Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Episcopal Conferences:<BR> Theological Bases

Episcopal Conferences:
Theological Bases

by Cardinal Francis George O.M.I.
Archbishop of Chicago

Published in Communio Summer 1999, pp. 393 - 409.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

A theology of the Church as a communion founded on the mystery of grace made visible reveals episcopal relationships within the communion as ontologically constitutive of the Church’s nature and shows the bishop of Rome as pastor to the Church universal, not simply as a source of jurisdiction.

Since the Second Vatican Council, there has been increasing interest in the conciliar life of the Church at all levels, from the Synod of Bishops convened by the pope to synods on the diocesan level. Along the spectrum of these levels lie episcopal conferences, which were mandated by Vatican II. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops assembled in Rome in 1985 called for further study on episcopal conferences; and since then much has been written on their theological and canonical bases.(1) Only last year, Pope John Paul II issued a Motu Proprio specifically addressing the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences(2)

I would like now to offer a number of reflections with the goal of continuing a discussion obviously important both to ecclesiologists and to bishops such as myself. I intend to do this by presenting the Church’s understanding of herself as communion and, in the light of this selfunderstanding, discussing conciliarity and collegiality. With communion, conciliarity, and collegiality as context, I will offer some reflections on episcopal conferences themselves.

1. Church as Sacrament-Communion Made Visible

A. Communion

In the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, the Church came to a fuller understanding of her nature as a communion, an organism built up through the exchange of Christ’s gifts to his people. These gifts are spiritual: the gift of faith which rejoices in the truths of God’s selfrevelation, the gift of hope and trust in God’s providence, the gift of charity which is God’s life in us, the grace which unites us in Christ to the Father and, in their Spirit, to one another. Sharing these gifts makes us the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the People of God. So that we might share them, they are made visible for us in the Church. Communion is internal, dynamic, spiritual; but this internal social dynamism becomes public in the teaching of the Church, in the celebration of the sacraments, and in the apostolic governance which unites us, through the Twelve, to Christ himself.

The relationships born of this exchange of invisible gifts-made visible so that we know where we can receive them and share them-mean that’ the Church is not a contractual society. She is instead a communion of men and women with a God who gives himself to us and whose life in us enables us to give ourselves, in diverse ways and according to our various gifts and offices, to one another. This bonding is called communion. In analyzing the concrete, historical manifestation of the Church as a relational reality, we see how she shows herself to be an efficacious symbol (a sacrament) for the salvation of all.

Believing that the Church is a communion affirms that Christ established one Church, an ecclesial unity of faith given by God. Yet this unity should not be conceived as some type of impersonal glue attaching one object to another or simply as a shared agreement about doctrines. Rather it is the living personal reality of Jesus Christ shared with humanity through the Holy Spirit which joins the Church into a unity, a communion of shared lives around Christ. This dynamic of grace is described as the vertical dimension-God as a communion of love bestowing this reality on and in his creatures. Yet this grace of shared life also involves a horizontal dimension-in being drawn toward God we are also being drawn toward one another. Communion is not a static “state” but conveys the sense of living activity. The Church as a communion is a sharing of trinitarian communion.

The Decree on Bishops (Christus Dominus 11) specified four elements which must be shared for an ecclesial communion to be a particular Church: the Holy Spirit; the true gospel in its fullness; the seven sacraments of the New Law; and authentic apostolic ministry centering on the bishop who is the chief pastor of this particular Church. These four elements compose the essential grace which transforms a nexus of interpersonal relations into a Church which makes possible shared unity between God and man.

B. Sacrament

Vatican II calls the Church a sacramentum of the salvation won by Christ, made effective through the power of the Spirit, and intended for the entire human race. The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom proclaimed in the Scriptures; but because the Church’s life is already the life of the Trinity and the life of those already in glory, the Church is both res and sacramentum. The Church is a manifestation of divine grace in human history and not simply a human construct. The sacramentality of the Church is possible because God has chosen to express his loving concern for humanity in a visible manner first of all in the Incarnation of his eternal Son, Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus brings together in his divine Person both divine and human natures. In designating the Church as a sacrament, Lumen Gentium saw the very nature of the Church as an effective sign through which all men and women can enter into the mystery of God’s saving love uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ. In this sense, the Latin sacramentum is related to its Greek equivalent musterion. The Church as the mystery of salvation is a living, evergrowing reality, never fully encapsulated by human thoughts or systems. This also means that in any theology of Church there is always a selfcritical element to assure that divine love is not sacrificed to contingent claims.

