We’re all accustomed to referring to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. After all, it was Peter who received the keys, and as Catholics we recognize the Pope’s role as Christ’s chosen representative to rule and guide the Universal Church until the end of time.
But one teaching that sometimes gets overlooked today is that the bishops are not simply vicars of the Pope, but vicars of Christ Himself in the particular Church (i.e., diocese) assigned to them. They legitimately exercise their role only in communion with the Pope, but nonetheless they personally exercise their office in the name of Christ as a successor of the apostles. He is neither a mere representative of the Pope nor does he legitimately exercise authority apart from the Pope (See Catechism, nos. 880-96, especially 894-95).
Some may be surprised to know that a number of Popes have even referred to Christian parents as vicars of Christ in the home. For example, Pope Pius XI, in his 1929 encylical Divini Illius Magistri, wrote: “Parents . . . should be careful to make right use of the authority given them by God, whose vicars in a true sense they are.” Of course this truth connects well with Vatican II’s emphasis on the family as the “domestic Church” or “Church in miniature.”
Now the Pope, the bishops, and Christian parents are all vicars or representatives of Christ in different senses and in different realms, but these roles again need to be understood and exercised in a complementary, not competitive sense. A good example of this is found in a canon from the First Vatican Council (1869-70), which affirms the authority of bishops in the context of upholding papal primacy:
“This power of the Supreme Pontiff is so far from interfering with that power of ordinary and immediate episcopal jurisdiction by which the bishops, who, “placed by the Holy Spirit” [cf. Acts 20:28], have succeeded to the places of the apostles, as true shepherds individually feed and rule the individual flocks assigned to them, that the same (power) is asserted, confirmed, and vindicated by the supreme and universal shepherd, according to the statement of Pope Gregory the Great: “My honor is the universal honor of the Church. My honor is the solid vigor of my brothers. Then am I truly honored, when the honor due to each and everyone is not denied.”
One fairly recent example we have of the authority of the individual bishop can be found in the 1998 document of Pope John Paul II entitled Apostolos Suos. This document gave some specific theological and legal principles regarding episcopal conferences, the establishment of which is something that Vatican II heartily encouraged. This document points out (reiterating and clarifying Vatican II’s teachings) that there are two ways that episcopal conferences exercise magisterial authority: Either documents must be “unanimously approved by the bishops who are members, or receive the formal recognition (recognitio) of the Apostolic See if approved in plenary assembly by at least two thirds of the bishops belonging to the conference and having a deliberate vote.”
In the first case, because every bishop approves the document, it takes effect immediately because of the authority held by each individual bishop. In other words, what is operative here is the authentic teaching authority of each bishop, not the authority of the conference itself. The conference merely becomes the vehicle by which each bishop promulgates a teaching within his diocese, thus showing the authority of the individual bishop as vicar of Christ. In the second case, it is the authority and approval of the Roman Pontiff, not that of the conference, that makes the document binding.
Since the Pope is the vicar, or representative, of Christ for the universal Church, and the bishop is the vicar of Christ for the diocese entrusted to him, one can readily see potential conflict, especially if the local bishop doesn’t seem quite seem to be on the same page as the Holy Father. Yet the Popes have emphasized that union with the Pope and union with one’s bishop has to be a both/and proposition. For example, in an address given on November 20, 1999, Pope John Paul II drives home this point, quoting extensively from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium:
“I likewise point out the attitude that the laity should have toward their bishops and priests: ‘To their pastors they should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. . . . If the occasion arises, this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose and always with truth, courage, and prudence and with reverence and charity toward those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.’
“Unity with the bishop is the essential and indispensable attitude of the faithful Catholic, for one cannot claim to be on the Pope’s side without also standing by the bishops in communion with him. Nor can one claim to be with the bishop without standing by the head of the college.”