11-9-14: Pope Pius XII’s decision on episcopal orders

11-9-14: Pope Pius XII’s decision on episcopal orders

© Copyright 2014, T. Stanfill Benns (This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author. All emphasis within quotes is the author’s unless indicated otherwise.)


It was the contention of the late Traditional “bishop,” Louis Vezelis, that Pope Pius XII, rather than intending to designate the bishops as subordinate to the Roman Pontiff, instead actually taught that that they had received their powers directly from Christ. His argument hinged on a false distinction made between the terms “Supreme Pontiff” and “Sovereign Pontiff.” Vezelis claimed that in quotes taken by theologians from Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis, the term “Sovereign Pontiff” referred to Christ as granting power to the bishops.  In a refutation of his claims by one stay-at-home Catholic, reference is made to Mystici Corporis directly, and it is demonstrated that in the Latin version of the encyclical, the words are repeated, as “the same Supreme Pontiff (ab eodem Pontifice Summo),” in reference to the grant of power. Of course other proofs would have shown that if Vezelis was correct, the approved theologians writing on Mystici Corporis at the time it was released were universally mistaken about the nature of the definition, since all subsequently believed and taught that the popes conveyed such power to the bishops.

Because this error yet lingers among Traditionalists and also because the scholastic proofs underlying the definition have not been made available to date, it seemed appropriate to summarize two of Msgr. J. C. Fenton’s articles from the American Ecclesiastical Review, (January—June, 1949).  These articles will help those new to this subject understand that Pope Pius XII was not simply ruling according to his own inclinations, or outside the practice and teaching of the Church; this is absurd, and yet some Traditionalist leaders and “clerics,” in order to entrench their own authority, have suggested it. Rather, he was following all those teachings that had gone before and concurring with the Council of Constance and the Vatican Council’s opposition to heretical Gallicanism, a virus that has infected nearly all Traditionalists today. Below find a summary of proofs from Msgr. Fenton’s article, “St. Peter and Apostolic Jurisdiction.”

Proofs for subordination of bishops to the pope

  1. Pope St. Innocent I, in his letter to the African bishops (Jan. 27, 417), taught that, “’The episcopate itself and all the power of this name’ come from St. Peter.”
  2. St. Cyprian, also St. Optatus, taught that St. Peter and his chair was the basis of all unity.  St. Optatus wrote around 370 that St. Peter’s cathedra is the one see “in which unity is to be maintained by all,” and that after his fall, St. Peter had “alone received the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.”
  3. Pope St. Siricius taught in his “Cum in unum” that St. Peter was the one, “from whom both the apostolate and the episcopate in Christ derived their origin.”
  4. Popes Benedict XIV, Pius VI and Leo XIII previously taught that the jurisdiction of the bishops emanated from St. Peter.
  5. St. Thomas Aquinas and following him Richard of Middleton and Durandus, also John de Turcrematta, taught that the bishops derive their powers directly from the pope, not directly from Christ.
  6. Others supporting this thesis included Cardinal Hergenrother, Cardinal Louis Billot, and the theologian Palmieri.
  7. To Msgr. Fenton’s article, I would like to add the following. In his 19th century work “The Pastoral Office,” Henry Cardinal Manning cites numerous other authors in favor of the bishops as subordinate to the Roman Pontiff. He summarizes their teachings and concludes as follows:

“From all these propositions the following doc­trines or principles result:

i.  That to Peter alone the plenitude of universal jurisdiction independent of all others was given.

ii. That dependently on Peter the other Apostles received jurisdiction over all the world.

iii. That to the jurisdiction of Peter the Apostles likewise were subject.

iv. That Peter and the Apostles were equal as Apostles, but that Peter in virtue of the primacy was their head.

v. That to Peter and the Apostles succeed the successor of Peter and the Bishops.

vi. That Peter alone has a personal succession in the Roman Pontiffs.

vii. That Bishops are successors not of an Apostle one by one, but of the Apostles as a body; that is, the Episcopate succeeds the Apostolate as a whole to a whole.

viii. That the jurisdiction of Peter and the Apostles is continued in the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops.

ix. That this episcopal jurisdiction is Divine in its origin and essence, and inherent in the Episcopate; but its actual use is dependent on the Divine and supreme jurisdiction of the successor of Peter, who alone has power to assign subjects, to designate dioceses, and to restrict the extent and exercise of episcopal jurisdiction.

x. That there is therefore one jurisdiction of Divine origin, namely, the jurisdiction of the pri­macy, over all the world, i.e. universal, independent, ordinary, immediate, and episcopal, to which all, both pastors and people, are subject; and also the jurisdiction of Bishops, which is Divine in its origin and essence, but in its exercise and use dependent on the supreme jurisdiction of the successor of Peter, but nevertheless in the diocese assigned to him it is in itself ordinary, immediate and Divine.”

