Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

The Duty of the Bishop and the Jurisdiction of the Pope

We live at a time when Rome could credibly abuse its power and authority over the bishops of the whole world. It is now believable that a time might come in which orthodox bishops are removed without legal procedure and clearly for the wrong reasons. Moreover, precisely the orthodoxy of the bishops could become the motive of their demotion. In these cases, should the demoted bishops accept such an arbitrary decision obediently? If they did, they would be acting on the basis of an ecclesiological mistake. The authority of the bishop does not come from the Pope, but from God.[1] As Lumen Gentium teaches (n. 27):

Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power, which indeed they use only for the edification of their flock in truth and holiness, remembering that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the chief become as the servant (cf. Lk 22:26–27). This power, which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful. In virtue of this power, bishops have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the apostolate. The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them, and are quite correctly called “prelates,” heads of the people whom they govern. Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power, but on the contrary it is affirmed, strengthened and vindicated by it, since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church.

If it is true that the Pope has a universal jurisdiction, it is also true that that jurisdiction has as its end the service to the Church’s Faith and the good of souls. For this reason, it may not and cannot be used tyrannically as if the Pope were the vicar of Satan instead of Christ.

In order to provide arguments for the faithful bishops, with the hope of serving the defense of Christ’s Bride in these times of the Enemy’s turbulent attacks, I have written these pages, gathering ancient witnesses and the principles proclaimed by the Magisterium of the Church. I know that it is Christ who protects His Church, but I also know that He does so as the First Cause who makes use of secondary causes. We must be His instruments, by His grace.

Catena of Ancient Texts

(1) Apostolic Canons

One of the Apostolic Canons contains the following teaching:

The bishops of every nation are bound to acknowledge the principal among them, and to count him as a head, and to do nothing extraordinary without his advice, but to do those things alone individually which relate to the diocese of each respectively and its towns. He, in turn, must not act without the advice of all.[2]

According to John Henry Newman, when even heretics concur on a certain point with the unanimous teaching of the Fathers and received usage, we can be the more certain we are dealing with a view truly apostolic.[3] The Synod of Antioch, although tainted with Arian tendencies, received this apostolic canon and adapted it in the fourth century:

The bishops in each province are bound to acknowledge the bishop ruling in the metropolitan see, and that he has the care of the whole province, because all who have business have recourse from every quarter to the metropolis. Whence it has seemed good that he should be first in honour also, and that the other bishops should do nothing extraordinary without him (according to that most ancient canon which has been in force from our fathers’ time), or such things only as relate to the diocese of each and the places under it. For each bishop has power over his own diocese to administer it according to his own conscience, and to provide for the whole territory subject to his own city, so as to ordain presbyters and deacons, and to dispose all things with consideration, but to attempt no proceedings beyond this without the metropolitan bishop; and he, in turn, must not act without the advice of the rest.[4]

From all this, Newman concludes that “no suffragan [bishop] could act in extra-diocesan matters without his metropolitan, nor the metropolitan without his suffragans.”[5] That was simply how the Church founded on the apostles and their successors operated.

This canon gives the appropriate context for rightly understanding various statements by St. Cyprian that seem to contradict each other. Because, on the one hand, the great African bishop acknowledges that the Church of Rome is “the ecclesia principalis [foremost church] and the point of origin of the unitas socerdotalis [priestly unity].” Cyprian states, moreover, that the heretics did not realize “that the Romans, whose faith was proclaimed and praised by the apostle, are men into whose company no perversion of faith can enter” (Epist. 59, 14). On the other hand, in the same letter and to Quasten’s bewilderment, St. Cyprian “expects her [Rome] not to interfere in his own diocese ‘since to each separate shepherd has been assigned one portion of the flock to direct and govern and render hereafter an account of his ministry to the Lord’ (Epist. 59, 14).”[6] As one can see, Cyprian acknowledges Rome’s principality over his African diocese while at the same time clarifying that such principality does not imply a jurisdiction all-embracing and unlimited.

