John Paul II 24

Ad Tuendam Fidem

by John Paul II

Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio by which certain norms are inserted into the Code of Canon Law and into the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

TO PROTECT THE FAITH of the Catholic Church against errors arising from certain members of the Christian faithful, especially from among those dedicated to the various disciplines of sacred theology, we, whose principal duty is to confirm the brethren in the faith (Lc 22,32), consider it absolutely necessary to add to the existing texts of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church, and which also establish related canonical sanctions.

1. From the first centuries to the present day, the Church has professed the truths of her faith in Christ and the mystery of his redemption. These truths were subsequently gathered into the Symbols of the faith, today known and proclaimed in common by the faithful in the solemn and festive celebration of Mass as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

This same Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is contained in the Profession of faith developed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (1 )which must be made by specific members of the faithful when they receive an office, that is directly or indirectly related to deeper investigation into the truths of faith and morals, or is united to a particular power in the governance of the Church. (2 )

2. The Profession of faith, which appropriately begins with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, contains three propositions or paragraphs intended to describe the truths of the Catholic faith, which the Church, in the course of time and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit «who will teach the whole truth» (Jn 16,13), has ever more deeply explored and will continue to explore. (3 )

The first paragraph states: «With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.» (4 )This paragraph appropriately confirms and is provided for in the Church’s universal legislation, in canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law (5 ) and canon 598 of the Code of the Canons of the Eastern Churches. (6 )

The third paragraph states: «Moreover I adhere with submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.» (7 ) This paragraph has its corresponding legislative expression in canon 752 of the Code of Canon Law (8 ) and canon 599 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. (9 )

3. The second paragraph, however, which states «I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals», (10 ) has no corresponding canon in the Codes of the Catholic Church. This second paragraph of the Profession of faith is of utmost importance since it refers to truths that are necessarily connected to divine revelation. These truths, in the investigation of Catholic doctrine, illustrate the Divine Spirit’s particular inspiration for the Church’s deeper understanding of a truth concerning faith and morals, with which they are connected either for historical reasons or by a logical relationship.

4. Moved therefore by this need, and after careful deliberation, we have decided to overcome this lacuna in the universal law in the following way:

A) Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law will now consist of two paragraphs; the first will present the text of the existing canon; the second will contain a new text. Thus, canon 750, in its complete form, will read:

Canon 750 -- § 1. Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.

§ 2. Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Canon 1371, n. 1 of the Code of Canon Law, consequently, will receive an appropriate reference to canon 750 § 2, so that it will now read:

Canon 1371 -- The following are to be punished with a just penalty:

1° a person who, apart from the case mentioned in canon 1364 § 1, teaches a doctrine condemned by the Roman Pontiff, or by an Ecumenical Council, or obstinately rejects the teachings mentioned in canon 750 § 2 or in canon 752 and, when warned by the Apostolic See or by the Ordinary, does not retract;

2° a person who in any other way does not obey the lawful command or prohibition of the Apostolic See or the Ordinary or Superior and, after being warned, persists in disobedience.

B) Canon 598 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches will now have two paragraphs: the first will present the text of the existing canon and the second will contain a new text. Thus canon 598, in its complete form, will read as follows:

Canon 598 -- § 1. Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All Christian faithful are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.

§ 2. Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Canon 1436 § 2 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, consequently, will receive an appropriate reference to canon 598 § 2, so that it will now read:

Canon 1436 -- § 1. Whoever denies a truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or who calls into doubt, or who totally repudiates the Christian faith, and does not retract after having been legitimately warned, is to be punished as a heretic or an apostate with a major excommunication; a cleric moreover can be punished with other penalties, not excluding deposition.

§ 2. In addition to these cases, whoever obstinately rejects a teaching that the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops, exercising the authentic Magisterium, have set forth to be held definitively, or who affirms what they have condemned as erroneous, and does not retract after having been legitimately warned, is to be punished with an appropriate penalty.

5. We order that everything decreed by us in this Apostolic Letter, given motu proprio, be established and ratified, and we prescribe that the insertions listed above be introduced into the universal legislation of the Catholic Church, that is, into the Code of Canon Law and into the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, all things to the contrary notwithstanding.

