Episcopal Conferences

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Episcopal conferences embody the collegial (conciliar or synodal) exercise of church authority by the bishops of a region or a nation, arising from the recognition in Lumen gentium, no. 23, of subsidiarity on one hand and the personal responsibility of archdioceses and dioceses to collaborate on the other. Contemporary determinations about episcopal conferences flow from three historical items: the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983; the 1985 Synod of Bishops, held to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council; and Apostolos suos, the motu proprio of Pope John Paul II on May 21, 1998, that addresses the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences.

Conferences of bishops, or national episcopal conferences, originate during the nineteenth century in Europefor example, Belgium (1830), Germany (1848), Austria (1849), and regional meetings in Italybut they have deeper roots in the ancient practice of the Church to organize assemblies of bishops at the level of ecclesiastical provinces. In the Eastern Church, these provinces comprise metropolitan and suffragan dioceses; in the Latin Church, the archdioceses and dioceses of a particular geographic region form provinces. The latter have long standing ecclesiastical recognition according to canon 292 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, while the former received definitive canonical status in 1965 at Vatican Council II with the decree Christus Dominus, nos. 37 to 38, and the specifications set forth by Pope Paul VI in his apostolic letter, Ecclesiae sanctae of Aug. 5, 1966 (section 1, no. 41).

European assemblies of bishops had their importance recognized as akin to ecclesiastical provinces, but these meetings took place in a historical context of rising European nationalism that often cast liberalism and democracy as oppressors to institutional Catholicism, specifically to the Holy See. In the United States of America, the first national conference of bishops took place in September 1919, although annual meetings of the metropolitan archbishops took place in the final decades of the previous century. In subsequent years, the American episcopate met in annual conference and transacted business first as the National Catholic Welfare Conference and then after Vatican II under two titles: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference. In 2000, the episcopate reorganized again as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

1983 Code of Canon Law. Chapter four of book two, "The People of God," of the 1983 Code includes 13 canons (44759) dealing with the general nature and responsibility of episcopal conferences. The canons are largely derived from the conciliar decree Christus Dominus on the pastoral office of bishops in the Church. The canons on national conferences constitute a fourth illustration of the groupings of particular churches, or dioceses, in the organizational structure of the Catholic Church.

The canons embody two aspects of conferences in which they differ from the ancient tradition of particular councils: They are permanent bodies (c. 447), not occasional assemblies, and they have the canonical character of juridic persons in the Church (c. 449, §2). Canons 448 and 450 establish the membership of national conferences, respecting the competence of the Holy See sated in canon 449, §1. Canons 451 to 459 set the composition and operating procedures of the conference. Canon 455 merits particular notice. The canon deals with a great number of practical applications, but it also raises serious theological implications, precisely because it touches the autonomy of individual bishops and the relationship of diocesan bishops with each other and the Holy See. Early recognition of this difficulty appeared in a Nov. 8, 1983 letter of the Cardinal Secretary of State to each national episcopal conference indicating where the conference (a) may and (b) must issue local norms (see Communicationes 15 (1983):13539.)

1985 Synod of Bishops. With respect to conferences of bishops, the synod members wrestled with two tendencies: one seeing episcopal conferences as a centralizing influence in a nation or region and the other seeing the responsibility and innate power of the bishop of the individual, particular church. A 1988 letter from the Congregation of bishops focused on the theological and the juridic status of national conferences.

On the theological status, the letter repeatedly draws a sharp line between episcopal collegiality (itself the expression of the communion of the local churches) in the full or strict sense and in the partial or limited sense. They are judged collegial only in an analogical and in exact sense. Admitting that the remote foundation of conferences is in the particular (provincial or regional) councils held since the end of the second century, the text sharply distinguishes councils and conferences and dwells upon the pastoral utility of the conferences. The latter are said to lack any proper magisterial office, although their teachings are to be received with a "religious submission of mind" in accord with canon 753.

On the juridic status, the Roman letter dealt with the conferences in three sections: (1) restraints on teaching, conceived merely as "applying pronouncements of the magisterium of the universal Church"; (2) the distinction between the authority of the individual diocesan bishop and the conferences, with the actions of the conferences limited to "moral authority" in most instances; and (3) proposals for consensus for nonbinding decisions, with special attention to the danger of a conference's subsidiary organs, commissions, or offices being confused with the conference itself.

Critique of the Roman letter saw many of the concerns as matters of ecclesiastical polity rather than theology and church law. Challenges were made for more precision in terminology and a thorough grounding of both the theological and juridical status of national conferences in conciliar, canonical, papal, historical, and liturgical references. The response of the bishops of the United States was that a new draft should be prepared with the collaboration of representative bishops, canonists, theologians, and historians.

Apostolos suos. The motu proprio of May 21, 1998, represents the response to request of the 1988 synod of bishops and subsequent consultations. The document contains four sections. Section one traces major theological-historical moments of the collegial structure or permanent assembly of the apostles as constituted by the Lord Jesus. Section two addresses collegial union among bishops as it touches on the themes of unity, collegiality, and joint pastoral action. Section three sets forth Pope John Paul II's understanding of the conference of bishops as a permanent institution, the issues that currently call for the joint action of the bishops, the manner in which episcopal conferences are to organize territorially, their composition, especially with respect to deliberative or consultative voting power, and finally the authority of the episcopal conference with respect to the authority of the diocesan bishop and the requirements of a recognitio of the Apostolic See. Section four sets down complementary norms regarding the conference of bishops.

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