On Friday, an unprecedented letter written to Pope Francis by thirteen cardinals taking part in the Vatican synod on marriage and the family was published online, revealing contention regarding the revamped synodal process as well as the suitability of the draft document being used to guide the bishops’ discussions.
The letter was published by veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, who was stripped of his official accreditation at the Holy See Press office after leaking a bootleg copy of the Pope’s encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Sì, several days before its official release last June.
Australian Cardinal George Pell reportedly hand-delivered the letter to Pope Francis on Monday morning, October 5, at the beginning of the general session of the synod. In it, the thirteen prelates “respectfully” asked the Pope to consider a “number of concerns” they have, which are shared by a number of other synod fathers, as well.
The two major issues raised by the cardinals are the content of the synod’s preparatory document, called the “Instrumentum Laboris,” and new synodal procedures that change the way a final document from the synod is prepared.
Though the preparatory document “has admirable elements,” the cardinals concede, it has substantial flaws that disqualify it “as a guiding text or the foundation of a final document,” they wrote.
This is not the first time the working document has come under fire. In early September, two scholars published a meticulous critique on one section of the document in particular—paragraph 137—which deals with Catholic teaching and practice on the question of birth control. The authors contend that, as written, the text presents a “distortion of Catholic teaching” and “contradicts what has hitherto been taught by the Magisterium of the Church about moral norms, conscience, and moral judgment.” The essay was cosigned by an additional 62 renowned Catholic philosophers and theologians.
The cardinals’ second complaint concerns the new procedures guiding the synod, which, they say, “seem to guarantee it excessive influence on the synod’s deliberations and on the final synodal document.” The new rules have eliminated voting on individual “propositions,” which allowed the synod fathers to handcraft a final text paragraph by paragraph, rather than having to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a fully drafted document. The upshot of the changes, the cardinals argue, is that “the new process seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions.”
It “seems urgent to us,” the letter states, “that the crafting of propositions to be voted on by the entire synod should be restored. Voting on a final document comes too late in the process for a full review and serious adjustment of the text.”
Along with these two major criticisms, the letter also mentions “unease” regarding the lack of input by the synod fathers in the composition of the drafting committee. “It is unclear,” they say, “why these procedural changes are necessary.”
The final concern expressed by the cardinals is the danger that a synod designed to address the broad pastoral matter of reinforcing the dignity of marriage and family could “become dominated” by a single issue: the theological/doctrinal question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.
Never before since Pope Paul VI created the synod of bishops in 1965 has a group of cardinals taken such a determined stand in opposition to the way the synod was being conducted. Moreover, the signatories of the letter included some of the Catholic Church’s heaviest hitters, such as the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, the president of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe Cardinal Péter Erdő, the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy Cardinal George Pell, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship Cardinal Robert Sarah, and New York Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Basing himself on the Vatican spokesman’s remarks at the end of Monday’s synod deliberations, Sandro Magister concludes that Pope Francis had “rejected the requests of the letter en bloc, apart from the marginal recommendation not to reduce the discussion only to ‘communion for the divorced.’”
The spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, said that the changes of synodal procedure had been “shared and approved by the pope, and therefore cannot be brought back into discussion.”
Magister advances the theory that the Pope’s remarks to the synod fathers “not to give in to a hermeneutic of conspiracy, which is sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful” were likely directed at the cardinals who signed the letter.
All of this would suggest that the unrest expressed by the thirteen cardinals in their letter—which they claimed was shared by a good number of others—is still very much alive.
Update: Since the publication of this article, four of the cardinals who allegedly signed the letter to Pope Francis have denied it, according to reports. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi did not refute the existence of the letter, but said that since it reportedly was for Pope Francis, “it’s up to him to choose what to say about it.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.