Archbishop Vigano: Call your office! Friday, my colleague Soli Salgado and I published a news item about a petition signed by more than 850 priests urging the Synod on the Family to “stand firm on the Church’s traditional understanding of marriage, human sexuality and pastoral practices.” The petition, organized by a group called “Credo Priests” mimics one a few weeks ago engineered by conservative clerics in the United Kingdom. I am dumbfounded by this crass political ploy to put pressure on the synod.
As that story relates, I tried to contact the three sitting bishops who signed it: Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, and Bishop David Kagan of Bismark, North Dakota. I did not reach out to the two retired bishops who also signed the document, Bishop Robert Finn, formerly of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri and Bishop Rene Gracida, formerly of Corpus Christi, Texas. Only Bishop Conley got back to me with a statement:
I signed the Statement of Belief to support American priests affirming fidelity to the doctrine of our faith regarding marriage and the family. The statement is intended to encourage the Synod Fathers as they proclaim freedom in Christ, through the grace of knowing and responding to the truth. This statement is signed by priests who love and support the Holy Father, in response to his universal invitation for dialogue in anticipation of the Synod. Like all Catholics, I pray for the Holy Father and the Synod Fathers, and I encourage all Catholics to learn from the good work of the Synod."
I thank Bishop Conley for his response, but it raises a question, also raised by the text of the statement itself. He states that the document was “in response to [the pope’s] universal invitation for dialogue.” The Credo Priests’ website hosting the petition states in its “About Us” section:
We are asking you, as priests, to consider signing a statement in support of Church teaching in the spirit of Pope Francis’ desire that we be always forthright and honest with our bishops: “…it is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and welcome, with an open heart, what your brothers say” (Pope Francis, from the 1st General Congregation of the 3rd Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, greeting to the Synodal Fathers, October 6, 2014).
It is obvious how this petition fulfills the first half of the Holy Father’s request, to speak forthrightly, but it is unclear to me how the signatories of this petition intend to “listen with humility.” Petitions are one way conveyors of a stance or an opinion. There is no dialogue, no listening. And, besides, the Holy Father was speaking to the Synod Fathers who were going to spend the next two weeks together, often in small discussion groups, formal and informal, where his call for free and frank expressions was guarded by the fact that the interventions were not publicized, much to the consternation of the press corps. As well, the pope called for both frank discussion and hunble listening in the context of spiritual discernment.
This is important. The Pope wants the Synod, and the broader Church, to be attuned to the Holy Spirit, which requires spiritual discernment. I read this online petition and I confess I do not see any mechanism for spiritual discernment there. Instead, it seems like precisely the kind of thing the pope warned against in his morning homily last Friday, the formation of “lobbies” designed to achieve a preordained objective instead of a dialogue that builds up the unity of the Church.
This petition is also strange insofar as the Holy See called for all the bishops to conduct a wide and deep consultation with the faithful and the clergy in their diocese. I was disappointed the USCCB was not more proactive in its consultation methodology. A phone call to the Center for Advanced Research in the Apostolate (CARA) might have yielded some important data, no? But, bishops were free to devise whatever system they wanted and submit their findings to the conference and thence to Rome. Some bishops really undertook a serious consultation, using existing organizations like the presbyteral councils and diocesan men’s and women’s councils, to wrestle with the issues in some depth and report the results of their discussions. Some devised online questionnaires. Some apparently did very little. The statement from the Credo Priests does not fault the process of consultation but the existence of the statement is itself a kind of rebuke to that process.
How is this petition, in form if not content, any different from the full page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle calling for the removal of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone? At least the lay people in San Francisco had the excuse that no one was taking their calls. Surely Bishop Conley could have called Archbishop Charles Chaput, who is a delegate to the synod, seeing as +Conley was +Chaput’s auxiliary in Denver before being translated to Lincoln. I am sure the president of the conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who is also a delegate to the synod and I am sure he would have taken a call from any of these bishops.
I will not go into the content of the statement at any length. To assert that the Church’s teaching regarding marriage is “unchanging” is simply wrong. It changed, or as it is more accurately described, it developed, quite dramatically at the Council of Trent and, again, with the adoption of the Code of Canon Law in 1917. I am just conservative enough to believe that the development of the Church’s teaching on marriage has been a positive development and I do not perceive a huge need to tamper with it. But, the question before the synod is slightly different. The question regarding marriage is this: Does the Church’s discipline adequately extend to a person whose marriage has failed the Church’s “unchanging” teaching regarding God’s limitless mercy, and how should the Church’s discipline better reflect both teachings.
Whatever else this petition is, it is not a form of spiritual discernment, and that is what Pope Francis has called the synod to undertake. Indeed, Pope Francis has asked all Catholics to undertake spiritual discernment, not only regarding the family, but in terms of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of His Church, a Church we believe is animated and guided by the Hole Spirit. Arguments and, in this case, a method, appropriate to a political campaign is not the appropriate way to confront the issues that face the Church. The bishops should withdraw their signatures from this petition – and so should the priests.