Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Teaching Authority of Episcopal Conferences

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Teaching Authority of Episcopal Conferences

Article excerpt

WHILE THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE of Catholic Bishops in the United States was preparing its pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace," several of its members were invited to Rome in 1983 to discuss this project with representatives of some European episcopal conferences. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who chaired the meeting, proposed five points for discussion, the first of which was his statement: "A bishops' conference as such does not have a mandatum docendi. This belongs only to the individual bishops or to the College of bishops with the pope." The controversy over this issue led, 15 years later, to the issuing of John Paul II's motu proprio Apostolos suos. While this does allow episcopal conferences to issue doctrinal statements, the conditions under which they can do so raises the question whether Ratzinger's opinion about their teaching authority has actually prevailed. To provide some background for this question, I shall begin with a brief account of the development of episcopal conferences.

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT

Within the second century bishops of neighboring churches were already gathering in local councils, to find common solutions to problems facing their churches. Several such councils were held in Asia Minor to deal with the issue of Montanism, and at the request of Victor, Bishop of Rome (189-199), bishops of various regions gathered in local councils to agree on a common date for the celebration of Easter. In the middle of the third century we have abundant evidence in the letters of Cyprian of Carthage for the regular holding of regional councils in North Africa, and for the common persuasion that important questions should be answered through a process by which the bishops of a region could reach a consensus which they would then communicate to other churches. Thus, for well over a century there was a flourishing practice of local and regional councils before a Christian emperor made possible the holding of the first ecumenical council in 325. Even after that, regional councils continued to be held through the first millennium, and a number of them, such of those of Carthage, Orange, and Toledo, made important contributions to the development of doctrine.

The Council of Trent decreed the regular holding of provincial councils, but this decree was rarely observed. However, in the 16th century some important provincial councils were held in Latin America, and seven provincial councils (1829-1849) and three plenary councils (1852-1884) were held in the United States during the 19th century. Elsewhere, however, the holding of such councils had fallen into desuetude. Among reasons that have been suggested for this is the necessity of obtaining the permission of Rome to hold a plenary council, and the obligation of submitting its decrees for review by a Roman congregation which would also introduce changes into them as it saw fit.

During the course of the 19th century, the bishops of a number of European countries, experiencing the need of taking common counsel on important issues facing their churches, began to hold annual meetings. While the bishops involved were the same as would have composed a plenary council, their meetings did not meet the canonical requirements of a council, and therefore did not have the legislative power that a council would have. However, they could take place frequently, and allow the bishops of the whole nation to take counsel together as often as issues came up that called for a common solution. While at first such "conferences of bishops" as they came to be called, were looked upon with suspicion by Rome, Pope Leo XIII recognized their usefulness and encouraged them. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, more and more national episcopates saw their usefulness, and by the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, more than 40 episcopal conferences had been established. In the United States, the archbishops had been meeting annually since 1890, but in 1919 the National Catholic Welfare Council was founded in which all the bishops would have a voice. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.