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In Defense of the Moderate Position on Papal Jurisdiction: John Lamont Replies to José Ureta

In Defense of the Moderate Position on Papal Jurisdiction: John Lamont Replies to José Ureta

In Defense of the Moderate Position on Papal Jurisdiction: A Reply to José Ureta
John Lamont

My article “On the Papal Deposition of Bishops,” published at Rorate Caeli, was occasioned by Mr. José A. Ureta’s article at OnePeterFive, “Why a Good Bishop Should Not Ignore but Obey his Unjust Deposition by the Pope.” There, Ureta advanced an historically standard view among Catholic theologians to the effect that because all bishops receive their jurisdiction immediately from the pope, they can be removed from their diocese at the will of the pope, regardless of the justice of this removal. His argument was a topical one, because it was applied by him to Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who was first asked to resign from his diocese by Pope Francis and then, having refused to do so, was removed from the diocese without a just cause. I had argued that this theological position was wrong in itself and was no longer an option for Catholic theologians, because of its rejection by the Second Vatican Council. Mr Ureta endeavored to refute me in two responses, also published at Rorate Caeli (here and here).

Because of the importance of the subject, an answer to Mr. Ureta seems to be called for. At the same time, many of the arguments he advances in his response are in fact addressed in my original article; when this is the case, the reader is best advised to compare this article and Mr. Ureta’s response and decide for himself. This answer will limit itself to new questions that arise from Mr. Ureta’s response, while referring the reader to the original article to complete the exposition of the position being argued for here. The reader may find some of the necessary but detailed rebuttals of Mr. Ureta’s claims to be less than enthralling, but it is hoped that some substantial contribution to this important issue will be achieved.
There is an initial point to be made about Mr. Ureta’s position. He states, “The core of the controversy is whether the pope has the power to dismiss from his diocese a bishop who has committed no severe misconduct and absent some proportionate reason that makes it necessary. The issue is not whether an arbitrary removal is licit—it is not—but whether it is valid.” In distinguishing between a valid act of dismissal and a licit act of dismissal, Mr. Ureta follows Palmieri, the Jesuit theologian whom I cited as a representative of the strong view of papal jurisdiction that I oppose.

The distinction between a valid act and a licit act makes sense when applied to exercises of the power of order. For example, a sacrament such as the Eucharist can be celebrated licitly but not validly.    The distinction does not however apply to exercises of the power of jurisdiction. The power of jurisdiction just is a power to give legally binding orders or permissions. Its object is the law and what is governed by the law. The distinction between valid acts and licit acts thus has no application when it comes to exercise of the power of jurisdiction. If the exercise of such a power is valid, then it is licit.

One might reply that a papal act of jurisdiction is valid but illicit when it contradicts existing canon law. But either the pope has the authority to override existing canon law in his actions, or he does not. In the former case, his overriding of canon law is licit, because it is an exercise of legitimate authority. In the latter case, it is not licit and hence has no force. In neither case is it licit but not valid. This is not however a final objection to Mr. Ureta’s position, because the strong view of papal jurisdiction can be stated and defended without having recourse to this distinction between valid and licit acts of jurisdiction.

Palmieri and Vitoria as advocates of the strong and moderate view of papal jurisdiction

There is a certain unclarity in Mr. Ureta’s exposition of the position that he defends. He asserts that I have misrepresented the thought of Domenico Palmieri S.J., whom I discuss as giving a complete and accurate presentation of the strong view of papal jurisdiction. He states:

It is enough to quote his [viz., Palmieri’s] own words to prove that Palmieri upholds the narrow interpretation that Dr. Lamont subscribes to and calls the “moderate view of papal jurisdiction”:
       “The [pope’s] plenitude of power that is being discussed is not absolute, but is relative to the society that is ruled; it is plenitude of power in a polity and for a polity. To give clarity, we can say that it can be understood in two ways: only positively, or exclusively. It is understood in a positive sense only, if the supreme ruler can by his ordinary legal authority perform everything that is useful and necessary for the entire polity and every one of its subjects, although there are subordinate powers together with him and under him, that exercise authority that is not derived from him. It is understood in an exclusive sense, if the supreme ruler’s authority is such that every power in the polity is either his own power, or is derived from his own power in such a way that the supreme power either formally or virtually contains every other power by which the polity is ruled. Such is the power of absolute monarchy in a political society. It is easy to show that the plenitude of power belongs to the Roman Pontiff in the first sense.
       What Dr. Lamont calls the “strong view,” Domenico Palmieri calls the “exclusive sense,” which he rejects; and what Dr. Lamont calls the “moderate view,” Palmieri calls the “positive sense,” the restricted sense he defends. Therefore, it is absolutely inappropriate to classify it as a “best case for the strong view.”

But what Palmieri means when he says that “it is easy to show that the plenitude of power belongs to the Roman Pontiff in the first sense,” is that it is easy to show that the plenitude of power belongs to the Roman Pontiff in at least the first sense; that is, that the Roman Pontiff can easily be seen to have at least the amount of power that is attributed to him in the first sense. What is more difficult, according to Palmieri’s account, is to determine if the Roman Pontiff has not only the amount of power attributed to him in the first, restricted sense, but also the amount of power attributed to him in the exclusive sense. Palmieri holds and argues that the Roman Pontiff does have the power attributed to him in the exclusive sense, the power of absolute monarchy in a political society. This appears from the text of Palmieri’s that follows on from the citation from Palmieri given by Mr. Ureta above, a text that for ease of reference is reproduced here:

