May 2013 Print

The Role of Bishops in the Church

by Fr. Johnathan Loop, SSPX

The Role of Bishops in the Church

On June 29, 1987, Archbishop Lefebvre shocked the Catholic world by announcing his intention of consecrating a bishop to succeed him in the providential work of preserving the Catholic priesthood.1 The Roman reaction was swift. Within months, Rome had re-opened “negotiations” in order to find some kind of canonical arrangement for the Society. The results of these discussions—the famous Protocol of May 1988—would be signed by the Archbishop, but almost immediately became complicated precisely because Rome refused to set a date to consecrate a bishop to succeed Archbishop Lefebvre.2 As our venerated founder observed, from the point of view of Rome, there would be no need for a bishop if the Society were recognized. The Society would be able to ask any bishop in the world to confer ordinations and confirmations.3 For the Archbishop, this was unacceptable. In a conference to his priests at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet on May 10, he said: “This is impossible. This is a condition sine qua non.”4 For this reason, he proceeded the following June 30th to elevate four young priests to the episcopate without the approval of Rome. Above all things, the Archbishop viewed a bishop taken from the ranks of tradition as necessary to carry on the work entrusted to him in all its integrity. Why?

To answer this question, we ought to consider briefly precisely what a Catholic bishop is and what is his role in the Church. The 1917 Code of Canon Law is succinct in its definition of the episcopacy: “Bishops are successors of the Apostles.”5 The same sacred canon explains that “by divine institution they are placed over specific churches that they govern with ordinary power under the authority of the Roman Pontiff.” In other words, the bishops perform within their territories the same functions as were exercised by the apostles in an extraordinary manner throughout the world. Chiefly, the apostles were called by Our Lord to teach, to sanctify, and to govern the Church together with and under the direction of St. Peter.

We may truly observe that of these three duties, the chief is the obligation to teach the Faith. It is this which is first and foremost in Our Lord’s command to the apostles before His Ascension: “Go therefore and teach all nations.”6 Thus, it is no surprise to learn that when a dissension arose among the disciples regarding the care provided to widows, the apostles decided to appoint deacons, saying: “It is not right for us to forgo preaching God’s word, and bestow our care upon tables.”7 Indeed, on some occasions the apostles even seemed ready to neglect the administration of the sacraments in order to give themselves wholly to teaching the Faith: “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel.” St. Pius X, commenting on this verse, notes that the Apostle “indicat[es] thus that the first office of those who are set up in any way for the government of the Church is to instruct the faithful in sacred doctrine.”8 Therefore, we are not surprised to hear St. Paul declare to the Corinthians, “Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel.”9

St. Paul and the other apostles passed down this sacred and fundamental duty to their successors, the bishops of the Holy Catholic Church. Thus, we may say in truth that Catholic bishops have no greater obligation before God than to preach the Faith. They must ensure that the faithful entrusted to them know their catechism; that is to say, that they know Our Lord Jesus Christ. Quoting St. Charles Borromeo, St. Pius X observed: “The primary and most important duty of pastors is to guard everything pertaining to the integral and inviolate maintenance of the Catholic Faith, the faith which the Holy Roman Church professes and teaches, without which it is impossible to please God.”10 Ordinaries must govern their dioceses so as to help their flock live the Gospel. They must work so that the faithful may receive the sacraments in such a manner as to render fruitful the grace of their baptism, when they approached the Church in order to receive the faith and, through it, eternal life.11

Having briefly examined the role of bishops in the Church, we can begin to understand why Archbishop Lefebvre viewed as a sine qua non condition for any agreement with Rome the consecration of a bishop taken from the ranks of tradition. It is of course true that the Archbishop never intended to confer on the bishops he would ordain any kind of ordinary jurisdiction in the Church;12 nevertheless, he wished to ensure that the Society would have at its disposal bishops whose doctrine was unquestionably orthodox. Indeed, we may say there were two aspects to His Excellency’s concern. On the one hand, he wished to ensure that there would be at least some bishops willing to preach the Faith in its integrity. On the other hand, he wished to protect the Society from members of the hierarchy who were preaching what amounted to a new gospel.

