Friday, May 1, 2009

Who Speaks for the Bishops?

The phone rings, and the reporter on the other end of the line asks, "Why is this other bishop quoted in the release you just put out? Isn't Cardinal George the president of the USCCB?"

What typically follows is a technical explanation of how, per the structure of the USCCB, different bishops serve as the chairmen of different committees that deal primarily with certain issues of importance to the Catholic Church. Bishop-chairmen are elected to three-year terms by their brother bishops, during which time they are the leading U.S. Church voices on any of a number of issues.

So it follows that Bishop John C. Wester, chairman of the migration committee, is the designated spokesman in a statement on immigration, or that Cardinal Justin Rigali, chair of Pro-Life Activities, is responsible for the statements on abortion and stem cells.

But then matters do arise where it's appropriate to have Cardinal George himself speak for the U.S. bishops as their president. This could be an urgent matter where a voice needs to speak out at the highest level for the Church in the United States, or a case where the USCCB wants to give special weight and priority to a particular issue.

In some cases, it's appropriate to have a USCCB staff member speak out. For instance, Richard Doerflinger from Pro-Life Activities is more knowledgeable on the issue of stem cell research than many, lay or ordained, in the U.S. Church.

This question of who speaks for whom and when highlights a foundational issue for the Catholic Church: teaching authority. The Church is always teaching as it engages the world. But when multiple voices are speaking and teaching, the issue of authority comes up. Authority is, to an extent, about jurisdiction. A pastor teaches and preaches on the parish level, but a diocesan bishop is the ultimate authority in his diocese. And the bishop of Rome, the pope, holds universal teaching authority for the entire Church.

Missing from this ancient model, one might notice, is the national level. And this suggests one reason why, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church recommended the formation of national conferences of Catholic bishops. In short, the Church needs a structure, an apparatus for exercising and expressing its teaching on the national level. There is no "American pope" or "national bishop" (though some would point to New York, the media capital of the world).

How the church speaks nationally is also influenced by another Vatican II theme: collegiality, or collaboration in the governance of the Church. The USCCB is a working example of collegiality, evidenced by the array of voices one can find in its statements, documents and news releases.

"The Catholic Church is not a democracy," goes the common saying, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of cooperation and consultation at work. As a priest friend of mine says, "It has little bits of democracy sprinkled throughout." Whether it's the conclave to elect a pope, a parish council voting to recommend a new church building, or the U.S. bishops electing their brother bishops to speak on the national level for a given time on an appointed topic, the Catholic Church presents a model that some compare to cooperating parts of a body. Others would use words like community, or better, communion.


SallyO said...

Great blog entry, Don!

Justin said...

Excellent post!

Kurt said...

There is no "American pope" or "national bishop" (though some would point to New York, the media capital of the world).Well! SOME would point to Chicago. Mundelein, Meyer, Stritch, Bernardin, George. The traditional leader of Catholic thinking on liturgy, pastoral practice, social concerns and a city that better incorporates Polish, German, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Slovak, Bohemian, Croatian, Assyrian and Belarussian communities in addition to the Irish and Italians dominant in NYC.

And besides, Chicago is a larger archdiocese than New York.