It is easy to show that the plenitude of power belongs to the Roman Pontiff in the first sense. This supreme power requires the following characteristics: it requires the power given by the ordinary process of law to do everything required for the ruling of a society, whether in making laws, establishing courts, or coercively enforcing the law; and there must be nothing that can be legitimately done against its will, so that all other power in the society depends directly on it ... Such is the power of the Roman Pontiff in the Church….
       But the greatest difficulty arises with respect to another conception of the plenitude of power. This comes down to the question of whether the jurisdiction of a bishop in his diocese comes immediately from Christ, or whether it comes from Christ mediately through the Roman Pontiff, that is, immediately from the Roman Pontiff. No-one denies that this power is from Christ, since all power in the Church is from Him, or that it is immediately from God in that God acts immediately in and with the action of all other causes. The question is of the immediate principle of this power—a power that is immediate in that any second cause between the first and principal cause and its effect is excluded.
       There are some who suppose that the ordinary jurisdiction of bishops is received immediately from Christ. They use the arguments given above, by which we demonstrated the divine institution of the episcopate. They generally explain the immediate derivation of power from Christ by Christ’s conferring this power in episcopal ordination itself, but however in first act only, and bound as to its exercise and not reduced to second act unless the Supreme Pontiff, confirming the bishop, assigns to him a territory and subjects. They believe that in this way the subordination of the bishops to the Roman Pontiff remains secure, for even if it is allowed that both pope and bishop receive their jurisdiction immediately from God, the bishop is still subject to the power of the Roman Pontiff; it is not necessary that every jurisdiction proceeding immediately from God be independent. As against this view, many others think that although Christ instituted the episcopate willing that His Church be ruled by bishops, ordinary jurisdiction is conferred by the Pope on individual bishops, in such a way that before this bestowal by the Pope in no way, even in first act, does the bishop possess jurisdiction in virtue of his ordination. The ordination of a bishop only gives him the aptitude to receive jurisdiction, in virtue of Christ’s institution.
       In the first hypothesis, it is asserted that the Roman Pontiff cannot licitly and validly remove or restrict the jurisdiction of a bishop without just cause: once the condition of the Roman Pontiff having assigned subjects to a bishop is satisfied, the jurisdiction received by bishops is given by God, for it is this jurisdiction of divine origin that is exercised. The Roman Pontiff may indeed regulate and modify this jurisdiction for reasons derived from just causes. He can even in certain cases declare that this jurisdiction has been lost, in virtue of his right to interpret divine law. He cannot however directly remove jurisdiction from a bishop, because this jurisdiction does not exist in its subject through him, but by divine law; and divine law takes precedence over papal authority.
       In the second hypothesis, the Pope cannot indeed licitly remove a bishop without cause, but he can certainly validly do this, and his act will have force on its own; a bishop in this situation cannot claim jurisdiction for himself on the pretext that there is no just cause for his removal. It is apparent from what has already been stated that this is not a question of words, as will become more clear further on: it touches on the nature of the papal primacy and the whole economy of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of the bishop in his diocese is the question that is now being considered—the question of the jurisdiction held in ecumenical councils over the whole Church will be considered later in its proper place. The question under consideration is currently a subject of discussion among Catholic theologians….
       III. We therefore maintain that the plenitude of power of the Roman Pontiff in the Church is such that all power by which the Church is ruled either formally or virtually is included in it, and therefore that it is the immediate source from which the jurisdiction of bishops is derived.[1]

Mr. Ureta’s mistaken characterisation of Palmieri’s thesis makes his own position unclear. Is he advocating the positive, restricted sense of papal power that he attributes to Palmieri, but that Palmieri in fact rejects? This is incompatible with his defence of the papal right to remove bishops at will, a supposed right that, as Palmieri states above, depends on rejecting the positive sense of papal power and accepting what Palmieri terms the exclusive sense.

The consensus of all Catholic theologians is that the existence of a papal right to remove bishops at will depends on the claim that “the plenitude of power of the Roman Pontiff in the Church is such that all power by which the Church is ruled either formally or virtually is included in it,” as Palmieri states. This understanding of papal power is the reason that is given for this supposed papal right to remove bishops, so there is no point in addressing the question of whether or not this supposed papal right can exist if the restricted—or, as I term it, the moderate—view of papal power is correct. Since the main goal of Mr. Ureta’s argument is to defend the existence of this right, it will be assumed that given the choice between renouncing the existence of this right and accepting the exclusive sense of papal power, he would accept the exclusive sense—or the strong view, as I term it—of papal power.

Mr. Ureta points out that Palmieri maintains the following:

It is false that according to our position the bishops are the vicars of the pope. For bishops do not exist in the Church in right of papal authority, but in right of the authority of Christ, and the pope cannot abolish the episcopal dignity and authority; furthermore, the power and tribunal of the pope and of bishops are two different things, because Christ willed that besides the chair of Peter there should also be an episcopal chair. Nor are the bishops delegates of the pope, because they possess an ordinary jurisdiction through the power of the office that Christ has instituted. The bishops rule their flock as their own, for by Christ’s institution they must be pastors of a portion of the sheep, over which they exercise the power of binding and loosing. And although the Roman pontiff may remove jurisdiction from any and all, he is nonetheless bound to ensure that other bishops exist, in order that there may always be bishops in the Church; for he may not abolish episcopal authority itself.

I had characterised this passage as evasive, an evaluation that Mr. Ureta disputes.

Palmieri is required to hold the assertions made in this passage, because they are the teaching of the Council of Trent. The passage is however an incomplete description of the teachings of that Council on the episcopate. As I pointed out in the original article, Palmieri’s assertion that “bishops do not exist in the Church in right of papal authority, but in right of the authority of Christ” evades the difficulty that the conciliar teachings raise for his position. The Council of Trent states not only that the episcopal order exists in right of the authority of Christ, as Palmieri says, but also that the individual bishop of a diocese has by divine right a power of jurisdiction over his diocese that is conferred on him by the Holy Spirit, and that he is one of the successors of the apostles. It is difficult to see how this can be reconciled with Palmieri’s view that all power by which the Church is ruled is either formally or virtually included in the papal power of jurisdiction. Power that is virtually included in the papal power is power that is present in the papal power as the effect is present in the cause. How can a bishop have ordinary jurisdiction by divine right if his jurisdiction is the effect of the papal power, granted to him by the pope when he is given a canonical mission? Palmieri does not address this obvious difficulty.

