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May a Bishop in Extraordinary Circumstances Ordain Another Bishop Without Papal Consent?

That the Church of Christ is Apostolic and that among the Apostles the primacy belongs to Peter and to his successors is a truth clearly established in Scripture and Holy Tradition. Nevertheless, the exact content of such primacy is something the understanding of which has developed in history. It is when a special crisis arises that the Holy Spirit gives light to the Church so as to clearly distinguish what is true from what is false in this as in other matters.

Right now we are enduring one of the most dangerous crises in ecclesiastical history. Let us invoke the Holy Trinity so that we may be able to distinguish the right path from the wrong one.

(1) No one can claim to be Catholic if he is not in communion with all definitive prior magisterial teachings of the popes and the college of bishops, and with the canonical declarations of past councils. Our communion is such that it is based primarily on our union with Christ, the Head of the Church, and with the Apostles. Public Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. Afterward we grow in our understanding of what has been revealed. If anyone claims that he has a new truth not contained in the deposit of revealed truth that Jesus the Christ bequeathed to us, or a “development” that contradicts a truth already attained and clarified, that person and his doctrine must be rejected as heretical. We know that this is so even if the person in question were an angel, as St. Paul says.

(2) When trying to reflect on the nature and limits of papal prerogatives, theologians point out that any society, including the Church, needs a leader in order to have unity. They add, however, that this sociological argument is not sufficient; “there must be a theological justification.” And here they teach that the pope is a sign:

If the general system of the People of God is that of a union of the heavenly and the earthly that is simultaneously the translation of the heavenly in the earthly and the service of the heavenly by the earthly, in short, a system in which the earthly is “symbol,” “icon,” “sacrament” of the heavenly, are we not then authorized to look for an icon, a “viceregens” of… the Shepherd of the one flock in a supreme bishop who is steward and major-domo and therefore claviger [key-bearer] of the whole house of God?[1]

In this context, Soujeole adds: “This clearly does not specify right away the different causalities that the sign manifests, and the Church has unceasingly progressed in the understanding of this reality…. We have not yet arrived at definitive results.”[2]

(3) The main reason for which the primacy exists is for the preservation of the deposit of faith.[3]

(4) The solemn magisterium of the Church did not make formal systematic pronouncements concerning this subject—i.e., the primacy of Peter and its relations to other bishops—until the Constitution Pastor Aeternus of the First Vatican Council.[4] Here, only the position of the pope is clarified; there is no treatment of the episcopate because the Council was suspended and there was no time to discuss this part of the schema of the Constitution on the Church. So, Pius IX published just chapter 1 of that schema. Only the Second Vatican Council elaborated a systematic treatment of the episcopacy.[5]

(5) In Pastor aeternus, many important points concerning the primacy are clarified.

(a) The end of the primacy is the following, according to the Prologue:

That the episcopacy itself might be one and undivided, and that the entire multitude of the faithful through bishops closely connected with one another might be preserved in the unity of faith and communion… [Christ] established in him [Peter and his successors] the perpetual principle and visible foundation of both unities.

If there is an end, then of course there is a limit too. Soujeole comments:

The pope has no privilege in the usual sense of the word…. He possesses a ministry, a service, the ministry of the unity of faith and charity…. He is measured by something other than himself…. There is no room here for the papolatry that considers the pope as an end and not as a means.[6]

As Dei verbum declares (n. 10), the Magisterium, and therefore the pope, is not master of Revelation and faith, but its servant. Yves Congar had previously dealt with this subject in his Tradition and Traditions, Vol. 1, Excursus C.[7] I will copy here three of the authorities he cites, but I will point out that he states explicitly another aspect of this issue: “The care of ecclesiastical authority must be to keep and observe the doctrinal and disciplinary decisions of the past.” Here are some of the authorities cited by Congar:

“For a pope can make an article of faith, if ‘article of faith’ be taken not in a proper sense but broadly for that which must be believed, when earlier it did not have to be believed by a necessary precept of the Church; but from the aforesaid, do not believe that a pope can make a new article through which a new faith may be introduced or that anything of the truth of the faith may be taken away or may be added to as regards its substance.” (John XXII, lettres communes, Vol. VI, ed. G. Mollat, Paris, 1912, p. 483; letter n. 28199 of 18 March 1327)

