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Strong Bishops – and Bishops’ Conferences

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For years the lobbying office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) produced a quadrennial presidential questionnaire that was supposed to help Catholic voters decide which candidate most closely supported Catholic teaching. The problem was that the questionnaire reflected the teachings of the Church less than the policy preferences of the conference’s liberal-Democratic lay staff. The questionnaire was killed prior to the 2004 election and did not reappear in 2008.

The questionnaire was probably the best example of the central problem about the USCCB. Many Catholics think the Conference possesses a teaching authority somewhere between their local bishop and the pope, so that something as silly as a presidential questionnaire is thought to be somehow authoritative.

One brave bishop addressed this issue during a speech in Washington D.C. last week. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, said that there are good reasons for a conference of bishops, “There is no doubt that such a unified exercise of a pastoral office is both practical and desirable.” Work on revising the translation of the missal, for instance, would have been chaotic if each bishop had had to do it for himself. He cited Haitian relief as impossible without Catholic Charities and conceded that the conference played a sometimes useful role in identifying issues, conducting research, and even influencing national debates.

But he drew sharp lines, too: “It is sometimes easy for the conference to revert to stronger patterns of autonomy and even to be perceived as possessing types of authority that it neither claims nor possesses. It is easy to forget that the conference is the vehicle to assist bishops in cooperating with each other and not a separate regulatory commission.”

Bishop Vasa described a situation in which documents – inevitably produced   by meat-grinding consensus in conference committees – can be vague, flat, and easily misunderstood: “I fear that there has been such a steady diet of such flattened documents that anything issued by individual bishops that contains some element of strength is readily and roundly condemned or simply dismissed as being out of touch with the conference or in conflict with what other bishops might do.”

Bishop Robert Vasa

He strongly asserted the longstanding canonical authority of the local bishop over against anything produced by bishops’ conferences. The Doctrine Committee may be very helpful for a local bishop who is thinking through an issue. But he warned that the bishop should not then say the Doctrine Committee “has decided.” Rather the Bishop should make clear, “After consultation with the Doctrine Committee I have decided. . .” That’s the ancient system in a Catholic diocese, and there should be no confusion about who is the decider.

Vasa underscored this with the story of how one bishop “offered his own interpretation” of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a conference document often used by the political left to claim that economic issues are on the same plane or even more important than abortion. Vasa said this bishop told the faithful entrusted to his care “that the conference did not speak for him.” There were inevitable complaints: “If the faithful suggest to a bishop that he is acting contrary to a pastoral document issued by the conference, the bishops legitimate response is that he and people of his diocese are not bound by conference statements unless he so determines,” Vasa said.

One used to hear all the time about how this or that bishop was “isolated” at conference meetings. For a long while, it seemed this de facto ostracism was applied to Bishop of Lincoln Fabian Bruskewitz alone. That he was “isolated” was supposed to have been the ultimate tut-tut put down. And it is certainly a hard thing to stand alone in front of a few hundred peers, to relegate yourself to the outer circles of the in-crowd. And this certainly has been the lot of any good bishop who has been willing to stand up to the conference and its politically liberal staff.

In support of his argument, Vasa cited both Joseph Ratzinger and John Paul II, Ratzinger said, “No Episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission: its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by individual bishops.” John Paul II wrote, “In fact, only the faithful entrusted to the pastoral care of a particular bishop are required to accept his judgment in the name of Christ in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with religious assent of soul.”

Vasa insists that the strongest teachings can only come from the local bishop. While mush often comes out of the conference, strong meat can only come from singular brave bishops. Ratzinger said, “The really powerful documents against National Socialism were those that came from individual courageous bishops. The documents of the conference, on the contrary, were often rather wan and too weak with respect to what the tragedy called for.” Vasa says we also live in times that require strong and brave teachings that can only come from the local bishop.

Some years ago I asked a knowledgeable observer how many bishops are willing to stand up to the dissenters in the Church. He said maybe thirty. And then came John Kerry running for president – and more than fifty spoke out. And then came Obama to Notre Dame and more than seventy complained.

Something wonderful is happening in the episcopacy today. Robert Vasa is a part of it. And the good news is he not alone. Not by a long shot.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.