Pope John Paul II's latest apostolic letter Apostolos Suos, "On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences", was released officially at the Vatican in July 1997, having been earlier signed by the Pope on 21 May, the Feast of the Ascension. The new letter is a motu proprio - that is, a document issued by the Pope on his own authority.
The new document, which has been many years in the making, clarifies the limited authority of national episcopal conferences, along with their associated committees, commissions, advisors and experts. Since Vatican II, these have tended to usurp the fundamental canonical responsibility of an individual bishop as chief teacher of the faith in his diocese.
This phenomenon was typified by the recent release of the document, Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children, by the Committee on Marriage and Family of the US Bishops' Conference. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, described this document as "founded on bad advice, mistaken theology, erroneous science and skewed sociology" (Voices, Winter-Spring 1998).
Apostolos Suos stresses in this regard that each of the world's 108 episcopal conferences should be run by, and speak for, the bishops themselves and not be governed by staff members, nor appointed commissions.
In a statement apparently directed at the US bishops' conference, the Holy Father writes that the true purpose of an episcopal conference "requires that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary Sessions be avoided." He adds that "commissions and offices exist to be of help to bishops and not to substitute for them."
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in commenting on this document at a Vatican press conference attended by several senior curial officials, referred to the doctrinal authority of bishops' conferences: "Episcopal conferences do not constitute per se a doctrinal instance which is binding and superior to the authority of each bishop who comprises them." However, he said, "if doctrinal declarations emanating from a conference are approved unanimously by the bishops, they can be published in the name of the conference itself, and the faithful must adhere" to them.
"If this unanimity is lacking", the Cardinal added, "a qualified majority alone of the bishops of a conference cannot publish the eventual declaration as authentic magisterium of the same (body) ... unless such a document approved by a qualified majority obtains the 'recognitio' (revision) of the Holy See."
Also present at the Vatican press conference, Archbishop Julian Herranz, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said that the apostolic letter itself has "the power of universal law," and that individual episcopal conferences may not change the rules set forth by the Holy Father in this letter. It is, he said, "an ordinary instrument of the legislative activity by the Supreme Pastor of the Church."
Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, referring to the steps taken up to the publication of this apostolic letter, explained that following the 1985 extraordinary Synod Of Bishops, "an interdicasterial study group prepared a document of an orientation character in 1987 on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences". A year later, the draft was sent to all bishops so that they could make comments and corrections. They in turn suggested that a completely new version be drawn up and this was used as a basis for the current document. Following several annual meetings of a commission of bishops from several countries, the Pope in 1996 entrusted the work carried out up until that point to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for its definitive examination.
Apostolos Suos provides an overview of historic precedents for episcopal conferences from the time of the Apostles, noting that the Second Vatican Council dealt specifically with episcopal conferences, and recognised "the usefulness and potential of these structures, and judged that 'it would be in the highest degree helpful if in all parts of the world the bishops of each country or region would meet regularly'."
Pope Paul VI, with the motu proprio – Ecclesiae Sanctae – called for episcopal conferences to be established wherever they did not yet exist; those already existing were to draw up proper statutes; and in cases where it was not possible to establish a conference, the bishops in question were to join already existing episcopal conferences.
Nature and ends
The third chapter of Apostolos Suos considers the nature and ends of episcopal conferences.' Issues which should concern them include "the promotion and safeguarding of the faith and morals, the translation of liturgical books, the promotion and formation of priestly vocations, the preparation of catechetical aids, the promotion and safeguarding of Catholic universities and other educational centres, the ecumenical task, relations with civil authorities, the defence of protection in civil legislation, the promotion of social justice, the use of the means of social communication, etc."
In the same chapter the document instructs (Article 4) episcopal conferences "to review their statutes in order that they may be consistent with the document as well as the Code of Canon Law, and they should send them subsequently to the Apostolic See for 'recognitio', in accordance with canon 451 of the Code of Canon Law."