Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Explanatory Note on the Participation in a Stable Manner of Religious Superiors in the Episcopal Conference, 30 November 1996.

This response is given to a Congregation which, on the occasion of the recognitio of the statutes of an episcopal conference, has requested from our Dicastery clarifications on the quasi-permanent participation of a religious superior in the episcopal conference.


2\. The proposed modification is not consistent with the history and nature of episcopal conferences. The current proposal for the general and quasi-permanent participation of those who are neither bishops nor the equivalent of diocesan bishops clearly contrasts with the intent of Vatican Council II and the Legislator.

The current structure of the episcopal conference is rooted in the teachings of Vatican Council II. In 1964, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, treated the episcopal conference in the context of the collegiality of bishops: “In like manner groups of bishops [coetus episcopales] today can render a manifold and fruitful work, so that collegialis affectus is put into concrete application” (n. 23).

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The following year, the conciliar notion of the episcopal conference became more profound in the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops Christus Dominus (nn.37-38). Both the decree Christus Dominus and the constitution Lumen gentium treat the episcopal conference in the context of cooperation among diocesan bishops. Consistent with this view of the conferences, the council determined that: “All local ordinaries of whatever right, except vicars general, coadjutors, auxiliaries, and other titular bishops performing a special work entrusted to them by the Apostolic See or by the conferences of bishops, belong to the conference of bishops” (decree Christus Dominus, n. 38, 2).

The norm of this conciliar decree on participation at meetings of episcopal conferences was the object of an interpretation by the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of the Decrees of Vatican Council II in 1970. The commission determined that: “Since episcopal conferences are groups of bishops [coetus episcoporum], they are composed only of bishops and male ecclesiastics equivalent to them in iure, according to the prescript of the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church Christus Dominus, n. 38, 2: however, others (presbyters, religious, and lay persons) can be invited to the episcopal conference according to the norms of its statutes, but only in individual matters and cases and with only a consultative vote” (AAS, 62 [1970], p. 793).

The notion of the episcopal conference in the Code of Canon Law (1983) finds its own basis in the conciliar teaching. In fact, as was already established in Lumen gentium and Christus Dominus, canon 447 of the CIC defines the episcopal conference as a coetus episcoporum. Similarly, canon 450, following the criteria already established by the council, determined taxatively who can be members de iure of the conferences: “To a conference of bishops belong by the law itself all diocesan bishops in the territory, those equivalent to them in law, coadjutor bishops, auxiliary bishops, and other titular bishops who perform in the same territory a special function entrusted to them by the Apostolic See or conference of bishops. ...”

3. The history of the formation of canon 450 indicates that the criteria determined to establish members de iure and those specifically invited to the conference were discussed and chosen with accurate attention and precision.

During the work of preparing the new canonical legislation, the above-cited interpretation of the Pontifical Commission was certainly taken into

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account by the study group De populo Dei in 1980 during its fifth session. In fact one reads in the notes of that meeting: “Discussed was a proposal from a consultative body whether to invite with only a consultative vote priests, religious and lay persons for the study of some particular problems. The proposal was not accepted” (Communicationes, 12 [1980], p.267).

Despite the absence of further explanations, one can deduce that, in order that the CIC apply the norm of the council regarding this, it is evident that the Code Commission in its labors, and then the Legislator in reviewing and approving the project, had one criterion and one mens in harmony with that of the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of the Decrees of Vatican Council II, whose interpretation had been approved by the Roman Pontiff on 30 October 1970. The edition of the Code of Canon Law with fontes, published in 1989, identifies this interpretation as one of the sources for canon 450. This continues to be a point of reference necessary for a correct interpretation of canon 450.

4. As noted in the remark of this Congregation, the proposed modification is also not necessary following the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Vita consecrata of 24 March 1996 (AAS, 88 [1996], p. 423). The exhortation underlines the importance of a rapport between delegates of the conference of religious superiors and the assemblies of episcopal conferences, but the phrase “according to the manner to be determined” does not require to arrange for delegated religious to be invited to participate permanently in the labors of the assembly. The exhortation, moreover, has not introduced any explicit modification in the codal norm; moreover, such could not happen, given the juridic nature of an exhortation which is not a pontifical act with a legislative character. It must, therefore, be read and interpreted in the context of the universal legislation in force in the Church.

It is certainly important to cultivate rapport between the episcopal conference and the unions of religious superiors, but this must happen, as regards meetings of the conference, within the limits already clearly determined by the very nature of the episcopal conference as willed by Vatican Council II and by the law in force (“but only in individual matters and cases and with only a consultative vote”).

Julian Herranz


Bruno Bertagna


Comm 29 (1997): 236-238.