Conferences of Biships: Mandate to Teach?

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Fidelity Magazine (Australia)
December 1997
Reproduced with Permission

Christ, wise Administrator, did not assign separate teaching authorities to National Episcopal Conferences. "Thou art Peter," He said in the presence of the Twelve, "and upon this Rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16:18). The Rock is one solid piece, not a conglomerate of rocklettes scattered about, one in each nation.

Individual Bishops do have a special mandate to teach the faithful in their respective dioceses, however. This follows from Christ's charge given to the Eleven: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:19-20). The Eleven have this commission enfolded within the larger mandate to care corporately for the entire Church. Joined to Peter, they form one Rock with him. Associated with him, they make the Church present in their diocese.

How do National Conferences of Bishops fit into this structure? Canon Law assigns to them specific administrative functions for which they are answerable, ultimately, to Peter. Church law DOES NOT characterize them as collective teaching bodies. Book Three of the Code titled "The Teaching Office of the Church" does not list Bishops' Conferences. This lack of a mandate to teach doctrine new and old, however, does not gag Episcopal Conferences from volunteering to resonate established Catholic teachings.

Christ does not assign teachers without providing them with twin gifts: He illumines the teachers personally with supernatural light about truths of the faith: "In your light we see light." The floodlights of faith blazing in their minds are brighter than the private candle-light of reason alone. Second, Christ equips His official teachers with power to convince, to convert, to believe, to repent: "The Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word" (Acts 10:42f). The teacher commissioned by Christ is, like Paul, sent "not from men nor through men, but from Christ Jesus and God the Father who raised him from the dead" (Gal 1:1). Today, the Peter whom Christ authorizes in Rome to speak His message to the entire Church, speaks with such power. Bishops in their dioceses likewise teach the Good News with authentic power. Conferences of Bishops, however, do not address nations with collective teaching power given by Christ, unless they speak with one voice with the Pope.

It is enough that Conferences of Bishops use their national podiums to resonate effectively for their nation the universal doctrine of the Church; to point fingers at flagrant violations of the Ten Commandments; to call the faithful to "repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand."

When spiritual needs reach a fevered pitch of intensity, Bishops' Conferences have a God-given opportunity to rally the faithful to remedy the problem. The Bishops who met at Baltimore in the 1880's gave a prime example of collective episcopal power for leadership when they called the faithful to set up the national chain of parochial schools. What a blessing that has been, and is today, for the nation, and for us individually! The Bishops did not issue a new teaching, but called upon the people to join together to do what they must in the light of already existing teaching.

Today Conferences of Bishops cannot fail to see large-scale problems upon which to focus their joint spiritual energies: abortion, contraception, sterilization, divorce and annulments, mis-conceived sex education in schools, absence of catechesis for the children, media bias against the Church, trivialization of sex, tampering with the Sacred Liturgy, homosexual aggression, assisted suicide and euthanasia, devil worship and witchcraft, naive dissent from Church teachings. These are national problems of the spirit which clamor for the attention of National Conferences of Bishops.

Every Bishop worth his salt knows exactly the teachings of the universal Church specifically applicable to these problems. Abortion is an abominable crime, contraception and sterilization blunt the operation of Christ's Sacraments, divorce parts what God has joined together, sex is misused when used contrary to God's laws. Bishops do a service to the national body when they point fingers at vice, when they affirm, resonate, amplify, and articulate with thunder the universal doctrine of the Church which has special relevance to a current situation. Episcopal Conferences can coordinate a nationwide warfare of the spirit, the kind which Paul describes: "For the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete" (2 Cor 10:4-6).

Should Bishops' Conferences reflect with the faithful on problems like nuclear deterrence, social welfare legislation, payment of debts by developing nations, green house effects, plugging the ozone hole?

