Benedict XVI on the role of bishops conferences

First, let me ask: Have you read Apostolos suos yet, as I suggested elsewhere?

As the USCCB has a plenary meeting, as the CEI still hums with the Pope’s message, this comes from CNA:

Pope: Bishops’ conferences should serve bishops not replace them

Vatican City, Nov 15, 2010 / 07:18 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A national conference of Catholic bishops exists so that pastors of the Church might “share the fatigue of their labors.” But, according to Pope Benedict XVI, those national conferences can never substitute for an individual bishop’s authority and duty to guide his people.

The Pope turned a Nov. 15 address to a group of bishops from Brazil into a lesson on the function of the bishops’ conference. [Bishops are bishops also for the whole Church, and not just one little part of the Church isolated somewhere in the world.  When the Vicar of Christ speaks to a group of bishops, he will surely mean to address their particular concerns, but he is also speaking to all bishops everywhere.]


Since the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), some critics have argued that bishops’ conferences have assumed too much influence in the lives of local churches and in some cases have diminished the authority of local bishops.

In his address, Pope Benedict reminded the Brazilian Church leaders that “the counselors and structures of the episcopal conference exist to serve the bishops, not to replace them.”


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Pope of Christian Unity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Torkay says:

    Your thoughts, Father, on the imminent election of a Bernardin crony and Thomas Reese fellow traveler to the presidency of the USCCB? Or should that be USSCB? (Union of Soviet Socialist Catholic Bishops)

  2. Hieronymus says:

    I recently read about an “experiment” in education in NYC called the Equity Project. It is a charter school that has purposefully taken in students that would be considered “at risk of academic failure”. The school is offering its teachers $125,000/yr salary. The thought is that in offering this salary they end up with the cream of the crop in teachers from all over the country. The interesting thing is that the salary is budget neutral — they receive the same funding as a typical school. Their hypothesis is that they are able to eliminate the multiple layers of bureaucracy that are necessitated by having (to put it bluntly) poor-quality teachers. These high-quality teachers own the process and have personal responsibility for their actions and the success of the school — which is the success of its pupils.

    How is this relevant? It seems Pope Benedict spends a LOT of time “evangelizing” bishops and bishops conferences. The Church is heavily burdened by colossal bureaucratic structures that do a very good job preserving their positions, guaranteeing that reforms happen at a snail’s pace (or not at all), and eliminating individual responsibility and authority in favor of the giant — and largely irrelevant — bureaucratic body. Can anyone assign responsibility for “the Vatican’s” ridiculous “10 Commandments of Driving”, or the USCCB’s scandalous document, “Always our children”, or the loads of Catholic money that went to fund anti-Catholic organizations through the CCHD?

    The only way to deal with the current mess is to eliminate the bureaucracy and assign good men as Bishops — maybe even great men. They must be like Archbp. Burke and Bp. Bruskowizc who, instead of hiding behind the bureaucracy, take personal responsibility for their dioceses — the formation of its priests, its liturgical practice, and the education and sanctification of its souls.

  3. TJerome says:

    Bishops Conferences often times just embarrass themselves, opinion on issues outside their realm of expertise, such as economics and immigration.

  4. asophist says:

    I have heard it said that Vatican-II’s promotion of episcopal collegiality has made the Church ungovernable. Can this be true to some extent? Sometimes it seems so.

  5. Rich says:

    With regard to Brazil’s situation, what happened recently was that a bishop from Sao Paolo spoke out against pro-abortion policies of Dilma, the country’s new president, during the election. The bishops conference in that country then rushed to say that this bishop didn’t speak for the bishops conference. I think what our Holy Father may be getting at is that it doesn’t matter that much in situations like these whether the bishop is speaking for the bishops conference or not.

  6. Fr_Sotelo says:

    In the “Ratzinger Report” book published many years ago, Cardinal Ratzinger warned about the national conference encroaching upon the authority and teaching office of the diocesan bishop. At the same time, some bishops are not the sharpest tools in the shed, and some of the teaching materials coming out of the conference helps those guys to give a Catholic perspective to pressing issues. There is room for improvement, of course, but when most bishops are builders and fund raisers as opposed to theologians, it helps to have a national office that guides them.

