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