The Bishop and the Conference


September 20, 2010


We are all familiar with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and I suspect most of us accept it as a fact of life. I further suspect that most of us have never really considered the who, what, why, or wherefore of such conferences in the Church. This does not mean that the Church has not given serious consideration to the topic. The concept was not new to the Church in 1965, when the Vatican Council issued Christus Dominus, the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church. It is there, in paragraph 38, where the concept is given definition:

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An episcopal conference is a form of assembly in which the bishops of a certain country or region exercise their pastoral office jointly in order to enhance the Church’s beneficial influence on all men, especially by devising forms of the apostolate and apostolic methods suitably adapted to the circumstances of the times. (Christus Dominus, 38)

There is no doubt that such a unified exercise of a pastoral office is both practical and desirable. There are certain things in our country, for instance, that are made possible only because the bishops have joined together in cooperative effort. The work on the revised translations of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal could not be done independently by each bishop. This would be chaotic. The Haitian hurricane relief efforts of Catholic Relief Services is beyond the scope or capacity of any single bishop or diocese. Pouring through, evaluating, and making recommendations on the reform of health care in America requires resources simply not possessed by most dioceses — certainly not mine. It seems to me that a conference, in some form, is nearly essential.

There was a time in the fairly recent past when the conference, and especially its committees, had much more of a life of its own, seemingly independent of the body of bishops; but the revised structures have mitigated this significantly. There is a possibility that there may have been a concerted effort on the part of a segment of bishops in the past to foster a higher degree of autonomy on the part of the conference, but any comment by me would be entirely speculative. In general, I think the conference does a very good job of helping to identify issues, conduct research, and even influence national debates.

In doing this, however, it is sometimes easy for the conference to revert to stronger patterns of autonomy and even to be perceived as possessing types of authority that it neither claims nor possesses. It is easy to forget that the conference is the vehicle to assist bishops in cooperating with each other and not a separate regulatory commission. Undoubtedly, the conference has a place and an important role to play. In general, I find that the existence of the conference provides an avenue for me, as an individual bishop, to interact with my brother bishops, to share ideas, and to participate in national discussions in a way that would largely be impossible without the conference.

There is, however, room for concern
about the tendency of the conference to take on a life of its own and to begin to replace or displace the proper role of individual bishops, even in their own dioceses. There may also be an unfortunate tendency on the part of bishops to abdicate to the conference a portion of their episcopal role and duty. For instance, there is a Doctrine Committee that is available for bishops to present questions and problems for a doctrinal opinion. The availability of such a committee is a great service, but if a bishop simply brings every question in his diocese to the Doctrine Committee and then reports to his faithful that the Doctrine Committee of the USCCB has decided X, Y or Z, he is failing to take hold of a responsibility that is uniquely his. It is much more appropriate for him to consult this Committee and then say: “After consultation with the Committee of Doctrine, I have decided X, Y or Z for my diocese.” A response such as this preserves the proper role of both the bishop and the conference. It is, however, much easier and safer to pass the responsibility to the Committee.

Despite the fact that the idea of a conference of bishops is included in the latter portion of the Document Christus Dominus, this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the primary focus of that document. After all, its title is “The Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church,” not “The Role and Place of Episcopal Conferences in the Church.” In reality, Christus Dominus was rather revolutionary because of its strong insistence on the extent of the authority of the diocesan bishop. More than 30 years after Christus Dominus, Pope John Paul II in May of 1998 issued an Apostolic Letter, Apostolos Suos, on the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences. I would surmise that this was done, in part, because of a concern about conferences exceeding the boundaries of their legitimate authority and infringing on the legitimate authority of bishops as taught in Christus Dominus. There, citing the 1985 Synod of Bishops, the Holy Father wrote:

The Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held in 1985, acknowledged the pastoral usefulness, indeed the need, in the present circumstances of Episcopal Conferences. It also observed that in their manner of proceeding, Episcopal Conferences must keep in mind the good of the Church, that is, the service of unity and the inalienable responsibility of each bishop in relation to the universal Church and to his particular Church. (Apostolos Suos, 7)

Cardinal Ratzinger (to be Pope Benedict XVI) in The Ratzinger Report, on the State of the Church, was a little more direct.

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.  (The Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

This is confirmed in the Code of Canon Law, which delimits the extent of the authority of the conference, noting that the competence of each diocesan bishop remains intact, nor is a conference or its president able to act in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given consent (canon 455, ß4). Clearly, the conference cannot, on its own authority, substitute for the persons of the bishops, who are, according to Canon 753, “authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.” In his interview, Cardinal Ratzinger confirmed: “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.” As far as I know, the cardinal did not have a change of heart after his papal election.

