November 2014 Print

Christus Dominus: The Vatican Council

by Fr. Gabriel Billecocq, SSPX

A Doctrinal Primer

A few reminders of Catholic doctrine on the constitution of the Church are certainly not superfluous. It is of faith that the Church was founded directly by our Lord during His earthly life. It was not the result of men desirous of putting in common their experience. It was most certainly at Lake Tiberias, with the triple “Pasce” (“Feed my lambs...feed my sheep”), that Jesus Christ instituted the Church. The Church our Lord desired is hierarchic. More precisely, it is a monarchy whose supreme power was vested in a single person: St. Peter. This has been a defined dogma of faith ever since the First Vatican Council.1

The Pope, the Apostles, the Bishops

The power of St. Peter is transmissible to his successors, who are the popes. It is of faith that the bishop of Rome is the successor of Peter.2 He holds the primacy over the entire Church (a truth of faith). In other words, his power is full (legislative, executive, and judicial), universal (it extends to all the members of the Church), and immediate (it extends to them without need of any intermediary).

As regards the Apostles, certain distinctions must be made. It can be said that the Apostles have a twofold title. First of all, they are bishops and, as such, subject to St. Peter. But they are not ordinary bishops, for our Lord called them personally to be Apostles, that is to say, to complete Revelation and to found the Church. Because of this, they have, extraordinarily, a universal power.

Bishops, therefore, are genuine successors of the Apostles as bishops, but not as Apostles. The bishops then hold a real power, which is called ordinary: they are not mere delegates. Their power is plenary (they can legislate, execute laws and decisions, and judge). But their power is subordinate to that of the sovereign pontiff; in other words, it is the pope that gives the bishop his canonical mission.

Order and Jurisdiction

The pope and the bishops (called the Teaching Church) have three distinct functions: teaching, sanctifying, and governing. In order to do this, two powers have been entrusted to them. First of all, the power of order is conferred on them by their consecration, and it is inamissible: once consecrated, they remain bishops for life! As for whether or not episcopal consecration is a sacrament, the answer is still debated by Catholic theologians.

By the power of order, they have the office of sanctifying. Besides this power, they receive a jurisdiction which gives them the mission of governing (and of teaching). This jurisdiction is given to the bishops by investiture and is, consequently, amissible. Traditional opinion (St. Thomas Aquinas in particular) holds that the bishop receives his jurisdiction directly from the pope and not by virtue of his consecration.

Different Kinds of Bishops

In order to clarify a few ecclesiastical terms and facilitate the reading of texts, it is good to recall that the bishop who heads a diocese is called a residential bishop, or ordinary; for there exist bishops who do not direct, or who no longer direct, a diocese. They are given the title of a diocese that no longer exists; in which case, one speaks of a titular bishop. For example, Archbishop Lefebvre, when he left the diocese of Tulle, was named titular bishop of Synnada in Phrygia.

Finally, within a diocese, the residential bishop is sometimes seconded by other bishops (who are then titulars). These are auxiliary bishops. One of them may be designated coadjutor: he has the right of succession to the head of the diocese.

Vatican II on the Bishops

During the work of preparation for the Second Vatican Council, a preparatory commission 
“On Bishops and Diocesan Governance” was created, directed by Cardinal Paolo Marella. Several pastoral problems had been brought up, and this commission was charged with studying them. Among the subjects were the territorial division of the dioceses, the relations between the bishops and the Roman Curia, the place of religious in the dioceses, the case of emigrants and travelers. In response to these requests, the preparatory commission drafted seven schemas set to be discussed at the Council.

Before Any Discussion

During the first session of the Council in 1962, and before the schemas had even been placed on the agenda, the Commission for Bishops was tasked with combining all the topics of the seven schemas into two documents, one more canonical or administrative, and another more pastoral. The work took several months and, in the spring of 1963, two documents saw the light of day: one of 38 pages (Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church) and the other of 123 pages (Of the Care of Souls).

The Debates

During the second session, Cardinal Marella presented the Council Fathers the schema on the bishops and made clear that he wanted it to harmonize perfectly with the discussions on the De Ecclesia.3 The discussions lasted from September 1-18. From the first day, the critics took the lead. The defenders of the Curia were soundly attacked, and the Holy Office was not spared. The Bishops Gabriel-Marie Garonne and François Marty in particular accused the schema of not sufficiently setting forth the collegial aspect of the episcopacy.

Quite conscious of the danger of collegiality for the papacy and the constitution of the Church, Archbishop Lefebvre intervened during these discussions.4 Yves Congar, who summarized the Archbishop’s intervention, held that he was right as regards his awareness of what was going on, but then took the counterpart, since in his eyes, it is the papacy that has usurped the place of the Ecclesia and the bishops.

