The Regulation of Episcopal Conferences since Vatican II

The Regulation of Episcopal Conferences since Vatican II

Massimo Faggioli  –   Japan Mission Journal in 2004

Available to download as a PDF document

In the fifty years since the close of Vatican II the issue of the theological status and role of episcopal conferences in the government of the Catholic Church has been a fraught one. This was illustrated afresh when Pope Francis cited the episcopal conferences of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the USA and France in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, as if to bolster their magisterial authority; Georg Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was quick to point out that while papacy and episcopacy are of divine law, episcopal conferences are merely of human law ( 27 December 2013).
Can episcopal conferences be seen as a necessary and effective expression of the collegiality of bishops stressed by Vatican II? And as such do they not enjoy, like the Synods held every three years in Rome, a high theological status? In this essay I shall trace how their status was undercut in a process going through several phases in the postconciliar period, and shall seek to draw some conclusions for ongoing reflection on their role and its effective reinforcement.

Vatican II on Episcopal Conferences
The schema on Episcopal Conferences in the preparatory phase

In 1959, at the beginning of the conciliar process, there were forty episcopal conferences, both national and supranational. Originating in the mid 19th century they had been promoted by Pius XII, but the Annuario Pontificio began to cite them only in 1959.
As often happens, juridical regulation lagged behind reality and experience. The 1917 Code of Canon Law did not even mention episcopal conferences, apart from some canons about the plenary councils in the section about the supreme power in the church. Yet before the promulgation of the Code episcopal conferences had already made important steps: from the 1840s to the end of the 19th century they had become a characteristic means of intervening in the relationship between church and society. In 1959 the rules of the existing episcopal conferences were dealt with in connection with the history of the national episcopates and in bilateral agreements with the Apostolic See.

This situation was very clear to the minds of the council fathers from the beginning of the Council. An analysis of the vota indicates that they sought to revive a non-monarchical church governance in two different ways:
1) giving new life to the traditional assemblies and bodies (primacies and patriarchates, provinces and ecclesiastical regions, provincial and national councils, local synods), and
2) creating and increasing the activity of new bodies like the regional, national and continental episcopal conferences.

The issue of episcopal conferences was not included in the list of quaestiones given to the preparatory commissions in July 1960, but it became part of the conciliar debate through the activity of the commission de episcopis, chaired by Cardinal Mimmi and after his death (Spring 1961) by Cardinal Marella.
The fathers in their vota made references to episcopal conferences not only directly, but, due to the differences between local situations and experiences, also indirectly, when they wrote about the relations between local bishops and papal nuncios, between episcopal conferences and the Roman Curia, and when they proposed new laws about episcopal conferences to be inserted in the Code of Canon Law.

The commission de episcopis, after intense debate among its members, especially those from France and Spain, produces the schema De Episcoporum coetu seu conferentia of September 1961 which was marked by a pessimistic view of the relations between the Catholic Church and the modern era.
Both in its footnotes and in its spirit the schema echoed the 1864 letter of Pius IX to the Bavarian bishops, Maximae quidem, which gave papal approval to the Bavarian episcopal conference. It set forth rules for episcopal conferences, which were born praeter leges canonicas, although they had only pastoral functions and they could not hinder the celebrations of Concilia plenaria et provincialia.
Part I of the schema stated that the conferences had to be constituted in every nation with pastoral functions; if it were not possible to assemble every bishop due to their number or because of different rites, it was recommended to assemble with some bishop from each province and region together with the metropolitan bishops or with the presidents of the regional episcopal conferences.
The conferences had to be ruled by Statutes “a Sancta Sede probatis”, which had to provide for a permanent council, episcopal commissions and a general secretary. The force of decisions adopted by the plenary assembly of the conferences could be only a moral obligation: but every bishop who wanted to provide in a different way for his own dioceses had to inform the president of the episcopal conference.

Presented on 20 February 1962 at the fourth session of the preparatory central commission, the schema, in the brief version presented by Polish bishop (working in the Roman Curia) Gawlina, was discussed at four meetings. The debate at the central commission concentrated on the force of the conferences’ decision to compel the bishops: the debate was led by Cardinal Frings, who represented the traditions of the German episcopal conferences (whose president he was from 1945), and by Cardinal Ruffini: both proposed a light model of a national episcopal conference. After that, the sub-commission for the emendations accepted the direction exposed by the central commission: it was no longer present – excepting some possible cases in which it was requested by the Holy See – the juridical force of the conference=s decision for the individual bishop, but it was present the obligation for the individual bishop to inform the president about his dissent and his consequent decisions for the dioceses; the text stated that the agenda had to be sent to the Holy See and to papal nuncio in advance; to the Holy See and to the nuncio had to be sent, at the end of the assembly, also the proceeding and the final deliberations.

