No reforming project exercised the pope and bishops at Vatican II (1962–65) more than collegiality—the doctrine that the church is governed by the college of bishops, with and under the pope. The Catholic Church had for centuries been known as a monarchy. Now, in its dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, it described itself as a people’s church, hierarchically structured on the pattern of the twelve apostles around their leader, Peter. This reform of governance was a key result of the council’s progressive method, eschewing the juridical approach to church governance dominant for centuries so as to draw out from biblical and patristic sources the deepest and richest meaning of tradition.

Yet today, fifty years after the Second Vatican Council opened, the collegial hopes and expectations of that time are muted. For now and for the foreseeable future that reform, with all the ecumenical and pastoral avenues it would have opened up, is on the shelf.

There had been great surprise when a straw poll of concilar bishops at the council taken on October 30, 1963, showed very large majorities in favor of the collegial principle. “We have won,” exclaimed Pope Paul VI. The former seminarian Michael Novak, who at that time sided with the progressives, was ecstatic. Present in Rome as a freelance reporter, he wrote that in the evening of that day “a nearly full moon bathed St. Peter’s Square in such brilliance, such serenity, as was worthy of the greatest day in Roman Catholic history since 1870”—the date of Vatican I.

The battle over chapter 3 of Lumen gentium, where the collegiality doctrine is set out, would be fierce and protracted. The conservative minority of bishops fought every inch of the way. They were convinced that the primacy of the pope defined by Vatican I would be infringed if the doctrine passed. They did not accept the assurances of the majority that collegiality would strengthen both pope and bishops.

The debates came to a head in the third session of the council in 1964, but the movement toward collegiality can be traced back to the very beginning of the first session in 1962, when some 2,500 bishops rejected the first drafts of the council documents prepared for them by the Roman curia. The bishops were asserting their traditional right as a general council with the pope to exercise supreme power over the entire church, as codified in canon law. From that first moment the council experienced collegiality in its every action. Naturally, the bishops sought to enshrine the practice in their documents.

One theologian who first came to wide notice during the council was Joseph Ratzinger, present as the invited peritus, or expert, of Cardinal Joseph Frings, archbishop of Cologne, who was one of the leaders of the reform movement. The reports Ratzinger wrote after each session were subsequently collected and published in 1966 as Theological Highlights of Vatican II, which breathes the atmosphere of that time. The book constitutes a locus classicus for the issues and arguments over collegiality (see “Ratzinger at Vatican II,” Commonweal, June 4, 2010).

The future Pope Benedict XVI is clear about the ultimate aim—“to correct the one-sided functions of an overemphasized primacy by a new emphasis on the richness and variety in the church as represented in the bishops.” He singles out the struggle for special treatment in his report of the third session:

No other issue resulted in so much activity both open and covert; nor was any other issue subjected to such a careful and meticulous voting. A few figures will verify this. In the entire schema [draft] on the church [Lumen gentium], which comprised eight chapters, ten ballots were taken during the first series of votes on chapters 1–2 and chapters 4–8. In contrast, for chapter 3 alone...41 separate votes were taken. The more important sections were voted on sentence by sentence.

The crucial doctrinal exposition of Lumen gentium comes in chapter 3, article 22. As to Peter’s successor, the text states:

In virtue of his office, that is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the church. And he can always exercise this power freely.

The council thus reaffirms the doctrine of Vatican I. That previous council had in fact intended to consider next the powers of the bishops, but was prevented from doing so when the Italian army seized Rome. With Lumen gentium the bishops intended to fill in that gap:

The order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in teaching authority and pastoral rule.... Together with its head, the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head, the episcopal order is the subject of supreme and full power over the universal church. But this power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff....

It is definite, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter (Mt 16:19), was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with their head (Mt 18:18; 28:16–20). This college, insofar as it is composed of many, expresses the variety and universality of the People of God, but insofar as it is assembled under one head, it expresses the unity of the flock of Christ.

The extreme care taken to balance primacy and episcopacy is evident. The council uses the more modern title for the pope, “Vicar of Christ,” rather than the original “Vicar of Peter,” but elsewhere balances this too by stating that by divine right, not by papal delegation, each bishop is a vicar of Christ in his diocese.