On the one hand, the Church is the sole enduring "expert in humanity" which accompanies humans through the centuries in the changing global circumstances. Bishops, together with the Pope, share all human concerns with the special intensity of pastors who yearn to make the environment in which the faithful live favorable toward understanding moral obligations and carrying them out. On the other hand, pastoral zeal does not necessarily generate expertise in secular affairs. The parish pastor who wants the local baseball team to win, is not always the best man to manage the team, nor is he the proper one to umpire the game.

Bishops' Conferences of one nation, who attempt to umpire international games - political contests about the environment, about preserving tropical forests, about nuclear deterrence, international debt payment, women in the Church, water rights and others - should not be surprised if they hear cries of "Kill the umpire." For this and other reasons, it may be advantageous that pronouncements dealing with details about secular matters be issued not by Conferences of Bishops as such, but by episcopal secretariats of a lower echelon. The faithful would then understand that the Bishops are in dialogue with them on a level field, and are not speaking to them from a chair of an official teaching body. Episcopal authority can thus stand above the fray while policies are disputed like wine which is still fermenting.

Since the early 1980s the United States Catholic Conference, the policy arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has issued several wrong-headed social and political prescriptions for justice in the world. As a result, the USCC's authoritative competence in matters of faith and morals has risked being weakened by specific policy recommendations that reach well beyond what is necessary for the salvation of souls (Samuel Casey Carter, "Dangerously Green" in Crisis, June, 1997).

Bishops in conference do well to confront their nation with the contents of already formulated Catholic social doctrine, to emphasize the primacy of ethics over politics. But are Episcopal Conferences a likely body to have the gifts needed to develop new social doctrine in response to the needs of the day? We should not exclude the possibility that talented Bishops joined in Conferences can discern the validity of new expressions of sound Catholic social doctrine now applicable to developing secular situations. More than likely, papers would have been prepared carefully by capable persons beforehand, would have gone through several revisions, would be sieved through screens of already existing teaching, and would look to Peter for a nod of approval. Happily, new formulations could thus become the patrimony of the entire Church. In this happy instance, Conferences of Bishops are not so much teaching bodies as logical resonators of doctrine which is recognized everywhere in the Church.

By and large, however, Episcopal Conferences are not well constituted for formulating new Catholic social doctrine. Just as priests are notoriously easy victims to professional beggars and are often "taken in" by cheaters, so also the hearts of Bishops may tend to be too soft to make "tough-love" decisions about hard and complex secular realities. On the pulpit and in the Confessional, Bishops are accustomed to urge the quick fix: "Obey the Commandments." They rightly call the faithful to amend their lives by a simple and resolute act of the will, while calling upon God's grace to make this possible. The solution of spiritual problems is that simple, even when difficult. Bringing instant Utopia into the secular world, unfortunately, is not as simple as Bishops may be inclined to hope. It belongs to their competence to insist that ethics prevail in all fields of human activity, but it belongs primarily to the laity to apply the laws of ethics to concrete realities.

The gifts of the Spirit are manifold, some men called to testify openly to mankind's yearning for its heavenly home and keep the awareness of it vividly before men's minds; others are called to dedicate themselves to the earthly service of men and in this way to prepare the way for the kingdom of heaven (Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World, 38).

Let Conferences of Bishops today rally their respective nations to obey God's commandments where their people are most flagrantly disobeying them. Let them collectively encourage their nation to place the dignity of the human person as the central consideration of all social, political, and economic legislation. Even though National Episcopal Conferences do not have a munus docendi to promulgate new doctrines, they do have a God-given opportunity to resonate strongly for the nation the teachings of the Church which are most important for the salvation of souls at the present moment.

When Conferences of Bishops, fraudulently dressed in borrowed trappings of authentic teachers, promulgate pseudo-doctrine, results can be catastrophic. Evil rushes out of the closed doors of the Conference like a destructive flood bursting over the toppling remnants of a broken dam. It was a terrible mistake of some Episcopal Conferences to attempt to bend the teachings of Humanae Vitae in order to supposedly re-shape them for "pastoral acceptability" within their national boundaries. Though impotent to teach new doctrine, some of them issued dishonest teachings from national pulpits. Christ did not authorize them, nor did the Church give them power to do this.