John Paul II’s apostolic letter contains the same thought:

Certainly the individual bishops, as teachers of the faith, do not address the universal community of the faithful except through the action of the entire College of Bishops. In fact, only the faithful entrusted to the pastoral care of a particular bishop are required to accept his judgment given in the name of Christ in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a religious assent of soul. (Apostolos Suos, 11)

The recognition of the preeminent role of individual bishops is not a creation of the Second Vatican Council. In his second letter to Timothy, who was a bishop, St. Paul writes:

In the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is coming to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingly power, I charge you to preach the word, to stay with the task, whether convenient or inconvenient — correcting, reproving, appealing — constantly teaching and never losing patience. (2 Tim 4:1-2)

This admonition is given to individual bishops and, as the cardinal points out, it does not extend to the episcopal conferences.

Cardinal Ratzinger insists that clarity about the distinctive role of the bishop is critical:

Because 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 Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

If you recall, some time ago, a local bishop offered his own interpretation of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” telling the faithful entrusted to his care that the conference did not speak for him. This is entirely in line with what the Cardinal had written. Individual bishops are free to adopt such statements and reaffirm them in their own names for their dioceses, but no bishop has an obligation to do so; and such documents do not become normative for a particular diocese unless the bishop, either explicitly or implicitly, recommends them. Thus, if the faithful suggest to a bishop that he is acting contrary to a pastoral document issued by the conference, the bishop’s legitimate response is that he and the people of his diocese are not bound by conference statements unless he so determines.

Concerning such conference statements, Cardinal Ratzinger had something quite prophetic to offer:

It happens 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. (The Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

His eminence then cites a very poignant example from his own native land. 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. (The Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

In the case mentioned above, the bishop was publicly criticized by his people for his failure to accept and adopt not only a document from the conference but, perhaps more significantly, their own particular interpretation of that document. This is not the same scenario envisioned by Cardinal Ratzinger, but it certainly stands as a corollary to it. There is an understandable confusion on the part of the faithful, who — whether with pure motives or not — read or interpret one thing in a conference document and hear something different from their own bishop.

The future Holy Father makes another point, which is certainly a real danger with documents produced by a committee. He points out that the search for consensus can result in a flattened document — or, as one bishop put it, documents that have found their least common denominator. Thus, when individual bishops — and there are more than a few — make personal statements about certain situations, those statements are often stronger, bolder, more decisive, and thus more likely to be criticized as harsh and insensitive. I fear that there has been such a steady diet of such flattened documents that anything issued by individual bishops that contains some element of strength is readily and roundly condemned or simply dismissed as being out of touch with the conference or in conflict with what other bishops might do.

In fairness to the conference, I have to say
that I have never seen or heard the conference, either as a whole or as a committee, make any remarks critical of what individual bishops might have done or failed to do in their own dioceses. I think the conference fully understands the limits of its jurisdiction; I could not say the same about the faithful at large. It is quite possible that the faithful, and perhaps our national government, see in the conference a type of intermediate magisterium to which each bishop owes obedience and respect, and which is always empowered to speak for the bishops. This is not the case at all. In fact, quite the opposite has been strongly confirmed in Apostolos Suos. While recognizing the legitimate aims of episcopal conferences, Pope John Paul II wrote:

Such aims, however, require that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions be avoided. The essential fact must be kept in mind that the Episcopal Conferences with their commissions and offices exist to be of help to the bishops and not to substitute for them. (Apostolos Suos, 18)

In the same document, we find other affirmations of the value of episcopal conferences, but there is often a corresponding word of caution:

Their importance is seen in the fact that they contribute effectively to unity between the bishops, and thus to the unity of the Church, since they are a most helpful means of strengthening ecclesial communion. Even so, the growing extent of their activities has raised some questions of a theological and pastoral nature, especially with regard to their relationship to the individual Diocesan bishops. (Apostolos Suos, 6)

The conference has been quite clear that it prepares pastoral documents and has no authority, on its own, to issue edicts or binding legislation. Since these pastoral documents lack legislative force, they are often couched in what could be described as softer or less rigoristic language. This is appropriate, because they are intended to be pastoral rather than legislative. One need only look at the difference between the documents of Vatican II and the Code of Canon Law. One is pastoral, while the other translates the intent of the pastoral document into concrete legislation. Legislation is up to the local bishop. The diocesan bishop has broad discretion in terms of legislative or disciplinary actions in his own diocese.