Saint Thomas Aquinas writes: “The apostles and their successors are God’s vicars as far as governance of the Church constituted through faith and the sacraments of faith is concerned. Whence, just as they may not institute another Church, so neither may they deliver another faith, nor institute other sacraments.” (S. Th. III q. 64, a. 2, ad 3)

Pope Zozimus wrote to the bishops of Gaul, on 22 March 417: “Not even the authority of this Holy See can grant anything against the statutes of the Fathers or change anything in them. Because among us, with roots unshaken, lives the old tradition [antiquitas] for which the decrees of the Fathers ordain reverence.” (Jaffé, 328; repeated by Gratiam C. 7, C. XXV, q. 4, col. 1008-1009).

(b) According to chapter 1 of Pastor Aeternus, the pope was given a universal jurisdiction over the entire Church. In chapter 3 it is declared that “the Roman Church… holds sovereignty of ordinary power over all others, and… this power of jurisdiction… which is truly episcopal, is immediate…” So, the faithful are subject to obedience “not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the government of the Church…”

Yet immediately the text adds: “so that the Church of Christ, protected not only by the Roman Pontiff but by the unity of communion as well as of the profession of the same faith, is one flock under the one highest shepherd.” Again, the true Shepherd is Christ Himself and the main unity to be preserved is unity in professing the same faith.

(c) Soujeole clarifies that in the above quotation “discipline” has to do with the liturgy and “government” has to do with canon law. He states immediately after: “The totality of these rules forms a whole that is extremely variable according to the place and time.”[8] This jurisdiction of the pope is ordinary and could be exercised always and everywhere, “but it [such exercise] would not be justified per se because of the existence of the diocesan bishop, except in the case of the latter’s failure, and for the duration of that failure.”[9]

(d) Pastor Aeternus adds that this jurisdiction is possessed as a full and supreme power. “This means that it cannot be limited by any human authority because no human authority is superior to it. Only natural law and the divine law limit it, but that is already a considerable limitation.”[10] That is to say, the Church is a monarchy, not a tyranny. Only a tyrant wills his power to be unlimited by divine and/or natural law. But, of course, natural and divine law require that the deposit of faith be preserved for the salvation of souls. As our current Code of Canon Law states: “salus animarum suprema lex” (can. 1752).

(e) Soujeole adds that if there is a pope who fails to fulfill his office, there is no recourse or redress, although his power is limited as we have seen.[11] But he means that there is no way to remove the heretical pope. (On this point there is disagreement among the theologians, as some of them argue that a pope could be deposed by God, or “self-deposed,” if he is adjudged to be a notorious or public formal heretic or apostate, since it is impossible for such a man to remain pope. In any case, even a pope who very likely is a heretic, or whose heresies cannot be denied, continues to hold the papacy canonically unless his fall from office is declared by one who would have the authority to do so.) However, Soujeole did not think on what course of action an orthodox bishop should adopt when the pope is a heretic. The bishop has no power over the pope, but he has his own power that the pope cannot take from him, except based on canon law and the powers given to him by Christ. But Christ did not appoint the pope tyrant over the Church, and therefore, not over the bishops singly or collectively.

(f) In fact, chapter 3 of Pastor Aeternus adds:

This power of the Supreme Pontiff is so far from interfering with that power of ordinary and immediate episcopal jurisdiction by which the bishops, who, “placed by the Holy Spirit” [see Acts 20:28], have succeeded to the places of the apostles, as true shepherds individually feed and rule the individual flocks assigned to them, that the same (power) is asserted, confirmed, and vindicated by the supreme and universal shepherd.

Soujeole observes that the same adjectives used for the pope’s power are used in the case of the bishops, except for “full and supreme.” This subject, however, was left incomplete by the First Vatican Council and was taken over at the II Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. The implications of this text (especially n. 27) concerning the episcopal power have previously been explored.[12]

(6) The bishop has received his power not from the pope, but from Christ. And he has the power to ordain other bishops when the good of his sheep so requires it. This power is severely limited in the Latin Church, as we shall see, for the good of unity in the faith. But the power has existed since the beginning and could be exercised without the pope’s consent in extraordinary situations, if the good of unity in the faith required it.

