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Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences


1. With its instruction of Feb. 23, 1967, this Congregation requested that the Episcopal Conferences provide in their structure for a Doctrinal Commission which “editis scriptis invigilet, veri nominis religiosam scientiam foveat, in dijudicandis libris opem episcopis praebeat”. In a circular letter issued July 10 of the following year, some further points were offered for the better functioning of these Doctrinal Commissions.

2. More than 20 years have now passed since those two letters were sent, and this Dicastery has had the opportunity of listening to the experiences of numerous Bishops’ Conferences in this regard. At this juncture, it seems helpful to call to mind and clarify some aspects suggested by a reflection upon the work of these last years.

3. Doctrinal Commission are responsible to and act by the mandate of the Episcopal Conferences. They are a consultative body instituted to aid the Episcopal Conference itself and the individual Bishops in their solicitude for the teaching of the faith.

4. If the size of the Conference permits the possibility, it is a good thing to establish a Commission geared to the treatment of doctrinal problems. Only when the actual situation makes this impossible should another Commission assume such a basic pastoral concern. In a subordinate way, this also could be the responsibility of one particular Bishop, who would give special attention to doctrinal problems in the name and service of the whole Conference.

5. The members of the Doctrinal Commission are those Bishops who are chosen by the Episcopal Conference. Experts may be brought in from time to time for consultation, but their role should be kept distinct from that of the Bishops. Only the Bishops can be responsible for eventual statements on the part of the Commission because it is a Bishops’ Commission.

6. The Doctrinal Commission is not to make public statements in the name of the entire Conference unless it has explicit authorization to do so.

7. It is the Doctrinal Commission’s concern to promote the communication of the teaching of the faith. It gives a particular help to the Episcopal Conference by publicizing the documents of the papal Magisterium and by commenting on them as the needs and urgencies of the Conference’s territory require.

In collaboration with the competent Commission of the Bishops’ Conference, they should also promote the writing of textbooks by authors who are recognized for their scholarship and their steadfast fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium. At least they should see to the compilation of a list of books approved for teaching.

8. The Doctrinal Commissions are also called to promote the work of theology. To this end, then, they should foster good mutual relations with theologians, teachers in universities and seminaries, indeed with all experts in the ecclesiastical disciplines.

9. The Doctrinal Commissions are established likewise to provide assistance to each Bishop in the task of monitoring and evaluating the theological works (books and reviews) published in his territory. This task of vigilance is and has to remain properly that of the individual Bishop. It is a necessary task so that no harm may come to that sound teaching which the faithful have a right to receive.

10. When it comes to exercising due vigilance regarding the publication and dissemination of works, it will be helpful to refer to the norms of canon law on the instruments of social communication and specifically books (Canons 822-832). To those norms should be added the special prescriptions for the case of members of religious orders and institutes which have their own statutes.

While the Holy See can always intervene and normally does so when the impact of some published work is felt beyond the area of a particular Episcopal Conference, the Doctrinal Commission should offer help to individual Bishops in their examination of books.

While respecting the rights and duties of Bishops in the matter of the appointment of a censor (cf. Canon 830.1), the Doctrinal Commissions should offer assistance to the Ordinaries, at least to the extent of compiling a list of experts who might serve in that capacity.

Along with all these responsibilities, the particular area represented by Catholic publishing houses and their importance for communicating the faith should not be forgotten.

11. The Doctrinal Commission likewise cooperates with the other Commissions of the Episcopal Conference. This is true especially regarding those commissions charged with responsibility in the fields of education (seminaries, universities and schools), catechetics, liturgy and ecumenism. The Doctrinal Commission offers them its own competent judgment on all that has doctrinal relevance in these areas. Normally the other commissions of the Conference should not publish important documents without first having had the benefit of the Doctrinal Commission’s judgment in what pertains to its competence.

12. Doctrinal Commissions in various nations, especially those from the same language area, should find more expeditious ways to exchange information and experiences. Such opportunities obviously contribute to their more effective and fruitful functioning.

13. It would seem helpful that there be an increase in reciprocal communications between the Doctrinal Commissions and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Normally such communications will pass through the agency of the Bishops’ Conference.

The ad limina visits can be of particular service in this regard. So too are those special meetings arranged between the Congregation and the individual Commissions in which the President of the Conference also participates.

14. Finally, it would be very helpful if the President of the Doctrinal Commission would send at least an annual report to the Congregation on the Commission’s work and on the major doctrinal difficulties faced in the country. Also welcome would be its suggestions as to what action might be opportune for the Holy See to take regarding such difficulties.

Rome, November 25, 1990.


Titular Archbishop of Caesarea in Numidia