The New Ecclesiology and Collegiality

1. Chapter 3 of the constitution Lumen gentium presents a new definition of the hierarchical constitution of the Church, better known by the name of “collegiality”. The latter definition was repeated by the new Code of Canon Law (1983), in canon 336. As the new Code was being promulgated, Pope John Paul II declared:

This note of collegiality, which eminently characterizes and distinguishes the process of origin of the present Code, corresponds perfectly with the teaching and the character of the Second Vatican Council.”[1]

He added that the new Code intended to present the Church as the People of God with a “hierarchical constitution [that] appears [to be] based on the College of Bishops united with its Head.”[2]

  • 1. John Paul II, apostolic constitution Sacrae disciplinae leges (January 25, 1983);
  • 2. John Paul II, apostolic constitution Sacrae disciplinae leges (January 25, 1983);

The principle of collegiality is summarized in section 22 of Lumen gentium:

The order of bishops... is also [in addition to the pope considered alone] the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with [una cum] its head the Roman Pontiff and never without [numquam sine] this head.”

Section 21 states the presupposition for this: the subject that succeeds the apostles in holding the supreme authority of government is the sacred order of bishops. This is explained by reason of a very particular concept of the sacramental character of the episcopate, according to which episcopal consecration simultaneously bestows the power to sanctify and the power to govern. This twofold authority belongs to every bishop by the fact that he was consecrated, and inasmuch as he is part of the College [of Bishops], and this is true regardless of the later specification given by the hierarchical authority [e.g., the pope or the metropolitan archbishop]; for the bishop’s authority is received immediately from Christ through episcopal consecration. It follows quite logically that the intervention of the hierarchical authority has the sole effect of specifying the domain of the application [of this authority]; its effect is not to cause that authority essentially, to bring it into being.

Canon 336 of the new Code of Canon Law synthesizes these two aspects as follows: “The head of the College of Bishops is the Supreme Pontiff, and its members are the bishops by virtue of their sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head of the College and its members. This College of Bishops, in which the apostolic body abides in an unbroken manner, is, in union with its head and never without this head, also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church.”

The traditional teaching

The Church is made up of one and the same hierarchy; the members thereof, however, are invested with two distinct powers. The 1917 Code states this clearly in section 3 of canon 108; and canon 109 makes this distinction even clearer by indicating that there is a difference in the manner in which these powers are acquired:

 “Those who are taken into the ecclesiastical hierarchy... are constituted in the grades of power of orders by sacred ordination; [the pope is constituted] into the supreme pontificate, by divine law itself upon the completion of the conditions of legitimate election and acceptance; [the bishops are constituted] in the remaining grades of jurisdiction, by canonical mission.”

This distinction is confirmed a fortiori [with greater reason] if we admit that the episcopate is one part of the sacrament of holy orders: in that case, it can produce only what is signified by the form of consecration. Now the form necessary and sufficient to produce the episcopate ex opere operato, as Pius XII defined it in Sacramentum ordinis in 1947, implies without any possible doubt that the episcopate produced by consecration corresponds to the episcopate as a power of order, to the exclusion of the episcopate as a power of jurisdiction. We know, moreover, that jurisdiction is conferred on a bishop by an act of the pope’s will: this is taught by Pius XII in Ad sinarum gentem (1954) and Ad apostolorum principis (1958), repeating the teaching of Mystici corporis (1943). The very terms employed in the latter document are very clear and have in mind a true conferral of power in itself, not merely a specification of the power in its exercise.[3]

It follows from this teaching that although all bishops—including the pope—receive their power of order directly from God, by means of a rite of consecration, nonetheless the only subject of the power of jurisdiction who receives it directly from God is the pope. The other bishops receive their jurisdiction directly from the pope, not from God. And the pope, since he does not receive his jurisdiction through the rite of consecration, can possess it even if he is not yet vested with the power of episcopal order. It is clear that this is the case when a cleric who has not yet been consecrated bishop is elected to the papacy: the 1917 Code foresees that in this case the cleric elected is invested with the papacy from the moment he accepts his election, even before having received the power of episcopal order.

