THE ROLE AND FUNCTIONS OF DOCTRINAL COMMISSIONS
CARD. LUIS F. LADARIA, S.J.
PREFECT OF THE CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH
My dear brother Bishops,
It is a distinct honour and pleasure to be present here with you my brother Bishops on the great continent of Asia, where the diverse countries comprise nearly 60% percent of the total population of the world. As a cradle of ancient civilization, an intense search for the meaning of human life, has given birth to several religions. With its rich diversity of language, culture, race and religion, Asia has remained an outstanding illustration for the coexistence of different peoples for centuries. It is in this context that we, as Pastors of the Catholic Church, are gathered here to reflect upon our commitment to the task of proclaiming Jesus Christ who is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith desires that this precious occasion may be an opportunity to renew our resolve as Bishops, successors of Apostles, to strengthen each other in the faith.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as one of the departments of the Roman Curia, is at the service of the Roman Pontiff and the universal Church. The Congregation has the specific mission “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world; so it has competence in things that touch this matter in any way” (John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus, 48). The primary responsibility of the Congregation is not to condemn those who are not faithful to the sound teaching; but to render service to the Truth through protecting the right of the faithful to receive the Gospel message in its purity and entirety. Sometimes, of course, it remains necessary to correct theologians if he or she is not willing to change an unacceptable opinion. Promoting and safeguarding the Catholic doctrine is also a fundamental task of all the Pastors in their local Churches.
In line with the Council’s emphasis on the need for collegial efforts, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ushered in a new mode of functioning through collaboration and cooperation with the Pastors of the Church throughout the world. In its mission of promoting and safeguarding the authentic teaching of the Church in a world of constant changes, the Congregation invited the Episcopal Conferences to be active participants in its efforts. This call for an active involvement was made a reality through the efforts towards the establishment of a Doctrinal Commission, if possible, under each Episcopal Conference.
Taking into account the challenges involved in promoting and protecting the authentic doctrine amidst complex situations in different parts of the world, the Congregation has been organizing periodical meetings of the Presidents of Doctrinal Commissions at the continental level to evaluate and encourage their efforts through discussing experiences and questions pertaining to their specific context. Such meetings have been conducted so far at Bogotá in 1984 (Latin America), Kinshasa in 1987 (Africa), Vienna in 1989 (Europe), Hong-Kong in 1993 (Asia), Guadalajara in 1999 (Latin America), Dar es Salaam in 2009 (Africa) and Esztergom in 2015 (Europe). Thus, our meeting is the second of its kind on the Continent of Asia.
Through four documents over the years, the Congregation has established guidelines regarding the role and functions of Doctrinal Commissions. The first one, published on 23 February 1967 carried instruction on the need for the establishment of Doctrinal Commissions in Episcopal Conferences. Just a year later, with a letter on 10 July 1968, the Congregation wrote to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences suggesting means to enhance the service of Doctrinal Commissions. Almost twenty years later, the Congregation came out with a detailed letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences defining more precisely the role and functions of Doctrinal Commissions on 25 November 1990. The fourth document was written on 24 April 2018 reminding the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences of the need and benefit of Doctrinal Commissions, so to be mutually engaged in the exercise of the munus docendi throughout the universal Church. In the light of these documents and the experience acquired through the collaboration with Doctrinal Commissions in different parts of the world over the decades, we can try to understand its role and function in the particular context of Asia.
II. Role of Doctrinal Commissions
Let us first reflect on the relationship of the Doctrinal Commissions with the Episcopal Conferences.
1) The invitation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed to the Episcopal Conferences to constitute Doctrinal Commissions is an expression of the collegial character of ecclesial ministry aimed at preaching the Gospel in its purity and integrity. Doctrinal Commissions should help to “promote the communication of the teaching of the faith” at the level of the Episcopal Conference and thus in the Church at large.
2) A Doctrinal Commission is accountable to the Episcopal Conference from which it receives its mandate. It is a consultative body whose objective is to assist both the Episcopal Conference and individual bishops, “in their solicitude for the teaching of the faith”. As successors of the apostles who are called to exercise the munus docendi as one of their principal responsibilities, the Bishops are teachers of the Catholic faith. Therefore, a Doctrinal Commission, while placing itself at the service of the Bishops united as a Conference, should be disposed to render assistance to the needs of the individual Bishops as well.
3) It is highly recommended that Episcopal Conferences have a Doctrinal Commission to deal with doctrinal issues. The establishment of a Doctrinal Commission, of course, is not always an easy task. Some Episcopal Conferences are small and may not be able to constitute a proper Doctrinal Commission, especially in Asian countries where Christians are a minority. In such cases the Congregation proposes two options: Either a) another Commission can be given the additional charge to deal with issues related to doctrine, or (b) an individual Bishop can pay special attention “to doctrinal problems in the name and service of the whole Conference”.
