Traditional Catholic Bishops -
Do They Possess Authority?

I recently ran across this post on a traditional Catholic blog, written by a layman:

“What I am saying is this: They [traditional clergy] have no mission from the Church. The traditional bishops are no more a successor of the Apostles than I am. The bishops and priests are ordained only for the purpose of providing the Sacraments. They are in no sense pastors or in any way have authority over the flock of Christ. When they preach or teach it is in a non-authoritative manner, the same as when a layman does. A Catholic is not bound to these chapels or priests. He can or should attend mass or support these chapels according to the virtue of prudence but not of justice.”

The opinions expressed by this gentleman are in no way unique to him; and with one feeble exception, this gentleman's comment went totally unchallenged. I dare say what he expressed is commonly believed by almost all of those who call themselves traditional Catholics today.

What those who subscribe to this theory have effectively done is to have reduced the traditional Catholic clergy to the mere status of sacramental vending machines. If the “virtue of prudence” dictates, the traditional Catholic puts his donation into the Sunday collection basket and receives a Sacrament or two in the exchange. If one “Latin Mass Center” doesn't suit his fancy, he can simply go shopping for another as the “virtue of prudence” dictates, as in fact, many of them actually do.

This novel relationship between bishops, priests and the laity is, simply put, not Catholic. I hope to demonstrate this by showing 1) that this notion of equality of authority is doctrinally unsound; and 2) that traditional Catholic bishops do in fact possess, in virtue of their consecrations, some authority (at least in potentia).

I. Catholic Bishops in General

The episcopal office is of course of divine constitution. It was established by Christ. The purpose of the episcopacy was clearly defined by St. Paul and later confirmed by the Council of Trent when they taught that bishops “are appointed by the Holy Ghost to rule the Church of God.” (Acts, 20:28; Trent, Sess. 23, Ch. 4) But a further clarification needs to be made, because not all bishops are created equal.

In the Catholic Church, during the reign of Pope Pius XII (d. 1958), all bishops fell into one of two categories: they were either residential bishops or titular bishops.

Besides the papal assignment to rule a particular diocese and the consequent ordinary jurisdiction which attaches to that appointment, there is little else distinguishing residential bishops from titular bishops. They both share the same canonical investiture by the pope, the same rite of consecration, the same rights and privileges (outside of their own dioceses), the same clerical garb, titles, insignia... They also all share, contrary to the opinions of many traditional Catholics, the right to govern the Church Universal.

1. Bishops are Sacramentally Constituted to Rule the Church

The preparatory commission for Vatican Council I discussed the question of whether titular bishops had the right to participate in the Council and decided the question in the affirmative.

In the ninth meeting of the directive Congregation on May 17, 1868, Monsignor Angelini, the recorder, among other proposals made the following:

“The reasoning behind the opposite opinion is based completely upon the power of jurisdiction. Now the simply titular bishops have no effective and actual jurisdiction. Hence they conclude that they lack the basis on which the right to vote rests.
Yet this total lack of jurisdiction does not seem admissible since it is almost impossible not to acknowledge that at least some jurisdiction was received through the imposition of hands or consecration. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish in a bishop the particular jurisdiction for the governing of some determined Church, which is inevitably received from the Pope, from the general and universal jurisdiction which the bishop acquires in the act of, and in virtue of his ordination, i.e., when he becomes a member of the episcopal body and consequently enters the right to teach and govern the whole Church, during which he will be sitting in union of all other bishops and will form one body with them and with the Supreme Pontiff...
Such is the reasoning of Bolgeni, Cappellari who was afterwards Gregory XVI of holy memory, Phillips, and others.’” (Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nove et amplissima collection, 49, 1923, col. 495 f. Emphasis supplied.)