C. Sacramental Communion as Local and Universal

The Church as sacramental communion also makes visible the relation between Church as universal and Church as local or particular. The Church is truly both. An over-emphasis on the local could lead to a false understanding of the Church as merely the sum total of particular Churches or a federation of local Churches. This would betray the fundamental unity of the one Church of Jesus Christ. An overemphasis on the universal, however, risks betraying the authentic ecclesiality of each diocese.

Writing about the universal Church, the Holy Father asserts: “It is not the result (my emphasis) of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential mystery (my emphasis), it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church.”(3) This ontological and temporal priority is a way of affirming what was described above: the Church as mystery is the result of God’s grace before it comes to be visible through any human activity. To forget this primary foundation of Church is to entertain, wittingly or unwittingly, the ever-present temptation to Pelagianism. God’s initiative can be further appreciated when we recall the four key elements that Christus Dominus taught as essential to the very nature of every local Church. These four gifts do not make any less necessary human activity and responsibility in the life of the Church, since each of them elicits a particular human response. But the sustaining life of the Church is rooted in God’s love and initiative, in His gifts.

While this ontological priority can and must be adequately distinguished, therefore, from its existential realization, the two cannot be separated in the Church. Existentially, the Church lives through and in an interpersonal unity of the divine and human which must be instantiated in particular groups of believers who are always parts of the whole. The constitutive elements of the Church take on ecclesial life only by their realization through concrete acts of faith, hope, and love by human subjects responding to the call of grace within a particular local context with its geographical and cultural particularity.(4) On this existential level, each local Church, precisely as Church, manifests both locality and universality. Each local Church, by embodying the four constitutive elements mentioned above, is a communion among Christ’s faithful with the tri-personal God. Thus, the Church of Jesus Christ can be truly described as a communion of communions.(5)

Just as an over-emphasis on the universal can leave us thinking of the Church abstractly and therefore weaken the sacramental reality of the Church, so an overemphasis on the local can weaken the Church’s full communal reality. The very nature of the gifts bestowed, as well as the nature of personhood, exclude self-imposed sufficiency and isolation, because this would mean that one or more of the constitutive elements of a local Church has been seriously compromised. The four gifts would not be the bases for universal relations in Catholic communion but would have been transformed into exclusive possessions of a particular group. Within a particular locality there must always remain, therefore, an openness, a mutual sharing in faith, and a critical awareness that we are not the Church unless we are as open to all as is Christ himself. Each local Church, precisely as a koinonia, cannot exist by itself, but only in relations of communion with all other local Churches. Congar describes this relationship among local Churches as perichoresis, a mutual indwelling much like trinitarian life itself.(6) Ecclesial communion among local Churches is made visible in conciliarity and episcopal collegiality.

11. Ecclesial Conciliarity

The conciliar dimension of the Church (the term synodality is also used) has not received as much attention in Roman Catholic thought as it has among non-Catholic theologians, especially the Eastern Orthodox with their reflections on the Russian word for conciliarity, sobornost (7) In its most basic sense, conciliarity refers to the ability to assemble, to come together in the name of the Lord, who has promised that he will be present when two or three are gathered in his name. Conciliarity is founded on the reality of the Church as a communion, where the Holy Spirit of God joins people into a deeper unity with the triune God and with each other by allowing them to experience the presence of the Risen Lord and to live out their lives as his disciples. When people assemble together in faith, they are not a collection of individuals occupying a common space; they are men and women interpersonally connected with the Lord and one another.

In a more specific sense, conciliarity is based on the catholicity of communion. The Church as a catholic communion embodies the fullness of the presence of her Lord as she lives out and proclaims this Gospel of Life among a diversity of people and in different localities. As a catholic communion, the Church maintains a unity in diversity. Using the word sobornostto show the close relation between communion and conciliarity, Yves Congar writes:

Sobornost is communion in an organism simultaneously one and multi-personal, and whose nature is spiritual rather than juridical. It is the type of unity which corresponds to a pure communion of persons realized by the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of love; a unity realized, not by submission to a regulating force, but by a communion, one with another, in -ace, by mutual understanding and obedience, with respect for the growth in Christo proper to each member. (8)

At this basic level, conciliarity is made manifest each time that God’s people gather to pray.

