Many years ago I read a book titled Bishops – But What Kind? It was a collection of essays by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant scholars about the different understandings of the role of bishops in Christianity.
The book argued for the necessity and importance of the ministry of episcopos – the “overseer” – —for the Christian tradition. Vatican II did much the same for Catholic bishops.
The episcopate, or ministry of bishop, has a long and complex history traceable back to the Apostles. Having said this, we should note the many variations that are to be found in this history, not least in the selection and authority of bishops.
In ancient times Christians chose one of their number to serve as overseer. As time went on the bishop was, variously, elected by fellow priests (often the senior priests of a diocese or cathedral chapter) or selected by a local authority – often a feudal lord or king. Each bishop was then confirmed in his appointment by the pope.
What held them together was a common faith and commitment to serve as leaders of the local Church. They were bonded by a sense of communion with each other and, until the 11th century, with the bishop of Rome, the pope, who enjoyed a primacy of honour rooted in the tradition that St Peter had been bishop of Rome.
The bishop had authority in his own diocese. At times and in certain places, this included, in the case of some European prince-bishops, civil authority. The bishop of Rome, for example, was also a king in central Italy until 1870. Bishops resolved local issues locally, while Councils of the Church brought them together to address broader doctrinal questions.
This collegial relationship was weakened by the 11th Century breakaway of Eastern bishops to form what we call today Eastern Orthodoxy and further damaged by the Reformation.
With the expansion of Catholicism to mission territories around the world, episcopal appointments were usually made by the pope. Only in the 1917 Code of Canon Law was it made the general norm (with a few exceptions) that the pope appointed bishops.
At the First Vatican Council (1869-70) the authority of the papacy was strengthened, not least by the declaration of limited papal infallibility. Where previously doctrinal issues had been resolved by councils of the Church or by individual bishops seeking the expert advice of theologians, now doctrinal and administrative authority was centred on Rome.
At the Second Vatican Council the assembled bishops largely challenged the centralisation that had developed, articulated by bishops like Cardinal Leo Suenens and Bishop Emiel-Jozef De Smedt in their critique of clericalism. Vatican conservatives opposed their call for decentralisation.
This potential impasse was resolved by two carefully worded documents, Lumen Gentium (1964) and Christus Dominus (1965). The documents stressed the historic collegiality of all bishops, while emphasising that this collegiality could never exist without the pope. All bishops were equal, sharing in the apostolic succession traced back to Peter and the Twelve. Each bishop was the head of the local Church in his diocese and in communion with all his brother bishops, including the bishop of Rome. They all had the right and duty to preach and to teach the Gospel, and to govern their local Church – but always with and never apart from the pope.
In addition, the Council emphasised the importance of conferences of bishops that would have specific jurisdiction over territories—sometimes countries (such as the United States, Germany) and sometimes regions (such as Southern Africa, Asia), particularly in areas of concern like the implementation of liturgy translations, administration of ministries and justice and peace.
In the wake of Vatican II many of these conferences interpreted this to mean a greater regional autonomy than many in Rome liked. There has been a growing move towards re-centralisation as a result.
Other reforms the Council implemented included the move towards Councils of Bishops to discuss change and implementation in Church policies, including continental synods to help the Church engage with the “signs of the times”. Here, in theory at least, the great “unity in diversity” of contemporary Catholicism could be celebrated.
All these reforms have been unevenly implemented. Some observers have even suggested that in the last 25 years there has been a drift back towards “Vatican centralism”. The influence of bishops’ conferences has been limited, they suggest, by Roman directives that often curtail innovative local developments in theology and Church practice.
Central to this, the fiercest critics say, has been in the continued appointment of bishops by Rome, chosen (they argue) primarily for their sympathy to a highly centralised model of church. The critics call this a “branch manager” model of episcopate.
If the critics are right then we would be seeing an erosion of the model of collegiality implemented by Vatican II. It would also indicate a kind of “siege mentality” among those who have the ministry of oversight in the Church at a time when many of us see the need for innovative and constructive engagement with the postmodern world.
The historical vision of the ministry of bishops offers us hope however. Bishops’ roles have changed over time, meeting the needs of the people of God in often difficult situations. They can and will change again as the needs arise.
As successors of the Apostles it has been their calling to lead the Church in turbulent times.