St. Paul advised Timothy of possible ways to deal with error, pointing out the need for “correcting, reproving, appealing — constantly teaching, and never losing patience.” The necessary tone of pastoral documents tends more toward appeal than toward reproof or correction. Paul’s instruction to Timothy is certainly pertinent:

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but, following their own desires, will surround themselves with teachers who tickle their ears. They will stop listening to the truth and will wander off to fables. As for you, be steady and self-possessed; put up with hardship, perform your work as an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:3-5)

Pastoral documents, recognizing that people have lost a tolerance for sound teaching, tend to appeal without necessarily being too direct or critical. The obvious goal is to offer gentle invitations to conversion in a way that might attract those who prefer ear-tickling messages. Unfortunately, since they are pastoral in nature, such documents are open to a broad range of interpretation and misinterpretation. A charge could be brought that such documents are intentionally vague and misleading; and while I have had an occasional suspicion of this myself, it would be a serious defect of charity on my part to speculate about whether this is actually the case. I would say that the vagueness, whether intentional or not, has occasionally been a cause of concern and even consternation.

Sadly, since sound teaching is often rejected out of hand, the teachers who advocate a popular, ear tickling message are more likely to be admired and warmly received and accepted by our secular age. This contributes to an even further flattening of the message. St. Gregory the Great warns that a failure to be bold in speech can be caused by a fear of reproach. This is a very real danger in our present times. It may well be that a reliance on pastoral documents may stem from a two-fold fear: A fear of reproaching others and a fear of being reproached for having done so. It is sadly forgotten that such an approach may lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. There is prudent silence, but there is also imprudent silence. There is indiscreet speech, but there is also discreet and bold speech.

It is quite easy for bishops and priests to operate out of the mistaken notion that, if we preach the gospel in its fullness, we will be warmly greeted, accepted, admired, and acclaimed. This was not the case with Timothy or with Paul or with our Lord. Bishops should not anticipate that it will be so with us. I can assure you that events like this are very much the exception for bishops like me. The message of the gospel, with its call to conversion, is not necessarily easy. The secularity of the age in which we live makes it all the more challenging to preach properly the fullness of the gospel message and to put it into practice in our own lives.

Some teachings of the Church are certainly countercultural, and Paul predicted that they would not be tolerated and would be rejected. It is no news to you that we are very much influenced by cultural attitudes not necessarily informed by the gospel. To the more secular-minded, the teachings of the Church can seem to be behind the times, harsh, judgmental, or insensitive. As a result, some teachings of the Church have been allowed to fall by the wayside through what could be called, charitably, a kind of benign pastoral neglect. For many, in our politically correct world, this is identified with compassion. In truth, it often entails a complicity or a compromise with evil. The harder and less popular teachings are left largely unspoken, thereby implicitly giving tacit approval to erroneous or misleading theological opinions. Gregory, in his Pastoral Guide, writes about this pastoral approach:

A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service. Otherwise he may say what he should not or be silent when he should speak. Indiscreet speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who take refuge in silence when the wolf appears. The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: They are like dumb dogs that cannot bark. On another occasion he complains: You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord. To advance against the foe involves bold resistance to the powers of the world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right. When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel.

Individual bishops, in their own diocese, have the primary pastoral responsibility for discerning between indiscreet speech and imprudent silence. This does involve a particular judgment, and in this there is great diversity and even disparity from one bishop to another. There is practically no disparity among bishops about the sinfulness of abortion, artificial contraception, homosexual acts, embryonic stem cell research, or the plethora of offenses against purity; but there is great diversity about how to address these evils, or how to deal with those who boast of or even openly endorse them. In this, Archbishop Charles Chaput makes reference to a unity of doctrine but a diversity of strategy.

This diversity of strategy, this prudential decision to be silent or to speak, rests squarely on the shoulders of individual bishops. Thus, while many may think this to be the duty of the conference, it is really the role of the individual bishop. It is their inalienable duty; it cannot be delegated to the conference. In my view, Paul’s words to Timothy need to be a very serious part of the discernment: “I charge you to preach the word, to stay with the task, whether convenient or inconvenient — correcting, reproving, appealing — constantly teaching and never losing patience.”