In the same Congregation’s meeting of March 14, 1869, the following is stated:

“[T]hat when the reply distinguishing habitual from actual jurisdiction is left out by otherwise eminent and serious authors in response to the objection usually advanced in opposition and drawn from the fact that titular bishops lack jurisdiction, there is another solid distinction between the particular jurisdiction over a given diocese, which the titular bishops cannot exercise and the general and universal jurisdiction acquired in virtue of the same ordination and common to all bishops. This jurisdiction consists precisely in the right to teach and to govern the entire Church which takes place in councils where the body of the bishops are united with the pope for the affairs of the universal Church...
In view of all these weighty considerations, the mentioned most eminent and most reverend Cardinals have unanimously concluded that they do not see any way to deny admission to the Council even to a part of the above-mentions titular bishops.’” (Mansi, Ibid., 525 f. Emphasis supplied)

To understand the doctrinal value of the above quotes, it is necessary to understand who made them and the context in which they were made. Before the start of Vatican Council I, Preparatory Commissions were created to deal with all relevant matters pertaining to the Council. These Commissions typically consisted of prelates (usually Cardinals) and noted theologians. Now it needs to be understood that the works of these Preparatory Commissions are in no way official doctrines or teachings of the Council. They do, nevertheless, represent sound doctrine in as much as there is a strong doctrinal basis that caused the Commissions to introduce them into the Council in the first place, as well as the eminence and knowledge of those who prepared these documents. So while acknowledging that the conclusions of the Preparatory Commissions are in no way infallible, they do, nevertheless, have considerable weight as sound Catholic doctrine.

Now one of the relevant matters the Commission considered was whether or not titular bishops have the right to participate in that Council, and the question was answered unanimously in the affirmative, as was quoted above.

It is also germane here to note that the Commission’s finding that the above-mentioned titular bishops’ had jurisdiction to govern the Catholic Church in general, was not based upon their possession of their titular dioceses, but rather in virtue of their consecration to the episcopacy. A brief examination into the sacramental rite of episcopal consecration will show the correctness of the Commission’s conclusion here.

2. The Sacraments Don't Lie

The quotes below are taken from an English translation of the 1892 Roman Pontifical of the consecration of a bishop. The Pontifical contains one and only one rite of consecration to the episcopacy, regardless of whether or not the episcopal candidate is destined to be a residential or a titular bishop. The reader will readily notice that many of the words and symbols employed in this sacred rite are directed toward jurisdiction, i.e., the power of governing and teaching the whole Church, as was noted by the Preparatory Commission. Here are some excerpts:

Note that judging, interpreting, binding, loosing, preaching… are all jurisdictional acts, and this power (at least in potentia) is bestowed upon all bishops, without exception, at their consecrations.

It would also be good to call to mind that the consecration of a bishop is a Sacrament of the Church, and: “the sacraments of the New Law, as sensible and efficient signs of invisible grace, ought both to signify the grace which they effect, and effect the grace which they signify.” (Apostolicæ Curæ, Leo XIII, 1896) Granting that the above excerpts regarding jurisdiction are not the strictly necessary form of the Sacrament, nevertheless they are part of the Church official liturgy and therefore necessarily free of doctrinal error. If the rite of the Sacrament signifies the bestowal of authority, then as Catholics, we must accept that bestowal of authority as a fact of the Sacrament.

Particularly noteworthy of the above quotes are:

Nevertheless, despite this inherent jurisdiction received by all bishops in virtue of their consecrations, there still remains one notable difference between the titular bishops referenced above in the preamble of Vatican Council I and traditional bishops of today – canonical investiture.

II. Canonical Investiture

“Amen, amen, I say to you: He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold but climbeth up another way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.” (John 10:1-2)

This “door” by which the bishop enters into the sheepfold is commonly known as canonical investiture (sometimes also referred to as a “canonical mission,” “canonical appointment,” “being sent,” “incorporation in the Church,” etc.) and is the act by which a bishop is recognized by the Pope and thereby incorporated into the Church.

1. Divine Law/Church Law

“In saying that papal adoption [investiture] is necessary, we do not mean it is merely necessary because of ecclesiastical law currently in force; we mean it is necessary by the divine law itself.” (Msgr. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology, 1957, Vol. 2, p. 323)

So if a bishop is to be incorporated into the Church and thereby acquire certain powers of ruling the Church, he must be canonical invested, and this investiture is a requirement of divine law.

But is the manner of how this investiture takes place of divine law too? Some have mistaken believed so based upon Pope Pius XII’s statement that “although their [bishops] jurisdiction is inherent in their office, yet they receive it directly from the same Supreme Pontiff.” (Mystici Corporis, 6/29/1943, 52 – Emphasis supplied.)

