01 April 2015, The Tablet

Bishops seek to keep synod debate out of the media

Debate on issues such as allowing Communion for those divorced and remarried to be raised at October’s Synod on the Family has exposed tensions in the Church with one bishop refusing to meet a prominent lay group pressing for change.

Meanwhile two other bishops have reminded the conservative-minded priests who recently signed an open letter resisting change to the Church’s current moral teaching that other channels exist by which to make their voices heard.

Following news that the Bishop of Lancaster, Michael Campbell, had refused to meet diocesan members of Acta (A Call to Action), the head of the organisation issued a statement saying that she believed her group’s stance was “what Pope Francis wants”.

“He told the Catholic youth in Brazil to ‘make a mess’ in their dioceses,” said Eileen Fitzpatrick, Acta’s national chair. “We hope the bishops of England and Wales will catch up with him if they haven’t already done so. Acta are not going away and if doors don’t open to us, we shall continue to knock.”

She said Acta had about 2,000 members, with groups in each of the dioceses in England and Wales – and in about 10 areas groups had met with their bishops. But speaking on BBC Radio Lancashire, Alex Walker of Acta said Bishop Campbell had refused to meet with his group on many occasions.

“It flies in the face of all that Pope Francis is saying about getting smelly with the sheep,” said Mr Walker. “We are smelly. Come and talk to us … listen to what we want to say.”

What Pope Francis wanted the synod to do, said Mr Walker, was to get the Church to catch up with the modern face of the family, whose issues included gay marriage as well as divorce and remarriage.

But Bishop Campbell, who was also interviewed, reacted angrily, saying he found Mr Walker’s comments “unacceptable … what [does] rile me … was to say I’m in disagreement with Pope Francis …[It is] absolutely appalling and unworthy … To say that a Catholic Bishop of Lancaster is not fully in agreement and communion with the Pope is quite false and quite offensive.”

Two bishops contacted by The Tablet have reaffirmed Cardinal Nichols’ statement slapping down the 461 signatories to the letter published in the Catholic Herald.

Retired Bishop Crispian Hollis said that if the letter had arrived at his address with a request for a signature he would have binned it, and he pointed out that there was a procedure for feedback and views on the synod; he did not agree, he said, with either the content of the letter or the way it was publicised. He also questioned the way in which it had been distributed.

The Bishop of Northampton, Peter Doyle, who with Cardinal Nichols will represent England and Wales at the October synod in Rome, took a similar line, saying: “This is the puzzle facing the synod: it’s about upholding the constant teaching of the Church while at the same time trying to find ways of meeting painful situations with the compassion of the Lord.”

A leading canon lawyer, Dr Edward Peters of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, however, wrote in his blog that the cardinal should not have said anything about the letter, which merely defended church teaching on marriage and the sacraments, and amounted to a statement of what every Catholic should be proud to proclaim.

Another canonist, Mgr Basil Loftus, said: “Canonically a diocesan bishop has the right and in some cases the duty to restrict public statements from his priests. Whether or not bishops today would wish to enforce that restriction in view of so many cardinals and bishops who proactively make use of the communications media is a moot point. Clearly, a civil lawyer would have to be asked about the human rights of freedom of expression that may be involved.”

  Loading ...
Get Instant Access
Subscribe to The Tablet for just £7.99

Subscribe today to take advantage of our introductory offers and enjoy 30 days' access for just £7.99