A Renewed Vision: Vatican II on the Church’s Hierarchy

COMMENTARY: Chapter 3 of ‘Lumen Gentium’ marked a renewed awareness of the vital significance of bishops, priests and deacons in the Church.

General view of the arrival of Pope John XXIII in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on October 11, 1962 during the opening Mass of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II.
General view of the arrival of Pope John XXIII in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on October 11, 1962 during the opening Mass of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II. (photo: AFP / Getty)

Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, is well known for its landmark teaching about the role of the laity. However, an equally important concern of the document, and a much more contentious one, was the topic of bishops. 

The theme is addressed in detail in the third chapter of Lumen Gentium, “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate.” This chapter remains an essential reference point for understanding the role of ordained ministry in the Church.

During the period of preparation for the Council, among the many suggestions related to sacred ministry, there was a widespread hope that Vatican II might produce a new teaching on the role of bishops. In this way, the assembly might complete the vision of the Church that the First Vatican Council had presented nearly a century before. 

This earlier council had made a robust declaration of the full power and infallible teaching authority of the pope. However, due to political unrest in Rome, the assembly ended abruptly and was unable to portray a wider panorama of what the Church is. 

The initial draft of Lumen Gentium, presented at the beginning of the Council, contained a relatively small part dedicated to the topic of the episcopate and the priesthood. This section connected the authority of bishops with the will of Jesus, who is the “Pastor and Bishop of our souls (cf. 1 Peter 2: 25)” and with the grace given in the sacrament of episcopal ordination. 

Drawing from the ancient liturgical praxis of both the East and West, the draft proposed to solemnly declare, for the first time, that episcopal ordination is a sacrament. As Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani had commented during the preparation of the Council, such an affirmation would do much to contribute to a greater appreciation of episcopal dignity. 

After mentioning the priesthood (a topic that would be dealt with more fully in a separate document, the decree Presbyterorum Ordinis), the text went on to describe the mission of the bishops in more detail. The text asserted the authority of the bishops — “vicars and envoys of Christ with ordinary and immediate episcopal power towards the Churches entrusted to them” — while also acknowledging the teaching of Vatican I: such power is exercised “in unity with the Roman Pontiff and under his authority.” 

The final portion of the draft regarding ordained ministry deals with the College of Bishops. This College, the text stated, is the successor to the College of Apostles and shares in full and supreme power over the Church, though always in union with the Roman Pontiff, the head of the College. Here, the Preparatory Commission was taking up a teaching that had been present in Vatican I’s vision of the Church, even if the earlier council had focused on the special role of the pope. 

Between the first period of the Council, in the fall of 1962, and the second period, in the fall of 1963, this description of the Church’s hierarchy was greatly expanded and developed, in keeping with some of the many critiques and suggestions of the Council Fathers. While the revised text still maintains the authority of the bishops, the new text puts a stronger emphasis on how authority is at the service of the People of God, and has a much deeper New Testament context. The mission of the bishops is placed in the context of the very mission of God the Son himself (see John 20:21), sent by the Father, with greater stress on how the bishops continue the mission of the 12 apostles.  

The revised text puts a stronger accent on the authority of the bishops, describing their power as "proper, ordinary, and immediate” and expounds upon their roles of teaching, sanctifying and governing (see Lumen Gentium 25-27). The Doctrinal Commission also greatly expanded its exposition of episcopal collegiality, as a reality that reflects the “variety of the People of God” and through which all of the bishops share in the Pope’s concern for the universal Church.  

The section on the priesthood, in the same revised text, was expanded to show how priests share in the mission of the bishops. A new section was also added, opening up the possibility of a permanent diaconate for married men. While some had apprehensions about this latter possibility, the final text of Lumen Gentium would take a first step toward establishing this office in the Church, accessible to married men “of more mature age.” The Council Fathers recognized the stable diaconate as a ministry received from the apostles that could allow the Church to address more effectively her pressing pastoral needs. 

The topic of the collegiality of bishops, in particular, would become one of the most intensely debated topics of the Council. The many Council Fathers who supported this idea saw it as deeply grounded in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition. Particularly illuminating in this respect was the Council speech of Cardinal Joseph Frings. The archbishop’s words undoubtedly reflected, once more, the thought of his trusted theological adviser Joseph Ratzinger. Cardinal Frings acknowledged that the concept of collegiality could not be found in the thought of the Fathers of the Church, at least in a “strictly legal sense.” However, from such an approach, the Archbishop of Cologne continued, one would not find the truth of the supreme jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff either, even though this latter truth, Cardinal Frings affirmed, is a “most firm truth of our faith.”

The Archbishop went on to describe that the life of the ancient Church, as it was described already in Sacred Scripture, reveals how the Church is built out of many local Churches, in communion with one another in the word and in the Body of Christ, under the government of the Roman Pontiff. In a similar way, as the Fathers of the Church testify, the bishops were bound together from the beginning in a close bond. The term ‘episcopal college,’ Cardinal Frings noted, was even used in the early centuries, as seen in the writing of the fourth-century North African bishop St. Optatus of Milevis. 

The Council Fathers were well aware that such teaching about collegiality had ramifications that went beyond mere theological speculation. The Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, Cardinal Peter Paul Meouchi, speaking in the name of all of the Maronite Bishops, described the problem of episcopal collegiality as the most difficult and yet also the principal problem of Vatican II. He recognized the vital importance of affirming that both the reality of the Roman Pontiff’s primacy and episcopal collegiality are divinely revealed truths. Such an ecclesial vision, Meouchi asserted, would make it easier for non-Catholic Christians to understand the Catholic vision of the Church, and would also serve more broadly the pastoral good.

Several Council Fathers, though they constituted a minority, were quite vocal with their fears about episcopal collegiality and other aspects of the draft text on the hierarchy. These persons were concerned, in particular, that the statements about the identity of the bishops and episcopal collegiality were still disputed topics, and were in contradiction with Vatican I’s teaching about the supreme power of the Roman Pontiff. During the Council’s third period, in the Fall of 1964, even as a further revised text received overwhelming approval from the Council Fathers, 106 Council Fathers brought their concerns about the chapter to the Holy Father. 

Pope Paul VI made the decision to respond to these concerns, as a way of bringing about a deeper adhesion to the final text within the Council Assembly. With this aim in mind, the Pope suggested some adjustments to the final text as well as an ‘explanatory note’ that would offer a definitive framework for a correct interpretation of the chapter. These final adjustments were particularly aimed at ensuring that the affirmation of the authority and dignity of the bishops, both individually and at a collegial level, would not be understood in a way that might negate the bishops’ dependence upon the pope, the Church’s supreme pastor. 

With these last-minute changes, the Council Fathers were finally able to reach a practical unanimity in their teaching on the hierarchy, as well as in the Constitution on the Church as a whole. On Nov. 21, 1964, at the public session during which Lumen Gentium was promulgated by the Pope, 2,151 Council Fathers expressed their approval of the document and only 5 voted against it.

Among the many significant truths proclaimed in the text was the profound meaning of the Church’s hierarchy as an institution deeply rooted in the Gospel and in the ancient Tradition of the Church. Today, Chapter 3 of Lumen Gentium continues to bear powerful witness to the way in which the bishops, with the help of priests and deacons, continue that “that divine mission, entrusted by Christ to the apostles,” which “will last until the end of the world …” This mission is that of teaching the Gospel which “is for all time the source of all life for the Church” (Lumen Gentium 20).


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