If we move to the level of apostolic governance, conciliarity is that aspect of communion which describes the gathering of local Churches at various levels in the person of their pastors; this normally occurs within established structures for the purpose of discerning the apostolic faith and coming to a consensus in regard to its proclamation and to the better ordering of communal life. At its root, conciliar life is an “event” (9) of the Spirit, who brings to light the perennial memory of the Christian faith. A council has been described as a concentration of the consciousness of the Church,(10) where her members reflect on the apostolic faith so that the Church may more completely live out her catholic identity. The assembling of the Church’s pastors in council is an event of faith in which the communion of local Churches is made visible, showing itself to be the relationship which makes the Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

The principal manifestation of conciliarity is an ecumenical council, which most clearly shows the mutual relationship among conciliarity, collegiality, and communion. In describing an ecumenical council Congar says:

The council images the Church. It brings about a concentration of the Church’s consciousness. That is what gives its decisions that density which makes the effect of a council long-lasting. Think of the effect Trent has had and still has, to say nothing of the definitive and supremely sacred effect of the first four ecumenical councils, which are accepted ecumenically.(11)

In an ecumenical council there is a coming together (convenire) of past and present, local and universal, in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Within this matrix, the college of bishops discerns and expresses the apostolic faith for the sake of the communion, a communion which at this ecumenical level is most clearly seen as a unity in diversity. Since the bishops are not acting as a group of individuals but as a unified body, their decisions on how to live out the apostolic faith are the result of a consensus (moral unanimity) of the entire college.(12) It is not a question of a majority winning, but of witnessing to and proclaiming the truth revealed by God.

While an ecumenical council has a privileged function in the life of the Church, other synodal gatherings, whether on a local, provincial, or national level, have had great historical impact. They were a prominent feature of Church life during the first millennium and have been a continual part of Church life, especially in the Christian East. In the Latin Church, both the 1917 and the 1983 Codes of Canon Law make provision for plenary and provincial Particular Councils. Along with establishing important disciplinary and administrative procedures-e.g., structures of appeal at the Council of Sardica (A.D. 343)-particular councils have been instrumental in bringing the teaching of ecumenical councils to a local level. At times the doctrinal positions of these local synods were received by the Church universal-e.g., the Second Council of Orange’s teachings on grace against Pelagianism, A.D. 529. The Second Vatican Council has encouraged a renewal of synodal life within and among local Churches as a means to deepen the communal life of the entire Church (Christus Dominus, 36-38). Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in which a certain number of bishops elected from throughout the world gather in Rome at periodic intervals to examine a particular topic in visible union with the Holy Father himself.

Unlike an ecumenical council, such assemblies do not bring together the entire college of bishops with its head, the bishop of Rome. Only the total college of bishops with and under Peter can speak with an authority that is binding on the whole Church. Yet there is a certain analogy between these particular synodal gatherings and an ecumenical council (13) These particular conciliar gatherings are events in the life of groups of local Churches. They are, as well, founded on the catholicity of communion, so that these local Churches can better live out their apostolic faith in its fullness (See Lumen Gentium, 23). They gather in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who can bring the participants together in a communal unity to discern the demands of the gospel in a particular locality or localities. Such gatherings highlight episcopal identity as relational on both a local and more universal dimension.

Understanding the Church as a conciliar communion also rescues the pope’s ministry from the legalism associated with a more nominalist theology of Church. A theology of the Church as a communion founded on the mystery of grace made visible reveals episcopal relationships within the communion as ontologically constitutive of the Church’s nature and shows the bishop of Rome as pastor to the Church universal, not simply as a source of jurisdiction. In highlighting the conciliar dimension of communion, the dogma of papal primacy is contextualized as the element necessary for a council to act effectively. As bishop of Rome, the pope exercises a special primatial (Petrine) ministry to maintain, support, and deepen the communal bonds of faith and gospel discipline among all local Churches. This involves the authority to convoke the bishops at various levels, as the need arises, and to direct their ministry for the good of the communion. The papal ministry is situated in the context of ecclesial conciliarity as primacy and in the context of episcopal collegiality as headship.

