In a helpful recent column for National Review Online, George Weigel reminds us of the magisterial authority of statements from the chairmen of USCCB committees, explaining these documents are “binding on precisely no one” and that these chairmen “speak for themselves, period.” The statements he had in mind were from last spring and contained denunciations of the policies contained in Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget.
Episcopal conferences have no authority over doctrinal matters per se and exist to assist individual bishops in the governing of their respective dioceses. (Archbishop Pilarczyk once humorously likened the forerunner to the USCCB to “a league of independent grocers.”) If an individual bishop wants to take up themes addressed in a conference document in an exhortation to his flock, as Archbishop Schnurr recently did in a letter about policy priorities for the forthcoming election, he is certainly free to do so, but in and of themselves those “source” documents, again, have no authority.
Which is why the new election-oriented “Sample Bulletin Inserts” issued by the Catholic Social Action office for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati are disappointing. They intersperse quotes from documents which do have authority, e.g., the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, with those that do not, e.g., a USCCB statement on “Climate Change.” And given the many topics addressed by each snippet, they give the impression that all issues are of equal import. In an election year with so much at stake, that’s a real disservice.