Some bishops perhaps lean more strongly by temperament to reproving and correcting, while others favor the kinder, gentler approach of appealing. In my view, appealing has its place, but when constant appeal produces absolutely no movement toward self-correction, reform or conversion, then reproving and correcting, become necessary. At some point, there needs to be a bold resistance to the powers of the world in defense of the flock. The fear of offending one contemptuously dissident member of the flock often redounds to a failure to defend the flock. It can redound to a failure to teach the truth. In Saint Gregory’s words: “They hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men but the men and women whose favor may be in jeopardy are often not nearly as favorable as they imagine.”


Unfortunately, the desire to rely almost exclusively on appeal may be indicative of a fear of reproach. This is not new. I mentioned above Saint Gregory’s acknowledgment of this reality. He chastised those who were afraid to reproach men for their faults, and thereby lulled the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. Not only the evildoer but all the members of the flock who see the evildoers carry on with impunity begin to doubt and question their own moral assessments.  I hear from many laity that their perception of a lack of courage on the part of episcopal leaders redounds to a discouragement of the faithful.

Fortunately, courage is contagious. Those of you congregated here have undoubtedly been encouraged, literally made more courageous, as a result of Archbishop Raymond Burke’s courage. You have undoubtedly admired Bishop Joseph Martino and Bishop Thomas Tobin for their courage in confronting dissident groups in their dioceses. You are allowed to stand a bit taller as you see Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix boldly confront medical moral evils. You know well, appreciate, and are emboldened by the courage of a Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who unflinchingly speaks an often unpopular truth. These men all encourage you, and they encourage me as well. I am humbled to think that some of you might even be encouraged by me.

What is most notable about each of these courageous men is that they are acting not as members of a congress of bishops, but as individual bishops in their own dioceses. They have each shown a very serious determination to avoid indiscreet speech, while overcoming what would otherwise be an imprudent silence. In the evaluation of a secular media, any strong speech against moral evil is most often labeled as indiscreet; while imprudent silence, even in the face of very serious moral evils, is praised as the epitome of Christ-like compassion. Appealing is praised, while correcting or reproving is deemed to be too harsh.

You need to be aware, also, that episcopal courage is often linked to suffering. For those who have come to be viewed unfavorably in illuminati circles, there is the spreading of defamatory half lies, print and blog ridicule, rumor, gossip, and character assassination. Often real assassination may seem preferable. Then there is the harm to the solid faithful of the diocese who see and hear these things and begin to wonder whether they are being duped for their trust in their bishop. Finally, there is the ever-present threat and reality of economic boycott, which likewise takes a heavy toll, especially in a poor and sparsely populated diocese such as mine. When a bishop recognizes that his preference is to speak boldly but that doing so could redound to the economic crippling of his diocese, then he realizes that reactions to him not only touch him but have potential negative ramifications for the people and parishes under his pastoral leadership. Thus, when faced with the possibility of issuing a very kind pastoral letter or something a little more direct, a bishop may choose kindness — not out of conviction and not out of fear but out of perceived necessity. I sometimes wonder what bishops would say if this consideration was no longer a factor in their dioceses.

While my assignment was to discuss the concept of conferences of bishops, I have found that, in reality, it is only possible to talk about the ministry and mission of each bishop. While this ministry is exercised in communion with his brother bishops, it is not necessarily capable of being exercised in conformity with them. The things that St. Paul wrote to Timothy apply in a unique way to individual bishops, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to apply them to a conference of bishops as a whole. Every baptized person is given that three-fold dignity of priest, prophet, and king corresponding to three Christ-like roles: offering sacrifice, teaching, and leading. This dignity adheres to a person and, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, it adheres in a preeminent and inalienable way to individual bishops. Individual bishops, if they rely too strongly on simply following the lead of the conference, do so at great spiritual peril.

St. Thomas More had it exactly correct when approached by the Duke of Norfolk to join him in signing the Oath of Succession. The duke points to all who have already signed and says: “Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” Thomas More replies, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”  Bishops may not simply go along with the conference for the sake of fellowship.

In closing, I again turn to Apostolos Suos, which is wonderfully clear about the duties and responsibilities of the individual bishop:

Bishops, whether individually or united in conference, cannot autonomously limit their own sacred power in favor of the Episcopal Conference, and even less can they do so in favor of one of its parts, whether the permanent council or a commission or the president.  (Apostolos Suos, 20)

*          *          *

This article was based on remarks Bishop Vasa delivered at the 2010 InsideCatholic Partnership Award Dinner on Thursday, September 16. The title of his address was “Sacred Duties, Episcopal Ministry.”


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