As the names Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom suggest, the middle centuries of the first millennium, the era of the Church Fathers, were the golden age of the Catholic episcopate. The Catholic Church recognizes 35 men and women as exemplary teachers; 14 of them – 40 percent of the entire roster of the “Doctors of the Church” – were bishops who lived in that epoch. Their’s were not tranquil times. But even as these brave shepherds battled heresies within the Church and overbearing rulers who tried to subordinate the Church to their power, they created a spiritual patrimony from which we still benefit today, as the Church regularly ponders their sermons, letters, and biblical commentaries in the Liturgy of the Hours.
One characteristic of this golden age of bishops was the practice of fraternal challenge and correction within the episcopate. Local bishops in the mid-first millennium believed they belonged to, and shared responsibility for, a worldwide communion. Convinced that what happens in one part of the body has effects on the whole, bishops like Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, and Augustine did not hesitate to correct brother bishops they thought were mistaken in their doctrine or disciplinary practice – and sometimes did so in forceful language.
This concept of the bishops’ mutual responsibility for the world Church was retrieved by the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on episcopal collegiality. The Fathers’ practice of fraternal challenge and correction remains to be recovered, however. That recovery is now essential as the Church in Germany falls deeper into apostasy – a denial of the truths of Catholic faith that threatens schism.
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