Episcopal conferences have no theological basis

On September 16, Bishop Robert F. Vasa, D.D. (diocese of Baker, Oregon) gave a remarkable speech on the respective roles of individual bishops and bishops conferences. He made some extremely hard-hitting points that must still be stirring the hearts of his fellow bishops. He also quoted from robustly worded statements by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (our current Pope) and Canon Law. It was a very authoritative discourse.

Every lay person needs to understand this simple teaching in order to put everything into proper perspective and live an informed spiritual life in these times of dissent. More importantly, Canadian Bishops should refresh their memory of these matters on the eve of their Plenary Assembly.

Bishop Vasa starts by quoting a basic definition of an episcopal conference from a Vatican II decree called Christus Dominus, the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church:

An episcopal conference is a form of assembly in which the bishops of a certain country or region exercise their pastoral office jointly in order to enhance the Church’s beneficial influence on all men, especially by devising forms of the apostolate and apostolic methods suitably adapted to the circumstances of the times. (Christus Dominus, 38)

Note the choice of words: “exercise their pastoral office jointly”. They don’t give their pastoral office to the conference. They don’t delegate their authority. The bishops are still exercising their own individual authority, but working as a team. More on this later.

Episcopal conferences have obvious practical uses. Bishop Vasa mentions examples such as the joint work to produce a new translation of the Roman Missal and combined efforts to raise funds for disaster relief. But there are also problems associated with these conferences:

There is, however, room for concern about the tendency of the conference to take on a life of its own and to begin to replace or displace the proper role of individual bishops, even in their own dioceses. There may also be an unfortunate tendency on the part of bishops to abdicate to the conference a portion of their episcopal role and duty. For instance, there is a Doctrine Committee that is available for bishops to present questions and problems for a doctrinal opinion. The availability of such a committee is a great service, but if a bishop simply brings every question in his diocese to the Doctrine Committee and then reports to his faithful that the Doctrine Committee of the USCCB has decided X, Y or Z, he is failing to take hold of a responsibility that is uniquely his. It is much more appropriate for him to consult this Committee and then say: “After consultation with the Committee of Doctrine, I have decided X, Y or Z for my diocese.” A response such as this preserves the proper role of both the bishop and the conference. It is, however, much easier and safer to pass the responsibility to the Committee.

It’s crucial that we understand this. Christ founded his Church on the Twelve Apostles. The bishops are the successors of the Apostles. As such, the individual bishops, in union with the Pope, possess all the authority in the Church (cardinals are a special kind of bishop). Christ did not establish episcopal conferences. They were created much later to serve legitimate practical needs but were never supposed to supersede the supremacy of the bishops in union with the Pope. In a 1985 book called The Ratzinger Report, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (our current Pope) spoke very forcefully and unequivocally on this point:

The decisive new emphasis on the role of the bishops is in reality restrained or actually risks being smothered by the insertion of bishops into episcopal conferences that are ever more organized, often with burdensome bureaucratic structures. We must not forget that the episcopal conferences have no theological basis, they do not belong to the structure of the Church, as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated; they have only a practical, concrete function. (The Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

Bishop Vasa continues:

This is confirmed in the Code of Canon Law, which delimits the extent of the authority of the conference, noting that the competence of each diocesan bishop remains intact, nor is a conference or its president able to act in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given consent (canon 455, ß4). Clearly, the conference cannot, on its own authority, substitute for the persons of the bishops, who are, according to Canon 753, “authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.” In his interview, Cardinal Ratzinger confirmed: “No episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission: its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.” As far as I know, the cardinal did not have a change of heart after his papal election.

If you’re feeling somewhat confused at this point, don’t blame yourself. These words probably do not correspond to the reality you’ve experienced in your life as a Catholic in Canada or the U.S. In Canada, most of the teaching we get on key moral issues emanates from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). Almost never will you hear individual bishops speaking of controversial issues like abortion, contraception or homosexuality. Yet, as Cardinal Ratzinger points out, the CCCB does not have a teaching mission. That role belongs to the individual bishops. Sadly, they appear to have largely out-sourced this role to the CCCB.

Why is this so important? Cardinal Ratzinger gave the answer:

Because it is a matter of safeguarding the very nature of the Catholic Church, which is based on an episcopal structure and not on a kind of federation of national churches. The national level is not an ecclesial dimension. It must once again become clear that in each diocese there is only one shepherd and teacher of the faith in communion with the other pastors and teachers and with the Vicar of Christ. (The Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

He’s saying that the structure of the Church, as founded by Christ, is based on bishops ruling over their respective dioceses (“episcopal structure”). National borders are merely political, ethnic or historical constructs that are irrelevant to this fundamental structure of the Church (“the national level is not an ecclesial dimension”). So when bishops’ conferences of individual countries start making up their own moral code (as in the Winnipeg Statement) they are acting as if the Church were a “federation of national churches” in which each country can set it’s own beliefs. This is absolute madness.