Saint Cyprian, we know, is jealous about the authority he has received directly from God, not from the Pope. And he says so very clearly: “So long as the bond of friendship is maintained and the sacred unity of the Catholic Church is preserved, each bishop is master of his own conduct, conscious that he must one day render an account of himself to the Lord” (Epist. 55, 21). Quasten adds:

In his controversy with Pope Stephen on the rebaptism of heretics he voices as the president of the African synod of September 256 his opinion as follows: ‘No one among us sets himself up as a bishop of bishops,[7] or by tyranny and error forces his colleagues to compulsory obedience, seeing that every bishop in the freedom of his liberty and power possesses the right to his own mind and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. We must all await the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who singly and alone has power both to appoint us to the government of his Church and to judge our acts therein (CSEL 3-1, 436).

Obviously, this latter statement must be seen in the light of what we have stated earlier. The bishop of Rome has a power over the other bishops, but neither an all-embracing nor a tyrannical power. The exclusion of tyranny Cyprian supports with a clear Scriptural precedent:

Even Peter, whom the Lord first chose and upon whom He built His Church, when Paul later disputed with him over circumcision, did not claim insolently any prerogative for himself nor make any arrogant assumptions nor say that he had the primacy and ought to be obeyed. (Epist. 71, 3).

That the aforementioned apostolic canon provides the key to harmonize all these texts appears with clarity in the reaction St. Cyprian had to Pope Cornelius’ inquiries about the consecration of Fortunatus, which Cyprian had performed without first consulting Rome. In his reply, the African prelate recognizes his obligation to report to the Pontiff any matter of major importance:

I did not write you of it at once, dearest brother [Cornelius], for it was not a matter of enough importance or gravity to be reported to you in great haste…[8] Since I supposed that you were aware of these facts and believed that you would certainly be guided by your memory and sense of discipline, I did not consider it necessary to notify you immediately and hurriedly of the heretics’ antics… And I did not write you of their performance because we despise all these doings and I was soon to send you the names of the bishops who govern the brethren soundly and correctly in the Catholic Church. It was the judgment of us all in this region that I should send these names to you. (Epist. 59, 9).[9]

This interpretation is confirmed when St. Cyprian acknowledges the primacy of Peter and of the bishop of Rome:

The primacy was given to Peter and in such way is taught that there is one only Church and one only Chair. That the Shepherds are many but the flock is one is taught because it is shepherded by all the apostles in perfect consensus. How could anybody who departs from the Chair of Peter on whom the Church was founded be confident about being in the Church?[10]

(2) Saint Basil’s experience

In Asia at the time of St. Basil, the Faith was in danger due to the great quantity of heresies that had made their way to the faithful, even among the bishops. At this critical juncture, the great Cappadocian Father asked Rome to help him, yet he did not receive help. He did not shrink from the defence of the Faith for that reason. In that context he complained about the Holy See.[11] In the light of these events, St. John Henry Newman states:

And in like manner, the dissatisfaction of Saints, of St. Basil, or again of our own St. Thomas [Becket], with the contemporary policy or conduct of the Holy See… is no reflection either on those Saints or on the Vicar of Christ. Nor is his infallibility in dogmatic decisions compromised by any personal and temporary error into which he may have fallen, in his estimate, whether of a heretic such as Pelagius, or of a Doctor of the Church such as Basil. Accidents of this nature are unavoidable in the state of being which we are allotted here below.[12]

Even from these tensions that occurred in the history of the Church, God can draw lessons to enlighten and guide us. Clearly, since the Church exists for the keeping of the deposit of Faith and of the means through which we can ordinarily receive God’s grace, Basil as a bishop owes more allegiance to these means and this deposit than even to Pope St. Damasus. This is the point we are going to explain now.

The Priority of the Faith

Among the Fathers we find another doctrine that is rooted in Holy Scripture and has been reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council. It is a crucial teaching for the times we live in, especially if it is connected to the texts presented in the previous section. We start with the text of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (n. 10):

The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

The Magisterium, including the papal Magisterium, is not above the Word of God but serves it. The duty of the bishops, therefore, above all else, is to preserve the received divinely-revealed Faith and to protect and keep their flock in that Faith. These duties, it is evident, are in se above the duty of obedience to the Bishop of Rome.

