UPDATE: Prelates From South America and Asia Sign Letter of Fraternal Correction to German Bishops

Six continents are now represented, an important step for an effort that seeks to build international consensus.

Prelates from around the world gather for the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Oct. 3, 2018.
Prelates from around the world gather for the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Oct. 3, 2018. (photo: Catholic News Agency / Daniel Ibañez)

Editor's Note: This story has been updated. 

A “Fraternal Open Letter” from Catholic bishops around the world to the German episcopacy has gotten even more international in the past couple days, as bishops from two previously unrepresented continents and five new countries have added their names to the list. 

New signatories since the letter’s Tuesday morning release include Archbishop Tomash Peta of Maria Santissima in Astana, Kazakhstan, Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Guimarães of the Military Ordinariate of Brazil, Bishop Adair Guimarães of Formosa, Brazil, Bishop Emeritus Jaime Fuentes of Minas, Uruguay, and Bishop Emeritus Alberto Montero of Canelones, Uruguay.  

With the addition of these bishops from South America and Asia, the letter now includes representation from every continent, aside from bishop-less Antarctica. 

And with the addition of Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, England, and Bishop Stephen Robson of Dunkeld, Scotland, the letter now includes the signatures of bishops from 15 countries. 

"We seem to be witnessing part of the Church on our continent descending into schism and no longer believing or teaching what the Universal Church believes and teaches," Bishop Davies told the Register on Good Friday, after this story had initially been published. "My hope is that this letter and similar initiatives by bishops will contribute to the unity of the Church's witness and help dispel confusion among the faithful, especially amongst the young."

In total, 13 additional bishops have signed the letter since it was released a couple days ago, bringing the total to 87. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s an increase of about 18% in the number of bishops who’ve signed on to this public criticism of the German bishops’ “Synodal Path,” which the text of the letter of fraternal correction describes as causing “the potential for schism in the life of the Church” over its advancement of heterodoxical ideas related to human sexuality and priestly ordination. 

Only one additional U.S. bishop — Auxiliary Bishop Gerard Battersby of Detroit — has signed the letter since its release, but that might not be a problem from the perspective of the letter’s organizers. Originating among a group of U.S. bishops and promoted pre-release by word of mouth, the initial list of signatories was predominantly American, with 48 of its 74 bishops hailing from the U.S.  

By adding 12 more non-American bishops the letter’s geographic representation is more widely distributed. In fact, the latest wave of signatories — which includes the two aforementioned Scottish and English bishops and also Bishop Emeritus Francesco Cavina of Carpi, Italy —  has quadrupled the letter’s European representation. 

Adding signatures from around the world is an important factor if the letter is to achieve two important and related goals. For one, it needs to avoid being characterized as a “U.S.-only” effort, given the prevailing media tendency to portray the “conservative” U.S. episcopacy as out of touch with the universal Church, and especially with the Holy Father. If the representation of international bishops relative to Americans continues to grow, the letter will be increasingly resistant to such framings — and all the more appealing to other possible signatories who would rather avoid appearing non-collegial. 

Additionally, adding more bishops from around the world is important if the letter is to be credibly taken as a kind of universal demonstration of episcopal concern with what’s happening in Germany — a step beyond previous letters issued by the Nordic bishops and the president of Poland’s episcopal conference. The text of the letter begins by highlighting how what happens in Germany has consequences for the rest of the world, so including the signatures of more bishops from more places — especially the global south — will only give more credence to that concern. 

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who is serving as something of a media spokesman for the bishops who organized and are promoting the letter, told the Register Thursday that the letter’s increased geographic representation demonstrates “that there is a collegiality that exists among the bishops of the world, which is another expression of a synodal church. It is very encouraging.” 

He also shared that new signatories are both being invited to join the list by bishops with whom they already have a relationship, but are also reaching out to the organizers themselves after seeing coverage of the letter in the Catholic media. 

“Now that the Fraternal Open Letter is public it appears that bishops are talking about it among themselves, as well as bishops reading news stories,” said Bishop Paprocki, adding that any bishop who wishes to be added to the signatories can send an email message to [email protected]

The email address itself — Latin for “bishops of the world 2022” — is an indication of the expansive intentions the letter organizers have for the geographic representation they’d like to achieve. But in some sense, it’s also a reflection of how many more signatures may need to be added for the letter to truly reflect a concern of the global episcopacy. After all, 87 episcopal signatories make-up only 1.5% of the world’s approximately 5,600 Catholic bishops. 

That raises questions about some potentially peculiar omissions from the list of signatories. For instance, the Nordic bishops and the leader of Poland’s Catholic bishops have already publicly expressed their concerns about the Synodal Path, but their names are absent from the international letter. Other names one might expect to see on a letter like this — from certain international cardinals to American ordinaries — are also not present. 

Of course, it could just be timing. The letter, after all, was released during Holy Week, and the Church is now entering into the Paschal Triduum — a time of liturgical participation, fasting, personal prayer and — eventually — celebration. 

The Fraternal Open Letter will still be there throughout the Easter octave and beyond — and so will the problem in Germany it seeks to address. The commemoration of Christ’s sacrificial self-offering may serve as an inspiration for some bishops who’ve been on the fence to add their name to the letter — and it should certainly serve as a reminder to the entire Church that a God who has already conquered evil is ultimately in control.