Given in Rome, at St Peter’s, on 28 May, in the year 1998, the twentieth of our Pontificate.

Apostolos Suos

On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences

Apostolic Letter Issued Motu Proprio

by His Holiness Pope John Paul II
1. The Lord Jesus constituted the Apostles «in the form of a
college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter,
chosen from amongst them» . (2 ) The Apostles were not chosen and sent
by Jesus independently of one another, but rather as part of the group of
the Twelve, as the Gospels make clear by the repeatedly used
expression, «one of the Twelve» . (3 ) To all of them together the
Lord entrusted the mission of preaching the Kingdom of God, (4 ) and they
were sent by him, not individually, but two by two. (5 ) At the Last Supper
Jesus prayed to the Father for the unity of the Apostles and of those who
through their word would believe in him. (6 ) After his Resurrection and
before the Ascension, the Lord reconfirmed Peter in the supreme pastoral
office (7 ) and entrusted to the Apostles the same mission which he had
himself received from the Father. (8 ) With the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the
Apostolic College showed itself filled with the new vitality which comes
from the Paraclete. Peter, «standing with the Eleven» , (9 ) speaks
to the crowd and baptizes a large number of believers; the first community
appears united in listening to the teaching of the Apostles (10 ) and
accepts their decision in relation to pastoral problems. (11 ) It was to the
Apostles who had remained in Jerusalem that Paul turned in order to ensure
his communion with them and not risk having run in vain. (12 ) The Apostles'
awareness that they constituted an undivided body was also demonstrated
when the question arose whether or not Christians converted from paganism
were obliged to observe certain precepts of the Old Law. At that time, in
the community of Antioch, «Paul and Barnabas and some of the others
were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and the elders about
this question» . (13 ) In order to examine the problem the Apostles and
the elders meet, consult one another and deliberate, guided by the
authority of Peter, and finally issue their decision: «It has seemed
good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than
these necessary things...» . (14 ) 2. The saving mission which the Lord entrusted to the Apostles will last
until the end of the world. (15 ) For this mission to be carried out, in
accordance with Christ's will, the Apostles themselves «were careful
to appoint successors... Bishops have by divine institution taken the
place of the Apostles as pastors of the Church» . (16 ) Indeed, in order
to carry out the pastoral ministry, «the Apostles were endowed by
Christ with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit coming upon them» , (17 ) and by the imposition of hands they passed on to their assistants the gift
of the Holy Spirit, (18 ) a gift which is transmitted down to our day
through episcopal consecration» . (19 ) «Just as, in accordance with the Lord's decree, Saint Peter and the
rest of the Apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in like fashion
the Roman Pontiff, Peter's Successor, and the Bishops, the successors of
the Apostles, are joined to one another» . (20 ) Thus, all the Bishops
in common have received from Christ the mandate to proclaim the Gospel in
every part of the world and are consequently bound to have concern for the
whole Church. So too, for the fulfilment of the mission entrusted to them
by the Lord, they are held to cooperate with one another and with the
Successor of Peter, (21 ) in whom the Lord established «the lasting and
visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion» . (22 ) The individual Bishops are in turn the source and foundation of unity in
their particular Churches. (23 ) 3. Without prejudice to the power which each Bishop enjoys by divine
institution in his own particular Church, the consciousness of being part
of an undivided body has caused Bishops throughout the Church's history to
employ, in the fulfilment of their mission, means, structures and ways of
communicating which express their communion and solicitude for all the
Churches, and prolong the very life of the College of the Apostles:
pastoral cooperation, consultation, mutual assistance, etc.
From the first centuries on, the reality of this communion has found an
outstanding and typical expression in the holding of Councils. Worthy of
mention among these are, together with the Ecumenical Councils which began
with the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Particular Councils, both plenary
and provincial, which were frequently held throughout the Church from the
second century on. (24 ) The practice of holding Particular Councils continued throughout the
Middle Ages. Following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), however, they
became less frequent. Nevertheless, the 1917 Code of Canon Law, seeking to
revitalize so venerable an institution, included provisions for the
celebration of Particular Councils. Canon 281 of that Code spoke of the
plenary Council and laid down that it could be held with the authorization