One Father who underlined this point in a very beautiful way was St. Vincent of Lérins. Consider his argument: with the exception of the Virgin Mary who is their Queen, the angels are above any merely human authority, even if it is vicarious of Christ. Why? Because if God sends an angel to reveal something, as He did to Moses, it is as if God Himself was speaking, and that is how Moses received God’s angel. However, because public revelation ended with Jesus Christ’s ascension into Heaven, St. Vincent explains St. Paul’s doctrine thus:

‘But although (quoth he) we or an Angel from heaven evangelize unto you beside that which we have evangelized, be he Anathema.”’ What meaneth this that he saith, ‘But although we?’ why did he not rather say, ‘But although I?’ that is to say, Although Peter, although Andrew, although John, yea, finally, although the whole company of the Apostles, evangelize unto you otherwise than we have evangelized, be he accursed. A terrible censure, in that for maintaining the possession of the first faith, he spared not himself, nor any other of the Apostles! But this is a small matter: ‘Although an Angel from heaven (quoth he) evangelize unto you, beside that which I have evangelized, be he Anathema.’[13]

Please note: the Apostle Peter is no exception to this rule; much less will his successor be. If a Pope commands to believe something different from what has been revealed, from what has been always and everywhere believed (as we shall see), he would be cursed and must be disobeyed.

Does this doctrine leave us in the condition of Protestants who are forced to use their “private judgment”? Not at all! Because a Catholic Bishop will define what must be believed based on Holy Scripture, Tradition, and the Solemn Magisterium of the Church. If a Pope teaches anything against the dogmas defined at the Council of Trent, for example, nobody is obliged to believe what he proposes and, for the good of the Pope’s soul, one should disobey and warn him that, if he obstinately perseveres in that material heresy, he is running the risk of committing formal heresy and becoming accursed.[14]

What is the apostolic rule that states what must be received as revealed?

This is the great canon of the Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, which saves us from the misery of having to find out the truth for ourselves from Scripture on our independent and private judgment.[15]

On this St. Vincent comments:

Again, within the Catholic Church itself we are greatly to consider that we hold that which hath been believed everywherealways, and of all men: for that is truly and properly Catholic (as the very force and nature of the word doth declare) which comprehendeth all things in general after an universal manner, and that shall we do if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. Universality shall we follow thus, if we profess that one faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world acknowledgeth and confesseth. Antiquity shall we follow, if we depart not any whit from those senses which it is plain that our holy elders and fathers generally held. Consent shall we likewise follow, if in this very Antiquity itself we hold the definitions and opinions of all, or at any rate almost all, the priests and doctors together.[16]

This teaching was solemnly repeated in the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius:

that must be considered as the true sense of Sacred Scripture which Holy Mother Church has held and holds, whose office it is to judge concerning the true understanding and interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures; and, for that reason, no one is permitted to interpret Sacred Scripture itself contrary to this sense, or even contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.[17]

In order to proceed with due responsibility, the Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff for this reason may not dispense with a serious investigation of Scripture, preceding Magisterium, and the teachings of the Fathers. If, despite all these warnings from Scripture and Tradition, an ecclesiastic authority departs from the revealed deposit, that would be a means through which God would purify the elected or approved ones in the Church. This is what St. Vincent expressly teaches:

‘If a prophet shall rise up in the midst of thee,’ and straight after, ‘thou shalt not hear the words of that prophet.’ Why so? ‘Because (quoth he) your Lord God doth tempt you, whether you love Him or no’…. According to the laws of Deuteronomy most clearly to understand, that if at any time any ecclesiastical teacher strayeth from the faith, that God’s providence doth suffer that for our trial, whether we love Him or no in our whole heart, and in our whole soul.… Which being so, he is a true and genuine Catholic, that loveth the truth of God, the Church, the body of Christ; that prefers nothing before the religion of God,…but whatsoever doctrine new and never heard of…brought in of some one man…let him know that such doctrine doth not pertain to religion, but rather to temptation, especially being instructed with the sayings of the blessed Apostle St. Paul…. This is the cause why the authors of heresies are not straight rooted out by God, that the approved may be made manifest.[18]

