We have seen many words changed and perverted in meaning over the centuries. None has suffered more degradation than the word "comitatus". It was originally used by Tacitus to describe the close bonds of fealty and kinship that existed between a lord and his sworn retainers. The essence of this bond is beautifully illustrated in the Anglo-saxon poem The Battle of Maldon. The battle was lost but even as they faced defeat, Bryhtwold encouraged his companions.
Byrhtwold spoke, shield raised aloft --
he was an old loyal retainer -- and brandished his spear;
he very boldly commanded the warriors:
"Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less.
Here lies our Lord all hewn down,
goodly he lies in the dust. A kinsman mourns
that who now from this battle-play thinks to turn away.
I am advanced in years. I do not desire to be taken away,
but I by my liege Lord,
by that favorite of men I intend to lie."
This word, comitatus, with its connotations of fealty, honor and filial devotion has devolved into our modern word committee thus losing all of its ancient meaning. Unfortunately a similar fate has befallen the word conference. Originally it described a group of people gathered to confer about a topic. In this it is similar to the words council and synod. Today it means nothing of the sort. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops meets once a year in the fall and while this meeting is taking place it may properly be called a conference. Unfortunately the meaning has been extended to include the Permanent Council, Executive Committee and even the Secretariat of the CCCB. Each of these subordinate bodies is responsible to the one above it and ultimately to the Plenary Assembly which meets once a year.
It should be pointed out that episcopal conferences do not participate in the magisterium although individual bishops do as part of the College of Bishops acting in union with the Pope. Thus a bishops conference cannot issue a doctrinal decree except by two thirds vote and then only upon receiving a recognitio from the Pope. This seems clear enough and there seems to be some virtue in promulgating liturgical norms over an entire region but there seems to be no end of confusion. When the CCCB promulgates a press release or places material on its websites, it is difficult to discern with the many layers of committees and functionaries who is responsible.
This devolution seems to be an attempt to accommodate the structures of the Catholic Church to better fit in with a modern age which expects such a large organization to have a head office with a CEO which can respond to media requests in a way they will understand. Unfortunately we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water in this case. Individual bishops seem to have their very real authority abrogated by a phantom organization which has no authority at all. We need our bishops to behave like pastors who can command the kind of loyalty and filial devotion displayed by Byrhtwold.
On those few occasions I have had to write my pastor, he has responded in a timely and appropriate fashion. Is it too much to expect that our bishops will also display such pastoral concern for their flocks?