Collegiality: error of Vatican II

In this 2-part article on the error of collegiality, Fr. Basil Wrighton first explains its historical background, then in the second part recounts its inception by the liberals during the Second Vatican Council. Both parts were originally printed in The Angelus in 1984. See also Roman Protestants by Fr. Wrighton.

On Collegiality

Part I

Ah Love! could thou and I with fate conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would we not shatter it to bits—and then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

In some such terms—if less poetic than Omar's—we may imagine one Modernist prelate greeting another in the caffetteria of the Council chamber, even if they have got rather less than their heart's desire, their conspiracy against the Catholic scheme of things has had more success than anyone could have thought possible.

The palmy days of Vatican the Second (well in advance of 1984 [in reference to the scenario presented in George Orwell’s novel—Ed] produced an ecclesiastical Doublethink or Newspeak, with a spate of slogan words, of doubtful or ambiguous meaning, which are still throwing dust into the eyes of the unwary: words like "ecumenism" which is what used to be called syncretism or religious indifference; or "renewal" which turns out to mean an orgy of destruction; or "pluralism," which is an honorific synonym for the tabooed word "heresy"; or "charismatic" to describe behavior which would formerly have been called corybantic. Another of these changeling words is "collegiality." Close inspection reveals it as something between a tautology, a time-bomb, and an October revolution.

As a tautology, "collegiality" is innocent enough, if not very useful. If you belong to a college, you possess collegiality—just as you need only exist to possess existence. Any further meaning depends on, what kind of college you belong to and what are its constitutions and rights. As a time-bomb, it is one of those delayed explosives which the experts planted in the Council texts for the purpose of subsequently blowing up the old religion. Whether it amounts in fact to an October revolution will be considered in due course. We must first take a brief look at the past history of the idea.[1]

Collegiality was no problem in the early days of the Church. Our Lord gave to His Church a paternal and monarchical constitution. He was its divine Head, and His vicar, St. Peter and his successors, was to have supreme authority over the Church on earth. The local bishops, like the Apostles, were to have a similar monarchical authority, each in his allotted territory, but subordinate to that of the pope. The Latin word collegium, meaning a collection of persons united in one body for a common purpose, was applied to the Apostles, under St. Peter as their head. Their purpose was to preach the gospel to the whole world, and to instruct, organize and minister to the faithful. They were succeeded by the College of Bishops, to whom they passed on their order and authority. But this college was not identical with that of the Apostles, for the Apostles; having been directly and personally chosen by Christ to lay the foundations of His Church, enjoyed certain extraordinary privileges which were not handed on: their personal infallibility in preaching the gospel, their universal mission and full power to establish local churches, and the charisma of miracles to prove their authority. It was only St. Peter who was to hand on his full powers as Vicar of Christ to his successors. The later bishops only shared in the collective infallibility of the Church's magisterium, ordinary or (in council) extraordinary. Bishops have the powers of order and of jurisdiction, the former directly through their consecration, the latter indirectly through the sovereign pontiff, in accordance with the monarchical constitution of the Church. This regime, being divine and supernatural, worked very well through the ages, preserving in the Church a uniformity of belief, worship and discipline that was a standing wonder to the world.

It was not until the Renaissance period that any notable school of thought in the Church wished to change this God-given constitution. Some dissidents among the hierarchy then began to seek a new interpretation of their "collegial" status, by way of pooling their authority on secular lines and at the same time extending it so as to encroach on the universal jurisdiction of the pope. The monarchy was to become an oligarchy: the bishops in committee were to rule the Church, with the Bishop of Rome as little more than their mouthpiece, a primus inter pares (first among equals).

The councils held at Pisa, Constance and Basel in the early 15th century were convoked for the urgent purpose of ending the Great Schism and restoring order in the Church. They were only in part orthodox and acceptable (oecumenical in the original sense of this much abused word). In other respects they showed a persistent desire to curtail the papal powers in favor of the bishops and to place the authority of a general council above that of the pope. This was the beginning of the trouble now known as "collegiality." Its further historical stages were Gallicanism, Febroianism and Josephinism in France, Germany and Austria respectively.

Gallicanism of course takes it name from the Eldest Daughter of the Church, who was not always as dutiful to her mother as she might have been ("Exhibeamus no Gallos, et non gallinas!"). It had already cropped up in the middle ages in a form more political than dogmatic, appealing to certain alleged privileges of the medieval French bishops and kings which limited the pope's jurisdiction in their favor. The bishops claimed that papal decisions must be confirmed by themselves before they could have force of law in their territory; and the kings denied the pope's right to intervene in temporal matters or to depose temporal rulers. Even in religious matters the French kings showed a chronic tendency to usurp authority, claiming the right to appoint bishops and forbidding publication of papal bulls in France without their consent, But these political tensions were not confined to France.