There are those today who despise this subjection to the divine revelation that culminated in Jesus Christ. These dissenters are not actually Christian, having no idea about what Eternity is or about what Infinity is. They live immersed in what merely flows and are unable to distinguish necessary from contingent beings. They feed themselves more from Modernism and evolutionism than from a true philosophy. They despise what they do not understand. But the Church of Christ acts in a different way. Let us now see St. Leo the Great’s doctrine:

Not only in the exercise of virtue and the observance of the commandments, but also in the path of faith, strait and difficult is the way which leads to life; and it requires great pains, and involves great risks, to walk without stumbling along the one footway of sound doctrine, amid the uncertain opinions and the plausible untruths of the unskilful, and to escape all peril of mistake when the toils of error are on every side.[19]

Why is the Church so careful about orthodoxy? St. John Henry Newman offers an admirable answer:

Surely the Church exists, in an especial way, for the sake of the faith committed to her keeping. But our practical men forget there may be remedies worse than the disease; that latent heresy may be worse than a contest of “party;” and, in their treatment of the Church, they fulfil the satirist’s well-known line: “Propter vitam vivendi perdere causas” [to destroy, for the sake of life, the reasons for living].[20]

This of course does not mean that one cannot deepen the understanding of the deposit of revelation. Of course one can—as long as one does not alter it. St. Vincent, once more, offers us a precious teaching:

Let posterity rejoice for coming to the understanding of that by thy means, which antiquity without that understanding had in veneration. Yet for all this, in such sort deliver the same things which thou hast learned, that albeit thou teachest after a new manner, yet thou never teach new things.[21]

The Duty of the Pastors/Shepherds

If, by the inscrutable designs of Providence, God allowed that the man of lawlessness (cf. 2 Thess 2) be seated on the Chair of Peter, in the Holy Temple of God, the Catholic bishops would have to know that their authority comes from Christ, not from the Pope, and that their duty before God is to fulfill their ministry for the good of the flock entrusted to them by Him. The Successor of Peter has a universal jurisdiction, but that jurisdiction is itself subject to the apostolic canons. The keeping of the Faith and/or the usages requires that the Pope have a disciplinary authority over the other bishops. Nevertheless, the bishops have their own proper authority over their particular flocks. They may not be removed from their see without a due canonical reason related to the keeping of the Faith and/or the Church’s usages. The Church is a monarchy, not a tyranny. Salus animarum, suprema lex. A bishop may not yield his flock to a heretical sect, to an authority that teaches propositions contrary to what has been defined by the solemn Magisterium and/or to what has been unanimously taught by the Fathers as contained in Scripture. While the bishop may not judge the Pope and declare that he commits formal heresy, for he has no authority over him, he may and must judge whether the Pope is concurring in material heresy, and the bishop must prevent his flock from being devoured by demons—which is what would happen if the people abandon the revelation received from Christ.

There could be situations in which fulfilling this duty becomes difficult. Perhaps a bishop could be forced, during the time of unleashed lawlessness, to live in a private house and abandon his episcopal palace. That is how the Apostles lived and also many of the ancient bishops. That is how the bishops in China have lived, and how the priests in France lived during the abomination of the Revolution; it is how they lived in Mexico and in many other places when persecution was raging. Remember St. Augustine’s teaching:

The ministers of Christ, who are under the pressure of persecution, are then at liberty to leave our posts, when no flock is left for us to serve…. But when the people remain, and the ministers flee, and the ministration is suspended, what is that but the guilty flight of hirelings, who care not for the sheep? For then the wolf will come—not man, but the devil, who is accustomed to persuade such believers to apostasy, who are bereft of the daily ministration of the Lord’s Body; and by your, not knowledge, but ignorance of duty, the weak brother will perish, for whom Christ died.[22]

Is there not, perchance, the same problem if a diocese is left in the hands of a heretic? Even if a bishop may not judge the Pope, he can judge the situation and also the man who tries to replace him and usurp his authority. He may determine that that man is, indeed, a heretic who rejects (for example) Humanae Vitae’s doctrine, or rejects the words of Christ concerning the indissolubility of marriage, or the doctrine of the Council of Trent regarding the Eucharist or penance or justification, or does not accept that Christ is the only Mediator between God and man, and so on and so forth. A true Shepherd may not abandon his flock to robbers and adventurers. He must be prepared to suffer confiscation and live from alms.