In the debate, two mindsets were colliding, and here it is important to understand the use of the term “college.” Those eager to embrace collegiality saw the church as a communion, with the hierarchy at the center of a circle and at its service. The minority visualized the church as a pyramid with the pope at the apex. In Roman law, a college is defined as an association of equals, and this was a concept the traditionalists could not reconcile with their idea of a monarchical papacy. The Irish cardinal Michael Browne, a staunch conservative in the Roman curia, is reputed to have said that there could be no such college in the Catholic Church, for pope and bishops were not equals. Also attributed to Browne (as well as to others) is the quip that the only time the apostles acted collegially was when Christ was betrayed and they all ran away.

Seeing that they had no chance of overturning the large majorities behind the doctrine of collegiality, the conservatives laid siege to Paul VI in person. The Jesuit historian John O’Malley writes in his book What Happened at Vatican II that “the papal apartments had begun to compete with the floor of St. Peter’s as the council’s center of gravity.”

As the focus of unity, Paul VI sought to consider both sides fairly. And he was swayed to an extent by the criticisms of those opposed to collegiality—it was sometimes said of him that he had too much faith in the papacy.

Early one day the Jesuits at the Gregorian University saw an official car from the Vatican drawing up in the piazza outside. It had come to collect a German canonist, Wilhelm Bertrams, who had published a little book in Latin on primacy and episcopacy. Bertrams’s conservative theory was that the pope could act in two modes—as Vicar of Christ, exercising the primacy and owed obedience, or as head of the college of bishops, collegially, with episcopal participation.

This distinction was subsequently adopted by the pope in his Nota explicativa praevia, or Preparatory Explanatory Note, which shocked the council on November 16, 1964. It was to be appended to Lumen gentium as the key for interpretation of the collegiality doctrine. But it had not been discussed by the council or voted on.

The note was drafted mainly by the Belgian theologian Gérard Philips, who played a mediating role at Vatican II. But Bertrams and the pope’s unofficial personal theologian, Bishop Carlo Colombo, also had a hand in the document. Crucially, the note insists that the pope can act by himself or together with the bishops. In other words, the pope can stand apart from, not among, his fellow bishops. The synthesis sought by the council’s majority, by which the pope’s power would be constitutionally defined as flowing from his headship of the college of bishops, is split apart. As Christopher Butler, then abbot president of the English Benedictine Congregation, observed, the pope now had a moral obligation to govern collegially—but he did not have to.

The note was one of several outcomes that caused this closing period of the third session to be called the “Black Week” of Vatican II. While the dissenting minority was content, the majority went into shock. An opinion grew among them that the whole of chapter 3 should be rejected. But on reflection it was argued that collegiality was in the text, and any further delay in passing it would add to the pope’s anxieties and risk giving time for further damage. In the event, Lumen gentium went through with an overwhelming positive vote—only five negative ballots were cast. Among the contributors to that near-complete consensus, however, there were very different expectations of what the future would bring.

Reflecting on this drama, Joseph Ratzinger, who had himself at first been in favor of rejecting chapter 3, acknowledged in Highlights that “without doubt the scales were here further tipped in favor of papal primacy as opposed to collegiality.” But he judged that the note left “interpretations open in both directions” and “created no substantially new situation in regard to the council text itself.”

The ultimate fate of collegiality takes a dramatic turn in 1978 with the election of Karol Wojtyła, the first Polish pope. John Paul II would reveal himself to be one of the most dominant personalities ever to occupy the Chair of Peter, and it soon became clear in which direction he would lead the church.

As cardinal archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyła had watched many bishops conferences around the world respond to Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae vitae, which reaffirmed the traditional ban on contraception. Less than three years after he had steered the council to its conclusion, the pope had issued his encyclical without a shred of collegial input. Among those immediately objecting that the perspectives of Vatican II were being lost was Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens, primate of Belgium, who had been one of the council’s pillars.

Wojtyła did not approve of internal church disagreements, especially among bishops. Humane vitae was authentic papal teaching, and he himself had never had any doubt that artificial birth control was sinful. As pope, Wojtyła moved to reassert strong central control. Rhetorically he hailed Vatican II and he embraced many of the evangelical opportunities it opened up, but he did not implement its implicit call for the decentralization of church authority. He called its work a “sure compass” for the twenty-first century, “a source of riches” from which new generations would drink. In his world travels he pushed Vatican II boundaries out further. His more than a hundred visits to five continents preaching human rights would hardly have been conceivable without the council’s positive vision in Gaudium et spes of the activity of the spirit outside the church as well as within; his visits to synagogues and mosques and his interreligious initiatives at Assisi put flesh on the bones of Vatican II’s affirmation in Nostra aetate that “the church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions”; his ecumenical encyclical Ut unum sint was remarkable in its request for others’ help in making his office “a service of love recognized by all concerned”; and his support for religious freedom, forged under the Communist regime in Poland, was unwavering.