The schemes of 1962-1963 and the debate in aula

The first conciliar period showed the importance and the roots of the issue about episcopal conferences, starting from the elections to the conciliar commissions: that was one of the elements which strengthened the importance of the schema about episcopal conferences in the schema De episcopis.
In October 1962 the schema about episcopal conferences became the chapter III of the new schema De episcopis ac de dioeceseon regimine (schema II). In that chapter III were present the rules of the previous schema, but it did not mention anything about the juridical force of the conferences’ decisions, nor about the conferences’ membership, but it was obvious that also the titular bishops should be members of the conferences.

The 1963 schema (schema III) was revised after the decision of the coordination commission that the schema should be revised following the theology of the schema De ecclesia and the ideas presented during the debate about the schema De liturgia. In November 1963, during the debate in aula about the schema de episcopis – only a few days after the great ecclesiological debate about De ecclesia and collegiality – it was also discussed the chapter III of De episcopis about the conferences: the text stated that in every state had to be present one episcopal conference as a permanent body, different from plenary and provincial councils (n. 18 ‘ 1); the Statute of every conference had to approved by the Holy See (“Apostolica Sede probante”), and it stated something about the international episcopal conferences (n. 18 ‘ 3).
It was also specified about the members of the conferences: they had to be every ordinary bishop (except for the general vicars) and the coadjutors bishops (n. 19 ‘ 1). The text left to the individual Statutes of the conferences the regulation of the membership of other titular bishops and the kind of their vote (n. 19 ‘ 2), just like the regulation of the absents’ vote (n. 19 ‘ 3). It was provided the creation of bodies inside the conferences, and criteria were introduced about the juridical force of the decisions (n. 24): 1) in case of subjects set by the common law or by a mandate from the Holy See; 2) in order to release statements of great importance in name of the conference; 3) for subjects to be handled with the civil governement for the whole nation; 4) for important subjects which need to be regarded with uniform behaviour by the bishops. For juridical forcing decisions it was requested the 2/3 majority of the votes and the following recognitio by the Holy See. It was also present the possibility of a devolutional appeal to the Holy See against the conferences’ decisions (n. 24 ‘ 2).
Compared with the text of 1962, in the schema III it had been added the parenthetical who stated that the coadjutor bishops are de iure members of the conference (n. 19 ‘ 1), and it had been eliminated the part about regional or ritual conferences for large national episcopates and the obligation to send the agenda of the assemblies to the nuncios. Moreover it had been strengthened the sentence about the juridical force of decisions (nn. 22-25), now specified with 4 cases of juridical force for all the bishops.
The debate in aula about episcopal conferences engaged the fathers during three general congregations and it was concentrated on November 12-13, 1963. In his relatio of November 13 1963 bishop Carli stated that episcopal conferences had no foundation in episcopal collegiality de iure divino (he made reference to the Pius VI’s bull Auctorem fidei against Jansenism), and he called the five votes of October 1963 an illegitima provocatio.
He added that collegiality, according to the church fathers, is always horizontal and not vertical. After this ‘minimalist’ relation, supported by Cardinal Siri, the most important interventions came from the German bishops, partly following the light conference model of Cardinal Frings and partly following the request by Cardinal Döpfner that the schema should recognize and show the link between episcopal conferences and collegiality. The French interventions pointed out the importance of collegiality too (Guerry, Garrone, Pailloux, Marty); cardinals Wyszynski and Alfrink spoke in favor of episcopal conferences, but with different patterns.

The most complicated issue was about the ‘constitutional’ pattern for episcopal conferences. First of all, the problem of membership received very different answers by the fathers along the continuum between full reception of collegiality (every bishop has the right to be member of the episcopal conference) and government responsibility criteria (only diocesan bishops are entitled to be members: 1 diocese 1 vote in the conference). About the right to vote, positions were divided between deliberative vote for every bishop, for the residential bishops only, and for coadjutors with right of succession as well. About the force of the decisions, very different were the positions between juridical force of the decisions for every individual bishop (that was the majority position among the fathers) and no force, even moral, for the conferences’ decisions. Very different also the positions about the necessity of the roman recognitio of the conferences’ decisions. A very minor room was left to the issue about the creation of episcopal conferences in the eastern catholic churches and about international episcopal conferences.

