Seeking to curb the independence of bishops, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter Thursday 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 like nuclear weapons, 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 American clergymen and theologians, who worried that it would diminish local leaders' ability to deal directly with 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."
Particularly in the past, many bishops' conferences had brashly sought autonomy from the Vatican when passing judgment on domestic social issues.
Pope John Paul II cracked down on advocates of "liberation theology" among Latin American bishops' conferences in the early 1980s. He has dismissed dissident Catholic theologians, and he has replaced many of the more liberal cardinals and bishops in the United States and Europe with more conservative men.
Because of pressure from Rome, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of today is far more conciliatory toward Rome than it was 10 years ago and rarely takes important steps without first consulting the Holy See. Yet it has found other ways to reflect its differences on certain issues.
Last year the administrative board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance approved the release of a pastoral message to parents of homosexual children urging them to be compassionate, not censorious. The church teaching is that homosexual activity is a sin in all cir-cum-stances.