Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > M-RC > Brighton Rep. 2001 | CONT. > Part Two - II

   Preface - select
   Part One - select
      I -
      II - GOD'S PROPHETIC COMMUNITY, ... - select
   Part Two - select
II - Catholic Understanding and Practise
  Conclusion - select


Part Two

II. Catholic Understanding and Practice

99   The Catholic Church is a communion of Eastern and Latin Churches, in each of which the Church of Christ is truly present.89 Invisible communion with Christ is experienced in the Church's visible communion in love and truth. The Church is united in a way that is enriched by and transcends geographical and cultural diversity. It stands in living communion with the Church of the past while at the same time looking to the Church of the future. Its communion through time extends back to the apostles themselves (cf. Rev 21:14), who remain the foundations of the Church in its life and mission, and who continue now to guide it. Christ himself leads the Church through Peter and the other apostles, and through those who share and continue their ministry today, the Pope and the rest of the college of bishops.

100   Catholic unity involves holding in common all the doctrines of the Church. There is room in this Catholic unity for diversity of theological insight and expression, plurality of liturgical rites and canonical discipline. It allows for debate and discussion, but not for disunity in matters of faith. There have been times in the history of the Catholic Church when the tension between unity in truth and diversity of perspectives has not always been healthy and harmonious.


101   Among various ministries and charisms exercised in the Church from earliest times, the primary service from the beginning is that of the bishop. Catholics understand the college of bishops as continuing the care of the apostles for all the churches. Bishops, assisted by presbyters and deacons, are called to lead into holiness, serving the Church's unity with Christ by Word and Sacrament. The Second Vatican Council taught that the fullness of the sacrament of orders is given by ordination to the episcopate. At the heart of the bishop's ministry is pastoral service of the unity of the Church in love and in truth. To be effective instruments in this service, bishops must have the authority necessary to ensure the unity so essential to the Church's life and mission.

102   As unity in love and unity in truth belong together, so do pastoral leadership and teaching authority, both focused above all in the celebration of the Eucharist. Apostolic communities need people to proclaim the Gospel with authority, themselves under the authority of Christ himself. There is "an interdependence in communion between the spiritual instinct of the whole body of the faithful and those who are empowered to make normative acts of discernment of what is, or is not, faithful to the Christian tradition."90 This is the specific teaching role of the bishops in the Church: "The task of authentic interpretation of God's Word in Scripture and Tradition has been entrusted only to the Church's living teaching office, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."91

103   The Church's teaching office (magisterium) is not above God's Word, but serves the Word. It teaches only what has been received. As teachers, bishops should first listen to the Word, then ponder it in their hearts, with awe before the mystery of divine revelation, and then put it forward in purity.92

104   Bishops are members of the faithful entrusted with a special service in the name of Christ. The Church is a community under the authority of the Risen Lord. It is Christ who is the overseer of the Church, exercising an invisible episcope over its faith and life, its worship and mission (cf. 1 Pet 2:25).

105   Catholics understand the invisible leadership of Christ as pastor and teacher to be exercised in many ways, especially through the college of bishops. Bishops are signs and instruments of Christ as head and shepherd of his Church, and so share in the authority by which Christ himself builds up, teaches and sanctifies his Body. This understanding of the ministry of bishops is essential to a Catholic presentation of their teaching authority, exercised in Christ's name but always as a service to the communion of the churches in love and in truth.

106   Preeminent among the duties of a bishop is the proclamation of the Gospel.93 Bishops serve as heralds of the faith and teachers who share in Christ's gift of authority. Christ himself wills to work through them to preserve the Church unfailingly in the truth. There are many ways in which a bishop may teach with authority: in pastoral letters to his diocese; at diocesan gatherings; through involvement in national and international commissions and assemblies; through homilies in his cathedral or parishes; in celebrating the Eucharist which is the source of the ‘holy communion' of the churches in Christ. The bishop is the teacher of the local church and, with his brother bishops, of the universal Church. He proclaims with authority a faith already lived in the church he serves. With love he both listens to and speaks to the Church which is led by the Spirit of Truth. The teaching of any individual bishop in itself is not guaranteed to be preserved from error by the Holy Spirit, and there have been and can be bishops whose teaching and way of life are contrary to the Gospel entrusted to them. A bishop's teaching is always more fruitful when he speaks the truth in love, bearing witness to that truth not only by his words but also by a life of holiness.