Now everyone knows that divine law is immutable, it cannot be changed, so if “direct” investiture by the Pope were of divine law, then that would have always been the case since the beginning of the Church - every single bishop would have been directly invested by the Pope. But historically, we know that wasn’t the case:

“In early traditions such incorporation [investiture] was had through lawful (i.e., approved by the Metropolitan and the co-provincial bishops) episcopal consecration for a determined particular church (diocese); then in the Middle Ages (by the Law of the Decretals) by the Metropolitan’s confirmation of a candidate who was canonically elected by the cathedral chapter; finally, by canonical mission and institution on the part of the Roman Pontiff.” (The Papacy, the Episcopacy and Collegiality, Fr. Bertrams, S.J., 1964, p. 114)

Furthermore, we have this from Pope Pius VI:

"...for the other bishops [i.e., other than the pope], however, it is necessary that each one's specific portion of the flock be assigned to him not by divine but by ecclesiastical law, not by the mouth of Christ, but by hierarchical ordination, so that he may exercise ordinary power of governance over it. (Super Soliditate – 11/28/1786)

So investiture by the Pope “directly” is current ecclesiastical law. It is not divine law. And unlike divine law, ecclesiastical law is subject to change.

2. Cessation of the Ecclesiastical Law of Direct Investiture

Anyone conversant with Canon Law knows that no lawmaker, including the Pope, can bind subjects to impossibilities. That is why canonists teach that an impossible law is a non-binding law: “Absolute impossibility excuses from the observance of any law.” (Moral Theology, Cessation of Law, Prummer, 1956)

Now the lack of a Supreme Pontiff (the sedevacantist position) clearly constitutes an “absolute impossibility” of receiving investiture “directly” from him. Therefore no one is bound to the observance of the ecclesiastical law of direct investiture, because presently it is an impossible law to comply with.

But beyond being merely excused from observing this law, this law may furthermore be safely presumed to be revoked:

“[L]aw is an ordinance in accordance with reason, it ought to be revoked if it becomes useless, harmful or unreasonable; and if it has not actually been revoked, it is to be reasonably presumed to be revoked. For its purpose is the soul of the law, and a law without a soul lapses, ceases to exist, dies.”(Canon Law, Canon 21, Cicognani, 1936, p. 625)

It is certainly “unreasonable” to expect episcopal candidates to obtain investiture from a non-existent pope, so we may safely presume that the law of papal investiture to be a revoked law until such time as it becomes possible once again to abide by it.

So in summary, the requirement of canonical investiture endures, because it is of divine law. But the requirement of canonical investiture directly from the Pope ceases, because it is an ecclesiastical law that cannot possibly be complied with, and as such safely presumed to be revoked.

III. Extraordinary Investiture

“It is one thing to change the constitution of the Church; it is another thing entirely to provide for extraordinary circumstances in an extraordinary way.” (Msgr. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology, 1957, Vol. 2, p. 320, footnote)

The Direct Act of Christ – Would He?

Recognizing the obvious, that Christ has the capacity to personally invest a bishop (as He does in fact do with every pope), provided that in doing so He would not be contradicting His own Church, the following question naturally arises: would He?

The Early Church

In Holy Scripture we read how the Holy Ghost granted numerous spiritual aids to the early Church:

“To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom: and to another, the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit: To another, faith in the same spirit: to another, the grace of healing in one Spirit: To another the working of miracles: to another, prophecy: to another, the discerning of spirits: to another, diverse kinds of tongues: to another, interpretation of speeches.” (1 Cor. 12:8-10)

Catholic historians are in agreement in telling us that these gifts were given to the early Church because they were essential for her development and growth, but that once she had sufficiently matured, these gifts (by and large) were taken away. They were no longer needed.

What this shows is that when the Church was is need, God supplied for this need, even if it required extraordinary means.

