One of the more important contributions of the Second Vatican Council to the organization of church life and mission was the decision to make conferences of bishops mandatory through the Latin church. A similar synodal organism exists for the Eastern Catholic churches.
Some conferences had existed before the Second Vatican Council. It is generally considered that the first recognized one was established in Belgium. In the U.S., after the First World War, the National Catholic Welfare Council was established as an organism of the American bishops (1919).
In Canada, after the Plenary Council of Quebec, 1909, the bishops of the country began meeting together every five years. Then, after the Second World War, they established the Canadian Catholic Conference which evolved into the present-day Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Definitively approved in 1955, it was one of the first conferences formally established in the church.
The Second Vatican Council’s idea of the conference was that it would become a practical expression of episcopal collegiality, on a more local level. Full episcopal collegiality is expressed in the ecumenical council.
During the Second Vatican Council years, the bishops of various countries had indeed begun to work together on statements and proposals, and so the base was laid for a permanent structure to enable them to continue to experience the advantages of working together.
Most conferences of bishops are national, although some of them group a number of smaller countries. On the other hand, there can be more than one conference in some of the larger countries. For instance, in the United Kingdom, there is the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales, the Conference of Bishops of Scotland, and the Irish Episcopal Conference, this latter covering the dioceses both in the North and in the Republic. In the U.S., there is a separate conference of bishops for Puerto Rico; also, some of the dioceses situated in U.S. territories (Guam, Marshall Islands, etc.) belong to other conferences.
In Canada, bishops belonging to the Eastern Catholic churches are members of the CCCB, but with special provisions for voting on matters that concern the Latin church directly (especially conerning liturgical questions).
Where they were established and functioning, the various conferences played a significant role in the elaboration of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. As the various drafts were prepared by the commission, they were sent to the conferences for their observations. In Canada, a very well organized system was set up, particularly with the assistance of the Canadian Canon Law Society, to provide responses that were well received in Rome. Indeed, a large number of the proposals presented by the Canadian conference were integrated into the current legislation.
As such, the conference is not a legislative body (this is the function of a plenary or a provincial council, or a diocesan synod). However, there are a number of instances where the popes have given the conferences the authority to pass decrees which are then binding on all the bishops of the territory. The Canadian bishops have availed themselves of almost all the possibilities foreseen in the Code of Canon Law, thus setting up a body of particular law applicable in the country.
If a conference wants to legislate in matters not foreseen by the code, a special permission is required from the Holy See. Such was the case in the U.S. when the bishops wanted to pass special legislation to deal with clerical sexual abuse of minors. The Canadian bishops opted for another approach, particularly in view of the fact that provincial legislation relative to reporting cases of abuses varied from province to province. Instead, in From Pain to Hope, and in its subsequent revisions, they left it to each diocesan bishop to promulgate the law in his own diocese.
One particular area of concern that arose in the years following the Second Vatican Council was whether the conference could exercise a teaching authority binding on all Catholics in the territory. A number of examples of joint pastoral letters were found in the early years. However, Pope John Paul II, in his motu proprio of May 21, 1998, Apostolos suos, decided to restrict this teaching role in order to protect the authority of individual bishops.
This decision, unfortunately, led to the fact that, in many instances, conferences have now become somewhat irrelevant. They can issue appeals and make statements, but do not have binding authority (except for those legal matters mentioned above).
One important activity in Canada still is the co-ordination of statements to be made in the various synods of bishops on behalf of the conference. Nevertheless, the original zeal and enthusiasm is no longer as visible. In Canada, for instance, much more emphasis has been placed in recent years on the regional groupings of bishops, where matters of more local or regional concern are addressed by those who are directly concerned.
Perhaps, some day, we can find a happy balance, allowing for a more unified approach among Catholics within the various countries.
The possibilities for communal and joint action exist. It is up to each conference to exploit the various openings found in the church’s legislation and continue to provide strong leadership and guidance for the faithful in their territory.
Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 35th article in a series.