of the Supreme Pontiff, who would designate a delegate to convene the
Council and preside over it. The same Code called for provincial Councils
to be held at least every twenty years (25 ) and conferences or assemblies
of the Bishops in each province to be held at least every five years, in
order to deal with the problems of the Dioceses and prepare for the
provincial Council. (26 ) The new Code of Canon Law of 1983 retains a
considerable body of laws governing Particular Councils, both plenary and
provincial. (27 ) 4. Alongside the tradition of Particular Councils and in harmony with
it, starting in the last century, for historical, cultural and
sociological reasons, Conferences of Bishops began to be established in
different countries. These Conferences were set up for specific pastoral
purposes, as a means of responding to different ecclesiastical questions
of common interest and finding appropriate solutions to them. Unlike
Councils, they had a stable and permanent character. The Instruction of
the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars issued on 24 August 1889
mentions them expressly by the name «Episcopal Conferences» . (28 ) The Second Vatican Council, in the Decree Christus Dominus, not
only expressed the hope that the venerable institution of Particular
Councils would be revitalized (cf. No. 36), but also dealt explicitly with
Episcopal Conferences, acknowledging the fact that they had been
established in many countries and laying down particular norms regarding
them (cf. Nos. 37-38). Indeed, the Council recognized the usefulness and
the potential of these structures, and judged that «it would be in
the highest degree helpful if in all parts of the world the Bishops of
each country or region would meet regularly, so that by sharing their
wisdom and experience and exchanging views they may jointly formulate a
programme for the common good of the Church» . (29 ) 5. In 1966, Pope Paul VI, by the Motu Proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae,
called for Episcopal Conferences to be established wherever they did not
yet exist; those already existing were to draw up proper statutes; and in
cases where it was not possible to establish a Conference, the Bishops in
question were to join already existing Episcopal Conferences; Episcopal
Conferences comprising several nations or even international Episcopal
Conferences could be established. (30 ) Several years later, in 1973, the
Pastoral Directory for Bishops stated once again that «the Episcopal
Conference is established as a contemporary means of contributing in a
varied and fruitful way to the practice of collegiality. These Conferences
admirably help to foster a spirit of communion with the Universal Church
and among the different local Churches. (31 ) Finally, the Code of Canon
Law, promulgated by me on January 25, 1983, established specific norms
(Canons 447-459) regulating the objectives and the powers of Episcopal
Conferences, as well as their erection, membership and functioning.
The collegial spirit which inspired the establishment of Episcopal
Conferences and guides their activity is also the reason why Conferences
of different countries should cooperate among themselves, as the Second
Vatican Council recommended (32 ) and the subsequent canonical legislation
reaffirmed. (33 ) 6. Following the Second Vatican Council, Episcopal Conferences have
developed significantly and have become the preferred means for the
Bishops of a country or a specific territory to exchange views, consult
with one another and cooperate in promoting the common good of the Church:
«in recent years they have become a concrete, living and efficient
reality throughout the world» . (34 ) Their importance is seen in the
fact that they contribute effectively to unity between the Bishops, and
thus to the unity of the Church, since they are a most helpful means of
strengthening ecclesial communion. Even so, the growing extent of their
activities has raised some questions of a theological and pastoral nature,
especially with regard to their relationship to the individual Diocesan
7. Twenty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the
Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held in 1985, acknowledged
the pastoral usefulness, indeed the need, in the present circumstances of
Episcopal Conferences. It also observed that «in their manner of
proceeding, Episcopal Conferences must keep in mind the good of the
Church, that is, the service of unity and the inalienable responsibility
of each Bishop in relation to the universal Church and to his particular
Church» . (35 ) The Synod therefore called for a fuller and more
profound study of the theological and, consequently, the juridical status
of Episcopal Conferences, and above all of the issue of their doctrinal
authority, in the light of No. 38 of the conciliar Decree Christus
Dominus and Canons 447 and 753 of the Code of Canon Law. (36 ) The present document also is a fruit of that study. In strict fidelity
to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, its aim is to set out the
basic theological and juridical principles regarding Episcopal
