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The Episcopate

( Originally Published 1870 )


THE devotion of the bishops is not blind in the sense that no calculation of self-interest is mingled with it. To obey, and thus acquire a right to rule, such is the present attitude of the Episcopate ; and if at Trent it showed much more independence than now, that was because it was still, at that time, in many countries, in a position to rule by itself alone, and without the support of the Papal prestige.

We have here, therefore, another aspect of that strange union described to us in such poetical terms. The Council of Trent was only one long struggle, not for the liberty of the Church, but to determine whether the right of enslaving her belonged to the Episcopate, or to Rome. ` Robbing Peter to pay Paul,' became a proverbial expression.

The bishops were right, historically, when they showed that St. Paul had first been robbed by St. Peter, or in other words that the Papacy had gradually usurped nearly all the rights of the Episcopate. ` The Pope,' they said, 'should only have an extraordinary jurisdiction in the diocese of every bishop, that is to say, he should only interfere in exceptional and predetermined cases ; now, this jurisdiction has become ordinary, that is to say, the Pope interferes when he likes, and how he likes, evoking every matter to his own tribunals as he thinks fit.' The Council satisfied some of their demands ; but the doctrine of the jurisdiction called ordinary, of the Pope being bishop every-where, nevertheless remained the doctrine of Rome, and we have lately seen Pius X., in his famous letter to the Archbishop of Paris, severely blaming that prelate for holding a contrary opinion.

The bishops were unquestionably right when they appealed to the history of nine centuries back ; but if they had gone back a few centuries more, to the first years of the Church, they would have come across questions fraught with danger for themselves, as well as for the Papacy.

The Papacy has been most generally attacked ; but the Episcopate, as fashioned by the Catholic ages, is not entitled to much more mercy at our hand.

It would, indeed, be going too far to consider it as in itself bad, and to be condemned. Disengage it in your own mind from the odium it has often justly incurred by its despotism, and pride, and you come to the very simple idea of a pastor chosen from among his brethren to watch over, and direct them, and at need to censure, and set them right.

Now this is the only true origin that can be as-signed to the Episcopate. In the writings of the Apostles, in all that we know concerning the Apostolic times, there is no inequality, no difference, between the presbyteri and the episcopi, the priests and the bishops, the elders and the superintendents, which is the meaning of the two words. Religious society, like civil society, may have chosen leaders ; but it could not impart a divine right to what did not at the beginning possess one.

One aspect of the qiestion at Trent was very simple. Many bishops, overlooking all objections, would have been only too glad to declare that they were bishops by divine right, and by divine right superior to their priests. But, on the other hand, to vote their divine right as against the priests, was to vote it also as against the Pope ; it was to deny the Ultramontane idea that the Papacy alone exists by divine right in the Church.

We cannot know how many forbore out of deference for the Pope, and how many forbore because they did not dare to give the lie to Apostolical history. However that may be, after ten months of intrigue, of quarrelling, of storms that were sometimes fearful, the question had to be left undetermined.

Yes, Catholics, that high superiority over the priest which you recognise as belonging to the bishop, the Council of Trent did not decide whether it existed by divine right.

Yes, priests, for doubtless many of you are not aware of this, that authority which the bishops often cause to weigh so heavily upon you, and which they represent as founded on an express command of Jesus Christ, the Council of Trent did not decide whether there was any such command or not.

Yes, bishops, with the decrees of Trent in your hands, you can answer without hesitation, without possibility of mistake, on a host of questions of which men must remain for ever ignorant ; but we defy you to tell us authentically, dogmatically, whether it is by divine right that a bishop is superior to a priest. Do not try to answer us by asserting that the Church evidently holds the opinion, and that everything in her organization presupposes its truth. We know that perfectly. What we assert, what we can prove is, that no Council has yet been found to decree this dogmatically. None, we say ; for it is evident that, if the Council of Trent had found it already decreed, there would have been no room for deliberation. Very strange is the position of the Catholic Episcopate ! To exercise such an authority, and not to be able, not to dare, even in an assembly of bishops, to decree that that authority i3 held from God !

Such are the feet of clay of the Roman Colossus. The Papacy declares itself divine ; and the Council of Trent, notwithstanding its protracted deliberations, cannot succeed, as we have already seen, in assigning a dogmatic basis to that privilege. The Episcopate speaks and acts as if it were divine, and the Council of Trent, composed of upwards of two hundred bishops, does not succeed in assigning a dogmatic basis to that right. By a strange mixture of boldness and caution, they anathematize (Canon vii.) whoever shall say, ` that the bishops are not superior to the priests ;' but during ten months they deliberate on the word superior, endeavouring to add the words by divine right, which alone would justify the anathema, and without success.