The Great Western Schism

The Great Western Schism (1378-1417) is undoubtedly one of the most relevant pieces of history to which we can draw parallels to our times. During this 40 year period, there were always two, and sometimes even three, papal claimants. All of the claimants had entire nations supporting their various claims of being “the one and only pope.” Even canonized saints were divided as to whom the true pope was. Mutual anathemas and excommunications were the order of the day. Theories abounded everywhere, but the fact of the matter is that no one knew for a certainty who the true pope was. In fact, it is still debated even to this day. Some Catholic historians, taking St. Bellarmine’s axiom of “a doubtful pope is no pope” believe, at least in the practical order, that the Schism was a real and true 40 year interregnum. While there may have indeed been a true pope (as now most believe there was), certainly at the time of the Schism no one could lay an undisputed claim as to who he was, the practical result being that the Schism was a de facto interregnum.

This raises an interesting issue. Most of the residential bishops at the start of the Schism died before it ended. New bishops were “canonically appointed” by any and all of the papal claimants. But as there can only be one pope, and consequently only one power to invest a bishop, it becomes clear that a large number of these bishops actually lacked valid papal investiture. They had valid orders, but beyond that, much was uncertain.

I have read three books and many treatises on the Schism, yet never have I come across so much as a single claim that these bishops, who could not prove that they had valid canonical investitures, were considered to be void of jurisdictional authority (yet alone to have no more authority than a lay man!) Nobody, absolutely nobody, considered these bishops to be “Sacraments only bishops.” Rather, these bishops functioned in all respects as did their predecessors and the Catholic clergy and laity alike accepted them as such.

This fact raises a question. How could a bishop invested by an anti-pope, who clearly lacked the power to invest, acquire jurisdictional authority? According to theologian Fr. Zapelena, Christ Himself would have intervened and supplied jurisdiction, even to the anti-popes themselves:

“For the rest, if you figure those three popes to be null, you ought to admit jurisdiction to have been supplied (on account of the color of title)ii not indeed by the Church, which lacks the supreme power, but by Christ Himself, Who would have conferred jurisdiction on each of these anti-popesiii as much as was necessary.” (De Ecclesia Christi Summarium, Thesis 13, p. 267, 1932)

The Sacraments Under Extraordinary Circumstances

The Seven Sacraments were instituted by Christ and their administration is very carefully guarded by the Church. If the Sacraments are administered contrary to Church law, they are always illicit and potentially invalid. In the administration of the Sacraments, one is never allowed to deviate, not even in the least. The Church is inflexible on this.

In cases of grave need, however, the Church relaxes her requirements for administering the Sacraments to a bare minimum that is needed for validity. Most applicable is the Sacrament of Confession.

The Sacrament of Confession - Absolution Supplied

Regarding the Sacrament of Confession, St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica took up the topic of “whether it is ever lawful to confess to another than a priest?”

“Objection 1: [T]he dispensing of a sacrament belongs to none but the minister of a sacrament. Since then the proper minister of Penance is a priest, it seems that confession should be made to no one else.”

St. Thomas then refutes this objection by stating:

“Now satisfaction originates from the minister in so far as he enjoins it, and from the penitent who fulfills it; and, for the fullness of the sacrament, both these things should concur when possible. But when there is reason for urgency, the penitent should fulfill his own part, by being contrite and confessing to whom he can; and although this person cannot perfect the sacrament, so as to fulfill the part of the priest by giving absolution, yet this defect is supplied by the High Priest.” (Summa, Supp. 8, 2, Emphasis Supplied)

The “High Priest” is of course Christ. It is noteworthy that St. Thomas doesn’t say that absolution could or might be supplied by Christ. He says that it “is supplied.” (“Summas Sacerdos supplet.”)

So here we have a case where the penitent does all that is within his power and can do no more, and St. Thomas states that God will supply that which is wanting by substituting in for the priest. If there is no priest to pronounce the words of absolution, then God Himself will do it.

The same conditions that St. Thomas outlined here are also present with our traditional Catholic bishops as well. Here too is “urgency” as well as the incapacity of doing more. Like the penitent, they too have “fulfilled their own part” and can do nothing more. So why wouldn’t Christ, in such an instance, supply for what is wanting? Especially since the “reason for urgency” is not a single penitent, as is the case which St. Thomas addresses, but rather the welfare of many?

