Paragraph 84, in describing the handing on and practice of the faith, emphasizes that “a remarkable harmony” between the bishops and the faithful” ought to exist. One of the intensive debates of Vatican II was the place of bishops in the execution of authority in the Catholic Church, where there was little “remarkable harmony” between bishops and the Curia, at least not on November 8, 1963. On that day, Cardinal Frings, on the Council floor, told Cardinal Ottaviani to his face that his “Holy Office does not fit the needs of our time. It does great harm to the faithful and is the cause of scandal throughout the world,” followed by several minutes of applause. There is an excellent essay on the history behind this debate in John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II? which traces the role and function of bishops, individually and collectively, in the centuries leading up to the Council, with attention to the relationship of the episcopacy to the papacy, bishop to pope.
What the bishops were angry about was what they perceived as a diminishment of their role vis-à-vis the Roman congregations. There was a very personal side to this—Vatican offices could be notorious arrogant toward individual bishops. The greater objection, though, was the theological identity of a bishop as a legitimate successor of the apostles with an inherent right to govern and exercise judgment in his pastoral duties. As O’Malley explains, with the definition of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I in 1870, the office of bishop came to be understood in juridical terms in the sense that bishops possessed authority based exclusively upon a sharing of power from the pope. There were many who believed that the doctrine of Infallibility made the concept of synods and councils obsolete, with all apostolic responsibility for leadership personified in the Bishop of Rome.
I looked at the present-day Code of Canon Law (1983), and indeed, on a legal footing, the Code remains clear on the supremacy of the papacy while respecting the collaboration of his fellow bishops. Specifically, Canon 333.1 states “The Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office, not only has power in the universal Church but also possesses a primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groupings of churches by which the proper, ordinary, and immediate power which bishops possess in the particular churches entrusted to their care is both strengthened and safeguarded.” Canon 334 states that “the Roman Pontiff is assisted by the bishops who aid him in various ways….” Here is a frank admonition in 333.3: “There is neither appeal nor recourse against a decision or decree of the Roman Pontiff.”
This formulation of the Code (1983, revised from 1917 Code) appeared two decades after the Council had wrestled with ways and means of better collaboration of pope and bishops in Church governance—specifically, the handing down and interpretation of the Apostolic Tradition. The enduring legacy of these discussions has been the restored practice of regular synods of bishops with the pope. Pope Francis’ recent synod on Marriage and the Family is a prime example, though the flurry of controversy touched off in some quarters by the pope’s encyclical drawn from the synod, Amoris Laetitia, is a reminder that the exercise of Church authority is never quite as smooth as the books say it is.
For all the energy and debate at the Council and elsewhere about the authority and duties of bishops, and respecting their participation in the Apostolic mission, there has been, by comparison, relatively little expressly taught about the relationship of bishops and laity. Para. 84 states that the Tradition belongs to “the whole of the Church,” and one can legitimately ask if the clear majority of the Church, the baptized laity, have a responsibility corresponding to the bishops in passing along and interpreting the Tradition for new generations. If there is a “remarkable harmony” to be hoped for, as the Catechism expresses, how is it visible? We are, after all, talking about two sacraments of identity, Baptism and Holy Orders (the Episcopacy.) What are the outward signs of unity between the baptized and their episcopal shepherds?
I returned to my 659-page 1983 Code with 1752 laws not counting subsets, and sought the entry of “laity” in the index. There were all of three headings: selection of bishops 377.3; associations of laity 327-329; and rights and obligations of laity 224-231. Code 377.3 places the laity at the bottom of a long list of persons to be consulted by the pontifical legate on the suitability of a candidate for elevation to the episcopacy, and this consultation is optional. (I have never heard of lay consultation being done; as a pastor I was asked to submit a ternus with three names of potential bishops every few years.) By contrast, “conferences of bishops” such as our USCCB have 42 Canon Law entries not counting subsets.
The text of Canons 224-231 is rather limited and generic. While the fathers of the Council spoke expansively of the importance of the laity in revitalizing the Church, in the letter of the law of 1983 there is nothing I can see in terms of shared governance and mission involving the laity and bishops. The only basic “right” of consultation in the Law is a Catholic’s freedom to communicate a well-founded opinion to his or her bishop. There is no structure analogous to the bishops’ regular synods with the pope. However, Canons 511-514 speak of a diocesan pastoral council which meets with a bishop at least annually; it is made up of clerics, religious, and laity and functions in an advisory capacity only; a bishop is not bound to accept its advice. I was unable to find mention of such a body on my own diocesan website.
Curiously, the “parish council,” a Vatican II institution, is not mandated by law, nor can it override a pastor’s authority where it is permitted to exist. Canon Law does call for the existence of a parish finance board to advise the pastor as described well here. In my lifetime, parishes—at least the larger ones—as well as dioceses, have developed something akin to the Vatican’s Curia; a sizeable body of professionals (hopefully) with specific staff duties who offer advice to a pastor or bishop to the degree that he permits as part of the work environment. I see the term “pastoral council’ replacing “parish council;” again, communications with the parish at large about its work and advice, or even its membership, is limited or non-existent in most parishes I visit. There is no mention of such a body or its minutes on my own parish’s web page.
The working relationship of bishops, pastors, and the baptized faithful remains a major unfinished piece of business of the Council. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, with its limited legislation on the subject, has allowed local bishops and pastors to retain exclusive executive action without union or transparency. Although there are many notable exceptions among bishops and pastors, the “remarkable harmony” so hoped for in the Catechism remains a long way down the road, and this delay hinders the passing on of the Apostolic Tradition.