In Open Letter, 500 British Priests Ask Synod to Affirm Church Teaching

The priests called for a “clear and firm” proclamation of Church doctrine on marriage and sexuality, but Cardinal Vincent Nichols subsequently criticized the letter’s publication.


WESTMINSTER, England — In an unusual move, nearly 500 British priests signed an open letter urging the fathers of the upcoming Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family to issue a “clear and firm” proclamation of Church teaching on marriage and sexuality.

The letter was published March 24 by the Catholic Herald and has already caused a stir in the local Church and the Catholic blogosphere.

The priests, sensing confusion among the laity after last year’s synod, said they wished to “re-state our unwavering fidelity to the traditional doctrines regarding marriage and the true meaning of human sexuality, founded on the word of God and taught by the Church’s magisterium for two millennia.”

The priests were addressing the fathers of the upcoming synod, which will take place in October. Much of the media coverage of the event focuses on questions of morality regarding divorce and homosexuality.

Signatories of the letter called for the synod fathers to stand firm in reiterating Church teaching despite calls from some who are pushing against it.

Two of the signatories, who spoke to the Catholic Herald about the letter, said there “has been a certain amount of pressure not to sign the letter and indeed a degree of intimidation from some senior Churchmen.”

In a blog for the Catholic Herald the day following the letter’s publication, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith defended his signature on the letter. He noted that the last time British Catholics wrote an open letter published in the media it was to express their dissent from the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld the Church’s teaching on birth control.

But this new letter differs in that it is not one of dissent — rather, it is in full support of Church teaching, Father Lucie-Smith wrote.

“[N]early five hundred British priests (of which I am one) writing in support of traditional Church teaching, in obedience to the bishops, who asked us to make our views known, and indeed in obedience to the Pope, who has asked people to speak freely, indeed boldly,” he said. “That is what the word ‘parrhesia,’ of which the Pope is quite fond, means.”

Pope Francis has encouraged open debate throughout the synod process. At the beginning of the preliminary synod last year, he told participants to speak openly. In his closing remarks to the bishops, he encouraged the bishops to live in the tension of disagreement, saying that, “personally, I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St. Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent, is a false and quietist peace.”

However, in his Wednesday general audience last week, the day after the letter was published, Pope Francis asked for a renewal of prayer for the synod.

“I ask you, please, to not neglect your prayer. All of us — the Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, lay faithful — we are all called to pray for the synod. There is need of this, not of chatter!” Pope Francis said March 25.


Cardinal Nichols

That same day, a spokesman for Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster said in a statement published in the Catholic Herald that the media was not the place for priests to have this discussion.

“The pastoral experience and concern of all priests in these matters are of great importance and are welcomed by the bishops. Pope Francis has asked for a period of spiritual discernment,” the statement said. “This dialogue, between a priest and his bishop, is not best conducted through the press.”  

But many signatories who wrote blogs shortly after the publication of the letter said they felt they were doing their duty as priests in signing the document and that they did so for pastoral and not political reasons.

“We are supposed [to] preach and teach and uphold the Catholic faith, but not, according to (Cardinal Nichols), in the media; presumably, he means the public forum … and yet cardinals, including himself, do so,” said Father Ray Blake, a signer of the letter, in his blog.

“Does His Eminence really expect clergy to remain silent about the very thing many Catholics are deeply concerned about?”

Damian Thompson, an associate editor with the British news site The Spectator, suggested that Cardinal Nichols’ efforts to dissuade priests from speaking up “will backfire.” He also noted the wide range of signatories — priests that wouldn’t be classified as conservatives, much less as traditionalists.  

As a moral theologian and as a pastor, Father Lucie-Smith said he did not hesitate to sign the letter, which asks “that doctrine and practice remain firmly and inseparably in harmony.”

Another signatory who also asked to remain anonymous while speaking to the Catholic Herald said that the issue of communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics was a matter of pastoral concern and fidelity to the Gospel.

“Mercy requires both love and truth. There’s a lot at stake. Not all priests would be comfortable expressing themselves in an open letter, but I’d be very worried if there were priests who disagreed with the sentiments it contains,” he told the Catholic Herald.

The upcoming synod is set to take place Oct. 4-25, with the theme “Jesus Christ Reveals the Mystery and Vocation of the Family.” The conclusions of the gathering will be used by Pope Francis to draft his first post-synodal exhortation, which can be expected in 2016.

The full text of the open letter, as well as the names of the signatories. can be found at:

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