The 1964 turning point and the final text of Christus Dominus

In the schema IV, approved by the commission de episcopis in March-April 1964 it changed the title of the chapter about episcopal conferences, which became De Episcopis in commune plurium Ecclesiarum bonum cooperantibus. The conferences were so linked to the past 20th century experience and to the necessity of local councils and synods (n. 34).
About the conferences it was also stated that members should also be auxiliar and titular bishops, but only if they were charged with national tasks (n. 36 ‘ 2). About their right of vote in the conference it was left to the individual statutes, which now had to be “recognized” – and no longer “approved” – by the Holy See (n. 36 ‘ 3).
It had been shortened the part about the cases in which the conference’s decisions have juridical force (n. 36 ‘ 4): from the 4 cases of 1963 it was left only one case, result of the fusion between the “casuistry” of the 1963 text (issues entrusted to the conferences by the common law or by Holy See mandate) and the requirement of the fourth case (2/3 majority), but with a higher quorum: the 2/3 majority had to be calculated among all the bishops with right of vote and not only among the presents.

For many aspects spring 1964 was the decisive turning point for the schema De episcopis about bishops’ conferences, especially about the link between episcopal conferences, the schema De ecclesia and episcopal collegiality. The joint action by the relator bishop Carli and by the pressures coming from the general secretary o the council, Felici, who let understand that he was the spokesman of the coordination commission, leaded the commission to the elimination of collegiality from the schema de episcopis.
The debate in aula in September 1964 did not pay much attention to episcopal conferences, already studied in the 1963 debate. The schema De pastorali episcoporum munere in Ecclesia was voted between November 4 and 6 1964: contrary to the first two chapters, the third one received the approval of more than 2/3 of the fathers and was approved, but it had to be revised according to the modi. The revised text was postponed to the fourth period and it was sent to the fathers on September 16 1965. During the third inter-session the commission, following the prudence performed especially by P. Veuillot and W. Onclin, rejected all the modi directed to introduce new substantial alteration in the text.

In the final text of Christus Dominus episcopal conferences are simply put alongside hope for a new life for local synods and councils, the relations between the two kind of assemblies remaining unclarified (n. 36). Each conference had to draw up its own statutes, which needed to be ‘recognized’ by the Holy See.
The conferences would have a permanent council, a general secretary, episcopal commissions. Members would include every ordinary bishop from each rite (except for the vicars), coadjutors, auxiliaries, and other bishops exercising a task committed by the Holy See or by the conference itself. Other titular bishops (retired bishops) and papal diplomats would not be members. The right to vote was confined to ordinary and coadjutor bishops; auxiliaries and other bishops could have a deliberative or consultative vote according to the individual conference’s statutes. As to the juridical force of a conference’s decisions, the decree Christus Dominus gave juridical force to some kinds of decision, much restricted in comparison with the first proposals at the beginning and during the council. Gone is any mention of appeal to the Holy See from bishops dissenting from their own conference’s decisions. No juridical force is ascribed to decisions about non-binding recommendations or ones that fail to win the support of a two-thirds majority. Juridical force is attributed to the decisions adopted with a two-thirds majority and in the cases provided by the common law or upon mandate of the Holy See or upon conference’ s demand. The two-thirds quorum had to be calculated on the members having right of deliberative vote, and not only on those present. In every case the conference’s decisions have to be recognized by the Holy See.

Following the votes of the majority of the fathers, the legislative power of the conferences was confirmed: it would be also impossible to erase it after the promulgation of the liturgical constitution and of the motu proprio Sacram liturgiam. The final text also dropped all reference to the moral obligation of decisions not juridically binding, and to the obligation for the dissenting bishop to inform the conference’s president.
The Council, during its development, met the desire of many bishops to limit the power of episcopal conferences through raising the quorum and limiting the spheres of intervention. In the end it showed more interest in the tutelage of diocesan autonomy than in the necessity of uniformity among the bishops from a same country. Christus Dominus remains very ambiguous and vague about the legislative powers of episcopal conferences, limiting its decisions to a minimum. and rejecting the proposal to ascribe to conferences and their decisions some measure of collegiality. Christus Dominus offered a framework law for conferences but left their future to their Statutes and to the reform of the Codex Iuris Canonici that was beginning.