In his letter to the bishops-elect on June 13, 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre wrote: “Your function will be to give the sacraments, and to preach the Faith.”13 When the Archbishop wrote to Msgr. de Castro Meyer in order to suggest that he appoint a successor for the diocese of Campos without the authorization of Rome, he asks: “Why envisage such a successor outside of the usual norms of Canon Law?” To which he himself gives the following answer: “Firstly, because priests and faithful have a strict right to have shepherds who profess the Catholic Faith in its entirety, essential for the salvation of their souls, and to have priests who are true Catholic priests.”14 Archbishop Lefebvre clearly believed that it was insufficient to have priests alone who were willing to preach the Faith in its integrity. As holy and learned as a priest may be, he is not in a strict sense a successor of the apostles. Bishops have a special grace to enlighten the faithful; this is the reason for the special unction which characterizes the sermons and instructions of dutiful bishops. Given the fact that we are living in an age where the authorities of the Church are at best failing to defend the Faith and at worst promoting a reformation of the Church which, in the words of the famous Declaration of 1974, “deriv[es]…from Liberalism and Modernism [and therefore] is entirely corrupted; it derives from heresy and results in heresy, even if all its acts are not formally heretical,” there is a more acute need than ever before for pastors willing and able to lead the flock to healthy pastures and to protect it from dangerous weeds and predators.

One might object to this emphasis on the teaching authority of the bishops of the Society by quoting His Excellency’s letter to the four bishops-elect: “The main purpose of my passing on the episcopacy is that the grace of priestly orders be continued, for the true Sacrifice of the Mass to be continued, and that the grace of the Sacrament of Confirmation be bestowed upon children and upon the faithful who will ask you for it.”15 In other words, the bishops’ primary role is not so much to teach as to dispense the sacraments. However, we must understand that the Archbishop was speaking here primarily of the practical duties of his successors. Were we to interpret his words too categorically, then we would reach the conclusion that the episcopal consecrations were strictly unnecessary, since all of these functions could just as easily have been provided by diocesan bishops, as is the case for the FSSP.16 No, the Archbishop knew well that it is necessary for the sacraments to be administered in a spirit of faith in order to be truly fruitful. In the conference to the SSPX members of May 10, he rejected the possibility of receiving the sacraments from bishops who preach the very errors which lie at the root of the crisis: “What would these bishops preach? Their preaching would always be: ‘You must accept the Council, you must accept the novelties, you must accept what the Pope does.’ ” Such bishops would inevitably encourage silence regarding the errors of the Council and encourage a false obedience to the Roman pontiff: one based on the person of the present Pope and not on his eternal office to guard and preserve unchanged17 the deposit of Faith. It is for this reason that Archbishop Lefebvre wrote to His Holiness John Paul II to declare his intention to proceed with the episcopal ordinations of June 30:

“Being radically opposed to this destruction of our faith and determined to remain within the traditional doctrine and discipline of the Church, especially as far as the formation of priests and the religious life is concerned, we find ourselves in the absolute necessity of having ecclesiastical authorities who embrace our concerns and will help us to protect ourselves against the Spirit of Vatican II and the Spirit of Assisi.”18

In order to be as free as possible from superiors infected with the spirit of Vatican II and Assisi, it was necessary for the Archbishop to give himself successors from amongst the ranks of Tradition. Of course, the Archbishop made it clear that he was in no way conferring ordinary jurisdiction over priests and faithful associated with the Society. The bishops would be merely at the service of the Society and subject to the superior general, whose office it would be to deal with Rome.19

From 1987 on, Archbishop Lefebvre judged that it was necessary for him to provide successors for himself in the episcopal office so as to continue the work of the Church: namely, handing over the deposit of the Faith which had been received from previous generations of loyal Catholics. Given the intransigence of Roman authorities regarding the actual consecration of a bishop, it became clear that he would have to proceed against their will. Though he was clear in his mind about the necessity of this course of action and at peace in his soul, it was nonetheless a heart-rending decision for our founder. In the 1987 ordination sermon in which he announced his intentions to consecrate a bishop, he could not help but exclaim:

“Tell me, has such a situation ever existed in the Church? The Pope making himself, as I was saying a little while ago, into a sort of guardian of the Pantheon of all religions, making himself the Pontiff of Liberalism? What are we to do, faced with such a reality? Weep, no doubt. Oh, weep, we do! Our heart is grieved, our heart is crushed by this situation! We would give our life, we would shed our blood to turn it around—but there it is.”