  7. Hieronymus says:

    “There is room for improvement, of course, but when most bishops are builders and fund raisers as opposed to theologians, it helps to have a national office that guides them.”

    Judging by the building we have seen over the past 40 years — literal as well as figurative — if the bishop’s ability to build is his better quality, it certainly explains a lot about the state of theology these days.

    The problem with relying on the USCCB to provide your theological light is that the only bulbs they keep in stock were made in the 60’s and 70’s. Would it be worse in certain cases if the Bishop had to rely on his own insight? Perhaps. But at least there would be no question about how to fix the problem – replace one bishop.

  8. lombizani says:

    The situation here in Brazil is unbearable. The CNBB (“Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil”, National Conference of Brazilian Bishops) is a not catholic, it is a communist organization.

  9. lombizani says:

    The situation here in Brazil is unbearable. The CNBB (“Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil”, National Conference of Brazilian Bishops) is not catholic, it is a communist organization.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    I have read the document and find some of the ideas worthy of sharing here:

    Equivalent collegial actions cannot be carried out at the level of individual particular Churches or of gatherings of such Churches called together by their respective Bishops. At the level of an individual Church, it is in the name of the Lord that the diocesan Bishop leads the flock entrusted to him, and he does so as the proper, ordinary and immediate Pastor. His actions are strictly personal, not collegial, even when he has a sense of being in communion. Moreover, although he has the fullness of the power of the Sacrament of Orders, he does not exercise the supreme power which belongs to the Roman Pontiff and to the College of Bishops as elements proper to the universal Church, elements present within each particular Church in order that it may fully be Church, that is, a particular presence of the universal Church with all the essential elements pertaining thereto.(46)
    When the Bishops of a territory jointly exercise certain pastoral functions for the good of their faithful, such joint exercise of the episcopal ministry is a concrete application of collegial spirit (affectus collegialis),(51) which “is the soul of the collaboration between the Bishops at the regional, national and international levels”.(52) Nonetheless, this territorially based exercise of the episcopal ministry never takes on the collegial nature proper to the actions of the order of Bishops as such, which alone holds the supreme power over the whole Church. In fact, the relationship between individual Bishops and the College of Bishops is quite different from their relationship to the bodies set up for the above-mentioned joint exercise of certain pastoral tasks.

    The collegiality of the actions of the body of Bishops is linked to the fact that “the universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular Churches, or as a federation of particular Churches”.(53) “It is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church”.(54) Likewise the College of Bishops is not to be understood as the aggregate of the Bishops who govern the particular Churches, nor as the result of their communion; rather, as an essential element of the universal Church, it is a reality which precedes the office of being the head of a particular Church.(55) In fact, the power of the College of Bishops over the whole Church is not the result of the sum of the powers of the individual Bishops over their particular Churches; it is a pre-existing reality in which individual Bishops participate. They have no competence to act over the whole Church except collegially. Only the Roman Pontiff, head of the College, can individually exercise supreme power over the Church. In other words, “episcopal collegiality in the strict and proper sense belongs only to the entire College of Bishops, which as a theological subject is indivisible”.(56) And this is the express will of the Lord.(57) This power, however, should not be understood as dominion; rather, essential to it is the notion of service, because it is derived from Christ, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.(58)

    These ideas, among many of the teachings in the document, need to be discussed among the laity, who frequently do not have a proper understanding of the role of the individual bishop, or the national council of bishops.

    There is more good stuff here, such as:20. In the Episcopal Conference the Bishops jointly exercise the episcopal ministry for the good of the faithful of the territory of the Conference; but, for that exercise to be legitimate and binding on the individual Bishops, there is needed the intervention of the supreme authority of the Church which, through universal law or particular mandates, entrusts determined questions to the deliberation of the Episcopal Conference. Bishops, 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 or the president. This logic is quite explicit in the canonical norm concerning the exercise of the legislative power of the Bishops assembled in the Episcopal Conference: “The Conference of Bishops can issue general decrees only in those cases in which the common law prescribes it, or a special mandate of the Apostolic See, given either motu proprio or at the request of the Conference, determines it”.(77) In other cases “the competence of individual diocesan Bishops remains intact; and neither the Conference nor its president may act in the name of all the Bishops unless each and every Bishop has given his consent”.(78)

    Perhaps the most interesting section is on the norms concerning the conferences, in Section IV. Here is one item on which to chew: No body of the Episcopal Conference, outside of the plenary assembly, has the power to carry out acts of authentic magisterium. The Episcopal Conference cannot grant such power to its Commissions or other bodies set up by it.