Episcopal conferences during the 1969 Synod and in the 1970’s

In the first post-conciliar period (1966-1976) a positive attitude from Rome towards the conferences prevailed. This prompted H. Schmitz to remark in 1977 that ‘one can register in post-conciliar legislation a certain tendency to build up the episcopal conference to a full hierarchical mediatory instance.’
The trend in this phase was to give episcopal conferences not only individual powers for some subjects, but a general competence for subjects not to be decided by individual bishops. The motu proprio Sacram liturgiam (25 January 1964) had given the conferences important powers of decision in connection with the liturgical reform. The motu proprio Apostolica sollicitudo (15 September 1965) constituting the Synod of Bishops assigned a decisive role to the conferences, which had to send their own representatives to the Synod.

The motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae (6 August 1966) on the application of Christus Dominus provided that in every nation an episcopal conference had to be constituted – thus enforcing what CD had only recommended – and that the Statutes of the conferences had to be compiled and then sent to Rome for the recognitio.
The Archetypon Statuti by the Consistorial Congregations, offered as a model for the compiling of the Statutes, accepted the rules of Christus Dominus n. 38 on the bodies of the conferences (permanent council, episcopal commissions, general secretariat) and strengthened the role of the conference president, but did not impose anything about the content of the Statutes.
In 1969 the motu proprio Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum stated that the agenda of the conferences’ assemblies had to be sent to the papal nuncio, and affirmed the right of nuncios to be present at the conference assemblies whenever the Holy See requested it. On 1 December 1970 the Apostolic Signature recognized to the conferences the power to make administrative decrees. At this time, continental assemblies were held in Medellin for Latin America (1968), in Kampala for Africa (1969), in Manila for Asia (1970).
In the first extraordinary Synod, 1969, called in order to study the theological foundations of episcopal conferences and to give solutions in order to support cooperation between Rome and the conferences, the preparatory schema had three parts. The doctrinal introduction reinforced relations between the conferences and the Holy See and relations among episcopal conferences, and defined the conferences as a ‘real’ but ‘partial’ fulfillment of episcopal collegiality.
But in his relatio about part II of the schema Cardinal Marty proposed a major role for episcopal conferences: more power, subsidiarity, participation in doctrinal texts of highest authority, cooperation with the Curia through commissions and meetings; more power in the choosing of new bishops.
The Synod’s linguistic groups confirmed what Marty stated: their debate insisted on the relations between episcopal conferences and collegial action by the whole episcopal college, and on the necessity to see the conferences as ‘intermediate bodies’ between the pope and the individual bishops.
Compared with the preambles, the 1969 Synod had a positive impact on the implementation of the powers of episcopal conferences. The Synod’s political constitution exhibited methods (periodicity) and structures (general secretariat, linguistic groups) that could build up collegiality. The Synod fathers requested a reinforcement of the cooperation between the Holy See and episcopal conferences. There was no new element regarding the theology of episcopal conferences but a step was taken towards the episcopal conferences as intermediate bodies, something necessary and worth studying in depth, as Paul VI stated in the closing speech.
In the ‘Directory for the pastoral ministry of Bishops’ issued by the Congregation for Bishops (22 February 1973), part IV ‘De Episcopo in Conferentia Episcopali quoad plurium Ecclesiarum particularium necessitates,’ dedicated the numbers 210-213 to episcopal conferences. Number 212 gave particular force to the conference’s decisions:

  1. a) The bishops shall welcome with loyal respect, execute and have executed in his diocese, as having the force of law of the supreme authority of the Church, the decisions legitimately taken by the conferences and recognized by the Apostolic See, even if he should happen to have disapproved of them at first or then felt some discomfort with them.
    b) The other decisions and norms of the conferences, not having the force of juridical obligation, the bishop will ordinarily make his own in view of unity with his confreres, unless there are grave considerations against this, of which he is judge before the Lord. These decisions and norms will b promulgated by him in the diocese in his own name and with his own authority, for in these cases the conference cannot limit the power that every bishops detains personally in the name of Christ.

