Council tackles business left over from Vatican One

March 25, 2013

The authority of the college of bishops was not only one of the most important issues discussed at the Second Vatican Council, it was also among the most controversial.

Ask anyone to discuss their own job description and you will start a conversation. But this issue – commonly known as collegiality – had greater ramifications than in-house chatter among bishops.

It was the key leftover issue from the First Vatican Council that ended abruptly in 1870. Vatican I had discussed the authority of the pope; it had not decided anything about the role of the bishops.

A related issue was the “consecration” of bishops – was it a sacrament or was it a ritual that conferred authority handed down by the pope to govern a local Church?

The first document on the Church presented at Vatican II – De Ecclesia – was clear that bishops were sacramentally ordained, but it maintained that the binding power of their decisions came from “participation in the authority of the Roman pontiff.” That made local dioceses, in essence, branch plants of the head office in Rome.

Jesus gives St. Peter keys. But do the other apostles have authority too? Fr. Joseph Ratzinger said ‘yes’ and most agreed with him.


Jesus gives St. Peter keys. But do the other apostles have authority too? Fr. Joseph Ratzinger said ‘yes’ and most agreed with him.

De Ecclesia, however, was sent back for revisions after the first session of Vatican II ended in December 1962. When the radically-rewritten document reappeared the next fall, it stated that the bishop gained his authority by virtue of his ordination.

That implied that the bishop – or, rather, the college of bishops – had a certain authority. At Vatican II, no one meant to imply that the college of bishops could exercise authority on its own; any binding decision of the college had to be made in communion with the pope.

The collegiality issue hit the floor of Vatican II in early October 1963 and drew a huge outpouring of commentary from the council fathers. In the next two weeks, 119 speeches were made on the issue and another 56 written interventions were submitted.

Leading the way in opposition to collegiality was Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini of Palermo who maintained that all authority in the Church lay in the hands of the pope. Jesus built his Church on Peter, the rock, and said nothing about the other apostles.

One who had a broader understanding of authority was Father Joseph Ratzinger, the theological advisor to Cardinal Jozef Frings of Cologne.

Ratzinger maintained that when Jesus called the 12 to be his apostles, it was evident to all that he was making a messianic claim. None of the 12 had authority in and of themselves, but only when it was exercised in communion with the other 11.


This understanding does not diminish the authority of Peter, he said, but rather locates Peter within the community, not outside and above it. “So viewed, Catholicity no longer meant merely looking toward Rome; it also meant looking toward one’s neighbours.”

The college of bishops, Ratzinger said, is not a creation of the pope, but is rather a sacramental actuality.

As the debate raged on at Vatican II, it became clear that no progress on the Constitution of the Church could be made until there was a clear idea of where the bishops as a whole stood on collegiality. Did they favour it or oppose it?

Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger (1977)

Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger (1977)

So a straw vote was to be held on Oct. 16. The council fathers would be asked their responses to five questions, four of which had to do with collegiality and the other with restoring the permanent diaconate. In his book The Church in the Making, theologian Richard Gaillardetz paraphrases the first four questions as:

  1. That the episcopate was the highest level of the sacrament of orders.
  2. That every legitimately consecrated bishop, in union with the pope, is a member of the whole body of bishops.
  3. That the college of bishops succeeds to the college of the apostles and that this body, in union with its head the pope, possesses full and supreme authority in the Church.
  4. That this authority belongs to the college of bishops itself by divine law.


However, when the bishops showed up on the morning of Oct. 16, they did not receive their ballots. During Mass that day, according to historian John O’Malley, Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, met with the cardinal who would moderate the day’s session and they engaged in an animated discussion in full view of some of the bishops attending Mass.

Others from the group of moderators soon joined in the discussion which grew increasingly heated. When the session began, it was announced that the vote would not be held that day. Later, it came out that Cicognani, on the orders of Pope Paul VI, had had the ballots burned.

This incident has never been explained. Pope Paul was an ardent supporter of collegiality and, in fact, did let the vote go ahead on Oct. 30.


In that vote, 98 per cent of the bishops voted in favour of the first proposition; 95 per cent in favour of the second; 84 per cent supported the third proposition; and 80 per cent the fourth.

It was an overwhelming mandate for the concept of collegiality, a vote that probably was strengthened by the extra time the bishops had received to consider the issue. Although it was a non-binding straw vote, the result was clear enough that the council could move on to other topics.

(Information from this article was taken from What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley, The Church in the Making by Richard Gaillardetz and Theological Highlights of Vatican II by Joseph Ratzinger.)