By Cindy Wooden Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Specifically citing the teaching of more than a dozen bishops’ conferences and councils in his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis not only demonstrates how the theme is a matter of concern to Catholic leaders worldwide, but he also makes their teaching part of his own.
Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis repeatedly has spoken of the need for the Catholic Church to find more concrete ways to give expression to the “collegiality” of the College of Bishops and to learn true “synodality.”
Collegiality refers to the shared responsibility for the teaching, sanctification and governance of the church exercised by the whole college of bishops headed by the pope. Synodality refers to the process by which the pope and the bishops gathered together discuss and discern appropriate pastoral projects and ways of communicating the faith.
“Laudato Si’,” the environmental encyclical released June 18, not only refers to statements of bishops’ conferences in the footnotes, it incorporates their teaching into the main text.
Emphasizing the teaching of bishops’ conferences is part of “a tidal wave of change — not exploring new ground, but recapturing the high ground held before everyone got scared in the mid-1980s,” said Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, who served at the U.S. bishops’ conference from 1984 to 1995.
“The limitation of the power and teaching authority of episcopal conferences” began after the U.S. bishops’ issued their pastoral letter on peace in 1983 and began working on a pastoral letter on the economy, the bishop told Catholic News Service June 18 in a telephone interview.
Some Curia officials and a few U.S. bishops, he said, thought the bishops’ conference “was getting too strong on the world stage” and several raised not just practical, but theological questions about the place of a bishops’ conference in the church’s hierarchy and how conferences could diminish the role and authority of an individual bishop.
“My take, and I think Pope Francis agrees, is that the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI viewed episcopal collegiality in bishops’ conferences as not being over a bishop in his diocese, but as being a real exercise of collegiality on issues of concern to their nation or region,” Bishop Lynch said.
Work done by the episcopal conferences of Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa and the United States is quoted in “Laudato Si’.” The pope also draws from the work of the Latin American bishops’ council, known as CELAM, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and Argentina’s Patagonia-Comahue regional bishops’ conference.
Citing the work of bishops’ conferences — even just in the footnotes — was a rarity in formal papal documents until Pope Francis was elected.
Then, in his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis mentioned the statements of six bishops’ conferences: the United States, France, Brazil, the Philippines, Congo and India. He also drew heavily on the work of CELAM, particularly its Aparecida Document, which — as archbishop of Buenos Aires — he was in charge of drafting.
The citations were a concrete sign of the collaboration he said is essential to his ministry as pope.
In the exhortation, published in late 2013, he wrote, “Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding ‘a way of exercising the (papal) primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.’ We have made little progress in this regard.”
The Second Vatican Council affirmed that “episcopal conferences are in a position ‘to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit,'” Pope Francis wrote. “Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.”
In 1998, St. John Paul II issued a decree, “Apostolos Suos,” praising bishops’ conferences as an expression of a “collegial spirit,” which is sometimes described as “affective collegiality.” However, the decree in effect limited the role and importance of bishops’ conferences. It said, conferences could issue statements on doctrinal issues only if they were approved unanimously by the members of the conference; however, if at least two-thirds of the voting members approved a statement, it could be submitted to the Vatican, which could give permission for publication.
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