We Owe to Pius XII Important Clarifications on the Nature of the Episcopate

September 22, 2022
Source: District of the USA
Pope Pius XII receives his Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Lefebvre, in audience around 1954, in the company of Fr. Perraud, Secretary of the Apostolic Delegation of Dakar

The following is an a study by Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, FSSPX. It was published originally on the official French District website of the Society of Saint Pius X. We thank Michael J. Miller for this translation.

1. The motu proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta, which was published by Pope John Paul II on July 2, 1988, characterizes in these terms (in paragraph 3) the act by which Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated four bishops in Ecône on June 30 of that year: “In itself, this act was one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the Church, such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience—which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy—constitutes a schismatic act.” In its day, this passage caused a lot of ink to be spilled, and it continues to do so today. It is, in particular, the deep root of the division that affects the so-called “traditionalist” movement and in any case the difference that pits the Society of Saint Pius X against the Fraternity of Saint Peter, since the latter was founded by former members of the Society in reaction to the consecrations in Ecône. A correct understanding—and a critical analysis—of this declaration by the Pope, which has such momentous consequences, requires a precise knowledge of the revealed truths concerning the nature of the episcopate in the Church. This article proposes to point out its substance, in light of the traditional teachings of the Church Magisterium, which were constantly repeated until Vatican Council II introduced its novelties.

2.  We owe to Pope Pius XII important clarifications concerning the nature of the episcopate and its place in the divine constitution of the Church. These clarifications appear in three major documents, three encyclicals, which are: the encyclical Mystici corporis (June 29, 1943)[1]; the encyclical Ad sinarum gentem (October 7, 1954)[2]; and the encyclical Ad apostolorum principis (June 29, 1958)[3]. The second and third documents refer to the teaching spelled out in the first and develop it, in order to denounce the schismatic undertakings of the Chinese Patriotic Church.

The Episcopate in Mystici Corporis

3. The encyclical Mystici Corporis deals with the Church, “developing and explaining above all,” Pius XII says, “those points which concern the Church Militant.” The essential idea, which will be repeated by Ad sinarum gentem and Ad apostolorum principis, is that the Church is the Body of Christ, in the sense in which Christ is the Head of the society of the Church, in other words, the one who governs it and communicates its vital impulse to it. But Christ exercises this invisible governance by means of the governance of His vicar, placed at the head of a visible hierarchy.

4. This essential clarification is operative here in determining the place of the episcopate, understood in the sense of a power of jurisdiction, in other words in the sense of an authority founded on the power to govern the Church, while dependent on its supreme Head, Christ. This power of jurisdiction, as found in the Vicar of Christ, is a universal, supreme power. This power is universal because the Pope exercises it to govern all the members of the Church, and it is supreme because every other authority in the Church is subordinate to that of the Pope.

5. These are the first clarifications given by Pius XII: he says, “We must not think that He rules only in a hidden or extraordinary manner. On the contrary, our Redeemer also governs His Mystical Body in a visible and normal way through His Vicar on earth” (n. 40). “They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible Head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it” (n. 41).

6. However, Pius XII offers other clarifications, because although Christ appointed St. Peter and his successors as visible heads of the whole Church, He also willed to confer part of the authority in His Church to others besides His Vicar. So it is that the bishops receive a power of jurisdiction, not supreme but subordinate to that of the Pope, not universal, but restricted to definite limits. The bishops therefore necessarily are part of the divine constitution of the Church, and Pius XII explains that authority in the Mystical Body of Christ is distributed proportionally between that of the Pope and that of the bishops: “What We have thus far said of the Universal Church must be understood also of the individual Christian communities, whether Oriental or Latin, which go to make up the one Catholic Church. For they, too, are ruled by Jesus Christ through the voice and jurisdiction of their respective Bishops.... As far as his own diocese is concerned, each one as a true Shepherd feeds the flock entrusted to him and rules it in the name of Christ” (n. 42).

