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.

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.

  • ForChristAlone

    The author writes: “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.)”

    Not really. Had the letter been addressed to the teachings of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, all the vitriol and frothing would have been encouraged among the clergy – especially those clergy of the ilk associated with the Catholic University of America back in ’68. Funny how Nichols wants to temper the voice of priests faithful to Catholic Church teachings when it comes to homosexuality and adultery. One does begin to wonder what motivates the. hierarchy.

    We’re gonna need a better system for choosing bishops. Let’s get rid of the good ‘ole boy network among the domestic hierarchy that continues to give us morally bankrupt leaders.

    • More carpenters and fishermen, fewer psychologists and philosophers.

  • Bruno

    So, if the thing is not to be handled publicly, then why has Cdl. Kasper not been restrained in advancing an ‘agenda’ foreign to Catholic teaching, making good use of media, and even supported by the Pope, in the last two years?
    Why does the Pope make use of his well publicized daily homilies to beat down Pharisees and doctors of the law and “cold doctrine”, even when the daily readings don’t call for that?

    • Daniel P

      I would charitably assume that Pope Francis’s comments about “chatter” apply to Kasper, too.

      • Bruno

        Thank you, that helps me.

        • Paddy

          Why bishops know so little about morality should be troubling too.
          were they sleeping in seminary for all those years or are they simply dunces?

          • Maria Gabriela Salvarrey Rodri

            Maybe they don’t have ears to listen nor eyes to see as Jesus would say.

      • Jacqueleen

        Of course it does….because the document is already written and the Pope is going to let it go the way he wants it…….Where does the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God fit into this entire scenario?

    • fredx2

      Remember that the Pope is not really attacking all conservatives when he talks about Pharisees, and those who insist on following the law. Remember he has also called progressives “Adolescent progressives”. The Pope takes a “pox on both your houses” position. Liberals like to pretend he is bashing conservatives, because that suits them. But don’t buy into their blather.

      The Pope repeatedly criticizes those who focus solely on the letter of the law because he believes this hurts Christianity. If one is always insisting on a rigid application of rules, but has no love in his heart, then Christianity becomes empty. That is what the Pope is afraid of.

      If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,b but do not have love, I gain nothing.

      He really wants people to see Christianity as the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospels” rather than simply a system of rules. he wants to remind us that following the rules does not a Christian make, and wants us to keep in mind that love is the thing that must be behind every rule. The rules were not invented to beat down those who break the rules.

      And remember, this Pope is not a world traveler that previous Popes have been. So many of his criticisms of the church are directed to problems in the South American church, not to us in America. He simply does not realiize what the situation is here.

      • Ruth Rocker

        Don’t you think that Jesus had love in his heart when he adhered to the law of God rather than to that of men? It is perfectly possible (maybe not by us, but by Him) to do both at the same time. It’s definitely something for which to aspire – following the immutable law of God while loving those around us. Admittedly, it’s getting harder to love those around us, but . . .

      • ‘If one is always insisting on a rigid application of rules, but has no love in his heart, then Christianity becomes empty. That is what the Pope is afraid of.”

        Rules? What “rigid application of rules”? People are merely looking for an acknowledgement that rules exist.

        • Maria Gabriela Salvarrey Rodri

          It is not so much the rules but the reasons behind them that make them many times the most authentic expresion of true love.
          I’ll pose a question to you. Which parent loves his children dearest the permisive one who gives them everything but limits making them prone to so many ills like drug abuse or the one who gives them tough love in the form of clear and constant limits making them secure and well adaptad?
          Which of these two is more time consuming and requires more effort on from the parent?
          Well then if you can answer this then you can see why rules when clear and constant and based on good reason are never divorced from love.

      • GG

        Who are these persons who only focus on law?

      • Thomas J. Hennigan

        Does no think that following rules is incompatible with love? Didn’t Jesus say: “He who loves me keeps my commandments?”. So there can be no love without keeping commandments. Phariseisim is another matter. It is legalism, an excessive and too literal application of the law: Canon Law provides for dispensations, epikeia and what is called canonical equity. Is calling others Pharisees charitable? St. Paul didn’t have a negative attitude towards them. In fact, having been one of them, he felt proud of it.

