British Priests Speak Up for Marriage

Since almost the beginning of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops that considered the “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” over a fortnight in Rome last October, the Church has been wrought with anguished debate on the future of marriage and human sexuality.

That’s the way the matter has been reported in the popular press in the UK, at least. The Fourth and Fifth Estates were quick to bolt a shambolic and confused façade onto the various committee meetings that actually made up the Synod, itself a so-called preliminary meeting before this October’s full discussion.

Of course, the Church did not help itself.

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The interim report, the relatio post disceptationem or “report after the debate,” was released at the end of the first week and aimed at the difficult task of summarizing the 265 or so speeches and position papers that had been published thus far. The relatio appeared to suggest that same-sex attracted people offered unique “gifts and qualities” solely because of their sexual orientation, and was described as marking a “divorce” between participants on divorce, remarriage and Communion.

A week or so later, the preliminary meeting’s final report was only 62 paragraphs long. But the media, secular and religious, ignored the orthodox and settled Catholic teaching in the vast majority of the document and seized on the three paragraphs that did not achieve the required two-thirds majority of bishops in a final vote. Those paragraphs covered homosexuality, and the question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could be allowed to receive the Eucharist.

At the half-way point between the preliminary meeting and full Synod on the Family this autumn, 461 Catholic priests in Britain have written a letter calling for the Synod to state their “unwavering fidelity to the traditional doctrines regarding marriage and the true meaning of human sexuality.”

The priests recognize “those struggling to respond to the demands and challenges of the Gospel in an increasingly secular society” but call for an affirmation of “the importance of upholding the Church’s traditional discipline regarding the reception of the sacraments, and that doctrine and practice remain firmly and inseparably in harmony” and “a clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, so that confusion may be removed, and faith confirmed” at the full Synod.

As the Catholic Herald newspaper noted, the signatories included notable theologians and academics, a diocesan spokesman, a prominent blogger, and the provost of the London Oratory.

In his official response to the letter, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, urged priests to refrain from debating in public matters at the heart of the Synod. His official spokesman said that “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.”

Pope Francis, whilst note responding directly to the British letter, asked for “All of us—the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, lay faithful” to pray for the Synod, and exhorted that:

There is need of this, not of chatter!

So why did the priests sign the letter?

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, a well-known commentator and priest to a suburban parish outside London, described his “gratitude” to the organizers, and warned that the Synod—while focusing on the pastoral treatment of the divorced and remarried—had precious few moral theologians who understood the rich theological complexities that underpin the Church’s historical teaching:

Talking about pastoral provisions without reference to morals is a bit like having a discussion in a room from which the oxygen has been pumped out.

After all, the Church’s teaching is rooted directly in the teaching of Jesus who, when challenged by Pharisees, reminded them of the Mosaic law: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:2-12).

Reflecting on the practical realities of the changing pattern of family life in British society and his front-line experience of the costs of family breakdown, Fr Lucie-Smith counseled that “[t]here are many more who have never been married. Divorce is not the problem in developed societies like ours: the problem is that divorce has been so successful that it has undermined marriage. Marriage has become ‘a piece of paper,’ a devalued currency. We need to rebuild the institution of marriage from the foundations up….”

He concluded:

I signed because I worry about the future. What will a society without marriage look like? We seem to be heading that way. If we somehow or another allow or give permission for second unions, where the first union has been proved to be consummatum ac ratum, we effectively give permission for temporary marriage, and worse than that, we make every marriage, formerly absolute, contingent. This would be a catastrophe.

Writing in opposition to the letter, Monseigneur Keith Balthrop, a parish priest in central London, worried about the public perception that the Synod was a fundamentally political battle between liberals and conservatives. The role of the priest and pope was to stand above mere posturing:

[A] priest is surely called to listen attentively and with empathy to all people, both those worried about unfaithfulness to tradition, and those who long for an alternative approach, theologically coherent and pastorally sensitive, to remarried divorcees and gay people. A priest is a bridge-builder (pontifex), an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor 5:20), who died to gather into one the scattered children of God (Jn 11:51-2), not a spokesman for a party.

He implied that the letter-writers were fomenting trouble: “The spectre of disunity and worse hovers in the background. Disagreements about the scope and purpose of Vatican II, held in check by St John Paul II and his successor, are now being aired in a most divisive spirit. Does not the priests’ letter about the synod tacitly invite a response from “the other side”?

It is hard to disagree with the view of the Catholic journalist, Damian Thompson, who described Cardinal Nichols’ response as “unwise.” He should have welcomed the letter and its public nature, and then reminded the priests of the need for a period of discernment. The letter was even-handed and a statement of (as we say this side of the Pond) the bleedin’ obvious. (Had it been a vitriolic or spiteful missive signed by hundreds of disgruntled prelates frothing at the mouth for violent revolution, then that would have been another thing.) Even if the cardinal doesn’t like the medium of a public letter, he should at least have welcomed the message.

Nor is it enough to decry the letter as mere “politics” as Msgr Balthrop does. Rather, this is the very stuff and substance of free debate. On enormous cultural matters like the Church’s recognition of family life and the nature of sexuality, debate simply must be played out in the public eye. Or perhaps these critics, as Thompson fears, don’t like the substantive message? In which case, it will be a bloody Synod this October, which neither Hell nor high water will keep out of the global press.

As the Catholic Voices blog noted, British Catholics await the Synod with bated breath, to see how the global bishops deal with the grave “contemporary challenges” that they face.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)


  • Peter Smith

    Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London. He has previously worked in Parliament for Sir Edward Leigh MP.

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