7. This complexity of the Church’s government calls for a third clarification, and Pius XII carefully explains how the Pope’s power and that of the bishops are connected. This is the passage that contains the important facts that will be repeated subsequently in Ad sinarum gentem and Ad apostolorum principis, and which should still serve as a sure rule and a reference point for Catholics today, who are confronted with a state of necessity. Although it is true that the bishops govern, each one by virtue of an ordinary and proper power, the part of the Church’s flock that is assigned to them, they exercise this power while dependent on the Pope’s primacy of jurisdiction, and this is so for two reasons. First, because, in the very exercise of this power, they remain subject to the Pope. Secondly, because the very power that they exercise is communicated to them by the Pope. Their subordination is explained therefore not only by reason of their exercise of power but also and more radically by reason of the very being of this power, which is received as a participation in the power of the Pope, in other words as a participation in the power of the Vicar of Christ, and therefore as a participation in the very power of Christ, through that of the Pope.

8. This is the important clarification that Pius XII gives: “Yet in exercising this office [the bishops] are not altogether independent, but are subordinate to the lawful authority of the Roman Pontiff, although enjoying the ordinary power of jurisdiction which they receive directly from the same Supreme Pontiff.” The wording of the Latin text is unambiguous: “immediate sibi ab eodem Pontifice impertita.” Note the presence of the adverb “immediately,” which means “in an unmediated way” or “without an intermediary.” The idea expressed by this term deserves an in-depth explanation, which the other two encyclicals of Pius XII will give us an opportunity to develop. For the moment, it is enough for us to remember that the interconnection of the powers of governing, in the Church, consists of the fact that Christ, having communicated the very essence of His own power to His Vicar, the Bishop of Rome, also communicates, through the latter’s intervention, a share in this power to the other bishops, each of whom governs a portion of the flock, while depending on the supreme and universal Shepherd.

The Episcopate in Ad Sinarum Gentem

9. When Pius XII addressed his encyclical “to Our dear Chinese people” and also to the episcopate and the clergy of that people, the Church in China was experiencing violent persecution by its Communist-inspired government. The Pope recalled that, despite this persecution, the principle must remain intact that “it will be entirely necessary for your Christian community, if it wishes to be part of the society divinely founded by our Redeemer, to be completely subject to the Supreme Pontiff, Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, and be strictly united with him in regard to religious faith and morals” (n. 11).

10. Pius XII recalls furthermore on this occasion the distinction established by Christ’s own will, consequently a distinction of divine right, between two sacred powers: the power of order and the power of jurisdiction: “eademque voluntate duplex constituitur sacra potestas, ordinis nempe et jurisdictionis”[4]. And he explains that, “As has also been divinely established, the power of orders (through which the ecclesiastical hierarchy is composed of bishops, priests, and ministers) comes from receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders. But the power of jurisdiction, which is conferred upon the Supreme Pontiff directly by divine right, flows to the Bishops by the same right, but only through the Successor of St. Peter” (n. 12). Therefore a distinction is made here, not only between two powers of different natures, but also between two different ways of communicating one power and the other. The power of order, which in the case of a bishop is the power to confer Holy Orders and to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation, is communicated by the reception itself of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, for instance when a bishop ordains a priest or when a bishop performs the episcopal consecration of another bishop. The power of jurisdiction, in contrast, is communicated to the Pope directly by Christ, on the occasion of the acceptance of his election to the Supreme Pontificate, and it is communicated to bishops “only through” the successor of Peter, in other words, as far as the Pope communicates to the bishop, by an act of his will, a participation in the power of jurisdiction that he himself holds in its fullness, as Vicar of Christ.

11. We should note that here Pius XII uses an expression whose meaning agrees with the one that we emphasized in Mystici Corporis. The power of jurisdiction is communicated “only” through the Pope, in other words “without intermediary.” Such an intermediary, therefore, could not be the performance of the sacred rite, which for its part communicates only the power of order. Each of the two sacred powers, order and jurisdiction, is communicated in a manner absolutely proper and specific to it, in two mutually exclusive ways. The power of order must be communicated by a sacred rite, and the will of the Pope alone is not sufficient for that. The power of jurisdiction must be communicated by the will of the Pope alone, and the sacred rite is not sufficient for that.

12. This is a very important clarification that is made here. The idea was already present in Mystici Corporis, but the encyclical Ad sinarum gentem, which appeared a little less than ten years later, has the advantage of explaining it in response to the necessities of the Church in China. Pius XII affirms here that the power of jurisdiction is communicated to the bishops by the Pope in a way different from episcopal consecration. The latter communicates only the power of order, so that, taken as such, a consecrated bishop does not yet enjoy the power of jurisdiction. The latter power is communicated by an act of the Pope’s will, a supplementary act that must be added to the act of episcopal consecration performed by a bishop. This distinction, already explained by Pius XII in Ad sinarum gentem, would be highlighted even more fully four years later, in the encyclical Ad apostolorum principis.

