One of the favorite punching bags of orthodox Catholics is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). And often, for good reason. It seems that frequently we hear reports of people deeply involved with the USCCB also being involved with organizations which promote activities in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The latest brouhaha erupted when it was discovered that John Carr, the Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the USCCB, was formally a member of the pro-abortion Center for Community Change (note: Carr insists strongly that he is pro-life and his work with the CCC never involved in any way defending abortion). The litany of scandals that have erupted surrounding the USCCB over the years have led some Catholics even to call for the abolishment of the institution.
One of the most common refrains you hear from critics of the USCCB is that it has “no theological basis”. That it is, in other words, just a bureaucratic institution which has no true authority within the Church. Is this the case? Is it true that national ecclesial conferences, of which USCCB is just one, are not theologically justified and have no authority in the Church? Well, yes and no.
The foundations of authority within the Church comes from the actions of Christ himself. He appointed twelve men with a special authority within the Church, and he placed one of those men – Peter – with a unique role among the Twelve. So we can clearly see that each successor to the apostles – the bishops – and the successor to Peter – the pope – have authority within the Church.
However, very quickly the Church recognized that groups of bishops also had a special authority in the Church. Throughout the early Church, we see regional synods of bishops gathering to make decisions, and these decisions had binding authority. Of course, the greatest grouping of bishops is an ecumenical council, in which all the bishops of the world gather together and have authority to define dogma definitively. But even after the first ecumenical council at Nicea, we continue to see regional synods of bishops which exercise a key role in administering the Church.
So the Church came to recognize three levels of authority within the Church: local, regional, and universal. (You can see an ecumenical discussion of these three levels in the Ravenna Document, which is at the Vatican website). Over the years, the East came to emphasize the authority of the local and regional church (i.e. bishops, metropolitans and patriarchs), whereas the West came to emphasize the authority of the universal Church (i.e the pope). But each level has true authority within the Church.
One thing it is important to note at this point is that these levels are not equivalent to a corporate organizational chart. It is not the case that the local bishop works for the regional synod of bishops, and they then in turn work for the universal head. Authority in the Church is based on service, not power. Each authority figure and grouping works for the service of the people of God under their care. In practice, moreover, a local bishop has almost unlimited authority in his diocese – he is the head of the local church and has the power to establish discipline within its boundaries. But he also is a member of a region, and he works with other bishops in his region as the need arises. This regional application of authority reflects the incarnational nature of the Church: it exists within cultures and specific geographies, and so it works within those human constructs to preach the Gospel.
So we come to the institution of national ecclesial conferences. These are new entities, established by Vatican II, which are (very) loosely similar the Eastern national churches. But they were established as a new way of implementing the ancient practice of regional synods, and as such, they have a legitimate place within the Church. They are a way in which the Church can implement its teachings along the lines of cultural and national boundaries.
But does that mean that everything that comes out of the USCCB is to be obeyed blindly? Does it mean that individual bishops must follow exactly everything that the USCCB proclaims? And what about the role of those who work for the USCCB – such as laypeople and even priests – what authority do they have?
Let me take the last question first: only bishops (and priests representing them) have binding authority in the Church, so employees who work for the USCCB do not have any theological basis for authority in the Church. But that does not mean that they should be disrespected or ignored. They do work for the bishops and ostensibly have their blessing. So their work should be listened to with respect.
Now the second question: do individual bishops have to follow the USCCB directives blindly? The Church has always respected the true authority a local bishop has, and that authority comes from Christ, not from being a member of a bishops’ conference. So they do not have to follow the directives of the USCCB if they feel it is in the best interests of the people of their diocese. But I don’t think there is any bishop who would not treat directives of a gathering of all the bishops in his country with respect.
Finally, what is the lay Catholic to do? Do we have to obey the USCCB? I think my previous comments show that I do think we must give them respect. The gathering of bishops is a powerful exercise of episcopal authority within the Church, and we are bound to treat it deferentially. Ultimately, we must be obedient sons and daughters of our local bishop, but if he does not explicitly reject a proclamation of the USCCB, then we should not either (note that I am assuming the normal rights of the laity in regard to prudential matters that are outside the purview of the bishops).
Nothing I said above should be taken as a defense of mistakes made by members of the USCCB. If a local bishop does something erroneous, we are allowed to criticize him in good faith (always respecting his office, of course). Likewise, if the USCCB makes a mistake, it is not above criticism either. But I think it does no good to try to dismiss it as having “no theological basis” or calling for its abolishment. What is needed is respect and reform, not dismissal and destruction.