Vatican tightens its control over 108 bishops' conferences Pope issues new rules that curb independence


ROME -- Seeking to curb the independence of bishops, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter yesterday that tightens the Vatican's control over 108 bishops' conferences around the world.

Under the new rules, it would be almost impossible for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States to issue major, binding statements on topics such as homosexuality or the status of women that diverged from the Vatican view.

The apostolic letter, the most authoritative papal document after an encyclical, was welcomed by the head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, but it caused consternation among many U.S. clergymen and theologians, who worried that it would diminish local leaders' ability to deal directly with XTC problems endemic to their own parishes.

On doctrinal and theological matters, the apostolic letter requires unanimity of all members before a bishops' conference can issue a binding statement to its followers. Even if a document wins an overwhelming majority, it must still be sent to Rome for approval. Until now, the U.S. bishops' conference and others had relied on a two-thirds majority to issue important statements.

"We are not talking about practical issues that a majority can decide," said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and who led the drafting of the apostolic letter. "We are talking about doctrine, that is to say, the truth. The truth is not arrived at by majority."

Ten years ago, more than two-thirds of U.S. bishops voted to sharply reject an early working draft of yesterday's document, which seemed to reduce the bishops' role in interpreting Catholic teachings for their American followers. The Vatican agreed to revise it, but the new version does not significantly change the Vatican's view of its own primacy in deciding doctrinal matters.

Mostly, the change affects only the most important statements on matters of doctrine and morality. "Unanimity is completely impractical," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "There will always be a bishop that disagrees with even a minor point on a given subject. We didn't expect even ecumenical councils like Vatican II to be unanimous."

The alternative of seeking the approval of Rome, he said, would necessarily be ponderous and slow: "This will tie the hands of the bishops' conferences, and make it difficult to be creative in responding to the pastoral needs of their people."

But the Vatican does not appear to want its bishops to be too creative. "Creativity can be found here -- this is the place for creativity," Cardinal Miloslav Vlk said yesterday, banging on a podium in Rome. Vlk, a Czech, was one of the Vatican leaders who presented the apostolic letter to reporters.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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