    • Jacqueleen

      Liberation Theology in the works……Kasper has known the Pope for years when he was a Cardinal in Argentina…..Two minds that think as one????

  • GG

    The truth divides. That is not new. Perhaps the Cardinal should call his liberal brother bishops to stop politicking in the press? What are the chances of that?

  • kentgeordie

    The calibre of the signatories provides strong evidence that the faithful Catholic community in the UK and beyond is in dire need of reassurance that the Kung-Kasper faction will not prevail.
    Lord, send us faithful bishops.

  • orientstar

    Of course they “seized on” those three paragraphs – the rest was pretty orthodox. Isn’t this what happened pound for pound with Vatican II? The bulk of the documents (admittedly somewhat vague) were ignored and the weak 5% seized on to give us the “spirit of Vatican II” of the last 50 years. If we are not careful it will be the same again with the “spirit of the synod”. Cardinal Nichols says it isn’t a battle, Cardinal Kasper says it is and he should know! First time he has been right for years!

    • Tamsin

      Whether or not we are careful going forward, I’m sure that documents documenting the “Spirit of the Synod” have already been drawn up and are ready to be published, as was the interim relatio.

      John Allen probably has half of his next book written already. And he knows how it is supposed to end. Wonder what the title will be?

      • orientstar

        Second Springtime?

  • Vinny

    Bad analogy – “A priest is a bridge-builder…”

  • So, there might be a glimmer of home for England after all….

  • JP

    “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

    Pope Francis inserted himself into the Synod and forced the Synod to adopt those 3 paragraphs in its Rilatio. Pope Francis’ actions all but guarantee that this years Synod will focus not on the family, but on gays and divorcees.

    • fredx2

      I believe the Pope wanted those things kept included because he wants to speak about them in the document he produces after the synod. Remember, the synod is merely advisory, and the end result is the teaching document the Pope will develop based on the advice he gets from the synod.

      Therefore, I believe the Pope will say:
      1) No communion for the divorced and remarried. However, there are other things we can do to welcome these people into the church, and walk with them on their journey. We must always remember they are welcome.
      2) While homosexual acts are immoral, we must also remember gays are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and as the Catechism says, you have to be nice to them. Nothing in Catholic doctrine regarding homosexuality will change, but he will simply issue a reminder that gays, even though they sin by homosexual acts, are to be treated with sensitivity and compassion. He may even include a reminder that gay marriage is impermissible.

      That is why he wanted these in the final relatio. He wants to clarify what Catholic teaching is towards homosexuals and what it is not. He will clarify that we don’t hate them,(as some claim) but will continue to uphold doctrine in all regards.

      • Jacqueleen

        The Pope should differentiate between practicing, active gays and those who are celibate.

      • Thomas J. Hennigan

        The problem is that the regulations of the Synod should be followed and not just ingorned. If he doesn’t like them, then he should have new ones drafted and approved. Good order is necessary in the Church and riding roughshod over proper procedures is not conducive to it.

      • Maria Gabriela Salvarrey Rodri

        I pretty sure the catechism does not use the term “nice”.

    • Thomas J. Hennigan

      According to Sandro Magister in a recent article, Francis has moved away from the Kaspterite position and has been listening to Cardinal -Carlo Caffara of Bologna, a true expert on the question of marriage and the family. If this is the case, then maybe some good can come out of the next session of the Synod.

  • HartPonder

    “Teacher, we know that you are true, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men but truly teach the way of God” (Mark 12:14).

    After reading the letter, I agree with these faithful Priests who are standing up for the Faith.

  • fredx2

    Editors of Crisis – please take note that the phrase is “bated breath” not “baited breath”.

    Bated in this context means ‘abated” as if one had ceased breathing because of the anticipation.

    “Baited breath” is nonsensical, since hopefully we are not hoping to catch fish in our mouths.

    • kentgeordie

      Thanks Fred. It’s a fine distinction, like to wile not while away the time, to wile as in wily, to charm. Or to be under weigh, not way.
      According to my Chambers, bate seems to be to lessen, diminish, blunt.

