DAILY CATHOLIC     THURSDAY     July 23, 1998     vol. 9, no. 143

from a CATHOLIC perspective

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          In a new apostolic letter, to be released officially at the Vatican tomorrow, Pope John Paul II carefully defines the role of national episcopal conferences, and underlines the limits of their authority.

          The new letter, Apostolos Suos, is a motu proprio-- that is, a document issued by the Pope on his own authority. Catholic World News has obtained an advance copy of the document.

          In the apostolic letter, the Holy Father emphasizes that the world's bishops, united with the Bishop of Rome at their head, form one corporate body, which exercises the supreme decision-making power of the Church. But that collegial power cannot be divided. Thus, he teaches in Apostolos Suos, while the body of bishops can make authoritative pronouncements, "Equivalent collegial actions cannot be carried out at the level of individual particular churches or of gatherings of such churches."

          The apostolic letter also stresses that each bishops' conference should be run by, and speak for, the bishops themselves; the conference should not be governed by staff members, or appointed commissions. In a statement obviously directed at the US bishops' conference, the Holy Father writes that the true purpose of an episcopal conference "requires that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions be avoided." He adds that "commissions and offices exist to be of help to bishops and not to substitute for them."

          The emergence of national bishops' conferences is a relatively new development in Church history, the Pope points out, although from the earliest days the bishops have looked for ways to cooperate in their pastoral ministry. The leaders of the early Church convened for "particular" as well as "general" councils, and although only general councils were endowed with supreme teaching authority, the particular councils also played a role in helping bishops to define their positions and their strategies.

          (Pope John Paul II makes it clear at the outset that an episcopal conference cannot be confused with the synods which govern some Eastern Catholic Churches; these synods play a completely different role, which is spelled out by the Eastern Code of Canon Law.)

          The Second Vatican Council spoke specifically of national episcopal conferences, and in 1966 Pope Paul VI encouraged the development of these conferences in every country. Pope Paul stipulated that for adequate pastoral reasons a conference might include bishops from more than one nation, or from only a part of a nation; in any case the structure of the conference must be approved by the Holy See. The Code of Canon Law now includes norms (447-459) for bishops' conferences.

          However, the Synod of Bishops in 1985 called for a more detailed study of the role of the bishops' conferences. Apostolos Suos is a response to that request.

          Each individual bishop is the sole authoritative teacher in his own diocese, Pope John Paul observes, and the episcopal conference cannot replace him in that role. He stresses that bishops "cannot limit their own sacred power in favor of the episcopal conference." Thus the faithful in any given diocese are called to follow their own bishop, not to look to the national conference as a higher authority.

          Clarifying the teaching authority of the episcopal conference, then, the Pope teaches that "the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect" only to statements which win the unanimous approval of the bishops in their episcopal conference. If there is any dissent among the bishops, the statement cannot hold the same teaching authority.

          Also, Apostolos Suos adds, statements from an episcopal conference can be authoritative only if they are approved by the bishops themselves, meeting in plenary session; documents issued by committees or staff aides cannot be considered as authoritative.

          Finally, the new apostolic letter cautions that while each episcopal conference can set its own rules (subject to Vatican approval), the ultimate responsibility must always fall on diocesan bishops. Auxiliary bishops and retired bishops may participate in discussions and votes, at the discretion of the conference, but the actions of the conference must be under the control of active bishops heading individual dioceses.

          Properly understood, the Pope writes, an episcopal conference must be "a concrete application of the collegial spirit." The bishops' conference is an instrument for pastoral cooperation, intended to help the individual bishops in their ministry. It cannot replace the individual bishops, nor insert a new level of authority between the individual bishop and the Holy See.

Articles provided through Catholic World News Service.
CWN is not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provides this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

July 23, 1998       volume 9, no. 143


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