For example, in 1968 the Japan Conference of Bishops perfidiously invited Japanese Catholics to continue receiving the Sacraments if they choose to live in contradiction to doctrine in Humanae Vitae:

If somebody notwithstanding his good will to fulfill the directives of the encyclical is unable to observe it in some matters because of objective and necessary circumstances, he should never think himself separated from the love of God. Rather we advise them to deepen their trust in God, and to participate fervently in the works of the Church and to receive the sacraments.

This advice by the Japan Conference of Bishops to receive Holy Communion without suspending the practice of contraception is destructive of the Faith. To this day this knife twists in the heart of the Church in Japan. Atom bombs once seared the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but the Bishops' Conference blasted all the cities and the entire countryside of Japan with this bomb of pseudo-doctrine. It is still blasting the nation today, like livid lightning driven over the nation by lurid winds from hell. The tiny body of the faithful, only 440,000 in number, has stopped growing. It is now a whimpering babe starved of spiritual sustenance by temporary separation from its nurturing mother.

When the Conference of Bishops of the United States pretended to authorize dissent from the Magisterium of the Church, their treason was as real as that of Matthew Arnold. In their pastoral letter "Human Life in Our Day" on November 15, 1968, they made the sign of the cross and sprinkled holy water over the sin of dissent: "The expression of theological dissent from the Magisterium is in order," so they pontificated, "only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church and is such as not to give scandal."

Blind guides! Does dissent from the Magisterium ever do anything but impugn the one and single teaching authority of the Church? And does dissent not, by its very presence, scandalize? That single sentence crackling out of the 1968 Conference of Bishops in the USA is THE scandal of contemporary America. The Bishops legalized dissent in 1968, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, yet neither has legislative validity, and both are criminal in content. The "We are Church" and "Common Ground" pretensions grow today in the fetid swamp landscaped by the 1968 meeting of the Conference of Bishops in the USA. As we can see, when Conferences of Bishops make mistakes, the mistakes are monstrous. Like tectonic collisions, they generate gigantic destructive tidal waves which submerge hapless populations. They liquefact the Rock of Peter on which the local church should stand, which then twists and sinks into tortured shapes. The mistaken assumption that there are two magisteria established by Christ, each of which deserves equal respect, is not Christ's idea. He established His Church on a monolith: "He who hears you, hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me" (Luke 10:16).

Christ would have made the teaching authority of the Church into a palavering tower of Babel if He had assigned independent teaching authority to Bishops' Conferences. Thanks be to God that He did not do so; that He established but one Rock of Peter on which His Church stands for the duration, until the mantle of time will fall off the shoulders of the pulsing cosmos, which is then to be re-fashioned into new heavens and a new earth.

POSTSCRIPT, April 2000:

Six months after the above was published, the Pope issued a Motu Proprio titled "Apostolos Suos (21 May 1998) in which an authentic Magisterium of a Conference of Bishops becomes valid under the following conditions:

  1. Conferences may reproduce and promote teachings which the universal Church has already set forth either by a solemn judgment or by ordinary universal Magisterium. Conferences are not allowed to submit such authenticated teachings to a vote.
  2. Doctrinal declarations may be submitted to a vote of the Bishops if they deal "with new questions and (it is necessary to act) so that the message of Christ enlightens and guides people's consciences in resolving new problems arising from changes in society" (AS. N.22).
  3. These declarations can become authentic Magisterium if the Plenary Assembly adopts them by unanimous vote of the Bishop members, or by a majority of at least two thirds of the Bishops holding a deliberative vote. In the latter case the recognition of the Holy See must precede promulgation.

In other words, National Episcopal Conferences can become authentic teachers of doctrine if: 1) A need for indicated action has arisen. 2) The vote of Bishop members in Plenary Assembly is unanimous. 3) If the vote is not unanimous, a previous recognition by the Magisterium is necessary. These safeguards now protect us from pseudo-doctrinal teachings of Episcopal Conferences, such as those mentioned above.