Conferences, and to offer the juridical synthesis indispensable for
helping to establish a theologically well-grounded and juridically sound
praxis for the Conferences.
8. In the universal communion of the People of God, for the service of
which the Lord instituted the apostolic ministry, the collegial union of
Bishops shows forth the nature of the Church. Being on earth the source
and the beginning of the Kingdom of God, the Church is «a lasting and
sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race» . (37 ) Just as the Church is one and universal, so also is the Episcopacy one and
indivisible, (38 ) extending as far as the visible structure of the Church
and expressing her rich variety. The visible source and foundation of this
unity is the Roman Pontiff, the head of the episcopal body.
The unity of the Episcopacy is one of the constitutive elements of the
unity of the Church. (39 ) In fact, through the body of Bishops «the
apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved throughout the world» ;
40. and the essential components of ecclesial communion are the sharing
of the same faith, the deposit of which is entrusted to their care, the
taking part in the same Sacraments, «the regular and fruitful
distribution of which they direct by their authority» , (41 ) and the
loyalty and obedience shown to them as Pastors of the Church. This
communion, precisely because it extends throughout the whole Church, forms
the structure also of the College of Bishops, and is «an organic
reality which demands a juridical form, and is at the same time animated
by charity» . (42 ) 9. Collegially, the order of Bishops is, «together with its head,
the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head, the subject of supreme and
full power over the universal Church» . (43 ) As it is well known, in
teaching this doctrine, the Second Vatican Council likewise noted that the
Successor of Peter fully retains «his power of primacy over all,
pastors as well as the general faithful. For in virtue of his office, that
is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff
has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he can always
exercise this power freely» . (44 ) The supreme power which the body of Bishops possesses over the whole
Church cannot be exercised by them except collegially, either in a solemn
way when they gather together in ecumenical Council, or spread throughout
the world, provided that the Roman Pontiff calls them to act collegially
or at least freely accepts their joint action. In such collegial acts, the
Bishops exercise a power which is proper to them for the good of their
faithful and of the whole Church, and, although conscientiously respecting
the primacy and pre-eminence of the Roman Pontiff, head of the College of
Bishops, they are not acting as his vicars or delegates. (45 ) There, it is
clear that they are acting as Bishops of the Catholic Church, for the
benefit of the whole Church, and as such they are recognized and respected
by the faithful.
10. Equivalent collegial actions cannot be carried out at the level of
individual particular Churches or of gatherings of such Churches called
together by their respective Bishops. At the level of an individual
Church, it is in the name of the Lord that the diocesan Bishop leads the
flock entrusted to him, and he does so as the proper, ordinary and
immediate Pastor. His actions are strictly personal, not collegial, even
when he has a sense of being in communion. Moreover, although he has the
fullness of the power of the Sacrament of Orders, he does not exercise the
supreme power which belongs to the Roman Pontiff and to the College of
Bishops as elements proper to the universal Church, elements present
within each particular Church in order that it may fully be Church, that
is, a particular presence of the universal Church with all the essential
elements pertaining thereto. (46 ) At the level of particular Churches grouped together by geographic areas
(by countries, regions, etc.), the Bishops in charge do not exercise
pastoral care jointly with collegial acts equal to those of the College of
11. To provide a correct framework for better understanding how
collegial union is manifested in the joint pastoral action of the Bishops
of a geographic area, it is useful to recall--even briefly--how
individual Bishops, in their ordinary pastoral ministry, are related to
the universal Church. It is necessary, in fact, to remember that the
membership of individual Bishops in the College of Bishops is expressed,
relative to the entire Church, not only in so-called collegial acts, but
also in the care for the whole Church which, although not exercised by
acts of jurisdiction, nonetheless contributes greatly to the good of the
universal Church. All Bishops, in fact, must promote and defend the unity
of faith and the discipline which is common to the whole Church, and
foster every activity which is common to the whole Church, especially in
efforts to increase faith and to make the light of truth shine on all
people. (47 ) «For the rest, it is true that by governing well their
own Church as a portion of the universal Church, they themselves are
effectively contributing to the welfare of the whole Mystical Body, which