111. Episcopal Collegiality

In episcopal ordination, the new bishop is related to Christ and to the Church in a new manner, beyond the relationships founded on baptism and confirmation. From within this new relationship, the bishop witnesses to the apostolic faith in a local Church and exercises a ministry of headship to proclaim and nourish this faith. At the same time, he demonstrates a solicitude for other local Churches in their living out the faith of the apostles through his membership in the college of bishops, which succeeds to the apostolic college. The ceremony of ordination reflects this: a priest is ordained a bishop of the Catholic Church, but no bishop is ordained without a title to a particular pastoral responsibility. No bishop is ordained unless there are at least three other members of the college of bishops present. Episcopal identity is not an isolated, individual reality, but a relational reality reflecting local and universal dimensions. While functioning as a source of unity in his own particular Church, each bishop belongs to an undivided body, the episcopal college, with a single head, the successor of Peter.

When Vatican II highlighted this notion of episcopal collegiality, it retrieved a Patristic sense of how episcopal ministry is exercised in the Church. The collegial bond or sense of unity which the bishops share with each other (affective collegiality) is based on their episcopal ordination and structured hierarchically around the head of the college, the bishop of Rome. Affective collegiality cannot be reduced to a merely subjective sentiment; rather it designates a permanent objective reality which precedes and grounds effective or active collegiality. Episcopal action and the universal charity from which it springs are both collegial (14)

The ministry of every bishop, while maintaining a key focus on his local pastoral demands, must maintain a concern, a solicitude, a love for that which lies beyond the local. The bishops share a responsibility with the pope in maintaining and nourishing the bond of communion among all particular Churches. As Pope John Paul II has written in Ut Unum Sint:

When the Catholic Church affirms that the office of the bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ, she does not separate this office from the mission entrusted to the whole body of bishops, who are also vicars and ambassadors of Christ. The bishop of Rome is a member of the college and the bishops are his brothers in the ministry."

This concern for the Church universal, which the college of bishops shares with its head, requires active engagement on the part of all bishops. The prime example of such activity is an ecumenical council but there are also other ways, as Lumen Gentium points out:

The supreme power in the universal Church, which this college enjoys, is exercised in a solemn way in an ecumenical council. A council is never ecumenical unless it is Called or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter; and it is the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them. This same collegiate power can be exercised together with the pope by the bishops living in all parts of the world, provided that the head of the college calls them to collegiate action, or at least approves of or freely accepts the united action of the scattered bishops, so that it is thereby made a collegiate act.(16)

While the structure of an ecumenical council depends on the initiative of the pope, a collegial act on the part of the dispersed bishops can originate from the bishops themselves, provided the pope, whose headship is necessary to establish the college as college, explicitly confirms their action. These two instances, of an ecumenical council and a collegial act by the dispersed bishops, are called effective collegiality, because the college and its head act visibly together.

Just as conciliarity contextualizes the notion of primacy, so collegiality locates the pope as head (caput) of the college of bishops and universal pastor of the Church. The Patristic tradition sees the relation between the bishop of Rome and all other bishops as a representation in a sacramental manner of the relation between Peter and the Twelve.(17) The pope’s headship of the Church is always headship from within the college of bishops. While Peter has the special position of head within the apostolic college because of Christ’s commission, Peter is not apart from it. He is called upon to guide, direct, and strengthen the brethren; his love and witness to the Lord strengthens the other apostles in their faith and ministry. For Augustine, Peter becomes a personification of the Church.(18) In the person of Peter, one sees the Church; in his faith, one sees the faith of all.(19)

Because of Peter’s (and also Paul’s) witness (marturia) to the faith in Rome, this local Church has taken on a special position within the local Churches through its bishop, the successor of Peter or, as the Patristic tradition called him, the Vicar of Peter. The term vicar can have a legal meaning of standing in for another person when that person is absent. In this case we are not talking about absence but of symbolic presence. The bishop of Rome in exercising his special responsibility of ministerial service to the communion of Churches is an effective sign of Peter. More specifically, just as Peter was head of the apostolic college in witnessing to the unifying presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of the communion of believers and in strenghthening that awareness, so the successors of Peter are vicars in witnessing to that same life-giving presence within the Church.

