Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, September 09, 2005

Observations on Episcopal Pastoral Decisions and Ecclesial Communion, Part III of III 

The following is a set of observations on the recent article, Episcopal Pastoral Decisions and Ecclesial Communion, which Bishop Donald Wuerl published in his diocesan newspaper. It intends to draw upon the reflections offered in the preceding Parts I and II of this series.

Bishop Wuerl's opening sections are both thoughtful and thorough, as they bring together all the relevant magisterial documents relevant to episcopal conferences (even going beyond Apostolos Suos). He has done a masterful job of drawing together this material. Wuerl is hardly a small-time theologian, and is regarded by his brother bishops as somewhat of a heavyweight when it comes to catechetics and Church teaching. His thoughts here are not to be taken lightly, nor will they be ignored by the Conference itself.

His closing section, entitled 'Practical pastoral solution', gets to the heart of the matter (though the transition between the sections is rather awkward): how to ensure that local pastoral decisions with national implications be carried out in a truly collegial manner.

Wuerl's observations are accurate in noting that, while the prerogatives of an episcopal ordinary in his own diocese are sacrosanct, there are necessarily implications of these actions in other dioceses. To stick to the subject of the denial of communion, what would happen if John Kerry were denied communion in his home diocese of Boston, but was allowed to communicate freely in neighboring Worcester? Or if, say, Jeb Bush was given communion in his Florida diocese, but denied it when he visited a Midwestern state? This type of arrangement, which seems to have more or less emerged in reality from the status quo situation, would merely serve to highlight the divisions within the American episcopate, and sharpen the edges of disunity on doctrinal and disciplinary practice between local churches. Certainly, it is a solution we can learn to live with, but if a better solution could feasibly be found, we would be bound to at least give it a shot. Is it possible to approach these decisions with a larger dose of the 'collegial spirit'?

Option I. Formal Incorporation into Conference Structure

Wuerl's first approach is to formalize and bureaucratize such disciplinary measures by incorporating them into the Conference structure.

A minor, preliminary step in this direction was taken by the establishment of a 'Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians', formed in 2003 under the chairmanship of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick to oversee the implementation of the CDF's 2002 document Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life. The ultimate fruit of this Taks Force was the 2004 USCCB document, "Catholics in Political Life," adopted by the full body of American bishops at their Spring plenary session of that year. This document was intentionally 'pastoral' in character, preferring to put forward general 'suggestions' rather than binding policies. In point of fact, the document could have done little more than this, since an 'authentic' document which would be binding on all bishops would have required either unanimous approval or a recognitio from the Holy See, neither of which would have been highly likely.

Bishop Wuerl's first suggestion would be to take even more steps in this direction. A formal 'mechanism' of the Conference would be established for the 'review' of a political candidate who is being considered as a subject for a ban on communion. However, this proposal runs up against the numerous limits of conference jurisdiction which we have already noted. It would require a formal, deliberative vote (apprently, on each candidate, considered individually) at a plenary session of the conference for it to be binding upon all members, along with a specific mandate from the Holy See to pursue such a course of action. Again, either a uninamous vote or a recognitio from the Holy See would then be necessary for adoption. If such a vote were carried out successfully, the Catholic politician in question would be formally barred from communion in every diocese, and bishops who failed to take steps to ensure this would be found in violation of ecclesiastical law.

The beauty of this approach is that it is in full accord with the limits canonical jurisprudence. Its beauty, however, is only superficial, inasmuch as the proposal would be utterly impossible to carry out in practice. First, the Holy See would almost certainly not grant a mandate for the conference to establish this mechanism, as there is little basis in prescribed law or jurisprudence for it. Second, the possibility of the American episcopate collectively voting to ban a candidate from communion, even in a full two-thirds vote (at least a 'moral unanimity' would be required to convince the Holy See that a recognitio is merited), especially given the divisions that currently plague the conference membership, is so unlikely as to be laughable. Third, as slow as the wheels of conference bureaucracy turn (or, for that matter, that of the Holy See), it could conceivably take years for this process to be carried out from start to finish. A presidential candidate would have already been elected, served two terms and happily retired before his communion ban was in place.

In addition to its impractability, such an approach would also be, theologically speaking, probably undesirable, as it would be difficult to avoid the impression of a collective bureaucratic entity usurping the rightful prerogatives of the local bishop, even if that bishop were to grant the usurpation. Disciplinary measures on members of the faithful have, in the past, nearly always been entrusted to the local ordinary, and to entrust it to a national episcopal conference would be little short of an innovation.

II. Formalization of Collegial Consultation

There is little doubt that Bishop Wuerl is aware of how impractical, and near impossible, the first alternative is. It is likely that he intends it not a serious suggestion, but rather as a foil for his second, more realistic proposal.

The latter wisely sidesteps the formal bureaucratic structures of the conference, and has a much more modest goal in mind, conversation between bishops: a "commitment on the part of all the bishops to discuss beforehand, through some conference structure, decisions that will impact all of the bishops and the church as a whole."

But Wuerl's proposal is more than a mere "let's talk about it" request. First, it also includes an implicit agreement among each bishop to "refrain from making individual pastoral decisions" on this matter until such conversation was carried out. A decision to bar an individual from communion could "be finalized only in concern with the conference of bishops" (emphasis added).

Second, and apparently as a consequence of what precedes, Wuerl's proposal is specifically noted to require the establishment of a 'conference structure'. What he has in mind is not clear. After examining existing conference structures, the following is the only solution that I can envision:

A permanent or ad hoc Bishops' Committee would have to be established, similar to the already-existent 'Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians', consisting of episcopal members elected by the bishops themselves, which would offer consultation to individual bishops on this subject. Such a Committee would necessarily require a permament office in Washington with a significant staff, in order to provide the Committee members with the research data necessary to come to a decision on how to offer consultation (e.g., what is a given politician's voting record on relevant issues, what other dioceses might be affected to a decision to bar communion, how do the bishops of these dioceses feel about it, etc.).

In order to be a true exercise in collegiality, this committee would most likely have to include some level of consultation with the full body of bishops, in order to avoid having only a few 'power brokers' make decisions on such a matter. Correspondence would have to be sent to all the bishops, listing the names of politicians being considered for a ban on communion, and inviting feedback from every bishop. The committee would then use this feedback, along with the research data gathered by the USCCB office, to offer consultation to inquiring bishops. Such consultation, of course, could not be considered binding upon any local bishop, but would simply communicate to him how his brother bishops feel about the matter.

This solution would effectively achieve the goal. A local bishop who intends to discipline an errant Catholic politician in his diocese would be able to approach the subject knowing the sentiments of his brother bishops, and would be able to weigh these sentiments against his own, while always aware that the ultimate responsibility for this soul belongs to himself.

The cost, however, would be significant, as it would result in the creation of yet another standing committee of bishops along with a permanent staff office. The warning note of Apostolos Suos should always ring in the background when we make such a consideration:
Such aims, however, require that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions be avoided. (AS 18)

That the office and commission we are considering would carry out most of its operations 'between' plenary sessions is unavoidable. Since it would intend no binding or 'authentic' teaching or action being carried out by the full body, it would have no conceivable need to bring anything before the full body in plenary session.

Now the sentence from Apostolos Suos is no blanket prohibition, merely a general guideline. But it does rest upon solid principle, viz. that the Conference is never to substitute for or infringe upon the pastoral authority of the local bishop. Certainly, a well-informed commission could offer a good deal of pastoral advice to an inquiring bishop regarding the sentiments of fellow bishops and the voting record of the politician in question.

But the question remains, what can this committee do that the local ordinary cannot do on his own accord? Presumably, or at least in theory, a man's shepherd is the best judge of his soul, and would know the most about his own political record as well. He would also know best what other dioceses would be affected by his decisions. There is little to prevent him from conversing with other bishops to assess their opinions about the matter, and private conversations could generally be more candid than public conversations. More importantly, since they would remain in private, such decisions would never become media spectacles, which decisions about a man's soul should never become. The process could also be carried out much more swiftly than a bureaucratic mechanism could possibly move. The local ordinary would also retain his essential liberty in such decisions, since Wuerl's proposal specifically requires that the bishop "refrain from making individual pastoral decisions" until the conference has offered its consultation.

What is gained, then, by incorporating such a process into the bureaucratic structure of the Conference? A certain formalization and objectivity, perhaps, a minimalizing of personal bias and subjectivity. A broader and more inclusive extent of episcopal consultation would, no doubt, be achieved. But the costs involved, as noted above, may end up weighing against such a proposal, and leaving the matter where it lay in 2004, with the USCCB's last words on the subject:
Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action. (Catholics in Political Life).

# posted by Jamie : 12:36 PM


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