From the Catholic Herald 3rd April 2015
THE PREFECT of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has advised bishops' conferences not to take "doctrinal and disciplinary decisions" on issues that rightly fall under the Magisterium of the Church.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller said that while bishops' conferences have authority on some matters,
"they don't constitute a magisterium within the Magisterium, independently of the Pope and out of communion
with other bishops".
"An episcopal conference is not a special council, still less an ecumenical council, and its president is nothing more than a technical moderator with no magisterial authority," Cardinal Müller said in an interview with the French Catholic weekly Famille Chrétienne.
He explained that the idea of "delegating certain doctrinal or disciplinary decisions on
marriage and family" to bishops' conferences was "absolutely anti-Catholic" and failed to "respect
the Church's Catholicity".
"This type of attitude risks reawakening a polarisation between local churches and the universal Church which was overcome by the First and Second Vatican Councils. The Church is not a gathering of national churches whose presidents vote in their head as a universal authority."
Cardinal Marx caused controversy during a press conference at the close of a German bishops' plenary meeting in February when he said his conference planned to help the Church "go down new paths" and "pursue its own pastoral care programme" regardless of the outcome of the family synod on October 4-25 at the Vatican.
"We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we have to shape pastoral care for marriage and family here," said Cardinal Marx, who will be one of three German delegates at the synod. "We are not a subsidiary of Rome. Each bishops' conference is responsible for pastoral care in its cultural context and must preach the Gospel in its own original way," he said.
Cardinal Marx's statement was also rejected by Cardinal Paul Cordes, retired president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. Cardinal Cordes described Cardinal Marx's comments as "irritating theological blurriness" in a letter to Germany's Catholic Tagespost daily.
"As a social ethicist, Cardinal Marx may know a lot about the dependent branches of large corporations - in an ecclesiastical context, such statements are rather worthy of the village pub," Cardinal Cordes wrote.
"The sentence 'We cannot wait for a synod' was hardly inspired, to say the least, by an ecclesiastical sense of communion. This 'anti-Roman instinct' is not the invention of some scholars, but a northern reality which displays strong centrifugal power and is highly destructive to the Church's unity," he argued.
The row over a letter signed by almost 500 priests has exposed deep, but resolvable
divisions over the synod, says Madeleine Teahan.
On the face of it, the priests were simply expressing support for established Church teaching and practice. But nevertheless the letter provoked a furious debate.
The first sign of trouble came straight from the top. On the day after the publication of the letter online, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, issued a statement urging priests not to conduct the synod debate through the press.
Speaking on behalf of the cardinal, a spokesman said: "Every priest in England and Wales has been asked to reflect on the synod discussion. It is my understanding that this has been taken up in every diocese, and that channels of communication have been established."
He continued: "The pastoral experience and concern of all priests in these matters are of great importance and are welcomed by the bishops. Pope Francis has asked for a period of spiritual discernment. This dialogue, between a priest and his bishop, is not best conducted through the press."
The statement generated concern in some quarters. Fr Ray Blake, parish priest of St Mary Magdalen, Brighton, suggested the cardinal's message was "designed to intimidate".
Edward Peters, an American expert in canon law. wrote on his blog: "There isn't a word -
not one single word in the short. open letter sited by hundreds of British Catholic priests to the Catholic Herald defending Church teaching on marriage and sacraments that any
Catholic could not, and should not be proud to personally profess and publically proclaim ... l am at a loss, therefore,
Finally, the essential ingredient for a media storm was thrown into the mix: an online petition. It called on the cardinal to "support our priests when they speak up for orthodox teaching and practice of the Church". As we went to press it had 545 signatures.
Of course. many priests declined to sign the letter. Writing at catholicherald.co.uk, Mgr Keith Barltrop suggested the letter had produced a bandwagon effect with a hunger for influence enticing priests into signing it. "Like several of my priest friends. I decided not to sign the letter," he wrote. "A priest is a bridge-builder (pontifex). an ambassador for Christ who died to gather into one the scattered children of God. not a spokesman for a party."
Why did nearly 500 priests feel compelled to speak up? Cast your mind back to last October and recall how high emotions ran over the contentious wording on same-sex couples, divorce and remarriage in the synod's mid-term report.
One person familiar with the origins of the priests' letter said the initiative was launched by laity concerned by the mid-term report's contents and the way the synod was conducted more generally. Lay people scoured the Catholic Directory and sent every parish priest a copy of a draft letter, inviting them to sign it.
In statement Cardinal Nichols suggested that the priests should have made their feelings clear through the diocesan channels available to them. Yet the letter's existence suggests there may he a problem with these channels.
One person. who asked to remain anonymous, claimed that priests who approached some bishops with their concerns about the synod had been cold-shouldered. Vatican commentator Marco Tosatti suggested this problem wasn't confined to Britain when he wrote that those who disagreed with a particular line were made to feel unwelcome or even "punished a little".
Some priests have strongly criticised a synod briefing document issued by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. They claimed that the Reflection Document for the Clergy on Marriage and Family portrayed those who upheld the Church's current practice on Communion for the remarried and other sensitive issues as Donatist heretics.
The second, decisive family synod is still six months away, but the Church is clearly in for a bumpy ride. At his general audience last week. Pope Francis called for prayer not "chatter" ahead of the bishops' gathering. Prayer is of paramount importance, but channels of honest communication are critical, too.
When he opened the first synod last October, Francis urged parlicipants "to say all that you feel with parrhesia - the Greek word for boldness - and not simply say what they thought the Pope wanted to hear. "This is not good!" he said.
If priests and bishops in Britain arc to truly honour the Pope's wishes. then surely they need to discuss the issues candidly face to face. Such candour may even be reported in the media. Without forthright but respectful conversions, which are essential to building trust, it's hard to see how bishops and priests will be able to work together to implement the synod's conclusions.
* The second synod on the family will take place on October 4-25
Copyright © The Catholic Herald Ltd. 2015
Version: 8th March 2015