Catholic teaching on marriage and the family is universal, not something local bishops’ conferences can decide for themselves, an Irish archbishop said Thursday.
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the Primate of All-Ireland, said he did not support “the idea that somehow it’s up to individual bishops conferences to interpret the teaching of the Church."
“I think if we are part of a universal teaching Church, then we do have a very clear vision for marriage and the family and I don’t think that should be subject to interpretation at the level of individual episcopal conferences," he told The Irish Catholic Oct. 15.
Archbishop Martin moderates one of the four English-language discussion circles at the Synod of Bishops underway at the Vatican to discuss the vocation and mission of the family.
His remarks come after some bishops have indicated a desire to localize decisions on Church doctrine and practice. For example, in February Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising had indicated that the German bishops would take their own program of pastoral care for marriage and the family regardless of the synod’s outcome.
“We are not a branch of Rome. Each conference of bishops is responsible for pastoral care in its cultural context and must preach the Gospel in its own, original way," Cardinal Marx said. He added that the German bishops are in communion with the Church on doctrine, while also trying to distinguish between doctrine and pastoral care.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia voiced concern about such proposals in his Oct. 10 intervention at the synod. He warned against devolving important disciplinary and doctrinal issues to bishops’ conferences, “especially when pressure in that direction is accompanied by an implicit spirit of self-assertion and resistance."
Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has strongly criticized proposals to delegate doctrinal or disciplinary decisions on marriage and the family to bishops’ conferences.
The cardinal called this “an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the Catholicity of the Church."
“Episcopal conferences have authority on certain matters, but they are not a magisterium beside the Magisterium, without the Pope and without communion with all the bishops," he said in a March interview with the French newspaper Famille Chretienne.
Many German bishops have favored allowing Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion. This would counter traditional Catholic practice and doctrine about the indissolubility of marriage and the worthy reception of the Eucharist.
Cardinal Mueller’s March interview warned that attributing independent authority to a bishops’ conference risks reawakening polarization between the local and universal Church.
The place of bishops’ conferences in doctrinal decisions was discussed by Pope Francis in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. He criticized excessive centralization as a barrier to evangelization.
He cited the Second Vatican Council’s desire that bishops’ conferences be in a position to advance a collegial spirit in the Church between the bishops and the Pope. Pope Francis said that this desire has not been fully realized and that the status of bishops’ conferences’ doctrinal authority has “not yet been sufficiently elaborated."
However, the Pope also cited St. John Paul II’s 1999 motu proprio Apostolos suos, on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences.
Apostolos suos discussed episcopal conferences’ doctrinal authority to issue catechisms and to approve Bible editions and translations. That document also emphasized the responsibility of bishops to follow the universal magisterium of the Church and to avoid interference in the work of bishops in other countries, given the worldwide reach of communications.
For his part, Archbishop Martin told The Irish Catholic he found it difficult to see how proposals to allow the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion can be reconciled with the Catholic understanding of marriage and the Eucharist.
He also said there is “very much room" to reach out to couples whose marriages have not succeeded and “to make them feel welcome in the Church … We could be much more welcoming to couples and families who perhaps feel excluded completely from the life of the Church, because of what they perceive as the Church’s judgement of them. I think there is an awful lot of room in that for us to show a more welcoming and Christ-like pastoral approach."
Archbishop Martin also said he finds its “difficult to be able to reconcile the idea of Communion for divorced and remarried with our understanding in the Church of the dissolubility of marriage and therefore also our understanding of the Eucharist as being in communion with the Church."
In his interview, the archbishop also discussed the clerical sex abuse crisis, as well as domestic violence and abuse.