Tillard develops this symbolic dimension through the biblical concept of corporate personality, in which the identity of a group becomes embodied in one individual so that all the members of the group can recognize themselves in him. This analogy must be used with care because it could be interpreted as making the Church herself a subsistent person rather than a relational reality.(20) Nevertheless Tillard pursues the point:

The basic identity between the representative individual and his group in an interplay of dynamic communion helps us to understand better how impossible it is to consider the primate (protos) except in connection with the college, for he would then be a monster, a head without a body. The primate is inseparably he who represents others . . . it is in him that they are able to recognize themselves. His contribution to the koinonia thus includes a responsibility which is not shared exactly by any of the others.(21)

Of course, just as monstrous as a head without a body is a body without a head. Within a theology of episcopal collegiality, therefore, is headship made visible in episcopal conferences such that they exercise some form of effective collegiality without engaging the entire college?

IV. Episcopal Conferences

What has been said in the previous sections provides the theological context for understanding this relatively recent phenomenon of episcopal conferences. While, juridically, no analogy may be drawn between Eastern synods and Western episcopal conferences (EC, n. 1), Lumen Gentium notes that both patriarchal synods and modern episcopal conferences have the preservation of ecclesial unity as their basic purpose or mission: different Churches (Ecclesiae) set up in various places the apostles and their successors joined together in a multiplicity of organically united groups (coetus organice coniunctos) which, while safeguarding the unity of the faith and the unique divine structure of the universal Church, have their own discipline, enjoy their own liturgical usage and inherit a theological and spiritual patrimony . . . . This multiplicity (varietas) of local Churches, unified (conspirans) in a common effort, shows ~ the more resplendently the catholicity of the undivided Church. (Simili ratione Coetus Episcopales) In a like fashion the episcopal conferences at the present time are in a position to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegiate spirit (affectus collegialis). (22)

All synodal activity is a conspirans (an agreeing, a converging, a breathing together) toward a communion that is truly catholic. Episcopal conferences (as well as national and provincial synods) are particular colleges of bishops, coetus episcopales,(23) visible instances of affective collegiality, which give true (but partial) realization to the college as such. What is important for effective collegial activity, however, is not so much the number of bishops, but rather that, when they gather within these structures, they give expression to a true ecclesial consensus (a moral unanimity) that can be recognized by the entire communion of local Churches as a decision in and of the apostolic faith (even if a particular decision pertains only to a small number of local Churches).(24) To so act, there must be the explicit presence of the head of the college, and the extent of his presence determines the extent to which the gathering is explicitly effectively collegial. In other words, the activity of these particular colleges is established by the reality of the full episcopal college itself.(25) In effect, the Motu Proprio on episcopal conferences brings the teaching function of conferences into line with what was already clear in Canon Law about their legislative function. Both reflect what is also true of liturgical assemblies. Without an ordained priest making Christ’s headship visible, the members of a congregation do not constitute a eucharistic assembly and the Eucharist cannot be celebrated. The parallelism for corporate action in teaching, governing, and sanctifying is complete.

Reservations about calling the actions of episcopal conferences collegial in any sense arise at times from the fact that much of their action is really the work of the offices that surround the conference and not of the bishops themselves. But the activity of a conference as such is never that of the permanent organizations which are usually attached to it; and it is up to the bishops to see that the permanent offices serve the bishops’ mission in the Church and no other agenda. Of course, not every decision made by the assembled bishops directly manifests a form of collegial activity-e.g., decisions made about procedural and administrative concerns such as budgets. But when the bishops take action on issues that are directly related to their episcopal ministry of overseeing their local Churches and strengthening the bond of communion among local Churches (e.g., their teaching, governing, and sanctifying responsibilities), they are effecting an action

as “personal subjects”(26) and doing so jointly, affectively together. Theaters of such action are given in the Motu Proprio itself (EC, 15), and their names suggest the titles of the committees of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. If this activity also involves the head of the college, in the form of universal laws detailing areas of conference responsibilities or decisions which receive a papal recognitio, the bishops in conference are acting as one body and their activity can be called effectively collegial, although never fully and strictly so.

