Fr. Tom asks: Is it possible that the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the ministry of bishops in the Roman Catholic Church is now being taught and practiced in an adapted and altered form in our Orthodox churches today? It’s a cogent and sober warning about the subversion of Orthodox ecclesiology that unfortunately has historical precedent. George Michalopulos examined the historical antecedents in his essay The Role of Metropolitan and Its Relationship within the Episcopate: A Reappraisal.
By Fr Thomas Hopko
Orthodox Christians devoted to accountability are surely aware that accountability in behavior cannot be separated from accountability in understanding since practice (praxis) is necessarily connected to vision (theoreia).
This conviction inspires me, given the present state of things, to raise the following question: Is it possible that the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the ministry of bishops in the Roman Catholic Church is now being taught and practiced in an adapted and altered form in our Orthodox churches today?
Let me explain why I raise such a question.
According to the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, following Vatican I and the Council of Trent, bishops are not organically connected to the specific dioceses in which they serve. They rather have their episcopal position and power by virtue of their personal sacramental consecration as bishops. They are, so to speak, considered to be bishops in their own right, and not in virtue of their ministries as heads and overseers of actually existing ecclesial communities to which they belong. As such, they can be moved about from church to church, and even function in bureaucratic positions with titles of sees that no longer exist and therefore without being the leading member of any particular church, and without having any flock at all.
In this teaching and practice, bishops are not elected by the people of their dioceses and confirmed by all the bishops of the regional church to which they belong who, as brother bishops, affirm their election by first examining their faith and behavior, and then, when all is found to be acceptable, by consecrating them through the “laying on of hands.” They are rather appointed directly by the Pope of Rome. While their validity as bishops derives from their sacramental consecration, their legitimacy as bishops derives from their communion with the Pope, and their submission to him.
Together with the Pope, and under his immediate direction, and in obedience to his unique authority considered to derive directly from God (whatever “politicking” may have produced him by vote of the qualified bishops in the college of cardinals, all Vatican-appointed men with titular pastorates of churches in the diocese of Rome), the bishops as consecrated individuals corporately form a “college” (collegium) that governs the universal catholic Church. And, as just noted, they do so by virtue of their union with the See of Rome and in submission to its bishop who is believed to be the unique “successor of Peter” and “vicar of Christ” and “supreme pontiff of the Church” who possesses direct and immediate episcopal authority and jurisdiction over every member of the universal church, including all the other bishops, and who also possesses the authority to speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals when speaking from the chair of Peter (ex cathedra Petri) not from the consensus of the Church (ex consensu ecclesiae) but rather in, by and from himself (ex sese).
In this understanding, the bishops of a regional Roman Catholic Church like, for example, the RCC of the United States or the RCC of Canada, may for practical purposes form a local “episcopal assembly”. In the United States such an assembly exists. It is called The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This conference elects its president and officers. It hires its employees and operates its offices. It organizes and coordinates certain ecclesial activities. It makes statements about church teachings and policies. It represents the Catholic Church in public life. And it leads and represents the regional Catholic Church as a whole, i.e. as a federation of Catholic archdioceses and dioceses in the USA. But this assembly of bishops has no ecclesial or ecclesiastical status whatsoever. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, it is not essential to the Church’s being and it need not exist. As the saying goes, it may be established for the church’s “well being” (bene esse) while being not at all necessary to the church’s “very being” (esse). It is not a canonical body. It is not an episcopal synod. It has no official place or status in the Church’s essential structure. It surely does not govern a self-governing church in communion with all other self-governing churches. It exists and operates exclusively under the direction of the Pope of Rome and the Vatican’s curial officers who are appointed by the Pope and answerable to him alone.
[Those interested in this subject should read the decrees of Vatican II, especially the decree on the constitution of the Church called Lumen Gentium. They may also read John O’Malley’s book recently published by Harvard University Press called "What Happened at Vatican II" And on the relationship between the RCC “episcopal assembly” in the US and the Vatican, Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s memoir published by Eerdmans entitled "A Pilgrim in an Pilgrim Church" is especially instructive and illuminating.]
The Orthodox Church, of course, has no infallible Pope who exercises direct and immediate episcopal jurisdiction over all the Church’s members in the world, including the other bishops. It has no bishop of any see that can speak in any way binding on all the faithful in matters of faith and morals. It has no curia. It has no magisterium. It has no college of cardinals. It has no international advisory council of bishops from around the world. It has no “ecumenical council”, or a council of any kind, that can be considered authoritative, still less infallible, before its decisions are taken and are universally accepted – or perhaps rejected — by all the churches that recognize each other as Orthodox.