The Episcopate in Ad Apostolorum Principis

13. This encyclical letter is addressed by the Pope to the archbishops, bishops, priests, and faithful of the Church of China. In it Pius XII continues to encourage the Chinese Catholics, who face the persecution of the Communist authorities. But he must react also against the schismatic initiative of a “Patriotic Association,” fomented by the regime in power. “This Association ... was formed ostensibly to join the clergy and the faithful in love of their religion and their country, with these objectives in view: that they might foster patriotic sentiments; that they might advance the cause of international peace; that they might accept that species of socialism which has been introduced among you and, having accepted it, support and spread it; that, finally, they might actively cooperate with civil authorities in defending what they describe as political and religious freedom” (n. 10). But under this vague pretext, the Association intends to lead Catholics to give their support to Communism. In this context, the so-called patriotic movement proclaims the right of Catholics to entrust to bishops the government of dioceses, with the agreement of the civil authorities. “Certain ecclesiastics have rashly dared to receive episcopal consecration [on those terms], despite the public and severe warning which this Apostolic See gave those involved” (n. 37). Pius XII denounces here the sign of a rebellion against the Church, and also of “serious offenses against the discipline and unity of the Church” (ibid.). And this leads him to recall, this time with all the necessary details, “the teachings and principles on which rests the right order of the society divinely instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord” (ibid.), which are absolutely opposed to these schismatic maneuvers of the Patriotic Association.

14. The essential point of the teaching recalled by Pius XII, which we must remember here, is as follows. Moreover he refers explicitly to the teachings already given in the two preceding encyclicals. “Bishops who have been neither named nor confirmed by the Apostolic See, but who, on the contrary, have been elected and consecrated in defiance of its express orders, enjoy no powers of teaching or of jurisdiction, since jurisdiction passes to bishops only through the Roman Pontiff as We admonished in the encyclical letter Mystici Corporis in the following words: ‘As far as his own diocese is concerned each (bishop) feeds the flock entrusted to him as a true shepherd and rules it in the name of Christ. Yet in exercising this office they are not altogether independent but are subordinate to the lawful authority of the Roman Pontiff, although enjoying ordinary power of jurisdiction which they receive directly from the same Supreme Pontiff.’ And when We later addressed to you the letter Ad Sinarum gentem, We again referred to this teaching in these words: ‘The power of jurisdiction which is conferred directly by divine right on the Supreme Pontiff comes to bishops by that same right, but only through the successor of Peter, to whom not only the faithful but also all bishops are bound to be constantly subject and to adhere both by the reverence of obedience and by the bond of unity.’” [Ad apostolorum principis, 39-40]

15. Pius XII reaffirms here the twofold distinction already pointed out earlier: on the one hand between the two powers of order and jurisdiction, and on the other hand between the two different ways of communicating them. The power of jurisdiction is communicated by the Pope and by him alone, independently of episcopal consecration, which for its part communicates only the power of order. Proof of this here, if necessary, is the expression used at the very beginning of the passage cited above: “Bishops who have been neither named nor confirmed by the Apostolic See, but who, on the contrary, have been elected and consecrated in defiance of its express orders, enjoy no powers of teaching or of jurisdiction.” A distinction is made here between, on the one hand, the bishops who were neither appointed nor confirmed by the Pope, without yet having been consecrated, and on the other hand those who were neither appointed nor confirmed by the Pope but have even been consecrated against his decision. The fact of conferring episcopal consecration and of communicating the power of order against the Pope’s will only aggravates the attack already made against Church unity, without causing it. What causes it is the fact of pretending to communicate the power of jurisdiction in conferring an appointment, which is the Pope’s responsibility and his alone.