  1. Msgr. Fenton writes: “The most important opposition to the thesis, as might be expected, came from the Gallican theologians, (Bossuet, Regnier). Others, not infected with this virus, have opposed this teaching in times past, (Victoria, Vasquez).” It was Cardinal Manning who continued to fight the Gallicanists even after the Vatican Council definitions, which were intended to finally lay this heresy to rest.
  2. Msgr. Fenton concludes his article by noting three consequences arising from Pope Pius XII’s definition: “a) Every other bishop who is the ordinary of a diocese holds his position by the consent and at least the tacit approval of the Holy See. b) The bishop of Rome can, according to the Divine constitution of the Church itself, remove particular cases from the jurisdiction of the bishops and transfer them to his own jurisdiction. c) It signifies that any bishop not in union with the Holy Father has no authority over the faithful.

In his second article, “Episcopal Jurisdiction and the Roman See,” Fenton observed:

  1. We cannot state anything about God not provable from Divine revelation or reason.
  2. Divine revelation shows that Christ Himself appointed St. Peter as bishop; all the other apostles received episcopal jurisdiction from St. Peter.
  3. Mention of episcopal power in Matt. 18 is only a promise, not the actual grant.
  4. The Apostles did not become bishops at the Last Supper, only priests able to offer sacrifice; the words of Our Lord are employed not in the episcopal rite of consecration, but in the ordination rite.
  5. Pope St. Leo the Great: “Whatever He [Our Lord] did not withhold from others, He only gave through him [Peter],” (from Sermon given on the second anniversary of his elevation to the pontificate).
  6. The Dominican theologian John de Turcrematta taught that episcopal power descends from Christ to Peter and is granted by the Roman Pontiff.
  7. The theologians James Laynez, Cardinal Cajetan, Dominic Soto and St. Bellarmine tried to prove that “it was not necessary to suppose that the other apostles had received their jurisdiction immediately from St. Peter in order to hold that all the other residential bishops of the Catholic Church derived their power of jurisdiction immediately from Our Lord.”
  8. Suarez (and Sylvius) believed that “the power of jurisdiction had been given by Our Lord to the other Apostles ‘immediately, although in a different and less perfect way.’”
  9. Cardinal Billot taught that the bishops had direct power to rule over the churches founded by or assigned to them but that their power to rule other churches came to them only as the delegates of St. Peter.

Why Traditionalists reject Pius XII’s decision

Now we may better understand exactly how this decision affects us today. It positively gives the lie to Traditionalists who expect us to grovel at the feet of their bishops, Lefebvre and Thuc included, who not only were not in union with a true pope but supported the antipopes! Moreover, it perfectly harmonizes with Pope Pius XII’s later papal election constitution, Vacantis Apostolica Sedis, which removes all power from those who would usurp papal jurisdiction during an interregnum. This especially applies to those who would dare to forego the papal mandate necessary to the validity of episcopal consecrations. For without the very approval that is defined as necessary for the conferring of authority, no Catholic need ever recognize a man lacking it as a true bishop. Such bishops have no authority whatsoever to govern us, and indeed the strong probability that their ordinations themselves were invalid already forbids us to consider them members of the hierarchy.

Sedevacantists, had they not associated themselves with those who actually weakened the position they first espoused, were correct in their estimation that the See is indeed vacant.  It was their reaction to this realization that was in error. For if we have no true pope, and no bishops to promote and accomplish a papal election as was the case, then immediately all should have stopped dead in their tracks and reassessed the situation. For without a true pope, who can be elected only by the cardinals (or in their absence the faithful bishops and senior clergy), the juridic Church cannot exist. At no time in history has this ever occurred. But there is one time, predicted in Holy Scripture, when it could occur, and that is the time of Antichrist. Henry Cardinal Manning and other theologians have explained the verse occurring in Thessalonians concerning “he who withholdeth” as the papacy. This verse corresponds to Christ’s prophesy about Himself, and, by extension, His Mystical Body: “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” At some point in time the Church was to experience this cataclysm, and experience it She has.