They would not have been more successful if they had tried to establish dogmatically that the Episcopate alone can take any part in Councils.

The question was not proposed. Shall we be told that it was one which possessed no dogmatic significance ? This would be a mistake. A dogmatic question is inevitably attached to everything that relates to a Council. The moment you declare that I must consider the Church as the infallible organ of God's thoughts, you must tell me also, and that positively and dogmatically, by what mouths God has decided that He should speak. That the bishops alone took part in Councils is a very ancient fact, no doubt, but still it is only a fact. I examine the question of right ; I ask, when and where it was defined, and I find nothing. But stay, I do find something. I find in the Acts, in the fifteenth chapter, an account of what the Roman Church has called the Council of Jerusalem, and this Council consists of the Apostles, the elders, and the whole Church. I find also, it is true, in Catholic authors, most marvellous pieces of special pleading to show that nothing here is at variance with subsequent Roman practice. I find the ground already prepared, in the Vulgate, for this extraordinary out-growth, by certain innocent artifices of translation, as, for instance, when the same Greek word is rendered in one place by presbyteri, presbyters or priests, and in others by seniores, elders, so that those elders may appear to be bishops. But all this only serves to show how badly the whole case stands, badly for the Episcopate, badly also, as we may observe in passing, for the Pope ; for St. Peter neither said nor did any-thing at Jerusalem indicating that he was the head of the Church, or presided over the assembly. Indeed, from the whole account it might much rather be supposed that St. James presided. But, to confine ourselves to the bishops, this entirely removes all Apostolical foundation from the right they have so long enjoyed, of taking an exclusive part in Councils.

This right might indeed, strictly speaking, be deduced from the fact that the bishops were the elected of the Church. They were so at first ; but for a very long time they have ceased to be so. For twelve centuries, neither clergy nor people have taken any part in the election of their chief pastors. How then does the infallibility of the Church become vested in the Episcopate ? How then do those divine promises, which you suppose to have been made to the Church, become the inheritance of a body which the Church has neither chosen, nor appointed to represent her ? Where is the connecting link to be found ? Where the transmission that is at once logical, legal, and mystical, for it should possess all these characters ? The bishop is appointed to his diocese ab extra, not to say that he is forced upon it. He does not proceed from it, he does not receive anything from it spiritually. By what right, we ask again, does he represent the Church ?

And to these objections, which may strike the most zealous Catholic, in so far as he thinks at all, we may add those that spring from the undeniable identity which at first existed between the bishop and the priest. When the Council of Trent avoided affirming that a bishop is superior to a priest by divine right, did it not thereby avoid declaring that a bishop alone is, by divine right, entitled to take part in a Council ?


Only the most purely Ultramontane theory can remove these difficulties. If, indeed, we appeal to the Scriptures and to history, then that theory aggravates them, for it seems to take pleasure in differing as far as possible from what existed in the first ages. But, from a Catholic point of view, nothing can be more simple and logical than the solution it offers. According to that theory, as we have seen, Episcopacy is only a divine institution in the Pope ; in the bishops it is a Papal institution. God created only one bishop, the Pope. The Pope created the rest ; and it is from him, from him alone, that each derives the right of feeding a portion of that great flock, the Church, which belongs to the Pope only, inasmuch as it was to Peter alone that God committed its care. Consequently, it is also from the Pope that bishops derive the exclusive right of sitting in Councils ; it is through him that the gift of infallibility is transmitted to their assembly. And thus also disappears the other difficulty of which we have spoken, viz. that of reconciling the two infallibilities. There are no longer two, but one only, from which the other is derived.

All this was expounded at Trent with great frankness by Lainez, the General of the Jesuits. As it is impossible to doubt that his doctrine was that of the Pope, and that that doctrine has remained unchanged at Rome, let us suffer him to speak for a few moments. He will perhaps meet with more credence than our-selves, and, as will be seen, his words are perfectly applicable to present circumstances.

