Many Catholics and others don’t know what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is or what authority it has within the Catholic Church.
To know what authority and structure the USCCB has you must read the Code of Canon Law 447-459 (click here.) Better yet, buy a copy of Code of Canon Law Annotated, 1993, “Red Code” (click here) (pictured upper left.) Further, you must read Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Apostolos Suos: On The Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences (click here.) Dated May 21, 1998.
Apostolos Suos made clarifications and adjustments to the canon law relating to Bishops’ Conferences (Episcopal Conferences) and Pope John Paul II stated this fact in its 24th paragraph.
In an effort to help more understand what authority and structure the USCCB has, five questions are posed in this post and then answered below using the Code of Canon Law and Apostolos Suos.
Note: The Code of Canon Law excerpts used in this article are from the Vatican website. The Vatican website’s Canon Law translation is slightly different than the translation from the Code of Canon Law Annotated, 1993, “Red Code.” Additionally, the Vatican website’s Canon Law does not include commentary while the Code of Canon Law Annotated, 1993, “Red Code” does include commentary. The commentary is very important.
- What is the USCCB? See Code of Canon Law 447: “A conference of bishops, a permanent institution, is a group of bishops of some nation or certain territory who jointly exercise certain pastoral functions… according to the norm of law.”
- Who are eligible to be members of the USCCB? See Code of Canon Law 448 §1: “As a general rule, a conference of bishops includes those who preside over all the particular churches of the same nation, according to the norm of Can. 450.” See Code of Canon Law 450 §1: “To a conference of bishops belong by the law itself all diocesan bishops in the territory, those equivalent to them in law, coadjutor bishops, auxiliary bishops, and other titular bishops…”
- Who has authority over the USCCB? See Code of Canon Law 449 §1: “It is only for the supreme authority of the Church to erect, suppress, or alter conferences of bishops…” And See Apostolos Suos paragraph 20: “In the Episcopal Conference the Bishops jointly exercise the episcopal ministry for the good of the faithful of the territory of the Conference; but, for that exercise to be legitimate and binding on the individual Bishops, there is needed the intervention of the supreme authority of the Church…“
- Can the USCCB, its officers, committees or staff carry out acts of authentic magisterium? See Code of Canon Law 455 §4: “… to a conference of bishops, the competence of each diocesan bishop remains intact, nor is a conference or its president able to act in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given consent.” And Code of Canon Law 456: “When a plenary meeting of a conference of bishops has ended, the president is to send a report of the acts of the conference and its decrees to the Apostolic See so that the acts are brought to its notice and it can review the decrees…” And reiterated in Apostolos Suos paragraph 20: “…the competence of individual diocesan Bishops remains intact; and neither the Conference nor its president may act in the name of all the Bishops unless each and every Bishop has given his consent.” And see Apostolos Suos paragraph 23: “…when they exercise it jointly through the Episcopal Conference, this be done in the plenary assembly. Smaller bodies —the permanent council, a commission or other 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.”
- When can the USCCB issue an act of authentic magisterium? See Code of Canon Law 455 §1: “A conference of bishops can only issue general decrees in cases where universal law has prescribed it or a special mandate of the Apostolic See has established it either motu proprio or at the request of the conference itself. §2. The decrees mentioned in §1, in order to be enacted validly in a plenary meeting, must be passed by at least a two thirds vote of the prelates who belong to the conference and possess a deliberative vote. They do not obtain binding force unless they have been legitimately promulgated after having been reviewed by the Apostolic See.” And clarified in Apostolos Suos paragraph 22: “In dealing with new questions and in acting so that the message of Christ enlightens and guides people’s consciences in resolving new problems arising from changes in society, the Bishops assembled in the Episcopal Conference and jointly exercizing their teaching office are well aware of the limits of their pronouncements. While being official and authentic and in communion with the Apostolic See, these pronouncements do not have the characteristics of a universal magisterium. For this reason the Bishops are to be careful to avoid interfering with the doctrinal work of the Bishops of other territories, bearing in mind the wider, even world-wide, resonance which the means of social communication give to the events of a particular region. Taking into account that the authentic magisterium of the Bishops, namely what they teach insofar as they are invested with the authority of Christ, must always be in communion with the Head of the College and its members, when the doctrinal declarations of Episcopal Conferences are approved unanimously, they may certainly be issued in the name of the Conferences themselves, and the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic magisterium of their own Bishops. However, if this unanimity is lacking, a majority alone of the Bishops of a Conference cannot issue a declaration as authentic teaching of the Conference to which all the faithful of the territory would have to adhere, unless it obtains the recognitio of the Apostolic See, which will not give it if the majority requesting it is not substantial…“
O Holy Spirit, strengthen us to defend all that is holy.
Peter L. Hodges Sr.