Episcopal Conferences in the 1983 Code of Canon Law

In the same period, in the Seventies, the trends in favor of the conferences were counterbalanced by the work for the new Codex Iuris Canonici. The new Code deals with the episcopal conferences in canons 447-459, in a very different way from the texts of the previous period.
In the first (1972-1977) and in the second phase (1977-1980) of composing the new Code the schemas about episcopal conferences underwent many modifications in order to scale down their powers.
The schemas sent to the consultative bodies from 1972 to 1977 attributed to episcopal conferences many competences that disappear in the 1980 schema, in which the idea of an episcopal conference with wide powers is abandoned. This change, affecting the very nature of the episcopal conference, again reflects a concern to protect the autonomy of the individual local churches. Based on observations from the world episcopate, the 1980 schema transfers to the diocesan bishops, not to the Holy See, many of the matters no longer ascribed to episcopal conferences.
The 1977-1980 turning point was important also for other chapters of the schema. The 1977 schema was very close to Christus Dominus. A weakening of the text occurred in the chapter which stated that the bishops exert in the conferences munera quaedam pastoralia (can. 447), whereas in Christus Dominus they exert munus suum pastorale.
The CIC commission cancelled the concept of ecclesiastical region (present in Christus Dominus) in order to ‘avoid incorrect or equivocal notions about the nature and purpose of this new juridical body’: instead the conferences, which are not legislative bodies such as the local councils, were defined as instruments of communication and coordination between the bishops.

The final text of the 1983 Code marked a step forward compared with the 1917 Code, but it was a step backward if compared with CD and the first post-Vatican II laws and praxis.
In can. 449.2 the new Code recognizes the juridical personality of episcopal conferences, adding something new to what was stated in the motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae (1966); but in can. 448.1 it is stated that episcopal conferences have to be national conferences, in accord with the preference expressed by Christus Dominus. Moreover the new Code cancelled the multi-rituality of the conferences, although it remained open to different legislation by individual conferences on this subject.
On membership, can. 450 follows Christus Dominus but modifies it by creating three classes of member: members de iure (diocesan bishops, coadjutors, auxiliaries, other titular bishops serving the whole church in the territory of the conference or at papal behest); persons who can be invited (ordinariez of another rite, and innovation in regard to CD 36); members not de iure (other titular bishops or emeritus bishops, and the representatives of the pope). The CIC takes up the principle whereby to be members of the conference episcopal character does not suffice, but it is also necessary to share a pastoral responsibility.

Though the Code recognizes the conferences as permanent instruments and juridical personalities, it is very careful to ensure that the conference does not inhibit the powers of individual bishops. The conferences are seen not as organs with legislative power, capable of issuing general decrees with legal effect, but as organs that have di norma only an executive character. On the voting quorum, can. 455 simply follows Christus Dominus, but specifying that the decision should be taken with a two-thirds majority of those entitled to a deliberative vote (whether present at the assembly or not), respecting the conciliar decree but contradicting the CIC’s general principle on elections. Moreover, can. 455 gives more weight than Christus Dominus to the recognitio.
As regards the deciding power of conferences, can. 455.4 prescribes that (except in cases of common low or a mandate of the Holy See) unless all members are unanimous a mandate must be sought from the Holy See or the individual bishops must be allowed to decide autonomously.
The process of codification leading to the 1983 Code brought the first step of the reversal that progressively reduced the legislative competence of the conferences. The new Code was a first reaction to the post-conciliar trend of assigning ever more competences to episcopal conferences.

From the 1985 Synod to Apostolos suos (1998)