The Hierarchical Church and the Natural Law

It is a matter of faith that Christ constituted His Church a hierarchy. The clergy are part of that hierarchy; the laity are not. According to the power of Orders, the hierarchy consists of bishops, priests, and deacons. According to the power of Jurisdiction, the hierarchy consists of the Pope and residential bishops. This is by divine institution, not Church law, and therefore irreformable.

Now the very sedevacantist position is that there is no reigning pope, so in the jurisdictional hierarchy that would leave only residential bishops. But where are they? Can anyone point to as much as a single one of them? Anywhere? The answer is no. No sedevacantist has been able to point to as much as one living bishop anywhere on the face of the earth who professes doctrinally sound Catholicism and possesses ordinary jurisdiction. And this has been the case for many decades, despite the fact that the names of every living bishop invested by Pius XII and John XXIII have been provided on a number of different occasions. Now we know that Apostolic Succession must continue somewhere, but looking for it among the bishops invested by true popes has proven to be futile task for decades now. In fact, there are more claimed sightings of Extraterrestrials and Big Foot than there are of doctrinally orthodox residential Catholic bishops.

So in the practical order, in the “known world,” today's traditional Catholic bishops are on the top of the Church’s hierarchy. There is no one above them, neither in the hierarchy of Orders nor in the hierarchy of Jurisdiction. On this score alone, doesn't both the hierarchical nature of the Church and the natural law argue in favor of God investing them with the requisite authority, unless He appears to have abandoned His Church? The theologian Cardinal Billot thinks so.

“When it would be necessary to proceed with the election, if it is impossible to follow the regulations of papal law, as was the case during the Great Western Schism, one can accept, without difficulty, that the power of election could be transferred to a General Council. […] Because natural law prescribes that, in such cases, the power of a Superior is passed to the immediate inferior, because this is absolutely necessary for the survival of the society and to avoid the tribulations of extreme need.” (De Ecclesia Christi)

The “immediate inferior” today can be none other than the Catholic bishops in good standing, at least in the known world. (If you want to abandon the known world for the speculative world, then I guess anything is possible, including Extraterrestrials and Big Foot.)

A Quick Review

We have now provided the reader with two important facts: 1) bishops receive authority, at least in potentia, at their consecrations; 2) the possibility that Christ Himself would invest today’s Catholic bishops is not contrary to Catholic doctrine.

IV. The “No Authority Bishop Theory” is in Conflict with Catholicism

It should be noted at the outset that no evidence has ever been presented that would support the thesis of equality of authority in the Catholic Church between bishops and the laity. When I say no evidence, I mean no evidence - nothing, nicht, nada, zip, nihil, rien, nichego, nihookaté, either doctrinally or historically, that would support their thesis of equality of authority in the Catholic Church between bishops and the laity - at any time or under any circumstances. Period. The reason for this is because the no authority thesis is not Catholic. It's that simple. Those who subscribe to this thesis have arrived at it via their own lights. They are simply making it up. It is a total novelty to Catholicism and fails the test of Catholicity.

1. Their Churches - No Precedent

The Catholic Church is a perfect society. A perfect society is said to contain within itself:

“all the means necessary to attain its end, and is therefore endowed with adequate authority for that purpose, e.g., the Church, the state.” (Cath. Dict., Attwater)

Now our no authority advocates admit to all of this - they acknowledge that the Catholic Church is a perfect society endowed with all of the authority necessary to attain it ends - they only deny that there is any authority in their churches.

But this concept of a church without authority is an absolute novelty to Catholicism, for never - at any time, in any place, nor during any age, could one find a Catholic church that lacked authority. All churches since the time of the Apostles were under the authority of either the Pope or a bishop, either directly or by way of delegation. From the largest cathedral down to the smallest hamlet church in some remote mission territory, all were under ecclesiastical authority. But now we are told that there is a new creature that never before existed in the Catholic Church - a church without authority.

2. The Non-Existent Offices of Teaching and Ruling

In the Catholic Church the Church’s hierarchy possesses two powers, that of orders and that of jurisdiction. The power of orders pertains to the office of sanctifying and the power of jurisdiction pertains to the power of ruling and teaching, and this component of ruling and teaching is what is absent in the churches of the no authority advocates. No one rules and no one teaches in their churches, or perhaps more accurately put, everyone rules and everyone teaches. This is especially true in matters of teaching, and this is contrary to Catholicism.

