Update, 3.20pm Monday: As I write this, various cardinals have said they didn't sign the letter, some of them waiting several hours before distancing themselves from it. Now Erdö says he didn't sign it. It's extremely hard to get at the truth. 'Not signing' can mean a number of things, ranging from an outright false claim that a cardinal supported the letter to panicky backtracking by cardinals who did assent to it but are grasping at the technicality that they didn't personally append their signature. But the damage to the synod is done.
A group of cardinals – including some of the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church – have written to Pope Francis telling him that his Synod on the Family, now meeting in Rome, has gone badly off the rails and could cause the church to collapse.
Their leaked letter, written as the synod started, presumably explains why a few days ago the Pope suddenly warned against 'conspiracy' and reminded the cardinals that he, and only he, will decide the outcome of the synod.
This is the gravest crisis he has faced, worse than anything that happened to Benedict XVI, and he knows it.
And, talking of the Pope Emeritus, I suspect that, had he been free to sign the letter, he would have done so.
The cardinals warn the Pope, in diplomatic language, that (a) the synod is being hijacked by liberals obsessed with the narrow issue of giving Communion to divorced and remarried people; (b) going down the route of 'pastoral flexibility' could lead to the Catholic Church falling apart in the same way as liberal Protestant denominations; and (c) the synod working papers prepared by the Pope's allies Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and Archbishop Bruno Forte are a mess and going down badly with the Synod Fathers.
The seniority of the signatories shows how close the church is to civil war. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith – the Church's doctrinal watchdog – is on the list. So is Cardinal George Pell, head of the Vatican's finances, and Cardinal Robert Sarah, in charge of the Church's worship.
Sarah is the most prominent African cardinal in the church, along with Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban, who has also signed. Add to that the name of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, and it becomes clear that the loss of confidence in Pope Francis extends far beyond the Vatican.
He is, however, passionately supported by liberal cardinals in Europe and Latin America, among them Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German bishops. He can also count of the unquestioning loyalty of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster.
As the Catholic Herald reported this morning:
Two of the cardinals who signed the letter, published in full by [Vatican commentator] Sandro Magister, have prominent roles in the synod. Cardinal Péter Erdö is its relator general, and Cardinal Wilfrid Napier is a president delegate. [NB: On Monday afternoon, several hours after it appeared Cardinal Erdö denied signing the letter.]
Other signatories included Vatican officials Cardinal Gerhard Müller and Cardinal George Pell.
In the letter, the cardinals expressed concern that 'a synod designed to address a vital pastoral matter – reinforcing the dignity of marriage and family – may become dominated by the theological/doctrinal issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried'.
The letter continued: 'The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.'
The cardinals also asked the Pope to 'consider a number of concerns we have heard from other synod fathers, and which we share' and criticised the synod’s Instrumentum Laboris, or working document.
'While the synod’s preparatory document, the Instrumentum Laboris, has admirable elements, it also has sections that would benefit from substantial reflection and reworking,' the letter said.
'The new procedures guiding the synod seem to guarantee it excessive influence on the synod’s deliberations and on the final synodal document. As it stands, and given the concerns we have already heard from many of the fathers about its various problematic sections, the Instrumentum cannot adequately serve as a guiding text or the foundation of a final document.'
Here is the list as originally reported by Magister:
• Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna, Italy, theologian, formerly the first president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family;
• Thomas C. Collins, archbishop of Toronto, Canada;
• Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, United States;
• Willem J. Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht, Holland;
• Péter Erdö, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary, president of the Council of the Bishops' Conferences of Europe and relator general of the synod underway, as also at the previous session of October 2014 [He has now denied signing the letter, though there was a noticeable delay before he did so];
• Gerhard L. Müller, former bishop of Regensburg, Germany, since 2012 prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith;
• Wilfrid Fox Napier, archbishop of Durban, South Africa, president delegate of the synod underway as also at the previous session of the synod of October 2014;
• George Pell, archbishop emeritus of Sydney, Australia, since 2014 prefect in the Vatican of the secretariat for the economy;
• Mauro Piacenza, Genoa, Italy, former prefect of the congregation for the clergy, since 2013 penitentiary major. [He now denies signing the letter];
• Robert Sarah, former archbishop of Conakry, Guinea, since 2014 prefect of the congregation for divine worship and the discipline;
• Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Italy. [He now denies signing the letter];
• Jorge L. Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas, Venezuela;
• André Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris, France, president delegate of the synod underway as also at the previous session of the synod of October 2014. [He now denies signing the letter.]
Note that not all these cardinals are regarded as outright conservatives: Cardinal Dolan, for example, is gently orthodox, an amiable figure far removed from the thundering traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has been excluded from the synod.
Moreover – and this is very dangerous for Francis – the main point of contention is not the question of whether the church should be give communion to divorce people in second marriages, or whether gay unions should be given some degree of recognition.
This is an argument about the wisdom of calling the synod in the first place, and expresses the suspicion of over 100 Synod Fathers that the organisers are manipulating proceedings by confronting them with working papers and procedures designed to push them in a liberal direction. Others are simply fed up with the amateurish nature of the proceedings and wonder why, after last year's chaotic preparatory synod, the Pope left the same people in charge. To quote the Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge, 'At times our work has seemed more muddled than methodical'.
I'm one of countless commentators who has warned that holding this synod could split the church. Now it's happening, much faster than any of us anticipated.