Regional Managers or Successors to the Apostles?

Does Petrine supremacy mean that the pope can take power away from the world’s bishops and give it to a small group of Italian priests known as the Roman Curia?

Last week, Bishop Joseph Strickland quoted a few lines from my latest article for Crisis Magazine called “The Great Convergence.” I wrote the piece, in part, to push back against what Bishop Athanasius Schneider calls the culture of papal-centrism we find everywhere in the modern Church. Here’s the paragraph Bishop Strickland tweeted:

The West needs to remember that our bishops do not derive their authority from the pope. They are not the Vatican’s regional managers. They are Successors to the Apostles in their own right. They have their own teaching authority. They are the shepherds of their sheep.

For that, His Excellency was called a schismatic, a heretic, even an apostate. It goes to show how much confusion there is about the papacy even among faithful, well-informed Catholics. Apparently, quite a few of us think bishops are indeed the Vatican’s regional managers. They seem to think that the pope is the only real bishop, and that he simply rents out a little bit of his bishop-ness to the seven thousand ordinaries around the world.  

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Clearly, that’s not the case. All bishops (including the pope) derive their authority from the same source: God. Our Lord consecrated the Twelve Apostles as bishops. The Apostles then passed on the authority of their office to a new generation through the laying on of hands. We call this line Apostolic Succession.  

As the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church puts it:

For from the tradition, which is expressed especially in liturgical rites and in the practice of both the Church of the East and of the West, it is clear that, by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred, and the sacred character so impressed, that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person. Therefore it pertains to the bishops to admit newly elected members into the Episcopal body by means of the sacrament of Orders.

Lumen Gentium goes on to explain: “This power, which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful.” So, yes: bishops are bishops in their own right.  

It’s true that bishops are subject to higher authorities, including the pope. Yet it’s possible for them to exercise their episcopal office in defiance of the papacy. The Orthodox have been doing it for a thousand years. 

There are almost one thousand bishops in the East who have never been in full communion with the pope at any point in their lives. They certainly didn’t have Rome’s permission to become bishops. Neither did their consecrators, nor their consecrators’ consecrators…on and on, all the way back to the Great Schism of 1054. Yet the Orthodox have been doing the everyday work of the Church (preaching the Gospel, dispensing the Sacraments, etc.) without interruption for a thousand years.  

The Orthodox position is less than ideal, as they’ll be the first to admit. They desire reunion with the West, just as we desire reunion with the East. But a millennium of openly defying the pope has not reduced the “bishop-ness” of their bishops one iota. Why? Because episcopal authority doesn’t come from the pope. It comes from Christ through Apostolic Succession—through the laying on of hands.  

The disagreement between Bishop Strickland and his critics may lie in how we define the word “authority.” Bishop Strickland and I are clearly using it to mean power: the graces, privileges, and responsibilities common to all bishops by virtue of their office. His critics are using it to mean something more like permission: where bishops fall in the Church’s power structure.  

Again, I think Bishop Strickland’s meaning was abundantly clear. He wasn’t saying that every bishop may do whatever he likes and to Hell with the pope. Rather, he was saying that bishops should take more responsibility for the authority—the power—they exercise. I’ll again quote Bishop Athanasius Schneider:

I think that popes should speak rarely, in part because the inflation of the pope’s words obscures de facto the magisterium of the bishops. By his continuous pronouncements, the pope has become the pivotal point for daily life in the Church. However, the bishops are the divinely established pastors for their flocks. In some ways, they are quite paralyzed by this papal-centrism.

That’s all I was saying, and all Bishop Strickland meant by his tweet. You may disagree, but it hardly makes him an apostate.

Yet that slander is hardly unexpected. For many Catholics, there’s no middle ground between Mottramism and sedevacantism. You know the type. They’re allergic to nuance. If they catch you praising hamburgers, they’ll accuse you of being anti-hot dog.  