[1] See Lumen gentium, for example, n. 22.

[2] J. H. Newman, The Church of the Fathers, John Cane, London and New York, 1900, p. 243.

[3] See Newman, The Church of the Fathers, p. 229.

[4] Newman, The Church of the Fathers, pp. 243-244.

[5] Newman, The Church of the Fathers, p. 253.

[6] All of Quasten’s citations are taken from Patrology, volume 2, pp. 373-378.

[7] He states it more strongly at a different place: “hoc erant utique et ceteri apostoli quod fuit Petrus, pari consortio praediti et honoris et potestatis” (De unit. 4).

[8] Quasten adds: “The same reason explains exactly the same behaviour when, during the vacancy following the death of Pope Fabian (550), the mere clergy of the capital city expressed their disapproval of Cyprian’s going into hiding; in this case also, he yields a report of his conduct, and, over and beyond that, adopts the Roman line of action with regard to the lapsi; in short, he feels an obligation, not only to the ordinary, but, in his absence, to the very see.”

[9] Cited by Quasten, loc. cit.

[10] De unitate Ecclesiae 4. (My translation.) “Primatus Petro datur et una ecclesia et cathedra una monstratur. Et pastores sunt omnes, sed grex unus ostenditur qui ab apostolis omnibus unanimi consensione pascatur. Qui cathedram Petri super quern fundata ecclesia est, deserit, in ecclesia se esse confidit?” Thus was the original edition, according to recent research, adds Quasten (see op. cit.). I disagree with Quasten’s interpretation when he holds that Cyprian thought that the Pope was just “first among equals” and had primacy only of honor. As I have pointed out, it seems to me that Quasten did not realize the implications of the Apostolic Canon commented on the text.

[11] Here the reader can see a text describing the situation: “In the course of three years, Basil’s tone changes about his brethren: he had cause to be dissatisfied with them, and above all with Pope Damasus, who showed little zeal for the welfare of the East. Basil’s opinion of him is expressed in various letters. For instance, a fresh envoy was needed for the Roman mission; he had thoughts of engaging his brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa. ‘But’, he says, ‘I see no persons who can go with him, and I feel that he is altogether inexperienced in ecclesiastical matters; and that though a candid person would both value and improve his acquaintance, yet when a man is high and haughty, and sits aloft, and is, in consequence, unable to hear such as speak truth to him from the earth, what good can come for the Common weal, from his intercourse with one who is not of the temper to give in to low flattery?’ –Ep. 215. This is not complimentary to Damasus” (The Church of the Fathers, p. 83).

[12] Advertisment to the 3rd edition, p. x.

[13] Newman, The Church of the Fathers, p. 135.

[14] In the opinion of some, a bishop may not declare him accursed because there is no authority over and above the Pope that can judge him. Nevertheless, Pope Honorius was declared a heretic by an Ecumenical Council after his death.

[15] Newman, The Church of the Fathers, p. 132.

[16] Chapter 2, 3, in Newman, The Church of the Fathers, p. 134. The second italics are mine. Here, I think that we could add a beautiful and needed clarification made by Saint John Henry Newman, “The Fathers are principally to be considered as witnesses, not as authorities. They are witnesses of an existing state of things, and their treatises are, as it were, histories—teaching us, in the first instance, matters of fact, not of opinion. Whatever they themselves might be, whether deeply or poorly taught in Christian faith and love, they speak, not their own thoughts, but the received views of their respective ages.” (The Church of the Fathers, p. 136).

[17] Chapter 2 in fine. My italics.

[18] Newman, The Church of the Fathers, pp. 141-142.

[19] Serm. 25, in Newman, The Church of the Fathers, pp. 130-131.

[20] The Church of the Fathers, p. 128.

[21] Cited by Newman, The Church of the Fathers, p. 144. Emphasis added.

[22] Letter of Saint Augustine to Honoratus, cited by John Henry Newman, The Church of the Fathers, New York: John Cane, 1900, pp. 165-166

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...