I had a long conversation with a jornalist a few days ago about the Catholic Education Service, Eccleston Square, CaFOD, Catholic Adoption Agencies, the reaction to SORs and the various documents issued in the name of the bishops such as the Youth Sunday Liturgy Pack, the recent document on homosexuality praised by Peter Tatchel.
Bishop O'Donahue criticised the Epicopal Conference's structure, a bishop at the National Conference of Priests apparently said it took two years to get an answer from the Bishops Conference, leaving those who attended wondering if it was possible to work with the Bishops as a collective body.
Nowadays when they are expected to respond to legislation within weeks or months, it seems such a slow mechanism that it is almost useless and perhaps this is why it delegates its voice to so many, sometimes off message lay led groups.
20 years ago the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said this on episcopal conferences in the book length interview, "The Ratzinger Report." Here is an excerpt in its entirety:
"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."
It is, moreover, he says, what is confirmed in the new Code of Canon Law, which prescribes the extent of the authority of the conferences, which cannot validly act "in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given his consent", unless it concerns "cases in which the common law prescribes it or a special mandate of the Apostolic See... determines it" (CIC, Can. 455, 4 and 1). The collective, therefore, does not substitute for the persons of the bishops, who - recalls the Code, confirming the Council - are "the authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the faithful entrusted to their care" (cf. CIC Can. 753). Ratzinger confirms: "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."
Why does the Prefect insist upon this point? "Because", he replies, "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 Catholic Church is based on the balance between the community and the person, in this case between the community of individual particular churches united in the universal Church and the person of the responsible head of the diocese."
"It happens", he says, "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."
He recalls an episcopal conference that had been held in his country in the thirties: "Well, the really powerful documents against National Socialism were those that came from individual courageous bishops. The documents of the conference, on the contrary, were often rather wan and too weak with respect to what the tragedy called for."
"Besides," he said, "it is obvious that truth cannot be created through ballots. A statement is either true or false. Truth can only be found, not created. Contrary to a widespread conception, the classic procedure of ecumenical councils did not deviate from this fundamental rule. At these councils only statements that were accepted with a moral unanimity could become binding." (p. 59-61).