The Catholic Church is this week in the biggest mess it's been in since the Second Vatican Council, and Pope Francis is to blame.
The Vatican cardinals in charge of doctrine, finance and worship are believed to have written to Francis at the beginning of the Synod on the Family – now in its second chaotic week – privately warning him that it was likely to spin out of control. That's because most of the world's bishops don't support any major change to the church's rules on allowing divorced and remarried people to receive communion, or to the way it treats gay couples. You may think they're wrong, but that is the situation. Also, the cardinals were exasperated by changes to the synod's procedures that seemed designed to give undue prominence to liberal voices.
A version of the letter was leaked yesterday. There's confusion over its wording and the names of the 13 cardinals who reportedly signed it, but we know roughly what it said and we can be pretty confident that it had the support of Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy; Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship; Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York; and Cardinal Napier, Archbishop of Durban. So there we have three out of the four most powerful cardinals in the Curia, plus the most important American cardinal. Sarah (who is from Guinea) and Napier are the two most influential African cardinals.
When the letter appeared, liberal Catholic journalists made desperate attempts to play down the story – making them look like idiots when, this morning, Cardinal Müller described it as 'the new Vatileaks', referring to the revelations of Vatican skulduggery that probably triggered the resignation of Benedict XVI.
I don't know how all this will play out. The conflicts and the boundaries between liberals and conservatives are too difficult to map. But it's time to recognise that – however endearing you find him – Pope Francis is responsible for this crisis. Not only has he made bad decisions, but he has sometimes made the same bad decision twice. In order, then:
First, he decided to kick off a debate about admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion by handing the microphone to Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German theologian who takes the – by Catholic standards – extreme view that people should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to receive the sacrament. Kasper is an old adversary of Benedict XVI, with whom he clashed on the fundamental subject of the authority of bishops vis-à-vis popes. This offended Benedict loyalists and confused everyone, since it seemed to imply that Francis, like Kasper, favours devolution of spiritual authority to local churches.
Second, Francis called a preparatory synod on the family a year ago during which the two officials running it, Cardinal Baldisseri and Archbishop Forte, were allowed to stage a mid-synod briefing suggesting that the synod fathers favoured lifting the communion ban for people in second marriages and granting a limited degree of recognition to same-sex couples. Since this wasn't true, all hell broke loose. Baldisseri and Forte should have been banished to dioceses in Antarctica. Instead...
Third, Francis reappointed these two prelates to run the full-scale synod that's falling apart as I write. Why, I have no idea. It was hardly in his interests to tell the world that he couldn't learn from his mistakes.
Fourth, the Pope made the aforementioned changes to synod procedures that enabled conservatives to go around saying that the whole thing was rigged. I'm not saying it was, but yesterday Cardinal Napier, no less, said it was 'hard to tell' whether the result of the synod had been decided in advance (i.e., rigged). What I do know is that more than one of the alleged signatories to the leaked letter have been very angry about the changes for some time and felt the Pope wasn't taking their objections seriously.
Fifth, Francis personally invited to a synod on the family the ultra-liberal Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who five years ago tried to conceal the fact that a bishop had molested his nephew. The invitation was a disgrace and it reflects badly on all the Synod Fathers that none of them has interrupted the proceedings to demand Danneels's expulsion.
These serious errors have been seized on by conservatives, as you'd expect. But if I were a liberal (and, for what it's worth, I do favour some of the changes espoused by the radicals) I'd be furious that the stubbornness and questionable judgment of a good and holy man, Pope Francis, has turned sensitive debates into ideological warfare.