British Priests’ Open Letter Asks Synod to Affirm Traditional Teaching

by Katie Rich


On March 24, the Catholic Herald published an open letter signed by nearly 500 British priests urging those participating in the upcoming Ordinary Synod to issue a “clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching” on marriage and the family.


The letter cites that confusion as to the proper understanding of Catholic teaching arose after the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome last October, specifically concerning marriage and sexuality.  The media focused intently on the topics of homosexuality and divorce, specifically whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive Communion.  Retired Cardinal Walter Kasper brought the question to the attention of the Synod.

The 461 priests who signed the letter state that, as priests, they wish “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.”

While calling for the adherence to tradition, the priests also emphasized the need for compassion.  They hope the bishops in the Synod will remain true to tradition “while reaching out with the Lord’s compassion to those struggling to respond to the demands and challenges of the Gospel in an increasingly secular society.”


The last time British priests wrote an open letter published by the media was in 1968, when a letter of dissent was written in response to Pope Paul VI’s publishing of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical outlining the Church’s views on contraception.


The recent letter was met with some consternation, as English Cardinal Vincent Nichols said in a statement the day after publication.  “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 cardinal said. “This dialogue, between a priest and his bishop, is not best conducted through the press.”  


One of the letter’s co-signers, Fr. Lucie-Smith, defended his signature, saying that this letter was not one of dissent but support for upholding the tradition of the Church.    “Nearly five hundred British priests (of which I am one) [are] 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 ‘parresia’, of which the Pope is quite fond, means.”


Pope Francis mentioned parresia in his address at the closing of the Extraordinary Synod in October.  He spoke of his happiness in the ‘movement of spirits’ among the members of the Synod, that there was conversation in place of “a state of agreement, or silence in a false and quietist peace.  Instead,” the Pope continues, “I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parresia... without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life.”


In his Wednesday audience address on March 25, the day after the letter’s publication, Pope Francis called for prayer over ‘chatter’.  “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!”

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