is also the body of the Churches» . (48 ) Bishops contribute to the good of the universal Church not only by the
proper exercise of the munus regendi in their particular Churches,
but also by the exercise of the offices of teaching and sanctifying.
Certainly the individual Bishops, as teachers of the faith, do not
address the universal community of the faithful except through the action
of the entire College of Bishops. In fact, only the faithful entrusted to
the pastoral care of a particular Bishop are required to accept his
judgement given in the name of Christ in matters of faith and morals, and
to adhere to it with a religious assent of soul. In effect, «Bishops,
teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all
as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth» ; (49 ) and their teaching,
inasmuch as it transmits faithfully and illustrates the faith to be
believed and applied in living, is of great benefit to the whole Church.
The individual Bishop too, as «steward of the grace of the supreme
priesthood» , (50 ) in the exercise of his office of sanctifying
contributes greatly to the Church's work of glorifying God and making men
holy. This is a work of the whole Church of Christ, acting in every
legitimate liturgical celebration carried out in communion with the Bishop
and under his direction.
12. When the Bishops of a territory jointly exercise certain pastoral
functions for the good of their faithful, such joint exercise of the
episcopal ministry is a concrete application of collegial spirit (affectus
collegialis), (51 ) which «is the soul of the collaboration between
the Bishops at the regional, national and international levels» . (52 ) Nonetheless, this territorially based exercise of the episcopal ministry
never takes on the collegial nature proper to the actions of the order of
Bishops as such, which alone holds the supreme power over the whole
Church. In fact, the relationship between individual Bishops and the
College of Bishops is quite different from their relationship to the
bodies set up for the above-mentioned joint exercise of certain pastoral
The collegiality of the actions of the body of Bishops is linked to the
fact that «the universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the
particular Churches, or as a federation of particular Churches» . (53 ) «It
is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential
mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every
individual particular Church» . (54 ) Likewise the College of Bishops is
not to be understood as the aggregate of the Bishops who govern the
particular Churches, nor as the result of their communion; rather, as an
essential element of the universal Church, it is a reality which precedes
the office of being the head of a particular Church. (55 ) In fact, the
power of the College of Bishops over the whole Church is not the result of
the sum of the powers of the individual Bishops over their particular Churches; it is a pre-existing reality in which individual Bishops
participate. They have no competence to act over the whole Church except
collegially. Only the Roman Pontiff, head of the College, can individually
exercise supreme power over the Church. In other words, «episcopal
collegiality in the strict and proper sense belongs only to the entire
College of Bishops, which as a theological subject is indivisible» . (56 ) And this is the express will of the Lord. (57 ) This power, however, should
not be understood as dominion; rather, essential to it is the notion of
service, because it is derived from Christ, the Good Shepherd who lays
down his life for the sheep. (58 ) 13. Groupings of particular Churches are related to the Churches of
which they are composed, because of the fact that those groupings are
based on ties of common traditions of Christian life and because the
Church is rooted in human communities united by language, culture and
history. These relationships are very different from the relationship of
mutual interiority of the universal Church with respect to the particular
Likewise, the organizations formed by the Bishops of a certain territory
(country, region, etc.) and the Bishops who are members of them share a
relationship which, although presenting a certain similarity, is really
quite different from that which exists between the College of Bishops and
the individual Bishops. The binding effect of the acts of the episcopal
ministry jointly exercised within Conferences of Bishops and in communion
with the Apostolic See derives from the fact that the latter has
constituted the former and has entrusted to them, on the basis of the
sacred power of the individual Bishops, specific areas of competence.
The joint exercise of certain acts of the episcopal ministry serves to
make effective the solicitude of each Bishop for the whole Church, notably
expressed in fraternal assistance to other local Churches, especially
those which are closer and more needy, (59 ) and which likewise is conveyed
in the union of efforts and aims with the other Bishops of the same
geographic area, in order to promote both the common good and the good of
the individual Churches. (60 ) III
