Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln said the obvious this week at the annual Fall meeting of the American Bishops. Episcopal Conferences have no magisterial teaching authority unless it is a unanimous statement of the entire conference OR a majority of bishops approve a document AND it subsequently receives recognitio from the Holy See. This clarification came from Pope John Paul the Great in 1997's Apostolos Suos.
The Holy Father wrote that the true purpose of an episcopal conference "requires that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary Sessions be avoided." He went on to say that "commissions and offices exist to be of help to bishops and not to substitute for them." Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, explained this document at a Vatican press conference attended by several senior curial officials: "Episcopal conferences do not constitute per se a doctrinal instance which is binding and superior to the authority of each bishop who comprises them."
B16 said, "if doctrinal declarations emanating from a conference are approved unanimously by the bishops, they can be published in the name of the conference itself, and the faithful must adhere" to them. "If this unanimity is lacking, a qualified majority alone of the bishops of a conference cannot publish the eventual declaration as authentic magisterium of the same (body) ... unless such a document approved by a qualified majority obtains the 'recognitio' of the Holy See."
One major problem is that truth is not defined by consensus. When the majority of the world believed the earth was flat, that did not make it so. Likewise, wheen the USCCB issued a brochure a few years ago (2003) on marriage, the final document approved by the majority of bishops never once used the words "sin", "sinful" or "evil" to describe same-sex unions, homosexual 'marriages' or even homosexual activity. The only line in the entire piece that uses an ethical judgment is found in section six: "Christians must ... oppose as immoral both homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons."
The recent document "Married Love and the Gift of Life" is another example. The words "sin", "sinful" or "evil" never appear in the document. Only ONCE is found in the text: "contraception is objectively immoral" Cohabitation is not overtly condemned nor is fornication and invalid marriages are never mentioned at all.
“Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper” lists sins which if not confessed prevent someone from receiving Holy Communion:
• Believing in or honoring as divine anyone or anything other than the God of the Holy Scriptures
• Swearing a false oath while invoking God as a witness
• Failing to worship God by missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation
without a serious reason, such as sickness or the absence of a priest
• Acting in serious disobedience against proper authority; dishonoring one’s parents by neglecting them in their need and infirmity
• Committing murder, including abortion and euthanasia; harboring deliberate hatred of others; sexual abuse of another, especially of a minor or vulnerable adult; physical or verbal abuse of others that causes grave physical or psychological harm
• Engaging in sexual activity outside the bonds of a valid marriage
• Stealing in a gravely injurious way, such as robbery, burglary, serious fraud, or other immoral business practices
• Speaking maliciously or slandering people in a way that seriously undermines their
• Producing, marketing, or indulging in pornography
• Engaging in envy that leads one to wish grave harm to someone else
The bishops voted NOT to include artificial contraception even between married persons as another example of mortal sin which would prevent someone from worthily receive Holy Communion. Furthermore, the public scandal of a notorious supporter of abortion, especially a politician, casually coming forward and being given Holy Communion in a Catholic Church by an authorized minister, is avoided and not mentioned in the text. The official response to such situations by priests, deacons or extranordinary ministers of Holy Communion is NOT stated at all.
When consensus is sought, truth is often softened, diluted and influenced by popularity. As Bishop Bruskewitz reminded his brethren, these documents are not Magisterial and do not enjoy that level of teaching authority. The Catechism, however, is an official Magisterial document and the teachings contained in it are infallible (mostly ordinary magisterium with a few coming from the extraordinary magisterium). More episcopal statements are not needed, merely more emphasis and implementation of what is already contained in the Catechism, in the Code of Canon Law, in the Roman Missal and in the Natural Moral Law.