The Case for a Fair, Free and Authentic Synod Debate

(photo: CNA)

Cardinal Vincent Nichols has voiced his opposition to an initiative of nearly 500 priests of England and Wales in which they signed an open letter stating their “unwavering fidelity” to Church doctrine on marriage and the family ahead of the upcoming Synod on the Family. 

The Archbishop of Westminster said in a statement yesterday that their concerns about the synod should be raised with their bishop and are “not best conducted through the press.”

But his response is causing considerable concern among some in Rome, and probably elsewhere, who feel that for priests to merely uphold the Church’s teaching in a concerted and public way is now no longer permissible. A few of the faithful I have spoken with have been even more forthright and expressed anger and great sadness at the cardinal's response. A petition has now been created to support the priests.

What this partly shows is that some Church leaders believe that promoting the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage and the family somehow obstructs Pope Francis’ will for the synod – despite no one knowing for sure what the Holy Father’s opinion really is, as he has purposely never explicitly made his views public, in order to encourage free discussion.

But this presumed view of the Pope, although probable given his appointments, words and actions, means that one half of the debate is being closed down. And this runs contrary to what is definitively known about the Holy Father's will for the synod: that he wants a free and open debate. 

Would Cardinal Nichols, for instance, have given the same response if the priests had signed a letter in support of Cardinal Walter Kasper and his proposal for divorced and ‘remarried’ Catholics? Possibly, possibly not. But it could legitimately be argued that the priests’ initiative is a direct consequence of proven attempts to manipulate the synod and silence one half of the debate. 

And increasingly laity and clergy, in Rome at least, are regretfully pointing out that the Holy Father isn’t helping the situation. His recent morning homilies have frequently criticized “doctors of the law” and those who try to uphold doctrine, as if this were something wholly negative and anti-pastoral. They also regret that his regular warnings against gossip – although valid in themselves – are, in effect, closing down legitimate criticism for fear that such censure might be construed as harmful chatter.

The Holy Father has talked about a “protected space” for the synod in which the Holy Spirit can work, and authentic debate on all these issues can take place.

But as any impartial observer could point out, if only one half is protected (a half, it should be said, which many fear is a departure from the Church's doctrine and practice) how can any debate be free, open and authentic?