Palmieri also holds that “ordinary jurisdiction is conferred by the Pope on individual bishops, in such a way that before this bestowal by the Pope in no way, even in first act, does the bishop possess jurisdiction in virtue of his ordination. The ordination of a bishop only gives him the aptitude to receive jurisdiction, in virtue of Christ’s institution.” A standard argument for the strong view of papal jurisdiction, made by Palmieri among others, is that men can and have received and exercised episcopal jurisdiction prior to their ordination as bishops; and since episcopal ordination is not necessary for the possession or exercise of episcopal jurisdiction, such jurisdiction cannot be conferred in any form by episcopal ordination. But if the ordination of a bishop only gives him the aptitude to receive jurisdiction, and this same aptitude exists in men who are not bishops—since such men can be given episcopal jurisdiction—then what is the connection between episcopal ordination and jurisdiction? This entails that there can be no intrinsic connection between jurisdiction and the episcopal character. But since the episcopal character makes its bearer one of the successors of the apostles, this consequence is absurd.

Mr. Ureta raises some questions about my describing the strong view of papal power as attributing the whole of the power of jurisdiction to the pope. For clarity, I will specify that when I talk about the pope having the whole of the power of jurisdiction, I mean that all power by which the Church is ruled is either formally or virtually included in the papal power of jurisdiction, as Palmieri states.

Mr. Ureta asserts that I mistranslate a passage from the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, when I render the passage thus: “Others think, with St. Thomas, that the jurisdiction of bishops is directly connected to that of the vicar of Christ, to whom not only a portion but the whole of ecclesiastical power has been granted.” He claims that the original French phrase, “la plénitude du pouvoir ecclésiastique” should be translated as “the fullness of ecclesiastical power,” not as “the whole of ecclesiastical power.” The complete passage is as follows, with the disputed phrase underlined:

En effet, l’origine divine de la juridiction épiscopale est-elle immédiate, ou seulement médiate, de sorte que, s’appuyant sur le droit divin, elle découle immédiatement du souverain pontife? La question est controversée entre catholiques, comme on peut le voir dans Bellarmin, De romano pontifice, 1. IV, c. XXII sq. Les uns soutiennent que la juridiction est conférée immédiatement par le Christ aux évêques dans l’acte même de la consécration épiscopale, quoique cette juridiction reste liée, quant à son exercice, jusqu’à ce que le souverain pontife ait assigné au nouvel évêque un territoire et des sujets. Parmi les théologiens qui défendent cette opinion, il faut citer, d’après Bouix, De episcopo, Paris, 1873, part. I, p. 61, François de Victoria, Alphonse de Castro, Vasquez, Tournely. D’autres pensent plus communément, avec saint Thomas, Sum. theol., IIa IIae, q. xxxix, a. 3; Contra gentes, l. IV, c. 76; Suarez, De legibus, l. I, n. 12 seq.; Defensio fidei, l. IV, c. ix; Benoît XIV, De synodo dioecesana, l. I, c. iv, n. 2, que la juridiction des évêques se rattache immédiatement à celle du vicaire du Christ, auquel a été confiée non seulement une portion, mais la plénitude du pouvoir ecclésiastique. Cf. const. Pastor aeternus du concile du Vatican, c. III.[2]

A translation of this passage was given in my article, omitting some of the references in the original. With the references restored, it runs:

Is the divine origin of episcopal jurisdiction immediate or only mediate, so that, while resting upon divine law, it flows immediately from the sovereign pontiff? The question is a subject of controversy among Catholics, as can be seen in Bellarmine, De romano pontifice, 1. IV, c. XXII sq. Some maintain that jurisdiction is conferred immediately by Christ on bishops in the very act of episcopal consecration, although the exercise of this jurisdiction is bound until the sovereign pontiff assigns a territory and subjects to the new bishop. Among the theologians who defend this opinion, we can cite, (following Bouix, De episcopo, Paris, 1873, part. I, p. 61), François de Victoria, Alphonse de Castro, Vasquez, Tournely. More commonly, others think, with St. Thomas, Sum. theol., IIa IIae, q. xxxix, a. 3; Contra gentes, l. IV, c. 76; Suarez, De legibus, l. I, n. 12 seq.; Defensio fidei, l. IV, c. ix; Benoît XIV, De synodo dioecesana, l. I, c. iv, n. 2, that the jurisdiction of bishops is directly connected to that of the vicar of Christ, to whom not only a portion but the whole of ecclesiastical power has been granted. Cf. the First Vatican Council, constitution Pastor aeternus, ch. III.

In this passage, the term “plénitude du pouvoir ecclésiastique,” which I translated as “the whole of ecclesiastical power,” is applied to the understanding of papal jurisdiction held by theologians who espouse the strong view of papal power. Since the strong view asserts that the pope does indeed have the whole of the papal power of jurisdiction, at least in the sense given above of including either formally or virtually all the power by which the Church is ruled, this translation does not give a misleading account of the French text. 

Valton’s use of the term “plénitude du pouvoir ecclésiastique” in the passage is somewhat disingenuous. The reference to the constitution Pastor aeternus that immediately follows it gives the impression that the term “plenitudo potestatis,” “plenitude of power/plénitude du pouvoir,” which is applied in that constitution to the papal power of jurisdiction, was meant in the sense of the strong view of papal jurisdiction. But this is false. Palmieri’s discussion above indicates that plenitude of power can be understood in more than one sense. As was pointed out in my original article, Palmieri and Valton himself, writing after the First Vatican Council, both acknowledge that the dispute between the strong view of papal jurisdiction and the moderate view of papal jurisdiction is an open question for Catholic theologians, and hence that the Council did not attribute the plenitude of power to the pope in the sense understood by the strong view.

