Cardinal Joseph Zen wrote last month to bishops and cardinals attending the synod on synodality, urging them to petition Pope Francis to change the procedures for the meeting, and to challenge synodal organizers’ program for the sessions.
In a letter dated Sept. 21, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, the 91-year old emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong told the bishops and cardinals that he is “confounded” by what he sees as a reinvention of the Biblical concept of synodality by the event’s organizers, in a bid to promote teaching contrary to the faith.
The cardinal urged bishops to champion true “episcopal collegiality” during the synodal process.
“Because of what I am going to say, I can easily be accused of ‘conspiracy theory,’ but I see clearly a whole plan of manipulation,” the cardinal said.
“They [the synodal organizers] begin by saying we must listen to all. Little by little they make us understand that among the ‘all’ are those whom we have ‘excluded.’ Finally, we understand what they mean are people who opt for a sexual morality different from that of Catholic tradition.”
“Often they claim not to have an agenda,” Zen wrote. “This is truly an offense to our intelligence. Anybody can see which conclusions they are aiming at.”
In the six-page text, Zen also expressed his “even greater confusion and worry” at what he perceives to be concerted effort to use the synod to establish democracy in place of the Church’s sacramental hierarchy, as the means of establishing doctrine.
The cardinal admitted a “malicious suspicion” that the synodal process, originally announced to conclude after a single session in Rome this October, was extended by an extra year because “organizers, not sure to be able to reach during this session their goals, are opting for more time to maneuver.”
Zen’s letter, dated Sept. 21, has been circulated in recent weeks in several languages among bishop and cardinal synodal invitees.
The letter followed the cardinal’s submission, along with four other cardinals, of several formal questions — dubia — to Pope Francis asking him to clarify the Church’s teaching on a range of doctrinal issues related to the synodal agenda, including blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of women.
Zen wrote in his letter that synodal organizers “speak of ‘conversations in the spirit’ as if it were a magic formula.”
He added that while participants have been invited to “expect ‘surprises’ from the Spirit,” that language seems to be cover for a predetermined outcome in the synod.
“Evidently they are already informed which surprises to expect,” Zen wrote.
Zen argued that an emphasis on “conversation” in small groups — as opposed to “discussion” and debate among the synodal body as a whole — is a deliberate ploy to prevent open debate over controversial agendas to change Church teaching, which he believes will be operative among some synod organizers and participants.
In a passage of the letter likely to spark controversy, Zen described the synodal secretariat staff as “very efficient at the art of manipulation,” and urged participants “not to obey them” when “they tell you to go and pray, interrupting the sessions of the Synod.”
“Tell them that it is ridiculous to think that the Holy Spirit is waiting for these your prayers offered at the last moment,” he wrote.
“Before the Synod, you and your faithful must have already accumulated a mountain of prayers, as Pope John XXIII did before Vatican II.”
Zen also strongly criticized Pope Francis’ decision to invite lay attendees to the synod and to grant them the status of full voting members of the synodal body, a move which he argued undermines the Synod of Bishops as it was conceived following Vatican Council II.
“The decision radically changes the nature of the Synod, which Pope Paul VI had intended as an instrument of episcopal collegiality, even if in the spirit of synodality, lay observers were admitted with the possibility to speak out,” wrote the cardinal. “To give the vote to lay people could appear to mean that respect is shown for the sensus fidelium, but are they sure that these lay people who have been invited are fideles?”
“As a matter of fact,” Zen said, “these lay people have not been elected by the Christian people.”
“If I were one of the members of the Synod, I would place strong protests,” Zen wrote to the attending bishops and cardinals.
“To you I do not suggest a protest, but at least a sweet lament with a request: that at least the votes of the bishops and the lay people be counted separately.” The cardinal went on to note that “even” the synodal way in Germany accepted the need to separate lay from episcopal votes in the assembly.
“I am aware that in the Synod on the Family, the Holy Father rejected suggestions presented by several cardinals and bishops precisely regarding the procedure. If you, however, respectfully present a petition supported by numerous signatories, perhaps this will be accepted.”
“In any case,” the cardinal wrote to the synodal bishops and cardinals, “you will have done your duty. To accept unreasonable procedures is to condemn the Synod to failure.”
Noting that the global synodal process has been taking place alongside the German synodal way, the cardinal said that “worry to worry is added for me” because, he said, the German process proposed what he termed “a revolutionary change in the constitution of the Church and in the moral teaching about sexuality.”
The German synodal way, a multi-year process convened by the bishops of that country in collaboration with the Central Committee of German Catholics, an influential lay organization, ostensibly in response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
The synodal way concluded with calls for the revision of Church teaching on sexual homosexuality, the ordination of women, and the democratization of Church governance through a permanent national synodal body — proposals, Zen argued in his letter, echoed by some synodal organizers and participants.
While Pope Francis and several dicasteries of the Roman curia have repeatedly criticized the German synodal way and its proposals, condemning the process as not authentically synodal and its conclusion as contrary to Church teaching and sound ecclesiology, Cardinal Zen noted critically that “The pope has never ordered that this process of the Church in German has to stop.”
The results, the cardinal argued, have been negative for the German faithful.
“An alarming symptom is the ongoing numerical decrease of Catholic faithful in Germany. The Church in Germany is dying,” the cardinal commented, and compared the synodal way’s agenda and methodology to similar decline in Catholic practice in the Netherlands and the global Anglican Communion, which he said is facing “great schism.”
“I think that I need not say anything more on the reasons why you should face your Synod work with deep worry,” Zen told the cardinals and bishops.
The cardinal concluded his letter by stressing that his intention is that it remain “confidential,” but acknowledging that “it will not be easy to keep it out of the hands of mass media.”
Accepting that the letter’s eventual publication could expose him to criticism, Zen told the cardinals and bishops that “old as I am, I have nothing to gain and to lose. I will be happy to have done what I feel is my duty.”