4) Only Bishops can be chosen as members of the Doctrinal Commission. Theologians and Experts may help with their particular expertise, but they may not be members. The reason is that it is the task of the Bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all men and to preserve God’s people from defections. Theologians assist in explaining the faith and are helpful in confronting new challenges, but their role is different from that of the Bishops. Once a Doctrinal Commission is established, the names of the Chairperson and the members should be communicated to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
5) A Doctrinal Commission, as a consultative body, is not entitled to make public statements on behalf of the Episcopal Conference without the explicit authorisation to do so. Moreover, there should always be harmony between the Doctrinal Commission and the Episcopal Conference and individual Bishops. This harmony is essential for the unity of God’s people.
6) Even though the documents do not mention this, the President of a Doctrinal Commission should be elected for three years. He can be reelected for another period. It is important to bear in mind that the mandate of all members is not terminated at the same time so that the continuity of the activities of the Commission does not suffer. As a matter of principle, a Doctrinal Commission should adhere to and respect the decisions of the preceding Commissions. The reason for this is clear insofar as the Christian faith remains the same throughout time. Even when there may be progress in doctrine, the progress must always remain a progress and renewal in continuity, and not a rupture from the teaching of our fathers in faith.
III. Functions of Doctrinal Commissions
Let us now mention the main functions of Doctrinal Commissions, as they have been presented in the documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
1. Translation and Explanation of the Documents of the Holy See
For addressing doctrinal questions emerging from the concrete needs of our time, a Doctrinal Commission should avail itself of the documents of the Holy See, especially those of the Holy Father and of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As you know, numerous documents have been published by the Holy See over the last fifty years which respond to concrete problems and challenges. These documents are already translated into the most important languages and are made available to the faithful through the Vatican web-site. The most important documents should be translated, insofar as possible, into local languages. Through such efforts, a Doctrinal Commission can help the Episcopal Conference to make known the teachings and instructions of the Holy See. It would also be important to publish comments on the most significant documents of the Holy See to make them understandable for the people of different cultures.
2. Relationship with Theologians
A Doctrinal Commission has the mission of promoting Catholic theology. Therefore, it should foster good rapport among Bishops and Theologians, especially teachers in universities and seminaries and experts in the ecclesiastical disciplines. In other words, a Doctrinal Commission has to make every effort to facilitate a healthy rapport between the Magisterium and Theologians. It may be useful to recall the Congregation’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (24 May 1990), where this relationship is explained at length. The Doctrinal Commission should also follow the activities of the theological associations in the region and keep the Bishops informed of their developments. Moreover, it should assist the Bishops, when, as per the requirement of Canon #229, §2 and #812, they must grant a mandatum for a Theologian to teach theology either in theological faculties, seminaries, or other Catholic institutions.
3. Vigilance over Books
A Doctrinal Commission has the mission to assist the Bishops to monitor the authenticity of matters pertaining to the doctrine of faith and morals, which includes vigilance over forms of social communication in general, and of books in particular. The Instruction of the Congregation on Some aspects of the use of the instruments of social communication in promoting the doctrine of the faith (30 March 1992) delineates ways and means for a Doctrinal Commission to assist the Bishops in their responsibility. Obviously, the Catholic publishing houses offer a great opportunity for communicating the faith in a particular area. At the same time, we cannot be indifferent to the threat they pose to the communication of authentic faith if they are unmonitored. In the absence of a proper vigilance over books on Catholic doctrine, the people of God face the risk of inadvertently acquiring books from Catholic publishers who are not loyal to the teaching of the Church. Therefore, a Doctrinal Commission should assist the Bishops in the evaluation of books before granting the imprimatur.
In this way, a Doctrinal Commission not only assists the Bishops of the particular territory, but also helps the Congregation by reducing the need for its intervention on works of erroneous and ambiguous affirmations. To this end, the Doctrinal Commission should prepare a list of censors for the Bishops.
4. Correction of Problematic Publications
Handling questions regarding books of Catholic theologians that are not in harmony with sound doctrine is a delicate issue. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has a proper procedure of examination to be followed in such cases (cf. Regulation's for Doctrinal Examination, 29 June 1997). The Congregation, however, is of the opinion that problems of this kind should first be addressed with a dialogue on the local level by the Bishops, or if the issues are more serious, by the Doctrinal Commission. Sincere and constructive dialogue can help to resolve many problems, as the experience of the Congregation has shown. Sometimes, however, theologians are not willing to clarify doctrinal errors and ambiguities. In such a case, the Doctrinal Commission could prepare a Notification for the Episcopal Conference, stating the problems of a certain theologian, and thus defending the faith of the simple people.
