WASHINGTON—At first glance, Pope John Paul II's recently released motu proprio on bishops' conferences, Apostolos Suos, may seem to address an abstract and bureaucratic subject. In fact, the document may have serious impact on the Church in the United States.

What is an episcopal conference? Canon Law states that it is “a grouping of bishops of a given country or territory whereby, according to the norm of law, they jointly exercise pastoral functions on behalf of the Christian faithful of their territory …” (canon 447). Such conferences are often national, but may also be regional.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the national episcopal conference for the United States. The bishops of America's dioceses, along with their auxiliary bishops, are its members, and the conference has various committees of bishops and related agencies with respective officers, directors, and staffs. Abureaucracy, in other words.

Though episcopal conferences started in the 19th century, Vatican II was the major catalyst for their spread, a process Pope Paul VI accelerated by calling for them in countries or territories where they did not exist.

The rise of episcopal conferences has raised some thorny questions though: What is the relationship between the individual bishop of a diocese and the episcopal conference of which he is a member? Does the episcopal conference act as an intermediary body between a bishop and the college of bishops, headed by the Pope? What is the authority of documents issued by episcopal conferences, whether by a committee or the whole conference? Are such documents binding on the faithful — or on bishops who do not endorse them? What about disagreement among episcopal conferences of different nations?

These questions aren't merely theoretical. Throughout the 1980s and '90s episcopal conferences around the world — as well as their committees and agencies — issued many pastoral statements with varying degrees of endorsement from the bishops themselves. These documents cover everything from war and peace and the economy, to telecommunications and foreign policy, from the Holy Eucharist and human sexuality, to liberation theology and anti-Catholic sects. In fact, the U.S. bishops' pastoral letters alone fill five hefty volumes. Are they all to be accepted as “the Church's teaching”?

Moreover, conferences occasionally take conflicting stances on a particular issue. For example, in 1983, the U.S. bishops prepared their pastoral letter on war and peace at the same time the French and German bishops drafted theirs taking opposing stances from the U.S. bishops on some issues. The Holy See called an international conference to iron things out.

Then there's the problem of documents issued by committees of episcopal conferences. Often these appear to have the full weight of the conference's authority behind them, when in fact they don't. Case in point: the U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family's Always Our Children, a controversial statement to parents of homosexually oriented children. Approved by the confer-ence's administrative board last October but not by the full body of bishops, the statement was strongly criticized by some bishops, while vigorously praised by others. Yet despite these very public disagreements of bishops, Always Our Children was widely touted in the media as the American bishops' statement. In June, the Committee on Marriage and Family issued a revised version after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sought changes that reflected criticisms some bishops had made.

The problem of committee documents is exacerbated by the fact that while the bishops usually understand such documents' limits, the faithful at large — including catechists, liturgists, and sometimes even pastors — may not. Another case in point: the NCCB liturgy committee's 1977 document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. Sometimes cited by liturgists and building committees as normative and obligatory, the document is not binding on bishops or their pastors.

Problems such as these explain why the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops asked the Holy See to clarify the nature of episcopal conferences. The result was a draft document circulated among bishops by the Holy See. Reaction was mixed, though several conferences rejected the draft and sought a complete reworking.

Apparently, John Paul II decided to satisfy the Synod's request himself by issuing Apostolos Suos. The apostolic letter answers many important questions posed by episcopal conferences, drawing on Vatican II, recent magisterial documents on the Church, and the Code of Canon Law.

For one, the letter addresses the relationship between the individual bishop in his diocese and the episcopal conference. According to Pope John Paul II, the conference exists to serve the individual bishop, not the other way around.

“The essential fact must be kept in mind that the episcopal conferences with their commissions and offices exist to be of help to the bishops and not to substitute for them,” he writes (No. 18). “The authority of the episcopal conference and its field of action are in strict relation to the authority and action of the diocesan bishop and the bishops equivalent to them in law” (No. 19).

John Paul II's teaching here is based on two divinely established ways bishops carry out their ministry. On the one hand, as individuals, they oversee their respective “particular churches” — dioceses, that is. The bishops, as John Paul II indicates quoting Vatican II, “have succeeded to the Apostles as shepherds of the Church” and “govern the particular churches entrusted to them as the vicars and ambassadors of Christ… “ (No. 19; cf. Lumen Gentium, Nos. 20 and 27).