  • edie

    What is the breath baited with?

  • Ruth Rocker

    If you’re a cat sitting outside a mouse hole, it’s baited with cheese or peanut butter 😀 Other than that, it’s a silly expression – baited breath

  • Atilla The Possum

    Only 461 Catholic priests signed this letter? Where are the rest of them? Have they not progressed past finger paints?

    • Augustus

      The answer is fear. It is a sign that some members of the hierarchy (not just Cardinal Nichols) would exact retribution on those who get out of line. The English Church has been a mess for decades due to poor ecclesiastical leadership. The good that does occur–and it does–happens despite them, not because of them.

      • Atilla The Possum

        “…the English Church has been a mess for decades due to poor ecclesiastical leadership…”
        Tell me about it! Tell me about the entire holy bags they have made of the Church in England and Wales for decades. I’ve heard nicknames given to bishops such as ‘roller-shutter’, Pickfords (a furniture removal company in the UK) ….
        … and we have Cardinal Nicholls, now, who never comes out and says anything worthwhile or beyond mediocre – NOTHING with any fire in its belly, gutsy and straight up honest and heartfelt (I thought I could hear a spin cycle whirr coming from King Richard III’s coffin inside Leicester Cathedral the other week) … but, when it comes to faithful Catholics wishing to have their say on the state of the Church, he is quick enough then to issue the ”fingers on your lips” treatment!
        I, like so many of us, were brought up to respect our clergy, elders, authority figures etc. but not to like them. I don’t like Cardinal Nicholls. It’s not so much the ”chip on shoulder Scouse” type of attitude he exudes to my Irish-Mancunian sensibilities (the vast majority of Liverpool people I have met I like very much) – I can’t quite point it out: I saw him in passing in real life a few years ago but nothing whatsoever drew me to him in the way other priests, bishops (and Popes) have done.
        The only bishops worth their salt and cloth in England and Wales are Bishop Mark Davies and Bishop Philip Egan.
        As for those priests who are afraid, Christ said: Do not be afraid!
        If these supernatural faith-deficient bishops meter out retribution because their priests have stood up to be counted with supporting Church Teaching, then it says more about those bishops than the priests.

  • Sheryl

    But the bottom line is that if no one is going to hell, there is no point in discussing the issue of divorced or homosexual Catholics.

  • hombre111

    How does a merciful pastoral approach destroy the sacrament of marriage?

    • What you would consider a “merciful pastoral approach” has been documented here.

    • GG

      Is perpetual adultery merciful?

      • hombre111

        Is calling the lives of good people “adultery” slander?

        • GG

          How is good defined now? Breaking the commandments is now a good? Interesting.

  • margojean

    Marriage combines both agape and eros – a subsection of each. Agape can be love of a parent, a child, a friend, of country, of a place. Love of a spouse or partner is a very special subsection, and can be both heterosexual or homosexual. Eros has many manifestations too, including sexual. Sexual can also be subdivided – consentual or not, legal or not etc. The subsection that is important to the sacrament of marriage is recreational and procreational. While all good marriages combine both, the intent for procreation should always be there in a marriage. If not, there should be another legal category to protect the rights of such unions, whether homosexual or heterosexual, without the sacrament or even the terminology of marriage. Intent for procreation can include a marriage where there are stepchildren to protect and nurture and share agape.

    • GG

      Where did you get any of that? It is not Catholic. For one thing the marital act is always unitive and procreative as long as it is not altered in any way.

  • M.J.A.