Within the church, however, he lost no time in reminding the bishops where they stood: he was in charge. His very first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (“Man’s Redeemer”), contained an early section on collegiality. It was preceded by praise of Paul VI mixed with references to “the difficult postconciliar period” when “the church seemed to be shaken from within,” affected by “various internal weaknesses.” At precisely this time of “difficulties and tension,” John Paul II declared, Vatican II’s principle of collegiality “showed itself particularly relevant.” For “the shared unanimous position of the college of the bishops, which displayed, chiefly through the synod, its union with Peter’s successor, helped to dissipate doubts.” John Paul here presented as established fact what he intended to be his own governing policy: the bishops will be acting collegially when they agree with him.

The establishment of the Synod of Bishops had been one of the high hopes of the advocates of collegiality at Vatican II. They thought it might become, in Ratzinger’s words at the time, “like a council extended into the church’s everyday life.” One of the most noted speakers at the council was Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV. An Eastern Rite Catholic, Maximos always insisted on addressing the council in French, not Latin. He called for an episcopal Sacred College to be set up permanently in Rome to assist the pope in governing the universal church. Maximos argued that the pope and the bishops, not the pope and the Roman curia, should be the church’s supreme decision-making body.

The Synod of Bishops instituted by Paul VI on his own initiative—motu proprio—was not like that at all. The pope’s preemptive strike caught the council unawares right at the start of the rushed and overloaded fourth and final session. Otherwise the bishops might have sought to put forward some structural guidelines as to how the synod might function, with perhaps a postconciliar committee entrusted to set out its canonical authority. Instead, the new body, although it had a permanent general secretary, would come together only at intervals as determined by the pope, who would set the agenda and preside. It would have a majority of elected members, with a minority appointed by the pope. Its function would be to provide information and offer advice; it would not make decisions unless the pope decreed, and subject to his ratification. Nowhere in the text did the word collegial appear.

Still, there was an openness in Paul VI’s proposals. Evidently the synod could develop over time. Alas, with the help of the bishops themselves, it became a rubber stamp. Initially, the synods composed the document summing up their endeavors. In 1974, however, the participants could not agree on a synthesis of two divergent drafts about evangelization. They turned the document over to Paul VI, who wrote Evangelii nuntiandi, one of his finest efforts. But in failing to reach consensus the bishops had surrendered what little autonomy the synods had. It is widely alleged that John Paul II’s “report” of the 1981 synod on the family, Familiaris consortio (1982), could have been issued without the bishops ever having met.

Nevertheless, the synod is a tangible result of Vatican II, and might be put to better use in the future. “At present it is not worth the time and trouble that go into it,” the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin once told me in Rome when attending one of its meetings. “But it exists.”

Immediately after the mention of the synod in his first encyclical, John Paul included a passage warmly endorsing bishops conferences and other intermediate bodies, which were becoming increasingly active and widespread. He presented them as manifestations in the local churches of the shared communion of the people of God:

As we are dealing with the evident development of the forms in which episcopal collegiality is expressed, mention must be made at least of the process of consolidation of national episcopal conferences throughout the church and of other collegial structures of an international or continental character. Referring also to the centuries-old tradition of the church, attention should be directed to the activity of the various diocesan, provincial, and national synods....

The same spirit of collaboration and shared responsibility is spreading among priests also, as is confirmed by the many councils of priests that have sprung up.... That spirit has extended also among the laity....

I must keep all this in mind at the beginning of my pontificate as a reason for giving thanks to God, for warmly encouraging all my brothers and sisters and for recalling with heartfelt gratitude the work of the Second Vatican Council and my great predecessors, who set in motion this new surge of life for the church, a movement that is much stronger than the symptoms of doubt, collapse, and crisis.

But the green light would turn to amber, and then red. In 1982, John Paul II was joined in Rome by the same brilliant German theologian who had published his reports on Vatican II as a leading progressive peritus. Joseph Ratzinger had since switched sides after suffering a trauma during the political turmoil of 1968, whose effects never left him, and which will always remain somewhat mysterious despite the explanation of it he has given in his memoirs Salt of the Earth (1996) and Milestones (1998). He has said that he came to see “very close spiritual links” between the political and social unrest of 1968 and revolutionary interpretations of the council. What he had taken to be the new order was instead becoming, he seems to have thought, the new disorder: “So I knew what was at stake: anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity.”