These steps backward were consolidated in the next fifteen year. The Extraordinary Synod of 1985 was convoked by John Paul II for a reflection on Vatican II after twenty years. A few weeks before its opening there appeared a conclusive report of the International Theological Commission, produced by the sub-commission De ecclesia and the discussion of the full commission in October 1985.
In chapter 5, ‘Particular churches and universal church,’ the text recalls that ‘the collegial sense that the Council has revived in bishops has subsequently been given concrete embodiment in the important functions conferred on episcopal conferences’ and that ‘the pastoral usefulness, indeed necessity, of episcopal conferences, as well as their grouping on a continental scale, is beyond doubt.’ But immediately after this comes the affirmation that Lumen gentium 22 and Christus Dominus 4-6 ‘do not permit the qualification of collegial to episcopal conferences or their continental groupings,’ since collegiality is restricted to ecumenical councils, to the united action of bishops in the various parts of the world, and also in a certain sense to the Synod of bishops. The words ‘college,’ ‘collegial,’ ‘collegiality’ are used of episcopal conferences only in an analogous and theologically improper sense. These restrictions reflect the guidance of Cardinal Ratzinger, who in the same year expressed his changed view on episcopal conferences in a book-length interview with V. Messori (The Ratzinger Report, 1985), insisting that episcopal conferences lack a theological basis, are not part of the unalterable structure as willed by Christ, and have only a practical function.
One of the new questions for the Synod concerned collegiality and its applications. The relator Cardinal Godfried Danneels cited three problems that the Synod should confront: the relations between universal church and particular churches; the promotion of collegiality; the theological status of episcopal conferences.
In the synodal debate episcopal conferences were among the chief topics. Danneels’ relation post disceptationem affirmed that there was no doubt about their usefulness and pastoral necessity, but this was based on ecclesiastical law.
The results of the discussion in the language groups, all of which addressed episcopal conferences, made clear that the bishops unanimously saw the theme of episcopal conferences has a greater importance than Danneels’ relation had allowed, being ‘a partial but real form’ of the collegial activity of bishops.
The Synod’s relatio finalis affirmed that there was ‘a collegial affect that goes beyond effective collegiality understood only juridically,’ and defined the conferences as concrete applications in ecclesiastical law of the affectus collegialis.
The final relation placed the conferences only in terms of collaboration among bishops, avoided qualifying them as ‘collegial,’ and so eliminated every link between collegiality and institutions of ecclesiastical law as imperfect realizations of collegiality, seen as deriving from collegiality.
The relation stressed that conferences should be mindful of the good of the Church and the inalienable responsibility of the individual bishop in his relationship with the universal church and with his particular church. With all this, despite the final wish, also taken up by John Paul II, to explore more amply and deeply the theological status of conferences and especially their teaching authority, the 1985 Synod, paradoxally, was widely judged to be more reserved about episcopal conferences that the 1969 Synod, even if less restrictive than the text of the International Theological Commission in its interpretation of the conciliar texts on episcopal conferences.

The instrumentum laboris of the Congregation for Bishops (1987-1988)

Some months after the 1985 Synod, in his address of 28 June 1986 to the Curia, John Paul II referred to the letter he had sent to the Congregation of Bishops asking them to examine the question of the theological status of episcopal conferences, with prior consultation of the local churches. In the course of 1987 the Congregation for Bishops (with the collaboration of the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the Oriental Churches, and for the Evangelization of Peoples, and the general secretary of the Synod of bishops) produced an instrumentum laboris, which was sent to the episcopal conferences in January 1988, with a request to send corrections and emendations by 31 December 1988.

The text of the instrumentum laboris was in two parts, dealing respectively with the theological and the juridical status of episcopal conferences. Without intending to be definitive, but rather seeking answers to its inquiries (some of them listed at the end), the text presupposes an ontological and historical priority of the universal church over the local church.
The second paragraph of part I, ‘Theological foundation and realizations of collegiality,’ distinguishes three ways of realizing collegiality. One type involves the college of bishops as a whole, with its head; a second type, including episcopal conferences, reunites bishops for the exercise of their pastoral care: the latter is generated by affectus collegialis but is without effectus collegialis, whereas for the full realization of collegiality both effectus and affectus are requisite.
The text speaks of co-responsibility for the conferences but denies that ‘the concept of collegiality properly applies’ to them. In part IV, ‘Deductions to be applied to the episcopal conferences,’ after distinguishing between membership of episcopal conferences (according to pastoral and governance criteria) and of particular councils (according to a sacramental criterion), the text affirms that ‘episcopal conferences were not instituted to govern a nation pastorally or to substitute for diocesan bishops as a sort of superior and parallel government, but to help them through relieving them of some common tasks.’
The mechanisms of decision of conferences are also viewed with reservations: ‘let it be remembered that in the Church and particularly in episcopal assemblies the criterion of action is not just that of a juridical majority, sometimes a narrow one, but rather that of a consensus that is in turn the fruit of communion.’ The text goes on to signal some dangers facing episcopal conferences: they can become bureaucratic structures that constrict the psychological freedom of bishops, and that demand undue autonomy in regard to the Holy See. It denies to episcopal conferences ‘a generalized competence in legislative material that would be the equivalent of attributing them in principle the same dignity and authoritativeness as particular councils and the oriental synods and could in addition lead to an excessive limitation of the authority of individual diocesan bishops.’ Likewise the text excludes that the conferences would have a munus magisterii of their own, since their goals are ‘operational, pastoral, and social, not directly doctrinal.’ It gives a list of precisions, limits, and requirements for documents of doctrinal character.
The responses from the world episcopate to this instrumentum laboris were so critical and negative that the text was set aside and the redaction of a completely new one was begun.