Mr. Ureta asserts that I misrepresent the thought of Vitoria on papal jurisdiction:

Furthermore, at the end of the passage from Relatione II, quoted by Dr. Lamont, Vitoria says, “It was said to Peter, ‘Feed my sheep,’ with no limitations or exceptions. Therefore all direction pertains to Peter without any exception, and in consequence even the creation of bishops falls under his power.” He continues: “From this the corollary clearly follows that one cannot now become a bishop except according to the forms laid down by the supreme pontiff, and that if anyone attempts to do otherwise, nothing will result; such an attempt will be null and void. I state this however about the authority of jurisdiction, for what pertains to consecration is different. Secondly, it follows that all ecclesiastical power, whether of orders or of jurisdiction, depends mediately or immediately on the see of Peter.”
       In this paragraph, Vitoria clearly distinguishes between the power of order (granted directly by Christ), whose transmission without a license from the pope renders it illicit but not invalid, and the power of jurisdiction, whose transmission without a canonical mission granted or recognized by the pope renders it null and legally invalid.

This flatly contradicts Vitoria’s text. Vitoria states that the apostles had the power to name bishops to succeed them, and that those bishops themselves had the power to name their own successors. In the passages that immediately precede the one quoted by Mr. Ureta above, Vitoria asserts:

Second proposition. Any of the apostles aside from Peter could leave a successor, not a universal one, but in any province that he wished, who would be the true bishop of that province. I know that this proposition will not please all the doctors, both theologians and canonists, and that it does not please the Cardinals Torquemada and Cajetan themselves. For all of them were once seized by the conviction that all power of jurisdiction so depends on the Roman Pontiff that no-one can possess the most minimal spiritual power save by the command or law of that Pontiff: no-one, that is, after the apostles, who by a unique privilege had spiritual power granted to them by Christ, which no-one else can receive save from Peter….
       Third proposition. Not only the Apostles could leave successors, but any of their successors could similarly do so….
       Last proposition. Any bishop, even without consulting the see of Peter, can establish a law stating that priests elect the bishop, or that bishops are instituted by some other form. This follows from the other points already made; the bishop can make appropriate laws for his province on this subject, as on others. This is the reason why the authority and dignity of a bishop can be derived successively from one bishop to the next until it reaches us, and through the bishop all other inferior power.[3]

Here Vitoria states that the bishops who succeeded the apostles could and did name their successors on their own authority, without having recourse to the pope. This is a rejection of the strong view of papal jurisdiction, since it asserts that episcopal jurisdiction can and has existed without having been  received from the pope. Vitoria holds that the power of episcopal jurisdiction is received directly from God, citing Ephesians 4 to this effect. That is why Vitoria has always been cited by Catholic theologians as an opponent of the strong view of papal jurisdiction, as appears from the mention of him in the excerpt from the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique given above.

Vitoria allows that because of his supreme authority, the pope can establish other regulations for the appointment of bishops, and that any appointment of bishops to a see that violates these regulations will be null and void. The pope can therefore require bishops to have a canonical mission from himself prior to their appointment to a see. But this requirement follows from positive legislation that can be abolished, and that did not always exist. The pope has also always had ex officio the capacity to remove bishops from office by withdrawing from communion from them. This is the dependence of bishops on the pope that Vitoria refers to.

Mr. Ureta’s mischaracterisation of Vitoria may be derived from his conviction that rejection of the strong view of papal jurisdiction is derived from “proposals based on claims and theories developed by neo-modernist theologians from before and after the Second Vatican Council.” I know of no instance of neo-modernist theologians arguing for the moderate view of papal jurisdiction that Vitoria accepts. It is scarcely neo-modernist to assert that a pope needs to have some valid legal justification for removing a bishop from his diocese, which is the issue at the centre of this debate. This attribution of neomodernism would seem to originate in a tendency, formerly very prevalent, to identify orthodoxy with the greatest possible exaltation of the powers of the pope. One would have thought that Pope Francis (or even Pope John Paul II, or Pope Paul VI) would have cured Catholics of this tendency.

Magisterial teaching on papal jurisdiction

Mr. Ureta reproaches me with failing to give sufficient weight to the teaching of Pius XII in Mystici Corporis on papal jurisdiction. He cites the encyclical Humani Generis of Pius XII to justify this reproach:

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in encyclical letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such letters the popes do not exercise the supreme power of their teaching authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me” (Luke 10:16); and generally what is expounded and inculcated in encyclical letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the supreme pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

However, Mr, Ureta inconsistently fails to apply the contents of this passage to the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, which I cite in support of my view. Lumen Gentium is an official document in which the supreme pontiff passes judgment on theological questions. It is signed by the pope and by the bishops of the Catholic Church assembled in an ecumenical council.

Mr. Ureta appeals to the appendix to Lumen Gentium to justify his claim that its teachings are not authoritative. The appendix states:

A question has arisen regarding the precise theological note which should be attached to the doctrine that is set forth in the Schema de Ecclesia and is being put to a vote.
       The Theological Commission has given the following response regarding the Modi that have to do with Chapter III of the de Ecclesia Schema: “As is self-evident, the Council’s text must always be interpreted in accordance with the general rules that are known to all.”
       On this occasion the Theological Commission makes reference to its Declaration of March 6, 1964, the text of which we transcribe here:
       “Taking conciliar custom into consideration and also the pastoral purpose of the present Council, the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding. The rest of the things which the sacred Council sets forth, inasmuch as they are the teaching of the Church’s supreme magisterium, ought to be accepted and embraced by each and every one of Christ’s faithful according to the mind of the sacred Council. The mind of the Council becomes known either from the matter treated or from its manner of speaking, in accordance with the norms of theological interpretation.”