Sharing the same faith is the fundamental factor for unity in the Church. It is through the common faith that unity is achieved and nurtured in the Church, and we as successors of the Apostles, have a special responsibility for that unity. Pope Francis declares that the apostolic succession, granted as a precious gift by the Lord to the Church, is aimed at the “service to the unity of faith and its integral transmission” (Lumen fidei, 49).
5. Cooperation with other Episcopal Commissions
The competence of a Doctrinal Commission in the area of faith renders imperative the cooperation with other Commissions under the Episcopal Conference. This cooperation is necessary especially with those Commissions that are responsible in the fields of education (i.e. seminaries, universities and schools), catechetics, liturgy, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue. A Doctrinal Commission ensures that the academic endeavours in the seminaries, Catholic universities and schools are attentive to the correct teaching of the Church. Likewise, a Doctrinal Commission, in collaboration with the Commission for Liturgy, must make certain that all institutions of people preserve doctrinal loyalty to the liturgical traditions. Together with other competent Commissions, a Doctrinal Commission should help to foster the publishing of textbooks written by authors who are known for their “scholarship and their steadfast fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium” and compile a list of such books authorized for catechetical teaching. It must help both the Commission for Ecumenical Dialogue and the Commission for Interreligious Dialogue to promote dialogues that offer mutual understanding without compromising fundamental truths of the faith. A Doctrinal Commission has the responsibility to assess the undertakings of all other Commissions of the Episcopal Conference. These Commissions, before publishing any documents of doctrinal relevance, are required to avail themselves of the benefit of the judgement of Doctrinal Commission.
6. Collaboration with other Doctrinal Commissions
Doctrinal Commissions of different countries who share common geography and language find expeditious means for enhancing collaboration and exchanging information, and they can enrich each other. This is particularly important for small Episcopal Conferences. In fact, our gathering today here can also be an opportunity to give rise to such kinds of exchanges among those Doctrinal Commissions, or individual Bishops, that share a common geographical, cultural and linguistic heritage. Sometimes, a document prepared by the Doctrinal Commission of a given Episcopal Conference may be a helpful resource also for other Conferences of Bishops. Such sharing can contribute to the collegial cooperation of Episcopal Conferences worldwide.
7. Cooperation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
As stated in the circular letter of 2018, it would be of great help to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith if the President of every Doctrinal Commission would send a report once every three years. The information furnished by Doctrinal Commissions about the doctrinal questions encountered in particular countries, along with suggestions on possible ways and means to handle them, can be useful to the Holy See to address similar questions in other parts of the world. Such periodical reports can effectively favour the collaboration between the Holy See and Doctrinal Commissions worldwide.
8. Doctrinal Competence of Episcopal Conference
Finally, I feel that it is useful to briefly reflect upon the doctrinal competence of the Episcopal Conferences presenting some elements of the Motu proprio Apostolos suos of Pope John Paul II (21 May 1998) . The Motu proprio affirms that, “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” (Apostolos suos, 21). This affirmation is immediately followed by a clarification, which can be termed as the original contribution of this document: “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” (Apostolos suos, 22). At the same time, when there is no unanimity, they must receive the recognitio of the Holy See, and the Holy See will only give it if there is a substantial majority requesting it. In such an instance, the recognitio of the Holy See serves to guarantee that, in dealing with new questions posed by the accelerated cultural and social changes characteristic of present times, the doctrinal response will favour communion and not harm it (cf. Apostolos suos, 22).
In the introduction to the same Motu proprio, Pope John Paul II states, “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.” (Apostolos suos, 3).
In this line, Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of Episcopal Conferences, stating that they are in a position to contribute in many fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, 32). According the abovementioned principles, Episcopal Conferences have “genuine doctrinal authority” (Evangelii gaudium, 32) and may contribute to promote the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.
In conclusion, Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium states: “We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan. This involves not only recognizing and discerning spirits, but also - and this is decisive - choosing movements of the spirit of good and rejecting those of the spirit of evil” (Evangelii gaudium, 51). These words from our Holy Father greatly assist us in our responsibility to protect and transmit the faith. As Bishops, we must be men of deep prayer, and of reliance upon the Holy Spirit to guide us in the spirit of truth. We are called to be vigilant discerners, of the spirit of good and the spirit of evil, thus fulfilling our vocation as good shepherds of the sheep in a period in history where our voices, and especially the voice of Jesus Christ, is needed more than ever.