107   The authority of a bishop as chief pastor and teacher of a diocese is both territorial and personal. As territorial it extends to all the baptized in the diocese. As personal it implies particular care for priests and deacons, especially those of his diocesan clergy, and for the religious communities located in the diocese. In both instances the exercise of episcopal responsibility requires frequent consultation with priests and people. Each diocese is mandated to develop consultative structures. On the one hand, priests and deacons authorised by a bishop share in the liturgical, teaching, and pastoral ministry, and priests must be consulted by means of a presbyteral council. On the other hand lay people also collaborate with bishops and priests in liturgical, teaching and pastoral ministry and they are consulted in many ways, especially through parish councils, pastoral councils, and diocesan synods. Lay people have specific responsibilities in catechetics, education and communication, in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and in the missionary outreach of the Church. In these and many other ways, they contribute to the teaching ministry of the Church.

108   By its very nature as a service to the communion of the Church, the ministry of the bishop is properly exercised in communion with his fellow bishops. The bishop can only teach and lead in an authoritative way if he is united in communion of mind and heart with the bishops across the world and through the ages. The catholic unity of bishops with the faith of the Church from the apostles is expressed through ordination in apostolic succession: the college of bishops today, in continuity with the college of apostles, receives new members through prayer and the laying-on of hands. One way in which this is signified is the requirement that under ordinary circumstances at least three bishops must be involved in the ordination of another bishop. The catholic unity of bishops with the universal Church today is expressed in and served by their living communion with the Bishop of Rome. United with him, the bishops together are the supreme authority in the Church. Their service of teaching with authority is exercised above all at an ecumenical council. They can also teach in other gatherings (e.g., the Synod of Bishops, Episcopal Conferences and Synods of Eastern Catholic Churches) and each teaches in his own diocese.

109   When bishops exercise their supreme teaching authority, the Holy Spirit guides and protects their discerning and proclaiming of the truth of the Gospel. Those who are successors of the apostles have received from the Lord the spiritual gift of authoritatively proclaiming the true faith. This is a gift (charism) from the Lord, and like all charismata (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-13) must be exercised in love. The sure charism of truth is given to all the bishops in apostolic succession, not so as to reveal new doctrines but to ensure the faithfulness of the Church to the Word of God.

110   At an ecumenical council, the bishops, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, may solemnly proclaim by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. Catholics believe that when they do so, the bishops are preserved from error by the Holy Spirit, so that "the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith."94 This preservation from error is what is meant by the "infallibility" of their proclamation of doctrine. In definitions of doctrine the truth of faith is unfailing, but that does not imply that the manner in which they are formulated, promulgated, or presented could not be improved. In a living tradition, there is always room for further theological reflection and exploration of doctrine. This is part of the process of reception of the teaching and its appropriation in the faith-life of the community. A doctrine can only be defined if it coheres with other doctrines. Such statements do not add to the truth of the Gospel, but serve to clarify the Church's developing understanding of it, and help to discern what is and is not in conformity with the Apostolic Tradition. Definitions of doctrine are intended to light the pilgrim path of faith and make it secure. Bishops also teach the truth of the Gospel infallibly whenever, even though dispersed throughout the world, they are in agreement in authoritatively teaching a matter of faith to be definitively held, while maintaining their communion among themselves and with the Bishop of Rome.

   The Bishop of Rome

111   As each local church (diocese) has a focus for its unity in love and in truth, so also do the local churches of the world in the communion of the universal Church.95 The local church of Rome has a primacy in love among the churches, and its bishop is the visible head of the college of bishops.