Another objection to relating episcopal conferences to episcopal collegiality lies in the fact that the conferences are constituted by ecclesiastical law and not divine law. Only the collegiality of all bishops and the primacy of the pope are of divine institution. Yet, other important institutions such as ecumenical councils or the Roman synod of bishops, vital for the life of the Church, are also based on ecclesiastical law. Divine institution needs historical forms that become specifically associated with ecclesiastical law." It is not therefore incorrect to say that episcopal conferences are based on ecclesiastical law but have a foundation in divine law."

Pope John Paul II’s recent Motu Proprio on episcopal conferences explains:

At the level of particular Churches grouped together by geographic areas (by countries, regions, etc.) the bishops in charge do not exercise pastoral care jointly with collegial acts equal to those of the college of bishops (EC, These relationships (among groupingsofparticularChurches)areverydifferentfrom the relationship of mutual interiority of the universal Church with respect to the particular Churches. Likewise, the organizations formed by the bishops of a certain territory (country, region, etc,) and the bishops who are members of them share a relationship which although presenting a certain similarity, is really quite different from that which exists between the college of bishops and the individual bishops. (EC, 13)

This difference, I would argue, is that between the intrinsic relations, both affective and effective, founded on the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders and therefore constitutive of ecclesial communion and the extrinsic relations based on cooperating in pastoral projects to strengthen the life of a group of local Churches. The difference is ontological, but all the relations can be called or named analogously collegial, because an episcopal conference “constitutes à concrete application of the collegial spirit” (EC, 14).

While some object to any association of episcopal conferences with episcopal collegiality, others have objected to the limitations placed on episcopal conferences by this distinction between intrinsic relations based directly on ecclesial communion and those extrinsic relations deriving from practical pastoral cooperation across diocesan boundaries. The objections seem to arise from an inadequate understanding of Church. The old societal images of the Church as .,a kind of country have been replaced in the ecclesiology of Vatican II with an understanding of the Church as communion; the old images crop up, however, when even theologians compare episcopal conferences to parliaments or other civil governmental bodies. Ecclesial governance is unique because founded on sharing the invisible gifts of Christ made visible in the Church rather than on the will or desires of the participants. 0


1. Avery Dulles, “Bishops’ Conference Documents: What Doctrinal Authority?” Origins 14, no. 32 (1985): 528-534; “Doctrinal Authority of Episcopal Conferences,” in Episcopal Conferences: Historical, Canonical, and

Theological Studies (Washington: Georgetown University Press,1989), 207-31; The Reshaping of Catholicism (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 207-26; “What is the Role of a Bishop’s Conference,” Origins 17, no. 46 (1988): 789, 791-96. [*A slightly different version of this article was presented in New York, on 8 September 1998, on the occasion of a dinner honoring Fr. Dulles on his eightieth birthday.]

2. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Issued “Motu Proprio,” On the Theological And juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences [=EC] (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998).

3. EC,12; see also the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion,” Origins, 25, no. 99 (1992): 109.

4. See Joseph Komanchak, “Local Church and the Church Catholic: The Contemporary Theological Problematic,” Jurist 52 (1992): 447. The International Theological Commission shows the importance of human appropriation for the realization of Church life: “One might say that the memory and hope of Jesus Christ by which the new people of God lives are like the ‘formal’ element (in the scholastic sense of the term) which must structure the concrete existence of people. The latter, which is like the ‘matter’ (again in the scholastic sense), free and responsible, of course, receives one or another of a variety of determinations in order to constitute a way of life ‘according to the Spirit”’ (“Select Themes in Ecclesiology,” Texts and Documents (1969-1985) [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989], 277-78).

5. See J.M. Tillard, The Church of Churches: An Ecclesiology of Communion (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992).