Apostolos suos (1998)

The motu proprio Apostolos suos (31 May 1998) may be seen as responding, at thirteen years’ distance, to the 1985 Synod (for which, incidentally, no post-synodal apostolic exhortation was foreseen). The failure of the instrumentum laboris of the Congregation for Bishops in 1987-1988 did not weaken John Paul II’s desire to reply to the questions raised at the conclusion of the 1985 Synod. The text of Apostolos suos was prepared by an international commission of bishops and experts in theology and canon law in two sessions in 1990, and then examined between 1991 and 1996 by an interdicasterial group guided by the Congregation for Bishops. In 1996 John Paul II handed the text to Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a new and definitive examination.
The intent of the document is to lay down some firm points on the role of episcopal conferences and on the relation between bishop and diocesan church and between bishop, episcopal college and pope. Though at the press conference presenting the document Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly expressed a negative view on definitions of episcopal conferences as intermediate instances, the theological part, even in the eyes of the most critical theologians, was much improved from the text of 1998, but brought no marked novelty as regards the theological status of episcopal conferences.
More significant for our concern is what is found in paragraph 22 and the final four ‘complementary norms,’ which refer to Canon 753, derived from the schemas of the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis and inserted in the Code at the last moment. Paragraph 22 prescribes that doctrinal statements of episcopal conferences must be approved unanimously; ‘if this unanimity is lacking, a majority alone of the Bishops of a Conference cannot issue a declaration as authentic teaching of the Conference to which all the faithful of the territory would have to adhere, unless it obtains the recognitio of the Apostolic See, which will not give it if the majority requesting it is not substantial…The recognitio of the Holy See serves furthermore to guarantee that, in dealing with new questions posed by the accelerated social and cultural changes characteristic of present times, the doctrinal response will favour communion and not harm it, and will rather prepare an eventual intervention of the universal magisterium.’.
Even though the motu proprio aims to formulate juridical norms and expressly forgoes treatment of the relation between universal church and local church and the theological status of episcopal conferences, it is clear that it proceeds from some quite precise ecclesiological positions, especially the assumption that episcopal conferences are juridical entities created by the Holy See, which are to be sharply differentiated from provincial synods and councils and from the synodal government of the oriental churches.

The document’s handling of Christus Dominus is worthy of notice. It draws several times (n. 4 and 15) on CD 37 on the usefulness and potential of episcopal conferences, but does not recall the affirmation in CD 38 that bishops exercise munus suum pastorale in the conferences.
Also, though the rule of the recognitio is already found in CD and holds also for particular councils (CIC can. 446), it is nonetheless striking that in the first of the complementary norms the recognitio is expressly extended from decisiones [quae] vim habeant iuridice obligandi (CD n. 38) to doctrinal statements. ‘In order that the doctrinal declarations of the Conference of Bishops… may constitute authentic magisterium and be published in the name of the Conference itself, they must be unanimously approved by the Bishops who are members, or receive the recognitio of the Apostolic See if approved in plenary assembly by at least two thirds of the Bishops belonging to the Conference and having a deliberative vote.’ The effect of this extension is that the recognitio becomes the source of authority whereby the doctrinal statements of the conference become binding also for bishops who voted against them.
The numerical criterion of unanimity means in practice that the totality of doctrinal statements of episcopal conferences (some with more than 300 members) must be subjected to the judgment of the Holy See, assigned to the Congregation for Bishops of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples depending on the region, after having consulted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for the interpretation of legislative texts. The consequences for the work-load of the curial Congregations can easily be appreciated.

If Apostolos suos presents the conferences as organs of the authentic magisterium, their voice is nonetheless subject to the approval of the Holy See, which reduces the participation of the conferences in the formation of the magisterium and allows the Holy See to ensure uniformity in magisterial pronouncements.
In recognizing that the conferences have the capacity to produce doctrinal documents Apostolos suos was not innovating but merely giving new regulations, which in fact by insisting on numerical unanimity and the Roman recognitio impede such doctrinal statements. In fact, the aim of Apostolos suos was not to defend the authority or teaching of the individual dioceses of the episcopal conference (which could have been done by limiting the right to vote to diocesan bishops alone), but rather to impede any members of the conference from taking dissonant doctrinal positions.
Nor does the text confer such a capacity for doctrinal statements on plenary councils (as the instrumentum laboris, n. 14, had done); the conferences remain the only assemblies of bishops (apart from fully collegial ones) capable of doctrinal statements, but according to norms such as numerical unanimity that are more restrictive than those that had applied to plenary councils.

