by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
An episcopal conference is a grouping of all the bishops of a given territory, whereby they jointly exercise certain pastoral functions for all Catholics within the region (usually a nation or country).
The modern concept of episcopal conferences was the brain-child of the Venerable Servant of God, Pope Pius XII, concerned that the Church in the various nations would be able to make a unified response to the disasters wrought by World War II. However, since his time, episcopal conferences have evolved into much larger and more potent structures than those perhaps originally envisioned and/or intended by Papa Pacelli, receiving their greatest impetus from the Second Vatican Council. The episcopal conferences serve as a bridge between the universal Church and the local churches. They are not meant to substitute for the central authority of the Pope, the Vatican and the Holy See – or of the diocesan bishop.
The first task of any episcopal conference is to ensure that the universal norms of the Church (e.g., doctrinal, liturgical) are implemented at the local level. On another plane, the episcopal conferences are called to exercise authority with the legitimate autonomy afforded them in the Code of Canon Law.
One of the primary goals of episcopal conferences is to assist dioceses and bishops in the inculturation of the Gospel message, so that the Church's mission of catechesis and evangelization may be more effectively accomplished, taking into full consideration the tenor of the times, as well as the ever-changing demographics of the regions within their jurisdiction. To accomplish these noble goals, episcopal conferences meet regularly to address concrete socio-political, socio-economic and pertinent cultural issues that have particular relevance in their ecclesiastical territory.
Bishops, according to the documents of the Magisterium (e.g., "Christus Dominus" of the Second Vatican Council; Catechism of the Catholic Church) and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, are not to be considered "Vicars of the Pope," but as truly and properly the "Vicars of Christ" in their particular local churches (dioceses or epharchies). The bishops, exercising the "tria munera Christi" (the three offices of Christ) for the instruction, sanctification and governance of the Church, share in the charism of infallibility when, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, they teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals. Disciplinary questions or prudential judgments of a political nature are another matter entirely, for even popes can err in such questions.
Therefore, although episcopal conferences do exercise in a circumscribed manner ordinary magisterium but do not speak for the universal Church as only the Pope or an ecumenical council can. Moreover, an episcopal conference cannot present the opinions and pastoral solutions of member bishops as though they were doctrines and moral teachings intended for the universal Church. An episcopal conference lacks the teaching authority that resides in the College of Bishops.
Episcopal conferences may never legitimately contravene a universal norm of the Church, but they may modify its application – if this authority is granted them by the Holy See. For example, the universal norm of the Church is that Catholics between the ages of 14 and 59 are to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. However, the Code of Canon Law provides that episcopal conferences may decide if another penance be may be suitably substituted. It is also the role of episcopal conferences to determine the holy days of obligation to observed in their jurisdiction, as well as the manner in which they are to be observed.
In the present Synod, there has been discussion in small language groups about the need for individual episcopal conferences to assume the task of implementing the Final Document and/or the Pope's Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, should he opt to write one. This is no novelty; this is always the case!
This means that episcopal conferences will be required to put into practice those universal norms which the Holy See may deem fit to prescribe, for example, for the pastoral accompaniment of couples in irregular unions and those who desire lasting reconciliation with and greater integration into the life of the local Church, including sacramental preparation for their children. This, however, does not imply that individual episcopal conferences will be free to determine whether or not to follow the unchanging, firm doctrines of the Church regarding vital issues like abortion, artificial contraception, the indissolubility of marriage, same-sex civil unions/marriages.
Therefore, we need to reiterate here, especially for the sake of those who may not understand fully Catholic theology and praxis, that the present Synod on the Family is not an ecumenical council – although there may be apparent similarities due to its pastoral focus and the widespread media attention it is receiving.
Although synods undoubtedly constitute high points in the life of the universal Church and are very impressive due to the significant presence of numerous bishops from around the world (as well as that of elected representatives/superiors of major religious orders) and the active participation of theologians (periti) and lay experts (so-called "listeners"), this does not mean that we should consider the present Synod on the Family a Third Vatican Council. While doing so would make great headlines for the media, it does not reflect the intention of Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers whom he has summoned to Rome on this special occasion for the simple reason that, theologically and canonically, it is not an ecumenical council: It is a consultative body, pure and simple, with the first post-Vatican II synod being convoked by Pope Paul VI in 1967.
If one is looking for a Third Vatican Council, one may very well have to look for it to take place in another lifetime.
For now, at least, as the saying goes, "all bets are off," and we, as faithful members of the Church – "cum Petro et sub Petro" ("with Peter and under Peter") – must implore the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide the work of the Synod Fathers, that He may bring to completion the good work that He has begun in and through them, so that we may all more fully comprehend "the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world."