The more dogmatic phase of Gallicanism began towards the end of the 16th century, with Edmond Richer[2] and his school, and took the form of a sharp struggle against "Ultramontanism" (that is, the centralized authority of Rome) and its champions, the Jesuits, The feud grew more intense under Louis XIV, who persisted in claiming the right to appoint all bishops in his kingdom and to appropriate the revenues of vacant sees. He was opposed with equal vigor by Pope Innocent XI, who refused to confirm his nominations. He proceeded then to summon an Assembly of the French Clergy to issue a Declaration of Gallican Liberties. This they did in 1682, on the lines of a similar declaration in 1663 by the Sorbonne. It was in four articles, to the effect that:

  1. the pope has no divine authority to interfere in temporal affairs,
  2. the authority of a general council is superior to that of the pope,
  3. the ancient liberties of the Gallican Church are to be held sacred, and
  4. papal decisions are not infallible without the consent of the Church. 

This declaration, drawn up by Bishop Bossuet and imposed as a test on all theological schools and graduates, served only to aggravate the dispute with Rome, and it was withdrawn by the king himself in 1693. However it became a kind of charter of Gallican patriotism, and was revived in the Constitution civile du Clerge of 1790—the schismatic, collegial, secularized and short-lived counter-church of the Revolution.[3]. Shortly afterwards it was incorporated in Napoleon's statutes.

Meanwhile the Gallican ideology had been moving into the Low Countries and Germany. The canonist Van Espen was advocating it at Louvain, and his disciple Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, auxiliary bishop of Prier, carried it very much further. Under the pseudonym "Justinus Febronius" he published in 1763 a book On the Constitution of the Church and the Lawful Power of the Roman Pontiff ...towards the Reunion of Christians separated in Religion. It was promptly condemned by Pope Clement XIII, who directed the German bishops to suppress it. But a second edition appeared in 1765, followed by supplementary volumes and translations into modem languages. In fact it was a huge success, answering as it did to the spirit of the age, the age of patriotic nationalism and emancipation all round.

Febronius held that the power of the keys was given to the Church as a whole, which administered it through the bishops, with the pope as their primate, but subordinate to the Church. He is the center of unity, and may propose laws for the Church's acceptance, but has no jurisdiction over it—no monarchical authority, He is not infallible, and cannot make binding decisions without the consent of a general council or the entire episcopate. An oecumenical council is the final court of appeal, and is superior to the pope. All bishops have equal rights and do not receive their power of jurisdiction from the Holy See. This, said Febronius, was the original constitution of the Church, but since the ninth century it has been completely changed, under the influence particularly of the False Decretals. Papal authority has been vastly and unjustly extended at the expense of the bishops. It is now a question of restoring the original order, by a general council, by holding national synods, and by the action of secular rulers in resisting papal decrees.

Although the author was fairly well known, it was not until 1778 that Rome demanded a retraction from him. After much discussion this was given and accepted by Pius VI with some emendation. But Hontheim had not really changed his mind, for he now published a Commentary on his Retractation by way of appeasing his followers, and Febronianism continued to flourish. It found favor with the German prince-bishops (who were in those days more princely than pastoral), and even more favor with the secular rulers, since it paved the way for national churches, amenable to control by the state. The leading archbishop-electors held two conferences, at Coblenz in 1769, and at Ems in 1786, at which they stated their grievances against the Roman Curia, and especially against the "interference" of papal nuncios in German diocesan affairs, calling for redress and reform on Febronian lines. The latter conference drew up, in 23 points, a document known as the Punctuation of Ems; but nothing came of these pronouncements.

The movement had a brief fling in Italy, with the Synod of Pistoia in 1786. This diocesan synod was planned jointly by Scipione de'Ricci, Bishop of Pistoia and Prato, and the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, younger brother of the Emperor Joseph II and a partner of the latter's mania for controlling and reforming the Church. The bishop and the grand duke held similar views—Jansenist, regalist and Febronian—and were equally dictatorial in their methods. The bishop received little support from his clergy and Tuscan colleagues, but made up for that by importing from elsewhere a number of like-minded experts into this synod. With their help he pushed through a comprehensive program of liberal and heterodox edicts, including even the Four Gallican Articles of 1682, and some Jansenist speculations, already condemned by Rome, on grace. Pius VI replied with the bull Auctorem Fidei (1794), condemning in detail 85 propositions of the synod and declaring it null and void. Among these condemned propositions were some attempted reforms of the liturgy: there was to be one altar only in each church, with no relics or flowers; Mass was to be said aloud and in the vernacular (the bishop himself had actually taken to saying it in Italian); and many popular devotions, such as the Sacred Heart and the rosary, were to be suppressed. It rather looks as though the wreckers who were let loose on the Church after Vatican II may have taken their cue from this conciliabulum!

