Congregation for Bishops, Circular Letter on the Doctrinal Declarations of Episcopal Conferences, 21 June 1999.
The Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples have been asked by several episcopal conferences from their respective territories to provide material that might prove useful for the revision of their statutes in accordance with the motu proprio Apostolos Suos of May 21, 1998, on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences (cf. Article 4, Complementary Norms).
In response, the aforementioned congregations offer the following indications in a spirit of fraternal service. They are the fruit of a careful study conducted in collaboration with the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Oriental Churches and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts.
These indications pertain especially to the object of doctrinal declarations which have authentic magisterial character and to the procedure for their approval. They also concern some other matters touching on the composition and functioning of episcopal conferences.
1. Doctrinal declarations may be submitted to a vote of the bishops gathered at conference when it is retained that it is necessary to deal “with new questions and (to act) so that the message of Christ enlightens and guides people’s conscience in resolving new problems arising from changes in society” (Apostolos Suos, 22). If duly approved, such declarations constitute “authentic magisterium.”
In the exercise of their conjoint ministry, the bishops should be aware that the doctrine of the church forms part of the patrimony of the entire people of God and is the bond of its communion. Thus, they “must take special care to follow the magisterium of the universal church and to
communicate it opportunely to the people entrusted to them” (Apostolos Suos, 21).
In the light of the motu proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem (May 18, 1998, Nos. 23), therefore, doctrinal declarations or parts of them may not be submitted to a vote of the conference if they reproduce teaching “contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in tradition, which the church, either by a solemn judgment or by ordinary universal magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.” Likewise, neither “teaching concerning faith or morals definitively proposed by the church” nor “teaching enunciated by the Roman pontiff or the college of bishops when they exercise their authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim such teachings by a definitive act” may be voted on. Such teachings or parts of them may be quoted in any document of the episcopal conference or commissions without, however, voting on them.
2. By their very nature, doctrinal declarations issued by episcopal conferences differ from the general decrees of the same conferences. In view of this, from a redactional viewpoint it is important that a specific article of the statutes of conferences be devoted to doctrinal declarations. General decrees should be addressed in a separate article of the statutes, since the procedure for their approval (cf. Code of Canon Law, Canon 455.2) differs from that to be employed for the approval of doctrinal declarations.
3. With regard to the approval of doctrinal declarations, in accordance with Apostolos Suos, No. 22, the following formula is proposed for insertion into the statutes of each episcopal conference:
“In order to constitute authentic magisterium and be published in the name of the conference, doctrinal declarations must be approved in the plenary assembly by unanimous vote of the bishop members, or by a majority of at least two-thirds of the bishops holding a deliberative vote. In the latter case, the recognitio of the Holy See must precede promulgation.”
4. Within their respective territories, the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples are competent to concede the recognitio of the Holy See for doctrinal declarations produced by an episcopal conference. The texts of authentic declarations
are to be sent to the aforementioned dicasteries, which will provide for the concession of the recognitio, having consulted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. In the case of episcopal conferences whose statutes number Oriental rite bishops among their members with a deliberative vote, the dicastery competent for the concession of the recognitio will also hear the opinion of the Congregation for Oriental Churches.
5. The present universal discipline and the specific norms for doctrinal declarations (Apostolos Suos, 22) do not provide for magisterial acts or for legislative acts placed by the conjoint action of several conferences or by international meetings of conferences. To be considered authentic, therefore, a magisterial act can only be placed by a single conference. Should it become necessary for several conferences to act in solidum, such must be authorized by the Holy See, which will stipulate the necessary norms to be observed in each case.
6. Given the nature of the episcopal conference, a member may not delegate his proper functions to another (cf. Apostolos Suos, 17). Considering, however, that some conferences are comprised of a small number of members, by way of exception to the foregoing disposition, the statutes can provide for delegation to a bishop member of the conference or to a vicar general of a diocese, permitting him only to transmit the mind of the delegating bishop. Hence, a delegate does not have the right to vote in the name of the delegating bishop in matters pertaining to binding norms of a legislative nature or doctrinal declarations.
7. When the president and vice president of the conference, who are chosen from among diocesan bishops (Apostolos Suos, 17), cease to exercise the office of diocesan bishop, their respective presidency and vice presidency of the conference lapse from the day of the publication of the acceptance of their resignation by the Roman pontiff.
8. Article 18 of the motu proprio Apostolos Suos recommends avoiding bureaucracy in the offices of the conference. In this respect it is recommended not to replicate at conference level that organization which is prescribed by universal legislation for curias and for other diocesan organs
where all the people of God, taking into account their proper ecclesial condition, may and should cooperate in fulfilling the church’s mission.
9. The permanent commissions of the episcopal conference and those constituted ad hoc and denominated episcopal are to be constituted only by bishop members of the conference or by those equiparate to them in law (cf. Canon 381.2). In the case of a conference constituted by a small number of bishops which is insufficient to form commissions, other organs may be foreseen (councils, committees, etc.). With a bishop presiding, such may be formed of priests, consecrated persons and members of the laity. They may not, however, be denominated episcopal.
10. A reduction in the number of documents emanating from the episcopal commissions is desirable so as to avoid an excessive proliferation of documents and those difficulties, experienced in many places, in ascertaining the degree of authority with which such documents are invested.
11. As indicated in Article 17 of the motu proprio Apostolos Suos and by the norms of In Vita Ecclesiae de Episcopis ab Officio Cessantibus, Oct. 31, 1988, it is good that conferences esteem the presence of retired bishops, recognize their consultative vote in the episcopal assembly, have them participate in some of the study commissions and bear in mind their pastoral experience and competence.
12. By exception and in special circumstances, those who are not members of the episcopal conference may address some sessions of the plenary assembly of the conference or its commissions, but only with a consultative vote (cf. authentic interpretation of the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council, 1970, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 62 (1970), p. 793).
In conclusion, I should be grateful were it possible for your episcopal conference to proceed to a revision of its statutes within a reasonable time scale, taking into account the foregoing observations and suggestions, which are intended to facilitate a more profitable discharge of its functions.
Please be assured of my sentiments of fraternal esteem and my prayer that your work in the service of the particular churches will continue to be fruitful as I remain,
Yours sincerely in Christ,
Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves
AAS 91 (1999): 996-999; Comm, 31 (1999): 34-37; Origins 29 (1999-2000): 113-114.