Mr. Ureta argues that Lumen Gentium did not intend to bind the Church to believe its contents:

The manner of speaking of the First Vatican Council’s constitutions Dei Filius and Aeterni Patris clearly expresses the will to define and concludes with anathemas for those who deny its teachings. For example, the chapter on the primacy of the pope begins by saying “We teach and declare that…” It continues by saying “We promulgate anew the definition of the ecumenical Council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians.” And it concludes by saying, “Therefore, we condemn and reject the opinions of those who hold that…” And, further, “So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours; let him be anathema.”
       Absolutely none of this can be found in Lumen Gentium’s manner of speaking or any other document of Vatican II. Furthermore, at the close of Vatican II, Paul VI explicitly declared that in the Council, “the teaching authority of the Church ... [did] not [wish] to issue extraordinary dogmatic pronouncements.”

All that this contrast with Dei Filius and Aeterni Patris establishes is that Lumen Gentium did not solemnly define any dogmas and anathemize as heretical those who do not accept them. But binding magisterial pronouncements are not limited to extraordinary dogmatic pronouncements, as the passage from Humani generis cited above asserts. The norms of theological interpretation must be used to determine whether Lumen Gentium binds the Church to believe its teachings on episcopal jurisdiction.

One of these norms is that the teaching of an ecumenical council is the highest form of magisterial teaching, and that a dogmatic constitution belongs to the most authoritative level of document issued by an ecumenical council. It is not the most authoritative kind of pronouncement of an ecumenical council; canons or other formulas giving definitions of the faith are more authoritative, becasue their entire content is infallibly true and must be accepted with the assent of faith. Some parts of a dogmatic constitution, if suitably formulated, may also demand the assent of faith, but the entire constitution does not require this assent. Nonetheless the clear teaching of a dogmatic constitution of an ecumenical council concerning a matter of faith and morals is to be accepted by Catholics as final and binding. This is a straightforward rule of theological science. It is incorrect to say, as Mr. Ureta does, that a document’s title is not enough to express the intention of teaching Catholic dogma in an authoritative fashion. The title of a document issued by an ecumenical council does express this intention. What else would the term “dogmatic constitution” mean, when applied to a document of an ecumenical council whose professed aim was to expound the nature of the Church of Christ?

Compare the text of Lumen Gentium on this subject to the text of Mystici Corporis that is cited to justify the strong view of papal jurisdiction. The relevant text of Mystici Corporis is underlined below:

41. They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it.
42. What we have thus far said of the Universal Church must be understood also of the individual Christian communities, whether Oriental or Latin, which go to makeup the one Catholic Church. For they, too, are ruled by Jesus Christ through the voice of their respective Bishops. Consequently, Bishops must be considered as the more illustrious members of the Universal Church, for they are united by a very special bond to the divine Head of the whole Body and so are rightly called “principal parts of the members of the Lord;” moreover, as far as his own diocese is concerned, each one as a true Shepherd feeds the flock entrusted to him and rules it in the name of Christ. Yet in exercising this office they are not altogether independent, but are subordinate to the lawful authority of the Roman Pontiff, although enjoying the ordinary power of jurisdiction which they receive directly from the same Supreme Pontiff. Therefore, Bishops should be revered by the faithful as divinely appointed successors of the Apostles (cf. Cod. Iur. Can., can. 329, 1), and to them, even more than to the highest civil authorities should be applied the words: “Touch not my anointed one!”

The italicized text is inserted into a passage that teaches that neither individual Christians nor bishops can accept Christ as the Head of the Church while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth, and that bishops are subordinate to the lawful authority of the pope. The object of the passage is to teach this Catholic doctrine. The phrase about the reception of the power of jurisdiction from the Pope is not even given as a reason for this teaching. It is included simply as an aside. It cannot reasonably be understood as having the intention or the effect of settling the long-standing dispute among Catholic theologians about the origin of episcopal jurisdiction. Papal statements intended to settle important and centuries-old theological disputes do not and cannot do so by adding a subordinate phrase to a text that deals with a different subject-matter. They must clearly state the resolution to such debates and clearly state that Catholics are bound to hold this resolution. This follows from the character of magisterial teaching as being, among other things, a legally binding norm for belief and utterance. In order for a legal norm to come into force, it must be manifestly promulgated; this is a basic principle of Catholic law. Manifest promulgation requires a clear and explicit statement of what must be believed and the obligation to believe it. It cannot be done by a subordinate phrase. Papal encyclicals are not divinely inspired documents whose every assertion is guaranteed to be true and must be believed by Catholics. The statement of Mystici Corporis on the reception of episcopal jurisdiction can have only the most minimal degree of authority, and is more reasonably believed to have no authority at all.

The strong view of papal jurisdiction is expressed more clearly and at greater length by Pius XII in the encyclicals Ad Sinarum Gentem (1954), and Ad Apostolorum Principis (1958), addressed to the Catholic bishops and people of China. But these encyclicals cannot be understood as binding Catholics to accept this position, because a binding teaching on this subject would have to be addressed to the universal Church. This is why I stated in my original article that the statements of Mystici Corporis, Ad Sinarum Gentem and Ad Apostolorum Principis on the subject of papal jurisdiction were improper and irresponsible uses of the papal teaching office. They give the impression to the uninitiated of settling a theological debate and making a binding pronouncement, while not in reality doing so.