Of course, in such situations, the unity of jurisdiction should be preserved as much as possible. This means that, in principle, each extraordinary ordination should be somehow recorded[13] and communicated to the Roman Church in due time, that is to say, when it is not dangerous for the souls of the faithful.

St. Cyprian, for example, ordained Fortunatus without notifying Rome. He thought this was normally inappropriate, unless there was a grave reason.[14]

Some years before, Pope John Paul II had himself erected the Apostolic Administration of St. John-Mary Vianney at Campos in Brazil (2002), and it was Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos who furnished it with a bishop as its superior, by ordaining Bishop Fernando Rifan. That had in fact been the first step made in the direction of those who had been close to Archbishop Lefebvre and to the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Indeed, the bishop at Cardinal Hoyos’ side during Bishop Rifan’s episcopal consecration, acting as co-consecrator, was Bishop Licinio Rangel, the successor of Bishop de Castro Mayer, the bishop who had participated as co-consecrator in Archbishop Lefebvre’s consecrations of the SSPX bishops in 1988. Bishop Rangel had himself been consecrated bishop by three of those bishops: Bishop Tissier de Mallerais, assisted by Bishop de Galarreta and Bishop Williamson. The links, then, between this Apostolic Union of St. John Mary Vianney and Archbishop Lefebvre’s Fraternity were strong, and rooted in a common combat dating back many years.[15]

(7) However, current Canon Law (CIC 1917, can. 329; CIC 1983, can. 377) establishes that it is the pope who appoints the bishops in the Latin Church. In this respect, the 1983 Code did not change in the light of the Second Vatican Council’s texts. This is a human norm, not a norm of divine law, established for the good of unity in the faith and due to the historical development of the Latin Church, emanating from the Roman center as a Metropolitan. For this reason, matters were not always this way. We have seen that in the time of St. Cyprian it was not so; and for most of the history of the Church, bishops were elected either by popular acclaim, by the local chapter of canons, or by political rulers with the permission or the tolerance of the Church.

(8) Even today in the Oriental Churches, it is not the pope who appoints the bishops or even the metropolitans. It is the Patriarch who appoints them and has to notify the pope afterwards, in order to preserve unity (see canons 86 and 87 of the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches). The Patriarch, moreover, is elected by the Synod of bishops of the Patriarchal church (can. 63).

(9) As can be seen in the case of the Oriental [Catholic] Churches, the lack of centralization of appointments in the hand of the Roman Pontiff is compatible with the unity of the Catholic Church. Of course, even those Oriental Churches are subject to the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff in agreement with Pastor Aeternus, but they show their own innate divine power according to Lumen Gentium.

(10) We see, then, that the preservation of the traditions concerning the jurisdiction of the Patriarchs has led the Roman Church to acknowledge that they can appoint and ordain bishops for themselves. Much more important than such traditions, however, is the preservation of the unity of the Catholic Faith.

If the Vatican were to side with the German bishops in some heretical opinions or, astutely, were to declare that each local Church is free to adhere or not to adhere to the Faith received from Christ or to any of the dogmas that have been defined during the history of the Church, then an orthodox bishop could be authorized in extreme circumstances to ordain a man whom he knows well and can trust to be a bishop who will transmit the true Faith.

(11) In the recent past we have seen extreme cases in which cardinals have appointed and ordained presbyters and even bishops against Roman prohibition and/or without Roman authorization.[16] Today we are clearly approaching the point at which ensuring the preservation of the Faith in the face of the Vatican’s attempt to corrupt it will require the ordination of bishops by orthodox bishops without papal consent. I would say that in China very clearly we have reached this point, since the Vatican capitulated to the Communist Party.

Of course, to act like Cyprian, without papal mandate is not to act against the pope’s will. Even this could be licit, however, in extreme circumstances, since the pope’s power exists just for the preservation of the unity of Faith and of discipline, and must be exercised within the limits of canon law.[17] The pope as legislator may change the canons, but always within the limits of natural and divine law and within the margin required by the goal to which his power is divinely directed. If he acted against that goal or end he would be abusing his power and his decisions could be canonically void. This includes his decision about who should be or should not be ordained. Indeed one may act according to what the will of the pope ought to be, namely, the preservation of the true Faith; and in that sense one may say that certain actions are against the will of the man who is pope, but not against the duty of the papacy as Christ instituted it (and which the pope should embrace).

