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Archbishop Héctor Aguer, archbishop emeritus of La Plata, ArgentinaYouTube/Screenshot

(LifeSiteNews) — I read in the newspaper: “The Church said…”, and a communiqué bearing the signature of the president of the Episcopal Commission for Social Pastoral Care is reproduced in part. In reality, the Church did not say anything; not even the body of bishops can take credit for that text.

But the expression, very frequent in the press, reveals a confusion about the nature of the Church, which is mysteriously the Mystical Body of Christ and at the same time an organized institution in which the bishops are not mere authorities as in any other organization, but successors of the apostles of Jesus, endowed with a divine authority, with a specific mission of service to the ecclesial body, the laity, the baptized men and women, for whom they are preachers of the truth, counsellors, and guides to eternal life in the varied and difficult secular contexts in which their existence develops.

This location, at once temporal and strained towards eternity, explains the conflict of living in the world. The natural and the supernatural, without confusion, are articulated in the vocation of the people of God, even if many of the baptised have lost or lack the awareness of being what they really are. For baptism objectively implies a vocation.

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The preparation for baptism – the catechumenate – was experienced in Christian antiquity as the fulfilment of a choice. This sense of choice is still preserved in the case of the baptism of a child, by and for whom parents and godparents decide on his or her behalf to join the Church. Of course, this mysterious reality can only be perceived in faith. The situation of the Christian in the modern world is subject to an inevitable ambiguity. I understand the reality of the “modern world” as the lack of a Christian culture in which faith is incarnated in life, in the most concrete and everyday aspects of life.

In this theological understanding of the Church, the mission of the episcopate, including the first of the bishops, the successor of Peter, can also be understood. The Church instituted by Christ is defined as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic; these four notes distinguish it from the churches born of the Protestant reformation of the 16th century, from Anglicanism, contemporary with them, and from the numerous evangelical denominations, many of which have arisen in the United States of America. These include the Baptist Church and Methodism, also predominantly English-speaking. Only the Katholiké can properly be called apostolic, since it traces its development back to the apostles of Jesus.

This is the context in which the episcopate is situated; the bishops are rightly called successors of the apostles. The episcopal condition is transmitted by sacramental ordination. At this point it is worth remembering that sacamentum and misterium are synonymous. The episcopate is the reality belonging to the mystery of the Church, Corpus Misticum. Logically, it is made up of men, according to the logic of the Incarnation. With all due respect for individuals, it can be said that non-Catholic denominations that have leaders called bishops do so by an improper attribution.

In some cases, as in Lutheranism, there are women-bishops, which is the height of abuse against the unanimous Tradition. The Orthodox churches are true churches, and their bishops are true bishops, although both lack unity with the Katholiké. Here it is necessary to refer to the Centre of Unity which is the Successor of Peter. The case of Anglicanism is very unique; after the schism provoked by King Henry VIII (1491-1547), the Church of England suffered the contagion of Lutheranism. John Henry Newman, converted in 1845 and created Cardinal by Leo XIII, was recently canonized.

The bishops, successors of the apostles, are instituted by sacred ordination to exercise the mission which the Lord entrusted to the Twelve:

Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (pánta ta éthne).

Therefore, the episcopate is primarily responsible for preaching the truth: to listen to them is to listen to Christ. But the episcopate is bound by Tradition, the uninterrupted transmission of what has been established in the Church as the Word of God, according to the charism of infallibility exercised in the councils since the apostolic meeting in Jerusalem and which is developed in history. The definitions of the councils must be believed by the faithful and upheld and disseminated by the episcopate.

The history of the councils marks the stages of Tradition, to which the charism of infallibility ensures full identity with the Word of God as expressed in Sacred Scripture. The episcopate is also responsible for the application of the truth to the changing circumstances of the times. The social doctrine of the Church, for example, similarly understood through the centuries, has acquired a special development in the modern world; the encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) of Pope Leo XIII is often cited as the beginning of this development, although it is preceded by the interventions of Gregory XVI (encyclical Mirari vos, 1832), and of Pius IX (encyclical Quanta cura and the Syllabus of modern errors, 1864).

Particularly significant is the magisterium of the supreme pontiff, which is expressed in documents and catecheses, of varying degrees of binding force, although it must always be considered with respect and assumed as appropriate and as the Magisterium itself establishes. In the light of this social doctrine, the bishops – and, above all, nowadays the episcopal conferences – judge about the cultural, economic, political, and social problems that affect countries; this judgement is not imposed on the faithful with the obligatory nature that is proper to doctrinal questions, which are the proper competence of the episcopal mission.

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I have mentioned the episcopal conferences which – since the pontificate of Pius XII – have taken on an excessive authority which overrules that of the diocesan bishop. They are ecclesiastical organizations and as such do not belong from the beginning to the ecclesial Tradition. Nevertheless, they have become the models of the Church’s authority. Herein lies the problem of such an organization, which in its development and universal imposition has replaced the synods, which were the model for the exercise of an authority that corresponded to the corporate figure of the Church.

The bishops’ conference enjoys a power which, as I have said and I repeat, overturns the authority of each diocesan bishop. The organization of the conference copies the forms of democratic – or rather, pseudo-democratic – exercise of secular parliaments. The way in which the journalistic media writes is notable: “The Church says…” Is it really the Church? It would be more correct to write: “The episcopal conference says – or has said –…” The difference is not minor for the degree of acceptance and eventual obedience of the faithful.

The bishops’ conference cannot replace the function of an ecumenical council, or even a regional council, in deciding doctrinal questions and imposing its conclusions on the obedience of the faithful. This being so, however, a council can consider itself and declare itself universal when the Council Fathers cover an international membership.

In my opinion, the great challenge facing the Church is to rediscover the original quality of the diocesan bishop and the corporate structures consecrated by Tradition. The functions of the metropolitan archbishop must also be recovered. These objectives imply a new education of the faithful. In this respect it should be noted that for most of them the bishops’ conference is a foreign body and its decisions only take shape through the activity of the media; it is precisely the media that have already incorporated it as if it were a secular parliament.

The organizational problems currently affecting the Church stem from a forgetfulness of Tradition, which also implies doctrinal relativism. It is not simply a question of returning to the past, but of recognizing a continuity that opens up to the future.


+ Héctor Aguer

Archbishop Emeritus of La Plata.


Buenos Aires, Tuesday October 24, 2023.

Memorial of Saint Anthony Mary Claret, Bishop.