He was in a powerful position to put his views into effect, for John Paul had appointed him to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. When in 1985 a synod was called in Rome to review the results of Vatican II, twenty years after its close, Cardinal Ratzinger made a bid to seize the agenda in advance through an interview with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. When it appeared in book form as Rapporto sulla Fede (the English-language edition was titled The Ratzinger Report), it became a world bestseller. In the interview Ratzinger gave vent to extreme alarm. In an extraordinary phrase, he even warned that “truly every type of heretical aberration seems to be pressing upon the doors of the authentic faith.”

In the interview it became clear that Ratzinger had also turned his back on his previous views on bishops conferences. In Highlights he had noted with approval that the conferences had emerged as “a new element in church structure” between individual bishops and the pope. Exercising an intermediate level of collegiality, partial but real, they “would revive the synodal structure of the ancient church,” when regional synods and councils met regularly and made decisions. The revalidation of the local churches, he wrote then, went hand in hand with the revalidation of the local bishops, each overseeing his part of “a fabric of worshipping communities” and looking toward all the others. In other words, their mutual concern for the whole church included a horizontal dimension as well as an upward one to Rome.

Yet in The Ratzinger Report, employing what was becoming a favorite theme, Ratzinger decried the burdensome bureaucracy of the conferences, which risked “smothering” the individuals who take part. He now spoke as though the conferences had no more ecclesial standing than the departments of the Roman curia. They “have no theological basis. They do not belong to the structure of the church, as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated; they have only a practical, concrete function,” he wrote.

When the 1985 synod actually met, these pessimistic theses were not echoed. On the contrary, an overwhelming majority endorsement of Vatican II emerged. Nevertheless, in the wake of the synod a narrowing of interpretations became evident. The theology of creation in Gaudium et spes would cede ground to the theology of the Cross, and a hopeful reading of the “signs of the times” given currency by Pope John XXIII had become a negative one.

Pope John Paul greatly respected German theology in general and this German theologian in particular. As the pope’s Parkinson’s disease advanced, so did Ratzinger’s influence. In 1998 came the coup de grâce for the bishops conferences. The pope’s motu proprio Apostolos suos, drafted in Ratzinger’s office, emasculated them, on the lines set out in The Ratzinger Report. Collegiality operates fully, said Apostolos suos, in an ecumenical council, and where bishops throughout the world, even if dispersed, are united with the pope in holding a teaching. The individual bishop has full teaching authority, in union with the pope, as Vicar of Christ in his diocese. But conferences or councils of bishops are mere associations of individual bishops, without collegial standing unless all the individuals within them are unanimous (impossible almost anywhere, and certainly in a conference of any size) or have submitted resolutions with large majority backing to Rome for authorization.

Christ said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” But there would be no more pastoral letters from the German bishops conference supporting the restoration of women deacons, and asking the pope and the universal church to consider and examine such a move (1981); nor would there be any more pastoral letters from the U.S. bishops conference on nuclear deterrence (1983) or economic justice (1985), and certainly not on women, where the Americans ran into such contention, and such interference from Rome, that they had to abandon the project.

Apostolos suos did allow that bishops conferences in their joint debates and action manifest “affective collegiality.” Was all that effort at Vatican II for nothing? Did the bishops cast ballots in forty-one votes to establish “affective” collegiality, which they already had and had always had? In an article published in the German Jesuit monthly Stimmen der zeit in 2000, which later became a chapter in his book Receiving the Council (2009), the Jesuit canonist Ladislas Orsy suggested a thought experiment to test what substance there might be in this concept of “affective” collegiality.

What would happen if we applied the distinction between “effective” and “affective” to the exercise of the primacy? We know what “effective exercise” means: it was defined at Vatican I (and confirmed by Vatican II) as direct, immediate, and ordinary jurisdiction. But what could be the “affective exercise” of the primacy? Paternal disposition? Inspiring discourses? Encouraging counselling? Whatever it could be, it would not be the exercise of primacy with jurisdiction. So it is with collegiality: affective collegiality is not real collegiality.

When John Paul II died in 2005, the cardinals chose the man they all knew, Joseph Ratzinger, as his successor, though a pope’s closest collaborator is not usually elected to follow him. Right from his inauguration sermon, it was apparent that collegiality would not be the guiding principle of this papacy

I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me, and to carry me.

But what of his brother bishops? He did not mention them.