A New Revision

Following these discussions, numerous modifications had to be made. During the intersession, the two texts were melded into a single document and, in April 1964, the schema numbered only 45 pages. It was discussed at the beginning of the third session, from September 18-22, 1964, but the schema Lumen Gentium was uppermost on their minds. There were, nonetheless, a few challenges that postponed the definitive examination of the schema to the following session. Meanwhile, Paul VI published his motu proprio on the Synod of Bishops, thus facilitating the vote on the whole schema—the pope has spoken, ergo...

The vote in the aula was held on October 6, 1965, and won 2,167 votes in favor among the 2,181 voters. As for the vote of promulgation of October 28, there were only two out of the 2,322 Fathers against.


It is not without significance that the discussions in the conciliar aula of the Decree on the Bishops took place concurrently with those on the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. In 1963, Lumen Gentium was discussed until October 31. Discussion on Christus Dominus began five days later, November 5. The following year, discussion of Lumen Gentium finished on November 18; the same day in the train of that discussion, consideration of Christus Dominus was taken up.

Lumen Gentium “redefined” the Church. May it be said that Christus Dominus “redefined” the bishop?

The Bishops’ Complex

In reading about the document, in the writings of some authors one comes across the expression “renewed “episcopate. This is surely not an abuse: the Council (and the bishops in particular) intended to develop a new theology of the episcopacy. Perhaps its use is also a response to a preoccupation in the air at the time. The two preceding Councils did not develop the question; they “buried” it. For if the Council of Trent emphasizes the sacrament of order (Session 23), it did not settle the question as to whether the episcopate is a distinct sacrament of order. Certainly, it gave the bishop a place in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but it did not develop the relations between sacrament and government, between order and jurisdiction. On the other hand, the First Vatican Council defined the infallibility of the Roman pontiff, by this fact incontestably placing the pope above the bishops.

Neither pope nor simple priest, what then is the place of the episcopacy in theology?

Good Pastors

The title given to bishops (like that of the pope) by Vatican II is that of pastor.5 The title of the document is itself quite revealing: Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church. In the adjective there is a reference to the Council itself, which John XXIII qualified as pastoral. But the use of the word is intended to comprehend the three functions of the bishop: teaching, sanctifying, and governing. The ambiguity is found here, for the word pastor is more fitting to denote the act of governing. To designate the bishop’s teaching function, the word doctor6 is used, and to designate that of sanctifying, it is the word pontiff.7 But henceforth, all must be pastoral.

As regards the teaching office, it is written that the bishops “teach with what seriousness the Church believes these realities should be regarded: the human person with his freedom and bodily life...”8 and that Christian doctrine must be presented “in a manner adapted to the needs of the times, that is to say, in a manner corresponding to the difficulties and problems by which people are most vexatiously burdened and troubled.”9 Besides, the Church no longer teaches, she “dialogues.”10 Pastoral here contrasts with “dogmatic.” It is no wonder that the Council had no intention to define anything.

As for the office of sanctifying, it is odd that the decree11 should emphasize the “esprit de corps” of the laity and the bishops, whereas the confection and the reception of the sacraments are almost occulted. Moreover, the reference for liturgical matters is the constitution by this same Council,12 whose worship is ordered to man. Pastoral? indeed!

Redefining the Bishop

The preceding remarks, even if they may seem rather unimportant, conceal a new theology of the episcopacy. The Decree Christus Dominus is merely the concrete application of Chapter III of Lumen Gentium.13

The outline of this short decree first considers the bishop in his relationship with the universal Church, not as head of a diocese. And for a reason: since Vatican II, the consecrated bishop belongs first and foremost to the “body” of bishops and with them forms a college. Henceforth, the episcopal consecration makes the bishop-elect a member of the college.14 The result is obvious. By virtue of his membership of the episcopal body, the bishops, “sharing in solicitude for all the churches...exercise this episcopal office of theirs...with respect to teaching the universal Church of God....”15 This is their first office; the diocese comes second.16

Supported by Lumen Gentium, the decree asserts that the college of bishops is subject of a plenary and supreme power over the whole Church.17 It is the affirmation of a universal jurisdiction properly possessed by the college of bishops. And the decree, by its explicit references, maintains the ambiguity of a second power in the Church beside the pope. “The principle lesson...concerns the theological image of the apostolic hierarchy. To speak of a college is to abandon the image of a pyramid with a pope at the top and the bishops beneath....To speak of an episcopal college is, on the contrary, to privilege the image of the crown of bishops, provided that the Bishop of Rome is placed within the crown....”18