He was ready to put into effect what came to be known as “Operation Survival,” and it is to his clarity of mind and steadfastness of will that faithful Catholics for the past 25 years have been assured access to bishops who would feed their souls with the pure and unadulterated Faith and administer to them certainly valid sacraments. Nevertheless, the anniversary which we are celebrating this year is bittersweet inasmuch as it is a testament to the continued catastrophe which is afflicting the Church. Were the Archbishop still with us, he would surely exhort us to pray for the speedy arrival of the day when “the See of Peter will be occupied by a successor of Peter who is perfectly Catholic, and into whose hands you will be able to put back the grace of your episcopacy so that he may confirm it.”20

Fr. Jonathan Loop was born and raised an Episcopalian. He attended college at the University of Dallas, where he received the grace to convert through the intermediary of several of his fellow students, some of whom later went on to become religious with the Dominicans of Fanjeaux. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy, he enrolled in St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, where he was ordained in June 2011.

1 Ever solicitous to follow Providence, he judged that two events in particular indicated that it was necessary to proceed with or without the approval of the Roman authorities: namely, the grievous scandal of the Assisi prayer meeting which took place in October 1986 and the response of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to his Dubia concerning religious liberty.

2 Rome would eventually set a date, but immediately proceeded to ask the Archbishop to provide a list of more candidates. This made clear that the candidates which he had already offered were unacceptable. For the Archbishop, the reason was clear: they were too traditional and unlikely to be influenced by pressure from Rome.

3 This is precisely what has happened with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which has never been accorded a bishop by Rome. This leaves them dependent on whatever bishop is pleased to perform ordinations for their seminarians.

4 Archbishop Lefebvre & the Vatican, 2nd ed. (Angelus Press, 1999), p. 89. Cf. Msgr. Pozzo’s sermon.

5 1917 CIC, 329 § 1.

6 St. Matt. 28:19.

7 Acts of the Apostles 6:2.

8 Acerbo Nimis, 1905.

9 I Cor. 9:16.

10 Editae Saepe, May 26, 1910. St. Pius X takes this quote from the First Provincial Synod organized by the saintly bishop of Milan.

11 Archbishop Lefebvre loved to observe that the first question asked of the candidate for baptism by the priest in the rite of baptism is “What do you seek?” to which the candidate responds “Faith.”

12 Ordinary jurisdiction is a technical term in canon law which means a power and right to rule over a portion of the Church in virtue of the office which one has received. Normally, this is referred to diocesan bishops who, for that reason, are often referred to as “local ordinaries.” Since the pope alone has the right to determine who receives those offices to which are attached this ordinary jurisdiction, Archbishop Lefebvre made it abundantly clear he was not in any way conferring such a power to the bishops he was consecrating.

13 Taken from Last accessed April 4, 2013.

14 Letter of Archbishop Lefebvre, December 4, 1990.

15 Letter of Archbishop Lefebvre to Bishops-elect, August 29, 1987.

16 For instance, this year three different bishops will have provided the ordinations to major orders for the FSSP seminarians at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary: the Most Reverend James Timlin, Bishop-Emeritus of Scranton, Pennsylvania; the Most Reverend Alexander Sample, Archbishop of Portland, Oregon; the Most Reverend James Conley, Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska. All three bishops are personally devout (the author has met two of them), but nonetheless are affected by the intellectual rot prevalent among the leadership of the Church. At his installation as Archbishop of Portland, Alexander Sample—a pious and courageous prelate—said that Jesus Christ is God and that Catholics ought to proclaim Him, and at the very same time made a point of declaring his intentions of working together with ‘brothers and sisters’ of other religions! “I am so very happy that so many of our ecumenical and interreligious brothers and sisters have joined us today in this celebration. I will truly value and respect our friendships and relationships and will work hand in hand with our brothers and sisters in promoting the true common good and the dignity of every human person” (April 2, 2013). The true common good of men consists in the knowledge of the true God, Our Lord Jesus Christ. How can people who deny His divinity help promote that common good? Furthermore, he identified as one of his pressing concerns the need to promote religious liberty, a concept wholly at odds with the teaching of the kingship of Jesus Christ.

17 Archbishop Lefebvre was accustomed to cite Chapter 4 of the Constitution Pastor Aeternus from Vatican I: “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

18 Letter of Archbishop Lefebvre to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, June 2, 1988.

19 Bishop Tissier de Mallerais once observed that from a certain point of view it was preferable that the Superior General not be one of the four bishops so as to avoid giving the impression that the bishop in question had any sort of ordinary ecclesiastical jurisdiction as a result of his episcopacy.

20 Letter of Archbishop Lefebvre to Bishops-elect, August 29, 1987.