bishop is empowered to lead the entire People of God given into his care, such that all the baptized in his diocese are called to mission, equipped for mission, and sacramentally supported in their efforts at evangelization. 

As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger put it in a reflection on Vatican II’s achievements, Lumen Gentium “reinserted into the Church as a whole a doctrine of [papal] primacy” that had become “dangerously isolated” from the world episcopate, even as it “integrated into the one mysterium of the Body of Christ a too-isolated conception of the hierarchy.” In these and other ways, Vatican II completed the work of Vatican I by expressing the Church’s self-understanding in a holistic, integrated way that drew on the vast riches of Scripture and tradition. This was no mean accomplishment, and it vindicated a century and a half of serious theological work, often undertaken in difficult circumstances.

Yet the question must be asked: Is Vatican II’s achievement in reaffirming the authority of bishops being undercut by the current preparatory process for the “Synod on Synodality” of 2023 and 2024?

Concerns on this front have been heightened by the release of the working document for the “Continental Stage” of Synod preparation: a series of assemblies that follow the local and national “stages” of this lengthy process.

In the working document, the bishops are minority participants in continental consultations that must include (in addition to bishops, priests, consecrated religious, and active laity) “people living in conditions of poverty or marginalization, and those who have direct contact with these groups and persons; fraternal delegates from other Christian denominations; representatives of other religions and faith traditions; and some people with no religious affiliation.” And what are the bishops to do in these continental assemblies? “They are asked to identify appropriate ways to carry out their task of validating and approving” 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.”

That is, the bishops are note-takers, not teachers; recording secretaries, not guarantors of orthodoxy; messenger boys, not apostolic leaders.

Serious concerns about this diminishment of the episcopal vocation, which is in striking contrast to Vatican II’s teaching in Lumen Gentium, are further intensified by reports that, in the final Synod assembly in Rome (presumably in 2024), there will be no votes on propositions by the attending bishops—the normal way a Synod expresses its judgments. Rather, reports of the bishops’ discussions will be prepared—by the Synod General Secretariat that designed this process?—and given to the pope, who will then craft a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (the document that completes a Synod’s work) as he pleases.

Thus extreme ultramontanism—a form of papal autocracy that might make Blessed Pius IX blush—is being layered onto the depreciation of the world episcopate.

This has nothing to do with Vatican II. The bishops should make that known while asking for the restoration of their authority in this process.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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Image by Jacobmaky licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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