  11. tttr83 says:

    I read somewhere, Bishop conferences were partially implemented at the suggestions of Patriarch Maximus IV as a way to encourage synodality within the western church.

  12. Prof. Basto says:


    In my opinion the problem is that Brazil shouldn’t have the largest Episcopate in the world, as it currently does. Granted, we are the country in the world with the greatest absolute number of Catholics, Brazil has the greatest Catholic population.

    But in Brazil we have always had a pityful and puny ratio of priests per faithful. So, even pre-Vatican II times, even in the 19th century, even in the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889), when the Catholic Church was the established, official religion, and even in the late colonial period, the number of vocations to the priesthood was low compared to the Catholic population, and the ratio of priests per people was, and is, worse than several other countries.

    I suggest this lack of vocations (worsened after the Second Vatican Council), a low ratio compared even to other countries that have faced a shortage of priests in the wake of Vatican II, shows that the Catholic faith for most Brazilians is something very superficial.

    With the breakdown of catechesis that resulted from the “New Springtime” of the disastrous last Ecumenical Council, most Brazilian Catholics have today only a skin deep knowlege of even the cardinal tenets of the religion they call theirs.

    Surely, it is a social anathema in many families to have children and not to present them for Baptism in a Catholic Church, but that is just for the sake of the social rite of passage, to be followed by a party. And many will choose to have their kids baptized in the oldest churches in town, that are part of the national heritage and for that reason still have the pre-Vatican II altar behind the kitchen table that now serves as Altar, that still have side altars with images of saints, etc. Many old churches require the booking of Baptisms months ahead (and so the small children remain unbaptized for months, which is dangerous of course), but all that is done for the sake of the photos and the filming.

    Then, most of the Baptized will not go regularly to Church, but will appear for pre-first Communion classes and receive first Communion. They will go to Sunday Mass during those classes if Father requires it. First Communion will also be done because it is traditional. A small number of those who receive first Communion will go on to to be confirmed. Mostly those who are students in Catholic schools will be confirmed.

    So this is a skin deep religiosity, composed only of the “rites of passage”. No wonder there are few vocations. So, in spite of being the largest Catholic nation, it shouldn’t have the more numerous Episcopate in the world.

    There are problems also in the field of formation of priests, and, in many places, Liberation Theology is still a strong force. In the postconciliar period, a liberal ideology that is still resisted in the United States swept Brazil more easily. It is from this clergy, still plagued in many places by a dissenting, quasi Marxist worldview, that the Holy See needs to select more than 200 bishops.

    And those bishops will be selected with the aid of a Nunciature that is plagued also by its problems. You know, Nuncios are linked to the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, and for years under Sodano and Bertone, the Secretariat of State has been one of the problematic dicasteries of the Roman Curia. The Congregation for Bishops may have improved under Oullet, but they were also problematic under Re, and, even if they weren’t, the Nuncio would be enough to do the damage. After “consultations” with the corrupt Episcopate, the best clergymen seldom make it to the ternas.

    The only practical solution: the unification of several dioceses, so as to create a smaller number of particular Churches; then, Rome, and by Rome I mean the Roman Pontiff himself looking at the files, would have to exercise greater vigilance over appointments.

    Only thus would the National Conference of Bishops be cleaned up.

    The selection of people to succeed the Apostles as bishops is one of the gravest tasks of the Roman Pontiff. It must not be taken lightly, and must not be completely delegated to other decisionmakers. So, if it is impossible for the Pope to know what he is really doing when he needs to appoint more than 5,000 bishops worldwide (the current size of the global Episcopate), perhaps the Church of today needs to take advantage of the present facilities of travel and communications that make the existance of several particular Churches unnecessary (because today it would be easier for a Bishop to cover a larger territorial area).

    If the number of Bishops needs downsizing so be it, but personnel is policy, and it is in the appointments process that many of the Church’s problems (and the solution to them) lie.

Comments are closed.