He first laid down the principle, that all comparisons between the Church and civil societies are necessarily incomplete. Civil societies, he said, have in themselves the source of all the powers by which they are constituted and maintained. But the Church, on the contrary, neither made nor constituted herself. It was Jesus Christ, her Sovereign King, who first established her laws, and then set Himself to form the body which was to be governed by those laws. The Church, therefore, was created subsequently to the laws in virtue of which she is what she is. Essentially a servant, she does not of herself, and by herself, possess any kind of liberty, jurisdiction, or power. Is she not constantly represented in the Scriptures under the image of a sown field, of a net thrown into the sea, of a building ? A field does not sow itself; a net does not cast itself into the sea ; a building can have no influence over its own construction. Now, the first and only foundation on which the Church was built was St. Peter. To him were given the keys of the kingdom of heaven ; to him alone were the words spoken, ` Feed my sheep ;' and no one can pretend that sheep have any voice in the management of a flock. While Jesus Christ was on the earth, it is evident that none of the faithful possessed the slightest power, or the smallest jurisdiction. As the Pope stands in His place, nothing is changed, nothing can be changed in that primitive order. Therefore all power, and all jurisdiction, dwell in the Pope. Moreover, as it was to Peter alone that Jesus Christ said, that He had prayed for him that his faith might not fail, it is only the Pope who is, and can be infallible.

This being established we are still following Lainez —it follows that to Peter alone belonged the right of consecrating his colleagues as bishops. Did he do so ? Most probably, or else we should have to conclude that Jesus Christ, on this one occasion, did what ought to have been done by His vicar. The bishops, therefore, are only the successors of the Apostles in this sense, that they stand in their place ; the Apostles were simply their predecessors, and, not possessing anything of their own, could not transmit anything. It is by a divine right that there are bishops in the Church ; but each bishop individually receives everything from the Pope, and exists only by the Pope.

As to the question of the authority of Councils, Lainez had only to pursue his argument, and it was solved. What had been urged by others as a grave objection, viz. that, according to his system, an assembly of bishops would be nothing except through the Pope, was regarded by him as a perfectly legitimate consequence ; and his reasons on this point are worth preserving against those who are ready to give up the infallibility of the Pope, but take their stand on that of Councils. ' Every bishop is fallible,' said he ; an assembly of bishops is therefore fallible also. If, then, you admit its decisions to be infallible, you at the same time admit that this infallibility is derived from some other source. Have we not seen, under Paul III., most important questions decided here, at Trent, by a very few bishops ? If their decrees have become laws of the Church, laws of God, it is because they have become decrees of the Pope. When St. Paul said that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, he did not mean that she is so by herself, without her head, for, without her head, she could not exist. If the Pope be present in a Council, then, however numerous that Council may be, the decision rests with the Pope alone : witness the formula in use, is evident that the function of the bishops is a simple declaration of their adhesion, a declaration which they could not refuse, either individually, since each is in-disputably subject to the Pope, or collectively, since, once separated from the Pope, the Council could no longer exist. Before such a web of sophistries we feel as though watching the exploits of a conjurer. But we at least, when once our astonishment has subsided, are able to use our reasoning faculties ; we cut short all the consequences by breaking the first link, and casting aside the St. Peter invented to meet the necessities of the case, and invested by the Popes with all that the Papacy wishes to be able to inherit from him. But what can a Catholic bishop do ? The fabled St. Peter is also indispensable to him. If he casts him aside, what becomes of his own authority ? If he endeavours only partially to cast him aside, where shall he stop ? The ages have done their work ; all holds together, and if any part be shaken, all will fall to pieces. Ultramontanism is annihilation to the Councils ; Gallicanism, and all that approaches to it, is annihilation to the Pope. But since Gallicanism cannot do altogether without the Pope, whilst Ultramontanism can do perfectly well without the Councils, any settlement among Catholics must inevitably turn to the profit of the Ultramontanes.

The Council of Trent was one of those settlements ; the Council of 1869 will be another, or rather will not be one, inasmuch as the settlement has taken place beforehand. That settlement has been brought about by time alone. Principles have arrived at maturity, slowly on some points, rapidly on others, a maturity hastened and precipitated latterly by a variety of causes. The harsh and bitter books of M. De Maistre had rather the effect of checking this development. Neither has the Papacy always been happy in its open demonstrations. Every time it has frankly revealed what was in its heart, there has been a visible slackening in the movement that was bringing the Church to its feet. But principles are always stronger than persons, and, events so helping, we have seen greater advances made in the last few years than in the three centuries that had elapsed since 1563. All the conclusions of Lainez are now adopted, and the only function of the present Council is to register them.

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