What goes around, comes around.
Let me go back just a few years. Remember the Apostolic Investigation of the Irish Catholic Church in 2010? In simple words a delegation of high powered churchmen was sent from the Vatican to find out what had gone wrong with the Catholic Church in Ireland. Among them were Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a regular visitor to Ireland (most recently to Knock) and Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto.
After moving around the country and meeting individuals and groups, they reported to Rome. One of their conclusions was that one underlying cause of the crisis in Irish Catholicism was the presence of a number of dissident priests who were upsetting the faithful.
Spool on a few years and suddenly the new Pope in Rome is saying what the dissident priests were saying and, lo and behold, we have a new crop of ‘dissidents’, among them no less important personages that Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop Collins, Cardinal George Pell (who was given a top job in the Curia by Pope Francis), and Cardinal Muller of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
So how did that happen?
Apparently, a group of 13, including the above-mentioned prelates, wrote a letter to Pope Francis pointing out their concerns that the procedures of the synod were, in their judgement ‘designed to facilitate pre-determined results on important disputed questions’. They also had concerns that members of the drafting committee had been ‘appointed, not elected, without consultation’.
This intervention is quite extraordinary, at a number of levels. In practically every synod of bishops since the Vatican Council fifty years ago the final text was invariably ‘pre-cooked’ and thus contributions to the debates were formulaic and irrelevant. Indeed during some of the synods presided over by John Paul II, the pope himself was wont to take out his breviary and say his prayers while the debates were in full swing, presumably on the basis that the debates were irrelevant.
I have no memory of any of the 13 voicing reservations about that practice before, when the wind was on their backs in the last two pontificates. And it’s particularly galling that they are now complaining that the drafting committee was appointed, without election and without consultation. It is as if this procedure was unheard of in the Catholic Church where the dogs in the street know that PPs, bishops, archbishops and cardinals are appointed without election and without any credible consultation. But now that the wind has changed and they’re not getting their own way it would seem that they’ve developed a new found confidence in democracy!
It isn’t just that the Gang of 13 sought privately to influence the outcome of the synod or to get the pope to rewrite the guidelines to suit their wishes. What is almost worse is the insinuation that their concerns are not just their own but that of an indeterminate number of ‘various other fathers’ at the synod. This is either an implied threat or an effort to manipulate the outcome.
This secretive effort to undermine the workings of the synod and the game-keepers-becoming poachers turnaround is not just ironic but, for the Church, deeply embarrassing. After years of being lectured about disobedience and subversion and dismissed as dissidents, delicate flowers like myself are scandalised by the disobedient, subversive and dissident behaviour of Cardinals Dolan, Muller, Pell and the rest of the Gang of 13 who are attempting so blatantly to get Pop Francis to intervene in support of their position.
Apparently, the rules that apply to us lesser mortals do not apply to them, even though as cardinals they have taken a direct (and much-vaunted) vow of obedience to the pope. Apparently too they don’t seem to understand the concept that most people take for granted that what’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander too.
This turnaround must seem a bitter sweet victory of sorts for Fr Tony Flannery who was ‘silenced’, effectively by Cardinal Muller, now (in a sense) a ‘dissident’ himself. Surely it puts Flannery’s case in due perspective when those who have disciplined him for stepping over some imaginary line seem to have no problem stepping over lines themselves – even to the extent of expecting the Church to transform itself into a democracy because it suddenly suits their purposes. If curates (that threatened species of Church life) had behaved like the Gang of 13, they would have been appointed to the Aran Islands – or whatever the appropriate gulag would be for Cardinals Pell, Muller, Dolan and the rest of them.
Cardinal Pell delivered his letter on the first working day of the synod, Monday, October 5. Pope Francis responded the following day, October 6. While no text of the pope’s remarks is available, except in summary form, thankfully he rejected entirely the requests made in the letter: the procedures would stay as they were, the methods of operating were ‘approved by the pope, and therefore cannot be brought back into discussion’ and the final text will be written by a commission entirely appointed by the pope. Game, set and match.
I heard a bishop tell a group of priests recently that Pope Francis is fighting tooth and nail for the future of the Catholic Church. This development, the outing of the Gang of 13, demonstrates the accuracy of his remark. The bishop’s contention is that Francis is trying to bring the Church back to fundamentals, to the person of Jesus Christ. He wants the Church to focus on mercy, compassion and service but this is being challenged by those who can’t let go of laws, rules and regulations, many of the Church’s own making.
It’s as simple as that and, in the long run, the 13 ‘dissidents’ have performed a great service to the Church by writing that letter, even if they thought it would never see the light of day. And whoever released it has exposed the manipulation that was going on behind the scenes.
We should be thankful for small mercies.