Conservatives at the Summit

Are they overplaying their hand at the synod?

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Ever since a Vatican summit last year opened a debate making the church more open to those whose lives may not mirror the Catholic ideal, conservative foes have waged an intense campaign to block any reforms from being adopted at a follow-up meeting that Pope Francis convened this month.

Yet, as the three-week meeting, called a synod, has progressed, the enthusiasm of the traditionalists may be overwhelming their tactical judgment, and by overplaying their hand they may have weakened what was once considered a strong position.

The most public, and embarrassing, episode came this week with the leak of a private letter to the pope from 13 conservative cardinals.

Related: The Tricky Synod Details

In the letter, the senior churchmen complained that Francis had set up this meeting of 270 bishops from around the world in a way that would favor reformers who want, for example, to adopt a new approach to gays and lesbians or find a way that divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Communion.

Several cardinals quickly denied signing the letter, and others said the letter they signed was a bit different from the leaked version, though they did not say how.

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That sent synod delegates and Vatican-watching media into a frenzy of speculation, until it was reported that there were in fact 13 signers, only some of them were different from those originally claimed.

Moreover, one of those newly revealed to have signed was Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, a top official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

DiNardo’s participation in the secret campaign was seen as a knock at Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. That’s because Wuerl is a member of the committee named by Francis to draft the synod’s final report — a group whose composition had irked the conservatives.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan was also a signer, and after initially declining to comment, Dolan gave a radio interview, set for broadcast this Saturday, that offers a circuitous rationale for the letter. At the same time, Dolan pegs conservative Australian Cardinal George Pell — a top Vatican official and outspoken opponent of reforms — as the ringleader of the effort.

“Cardinal Pell in his good shrewd way said, ‘Am I correct in summing up some of the concerns?’” Dolan says in the interview. “And some of us, myself included, said, ‘Boy, that sounds good to me. If you have a letter to the pope, count me in.’ And, sure enough, I signed it.”

This article originally appeared in Religion News Service.

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