Why I didn’t sign the priests’ letter urging the synod to stand firm on marriage

Pope Francis opens a session of the family synod (AP/Andrew Medichini)

‘Deep disturbance” that Cardinal Vincent Nichols pressured priests not to sign the recent letter to the Catholic Herald on the synod; admiration for the “brave priests” who resisted “intimidation by senior churchmen” to pledge their loyalty to Church teaching on marriage; even a suggestion that the signatories will be assigned to “deadbeat parishes” as a punishment: such are some of the emotive comments on social media about this letter.

In a world where everyone with a cause seeks to use social media to gain adherents, the cardinal might have anticipated that priests worried about the synod, and more generally about Pope Francis, would resort to the media. After all, priests, like others drawn to radical movements, often feel rather unempowered, and may excitedly jump on any bandwagon that promises them a taste of real influence.

Like several of my priest friends, I decided not to sign the letter. Not that I lack sympathy with those disturbed by this papacy and the synod. In fact that is precisely the point: 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.

By conveying understanding of those with whom he may not agree, as well as explaining his own convictions, he is able to be a minister of the Incarnate Word rather than a politician. But, of course, politics is always the easier path, as Charles Péguy never tired of saying.

These are critical times for the Church. 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”, no doubt soon to be read in the “liberal” Tablet rather than the “conservative” Herald?

A cardinal recently suggested to me that Pope Francis, far from having any hidden agenda, genuinely does not know what to do about the divorced and remarried. As is plain from the biographies, Francis is a Jesuit to his fingertips, leaving everyone free to express their views, and then applying Ignatian discernment to the ensuing experiences of consolation and desolation.

It is understandable that some priests feel desolate about what may happen in this year’s synod. But if the Pope is content to await the guidance of the Holy Spirit through his fellow bishops, who are we to judge?

Mgr Keith Barltrop is the parish priest of St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater, London