14. Episcopal Conferences constitute a concrete application of the
collegial spirit. Basing itself on the prescriptions of the Second Vatican
Council, the Code of Canon Law gives a precise description: «The
Conference of Bishops, a permanent institution, is a grouping of Bishops
of a given country or territory whereby, according to the norm of law,
they jointly exercise certain pastoral functions on behalf of the
Christian faithful of their territory in view of promoting that greater
good which the Church offers humankind, especially through forms and
programs of the apostolate which are fittingly adapted to the
circumstances of the time and place» . (61 ) 15. The Council clearly highlighted the need in our day for harmonizing
the strengths deriving from the interchange of prudence and experience
within the Episcopal Conference, since «Bishops are frequently unable
to fulfill their office suitably and fruitfully unless they work more
harmoniously and closely every day with other Bishops» . (62 ) It is not
possible to give an exhaustive list of the issues which require such
cooperation but it escapes no one that issues which currently call for the
joint action of Bishops include the promotion and safeguarding of faith
and morals, the translation of liturgical books, the promotion and
formation of priestly vocations, the preparation of catechetical aids, the
promotion and safeguarding of Catholic universities and other educational
centres, the ecumenical task, relations with civil authorities, the
defence of human life, of peace, and of human rights, also in order to
ensure their protection in civil legislation, the promotion of social
justice, the use of the means of social communication, etc.
16. Episcopal Conferences are, as a rule, national, that is, they bring
together the Bishops of one country only, (63 ) since the links of culture,
tradition and common history, as well as the interconnection of social
relations among citizens of the same nation require more constant
collaboration among the members of the episcopate of that territory than
the ecclesial circumstances of another territorial entity might require.
Nevertheless, canonical legislation makes provision for an Episcopal
Conference to «be erected for a smaller or larger territory so that
it includes either the Bishops of some particular churches constituted in
a given territory or those presiding over particular churches belonging to
different countries» . (64 ) It follows that there can be Episcopal
Conferences of varying territorial extension or of a super-national
extension. The judgement on the circumstances relative to persons or
things which suggest a greater or lesser extension of the territory of a
Conference is reserved to the Holy See. In fact, «after hearing the
Bishops involved, it pertains to the supreme Church authority alone to
erect, suppress or change the Conferences of Bishops» . (65 ) 17. Since the purpose of the Conferences of Bishops is to provide for
the common good of the particular Churches of a territory through the
collaboration of the sacred pastors to whose care they are entrusted,
every individual Conference is to include all the diocesan Bishops of the
territory and those who in law are equivalent to them, as well as
coadjutor Bishops and the other titular Bishops who exercise a special
task entrusted to them by the Holy See or by the Episcopal Conference
itself. (66 ) In the plenary meetings of the Episcopal Conference, the
deliberative vote belongs to diocesan Bishops and to those who are
equivalent to them in law, as well as to coadjutor Bishops; and this by
reason of the law itself. The statutes of the Conference cannot provide
otherwise. (67 ) The President and Vice-President of the Episcopal
Conference must be chosen only from among the members who are diocesan
Bishops. (68 ) As regards auxiliary Bishops and other titular Bishops who
are members of the Episcopal Conference, the statues of the Conference
should determine whether their vote is deliberative or consultative. (69 ) In this respect, the proportion between diocesan Bishops and auxiliary and
other titular Bishops should be taken into account, in order that a
possible majority of the latter may not condition the pastoral government
of the diocesan Bishops. However, it is appropriate that the statutes of
Episcopal Conferences allow for the presence of Bishops emeriti,
and that they have a consultative vote. Particular care should be taken to
enable them to take part in some study Commissions, when these deal with
issues in which a Bishop emeritus is particularly competent. Given
the nature of the Episcopal Conference, a member's participation in the
Conference cannot be delegated to someone else.
18. Every Episcopal Conference has its own statutes, which it frames
itself. These must however receive the recognitio of the Apostolic
See. Among other things these are «to provide for the holding of
plenary meetings of the Conference as well as for the establishment of a
permanent council, of a general secretariat of the Conference, and other
offices and commissions which in the judgement of the Conference will help
it fulfil its aims more effectively» . (70 ) Such aims, however, require
