Developments in Teaching Authority since Vatican II

By Sullivan, Francis A. | Theological Studies, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Developments in Teaching Authority since Vatican II


Sullivan, Francis A., Theological Studies


DURING THE YEAR 2012 a half-century will have passed since the opening of the Second Vatican Council. No doubt this "golden anniversary" will stimulate much serious reflection on the effects that this remarkable event has had on not only the Catholic Church but also the world with which the council encouraged the church to dialogue. One can expect articles to be written, and perhaps a book will be published with the title "What Has Happened since Vatican II?"

Having spent a good part of those 50 years teaching future priests (and some future bishops) about the magisterium, it seems useful for me to share these reflections on the developments that have taken place with regard to teaching authority in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. I will divide the matter into three parts: (1) the subjects (the authoritative teachers); (2) the object (what they teach about); and (3) the exercise (how they teach).

THE SUBJECTS OF TEACHING AUTHORITY

Between the years 1852 and 1884 all the Catholic bishops in the United States met together three times in plenary councils to enact laws that would adapt the church to life in this new nation. They have not gathered again in a plenary council since 1884. However, the archbishops began to hold annual meetings in 1890, and in 1919 the National Catholic Welfare Council was founded in which all the bishops would have a voice. At the insistence of the Holy See, the term "council" was changed to "conference." The preference of the bishops of the United States to meet in unofficial conferences rather than in canonically regulated plenary councils was shared by the bishops of many other nations, especially after the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917. The result of this development was that when the bishops of the whole world gathered in 1962 for the Second Vatican Council and were presented at once with a slate of candidates from which they were expected to choose the members of the conciliar commissions, the bishops insisted on drawing up new lists of candidates, whom they would choose in meetings of their conferences. Thus the reality of episcopal conferences was present from the very beginning of Vatican II.

Episcopal Conferences

The role that episcopal conferences would have in the life of the church was mentioned in three of the conciliar documents. In its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II recognized the part that "groupings of bishops" with "territorial ecclesiastical authority" would play in the local adaptation of the liturgy. (1) In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, after speaking of organic groupings of churches, the council declared: "This variety of local churches, in harmony among themselves, demonstrates with greater clarity the catholicity of the undivided church. In a similar way episcopal conferences can today make a manifold and fruitful contribution to the concrete application of the spirit of collegiality." (2) In the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, an episcopal conference is described as "a kind of assembly (coetus) in which the bishops of some nation or region discharge their pastoral office in collaboration." (3) Since the pastoral office conferred on bishops at their ordination obviously includes the office of teaching the faith, it is not surprising that after Vatican II, episcopal conferences saw that it was within their competence to issue pastoral letters in which they were exercising their teaching office. Thus, our National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) (4) produced a number of doctrinal pastoral letters during the 15 years between Human Life in Our Day (1968) and The Challenge of Peace (1983).

During the preparation of the pastoral letter on peace, controversy erupted over the teaching role of episcopal conferences. With a view to promoting a broad consensus on issues concerning war and peace, the Holy See summoned representatives of the NCCB along with those of the episcopal conferences of six European nations to an "informal consultation" at the Vatican. …

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