As noted elsewhere, it was St. Robert Bellarmine who upheld the premise: A doubtful Pope is no pope, as related by Rev. E. S. Berry in his “The Church of Christ.” For positive doubt to exist, canonists teach that there must be some serious reason for deciding that a certain law does not apply, or a certain action does not conform to the law. All that is necessary is positive doubt, not certainty. Did positive doubt exist and does it yet exist concerning the election of John 23 and his five successors? It definitely does, as has been repeatedly demonstrated on this site and other sites as well. In fact so many doubts have been posited that it is difficult to see how anyone could have accepted Roncalli or Montini as “popes.” This tells us much about the dismal state of the hierarchy at the time. Such certainty concerning election is a necessity since the identification of validly elected pontiffs is a matter of dogmatic fact. And it does not matter how long the false claimant to the office has been reigning; Pope Paul IV taught in Cum ex… that the promotion of any man to the office of Roman Pontiff, Cardinal, archbishop or bishop cannot “be declared valid or become valid by acceptance of office…seeming possession of government…obedience accorded [the one usurping the office]…or by the passage of any time in said circumstances.” The bull also teaches that no matter how long it takes the faithful to figure out the imposture, they can still depart from these men “with impunity, at any time.”

The Church also teaches infallibly that unless a man is canonically elected, precisely as the laws in effect at the time prescribe, that man is not a valid pope, (DZ 570d, 650; Pope Paul IV’s Cum ex Apostolatus Officio; Canons 109, 147 and 219). All reading this know that as early as the mid-1970s, the papacies of Montini and Roncalli were questioned. Both men were guilty of public heretical statements prior to their elections. That alone is proof they could never have been elected, as even suspected heretics have been barred from such election from the earliest centuries. Violations of Pope Pius XII’s election law, also Canon Law also have been cited. In short, a strongly probable case has been made that lacks only the approval of a pope and/or council. Can we proceed on doubt alone? Yes we can, St. Robert and several other theologians have opined, and Church history and practice supports this statement.

Denial and avoidance won’t make it go away

But Traditionalists did not wish to live in tumultuous times, far less those of Antichrist. They wanted the freedom to enjoy the delights of this world with the (wink/nod) approval of “the clergy,” and the familiarity of Mass and Sacraments. They forgot, if they ever truly internalized it, the meaning of the word “sacred,” as it applied to the Mass and Sacraments. These holy gifts from Christ were and are treated as necessary objects only, a means to an end; that end being, in their minds anyway, the graces necessary to avoid hell. That they profaned the very things they professed to venerate by violating Church teaching and law is foreign to them, since they do not hold dogma or law, either, as sacred.  Never mind that the Church Fathers often refer to the Sacred Canons, and theologians to Sacred Theology. If they hear they should doubt the elections of Roncalli and his successors, they feign the inability, regardless of proofs offered, to entertain any doubt. But affected ignorance will not save them.

These Traditionalists object that they cannot be sure if Roncalli was really pope even though they may use his John 23 missal. They cannot decide, even if they are uncertain, whether this requires any consideration beyond uncertainty, even though every good Catholic should know that in a state of doubt, one CANNOT act; that is, one must refrain from any action until the doubt is resolved, (not “remain in place,” as so many Traditionalists erroneously advise). In matters concerning eternal salvation, and we must be subject to the Roman Pontiff to reach Heaven as Pope Boniface VIII infallibly teaches, it is the unanimous opinion of theologians that we follow the safer course. That is, that we do not assume such a man has been validly elected if sufficient positive doubt exists to the contrary, lest we be led astray and succumb to schism. But here we digress.

Vatican Council definition misrepresented

Returning to our main topic, in light of Pope Pius XII’s definition concerning the bishops, the Vatican Council was crystal clear on the subject of how the pope factors into the equation:“So in the Church, He wished pastors and doctors to be ‘even to the consummation of the world,’ (Matt. 28:20). But that the episcopacy itself might be one and undivided, and that the entire multitude of the faithful through priests closely connected with one another might be preserved in the unity of faith and communion, placing the blessed Peter over the other apostles, he established in him the perpetual principle and visible foundation of both unities upon whose strength the eternal temple might be erected…The apostolic primacy [is] the strength and solidarity in which the whole Church consists,” (DZ 1821). Yet if we believe Traditionalists, in both their teaching and practice, that strength and solidarity is and was the Latin Tridentine Mass, impossible of celebration and preservation without the Roman Pontiff to oversee the hierarchy. For unless the pope heads the bishops and they in turn direct the priests, the episcopate may be divided or scattered, for as other saints and popes above have decreed, their unity is dependent on the successors of St. Peter.