that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions
operating between plenary sessions be avoided. The essential fact must be
kept in mind that the Episcopal Conferences with their commissions and
offices exist to be of help to the Bishops and not to substitute for them.
19. The authority of the Episcopal Conference and its field of action
are in strict relation to the authority and action of the diocesan Bishop
and the Bishops equivalent to them in law. Bishops «preside in the
place of God over the flock whose shepherds they are, as teachers of
doctrine, priests of sacred worship and ministers of government. (...) By
divine institution, Bishops have succeeded to the Apostles as Shepherds of
the Church» , (71 ) and they «govern the particular churches
entrusted to them as the vicars and ambassadors of Christ, by their
counsel, exhortations and example, but also by their authority and sacred
power (...). This power, which they personally exercise in Christ's name
is proper, ordinary and immediate» . (72 ) Its exercise is regulated by
the supreme authority of the Church, and this is the necessary consequence
of the relation between the universal Church and the particular Church,
since the latter exists only as a portion of the People of God «in
which the one catholic Church is truly present and operative» . (73 ) In
fact, «the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the episcopal College
are proper elements of the universal Church that are not derived from the
particularity of the churches, but are nevertheless interior to each
particular Church» . (74 ) As part of such regulation, the exercise of
the sacred power of the Bishop «can be circumscribed by certain
limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful» . (75 ) This
provision is found explicitly in the Code of Canon Law where we read: «A
diocesan Bishop in the diocese committed to him possesses all the
ordinary, proper and immediate power which is required for the exercise of
his pastoral office except for those cases which the law or a decree of
the Supreme Pontiff reserves to the supreme authority of the Church or to
some other ecclesiastical authority» . (76 ) 20. In the Episcopal Conference the Bishops jointly exercise the
episcopal ministry for the good of the faithful of the territory of the
Conference; but, for that exercise to be legitimate and binding on the
individual Bishops, there is needed the intervention of the supreme
authority of the Church which, through universal law or particular
mandates, entrusts determined questions to the deliberation of the
Episcopal Conference. Bishops, whether individually or united in Conference, cannot autonomously limit their own sacred power in favour of
the Episcopal Conference, and even less can they do so in favour of one of
its parts, whether the permanent council or a commission or the president.
This logic is quite explicit in the canonical norm concerning the exercise
of the legislative power of the Bishops assembled in the Episcopal
Conference: «The Conference of Bishops can issue general decrees only
in those cases in which the common law prescribes it, or a special mandate
of the Apostolic See, given either motu proprio or at the request
of the Conference, determines it» . (77 ) In other cases «the
competence of individual diocesan Bishops remains intact; and neither the
Conference nor its president may act in the name of all the Bishops unless
each and every Bishop has given his consent» . (78 ) 21. The joint exercise of the episcopal ministry also involves the
teaching office. The Code of Canon Law establishes the fundamental norm in
this regard: «Although they do not enjoy infallible teaching
authority, the Bishops in communion with the head and members of the
college, whether as individuals or gathered in Conferences of Bishops or
in particular councils, are authentic teachers and instructors of the
faith for the faithful entrusted to their care; the faithful must adhere
to the authentic teaching of their own Bishops with a sense of religious
respect (religioso animi obsequio)» . (79 ) Apart from this
general norm the Code also establishes, more concretely, some areas of
doctrinal competence of the Conferences of Bishops, such as providing «that
catechisms are issued for its own territory if such seems useful, with the
prior approval of the Apostolic See» , (80 ) and the approval of
editions of the books of Sacred Scripture and their translations. (81 ) The concerted voice of the Bishops of a determined territory, when, in
communion with the Roman Pontiff, they jointly proclaim the catholic truth
in matters of faith and morals, can reach their people more effectively
and can make it easier for their faithful to adhere to the magisterium
with a sense of religious respect. In faithfully exercising their teaching
office, the Bishops serve the word of God, to which their teaching is
subject, they listen to it devoutly, guard it scrupulously and explain it
faithfully in such a way that the faithful receive it in the best manner
possible. (82 ) Since the doctrine of the faith is a common good of the
whole Church and a bond of her communion, the Bishops, assembled in
Episcopal Conference, must take special care to follow the magisterium of
