The president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, has made some comments about the upcoming second session of the Synod on the family, as the bishops of Germany are discussing the topic in their spring plenary in Hildesheim. While the full text of his words has not been published, we have to make do with interpretations, which is always risky business. Cardinal Marx, speaking for the conference as a whole, has rightly said that we should not reduce the Synod to the question of divorced and remarried Catholics, but of course that does happen, especially when the bishops explain their own intentions on this topic.
About the role of Rome in the pastoral realities of the local churches, Cardinal Marx said the following:
“We are not a subsidiary of Rome. Every bishops’ conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their area and has to proclaim the Gospel in their own unique way. We can’t wait for a Synod to say how we should form our pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family.”
Of course the local churches and bishops are not subsidiaries of Rome, since the Church is not a business. She is, however, one body with one faith. The practical application of that faith may vary by area and culture, sure, but the faith and the teachings of that faith are the same everywhere. It is the responsibility of the local bishops’ conferences to give hands and feet to that faith, to ensure the proper pastoral care and the most effective way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. But they are also responsible for the integrity of the faith in their care and proclamation. The synodality that Pope Francis has been promoting so heavily is a way of ensuring that, as it requires and openness to other bishops and thus prevents singular bishops or groups of bishops from acting alone.
When Cardinal Marx says that he can’t wait for a Synod to tell him what to do, this can only have very limited implications. He is right that the Synod can’t instruct him on the sort of pastoral care he provides, but he does not have the authority to apply possible future changes that are directly contradictory to teachings that only a Synod can change, or even those that no Synod can. When it comes to the topic of divorce and remarriage and access to the sacraments, we have such a change in practice that a single bishop or bishops’ conference can’t introduce. But the general impression, and that may be a wrong impression, is that the German bishops are going to do everything to promote a change like this at the Synod, and even before. The bishops advocate openness to what other bishops will contribute to the Synod, but their actions, such as the one outlined here, do not completely line up with that sentiment.
This all revolves around where doctrine and pastoral care meet. Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, one of the two other German delegates to the Synod, emphasised that both must be acknowledged and taken into account when dealing with such questions. He is right, of course. But we must avoid situations in which doctrine is seen as preventing proper pastoral care, or pastoral concerns overruling doctrine. In the end it’s all about truth. The truth of Jesus Christ, not doing what Rome says, is what dictates what the Church teaches (doctrine) and does (pastoral care).