6. See Yves Congar, “Autonomie et pouvoir central dans l’église,” Irénikon 53 (1980): 302.

7. The idea of conciliarity received strong attention in Russian Orthodox theology, beginning with Alexei Khomyakov, through the Russian word sobornost’. While it is almost impossible to give an equivalent one-word translation, it might be transliterated as “assembledness” or “gatheredness.” Because of its linguistic roots in Russian, the word is associated to councils, catholicity, communion, and collegiality, as well as conciliarity. Y. Congar also adds other terms: coetus, congregatio, societas, corpus, ecclesia. (Yves Congar, Lay People in the Church [Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1967], 283. Congar’s extended discussion on sobornost’ was omitted from the English translation; see the original French, ]alons pour une théologie du laicat [US # 23, Paris: Cerf,1953], 380-86.) Among the large number of articles on this subject one can,consult: Robert Barr, “The Changing Face of’Sobomost’,”’ Sciences Ecclésiastiques 15 (1963):59-71; Todor Sabev, “The Nature and Mission of Councils in the Light of the Theology of Sobornost’, Ecumenical Review 45 (1993): 261-70.

8. Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions (London: Burns & Oates, 1966), 106.

9. The idea of event is to show that a council is not the Church itself but a key manifestation of it. Yves Congar, “The Conciliar Structure or Regime of the Church,” The Ecumenical Council, Concilium, vol.167 (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), 4.

10. Ibid., 7; also: “Daher ist ein Konzil nicht die Summe den einzelnen Stimmen, sondern das Gesamt des Bewu8tseins den Kirche. Ihr Ideal ist, wie in den ersten Tagen, das ‘in unum convenire’ [St. Cyprian, Epis. 55, 6], die Übereinstimmung” [Therefore, a council is not the sum of individual voices, but the totality of the Church’s consciousness. Her ideal, as in early times, is “unum conaenire” (St. Cyprian, Epis. 55, 6), concord] (Y. Congar, “Die Konzilien im Leben den Kirche,” Una Sancta 14 (1959): 162).

11. Y. Congar, “The Conciliar Structure,” 7. This idea of a concentration of consciousness comes from Hermann J. Sieben; see Die Konzilsidee der alien Kirche (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schdningh,1979). Bouyer gives the following description of an ecumenical council. “The council is therefore a coming together of bishops who are in charge of individual Churches, by means of which these Churches are called to renew their common consciousness and form one universal Church in Christ” (Louis Bouyer, The Church of God [Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press], 437).

12. Yves Congar, “The Council as an Assembly and the Church as Essentially Conciliar,” in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler ( London: Sheed and Ward, 1968), 63ff.

13 From an historical perspective A. Lumpe says that the very term sunodos reflects the analogous relationship between the ecumenical council and local synods: “Die oikoumenike sunodos ist also im ursprünglichen Sinne eine Synode, die nicht nur die Kirche einer Provinz oder eines groseren Teiles des romischen Reiches, sondern die Kirche des gesamtes r6mischen Reiches reprâsentiert, also eine Reichssynode im engeren Sinne des Wortes” [The oikoumenike sunodos, then, is, in its original meaning, a synod that represents, not just the Church of a province or of a larger part of the Roman empire, but the Church of the empire as a whole, hence, an imperial synod in the narrow sense of the word] (Adolf Lumpe, “Zur. Geschichte des Wortes Sunodos,” Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum 6 (1’9A~): 50).

14. Ange1 Antbn, “The Theological Status of Episcopal Conferences,” in Nature and Future of Episcopal Conferences, ed. H. Legrand, J. Manzanares, A. Garcia y Garcia (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 205.

15. Pope john Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 95. In the opening homily at the 1969 Synod of Bishops Pope Paul VI sought to go beyond a juridical understanding of collegiality. (Cf. AAS 61 (1969): 71621) He said that collegiality is a communion, a solidarity, a fraternity, charity, coresponsibility. “Quid autem aliud est collegialitas, nisi communio quaedam, et animorum coniunctio, et fraternitas, et caritas .... Collegialitas est conscia munerum susceptio” [But what is collegiality but a certain communion, and brotherhood, and charity, and conjunction of hearts .... Collegiality is conscious acceptance of responsibilities] (718). It is a love among the bishops that must extend outward to effect unity. “Coll egialitas unitas est” [Collegiality is unity] (719). ;

16 Lumen Gentium, 22. Also see note 4 of Lumen Gentium: “As Supreme Pastor of the Church, the Supreme Pontiff can always exercise his power at will, as his very office demands. Though it is always in existence, the college is not as a result permanently engaged in strictly collegial activity; the Church’s Tradition makes this clear. In other words, the college is not always ‘fully active [in actu pleno]’; rather, it acts as a college in the strict sense only from time to time and only with the consent of its héad. The phrase ‘with the consent of its head’ is used to avoid the idea of dependence on some kind of outsider; the term ‘consent’ suggests rather communion between the head and the members, and implies the need for an act which belongs properly to the competence of the head."