16. In the next part of the document, Pius XII insists on the illicitness of the acts performed by virtue of their power of order by bishops who received their episcopal consecration against the will of Rome, at the instigation of the Communist authorities. The Pope says: “Acts requiring the power of Holy Orders which are performed by ecclesiastics of this kind, though they are valid as long as the consecration conferred on them was valid, are yet gravely illicit, that is, criminal and sacrilegious” [n. 41]. He means here acts resulting from the power of order, in other words, the conferral of Holy Orders and the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, performed by these schismatic bishops. Unlike the power of jurisdiction which they were unable to receive, since only the Pope can give it, by appointment or canonical mission, and which therefore is in their case null and void, invalid, their power of order for its part is valid and quite real, since it results from a sacred rite per opus operatum, i.e. which is effective through the celebration thereof. But the exercise of this power of order is illicit, since the power that is its source was conferred against the will of the Supreme Pastor of the Church.

17. We find here again the same distinction, mentioned earlier, between a power of order and a power of jurisdiction; these powers are not only essentially distinct but also separable, so that one and the same subject, a bishop, can have one without the other, since one is conferred in a manner distinct from the other. Episcopal consecration, which communicates the power of order, can be performed validly even though the canonical institution by the Pope, which communicates the power of jurisdiction, has not been carried out. The bishop consecrated in this way will therefore be the subject of the power of order without being the subject of the power of jurisdiction. A situation like this can occur for very different reasons: either because the Pope authorizes the episcopal consecration, without giving to the consecrated bishop the power of jurisdiction, as this happens in the case of “titular” bishops,[5] honorary bishops ad honores consecrati, or auxiliary bishops; or else because, even though the Pope neither authorized the episcopal consecration nor gave the power of jurisdiction, the consecration was performed anyway. In the first case, the consecration is legitimate while in the second it normally is not. But it is important to make another distinction here.

18. Indeed, on the purely hypothetical and theoretical level, someone who consecrates a bishop against the Pope’s will and illegitimately can plan to do so with two different intentions. First, he may plan to communicate simultaneously the power of order by means of the consecration and the power of jurisdiction, by means of an authority that he arrogates to himself but which belongs only to the Pope. However, secondly, he may plan also to communicate only the power of order by means of the consecration without communicating the power of jurisdiction and without usurping the Pope’s authority. Of course, this distinction remains theoretical, and in practice, most often if not always, those who consecrate a bishop against the Pope’s will have the intention of communicating not only the power of order by means of the consecration strictly speaking but also—and above all—the power of jurisdiction, while usurping the power of the Pope. These are the schismatic consecrators who unfortunately punctuate the whole history of the Church. However, the other alternative is still possible: consecrating a bishop against the Pope’s will can be done without usurping the Pope’s power, in other words, without the consecrator claiming to communicate a jurisdiction that only the Pope can communicate. In a situation like that, the consecrator communicates what he can effectively communicate, since the power of order as such depends on a valid consecration, with or without the Pope’s approval.

19. Hence we see precisely where the “attack against the unity of the Church” and, ultimately, schism is situated. Schism does not consist of refusing to render to the authority what is due to it, whether within the context of an isolated case or rarely, or else in most cases and very often. That is disobedience, but that does not cause a schism. Schism consists precisely in refusing as a matter of principle to subordinate one’s action to the precept of the authority and to separate oneself from it so as to set oneself up as a competing authority. Someone who arrogates to himself the Pope’s own authority in order to communicate a power of jurisdiction of which he is not the source fits this definition of schism, while someone who performs an episcopal consecration against the Pope’s will in order to communicate the power of order does not fit this definition of schism and commits only an act of disobedience.

20. We see also exactly what would go against divine right and would therefore represent a theological impossibility. To communicate somehow the power of jurisdiction in the Church contrary to the will of the Pope contradicts a principle of divine right and is therefore a theological impossibility. No exceptional situation, no extraordinary circumstance could ever legitimize, much less make possible, the communication of the power of jurisdiction against the Pope’s will. On the other hand, communicating the power of order against the Pope’s will, by performing an episcopal consecration, does not contradict a principle of divine right, since Divine Revelation does not teach that only the Pope can proceed to consecrate a bishop. Divine right teaches that every bishop can do this, since it is a question here of a theological possibility. It is true that the same divine right also teaches that the communication of the power of order, through an episcopal consecration, should be done in conformity with the will of the Pope, but here it is a question no longer of a theological possibility or impossibility but rather of a moral necessity on the level of action. On this level, exceptional situations can arise and extraordinary circumstances may be such that the common good of the Church calls for an episcopal consecration performed against the abusive authority of a bad Pope.