Mr. Ureta criticises my remark that “one may speculate that these passages [sc. the passages supporting the strong view of papal jurisdiction] were included in the texts of these encyclicals by drafters at the Holy Office (of which Cardinal Ottaviani was the head at the time) in order to further the cause of a theological opinion that they accepted.” He observes:

Regrettably, in attributing this passage from Mystici Corporis to Cardinal Ottaviani or his staffDr. Lamont failed to check dates and made a historical error. The encyclical was published in 1943, but Cardinal Ottaviani was only appointed secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office—of which the pope was the prefect—in 1959, sixteen years later.

I cite as an authority for my remark Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, who was familiar with the workings of the Holy Office. Msgr. Fenton states:

It was Pope John XXIII who appointed Cardinal Ottaviani to the position of Secretary of the Holy Office. It is important to remember, however, that the Cardinal has been the effective head of this most influential of the Roman Congregations since 1935, when he was appointed Assessor of the Holy Office, after having served with great distinction as the Substitute Secretary of State.[4]

I do not suggest that Cardinal Ottaviani introduced the strong view of papal jurisdiction into Mystici Corporis contrary to the will or belief of Pius XII, but that he introduced or caused to be introduced an inconspicuous mention of this view into the encyclical, with the intention of later being able to cite the passage as a definitive decison on the topic. Pius XII was a cautious man who tried to make reasonable accommodations to progressive opinion in the Church. It was most unlikely that he would have agreed to issue a clear and binding teaching requiring Catholics to accept the strong view of papal jurisdiction. That would not however prevent him from accepting the inclusion of an insinuation of this view in his encyclicals; he may not have given much thought to the matter when presented with a proposed draft.

Mr. Ureta objects that there was great resistance at the Second Vatican Council to the proposed teaching on the episcopate. We must however distinguish between two positions that faced opposition. One position was the assertion that the bishops shared in supreme power over the Church. Albert Kallio O.P., in a valuable study mentioned by Mr. Ureta, cites the objections of Cardinal Michael Browne to this proposal:

A certain habitual participation in the supreme and full authority to govern the universal Church is attributed to the college of bishops, even though its exercise is said to depend on the Roman Pontiff who, as Vicar of Christ, already possesses full and supreme power in himself. This limitation with regard to the right to exercise it, although legally sufficient to save the fullness of the authority of the Roman Pontiff, does not, however, save it purely and simply (simpliciter) since the supreme authority to govern the universal Church, although under another title, namely by the right of collegiality, is also possessed by the body of bishops together with the Roman Pontiff, its head. Since this participation should be given by divine right, the Roman Pontiff would be obliged in all acts of his government to consult the thought and will of the whole episcopate, and this not only as a college of his brothers and counselors, but as participants with him in the supreme authority to govern the whole Church. We are thus in the position whereby the Roman Pontiff would have the greater share in the government of the universal Church, but not the fullness of this authority.[5]

Cardinal Brown plausibly objected that this position violated the solemn definition of the First Vatican Council, which pronounced anathema on anyone who asserted that the pope has “only the greater part but not the entire fullness of supreme authority” in the Church. It is clear that it would severely limit papal power. This was the position that attracted the strongest opposition, as being a complete theological novelty and as contradicting the teaching of previous councils.

The other position was the question being addressed here, which is that of the origin of episcopal jurisdiction. This is concerned with the source and nature of the power of bishops over their own dioceses, not with the existence of some kind of participation by the bishops in the supreme government of the universal Church. It is the position of a well established school in the Church. It is not clear that it limits papal power in any way at all. A ruler’s authority is not limited by the requirement to follow natural and divine law, which is the requirement that the moderate view of papal jurisdiction imposes on the pope when dealing with bishops. Ruling authority is partially constituted by this requirement.

Two objections were raised to the text asserting that episcopal jurisdiction is conferred in consecration. The first was that it contradicts the texts of Pope Pius XII cited above. This objection has been addressed above.

The second objection was that the Church had for centuries considered that acts of jurisdiction by men appointed to a diocese, or elected to the papacy, were valid from the time of their appointment, even if they had not yet been consecrated as bishops. The case of the validity of the acts of jurisdiction of men who had been elected as pope but not yet consecrated as bishops does not cast light on our question, because it cannot be supposed that such men received their jurisdiction from the pope. It is a separate question, which seems only soluble by postulating that Christ supplies jurisdiction to the man elected pope prior to his consecration as bishop. In my original article, I addressed the question of men who exercised episcopal jurisdiction prior to their consecration as bishops by postulating jurisdiction supplied by the Church in such cases. Mr. Ureta objects to this proposal:

Dr. Lamont…confidently suggests an alternative: “This jurisdiction can be explained as papal jurisdiction supplied to its possessor, which is replaced by properly episcopal jurisdiction when its possessor is consecrated.” But in this hypothesis, the transitory jurisdiction would not be properly episcopal. It would not be ordinary but pontifically delegated, like that of any apostolic delegate or apostolic administrator. We would then have to conclude that many of the successive prelates who have governed some of the most important dioceses in Europe should be removed from the annals because they would not have been real bishops. For example, many bishops in the dioceses of the Holy Empire’s Prince-Bishops remained simple tonsured clerics until the end of their lives and obtained from the Holy See the appointment of a “chor bishop” (a kind of auxiliary bishop) to carry out on their behalf all activities required by the episcopal munus sanctificandi they did not possess.

I agree that on this hypothesis the transitory jurisdiction would not be properly episcopal, but delegated (which may not imply that the delegated jurisdiction is in any way less extensive than properly episcopal jurisdiction). But this seems a natural consequence of the fact that the person possessing this jurisdiction is not in fact a bishop. I cannot see any objection to the assertion that men who governed important dioceses all their lives while remaining simple clerics were not real bishops. I think it correct to say that in order to be a real bishop, one must be consecrated a bishop.

