Opposition Grows to Power for Bishops’ Conferences

66th General Congregation
November 13, 1963

With the council speech of Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, which opposed giving juridical powers to national conferences of bishops, all four U.S. cardinals present in Rome had spoken on the issue.

Earlier James Francis Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles had also opposed the idea, Joseph Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis favored it, and Albert Cardinal Meyer of Chicago favored it within certain limits. Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston is not in Rome.

Cardinal Spellman was high in his praise of the usefulness of national episcopal conferences but expressed his belief that it would not be advisable to give them authority to issue decisions which would be juridically binding on all individual bishops. He spoke as the council continued discussion of the schema on bishops and diocesan government. He said:

“Each bishop must remain free in his diocese, even though he be morally bound to cooperate with other bishops for matters going beyond the limits of his own diocese.

“We should leave to plenary councils under the presidency of an apostolic legate the right to put juridical obligations on individual bishops. If national conferences, which are not under the presidency of papal legates, had this power, then they would have more authority than plenary councils, and this is contrary to the whole of ecclesiastical tradition.”

If the opinions expressed on the council floor were any measure, opposition to giving juridical power to national conferences seemed to be gaining ground. Of the four speakers at this meeting who discussed the question directly, all were opposed. Besides Cardinal Spellman, they were Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne, Germany; Archbishop Marcelino Olaechea Loizaga of Valencia, Spain; and Bishop Lawrence Bianchi of Hong Kong.

After a brief review of the successful history of the National Episcopal Conference of Germany, Cardinal Frings said: “It is better for the decrees of the conference not to have juridical binding force.”

“In the activities of national conferences,” said Archbishop Olaechea, “care must be taken to forestall the rise of national churches, as also the danger of government by episcopal oligarchy. It is equally important to safeguard in all details the right of appeal to the Roman pontiff.”

Bishop Bianchi suggested that the text of the schema specify “that the decisions of national conferences have only consultative value, except when they have been reached with strict unanimity and have been approved by the Holy See. … Individual bishops should be answerable only to the Holy See.”

Archbishop Emile Guerry of Cambrai, France, a recognized scholar on the subject of the powers of bishops, said that the real foundation for national conferences is in the “principle of communion.”

“By virtue of this principle,” he explained, “all individual churches collaborate with the sovereign pontiff in communion with each other. This principle is very ancient and was symbolized by the sending of the Eucharist to other churches.

“We should determine what is divine and ecclesiastical law in this question. The conferences themselves are of ecclesiastical law. The elements of divine law are in the primacy of the Roman pontiff, the existence of the Apostolic College and the relations between this college and the successor of Peter in the evangelizing mission of the Church to the entire world.”

The issue of auxiliary bishops was raised again by Auxiliary Bishop Gerald V. McDevitt of Philadelphia, who objected to the text’s use of the term “merely” when referring to titular bishops. He said:

“The council has made its mind clear that episcopal consecration incorporates a man into the episcopal college and gives him the fullness of episcopal powers. The present text says that ‘merely’ titular bishops can be called to take part in a national conference and be given either a deliberative or consultative vote. The text would be much more logical if it stated that all titular bishops filling some office in a country, such as auxiliaries and coadjutors, are automatically members of the national conference with the same right of suffrage as in an ecumenical council.”

(In the U.S. all bishops, residential and titular, are voting members of the national episcopal conference. The only distinction made is that only by rare exception is a titular bishop ever elected to the administrative board of the National Catholic Welfare Conference.)

At the U.S. bishops’ press panel, Bishop McDevitt said his idea was that auxiliary bishops should have a “presumptive deliberative” vote. That is, he said, it should be presumed that they have a vote in the national conferences unless in certain cases the Ordinaries wish to exclude auxiliaries on certain questions. He gave as an example an allotment of funds, which touches Ordinaries only.

He said he finds it inconsistent that many bishops who are eager to give the pope the help of the college of bishops are known to be not at all eager to have the help of their auxiliaries when it comes to the running of their own dioceses.

Asked about his own titular diocese, Bishop McDevitt told the journalists that it is in the Sahara Desert and that he has been told by another bishop who visited there that it consists of about four goats.

Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni, Italy, maintained that the collegiality of the bishops cannot be used as a foundation for national episcopal conferences, particularly because “collegiality has not been fully discussed, and consequently not completely approved.”

Auxiliary Bishop Alfred Ancel of Lyons, France, rose immediately after him to state the opposite. The Bishop declared: “Collegiality, not in the universal but in the territorial sense, finds expression in national episcopal conferences.”

Objection to the use of the word “national” in speaking of episcopal conferences was voiced by Bishop Antonio Pildain y Zapiain of the Canary Islands. He said that it is “equivocal, suspect and not ecclesiastical.” With an apparent reference to the Iron Curtain countries, Bishop Pildain further observed:

“At a time when outside enemies are plotting against the authority of our bishops, the council should not lend them a helping hand by restricting and limiting the powers of our bishops. This is why the decisions of national episcopal conferences should have no juridical binding force.”

Bishop Jose Dammert Bellido of Cajamarca, Peru, objected that the schema “is defective because first, it does not sufficiently safeguard the authority of individual bishops, and secondly, it does not confer sufficient authority on national conferences.”

The often-repeated complaint that the council is too Western in tone was heard from Armenian Rite Bishop Garabed Amadouni, Apostolic Visitor for Armenian Rite Catholics in France. He said: “National conferences as here outlined are not applicable to the Oriental churches, where dioceses exist on the basis of rites, not nations or other geographical divisions.”

Archbishop Luis Munoyerro, Military Vicar for Spain, suggested that episcopal conferences should also exist on the provincial level.

Contacts between national conferences should be encouraged, Bishop Guy Riobe of Orleans, France, said, because it would promote “the presence of the Universal Church” in a particular locality.

Three bishops, supported by five others, took advantage of the rule which allowed them to speak on an already closed subject. In this case it was on Chapter II of the schema, which deals with the compulsory retirement of bishops.

Archbishop Joseph Fernandez of Delhi said:

“The discussion of obligatory retirement for bishops should be both more realistic and more idealistic. More realistic because the text should not omit consideration of the material aspects inseparable from retirement from active service. … In order to promote a greater spirit of idealism, no reference should be made to the retention of honors or privileges.”

Bishop Joseph Busimba of Coma, the Congo, speaking in the name of 10 Congolese bishops, urged that “more African candidates should be advanced to the government of dioceses lest the impression be given that the Church lacks confidence in her African children.”

Bishop Giuseppe Melas of Nuoro, Italy, suggested that the retirement age for bishops should be 80 instead of 75.

It was announced by the presiding moderator, Julius Cardinal Doepfner of Munich and Freising, Germany, that upon completion of the present schema the next schema to be discussed will be the one on ecumenism.

Msgr. James I. Tucek
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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One Response to Opposition Grows to Power for Bishops’ Conferences

  1. Helen McDevitt-Smith says:

    It is a delight for me to read today’s “Vatican II: 50 Years Ago Today”. Bishop McDevitt was my uncle.

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