Beyond a tight hand-picked circle of trusted colleagues, this is a pope who does not seem to believe in consultation. He disregarded the bishops college, for example, when in 2007 he authorized permanent use of the Tridentine liturgy as the “extraordinary form” of the Mass alongside the “ordinary form” promulgated by Pope Paul VI after the council—the first time in history that the Catholic Church has had two universally valid forms of the Latin Rite, which may divide communities as they celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity. As cardinal and pope, he did nothing to prevent, and much to support, the moves by which the Vatican deprived bishops conferences of the right given them by Vatican II to approve and institute vernacular translations of the liturgy in their local dioceses. When he established the Anglican ordinariate in 2009, the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity was kept in the dark, as was almost everyone else, and there was no discussion with the local Catholic and Anglican bishops. Earlier in the same year he lifted the excommunications of the four Lefebvrist bishops, although the very raison d’être of their movement is outright opposition to the Second Vatican Council and rejection of all the popes who steered it and have implemented it. A professor at Tübingen University, Peter Hünermann, wondered: Did he have the right even as pope to dispense them from accepting the teaching of an ecumenical council of the church?

Benedict’s style came at a price. Even when instruments were at hand, he preferred not to use them. When a fresh tsunami of clerical sexual-abuse cases broke in 2010, he could have called together in Rome the presidents of all the bishops conferences to jointly draw up guidelines for the protection of children and rules for the notification of these crimes to the authorities. The world would have seen the collegial commitment of pope and bishops to redressing scandals that have damaged the church’s reputation for generations. But he was prevented by his theory.

Pope Benedict dutifully refers to the Vatican II documents periodically, but to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the council’s opening in October these beautiful and inspiring texts are not being singled out for Catholics to study, even though the young know little or nothing about them. Rather, the “Year of Faith” that has been announced is linked as much to the Catechism of the Catholic Church—an endeavor subsequent to the council—as to the conciliar documents. It is to the catechism that the faithful are being directed for sound teaching. “After the Second Vatican Council and in the changing cultural climate,” Benedict wrote last year in the foreword to the catechism being distributed to participants in the World Youth Day in Madrid, “many people no longer knew correctly what Christians should really believe, what the church taught.”

In the epilogue to his recent book Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning, Massimo Faggioli asks a startling question: “What will happen to Vatican II in the future? Will the council face a silent abrogation of its work?” No one present at Vatican II would have dreamt that such a question could ever be asked. With huge voting majorities behind them, the reformers seemed beyond doubt to have won. But they had not. John O’Malley’s lapidary judgment in What Happened at Vatican II carries a lethal sting:

The minority never really lost control.... The center not only held firm and steady but, as the decades consequent to the council have irrefutably demonstrated, emerged even stronger.... Collegiality ended up an abstract teaching without point of entry into the social reality of the church. It ended up an ideal, no match for the deeply entrenched system.

In addition, there is another strong force pushing to keep the council’s vision on the shelf. The neoconservatives in today’s church dismiss collegiality as one of the products of the 1960s, a sop to democracy at the expense of grace. This argument has particular resonance in the United States, where one side in the culture wars links Vatican II with the social and sexual permissiveness that they believe ruined a Christian culture. And they believe Benedict XVI is on their side.

But the neoconservatives are mistaken. In seeking to break away from the monarchical model of church governance the bishops hoped to go deeper into the tradition. They wanted to substitute a pattern more reminiscent of the early church—something more evangelical. They wanted to provide a window into the person of Jesus.

They were also seeking to redress—to repeat Ratzinger’s words at the time—the one-sided functions of an overemphasized primacy. The richness and variety of the Christian faith—represented in the bishops—can never be encompassed solely by pope and curia. The witnesses who handed down the Christian revelation to us, as enshrined in the Bible, were not even all apostles—of the synoptic writers, one (Matthew) was, but two (Mark and Luke) were not. St. Peter hardly features in these founding documents except in two short letters attributed to him or his circle. The proponents of collegiality at Vatican II were correct in arguing that the church must celebrate and channel this wonderful diversity. It is the failure to do so that has caused the deficiencies that have become apparent during the rule of Benedict XVI.

When he launched the council fifty years ago, Pope John XXIII hoped for a new Pentecost. He trusted the bishops. He did not want them to behave like branch managers (as they have done over clerical sexual abuse). “They also have the Spirit,” he said. He foresaw a renaissance of collegiality and coresponsibility throughout the church, between pope and bishops, between bishops and priests, and between priests and people, with religious orders supplying their own distinctive contribution and theologians free to explore. He showed the way to go. But it is hard to follow a great saint like John and it is not the way we are going.


This essay has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.

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Published in the 2012-10-12 issue: View Contents
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