This very clear distinction between the power of order and the power of jurisdiction means first that the bishops and the pope share equally the same power to sanctify, and secondly it means that the bishops and the pope do not share equally the power to govern and teach, since the bishops receive a subordinate authority that is restricted to one part of the flock, whereas the pope receives a supreme and universal power, the authority to feed the lambs and the sheep [cf. Jn 21:15-17], in other words, the entire flock of the Church.

The First Vatican Council summarizes this state of affairs (i.e., the divine constitution of the Church) by means of a very expressive formula: each bishop individually pastures and governs the particular flock that has been assigned to him (singuli singulos sibi assignatos greges pascunt et regunt) while depending on one supreme pastor (sub uno summo pastore).

Thus the pope is sole subject of supreme authority of jurisdiction in the Church. There is at most a duality at the level of the manner in which this authority is exercised: alone or collegially. The collegial manner corresponds to the holding of councils, and it is extraordinary; it takes place exclusively at the pope’s order insofar as he decides in this regard by a formal act of his authority [par voie d’autorite]. Therefore the pope is the one who brings into existence the College [of Bishops] in order to make it the temporary subject of the exercise of his own authority, by causing it to participate in his own acts as Supreme Pontiff.

The novelty of Vatican II

Section 21 of the constitution Lumen gentium teaches that the power of jurisdiction is received by all bishops in the same way, that is, directly from Christ; this can only mean the supreme and universal power itself, the authority of which the College is the subject. Logically, therefore, what can the pope actually receive by his election if not an honorific authority of mere precedence? Therefore, according to this new teaching there is one subject of supreme authority, namely the College, of which the pope is only the official spokesman.

This is the underlying logic. It was checked during the Council at the moment when it came up with a compromise text in section 22, where it says that there is a twofold subject of the primacy, on the one hand the pope and on the other hand the college together with its head. Moreover, Pope Paul VI added to Chapter 3 of the constitution a Preliminary Note (Nota praevia) consisting of four articles, which is supposed to clarify the text.

The reader will note, however, that the second collegial subject is an ordinary, permanent subject and that its action occurs at intervals (and no longer in an extraordinary manner). And although the consent of the pope is required, it is only in order for the College to be able to act and no longer in order for it to be able to exist as such. Moreover the College, the second subject of the primacy, is presented—to use the precise wording—as being “with” the pope and not as being “under” the pope or “dependent on” its head, the pope.

And although the Nota praevia insists on the idea that the pope is entirely vested with the primacy, it says nothing to dismiss the other idea that the College, understood as an assembly of which the pope is only the presider, is also the subject of the primacy. On the contrary, section 4 of the Nota praevia specifies that the College also exists permanently, ontologically, and not only in its exercise, as a subject (and therefore as another subject distinct from the pope alone).

A compromise text

This passage therefore, even when accompanied by the Nota praevia, contains the seed of a twofold ecclesiology: old and new. According to the old ecclesiology, a distinction should be made between two modes by which the same subject exercises the same supreme authority; never before had the Magisterium taught that there are two distinct subjects, each one possessing the same supreme authority. According to this new ecclesiology however, in the Church there is a numerical distinction between two subjects of the same supreme authority, and this distinction is found between:

  1. the pope alone, considered apart from the college and without it and
  2. the college, still including its head but as a mere presider called to regulate the exercise of authority.

The ambiguous wording of the passage allows both interpretations. This is why, during the Second Vatican Council itself, the relator of the theological commission charged with elucidating the meaning of the text that was being proposed to the Council Fathers for their amendments, Msgr. Parente, clearly specified the intention of the Holy See: “This is not about broaching the question about the unicity or plurality of the subject.”

In other words, the distinction that is made can be understood equally well in the traditional sense of a distinction between two modes of exercising authority and in the new, non-traditional sense of a distinction between two subjects each possessing that authority. The expression is therefore ambivalent, as was intended by those who adopted it.

If we stick to the wording of this passage, we can thus see it as a compromise text. This result is quite correctly described in the evaluation of it given by Romano Amerio in his study of the changes introduced by the conciliar Church, Iota unum, a book which appeared in 1987, 20 years after the fact. “The Nota praevia rejects the familiar notion of collegiality, according to which the pope alone is the subject of supreme authority in the Church, sharing his authority as he wills with the whole body of bishops summoned by him to a Council. In this view, supreme authority is collegial only through being communicated at the discretion [ad nutum] of the pope.