The grand duke had tried to convoke a synod of the whole province to confirm the Pistorian decrees, but the Tuscan bishops would have none of it; and in 1790 he succeeded to the imperial throne on the death of his brother. So the bishop, deprived of his patron, was left out on a limb, and had no choice but to submit and retire from the field.

The Gallican-Febronian campaign to republicanize the Church reached its redllctio ad absurdum in the Josephinism of Joseph II [cf. the article from The Catholic Encyclopedia on the secular-political nature of this error, that later developed into theological error—Ed]. This took place in the decade 1780-1790, while the Terror was brewing in France. Until 1780, Joseph had been co-regent with his pious and conservative mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. Her death removed the restraining influence, and he could now give full rein to his "enlightened despotism." In his remaining ten years he was to make over 60,000 new laws and regulations for Church and state. Like so many of his contemporaries of the Aujklarung, only more so, he was possessed by the idea of a national church, owning no allegiance beyond its political boundaries, and functioning as a department of the state; and he proceeded to reform the Church in this direction, using "Febronius" for his textbook. The result was catastrophic. He imposed on the bishops an oath of allegiance which made them servants of the state, and forbade them to communicate with, or receive faculties from, the Holy See. He likewise forbade the religious orders to communicate with their superiors abroad. He suppressed all the diocesan seminaries and founded new ones independent of the bishops, which he staffed with "liberal" professors. He suppressed all contemplative orders as "useless," disbanding and throwing on the dole about 10,000 monks and nuns, and confiscating their endowments and all other ecclesiastical funds in order to form a central "Church Fund", administered by the state. Not content with these depredations, he reformed the divine services according to his own ideas, making minute regulations about the number of candles and the length and content of sermons, forbidding Benediction with the monstrance and ordering the removal of "superfluous" altars, vestments and images.

Even the extraordinary demarche of a papal visit to Vienna by Pius VI failed to win any respite for the Church, and further aggressions brought the emperor to the verge of excommunication. A few years later the people's patience under these and a similar load of civil reforms came to breaking point. The threat of revolt in Austria and Hungary, and its actual outbreak in Belgium, forced the Josephine juggernaut to a halt, and eventually into reverse. The disenchanted reformer died prematurely in 1790.

This imperial rampage is of course a case of Caesar-opapism[4] rather than collegiality, but it was directly inspired by ill-conceived collegial theories. It was an object-lesson to the Church on the kind of thing she can expect if she yields to the temptation to reform her Divine constitution. The yoke of Christ is sweet and His burden light, to the faithful who will trust and obey Him; but the "liberties" imposed by Caesar are apt to weigh heavy on his subjects. There is no worse tyranny than enforced liberalism. Europe was about to receive an even severer lesson at the forthcoming dawn of "liberty, equality, fraternity"—with the tumbrel and the guillotine.

Ecclesiastical politics were submerged for a while under the horrors and miseries of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. When the Church began to revive, the old heresies too began to show their heads again, and in France, it seems, the majority of the bishops and clergy were (as before) more or less Gallican. The most eminent champion of Roman orthodoxy in that period was the unhappy Felicite de Lamennais, who afterwards went to the opposite extreme of liberal rationalism and republican socialism and left the Church.

Pius IX's long pontificate (1846-1878) was an unremitting struggle against the mental climate of the 19th century—its liberalism, rationalism, socialism and all the cognate heresies. It became increasingly clear that a General Council would be needed to reinforce the supreme authority and prerogatives of the Holy See and to put an end in particular to the Gallican pretensions—just as the Council of Trent had been summoned to recapitulate and reassert the Catholic faith in response to the growing menace of Protestantism.

The Council of the Vatican (Vatican I) therefore assembled in 1869, and was adjourned sine die in the following year because of the occupation of Rome by the hostile forces of Piedmont—but not until it had made these two momentous definitions:

If anyone therefore should say that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of inspecting or directing, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in matters concerning the discipline and rule of the Church throughout the world; or that he has merely the principal part and not the full plenitude of this supreme power; or that his power is not ordinary and immediate, whether over each and all the churches, or over each and all the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema. (De Ecclesia Christi, can. 3.)

We, therefore, adhering faithfully to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and the salvation of the Christian people, teach and define, as a divinely revealed dogma, that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, discharging his office as pastor of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he then, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, enjoys that infallibility by which the divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed when defining a doctrine of faith or morals; and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church. Wherefore, if anyone should presume to contradict—which God forbid—let him be anathema." (De Romani Pontificis infallibili magisterio, cap. 4, can. 4.)