The original proponents of Traditionalism; also the Old Catholics and Anglican ritualists, whose Modernist descendants later became the founders of the Traditionalists, comprised the remaining defenders of the Gallicanist heresy Cardinal Manning so despised and Msgr. Fenton decries above. They also insisted on retaining the name Catholic. While offering various explanations for the source of their jurisdiction, the inference was that such jurisdiction was basically immaterial. All were of the same opinion and projected the following false syllogism onto their followers: The Vatican Council says the Church, as constituted by Christ, will last until the consummation. The Church Christ constituted consisted of [the pope], bishops, priests and faithful. Therefore [a pope], bishops, priests and faithful will yet exist at the time of the consummation. Does anyone see the discrepancy in what they are saying and what has actually happened? Is it now obvious here that the Vatican Council said no such thing, and that they are disingenuously leaving out of the equation the one binding agent that protects all the others from dissolution?!


How coincidental it is that the exact same thing happened at the time of the Protestant (Re)formation. Having disposed of the pope, all of a sudden, “It was the Mass that matters,” and why not — the Real Presence and the source of episcopal succession was eventually taken away. Pope Leo XIII assures us that without the pope, the Anglicans lost their orders. But without a true pope the Traditionalists have preserved theirs? Isn’t it true that they belong only to a make-believe church, presided over solely by purported bishops and priests, who in reality have no valid claim to the clerical state? And weren’t all pretenses to these claims originating from the Gallicanist sect — that bishops constitute the Church as a body because they were granted jurisdiction directly by Christ and have authority outside communion with a true pope — long ago laid to rest by Pope Pius XII? They refuse to accept the fact that centuries before this definition was ever issued, the following proposition presented by John Hus, later burned at the stake as a heretic, was condemned in 1418: “The apostles and faithful priests of the Lord, strenuously and in necessities, ruled the Church unto salvation, before the office of the pope was introduced; therefore they would be doing even to the day of judgment, were the pope utterly lacking,” (DZ 655).

So given the inevitable conclusion that both the above condemnation, as well as Pope Pius XII’s infallible definition of episcopal jurisdiction, is binding on Catholics, and that if such is not recognized by them they can no longer pass as members, isn’t it long overdue to propose that we “burn” these wretched Traditionalists as well, at least figuratively? Their heretical pertinacity has been demonstrated time and time again and still they fail to abandon their errors. Those among their followers who continue to support them are guilty of communicatio in sacris — cooperation in sacrilege. These men promised them bread and handed them snakes. Sadly nothing can be done for those who prefer living in a viper’s nest rather than admitting their errors.

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  1. Maria

    The decision of Pope Pius XII on this matter was crystal clear. There is no way his meaning can be mistaken, especially as he reiterated the point repeatedly in his encyclicals on the Chinese schism.

    • T. Stanfill Benns

      Yes, he did reiterate his point repeatedly, but since when has that ever stopped these Traditionalists from insisting that they can do whatever they want in the absence of the Pope? Following the Vatican Council decision on infallibility, Cardinal Manning tells us that poor pope Pius IX was deluged by both Catholics who should have known better and Protestants alike to further define infallibility. The pope finally responded: “Some would have me interpret and explain even more fully the Definition of the Council. I will not do it. It is clear in itself and has no need of other comments and explanations. Whoever reads that decree with a dispassionate mind has its true sense easily and obviously before him,” (Discorsi Pio Nono, July 20, 1871; Rome 1872).

      The rejection of the papacy and its necessity for the Church’s existence began long before the false Vatican 2 council. We saw its culmination in the unanimous exodus of once-Catholic bishops into the the false church at Vatican 2. We see the pitiful attempts today of those claiming to be bishops who in all probability, taking Church law at face value and according to Church teaching, were never even validly ordained. Those who obey the popes, even though one is not ruling us now, will go to the trouble to see what they taught and adhere to that teaching. Traditionalists “obey” only what suits them.


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