    Hope this controversy only helps to point to the need for widespread discernment of the need for ongoing deliverance ministry , in lives of many ; read about a priest doing so for a youth camp, the whole camp, in Poland ; our Lord did not hesitate to unmask the influence of the enemy in Peter when he contradicted The Lord ; those who have been blessed to survive the onslaught of the enemy can look back to recognize how tough the battle can be , how it takes the ongoing efforts , 7 times more , to stay close to The Lord and each other, in the oneness of mind and heart .
    There is also Ananias and Sapphira , in the Acts of the Apostles , who fall dead in the act of grieving the Holy Spirit ; not hard to see, how many of the broken marriages that led to second unions might be somewhat like that couple ; thus , hopefully , The Church would look both at means and ways to strengthen marriages and families , readying couples to anticipate that there are many areas , in own lives as well as in family lines wherein the need to return with 7 times more ardor is there , that like in The Dogma of The Immaculate Conception, it is far better , to prevent the inroads of the enemy .
    Not hard to see the Holy Father’s call that those in second unions be looked at mercifully , to see if the previous marriages have really been valid ; on this day when the priests renew their commitments , the call in Catholic /Christian marriages too , like in the priesthood, to take on the role and the image of The Lord, in the spirit , that the poor couples too , aim and strive for at one level or other ,only to recognize , slowly, painfully , how long and hard the walk can be .
    Hope that those who anticipate speedy resolutions would be prepared to accept any disappointment , as an occasion to show their fidelity to the Voice of The Spirit , in that walk that takes 7 times more love ..and if the decision is to look at more merciful means, in the light of our recognition of what can be in human hearts , in the fallen state like of Peter , thus the prevalence of invalid marriages , for them , in being offered full communion is also a means to help , not just them but even those in the previous relationship, for the walk, with 7 times more strength !
    St.John Paul 11 , said to be a powerful intercessor, esp. in helping with decision making , on this 10th anniversary of his passing , may his love, blessing and prayers be with us all , with all the priests ,The Church and those in the war torn areas , both internal and external !

  • Amatorem Veritatis

    I find it remarkably predictable that these discussions (and their core issues), always seem to circle back to the general absence of leadership from the leadership. And I am not referring to the Holy Father, as we could on balance, do no better than JPII and Benedict. Despite impressions to the contrary, the Church is not a dictatorship. As indicated by our Pope Emeritus, our fundamental problem is the dictatorship of relativism. And this pathology infects a significant percentage of the prelate class.

  • Thomas J. Hennigan

    Pope Pius XII taught about the existence of public opinion in the Church. If the Pope himself has opened up this can of worms by allowing or promoting debate on an issue which has clearly been closed by his predecessors, if Cardinal Kasper and others have been diligently promoting their agenda, what else can a loyal Catholic layperson, priest, bishop or Cardinal do but publicly come out and defend the clear teaching of the Church put in doubt by Kasper and his acolytes, plus the German Bishops Conference? If Pope Francis didn’t want this debate, he could have prevented it from day 1. Why did he appoint Kasper to give a lecture to all the Carindals, when his position was well known and rejected by the CDF under Ratzinger with the approval of Pope John Paul II? Why did he praise Kaspter later?

    As for the final Synod Report, Cardinal Burke has stated that is is unprecedented that two paragraphs which didn’t achieve the necessary number of votes according to the Statutes of the Synod, were included. With what authority were they included? Apparently only Pope Francis has the authority to do this. If Cardinal Nichols is upset, then he ought to ask Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper what they are actually up to.

    • Atilla The Possum

      Cardinal Nicholls is permanently upset … even if he finds a £2 Coin under his cathedra!

  • William Murphy

    I am not surprised that one anxious cleric writes: “The spectre of disunity and worse hovers in the background”. What planet is he living on? It is not a spectre – the reality of disunity has been visible in the foreground in the Church in England and throughout the world for decades. Not just in marital matters, though that obviously attracts media attention, but on just about every Catholic doctrine, from the nature of God to religious liberty. And the present Pope has not helped matters, by seeming to favour Cardinal Kasper’s approach to accepting remarried divorcees to Communion. I could not help laughing at his objecting to “chatter” – this from a guy who has hardly stopped talking since he was elected.

  • Guest_august

    In this period of Christ’s supreme sacrifice and resurrection, kudos to the 500 priests from UK.

  • John Paul II did more than any theologian to advance theology in the area of marriage and sex. Yet no one learned in his Theology of the Body was invited to contribute at the recent synod. Unbelievable. As if JPII amd his legacy was being airbrushed from view. Apparently the entire Polish hierarchy is outraged