“Without previous ecclesiastical approval, even laymen are not allowed to publish… books treating of Sacred Scripture, theology, church history, canon law, natural theology… other writings in general which contain anything that has a special bearing on religion or morality…” (Canon 1385)

Now our no authority advocates deny the known existence of anyone with the requisite power to grant ecclesiastical approval to publish the works mentioned in this canon, so they have adopted the position that anyone and everyone can publish anything, and that is exactly what has happened. Every Tom, Dick and Harry known to man freely publishes their personal opinions on every topic known to Catholicism, which is the very antithesis of what this canon legislates.

Here is a sampling of the doctrinal chaos which logically follows such a position:

In summary, what the no authority advocates have effectively done was to remove the teaching and ruling office from every “Catholic” church that they can point a finger to. The element of jurisdiction is simply absent in their churches, only that of Orders remains, and the above cacophony of disorientation finds life. This is the natural and inevitable result of a no authority church.

3. Indefectibility

The doctrine of indefectibility, based upon Christ’s promise to be with us “all days, even to the consummation of the world,” guarantees us that the Catholic Church will endure unto the end of time without ever undergoing any substantial change:

“[T]he Church of Christ not only exists to-day and always, but is also exactly the same as it was in the time of the Apostles…” (Mortalium Animos, Pope Pius XI, 1928)

This means that the Catholic Church will always possess authority, which is one of her Attributes.

Since our no authority advocates deny that any of their clergy possess authority, “they are in no sense pastors or in any way have authority over the flock of Christ,” then the question naturally arises: in the absence of authority, can their churches be called Catholic?

V. Summary

Two scenarios have been presented here.

In one scenario, we have a situation in which (outside of the speculative world) the Church has no authority. Everyone is equal and everyone can freely decide for themselves on matters normally reserved to the Church’s hierarchy. There is no longer a Church teaching or a Church ruling (or perhaps more accurately put, everyone is the Church teaching and everyone is the Church ruling ). I believe that churches which have adopted such a position are questionably Catholic because in practice they have eliminated the Church’s hierarchical authority and essentially replaced it with congregationalism.

In the other scenario the highest ranking members of the Church’s known hierarchy, the bishops, fill the role of residential bishop, at least to the minimal extent required to maintain Catholicity, and the lesser clergy and laity submit to this authority. I maintain that this is not in conflict with Catholic doctrine and unarguably more closely resembles the historical Catholic Church of nearly 2,000 years.

iIt is true that in the rite of ordination for the priesthood, the power to teaching and preaching is sacramentally conferred. But within the ordination rite itself, this power is subordinated to the bishop: “Since, then, to be such as may rightly be chosen by God’s grace to assist Moses and the twelve Apostles, that is, the Catholic Bishops who are represented by Moses and the Apostles. For, indeed, Holy Church is served, adorned and governed by an admirable variety of Ministers; first the Bishops, under them the Priests… forming one Body of Christ. Wherefore, dearly beloved sons, whom the voice of our brethren has chosen that you may be consecrated our helpers…

ii“Color of title” was considered by many in the past to be a necessary requisite for supplied jurisdiction. Whatever the case may have been back then, according to the current Code of Canon Law (1917) the color of title is no longer a necessary condition for supplied jurisdiction.

iiiTo avoid possible confusion to the reader, a clarification should be noted between the “anti-popes” mentioned by Zapelena and the false popes of today. The anti-popes Zapelena speaks of were all Catholic clergymen in good standing with the Church - there were no heretics among them. Their contemporaneous papal claims were horribly destructive to the good of the Church and of souls, and grievously scandalous, but said claims were all within the framework of accepted Catholic doctrine, and therefore none of them lost membership in the Church because of the positions that they held. Nevertheless, because some or all of them were not “true” popes, Zapelena designates them as “anti-popes.” Their position, however, is in stark contrast with our modern claimants of today, who due to their many doctrinal errors have lost membership in the Church ipso facto and as a consequence, have no claims to the papacy whatsoever.

Bishop Joseph Marie