According to traditional Orthodoxy, using the celebrated third century formula of St. Cyprian of Carthage in his controversy with the bishop of Rome, Christ’s Church knows no “bishop of bishops” (episcopus episcoporum). The “episcopate is one” (episcopatus unus est) and all of the Church’s bishops hold the same episcopal authority and exercise the same episcopal service “in solidarity” (in solidum) with each other. The holy hieromartyr also teaches that the bishop of every church who makes St. Peter’s confession of faith and receives the Holy Spirit with the authority of “binding and loosing”, sits on the “seat of Peter” (cathedra Petri.) And St. Cyprian also holds, as proven by his famous letter 69, that the bishop in his own church does nothing by himself, but acts in everything in harmony with the church’s “common council” to which, as a member and head of the church, he is accountable for everything he says and does.
These convictions, formulated so clearly and so well by St. Cyprian, are proclaimed and defended by all Orthodox doctrines and canons through the centuries. They are also demonstrated in Orthodox liturgy, including the rites of election and consecration of bishops. The Orthodox Church unequivocally rejects the teachings of Vatican Council I about the special position, prerogatives and powers of the Bishop of Rome. And today the Orthodox Church, it seems to me, should also reject the explanation of Vatican II about how bishops function in the Church, and how they and their churches are to relate to each other, including even to autocephalous churches and their primates.
So what might a version of the Vatican II doctrine about bishops look like in the Orthodox Church?
It might be that Orthodox “episcopal assemblies” will be established and organized not by an “apostolic see” with special powers, but by common agreement of the synods and primates of the world’s autocephalous churches. These “episcopal assemblies” will come into being in regions where no common autocephalous Orthodox church, with its synod of bishops headed by its episcopal primate, exists. The bishops of the autocephalous churches that are virtually all “national” or “ethnic” in character will control their bishops and dioceses in these regions even when the majority of their members are no longer of the ethnicity or nationality of the autocephalous church to which they belong. The names of the primates of the autocephalous churches will be raised in the liturgies of the churches that belong to them in the given region, either in all the churches, or just by the bishops, or just by the local primates. The synods of the autocephalous church will appoint the bishops and organize their dioceses in the region, or will at least confirm or reject local elections and decisions. And then, all the bishops in the regions belonging to different autocephalous churches will together form an “episcopal assembly” under the joint direction and corporate guidance of the autocephalous churches to which they belong led by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Thus the autocephalous churches will act together as a kind of “corporate Orthodox papacy” governing the regional episcopal assemblies whose actions will be subject to their review, revision and even ultimate rejection if they consider that to be necessary.
In this understanding, the regional “episcopal assemblies” will, for example, be allowed, and even encouraged, to undertake common missionary, educational and philanthropic activities, and to represent Orthodoxy in social and governmental activities. They may also be allowed to organize their dioceses as they see fit, and to care for all legal, fiduciary and financial matters as they decide. But only the synods of bishops of the autocephalous churches under the direction of their primates will ultimately approve or disapprove their activities. Only they will have authentic synodical status and genuine canonical authority. The local, regional assemblies of bishops will have none at all. They will not elect their own officers, but will be structured according to the order of the autocephalous churches. In the United States this would mean Constantinople would be first, then Antioch, the Moscow, etc. They will remain subject to the universal “collegium” in which they are included by virtue of their membership in the given autocephalous churches to which they belong. Thus the regional “episcopal assembly” will exist and operate solely within the areas and conditions that the universal “collegium” allows them. They will not elect their own bishops, at least not without approval subject to certain conditions of the autocephalous churches to which they belong. And they will certainly not be self-governing “sister churches” equal to and identical with all the others, however much it may be claimed that this is the ultimate goal of their existence.
Given the origin and history of the Orthodox ecclesiastical “jurisdictions” in North America, and given the behavior of the autocephalous churches, and given the activities to date of the United States Episcopal Assembly and the relationship of its “member jurisdictions” to the old world patriarchates from which they originate, one can only hope that what we are now experiencing is not the working out of an “Orthodoxized” version of the Vatican II doctrine. Time will tell as the process goes on. And what will surely be told as time goes by is how our Orthodox bishops in North America and throughout the world understand themselves, and their episcopal service in their own churches, and their relationship to each other in their local regions, and their relationship to all the Orthodox Churches that make up Christ’s holy Church in the world as a whole.
Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko
St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary