Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Reflection on the Nature of Episcopal Conferences, Part I of III 

As I promised a few days ago, stimulated by Bishop Wuerl's thought-provoking article on the role of episcopal conferences, I would like to offer a few words of reflection on the same subject. My own reflections have as their object John Paul II's 1998 Apostolic Letter Apostolos Suos, 'On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences.' This entry will be one of three on the subject: the first will reflect on the nature of episcopal conferences themselves in light of Apostolos Suos, the second on the ongoing efforts to reform the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in light of such mandates, and the third on the specific implications of Bishop Wuerl's suggestions in light of the aforementioned reflections. The second and third have yet to be written (give me a day or two while you're chewing on this one).

The document begins by summarizing the solemn mandate given to the 'college of apostles' by Christ, which was then passed on to their successors. This mandate, in sum, entails that every successor of the apostles, as such, is charged not only with the pastoral care of the faithful directly entrusted to them (i.e., their diocese), but also with that of the whole Church of God (AS 1-2). Without prejudice to a bishop's authority in his own diocese, this larger, collegial responsibility cannot fail to find concrete expression, and history has manifested a broad variety of 'means, structures and ways of communicating' this charge (AS 3). Particular mention is given to the holding of particular councils, plenary councils, provincial councils, provincial conferences and assemblies, and finally, distinguished by their stable and permanent character, Episcopal Conferences (AS 3-4).

The call for the establishment of episcopal conferences, at least in seminal form, was made by the Second Vatican Council itself, in the document Christus Dominus:

[I]t would be in the highest degree helpful if in all parts of the world the Bishops of each country or region would meet regularly, so that by sharing their wisdom and experience and exchanging views they may jointly formulate a programme for the common good of the Church (CD 37, cf. Lumen Gentium 23).
In 1966, Pope Paul VI, by the Motu Proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae, more or less mandated what the council had suggested. These developed quickly and significantly, and became the ordinary means by which the bishops of a country or a specific territory 'exchange views, consult with one another and cooperate in promoting the common good of the Church.' By facilitating this communication, episcopal conferences 'contribute effectively to unity between the Bishops, and thus to the unity of the Church, since they are a most helpful means of strengthening ecclesial communion.'

This 'ecclesial communion' between the successors of the apostles, the fruit of the spirit of collegiality, is something without which the Church cannot function. In fact, 'the supreme power which the body of Bishops possesses over the whole Church cannot be exercised by them except collegially' (AS 9, emphasis added). A bishop cannot exercise this collegial action at the level of his individual diocese, even when he does so with the good of the whole Church in mind (AS 10).

This collegial spirit cannot remain a disincarnated abstraction: it is 'an organic reality which demands a juridical form' (AS 8). Episcopal Conferences constitute 'a concrete application of the collegial spirit.' (AS 14) Yet at the same time it is essential to distinguish between the spiritual reality and its juridical application. Hence, as this document is at pains to point out, the action of the episcopal conference is clearly distinguished and demarcated from the collegial acts of the College of Bishops itself (AS 10). In no way are the actions of the episcopal conference of a territory to be construed as the actions of the sacred college of bishops itself, but only as one, limited juridical expression of this reality. (AS 12; cf. 13).

Thus distinguished from the exercise of the sacred college of bishops per se, the episcopal conference is a reality authorized by the Holy See, which offers general delineations of that conference's form, laying out guidelines for the establishment of a general secretariat and permanent ('administrative') council, the holding of plenary sessions, along with recommendations for committees which would facilitate collegial cooperation in response to the following (non-exhaustive) list of issues:

[T]he promotion and safeguarding of faith and morals, the translation of liturgical books, the promotion and formation of priestly vocations, the preparation of catechetical aids, the promotion and safeguarding of Catholic universities and other educational centres, the ecumenical task, relations with civil authorities, the defence of human life, of peace, and of human rights, also in order to ensure their protection in civil legislation, the promotion of social justice, the use of the means of social communication, etc. (AS 15)
The document continues with a set of stern admonitions regarding the dangers of over-expanding such structures:

Such aims, however, require that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions be avoided. The essential fact must be kept in mind that the Episcopal Conferences with their commissions and offices exist to be of help to the Bishops and not to substitute for them. (AS 18)
One reason for these limits is the limited nature of the authority of the Conference itself. Sacred tradition has established severe limits to the authority of conferences to act in the name of all bishops. Even if a bishop desired to voluntarily limit or derogate his own authority to the episcopal conference of which he is a member, this could never obtain in reality (AS 20). In order for the conference or its president to speak in the name of all bishops, 'each and every bishop' (to a man) must give his consent.

Even more restrictions are placed upon the conference's exercise of the teaching ministry, limits of which the conference's are 'well aware.' Even in those cases where they are 'official and authentic and in communion with the Apostolic See, these pronouncements do not have the characteristics of a universal magisterium.' But even for a declaration of the episcopal conference to merit as 'authentic teaching' it must receive either the unanimous consent of all bishops, or a clear 'moral majority' of all bishops plus the formal recognitio of the Holy See (cf. AS articles 1 and 2 of the complementary norms).