But the Nota praevia also rejects the novel theory that supreme authority in the Church is lodged in the college together with the pope, and never without the pope, who is its head, but in such a way that when the pope exercises supreme power, even alone, he exercises it precisely as head of the college, and therefore as a representative of the college, which he is obliged to consult in order to express its opinion.

This view is influenced by the theory that authority derives from the multitude, and is hard to reconcile with the divine constitution of the Church. Rejecting both of these theories, the Nota praevia holds firmly to the view that supreme authority does indeed reside in the college of bishops united to their head, but that the head can exercise it independently of the college, while the college cannot exercise it independently of the head.” Therefore, Vatican II was inclined “to release itself from any strict continuity with tradition, and to create for itself atypical forms, customs and procedures....”[4]

Vatican I called into question

This reflection is interesting, because it nicely shows that this compromise did not succeed in enforcing a clear, concise statement of the traditional doctrine. Rather it merely hit the brakes on the road leading straight to heresy. This ambiguity remains serious, because it opens the door to the denial of the teaching of the ordinary universal magisterium about the unicity of the subject of the supreme and universal authority of jurisdiction. Indeed, at the time of Vatican Council I, the constitution Pastor aeternus (DZ 3053-3054) declared: “To this teaching of Sacred Scripture, so manifest as it has been always understood by the Catholic Church, are opposed openly the vicious opinions of those who perversely deny that the form of government in His Church was established by Christ the Lord; that to Peter alone, before the other apostles, whether individually or all together, was confided the true and proper primacy of jurisdiction by Christ.”

This traditional doctrine, which Vatican Council I presents as indisputable, is presented by Vatican Council II as a topic for discussion. As indicated by Msgr. Parente, it is altogether legitimate to read the passage from section 22 of Lumen gentium as though there were a twofold subject possessing the supreme authority in the Church.

From this perspective one can say, at the very least, that far from having achieved a clarification, the teaching of the last Council is instead an obfuscation and a veritable regression. This obfuscation is unacceptable in itself, since the mere fact of being able to doubt a truth already declared by the magisterium fosters heresy in a major way. The error, which had been unable to prevail during the Council itself, will be able to benefit from it so as to reappear afterward in fact.

Incidentally that is what happened with the new 1983 Code. It does not cite the Nota praevia and therefore tends much more clearly to repeat the error that the conciliar documents had avoided affirming explicitly. Now, as John Paul II himself admits, this new Code is supposed to translate the conciliar ecclesiology into legislative language. Therefore he is the one who gives the correct interpretation of Chapter 3 of Lumen gentium. It imposes collegiality in the daily life of the Church.

For further reading:


  • Fr. Raymond Dulac, La Collegialite episcopale au deuxieme concile du Vatican (Paris: Les Editions du Cedre, 1979).
  • Fr. Michael Demierre, “Episcopat et collegialite”, in: L’Unite spirituelle du genre humain dans la religion de Vatican II. Etudes theologiques. Troisieme symposium de Paris (7-8-9 octobre 2004), special issue of Vu de haut (2005): 193-212.
  • Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, “A propos d’un article recent”, Courrier de Rome 358/548 (septembre 2012).
  • Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, “Une conception collegiale de l’Eglise vue comme communion”, in: Institut Universitaire St. Pie X, Vatican II, les points de rupture. Actes du Colloque des 10 et 11 novembre 2012, Vu de haut 20 (2014): 31-44.
  • Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, “Eveque de Rome?”, Courrier de Rome 376/566 (mai 2014).
  • Fr. Mauro Tranquillo, “Une tentative de justification de la collegialite”, in Autorite et reception du concile Vatican II. Etudes theologiques. Quatrieme symposium de Paris (6-7-8 octobre 2005), special issue of Vu de haut (2006): 409-425.
  • 3. DS 3804.
  • 4. Romano Amerio, Iota unum, 1987, Chapter 44, “Papal action at Vatican II: The Nota praevia”.