17. Yves Congar, Ministères et communion ecclésiale (Paris: Cerf, 1971), 180. See also, Yves Congar, “Conclusion,” in Le concile et les conciles (Paris: Cerf, 1960), 317-8; idem., “Titres donnés au pape,” Concilium: Revue Internationale de Théologie 108 (Tours, 1975): 60.

18. See Augustine, Sermo, 295.2 (PL, vol. 38,1349); Epist., 53.2 (PL, vol. 33,196).

19. Y. Congar L’église de Saint Augustin d l’époque moderne, 21-22; J. Tillard, Eglise d’églises, 367

20. This is why Congar feels that corporate personality is not an appropriate term for the pope. He agrees with Tillard’s development of the representative role of the pope. But the term of corporate personality applies to one who is the source and origin of the whole group. See Yves Congar, “Bulletin d’ecclésiologie,” RSPT 66 (1982): 119.

21. J. Tillard, The Bishop of Rome, 159-60.

22. Lumen Gentium, 23.

23. Angel Antôn, Conferencias episcopales, 282-83. One can also note Congar’s comment that coetus is one of the translations for sobornost’.

24. Winfried Aymans, Das synodale Element in der Kirchenverfassung, Münchener Theol. Studien, vol. 3, Kanonistiche Abteilung 30 (München: Max Hueber Verlag, 1970), 269-70; Joseph Ratzinger, Il nuovo popolo di Dio, 203. Ratzinger notes that in the early Church the understanding of collegiality was primarily experienced through particular colleges who met in provincial synods. Ratzinger also notes two instances where the patristic texts designate what we have termed particular colleges. Leo I writes to the Africans about not ordaining unworthy candidates into “their college” (PL vol. 54, col. 647BC). Celestine speaks in a similar way about the problem of unworthy candidates (see PL vol. 50, col. 435C-436A).

25. "L’agir-ensemmble (conjunctim) dontparle Vatican II ditbeaucoup plus ici, ecclésiologiquement, que faction concertée. Il relève de l’insertion de l’action de chacun des évêques en cause dans la solidarité et la responsabilité collectives dont l’unique sujet est le collegium. Il n’existe aucune mise en oeuvre structurée (et non purement fortuite) de la responsabilité collective de l’épiscopat qui ne s’enracine formellement dans la responsabilité du collegium comme tel, pour l’actualiser à sa mesure. Cette solidarité, ou responsabilité collective, est la réalité de jure divino où la grâce de l’ordination inscrit chaque évêque. Elle se donne des formes historiques (d’institution ecclésiale), allant du concile oecuménique à la conférence épiscopale, en passant par le concile provincial ou le concile plénier de l’église régionale" [When Vatican II speaks of joint action (conjunctim) it means much more, ecclesiologically, than concerted action. It emerges from the insertion of the action of each of the bishops in the collective solidarity and responsibility whose sole subject is the collegium. There is no structured (as opposed to merely fortuitous) exercise of collective responsibility in the episcopate that is not rooted formally in the responsibility of the collegium as such, which it actualizes in turn. This solidarity, or collective responsibility, is the de jure divino reality into which the grace of ordination inserts each bishop. It takes on various historical forms (at the level of ecclesial institutions), from the ecumenical council to the episcopal conference, with the provincial council or plenary council of the regional Church as intermediate forms] (J. Tillard, “Le ‘status’ théologique des conférences épiscopales,” 293).

26. Y Congar, “Collège, primauté, conférences épiscopales,” 388.

27 Y Congar, “Collège, primauté, conférences épiscopales,” 385.

28. W. Kasper, “Der theologische Status der Bischofskonferenzen,” 3.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.