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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

Online Edition - Vol. IV, No. 6, October 1998

On Apostleship and Bureaucracy Apostolos Suos : On the Nature and Limits of Authority of Bishops' Conferences

by David Aaron Murray

Should bishops' conferences change the way they do business? In particular, should they stop allowing individual committees to release pastoral letters and other documents which the press and general public often mistakenly assume have the full weight of the nation's Catholic bishops behind them? This is one question raised by Pope John Paul II's recent apostolic letter Apostolos Suos (dated May 21 and released July 23). That document, a motu proprio ("own accord", issued on the Pope's authority alone), specified the nature and authority of bishops' conferences and the limits of that authority.

Among other points, it stresses that:

[b]ishops, whether individually or united in Conference, cannot autonomously limit their own sacred power in favour of the Episcopal Conference, and even less can they do so in favour of one of its parts, whether the permanent council or a commission of the president (20)...

Smaller bodies -- the permanent council, a commission, or other offices -- do not have the authority to carry out acts of authentic Magisterium, either in their own name or in the name of the conference, and not even as a task assigned to them by the conference. (23)

Apostolos Suos comes on the heels of a public controversy -- including a rare public split between bishops -- over the release of a "pastoral letter" to the parents of homosexuals, Always Our Children. It was produced by a subcommittee of the NCCB and approved by its Administrative Committee. The letter, which was not submitted for vote to the full body of bishops, was severely criticized in print by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, in part because of the "flawed" procedures by which it was released.

But the question also has a particular significance for liturgy. The document "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship" (EACW) released in 1978 by the Liturgy Committee of the NCCB, has often been presented to architects, designers and parish restoration and building committees as an absolutely binding set of guidelines on church restoration and design.

Considering the nature and authority of a document like EACW leads, however, into deep theological waters.

Ad limina warnings on bureaucracy

In retrospect, it seems clear that a series of pointed warnings about excessive bureaucracy, addressed to groups of American bishops on their ad limina visits to Rome (required of all bishops every five years), were direct expressions of the concerns that led to the issuance of Apostolos Suos.

In a March 30th ad limina address to the bishops of Louisville, Mobile and New Orleans (whose wording echoed that of addresses before and after), the Holy Father devoted much emphasis to the problem of out-of-control bureaucracy. While allowing that "complex structures" may be required "to meet the needs of modern times", he urged that these structures not become too obtrusive. Speaking of individual dioceses, the Holy Father said: "As bishops...you must be careful to safeguard the personal nature of your governance ... [t]his means ensuring that the structures necessary today in leading a diocese do not impede the very thing they are meant to facilitate: a bishop's contact with his people and his role as an evangelist."

A few paragraphs later, the pope applied this warning to episcopal conferences, when he said that they "must find a way to be truly effective without weakening the teaching and pastoral authority which belongs to bishops alone ... [their] administrative structures must not become ends in themselves but always remain instruments of the great task of evangelization and ecclesial service. Special care must be taken to ensure that the conference functions as an ecclesial body and not as an institution reflecting the management models of secular society."

Unity is result of divine action

Taking up this theme, Apostolos Suos makes central the distinction between human authority and collaboration on the one hand, and the divinely established "interior" unity among bishops and the pope. The collegial unity of bishops, which is hierarchically ordered toward the pope, is not the result of consensus or agreement, but "in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to the every individual particular Church." The "interior" unity between the pope and bishops is not something built up by human action nor is it a sum of parts; it is fundamentally established by divine action, a pre-existing "given" reality in which individual bishops participate and which they can manifest.

The organization of national bishops' conferences, on the other hand, is fortuitous and concrete. They are means and aids, without the fundamental, metaphysical reality of the College of Bishops in which the individual bishop paticipates. Human organizations have hierarchies, too. But the bishops themselves said -- in a document entitled "The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop" approved by the Vatican and released in 1992 -- that the episcopal ministry cannot be reduced to to "a variation of the common human need for organization and authority", since it flows from "the mandate and command of Christ". The pope quoted this passage approvingly in his ad limina remarks.

Because proper episcopal authority can only be exercised "collegially" -- that is, in cooperation with this pre-given unity, and "episcopal collegiality in the strict and proper sense belongs only to the entire College of Bishops, which as a theological subject is indivisible" (12; quoting John Paul II, Address to the Roman Curia, December 20, 1990), one of the four "articles" attached to Apostolos Suos affirms that no act of an Episcopal conference constitutes authentic Magisterium unless it is unanimously approved by all the active voting bishops.

