Sitting under the bright house lights of a theater near the Vatican, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, the de facto leader of the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to Pope Francis, displayed a theatrical sense of timing on Tuesday for the adoring conservatives in the red velvet seats.
The day before, Cardinal Burke and other traditionalist prelates made public an exchange of letters with Francis in which they aired grave doubts about the legitimacy of a major assembly of the world’s bishops and laypeople that will, on Wednesday, begin discussing some of the most sensitive topics in the church.
In their letters, they urged Francis to slam the door shut on proposals that they believe would erode the doctrine of the church, including the blessing of same-sex unions.
Instead, Francis cracked the door open. In his response, he seemed to reverse a 2021 Vatican ruling that came down hard against the blessing of gay unions. While the pope clearly upheld the church position that marriage could exist only between a man and a woman, he said that priests should exercise “pastoral charity” when it came to requests for blessings.
Cardinal Burke and his allies were horrified.
Francis’ supporters consider the multiyear meeting, the so-called Synod on Synodality, to be the potential culmination of his decade-long papacy and a vehicle through which he may bring about great change. The gathering at the Vatican, which for the first time will include and give a vote to laypeople — including women — is central to Francis’s bottom-up view of the church. The pope envisions an inclusive institution that upends the traditional hierarchy and forces bishops to listen to and work with their flock more.
On Tuesday, in a theater that usually hosts a hypnotist, a Barbra Streisand tribute concert and broad Italian comedies, Cardinal Burke was the star attraction of what Francis’ supporters consider a dangerous sideshow, and what his critics consider a fateful last stand.
“The synod that will open tomorrow,” he said, clearly has the “harmful goal” of reshaping the hierarchy of the church with radical, secular and modern ideas.
Cardinal Burke, who was not invited to the meeting at the Vatican, said he was doubtful that the actual participants, who were away on a spiritual retreat on Tuesday to prepare for the assembly, were being upfront about their true motives. “It’s unfortunately very clear that the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the part of some has as its aim to push forward an agenda that is more political and human than ecclesiastical and divine,” he said.
He also expressed shock at the suggestion by some bishops attending the synod that he wanted to hurt the pope. “These comments reveal the state of confusion and errors of vision that permeate the session of the Synod of Bishops,” Cardinal Burke said.
Supporters of Francis see Cardinal Burke and his conservative allies as a small group that is making a big racket in defeat.
“I can understand why someone like Cardinal Burke is worried,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an organization of L.G.B.T. Catholics, said about the pope’s remarks on the blessing of same-sex unions. “Because this will have a tremendous effect on pastoral practice and church life.”
Mr. DeBernardo argued that instead of eroding doctrine, the pope’s view on blessing those unions was a development of it. Just as the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States normalized the practice, he said, “when pastoral ministers encouraged by the pope start blessing same-gender couples, it is going to normalize same-gender relationships in church life.”
Even Mr. DeBernardo acknowledged that the manner in which the pope’s response on the issue became public was unusual, suggesting that Francis likes to work in incremental steps.
Some observers have questioned just how bold Francis intends to be on the issue. In his response, he also made clear that he did not want priests to follow new protocols — such as those in liberal parts of the German church that support same-sex blessings — and said priests should be open to “channels beyond norms.”
The entire exchange took place over the summer, but was hidden from view.
On July 10, Cardinal Burke and other leading traditionalist cardinals sent a letter to Francis known as a “dubia” that conveyed their concerns about the Synod, and demanded that he clear up, among other issues, the blessing of same-sex unions. Some bishops had made comments, they wrote, that were “openly contrary to the constant doctrine and discipline of the church” and that would “continue to generate great confusion and the falling into error among the faithful and other persons of good will.”
It was not the first time Cardinal Burke and other conservatives had sent such a letter. But in the past, Francis had infuriated them by not responding.
This time, Francis replied.
On July 11, the day after he received the questions, he made it clear that he viewed the Synod as vital to his view of the church’s future and as “a process that involves the participation of a truly significant part of the entire people of God,” meaning laypeople.
Francis noted in his response that the topics to be discussed at the assembly resulted from a canvassing of issues important to the faithful and were tied to the “mission of the church in the time in which we happen to live” — a phrase that had the ring of a dig against traditionalist cardinals, whom many liberals consider stuck in the past.
Suggesting that he wanted to clear things up before the assembly began, Francis wrote that this time he would respond to their doubts and added of the Synod, “With great sincerity, I say to you that it is not very good to be afraid of these questions and consultations.”
To the cardinals’ question about whether divine revelation of the church should be “reinterpreted according to the cultural changes of our time,” or whether it was “binding forever,” Francis responded: “The answer depends on the meaning you give to the word ‘reinterpret.’ If it is understood as ‘to interpret better,’ the expression is valid.”
While revelation does not change, he argued, the church “also matures in the understanding” of what is in its official teaching.
Asked about whether the church was governed through the synodal process of working together or by the office of the pope and his bishops, Francis said that while he was in charge, he favored cooperation. In another seeming tweak of the conservatives, he said that by seeking clarifications from him the cardinals themselves “manifest your need to participate, to give your opinion freely and to collaborate.”
Francis signed off by writing that “these responses will be enough to answer your questions.”
On Aug. 21, the cardinals wrote again.
“With the same sincerity with which you have answered us, we must add that your answers have not resolved the doubts we had raised, but have, if anything, deepened them,” they said. “We therefore re-propose our questions to you, so that they can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Francis declined to respond, and the cardinals, citing “the gravity of the matter,” made the exchange public on Monday.
On Tuesday, Cardinal Burke seemed to be enjoying the attention.
In the lobby of the theater, next to a poster advertising a Pink Floyd celebration, a table offered copies of “The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box,” an anti-Synod treatise with a foreword by Cardinal Burke. It is, he said, “available in Italian and many other languages.”
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