112   Catholics find a biblical basis for this service of primacy exercised by the Bishop of Rome in Jesus' words to Simon Peter, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:19), read in the light of the last instructions to Peter, "Feed my lambs... feed my sheep... follow me" (Jn 21:15, 17, 22). The prolongation of the Petrine primacy in the Roman primacy is supported by the commissioning of Peter to strengthen his brothers (cf. Lk 22:32). Catholics recognize that the special position and role of the local church of Rome, and the distinctive ministry of its bishop, developed gradually in the early Church, and the manner of its exercise continues to evolve. The Joint Commission has explored this in some depth in its report Towards a Statement on the Church.96

113   The Pope's ministry to all his brother bishops and their churches is a pastoral service of the universal Church's unity in love and truth. He is "the first servant of unity."97 In order that this ministry may be effective, the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome is "universal", "ordinary" and "immediate". His primatial authority is "universal" because it is at the service of the communion of all the churches. It is "ordinary" in that it belongs to him in virtue of his office, rather than as delegated by others. It is "immediate" in order to enable him, when necessary for the good of the universal Church, and in faithfulness to the Gospel, to act anywhere in order to preserve the Church's unity in truth and in love. This authority is truly episcopal. As a fellow bishop, with a ministry of headship among them and for them, the Pope serves the unity of the bishops that they in turn may serve the unity of their churches. The Pope serves from within the college of bishops, as servant of the servants of God. As confirmed by the First Vatican Council and by Pope Pius IX, the primacy of the Roman pontiff is there not to undermine the bishops but to support and sustain them in their ministry as vicars of Christ.98

114   This universal primacy of the Pope is a primacy of love, and his teaching authority is a central dimension of that primacy. The universal Church can remain united in love only if it is united in faith. In service of the catholicity and apostolicity of the Church's faith, and of the bishops' collegial responsibility for authentic discernment and proclamation of that faith, the Pope is understood to be given, when needed, the charism of infallibly proclaiming true doctrine. When he makes a definition in this way, he is pronouncing judgement not as a private person but as the head of the college of bishops and chief pastor and teacher of the Church, in whom the charism of the infallibility of the Church itself is individually present.99

115   Catholics believe that St. Peter's role of serving the unity of the community of faith "must continue in the Church so that under her sole Head, who is Jesus Christ, she may be visibly present in the world as the communion of all his disciples."100 Because of his special ministry within the Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome also has a particular duty to foster the unity in faith and love of all Christians.

116   To say that the bishops in union with the Pope teach and shepherd in the name of Christ is not to claim divine authority for all they say and do. Like Peter and the other apostles, the Bishop of Rome and his fellow bishops are aware of their human weakness and their special need for continuing transformation of heart and life. The faithful exercise of their ministry in the Church derives from grace and depends totally upon grace, just as the whole Church is "founded upon the infinite power of grace."101


  1. Cf. Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, § 26.

    Back to text
  2. Joint Commission, The Word of Life (1996), § 58; cf. 86.

    Back to text
  3. Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, § 10.

    Back to text
  4. Cf. Dei Verbum, § 10.

    Back to text
  5. Cf. Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, § 25.

    Back to text
  6. Lumen gentium, § 25.

    Back to text
  7. Lumen gentium, § 25.

    Back to text
  8. Towards a Statement on the Church (1986), §§39-73.

    Back to text
  9. Pope John Paul II, Ut unum sint, § 94; cf. § 88.

    Back to text
  10. Cf. First Vatican Council, Pastor aeternus; Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, § 27.

    Back to text
  11. Cf. Lumen gentium, § 25.

    Back to text
  12. The Pope John Paul II, Ut unum sint, § 97.

    Back to text
  13. The Ut unum sint, § 91.

    Back to text

Index | Centro Activities | Course | Publications | Conferences
Week of Prayer | Library | Interconfessional Dialogues
Directory of Ecumenical Study Centers | Society of the Atonement
Guest Book | Credits | Site Map

1999-2004 © - Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Inc.
Remarks to Webmaster at webmaster@pro.urbe.it