On the other hand, there is the College of Bishops, of which the bishops throughout the world are members. The College of Bishops, “together with its head, the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head,” exercises “supreme and full power over the universal Church” (No. 9). The College of Bishops succeeds the Apostolic College in its responsibility for the universal Church.

The authority of the individual bishop in his diocese and of the College of Bishops are both of divine origin; episcopal conferences are not. They are created by the bishops of their respective regions who request them, and by the supreme authority of the Church, which alone approves, erects, suppresses, or changes episcopal conferences (cf. canon 449, ß1).

Of course, in some cases and for the good of the Church, the exercise of an individual bishop's authority “can be circumscribed by certain limits,” writes John Paul II (No. 19; cf. Lumen Gentium, No. 27). But this requires “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” (No. 20).

The Pope or the College of Bishops united with him, then, can give responsibility for certain matters over to an episcopal conference — as has been done in the Code of Canon Law, for example. However, neither the individual bishop, nor the bishops united in an episcopal conference, can “autonomously limit their sacred power in favor of the episcopal conference” (No. 20) or, a fortiori, commissions or councils of it.

Consequently, episcopal conferences are intermediate bodies between individual bishops and the Pope or even the College of Bishops only when and to the extent the supreme authority of the Church allows — in specific areas that are entrusted to them (cf. No. 13). Otherwise the individual bishop can't be limited or restricted by an episcopal conference to which he belongs, nor, according to canon 455, can it even act in his name: “neither the conference nor its president may act in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given his consent” (No. 20).

Furthermore, smaller bodies of a conference such as permanent councils, commissions, or 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” (No. 23). And even when bishops unanimously agree, the confer-ence's teaching still isn't on a par with that of the College of Bishops for the universal Church. As John Paul II writes, such an “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” (No. 12).

Which leads to a crucial issue: the authority of documents issued by the conference or its committees. Are they binding on the faithful or even on bishops who might not have approved them?

Only when such documents are unanimously approved by the bishops of a conference, declares Pope John Paul II, may they be issued in the name of the conference; only then are the faithful “obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic Magisterium of their own bishop” (No. 22), not of the conference as such. A mere majority of bishops won't make a statement as that of the conference or bind the faithful of a territory in conscience. That requires a document's recognitio by the Apostolic See (cf. No. 22).

Beyond the issue of binding documents, there's also the question of their usefulness, a matter that extends to the bureaucratic structures of episcopal conferences as well. If conferences are to fulfill their purpose, writes John Paul II, they must avoid “an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions [of bishops]” (No. 18).

Apostolos Suos concludes with four norms regarding episcopal conferences, which includes restatement of items found elsewhere in the motu proprio and a directive that conferences review their statutes in light of the new document and Canon Law. The statutes then must be sent to the Apostolic See for approval.

According to Russell Shaw, former secretary for public affairs for the U.S. bishops, Apostolos Suos provides “a clear standard against which to measure a lot of questions with regard to the structure, programs, and even the budget of the bishops' conference. And the standard is: Is this going to be helpful to the individual bishop trying to do his job in his diocese?”

Shaw warns against “overheated and exaggerated interpretation of the document” as “a heavy-handed crackdown on bishops'conferences.”

“It's not going to seriously inhibit bishops' conferences from doing anything important that they need to do,” he says. “It's a clarifying document, which ought to help them set their priorities in the future. “

What effect will Apostolos Sous have on the quantity and quality of documents from episcopal conferences and their organs?

“It might lead to more thought before the fact about whether and how to release these statements,” says Shaw. “It'll cut down on output of committee statements.”

Veteran Church observer Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report, agrees.

“It will discourage the proliferation of public statements, since one bishop's dissent can vitiate the authority of a document.”

Lawler also believes Apostolos Suos “will encourage bishops to argue their positions boldly, rather than surrender when they find themselves in a minority. Even if a bishop finds himself badly outnumbered, if he considers a document unwise he can make sure it's not binding.”

John Paul II's Apostolos Suos should not be seen as hostile to episcopal conferences. The Pope regards them as important instruments for, among other things, fostering unity among bishops, but, he insists, they must support the bishop's ministry in his diocese, not “hinder it by substituting themselves inappropriately for him,” where the common law of the Church does not allow, or “by acting as a filter or obstacle” to “direct contact between the individual bishops and the Apostolic See” (No. 24).

Mark Brumley writes from San Francisco, California.