What drives them to such extremes? At bottom, it’s a fear of ambiguity. I’m sure many readers struggle with such fears, as do I. We have no better friend than St. John Henry Newman.  

When he is named a Doctor of the Church, I think Cardinal Newman should be known as the Doctor patienticus, the Patient Doctor. Few men ever asked such penetrating questions, and yet he never felt entitled to the answers. Newman trusted God to do what’s best for His own people, in His own time.  

Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Elizabeth Anstice about the papacy, which I found in The Quotable Newman (Sophia Institute Press, 2012). According to Cardinal Newman:

As to what Catholics say to the charge of “Pope against Pope, and Council against Council” it is (I suppose) this—that in a very large system you necessarily have great apparent anomalies—as in Scripture (a parallel which might be effectively worked out) and that you might begin by expecting this, and making allowances for it—that some things perhaps must ever be difficulties (as there are insolvable difficulties in Scripture), but that, on the whole, and in proportion as persons come nearer to the system, there is a growing confidence of consistency.

Newman always trusted “the system,” and that trust brought him a tremendous inner peace. I think that peace is the real hallmark of all his writing.  

We rarely find such peace among Catholics today. Why? Because we lack Newman’s patience. We insist that every question has an obvious answer (that is, our own) and that anyone who doesn’t come to that same conclusion is either an idiot or a heretic—or both.  

Still, just to be clear, Bishop Strickland isn’t part of some kooky, right-wing plot to wrest power from Pope Francis. He’s contributing to an ongoing discussion among Church leaders about how the Church can best adapt to the Information Age. Until the 21st century, the Vicars of Christ were incapable of micromanaging the Church. Now, thanks to mass communication, it’s becoming more feasible. But just because they can, does that mean they should?  

Seeing as the Holy Father himself desires to build a more “synodal” Church, he’s obviously wrestling with these same questions. Again, whoever thinks this is an open-and-shut case is badly misled, or else he’s arguing in bad faith. The Church doesn’t have an answer on hand because it’s never had this problem before. But that’s okay. Trust the system. God will do what’s best for His own people, in His own time.

As for myself, I’m a “papal minimalist.” We favor a more decentralized Church, following the old Catholic principle of subsidiarity. We accept the First Vatican Council, as did St. John Henry Newman. Yet, like Newman, we also reject what might be called the Spirit of Vatican I: a rabid ultramontanism that has no origin in Catholic tradition.  

Despite sincerely believing in papal infallibility, Newman prayed that it would not be defined as a dogma. “I cannot bear to think of the tyrannousness and cruelty of its advocates,” he wrote to the Bishop of Kerry just six months before the Council closed. He wasn’t worried about the pope nearly as much as those who act in the pope’s name. Some things never change.

Really, for us “retromontanists,” the problem isn’t the pope as such. The problem is that, try as they might, modern popes actually can’t micromanage the Church. Not by themselves. That’s why more and more of the Church’s governance—on every level—is being handed over to the Roman Curia. So, nine times out of ten, when “the pope” promulgates an encyclical or directive, its author is really some nameless, faceless, career Vatican bureaucrat.  

Here is my question for the ultramontanists: does Petrine supremacy mean that the pope can take power away from the world’s bishops and give it to this small group of (highly corrupt, insular, self-serving) Italian priests? Is that what Our Lord meant when He gave Cephas the keys to Heaven? And if I question the current order of things, does that make me a schismatic?

Maybe so. But I like what Cardinal Newman said better:

The Church is the Mother of high and low, of the rulers as well as of the ruled. Securus judicat orbis terrarium. If she declares by her various voices that the Pope is infallible in certain matters, in those matters infallible he is. What Bishops and people say all over the earth, that is the truth, whatever complaint we may have against certain ecclesiastical proceedings. Let us not oppose ourselves to the universal voice.

St. John Henry Newman, ora pro nobis.

[Photo: Bishop Joseph Strickland]


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...