In all this, the role of the plenary council is pivotal, the sine qua non of the 'official and authentic' action of the conference: 'The very nature of the teaching office of Bishops requires that, when they exercise it jointly through the Episcopal Conference, this be done in the plenary assembly.' Smaller bodies or committees cannot carry out this task, even were the whole conference to delegate it to them. A 'plenary council' would be the equivalent of the highly-publicized 'general meetings' of the USCCB, which tend to occur twice a year (once in the Spring, and once in the Fall). It is only through these meetings that the authentic teaching office of the conference can be exercised.

In sum, the collegial action of bishops is essential both to their own ministry and to the well-being of the whole Church. The episcopal conference is one of the means by which that collegial spirit is enhanced, especially with regard to certain tasks which could not easily be accomplished otherwise. By virtue of their own nature, however, these conferences cannot substitute either for the authority of the diocesan bishop or for the magisterium of the Church, both of which they serve. Hence, a solemn and binding pronouncement by this conference, even in the rare cases in which it is achieved, would be such by virtue of the authority of the Holy See and the individual diocesan bishops, not by virtue of the authority of the conference itself. This authentic exercise of collegial ministry is carried out, in point of fact, only through the plenary council, for the sake of which the entire conference, and all of its juridical structures, subsist.

# posted by Jamie : 3:49 PM


Under the Patronage of
St. Augustine of Hippo

Contact me:

Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

"Augustine of Hippo Refuting Heretic"
(illuminated manuscript,
13th century)

"Jamie . . .
I could kill you in three seconds.
-Bishop Sheridan

Books Recently Read or Currently Reading

John Milbank's Theology & Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (next in stack)

Colson Whitehead's Zone One (reading)

Michael Wyschogrod's Body of Faith: God and the People Israel (reading)

J. B. Schneewind's Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (reading)

Paul Hacker's Ego in Faith: Martin Luther and the Origins of Anthopocentric Religion (finished: 3 stars)

Edward Peter's Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering this Often-Ministerpreted Teaching (finished: 1 star)

Blogs I Read

Blogroll Me!


Missale Romanum
Parallel Text of Latin Mass
Order of the Mass
Today's Mass Readings
Collect of the Day
Mass Times
Liturgical Calendar
Liturgical Year
Catholic Calendar Page
Liturgy of the Hours (Universalis)
Liturgy of the Hours (Apostolate)
Parallel Latin/English Psalter
Psalms in Metre
Pope's Commentary on Psalter
Gregorian Chant
More Gregorian Chant
Schola Cantorum Bogotensis
Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music
Monks of Adoration
Catholic Liturgical Library
Treasury of Latin Prayers
Thesaurus Precum Latinarum
Litany Collection
Novena Prayers
Real Presence Association
Liturgy Q&A (Zenit)


Bible Gateway
Unbound Bible
New Testament Gateway
NT Gateway (Greek)
Latin Vulgate
More Vulgate Resources
Nova Vulgata


Patron Saints Index
Doctors of the Church
St. Thomas More (Litany)
Saint Bonaventure
St. Josemaria Escriva
Saint Gianna Beretta Molla
Saint Padre Pio
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Queen Isabella of Spain
John Henry Newman


Catholic Answers
Biblical Evidence for Catholicism (Dave Armstrong)
Cor ad cor loquitur (Blog)
Nazareth Resource Library (Akin)
Surprised by Truth (Madrid)
Catholic Outlook (Hoge)
Scripture Catholic (Salza)
Defenders of the Faith (Ray)
Envoy Encore (Blog)
Peter Kreeft
Mark Shea
Catholic Apologetics Bible Concordance


Holy See
Pope Benedict XVI Fan Club Catholic Hierarchy
Bishops of the United States
Diocese of Arlington


Catechism of the Catholic Church
Ecumenical Councils and Decrees
Papal Encyclicals
Church Documents (New Advent)
Code of Canon Law
Academic Theology Links (Georgetown)
Modern Theologians (Wabash Center)


03/01/2002 - 04/01/2002
03/01/2004 - 04/01/2004
04/01/2004 - 05/01/2004
05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004
06/01/2004 - 07/01/2004
07/01/2004 - 08/01/2004
08/01/2004 - 09/01/2004
09/01/2004 - 10/01/2004
10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004
11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004
12/01/2004 - 01/01/2005
01/01/2005 - 02/01/2005
02/01/2005 - 03/01/2005
03/01/2005 - 04/01/2005
04/01/2005 - 05/01/2005
05/01/2005 - 06/01/2005
06/01/2005 - 07/01/2005
07/01/2005 - 08/01/2005
08/01/2005 - 09/01/2005
09/01/2005 - 10/01/2005
10/01/2005 - 11/01/2005
11/01/2005 - 12/01/2005
12/01/2005 - 01/01/2006
01/01/2006 - 02/01/2006
02/01/2006 - 03/01/2006
05/01/2006 - 06/01/2006
11/01/2009 - 12/01/2009
08/01/2010 - 09/01/2010
11/01/2010 - 12/01/2010
04/01/2011 - 05/01/2011
09/01/2011 - 10/01/2011
01/01/2012 - 02/01/2012

Buy my Wife's Cabbage Patch Kids!

<< # St. Blog's Parish ? >>

St. Blog's Parish Hall

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

This site is certified 61% GOOD by the Gematriculator

This page designed by Christopher Blosser
© 2003-2004 Jamie