21. These clarifications, drawn from the document itself by Pius XII, elucidate the rest of the encyclical. The Pope says: “From what We have said, it follows that no authority whatsoever, save that which is proper to the Supreme Pastor, can render void the canonical appointment granted to any bishop; that no person or group, whether of priests or of laymen, can claim the right of nominating bishops; that no one can lawfully confer episcopal consecration unless he has received the mandate of the Apostolic See” [n. 47]. Carefully note the difference: no one other than the Supreme Pastor can withdraw or give the power of jurisdiction, whereas no one can legitimately confer episcopal consecration against the will of the Pope. The first negation concerns the very possibility whereas the second concerns not the possibility but rather the legitimacy of something that remains possible, in any case. And on the other hand, when in this document Pius XII goes on to insist on the seriousness of an episcopal consecration that is illegitimately conferred, this seriousness must be understood about the additional act that aggravates the usurpation of power by which the power of jurisdiction was communicated against the Pope’s will. The consecration the Pius XII is speaking about, precisely in reference to the events that occurred in China, is not only illegitimate but also schismatic, since the consecrating bishop arrogates to himself moreover the power to communicate jurisdiction. “If consecration of this kind is being done contrary to all right and law, and by this crime the unity of the Church is being seriously attacked, an excommunication reserved specialissimo modo [in a very special way] to the Apostolic See has been established which is automatically incurred by the consecrator and by anyone who has received consecration irresponsibly conferred” [n. 48].

The Episcopate in the Society Is Not Schismatic

22. Supposing—but not conceding—that the act of episcopal consecration on June 30, 1988, performed by Arcbishop Lefebvre, was “one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the Church,”[6] one could still not say that this disobedience “implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy” and “constitutes a schismatic act” [Ecclesia Dei adflicta, 3]. Archbishop Lefebvre did not intend to arrogate to himself the authority of the Supreme Pontiff in order to communicate a power of jurisdiction to the four bishops whom he consecrated. He was content to communicate to them the power of order, by means of the sacred rite of episcopal consecration. This distinction is possible theologically, as we showed in light of the teachings of Pius XII. Archbishop Lefebvre’s intention was by no means schismatic (“far be it from me to try to set myself up as Pope,” he exclaimed in the sermon that he gave on the occasion of the consecrations). The consecrations in Ecône were in no way comparable to the schismatic consecrations performed in China at the instigation of the Patriotic Association. Archbishop Lefebvre explains this, moreover, in his sermon on June 30, 1988: “We are not schismatics! If an excommunication was pronounced against the bishops of China, who separated themselves from Rome and put themselves under the Chinese government, one very easily understands why Pope Pius XII excommunicated them. There is no question of us separating ourselves from Rome, nor of putting ourselves under a foreign government, nor of establishing a sort of parallel church as the Bishops of Palmar de Troya have done in Spain. They have even elected a pope, formed a college of cardinals... It is out of the question for us to do such things. Far from us be this miserable thought of separating ourselves from Rome!” This intention of Archbishop Lefebvre formally excludes from his act any schismatic significance, and it is not utopian, because, as Pius XII teaches, such an intention is theologically possible and feasible.

23. The initiative on June 30, 1988, must therefore be understood and can find its justification in light of the most traditional and the most authentic Magisterial teachings, in keeping with the three major encyclicals by Pope Pius XII.


[1] AAS, vol. XXXV (1943): 193-248. The passage that interests us is the one that appears on pp. 210-212. English translation from the Vatican website.

[2] AAS, vol. XLVII (1955): 5-14. The passage that interests us is the one that appears on pp. 8-9. English translation from the Vatican website.

[3] AAS, vol. L (1958): 601-614. The passage that interests us is the one that appears on pp. 609-613. English translation from the Vatican website.

[4] AAS, vol. XLVII (1955): 9.

[5] This designation “titular” comes from the fact that these bishops receive the symbolic title of an ancient diocese which today is inhabited chiefly by unbelievers or schismatics.

[6] We showed elsewhere (in Part Two of the article “L’été 88,” published on the website La Porte Latine on May 10, 2022) that there is no disobedience here but rather legitimate resistance to an abuse of power committed by the authority.