The resistance of many Council Fathers to the statements of Lumen Gentium on collegiality was taken into account in the Nota praevia to the dogmatic constitution. This Nota praevia cannot be accused of having been composed under modernist influence, because it was drafted and included specifically to exclude modernist positions—a unique example of a responsible intervention and correction at the Council, prompted no doubt by Paul VI’s concern to preserve his own authority. But the Nota praevia also confirms and explains the teaching that the power of jurisdiction is conferred by episcopal consecration. The difference between its treatment of the participation of bishops in supreme power over the Church and its treatment of the source of episcopal jurisdiction is worth noting. It qualifies the document’s assertion about bishops sharing in supreme power over the Church in a way that takes into account Cardinal Browne’s objections and rejects modernist inderstandings of collegiality:

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.

Its description of the source of episcopal jurisdiction, however, it simply gives the traditional account of the moderate view of papal jurisdiction:

A person becomes a member of the College by virtue of Episcopal consecration and by hierarchical communion with the head of the College and with its members. Cf. no. 22, § 1 in fine. In his consecration a person is given an ontological participation in the sacred functions [munera]; this is absolutely clear from Tradition, liturgical tradition included. The word “functions [munera]” is used deliberately instead of the word “powers [potestates],” because the latter word could be understood as a power fully ready to act. But for this power to be fully ready to act, there must be a further canonical or juridical determination through the hierarchical authority. This determination of power can consist in the granting of a particular office or in the allotment of subjects, and it is done according to the norms approved by the supreme authority. An additional norm of this sort is required by the very nature of the case, because it involves functions [munera] which must be exercised by many subjects cooperating in a hierarchical manner in accordance with Christ’s will. It is evident that this “communion” was applied in the Church’s life according to the circumstances of the time, before it was codified as law.

This is a statement and confirmation of this traditional theological position, made after deliberate consideration and debate. It is binding on all Catholics.

St. Thomas on episcopal jurisdiction

Mr. Ureta contests my view that St. Thomas makes use of a Neoplatonic conception of causality when describing the power of jurisdiction of the pope. The passage in question from St. Thomas is the following:

I answer that a superior power and an inferior power can relate to each other in two different ways. In one way, the inferior power originates entirely from the superior power; and in this case, the entire power of the inferior is founded on the power of the superior; and then the power of the superior is to be obeyed simpliciter rather than the inferior, and is so to be obeyed in all things, just as in natural causes, the first cause acts more on an effect produced by a secondary cause than the secondary cause itself does, as is stated in the Liber de causis. This is the way in which the power of God is related to all created powers; it is the way in which the power of the Emperor is related to the power of the proconsul; and it is the way in which the power of the Pope is related to all other spiritual powers in the Church, since every dignity in the Church is distributed and ordered by the Pope, whose power is in a certain manner the foundation of the Church, as is shown by Matthew ch. 16.[6]

Here St. Thomas cites the Liber de causis as the source for his claim that “the first cause acts more on an effect produced by a secondary cause than the secondary cause itself does.” The Liber de causis is a Neoplatonic work that is largely taken from the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus, as St. Thomas observes in his commentary on it. There is no doubt that while St. Thomas was not a Neoplatonist, he accepted some Neoplatonist ideas, either through St. Augustine—whose philosophical formation was Platonist, and who was not familiar with Aristotle—or through Neoplatonist commentators on Aristotle such as Simplicius, with whom St. Thomas was familiar. In his commentary on the Liber de causis, St. Thomas states his agreement with its account of the causation of the first cause. Mr. Ureta asserts that according to Neoplatonism, secondary causes do not have an actual existence, and do not act with their own autonomy; they have only pseudo-being. This is not the case. It is a true characterisation of occasionalism, but it is not true of Neoplatonism.

In holding that episcopal authority derives from the pope in the way that the authority of a proconsul derives from the emperor, St. Thomas seems to deny to bishops a proper and ordinary authority that is derived from God. A proconsul does not have an authority that is proper to his office and is not derived from the emperor. The position of St. Thomas had not been definitively rejected by the Church in his time, but it has since been ruled out by the council of Trent, which states:

The holy Synod declares that, besides the other ecclesiastical degrees, bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles, principally belong to this hierarchial order; that they are placed, as the same apostle says [Acts 20:28], by the Holy Ghost, to rule the Church of God; that they are superior to priests; administer the sacrament of Confirmation; ordain the ministers of the Church; and that they can perform very many other things; over which functions others of an inferior order have no power.
       CANON VI. - If any one shall say, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy instituted by divine ordination, consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers; let him be anathema.
       CANON VII. - If any one saith, that bishops are not superior to priests; or, that they have not the power of confirming and ordaining; or, that the power which they possess is common to them and to priests; or, that orders, conferred by them, without the consent, or vocation of the people, or of the secular power, are invalid; or, that those who have neither been rightly ordained, nor sent, by ecclesiastical and canonical power, but come from elsewhere, are lawful ministers of the word and of the sacraments; let him be anathema.[7]

With his usual clarity, St. Thomas states:

A superior power and an inferior power can relate to each other in two different ways. In one way, the inferior power originates entirely from the superior power; and in this case, the entire power of the inferior is founded on the power of the superior ... In another way, the power of a superior and an inferior are related by the both of them having originated from a higher power, which subordinates the one to the other as it chooses; and in this way the one is only superior to the other in so far as it has been subordinated to the other by a higher power, and the superior is to be obeyed rather than the inferior only in so far as it has been given authority by the higher power.

