When my wife and I were going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in 2002-2003 in a (as we later learned) very liberal parish whose leadership still held to the liberation theology paradigm, one of the things we were taught was that many of the teachings of the Church were optional.
Reference was made to documents of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to validate this, and it was not until I began a serious study of the social teaching of the Church after being baptized, that I actually began to learn the truth of what the Church teaches.
What I learned was that you had to consult the primary documents, not the Conference, and foremost among the primary documents are the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1st edition of 1992 and the 2nd edition of 1997), and many others, which we list on our website, apostolate page.
This article from The Catholic Thing addresses the issues with the USCCB.
“For years the lobbying office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) produced a quadrennial presidential questionnaire that was supposed to help Catholic voters decide which candidate most closely supported Catholic teaching. The problem was that the questionnaire reflected the teachings of the Church less than the policy preferences of the conference’s liberal-Democratic lay staff. The questionnaire was killed prior to the 2004 election and did not reappear in 2008.
“The questionnaire was probably the best example of the central problem about the USCCB. Many Catholics think the Conference possesses a teaching authority somewhere between their local bishop and the pope, so that something as silly as a presidential questionnaire is thought to be somehow authoritative.
“One brave bishop addressed this issue during a speech in Washington D.C. last week. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, said that there are good reasons for a conference of bishops, “There is no doubt that such a unified exercise of a pastoral office is both practical and desirable.” Work on revising the translation of the missal, for instance, would have been chaotic if each bishop had had to do it for himself. He cited Haitian relief as impossible without Catholic Charities and conceded that the conference played a sometimes useful role in identifying issues, conducting research, and even influencing national debates.
“But he drew sharp lines, too: “It is sometimes easy for the conference to revert to stronger patterns of autonomy and even to be perceived as possessing types of authority that it neither claims nor possesses. 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.”
“Bishop Vasa described a situation in which documents – inevitably produced by meat-grinding consensus in conference committees – can be vague, flat, and easily misunderstood: “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 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.”
“He strongly asserted the longstanding canonical authority of the local bishop over against anything produced by bishops’ conferences. The Doctrine Committee may be very helpful for a local bishop who is thinking through an issue. But he warned that the bishop should not then say the Doctrine Committee “has decided.” Rather the Bishop should make clear, “After consultation with the Doctrine Committee I have decided. . .” That’s the ancient system in a Catholic diocese, and there should be no confusion about who is the decider.
“In support of his argument, Vasa cited both Joseph Ratzinger and John Paul II, Ratzinger said, “No Episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission: its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by individual bishops.” John Paul II wrote, “In fact, only the faithful entrusted to the pastoral care of a particular bishop are required to accept his judgment in the name of Christ in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with religious assent of soul.”