Bishop Joseph F. Martino

Bishops need to assert their responsibility in their own diocese. A great example of this occurred in 2008, when liberal Catholics were using a vaguely-worded statement by the USCCB as a justification to vote for pro-abortion politicians. At the time, the bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Joseph F. Martino, made the bold statement that “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese” and that his faithful should follow his own pastoral letter on the subject in which he states the Catholics must vote pro-life. At first glance, Bishop Martino’s statement may seem arrogant, but that’s only because we’ve been lulled into giving too much importance to episcopal conferences. In reality, Bishop Martino’s statement is bang-on. May God bless him! As explained above, the USCCB document carries no weight of its own and the local bishop can override it at any time.

Archbishop Thomas Collins

The individual bishop is the boss in his diocese and he cannot abdicate this responsibility. So when an individual bishop disagrees with something – for example the Development and Peace debacle – he is entirely within his rights to take the money of his diocese elsewhere, as did the courageous Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto. He’s not being “divisive” or “uncharitable”. He’s just doing his job as a responsible and loving father. This also means, in my view, that if a bishop doesn’t agree with what’s happening at D&P but continues to go along with it due to a lack of fortitude or some misplaced sense of “solidarity” with the Conference, such a bishop has misunderstood the structure of the Church and has essentially given away his authority to the Conference. Such a bishop might as well resign if he’s merely the messenger of the Conference.

The ultimate consequence: no accountability and no backbone

Bishop Vasa goes on to quote Cardinal Ratzinger – again – regarding the ultimate consequence of these super-sized episcopal conferences:

It happens that with some bishops there is a certain lack of a sense of individual responsibility, and the delegation of his inalienable powers as shepherd and teacher to the structures of the local conference leads to letting what should remain very personal lapse into anonymity. The group of bishops united in the conferences depends in their decisions upon other groups, upon commissions that have been established to prepare draft proposals. It happens then that the search for agreement between the different tendencies and the effort at mediation often yield flattened documents in which decisive positions (where they might be necessary) are weakened. (The Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

There are two key points here. First, individual bishops can “hide” behind the position of their episcopal conference and avoid putting their own name on the line. They remain anonymous, in a certain sense, because the document isn’t their personal statement but rather the position of the conference. Accountability is lost. Second, the conference documents get extremely watered down to please everybody. They often have no teeth, no backbone. Commenting on the above quote, Bishop Vasa says this:

The future Holy Father makes another point, which is certainly a real danger with documents produced by a committee. He points out that the search for consensus can result in a flattened document — or, as one bishop put it, documents that have found their least common denominator. Thus, when individual bishops — and there are more than a few — make personal statements about certain situations, those statements are often stronger, bolder, more decisive, and thus more likely to be criticized as harsh and insensitive. I fear that there has been such a steady diet of such flattened documents that anything issued by individual bishops that contains some element of strength is readily and roundly condemned or simply dismissed as being out of touch with the conference or in conflict with what other bishops might do.

Backbone is out. Jellyfish is in. We’re so used to these spineless statements that any statement from an individual bishop bearing a deeper resemblance to the Truth strikes us as extreme. And that’s the real tragedy in all this. The individual bishop’s statement is condemned or dismissed, yet it is the only one with real authority in the Church. Meanwhile, the conference’s diluted statements are more often accepted, yet they often carry little or no authority.

Is that Christ wants? A mollusk-magisterium? I don’t think so.

It’s not easy to speak the Truth today. Personally, I know that I don’t have what it takes to be a bishop. Neither do some bishops, unfortunately. It would be better for some of them to humbly step down if they realize that they are unable to fulfill the role of Apostle in today’s world.

For those that do possess the gifts to be a bishop, we are praying for you. May God strengthen you in your ministry of service to the Truth.

2 thoughts on “Episcopal conferences have no theological basis

  1. Steve, you’ve done a great service to the Canadian Church with a wonderful and timely article. I can’t thank you enough. At the heart of the D&P disaster is the debacle and structure known as the CCCB and how the bishops have practically ceded and delegated (for all intents and purposes) their responsibility and authority to this structure and its nefarious “committees”.

    We also should take note that there is a not-so-subtle heresy being propped up in the distorted excercise of these conferences known as Conciliarism (i.e. the Church is ruled by Councils and not by the Pope in union with individual bishops). But, as any knowledgeable Catholic knows, Conciliarism is not Catholic.

    We are a church today ruled by Committee instead of by individual bishop. Your analysis also applies, by the way, to provincial conferences too in this country, which are just as damaging. Over the past 40 years in the West, there is a species of this heresy called, for a lack of a better term, “Commiteeism” – that is, the Church ruled by a small committee of bishops in a particular area (i.e. education, social justice, ecumenical relations, etc. etc.).

    Catholics are experiencing “death by delegacy”.

    D&P’s marxist orientation and its success in milking hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 40 years is in large part because of the existence of the CCCB and the delinquency of the bishops in not acting like true fathers. True fatherhood would not delegate responsibility to surrogacy.

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