An episcopal conference is a form of assembly in which the bishops of a certain country or region exercise their pastoral office jointly in order to enhance the Church's beneficial influence on all men, especially by devising forms of the apostolate and apostolic methods suitably adapted to the circumstances of the times. (Christus Dominus, 38)
There is no doubt that such a unified exercise of a pastoral office is both practical and desirable. There are certain things in our country, for instance, that are made possible only because the bishops have joined together in cooperative effort. The work on the revised translations of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal could not be done independently by each bishop. This would be chaotic. The Haitian hurricane relief efforts of Catholic Relief Services is beyond the scope or capacity of any single bishop or diocese. Pouring through, evaluating, and making recommendations on the reform of health care in America requires resources simply not possessed by most dioceses – certainly not mine. It seems to me that a conference, in some form, is nearly essential.
There was a time in the fairly recent past when the conference, and especially its committees, had much more of a life of its own, seemingly independent of the body of bishops; but the revised structures have mitigated this significantly. There is a possibility that there may have been a concerted effort on the part of a segment of bishops in the past to foster a higher degree of autonomy on the part of the conference, but any comment by me would be entirely speculative. In general, I think the conference does a very good job of helping to identify issues, conduct research, and even influence national debates.