"Always Our Children" illustrates bureaucratic problems

The Pope did not give specific examples of how a bureaucratic structure might "impede ... a bishop's contact with his people". But his motu proprio appeared soon after criticism of the procedures by which Always Our Children was drafted and approved. That document, released October 1997, was a pastoral letter addressed to the parents of homosexuals.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln raised substantive criticisms of the document's content in an article in Social Justice Review (March/April, 1998). He also objected to what he called the "flawed and defective procedures, badly in need of reform", which produced a "deeply flawed and defective document".

Always Our Children was released to the media by a subcommittee of the NCCB without ever having come up for a discussion or vote by the full conference -- although it had been approved by the Administrative Committee. Bishop Bruskewitz said that

even though it would seem the correct procedures outlined in Conference rules were followed, it should be made clear that the document was composed without any input from the majority of American Catholic Bishops, who were given no opportunity whatever to comment on its pastoral usefulness or on its contents. As almost always happens when such procedures are used by committees of the Conference, the illusion is given, perhaps deliberately, and carried forth by the media, to the effect that this is something the U.S. bishops have published... [In reality], ... [t]he majority of America's Catholic Bishops were allowed nothing to say about this document. Still less were they permitted any suggestions or comments about the `advisors' and consultants used by the Committee ... the occasion and the motivation for this document's birth remain hidden in the murky arrangements which brought it forth.

"Murky Arrangements"

The current structure of the NCCB allows committees to fall under the control of special interest groups. Just as in the secular world, members of these committees can be chosen to produce a particular result. Most of the actual work of these committees is performed by individuals, both clerical and lay, who staff the committees and write and revise the documents. Bishops often do not see documents being issued in their name until just before (or even after) they are released. Most bishops do not wish to seem "divisive", which may make them reluctant to voice concerns.

In one sense, it is not news that ordinary documents of bishops' conferences do not carry the same authority as pronouncements by the Pope or universal councils; that is one reason why the bishops call their letters "pastoral," even when they include or imply doctrinal content.

Where, then, does Apostolos Suos leave documents like Always Our Children and Environment and Art in Catholic Worship?

The former document was immediately criticized by a bishop and was therefore regarded as controversial and problematic, even though some dioceses have adopted it as a platform for policies directed toward homosexual Catholics. The latter has for twenty years been treated as a virtually absolute mandate. Church restoration and building committees are regularly told, either by bishops directly or their representatives, that the apparent "mandates" of EACW are non-negotiable. But both documents originated exactly the same way: in committees of the NCCB. Both were also approved by the Administrative Committee, not by the conference as a whole.

But recognizing the limitations of committees of the bishops' conference does not mean that Catholics are free to ignore documents promoted by their bishops. If a bishop gives a document of the Conference legislative force in his own diocese, it then becomes part of his expression of pastoral authority over his particular flock. He may not be "addressing the universal Church" through "acts of jurisdiction" (11), but "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" (11). In other words, merely as a statement of a committee of the bishops' conference, EACW has no authority. A bishop may, if he chooses, give such a statement authority within his own diocese.

In a 1995 article in The Jurist, Monsignor Frederick McManus, Professor Emeritus of Canon Law at Catholic University and former head of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, claims that although EACW "is not, nor does it purport in any way to be, a law or general decree of the conference of bishops", it enjoys what he called an "extrinsic authority" -- that is, an authority based on the inherent goodness and usefulness of its recommendations, rather than on any binding authority of the committee that issued it. "Extrinsic authority", in his view, is demonstrated by EACW's wide adoption.

Monsignor McManus also claims a positive value to EACW's lack of binding canonical authority; it leaves us free to follow, in a more generous way, the spirit instead of the letter.

The difficulty with this argument is that EACW has been spontaneously embraced only by the liturgical establishment -- that is, the very "experts" who pushed for it -- and many bishops. The Catholic in the pew has experienced EACW as a top-down mandate with no deviance or challenge tolerated -- not a "guideline" or gentle recommendation without the force of law. Those members of renovation or building committees who have raised questions about EACW mandates have usually been told in no uncertain terms that they are the problem.

New conference procedures?

Until recent years, EACW's authority as a mandate for church construction and renovations was not questioned. This is no longer the case. Among the most recent critiques was an article in these pages by architect Denis McNamara, who called EACW a "vague and contradictory document unabashedly favorable to architectural Modernism which strongly de-emphasize[s] the transcendent and sacramental nature of Catholic worship." ("Can We Keep Our Churches Catholic?", AB Feb/March 1998.) He described EACW as "arguably the single most influential, and at times damaging, document to affect recent American Catholic architecture."

A task force of the bishops' conference is currently drafting a new document to replace EACW*. The result will be examined by the entire bishops' conference. It remains to be seen whether the serious critiques of EACW will be reflected in whatever revisions emerge.

David Aaron Murray is the Managing Editor of the Adoremus Bulletin.

*[Editor's note: for information on Domus Dei, the bishops' follow-up document, click here. For more articles on architecture, click on link below.]

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