(12) But there are other problems that must be considered. “Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing” (Lumen Gentium, 21). Therefore, the bishop, who has jurisdiction over one local church, may not invade the jurisdiction of a different one without usurping the authority of another. But since the care of his own flock has been truly entrusted to him, it follows that in extreme circumstances – that is, if he seriously and soberly judges that preserving the Faith in his local church demands it – he may ordain his successor or, as need demands, an auxiliary bishop. [18]

(13) It must be added here that as long as an apostate, a heretic, or an infiltrated person holds the office of pope and has not been lawfully removed, he must be obeyed in anything that does not clash with divine or natural law. If the extreme step of ordaining bishops without Roman consent is taken, then canonical measures must be put in place to ensure that full unity can be regained as soon as the tyranny ceases.


[1] Yves Congar, “De la communion des Églises ­­a une ecclésiologie de l’Église universelle,” in L’Episcopat et L’Eglise universelle, US 39 (Paris: 1962), 258. Cited by Beno­ît-Dominique de la Soujeole, OP, Introduction to the Mystery of the Church, Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014, pp. 605-606. The original French was published in 2006.

[2] Soujeole., 606-7.

[3] See Soujeole, 607.

[4] Notice well that the claim is not that there are no previous pronouncements on the primacy of the Pope, but that there are no previous systematic pronouncements on the primacy of the Pope and its relation to the authority of other bishops.

[5] See Soujeole, 608.

[6] Ibid., 609.

[7] New York: The MacMillan Company, 1966 (original French edition 1960), pp. 222-28.

[8] Ibid., 611.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 612.

[11] “Cajetan says that the only remedy in the case of a heretical pope is to pray and to have others pray that he will die!” (Soujeole, p. 612)

[12] Carlos Casanueva, “The Duty of the Bishop and the Jurisdiction of the Pope.”

[13] As circumstances allow; in places like China, secrecy is essential.

[14] Quasten, Patrology, volume 2, pp. 373-378.

[15] The Latin Mass and the Intellectuals, ed. Joseph Shaw (Waterloo, ON: Arouca Press, 2023), 239-40. In other words, here is an example of a bishop who was (according to canon law) illicitly ordained, who was later not only reconciled but chosen as co-consecrator of his successor. The chain was: de Castro Mayer and Lefebvre consecrated de Mallerais, de Galarreta, and Williamson; de Mallerais, de Galarreta, and Williamson consecrated Rangel; Rangel (now reconciled) with Castrillón Hoyos consecrated Rifan; and today Rifan is a bishop in full communion with the Holy See. That is an example of where things that were done praeter legem turned out, ultimately, to be not only for the good of the local church in question but also for the good of the universal church. The initial rupture was healed later on when the situation was better — and when Rome was willing to make legitimate concessions.

[16] Peter Kwasniewski, “Clandestine Ordinations Against Church Law: Lessons from Cardinal Wojtyła and Cardinal Slipyj.” I would just say that these ordinations are not against Church Law, because above the human law that specifies the last details of papal jurisdiction is the principle salus animarum suprema lex and is also the preservation of the Faith.

[17] There is no doubt that an episcopal consecration by a bishop with the intention of ordaining the minister able to ordain the ministers capable of offering the sacrifice of Mass and using the appropriate words and matter is valid even if it could be illicit. Leo XIII declared that the Anglicans had lost the Apostolic succession not because they ordained bishops without papal mandate but because for a long period of time they lost the faith in Mass as a sacrifice and therefore did not have the intention really of ordaining bishops. Moreover, it is clear that the Eastern Orthodox church, while being schismatic, has Apostolic succession.

[18] In very extreme circumstances the good of souls might require that a bishop falls back to the original commandment by Christ to the Apostles: “go to the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature!” (Mk 16:15), so that “Jesus Himself sent out through them from the East to the West the holy and incorruptible proclamation of everlasting salvation” (Mark, short ending). Then the bishop might have to act like Thomas who travelled far to India or like James who travelled to Spain.

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