Though it does not directly address the theological and juridical status of episcopal conferences, Apostolos suos is the indirect Roman response to the relatio finalis of the 1985 Synod, which recommended that the question of the magisterial authority of the conferences be deepened and developed.
Apostolos suos appeared only a few days after the motu proprio Ad tuendam fidem of 18 May 1998, and the link between the two is a close one especially in the sense of the growing centralization of the magisterial authority in the Vatican and its juridical codification in the Code of Canon Law.
The directory of the Roman Curia Congregation for the bishops for the pastoral ministry of the bishops Apostolorum Successores (2002) came after the promulgation of the post-synodal exhortation Pastores Gregis and it was a review of the directory of 1973 in light of the recent previous directives published under John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1990s, and especially an application of a particular stream of post-Vatican II ecclesiology – the “communio ecclesiology” – that at that time was dominating the doctrinal policy of the Vatican.


In the forty years after Vatican II episcopal conferences built on the embryonic norms present in Christus Dominus and their work was assisted and corroborated by Rome during the first post-conciliar decade, following an option in regard to Christus Dominus 36 that accorded institutional preference to episcopal conferences over plenary or national councils, which in this decade, whether projected or held, met not a few obstacles from Rome.
But the advance in the role, authority, and function of the national episcopal conferences was checked by 1983 Code, the 1985 Synod, the positions taken by the International Theological Commission, a still centripetal ecclesial praxis, and the papal legislative acts of 1998.
The result was a clear crisis of synodal and conciliar activity at provincial, regional, and plenary levels. It was not in order to shore up the authority of the individual diocesan bishops that Apostolos suos and Ad tuendam fidem thus blocked the evolution of the doctrinal and pastoral function of episcopal conferences, for the diocesan bishops were also more tightly controlled by the Roman instances.
From a global systematic point of view, the effort to limit the role of the conferences, especially in areas where Catholicism was developing strongly, connects with a shift in the center of gravity of the Latin Catholic Church in the 1990s from the Euro-Atlantic churches (more concerned with synodality and collegiality) to the young churches of Africa and Asia. This shift was not regulated through the national or continental conferences but throught the continental Synods held in Rome.
But national conferences have shown themselves the most competent organs for taking decisions and direct responsibility in regard to the faithful and the national community (as seen in the German handling of Catholic counselling of pregnant women or the US handling of clerical child abuse). The silencing of episcopal conferences and the limitation of their capacity to be interpreters, including doctrinally, of the sense of faith of Christians, have been damaging here as well.
This blocking is an attempt to limit the full reception and enactment of Vatican II and this is clear also to the successor of Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI.
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (but really an encyclical, November 24, 2013), Pope Francis has made important statements about the need of a new role for the bishops’ conferences: “The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position ‘to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit’. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach” (EG 32).


Collective Volumes

Las Conferencias Episcopales hoy. Actas del simposio de Salamanca (1-3 mayo 1975). Salamanca 1977.
Legrand, H., and C. Theobald, ed. Le ministère des évêques au concile Vatican II et depuis. Paris, 2001.
Legrand, H.-M., J. Manzanares and A. García y García, ed. Natura e futuro delle Conferenze episcopali. Bologna, 1988.
Müller, H. and H. J. Pottmeyer, ed. Die Bischofskonferenz: Theologischer und juridischer Status. Düsseldorf, 1989.
Reese, T. J., ed. Episcopal Conferences: Historical, Canonical and Theological Studies. Washington DC, 1989.


Anton, A. Conferencias episcopales: Istancias intermedias? Salamanca 1989
Arrieta, J. I. ‘Le conferenze episcopali nel motu proprio Apostolos suos.’ Ius Ecclesiae 11 (1999):169-191
Aymans, W. ‘Wesenverständnis und Zuständigkeiten der Bischofskonferenz im Codex Iuris Canonici von 1983.’ Archiv für katholisches Kirchenrecht 152 (1983):46-61.
Faggioli, M. Il vescovo e il concilio. Modello episcopale e aggiornamento al Vaticano II, Bologna 2005.
Guillemette, F. Thèologie des Conferences épiscopales. Montreal, 1994.
Lettman, R. ‘Episcopal Conferences in the New Canon Law.’ Studia canonica 14 (1980):347-67.
Sullivan, F. A. ‘The Teaching authority of Episcopal Conferences.’ Theological Studies 63 (2002):472-93.


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