There had been no lack of opposition, inside and outside the Council, especially to the definition of papal infallibility, which many otherwise faithful Catholics regarded as "inopportune." But once the definition was made, loyalty and good sense prevailed and opposition ceased—except only for the partisans of Dollinger in Germany, who left the Church and organized themselves as the Old Catholic sect.

Vatican I marked the end of Gallicanism as such, which henceforth could only be seen as a condemned heresy, In fact, what remained of it was eventually absorbed into Modernism, that dustbin of all heresies.

The Church now embarked on a remarkable run of well-being and prestige, under the guidance of a series of wise and devoted popes, from Pius IX to Pius XII. There was an attack of Modernism around the turn of the century, but it was routed and driven underground by the resolute action of St. Pius X. There it remained until the day when a fateful opportunity and a monstrous conspiracy would deliver the whole structure of the Church into Modernist hands.

There were two occasions during this period when a further General Council, to complete the interrupted agenda of Vatican I, was proposed and discussed. At a consistory held on May 23, 1923 Pope Pius XI consulted a number of cardinals (including Cardinals Merry del Val, Gasparri and Billot) on the desirability of calling a General Council. The cardinals were solidly against the proposal, and gave their reasons. Among these was the existence of modernist views, among some of the bishops and clergy, which might lead them to introduce motions and methods adverse to Catholic tradition. Some warned against a prevalent "mania for innovation," others against the danger that certain bishops would claim for themselves rights which would undermine papal authority under the pretext that Rome was "centralizing" too much. Cardinal Billot in particular feared that the council would be "maneuvered by the Church's worst enemies, the modernists," who were already preparing a revolution in the Church, "a new 1789." Cardinal Merry del Val added a warning against the new peril of journalists, penetrating and spying everywhere, who would certainly cause trouble and dissension within the council itself. In any case, was there any need to summon a council, at vast expense and inconvenience, given the definition of papal infallibility, the recent Code of Canon Law [1917], and the dogmatic encyclicals of recent popes? What advantages might be expected from a council could be obtained, at much less risk, without a council.[5].

These considerations caused the proposal to be abandoned. It was revived again in 1948, under Pius XII, with a similar result after three years of preliminary study, the preparatory commissions having failed to agree on the agenda and the logistics for an assembly of 2,000 or more Council Fathers. The overriding consideration for deciding once more against a council may well have been the serious danger to the Church involved in summoning a general council which was not absolutely necessary for dealing with some definite grave and urgent crisis: the traditional view saw this as a kind of challenge to divine providence. But those days of wisdom and prudence were soon to run out.

Pope John [XXIII], it appears, had no such inhibitions. The idea of a council came to him as a brainwave—and not for the purpose of expounding the Church's doctrine, but for that of ingratiating the Church with the modern world and the separated brethren. He took it as a divine inspiration and, without consulting anyone, announced to a group of cardinals at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura on January 25, 1959, that he was going to call a General Council. The cardinals, flabbergasted, received the bombshell in silence. Nor can they have been less perturbed to hear that the Council would be an aggiornamento or "updating" of the Church, and would be "ecumenical" and "pastoral" rather than dogmatic. Some of them at least may have had a foreboding of coming perils.

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1 Collegiality is dealt with in ch. iii. of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium] and in the Prefatory Note appended to this chapter as a guide to its interpretation. Information on the discussions in the CounciI on the subject of Collegiality may be found in Fr. R. M. Wiltgen's book, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber (Hawthorn Books, Augustine Publishing Co. [USA], 1967 Devon [Great Britain], 1978), especially pp. 114-8 and 228-34 of the British edition. An excellent theological study of the subject will be found in Fr. Raymond Dulac: La Collegialite Episcopale Deuxieme Concile du Vatican (Editions du Cedre, Paris, 1979).

2 Libellus de ecclesiastica et politica potestate, 1611.

3 Cf. Dulac, op. cit. pp, 133.141.

4 I.e., the usurpation of Church authority by secular rulers. The Eastern Church had suffered much of this from the Byzantine emperors, and the West had it intermittently in the medieval conflicts over investiture. It reappeared in Russia under the tsars, and again in the Protestant Reformation (cuius regio, eius religio). England had a violent form under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and subsequently settled for the milder degree known as Erastianism.

5 Cf. Fr Dulac, op. cit. pp. 9-12. For further details he refers to Caprile: Ii Concilio Vaticano II, vols. I and V. Civilta Cattolica, Rome, remarking that these half-forgotten records were like reading a history of Vatican II written forty years before the event!