Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Episcopal Conference

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).


gemoftheocean said...

Right on. The USCCB is USELESS. Utter sludge they put out re: their "pronouncemtns" on social justice issues...highly debatable backing for specific solutions when it's manifestly arguable and it's obvious to anyone with a brain that reasonable people may differ. They water down REAL issues, like fighting prochoice people and give red diaper doper baby "Catholics" wiggle room to vote for Obamanations like Obama.

An utterly useless body. The problem, of course, is rogue bishops. I begin to see the truism of "The road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops."


Anonymous said...

Dear Father Blake,

A most interesting post, to which I have a question. Is it obligatory for bishops to join a national conference if they are not a part of the Church's episcopal structire?

In Christo,
Anthony B

Adrienne said...

There ya go again, Gemmie - beating around the bush. You need to learn to speak your mind!!

Episcopal conferences, such as the USCCB, are just an excuse for a bunch of men to get together at fancy hotels in warm climates on our dime! Bah humbug!

Anonymous said...

'The national level is not an ecclesial dimension.'

If only that was, and is remembered and really emphasised a lot more.
There lies so very much trouble.

I wonder how many members of the clergy and faithful really think about that.

PJA said...

"a kind of federation of national churches"

That made me shudder as I thought of the Anglican Communion and how badly that's doing.

I think it's time to review the brave new world of Pope Paul and start pruning some of those dead branches that failed to bear fruit.

Physiocrat said...

Can't they turn 39 Eccleston Square into a hostel for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts?

Michael Clifton said...

The present structure of the so called Bishops Conference dates from the time of the Council when such bodies were it seems to me demanded (but without the beurocracy. From 1850 onwards the Bishops of English and Wales met regularly at least once a year and sometimes twice a year. Our archives have a record of all the matters discussed at each meeting (but not usually remarks of individual bishops). Up to the time of the council the meetings were straightforward but since them the poor Bishops have to wade through a whole series of "reports" fom various bodies before they attend the meetings. Apart from some general remarks in the Catholic Press you never know exactly what happened nor the full agenda today and certainly never the full ACTA. The beurocracy seems to control everything, with dozens commmissions, spending our money and producing....paper...paper.

GOR said...

Yes! I have quoted that section to others in the past - and it was spoken by the Holy Father in 1985...!

Here in the US I have often wished that the orthodox and gutsy bishops (Chaput, Burke, Bruskiewitz, Finn, Hermann et al.) would just 'secede' from the USCCB. Bruskiewitz has even said: "They don't speak for me!" and he was right, as the Holy Father pointed out so many years ago.

Get rid of the bureaucracy!

Anonymous said...

Henry, brilliant suggestion.

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

Gem's being nice, i'm not going to be...they have no authority whatsoever, so they must make statements in order to feel important. I'm glad that Bp. Martino from Scranton said "No USCCB document applies to my diocese"

All Bishops' conferences must be dissolved. I can't think of one thing that the conferences have done except for silence the Bishops.

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