the universal Church and to communicate it opportunely to the people
entrusted to them.
22. In dealing with new questions and in acting so that the message of
Christ enlightens and guides people's consciences in resolving new
problems arising from changes in society, the Bishops assembled in the
Episcopal Conference and jointly exercizing their teaching office are well
aware of the limits of their pronouncements. While being official and
authentic and in communion with the Apostolic See, these pronouncements do
not have the characteristics of a universal magisterium. For this reason
the Bishops are to be careful to avoid interfering with the doctrinal work
of the Bishops of other territories, bearing in mind the wider, even
world-wide, resonance which the means of social communication give to the
events of a particular region.
Taking into account that the authentic magisterium of the Bishops,
namely what they teach insofar as they are invested with the authority of
Christ, must always be in communion with the Head of the College and its
members, (83 ) when the doctrinal declarations of Episcopal Conferences are
approved unanimously, they may certainly be issued in the name of the
Conferences themselves, and the faithful are obliged to adhere with a
sense of religious respect to that authentic magisterium of their own
Bishops. However, if this unanimity is lacking, a majority alone of the
Bishops of a Conference cannot issue a declaration as authentic teaching
of the Conference to which all the faithful of the territory would have to
adhere, unless it obtains the recognitio of the Apostolic See,
which will not give it if the majority requesting it is not substantial.
The intervention of the Apostolic See is analogous to that required by the
law in order for the Episcopal Conference to issue general decrees. (84 ) The recognitio of the Holy See serves furthermore to guarantee
that, in dealing with new questions posed by the accelerated social and
cultural changes characteristic of present times, the doctrinal response
will favour communion and not harm it, and will rather prepare an eventual
intervention of the universal magisterium.
23. The very nature of the teaching office of Bishops requires that,
when they exercise it jointly through the Episcopal Conference, this be
done in the plenary assembly. Smaller bodies --the permanent council,
a commission or other offices--do not have the authority to carry out
acts of authentic magisterium either in their own name or in the name of
the Conference, and not even as a task assigned to them by the Conference.
24. At present, Episcopal Conferences fulfill many tasks for the good of
the Church. They are called to support, in a growing service, «the
inalienable responsibility of each Bishop in relation to the universal
Church and to his particular Church» (85 ) and, naturally, not to
hinder it by substituting themselves inappropriately for him, where the
canonical legislation does not provide for a limitation of his episcopal
power in favour of the Episcopal Conference, or by acting as a filter or
obstacle as far as direct contact between the individual Bishops and the
Apostolic See is concerned.
The clarifications thus far expressed, together with the normative
adjustments which follow, correspond to the wishes of the Extraordinary
General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of 1985, and they aim at
illuminating and making more efficacious the action of Episcopal
Conferences. The Conferences will opportunely review their statutes in
order to bring them into line with these clarifications and norms, as
called for by the Synod.
Art. 1. -- In order that the doctrinal declarations of the
Conference of Bishops referred to in No. 22 of the present Letter may
constitute authentic magisterium and be published in the name of the
Conference itself, they must be unanimously approved by the Bishops who
are members, or receive the recognitio of the Apostolic See if
approved in plenary assembly by at least two thirds of the Bishops
belonging to the Conference and having a deliberative vote.
Art. 2. -- No body of the Episcopal Conference, outside of the
plenary assembly, has the power to carry out acts of authentic
magisterium. The Episcopal Conference cannot grant such power to its
Commissions or other bodies set up by it.
Art. 3. -- For statements of a different kind, different from those
mentioned in article 2, the Doctrinal Commission of the Conference of
Bishops must be authorized explicitly by the Permanent Council of the
Art. 4. -- The Episcopal Conferences are to review their statutes in
order that they may be consistent with the clarifications and norms of the
present document as well as the Code of Canon Law, and they should send
them subsequently to the Apostolic See for recognitio, in
accordance with canon 451 of the Code of Canon Law.
In order that the action of Episcopal Conferences be ever more fruitful
in good works, I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing.
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter's, on 21 May, Solemnity of the
Ascension of the Lord, in the year 1998, the twentieth of my Pontificate.

John Paul II 24