Ecclesial Surreality: Cardinal chastises priests for publicly supporting Church teaching

My hope is that when an exhaustive (and exhausting) history of the Great Inter-Synodal Battle of 2014-15 is written someday, the collective sense of it will be: “What were they thinking?”—the “they” being those who prelates, priests, and others who pushed for changes in Church teaching about the sacrament of matrimony. But, in the present moment, every scuffle, tussle, and uproar is impossible to assess without some degree of tension, frustration, and even anger. 

And, on occasion, even cynicism. At a time when some Church leaders appear absolutely certain that Islam is a “religion of peace,” that global warming is a scientific fact, that immigration reform must go only a certain way, and that nodding the head toward the rulers of the Reign of Gay is the measure of mercy and goodness, they also seem decidedly confused and uncertain about doctrines and dogmas that are as clear as day and easier to explain than it is to write the word “d-a-y”.

Anyhow, the most recent episode of ecclesial surreality consists of a cardinal chastising priests for publicly upholding Church teaching. It really is that simple, even if what is behind and underneath the clash is apparently a complicated and twisted mess of infighting, power struggles, and attempts to control messages and persons. The Catholic Herald, which earlier this week published a letter signed by 461 priests declaring their “unwavering fidelity to the traditional doctrines regarding marriage”, now has the story of the irritated response of Cardinal Vincent Nichols:

Priests should not conduct a debate about the October Family Synod through the press, Cardinal Nichols has said, following the publication of a letter signed by hundreds of priests, urging the synod to issue a “clear and firm proclamation” upholding Church teaching on marriage. …

In a statement, a spokesman for Cardinal Nichols said that the press was not the medium for conducting dialogue of this sort.

“Every priest in England and Wales has been asked to reflect on the Synod discussion. It is my understanding that this has been taken up in every diocese, and that channels of communication have been established,” the statement said.

“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. This dialogue, between a priest and his bishop, is not best conducted through the press.”

The letter signed by the priests is itself not a letter of debate, but of simple, direct statement. But it is, without doubt, also a line drawn in the synodal sands (which are ever-shifting, it seems), and speaks, again, to the debate that took place at the Synod last year and is now ongoing. It also speaks to the debates and conflicts that are most certainly taking place within ecclesial circles in England. Damien Thompson, a Catholic and a columnist for The Telegraph, knows the lay of the land across the pond far, far better than I ever will, and he offers some trenchant commentary, beginning with a headline that flatly states Cardinal Nichol’s “attempts to silence faithful priests … will backfire”:

1. The Cardinal refers to ‘channels of communication’ that, in reality, are either blocked or permit only one-way traffic. I wouldn’t dream of calling a Prince of the Church a control freak, but if Nichols were a politician – a painfully on-message Labour junior minister from Merseyside, say – the cap would fit. The idea that the Bishops of England and Wales ‘welcome’ any views that don’t coincide with theirs is laughable. On this issue they’ve decided to align themselves with Pope Francis’s opinions on Communion for the divorced and homosexuality. The fact that these opinions are inchoate and elusive doesn’t trouble them because the same could be said of their own jargon-rich waffle. Cardinal Nichols is impressively fluent in ‘bishopese’; what distinguishes him from his colleagues is his quietly effective suppression of dissent. On this occasion, however, it hasn’t been so effective. Priests who normally play by the rules were so worried by the Anglican-style chaos of last October’s Synod on the Family (the first of two) that they felt they had no alternative but to speak openly. …


3. The Cardinal’s anger is directed not just at the priests but also at the press for publishing their letter. Obviously he doesn’t like me, and you wouldn’t expect him to, but he shows little interest in Catholic newspapers that, as it happens, bite their tongues and resist opportunities to criticise him out of loyalty to the Church. He is not rude to journalists but he can be aggressively patronising and it never occurs to him that devout Catholic writers might help him to spread his message. Whatever that is. …


4. Finally, I have a nasty suspicion that any priest who was brave enough to sign that letter will find his card marked. Thanks to the inertia of the Bishops’ Conference, there are easily 500 deadbeat parishes to which they can be assigned – though, come to think of it, the calibre of the signatories is so much higher than the average that this could be a way of reviving the Church’s mission. …

John Smeaton, who is director of SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) says he is “deeply disturbed” by Cardinal Nichol’s criticisms and finds the prelate’s remarks to be “astonishing”:

Firstly, Cardinal Nichols has himself used the press to indicate sympathy for views being promoted by the “radical elements” (to use Cardinal Pell’s phrase) who want to dismantle Catholic teaching on marriage and the family.

I drew attention yesterday to the press conference at which Cardinal Nichols’ undermined Catholic teaching on the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and “remarried”.

The Cardinal also used the press to express his disappointment that the final report of the synod did not include controversial phrases originally placed in the notorious interim report. 

He also makes a point that is commonsensical—and is thus probably out of bounds in this often nonsensical age:

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, how can any Catholic bishop object to priests using the media to express their loyalty to the teaching of Christ and their desire to give true pastoral care to all who need it.

On this side of the Atlantic, canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters weighs in:

The priests’ letter is a model of accuracy, balance, brevity, and pastoral respect for persons. It fortifies the soul to know it exists. It gladdens the heart to actually read it. I am at a loss, therefore, to understand why Vincent Cardinal Nichols seems to chastise priests who signed letter for their allegedly “conducting [a] dialogue, between a priest and his bishop … through the press.” The priests’ letter is a statement of Catholic belief, not an opening gambit in a negotiation; it is addressed to a journal editor, and through him to lay and clerical public, not to a particular prelate. Moreover, the letter is a text-book example of clergy exercising a canonical right guaranteed to all the Christian faithful…

Meanwhile, the historians are busy taking copious notes; they will busy for months and months to come. 

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.