Episcopal Conferences And Teaching Authority



by William H. Marshner

The Light
Vol. V No. 10, October 1988
The Catholic Center
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A key item on the agenda of the meeting of the U.S. bishops next month is the Vatican’s draft guidelines on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences. The central question up for debate is whether episcopal conferences, such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, possess any magisterial teaching authority of their own.

Cardinal Ratzinger and the Vatican Draft say they do not; Archbishop John May of St. Louis, president of the NCCB, and other American bishops and theologians, say that conferences do possess such authority.

The theology of episcopal conferences has not yet been completely elaborated, and the Vatican Draft is an attempt to begin that elaboration in order to bring some clarity into the discussion of the nature, functions, authority and limits of the conferences. Each of the episcopal conferences in the world has been asked to respond to the Draft by the end of this year, and next month the U.S. bishops will formulate their response.

Archbishop May has already articulated a viewpoint which is probably widely shared among the dominant element within the NCCB. In his opening address at the bishops’ meeting this summer in Collegeville, Minnesota, Archbishop May took sharp issue with the conclusions of the Draft, contending that conferences do have a teaching mandate.

While the Code of Canon Law does not specifically confer teaching authority on episcopal conferences, it does lend some support to Archbishop May’s viewpoint in Canon 753, on the teaching office of bishops in general:

Whether they act as individuals or gathered together in conferences of bishops or particular councils, the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college are authentic teachers of the faith to the faithful committed to their care, even though they do not enjoy infallibility in their teaching; the faithful are obliged to adhere to the authentic teaching office of their own bishops with religious obedience of mind.

The Vatican Draft, of course, agrees that each bishop exercises a teaching authority over the faithful committed to his care. But the question is whether a doctrinal statement of a conference has any higher authority than a statement by an individual bishop, and this question the Draft answers in the negative.

The Draft begins with the overall nature of the Church as a Communio, a sharing between people of blessings and mysteries that descend from God. It is then noted that this sharing takes place on several levels in the Church, and that on the level of the bishops the sharing is called “collegiality.”

‘Collegiality’ in the proper sense means acting as a member of the episcopal college, so as to be a participant in an act of the College. In other words, ‘collegiality’ is the property of belonging to the whole episcopal college in operation as a whole. In this sense, collegiality is the trait of bishops acting together as an Ecumenical Council (where they are physically together) or as respondents in a world-wide canvass conducted by the Pope (wherein they are morally together). Now, when the bishops of the world act together in this way, as a College, the main thing they will be doing is teaching.

Hence collegiality and magisterium are tied together.

This is not to say that a bishop never teaches unless he acts with all the others, as a college. No, the episcopate is also a personal office, and each bishop can teach authentically in his own diocese. Rather, it is to say that bishops only teach in a joint way that is higher than their individual capacity when they teach as a college. Otherwise they just teach individually, and their teaching acts, in case they agree or duplicate one another, should be called “convergent acts,” not collegial ones.

When bishops act jointly, say, at the national level, they are doing something similar to acting jointly at the world level, as the college. But the difference remains: acting jointly as a part is different from acting jointly as the whole. Only in the latter capacity do they teach with genuinely united authority — as the Apostles living on, as a body, in their successors.

The conclusion is now drawn. Since the acts of episcopal conferences are not collegial (are not acts of the college), they are not magisterial either. Conference documents have no standing as magisterial statements.

With that settled, the Draft turns to what we have been wanting to know all along, the actual and official purpose of the conference as a new layer of structure. We are told that “the conference is a contingent structure regulated by law,” whose acts have “a collective, not collegial, character.” The conference has “an auxiliary role” to diocesan bishops, “to help them in the fulfillment of some common tasks.”

Conferences have “a rather practical role within the sphere of concrete problems of time and place, and centered in the exchange of opinions and experiences, the finality of which is to create a consensus concerning the general lines of pastoral action.” The conference can embody that consensus in legislation, but only “in those cases in which the [Canon] law or superior authority deems necessary.”

This is the difference between a conference and a local council, which is unrestricted in its legislative power (and which, therefore, isn’t allowed to meet without special prior consent from Rome).

The Vatican’s cause is a good one, but it is not very well served by the case put forward in this Draft. Within the Draft, it is necessary to distinguish between the conclusions it reaches and the arguments it uses to get there. The conclusions are likely to hold firm. The arguments are trial balloons.

It seems to me that the conclusions are four in number and are best stated in the following order.

1) As creations of positive law, episcopal conferences find their purpose in the tasks committed to them by positive law.

2) According to Church law, the mandate of episcopal conferences is to promote national or regional consensus in the disciplinary/managerial sphere, not the doctrinal sphere. In other words, the conference exists to promote consensus in setting policy, not in seeking truth.

3) Documents in which the conference purports to teach are in fact documents in which its component bishops teach, and no such document has any higher authority than it would have had if a single such bishop had issued it.

4) The acts of episcopal conferences are not collegial acts in the proper sense.

The Draft devotes almost all of its argument to establishing (4), because its authors imagine that (3) follows from (4); (3) then justifies (2), which is the main order of business.

I agree that (2) is the main issue, but I don’t think it needs any justification other than (1). Meanwhile, the argument expended on (4) is wasted, in my opinion, because (3) in fact follows from (2). Finally, (4) can be defended on other grounds and using a far more familiar sense of ‘collegial’.

If conference documents which purport to teach have the authority they would have had if issued by a single bishop, but that bishop’s act would have been one of authentic magisterium, as the Draft concedes, then it follows that the conference document is a product of authentic magisterium.

The real issue is not whether this is the case but why. A teaching document is the product of a teaching act. So the real question is this: is the conference document a product of authentic magisterium by reason of being issued by the conference or by reason of being issued by any given bishop who belongs to the conference? Archbishop May and his colleagues seem to prefer the former answer. If they are right, the peace pastoral, for example, is a product of authentic magisterium because the conference’s act is issuing it (which took place because there were enough votes for it) was an authentic magisterial act. The Vatican Draft, in conclusion (3), would mandate the second answer. If conclusion (3) is true, the peace pastoral is a product of authentic magisterium only because one or another bishop’s act of assenting to it (which took place because he saw enough reasons for it) was an authentic magisterial act. This is the crucial issue; and on it the Vatican Draft is right.

Perhaps the easiest way to see the difference between the two positions is to borrow an analogy from politics. In Archbishop May’s view, the episcopal conference is something like Congress, which is able to pass laws only when a majority of its members agree. The agreement among its members creates a level of authority higher than that of its individual members. In the view put forward by the Vatican Draft, an episcopal conference is something more like the National Governors’ Association: its decisions and resolutions have no authority from the fact that they are the positions of the Association, but only because they are the positions of individual governors.

Admittedly, this analogy limps, because Archbishop May would certainly not deny that individual bishops possess teaching authority within their own dioceses, while Congressmen have no legislative authority except when they act together. But at least with respect to the collective acts of an episcopal conference, in doctrinal matters they have only as much authority as the individual acts of teaching authority exercised by the individual bishops who participate in them.

The conference as such has no power to pass a judgment, fallible or infallible, on new and disputed questions of faith and morals, because it has no mandate to do so. It has no mandate to teach because, as a creation of positive law, the conference has only that mandate which the law gives it. That mandate lies in the realm of policy making, not in truth seeking. Thus, conclusion (3) follows from conclusions (1) and (2), and the collegiality issue in conclusion (4) has nothing to do with it.

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