The Council makes of the consecration a sacrament the confecting of which gives the power, not only to sanctify, but also, and this is an absolutely untraditional novelty, to teach and to govern.19 In continuation with this novelty, the diocese is no longer called a local Church, but a particular Church. The change in terminology is not anodyne.20

The Spirit of the Council Applied before the Letter

The conferral of such power to the bishops could not be done without provoking a reaction. Besides the novelty of such a doctrine, the Curia was the first ecclesiastical organ to suffer the effects. Several Conciliar Fathers had asked that the bishops be dispensed from interacting with it and even suggested that laymen be introduced there.

In order to get the decree passed without too many difficulties, Pope Paul VI published motu proprio the Apostolic Letter Apostolica Sollicitudo instituting the Synod of Bishops. It is an assembly charged with informing and counseling the pope. By publishing this text before the vote on the decree, the pope clearly intended to prompt the Council Fathers to vote in favor of Christus Dominus.

What Sort of Bishops for the Church?

Where have bishops like Augustine, Athanasius, Francis de Sales, and all the glorious bishops the Church has ranked among the number of holy pontiffs and doctors gone? Collegiality, bishops’ conferences, synods of bishops—the point is clear: the bishop is no longer the faithful guardian of the revealed deposit, a doctor and guarantor of Christian doctrine as well as pontiff...21 Vatican II has made of him one of these pastors open to all the questions that anguish modern man, a pastor who more resembles the mercenary unable to defend the sheep against the dangers that threaten their eternal life.

Translation of “Vatican II: Christus Dominus,” Fideliter, July-August 2014, pp. 82-87.

1 Mt. 16: 18-19; Lk. 22:32; Jn. 21:15-17; Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, DS 3055.

2 Vatican I, DS 3058.

3 That is, with the schema that was to become the Constitution Lumen Gentium. In fact, the schema on the Church was also under discussion at the same time.

4 AS II/IV, 643-44, cited by Yves Congar in his Journal (Cerf), I, 526.

5 Christus Dominus, Art. 1, 2, 9, 11, 16. One will note, moreover, that the term pontiff is used only once concerning the bishops (No. 2), and otherwise only designates the pope.

6 Rest assured, the word doctor does not appear even once!

7 For instance, one speaks of a pontifical, not a pastoral, Mass. For a pontiff is the pons—bridge, a mediator between God and men. Yet the bishop is not referred to even once in the conciliar decree as pontiff.

8 Christus Dominus, Art. 12.

9 Ibid., No. 13.

10 Ibid.

11 No. 15.

12 The Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

13 To be convinced of this, in addition to the explicit commentaries of certain Council Fathers and theologians, a look at the footnotes of the decree should suffice. Of 38 notes, 10 refer to the Constitution on the Church, without counting those that refer to another document of the same Council.

14 Nos. 3 and 4 in particular. A note references Lumen Gentium 22, which has no reference, neither scriptural nor traditional...

15 No. 3.

16 Msgr. Carli, clearly saw the error and, during an intervention in the aula, demanded the inversion of the chapters. Request denied!

17 No. 4, and Lumen Gentium No. 22.

18 Henri Bourgeois, Henri Denis, Maurice Jourjon, Les Évêques et l’Église (Cerf, 1989), Ch. 2.

19 No. 3 and its reference to Lumen Gentium, No. 21.

20 Cf. Laurent Villemin, “Le diocèse est-il une église locale ou une église particulière, in Le Ministère des éveques au concile Vatican II et depuis (Cerf, 2001).

21 Cf. the Mass and office of confessor pontiffs (and not confessor pastors).


Extract from the Intervention of Archbishop Lefebvre

Fourth Intervention, November 6, 1963

On the Schema for the Decree on the Bishops and Government of the Dioceses

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

If, by some miracle, this principle should be discovered in this Council, and solemnly affirmed, it would then be logically necessary to assent, as one of the Fathers has almost declared: “The Roman Church has erred in not knowing the fundamental principle of her divine Constitution, namely, the principle of juridical collegiality. And that over many centuries.”

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

Now, this is grotesque and without the slightest foundation.

To conclude: if we are speaking of moral collegiality, who will deny it? Everyone admits it. But such collegiality only produces moral relations. If we are speaking of juridical collegiality, on the other hand, then, as Bishop Carli has said so well: “It can be proved neither by Holy Scripture, nor by theology, nor by history.”

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

(I Accuse the Council, pp. 12-13)