We have seen that the Church has rejected the first of these ways as an account of the relation between the power of the pope and the bishops. The second of these ways is preferable to the first for a reason that is independent of magisterial teaching on the connection between episcopal ordination and episcopal jurisdiction. This second way allows for the fact that it is Christ, rather than the pope, who is the head of the Church and the source of the power of both pope and bishops. It is in fact true to say that in the Church, “the power of a superior and an inferior are related by the both of them having originated from a higher power, which subordinates the one to the other as it chooses.” One cannot deny that Christ is the higher power in the Church, who is the source of the power of both pope and bishops, and who subordinates the one to the other as he chooses. The Church’s rejection of the strong view of papal jurisdiction should be seen for what it is, as a welcome acknowledgement of the headship of Christ over the Church.

The division of authority between pope and bishops postulated by the moderate view can also be seen to be suited to the situation of the Catholic Church. Absolute monarchy is proposed by Palmieri as the best form of government for the Church, because it is (he says) the best form of government for a state. But the Church, unlike temporal states, is intended to embrace the whole human race. She already exists on all the inhabited continents of the world. Even if absolute monarchy is the best form of government for a single state (an extremely dubious assertion), it is clearly unsuited to a polity that covers the whole human race. A division of authority between a supreme power and subordinate powers who are subject to this supreme power, but who have a real local authority of their own, is a better form of government for the Church.

copyright © John Lamont, 2024



[1] Palmieri, Tractatus de romano pontifice (Prato, 1891).

[2] Valton, DTC 5, “Évêques: questions théologiques et canoniques,” col. 1702.

[3] “Secunda propositio, Quilibet aliorum Apostolorum a Petro potuit relinquere successorum, licet non universalem, saltem in quacunque provincia voluisset, qui esset verus Episcopus illius provinciae. Hanc propositionem, scio non placituram omnibus doctoribus, tum Theologis, tum iure consultis, quae nec ipsis Cardinalibus, Turrecremata et Caiet. placeret. Omnes enim illa persuasio semel invasit, omnem potestatis iurisdictionis ita dependere a Romano Pontifice, ut nullus possit habere, nec minimam quidem spiritualem potestatem, nisi ex mandato, vel lege ipsius: post Apostolos quidem, qui ex singulari privilegio habuerunt a Christo, quod nullus alius potest habere, nisi a Petro….
       “Tertia propositio, Non solum Apostoli hoc potuerunt, sed quilibet successorum similiter potuit relinquere sibi successorum….
       “Ultima propositio, Quilibet Episcopus in sua provincia potuit condere legem, ut presbyteri eligerent Episcopum, vel aliam formam institutionis dare, etiam inconsulta sede Petri. Haec sequitur ex aliis. Nam potuit leges convenientes provinciae facere de hac re, sicut de aliis. Ecce rationem, quomodo authoritas, et dignitas Episcopalis potuit derivari successive ad uno in alterum usque ad nos, et per Episcopos omnis alia potestas inferior.” Vitoria, Relectio II de potestate ecclesiae.

[4] Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, ‘Cardinal Ottaviani and the Council,’ American Ecclesiastical Review, January 1963.

[5], DeepL translation from the Italian (not from the original statement of Card, Browne). Fr. Kallio gives the orginal Latin as ‘Praedictis verbis Ordini, seu collegio episcoporum, attribuitur habitualis quaedam participatio supremae et plenae potestatis regendi universam Ecclesiam, etsi exercitium eiusdem ponitur dependere a Romano Pontifice qui, ut Vicarius Christi habet iam ex se eamdem plenam et supremam potestatem. Haec limitatio quoad ius exercitii, etsi mere iuridice aliquo modo sufficiat ad salvandam plenitudinem potestatis Romani Pontificis, simpliciter tamen loquendo eam non salvat. Potestas enim suprema regendi universam Ecclesiam, etsi sub alio titulo, iure scii, collegialitatis, possidetur quoque a corpore episcoporum una cum Romano Pontifice suo capite. Cum talis participatio ex parte corporis episcoporum sit, ut supponitur, divinitus largita, Romanus Pontifex moraliter ligaretur in omnibus suis actis gubernii ad habendam rationem mentis et voluntatis totius episcopatus et quidem non solum ut collegii suorum fratrum et consiliariorum, sed ut participantium cum eo in potestate suprema gubernandi totam Ecclesiam. Sumus exinde in positione illa secundum quam Romanus Pontifex haberet quidem potiores partes potestatis regendi universalem Ecclesiam non vero totam plenitudinem huius potestatis. (AS III/1, 629).’

[6] Respondeo dicendum, quod potestas superior et inferior dupliciter possunt se habere. Aut ita quod inferior potestas ex toto oriatur a superiori; et tunc tota virtus inferioris fundatur supra virtutem superioris; et tunc simpliciter et in omnibus est magis obediendum potestati superiori quam inferiori; sicut etiam in naturalibus causa prima plus influit supra causatum causae secundae quam etiam ipsa causa secunda, ut in Lib. de causis dicitur: et sic se habet potestas Dei ad omnem potestatem creatam; sic etiam se habet potestas imperatoris ad potestatem proconsulis; sic etiam se habet potestas Papae ad omnem spiritualem potestatem in Ecclesia: quia ab ipso Papa gradus dignitatum diversi in Ecclesia et disponuntur et ordinantur; unde ejus potestas est quoddam Ecclesiae fundamentum, ut patet Matth. 16. Et ideo in omnibus magis tenemur obedire Papae quam episcopis vel archiepiscopis, vel monachus abbati, absque ulla distinctione. Potest iterum potestas superior et inferior ita se habere, quod ambae oriantur ex una quadam suprema potestate, quae unam alteri subdit secundum quod vult; et tunc una non est superior altera nisi in his quibus una supponitur alii a suprema potestate; et in illis tantum est magis obediendum superiori quam inferiori: et hoc modo se habent potestates et episcopi et archiepiscopi descendentes a Papae potestate.  [In II Sent., d. 44 q. 2 a. 3 expos.]

[7] Council of Trent, session XXIII, ch. 4.


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