By Patrick B. Craine

September 22, 2010 ( – The authority of the Catholic bishop within his own diocese trumps the national bishops’ conference and “no bishop has an obligation” to adopt the conference’s documents, asserted Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon in a landmark talk last week.

“Such documents do not become normative for a particular diocese unless the bishop, either explicitly or implicitly, recommends them,” he told the 2010 InsideCatholic Partnership Award Dinner last Thursday.

Catholic bishops who boldly promote life and family in their diocese have often been condemned for acting more strongly than the national conference of bishops (USCCB), for example by refusing Communion to pro-abortion politicians. Similarly, pro-life and pro-family advocates have long complained that conference statements are vague and confusing, even misleading.

Deal Hudson of InsideCatholic said Bishop Vasa is the first U.S. bishop he is aware of to tackle “the prevalent misunderstanding” over the relation between the authority of the individual bishop versus that of the USCCB. Judie Brown, president of American Life League and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, agreed. “Having been involved in this for over 35 years, I can tell you that this speech is long overdue,” she said.

According to Bishop Vasa, statements from bishops’ conferences necessarily tend to be “flattened” and “vague,” allowing certain teachings to “fall by the wayside through what could be called, charitably, a kind of benign pastoral neglect.”

While some call this compassion, “in truth, it often entails a complicity or a compromise with evil,” he says. “The harder and less popular teachings are left largely unspoken, thereby implicitly giving tacit approval to erroneous or misleading theological opinions.”

“I fear that there has been such a steady diet of such flattened documents that anything issued by individual bishops that contains some element of strength,” he says, “is readily and roundly condemned or simply dismissed as being out of touch with the conference or in conflict with what other bishops might do.”

This matter has often come up in the realm of life and family issues. For example, during the 2008 U.S. federal election campaign Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton was forced to assert his episcopal authority within his diocese after a liberal group used the USCCB document on voting (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship) to argue that Catholics can vote for a pro-abortion candidate.

“No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese,” he insisted, telling them they should have discussed his own pastoral letter where he insisted that Catholics must vote pro-life.

Likewise, while the USCCB has allowed distribution of Communion to pro-abortion politicians – contrary to a letter sent them by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time of their deliberation – numerous bishops, such as Archbishop Raymond Burke, when he was in St. Louis, have forbidden it.

According to Bishop Vasa, pastoral documents “are open to a broad range of interpretation and misinterpretation. … A charge could be brought that such documents are intentionally vague and misleading.”

“While I have had an occasional suspicion of this myself, it would be a serious defect of charity on my part to speculate about whether this is actually the case,” he continued. “I would say that the vagueness, whether intentional or not, has occasionally been a cause of concern and even consternation.”

While he says the conference is “both practical and desirable” for communication and joint efforts such as liturgical translations and disaster relief, Bishop Vasa notes there is “room for concern about the tendency of the conference to take on a life of its own and to begin to replace or displace the proper role of individual bishops, even in their own dioceses.”

“It is easy to forget that the conference is the vehicle to assist bishops in cooperating with each other and not a separate regulatory commission,” he added. Further, he noted that “there may also be an unfortunate tendency on the part of bishops to abdicate to the conference a portion of their episcopal role and duty.”

Compared to the “flattened documents” that often result from “the search for consensus,” statements from individual bishops, he says, “are often stronger, bolder, more decisive, and thus more likely to be criticized as harsh and insensitive.”

Gentle appeals have their place, he says, “but when constant appeal produces absolutely no movement toward self-correction, reform or conversion, then reproving and correcting, become necessary.”

“At some point, there needs to be a bold resistance to the powers of the world in defense of the flock,” he continues. “The fear of offending one contemptuously dissident member of the flock often redounds to a failure to defend the flock. It can redound to a failure to teach the truth.”

“Fortunately, courage is contagious,” he notes, pointing to the examples of courage provided by prelates such as Archbishop Raymond Burke, and Bishops Joseph Martino, Thomas Tobin, Thomas Olmsted, and Fabian Bruskewitz. “These men all encourage you, and they encourage me as well,” he says.

“On the issues of life and marriage, many Catholics want a strong voice and one that is prophetic,” said Deal Hudson. “They don’t want the voice of some committee trying to be diplomatic to everybody.”

Judie Brown said Bishop Vasa has sent “a cannon over the bow of the USCCB,” putting the conference bureaucracy “in the proper perspective.” “They aren’t teachers of the Catholic faith, they are not shepherds, and they are literally destroying the Church by misrepresenting Catholic teaching,” she said.

Find the full address at the InsideCatholic website here.