The letter sent to Pope Francis by a group of cardinals on Monday, October 12 should be seen for what it is. It is not a question of the substance or method of the work of the Synod, but an attack on the legitimacy of the direction Pope Francis is taking the Church, and therefore an attack on the Pope himself.
Published (in circumstances yet to be clarified) by Sandro Magister, L'Espresso magazine's Vatican reporter, the letter was signed by about a dozen high-level Church officials from around the world. At the moment, the list of the actual names of the signatories is fluctuating: The list published Monday night (EST) by America, a Catholic weekly magazine published by Jesuits in the United States, reports the following names: Caffarra (Archbishop of Bologna), Collins (Archbishop of Toronto), DiNardo (Archbishop of Houston), Dolan (Archbishop of New York), Eijk (Archbishop of Utrecht), Müller (Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), Napier (Archbishop of Durban, South Africa), Njue (Archbishop of Nairobi, Kenya), Pell (Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy), Rivera Carrera (Archbishop of Mexico City), Sarah (Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship), Sgreccia (President Emeritus of the Pontifical Academy for Life) and Urosa Savino (Archbishop of Caracas, Venezuela).
However, it is possible that there are different versions of the same letter, other signatories, or even (possibly) other officials whose names were signed without their knowledge (four cardinals, Erdö, Scola, Piacenza and Vignt-Trois, denied signing yesterday.)
This is the boldest and most visible move in the ecclesiastical establishment's conflict with Pope Francis. Since March 2013, there has been a sense of mounting resistance to the pontificate, with the Synod of Bishops being the focal point. The fact that the letter was sent to the Pope on October 5, the first day of the Synod, is proof that it was an initiative coordinated well before the commencement of the assembly in Rome (and it is this initiative that Francis referred to in his speech about the "hermeneutic of conspiracy" on October 6 in the Synod Hall). It is also clear that while Francis was visiting America, certain American bishops --when they were not busy embracing the Pope-- were preparing an attack on Francis that they would never have dreamed of launching against Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.
As far as we know, the letter from the cardinals criticizes the management of the Synod, both for the supposed inadequacy of the Instrumentum Laboris (the document sent out to the bishops months ago, outlining the agenda of the Synod), as well as for the rules of the Synod set by Francis, which, according to the signatories, would lead to a predetermined conclusion against them; signatories believe that it has become more liberal and lax in comparison to the doctrine set by Francis's predecessors.
Evidently, the problem is not the fact that the cardinals do not agree with the Pope, but the fact that they accuse him of manipulating the assembly of bishops. This has more been the narrative used in the past 24 hours by the signatories who haven't denied their participation (including Cardinals Pell and Napier) than by the language used in the letter itself. The letter carries a tone of intimidation against the Pope; the threats of a schism directed at Paul VI in the Vatican II were at least made in an appropriate ecclesiastical style, a style that today has been discarded, along with a healthy theology, from the institutions that govern the Church (something which the cardinals either do not know or do not care too much about).
The letter (of which we only have transcripts of dubious accuracy) betrays the hypocrisy of the signatories for a series of reasons. The first point is that the criticism that the Synod has a predetermined outcome can be made against preceding Synods, those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for example, but not of Francis. The real criticism that the letter makes is directed against a theology that, on certain points, differs from that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which the signatories of the letter recognize as having theological legitimacy, in contrast to that of Pope Francis.
The second point is that the criticism directed against the rules of the Synod of Pope Francis ignores (or hopes that all of us will ignore) that the Synod of Bishops has certain fixed elements (for example, those concerning membership in the Synod) and certain flexible elements (particularly those concerning the final documents). In fact, since its foundation in 1965 until today, the Synod has been, by definition, an instrument of the Pope's authority, in which the assembly of bishops expresses, without ever exceeding, its advisory function (at least up until today; this could change in the future). To understand this, one need look no further than the Apostolic Letter Issued Motu Proprio by Paul VI on September 15, 1965: "The Synod of Bishops has, of its very nature, the function of providing information and offering advice [...] The Synod of Bishops is directly and immediately subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff." This letter from the cardinals is a pronouncement with vaguely revolutionary overtones that would place the papal authority under suspicion.
Pope Francis had to deal with real revolutionaries in Argentina, and it is doubtful that he will let this incident intimidate him. The Church is 2000 years old, and its bishops have always fiercely debated in the councils, in ways much more violent than this. But there is no example in recent history of cardinals accusing the Pope of manipulating the rules of the game in order to push the boundaries of the Catholic doctrine. The real problem is that Francis has reopened many issues concerning discipline and life in the Church that the signatories of the letter considered closed forever.
The letter will be seen in the context of the various forces' fight to close the doors which Pope Francis has opened. Let us recall the initiative by the Polish bishops to put pressure on the assembly, as well as the letter sent to all members of the Synod by Cardinal Ouellet (not as a bishop but as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops), in an attempt to limit the freedom of the Synod participants.
The letter reveals a lot about the confusion within the anti-Francis movement, but it is also evidence of its carelessness (theological, as well as strategic) and its extremism.
The letter accuses the Pope of having formed the committee for the final report for the Synod in his image. But those who accuse a deeply moderate and centrist bishop like the cardinal of Washington, Wuerl (appointed by the pope) of bias (that is, of theological liberalism), show how ideologically dangerous their version of Catholicism has become.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy and was translated into English.