I am very grateful for the Pastoral Letters issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines with certain regularity, touching on the varied issues affecting Philippine society. Almost always, they deal with matters of morals or discipline—e.g., guidelines for the faithful in exercising their right to vote, the ethical dimensions of the Reproductive Right Bill, etc. However, I almost never read of pronouncements of a doctrinal nature. At times, I am at a loss on certain matters of Catholic doctrine—e.g., whether or not the doctrine of Humanae Vitae against contraception is infallible, or whether I should take as truth the teachings of the theology professors in a Catholic university—and I would then wish the CBCP were more forthright in declaring certain things as Catholic doctrine. Is there any reason why the Bishops are so sparing in such pronouncements?
The Teaching Office of the Episcopal Conference
The above question was clarified in a Letter, dated 13.V.1999 sent by the Congregation for Bishops−although prepared in collaboration with the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts−to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences. That Letter, in turn, was issued after several consultation from Episcopal Conferences regarding the Motu Proprio, Apostolos suos (AS)−On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences−which was issued by John Paul II on 21.V.1998.
In the aforementioned Letter, the Holy See laid down quite stringent provisions for the exercise of the teaching office by the Episcopal Conferences. Following are extensive quotations, which are sufficiently clear and concise, as to need only very brief commentaries (the numbers correspond to the original articulation of the Letter, for ease of reference).
“These indications−as the document states− pertain especially to the object of doctrinal declarations, which have authentic magisterial character and to the procedure for their approval.”
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” (AS, n.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” (AS, n.21).
In the light of the Motu Proprio Ad tuendam fidem (18.V.1998, nn.2 3), 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.
From the foregoing it is clear that the mind of the Holy See is that doctrinal declarations of the Episcopal Conferences for the most part consist in quoting or reiterating existing Church doctrine−i.e., without need for voting new formulations. This would explain the rarity of doctrinal pronouncements of the CBCP. This tendency is further bolstered by another provision for a reduction of documents emanating from Episcopal Commissions:
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.
Care in the Preparation of Doctrinal Declarations
The Letter then proceeded to provide for the care in which doctrinal declarations should be prepared in the Episcopal Conference−not only in their redaction, but also in the requirement for unanimity in the Episcopal Conference for a given doctrine to be considered authentic magisteriu, or the necessary recognitio from the Holy See in the absence of such unanimity.
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. CIC, c.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 AS, n.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 the Oriental Churches.
To sum up, even if the primary task of the Bishops is to teach, this is a task that pertains to the individual Bishop and toward his proper flock. The CBCP really has very little leeway to come up with doctrinal declarations of its own−other than reiterate already existing Church doctrine.