SYNODGATE: A canonist weighs in – Fr. Z gives advice

The esteemed canonist Ed Peters has something to say about #Synodgate – the heist of the Five Cardinals Book™ from the mailboxes of participants at last October’s Synod on the Family. (HERE)

Thus, Peters:

It was worse than a crime—it was a blunder

There are credible reports that Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, head of the secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, ordered the confiscation of pro-marriage materials legally mailed to synod participants last October. In addition to whatever international and/or Vatican City State laws might have been violated thereby, and besides the possibility of the violation of Canon 1389 (abuse of ecclesiastical office), [!] this action, if indeed it was taken by ranking prelate, offends at a level that will, I suggest, haunt Church staffers for years to come.

I cannot count the number of times over the decades that I have heard good Catholics, concerned for this problem or that in the Church, despair of having their voice heard as follows: “Why should I bother writing to the bishop? Someone on his staff will not like my letter and make sure it never gets to him.”  [Exactly.  This is a common lament.  However…]

I have many, many times, assured Catholics that such “mail-filtering” was a myth and that, in my experience, bishops see every letter addressed to them. They don’t always answer, I admit, but they do see it. Who knows, perhaps a few Catholic decided to write to their bishops after all, upon my comments.

Now, the myth of ecclesiastics filtering mail that they don’t want others to see has been given a new lease on life. We will be decades living the story down. Put another way, this stunt, assuming it happened as it seems to have happened, was worse than a crime—it was a blunder.

The truth of this matter needs to come out, and, if the story is false, it needs to be contradicted if only for the common good; if it’s true, consequences need to come. Quickly.

I agree with Peters that, at least in dioceses, it would be a rare thing indeed for mail to a bishop to be so filtered.  Sure, a good secretary or executive assistant will keep some of the truly knuckle-head stuff of his boss’s desk.  But, mail gets through.

If you write… don’t be a knuckle-head.  Don’t write unhinged ravings that will get your letter sent to the circular file.

I have a few TIPS for writing to ecclesiastical officials.  Adapt these to your circumstances and you’ll have a greater chance of a good hearing.

Free tip: Don’t use a single exclamation point.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Gregg the Obscure says:

    In late 2002, I wrote a letter to Abp. Chaput, who at that time was the ordinary here in Denver. He not only read my letter, he replied thanking me for writing a polite letter and then even took the action I had asked of him. That tells me two things about polite letters to prelates: (1) they’re not at all common and (2) their rarity makes the recipient more likely to look favorably on them.

  2. CradleRevert says:

    I wrote a letter of gratitude to His Excellency Bishop Cozzens after he celebrated the Solemn Pontifical High Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Paul last Fall. I also received a personal thank you response back.

  3. We can only hope that this is considered a blunder in the Vatican. But in this papacy, one must wonder whether what it takes to be considered beyond the pale.

  4. Gerard Plourde says:

    As Dr. Peters states, this allegation, if true, is quite serious. Is there additional original corroborative reporting to supplement Kathnet’s?

  5. everett says:

    While a smaller diocese, a few years back I wrote to our Bishop, and he responded with a very well written letter that both spoke to my concerns and even called me to further faithful action. I half-jokingly told my wife that we should save the letter so that we might someday have a 2nd class relic of a saint. I later found out that he also wrote a letter to the parish regarding a few of my concerns.

  6. Joseph-Mary says:

    I have written encouraging and praise for some good action to some bishops and often got a reply. In the bad old days in another diocese I had to write about abuses and so forth and I got one reply chastising me and never another reply although someone from the chancery wanted me removed from any activity in the parish. My pastor at that time did not honor the request; it was not like I was a paid employee with some glamor job after all. But this theft, a sin, which appears to have happened along with all the other scandals emerging from the present Vatican just shows folks more and more that it is chaos there and the barque is almost rudderless. Some caught in public lies, continue on. Some caught with heresy or heterodoxy, continue on all with impunity. It is disgusting. And added to that is the suing of lay people. Not what a holy saint would do.

  7. jacobi says:

    Small point Father if I may.

    I write to my bishop. Regularly but not frequently. A six month interval is about right, normally?

    I use clear, temperate, logical, standard English, and orthodox Catholic reasoning. [Never try to teach the bishop, if that’s what you do.]

    To reduce the chances of it being basketed, I always I always copy it. Other bishops as appropriate and the Nuncio. [I take it from that sentence fragment that you send copies to others.]

    Recently, I wrote to the pope regarding the second session on the Family. Well, yes, not sure my RE teacher at school a few decades ago would have approved, but the world has changed? [Is that a… statement?]

    I certainly copied that to my bishop, to the Hierarchical Representative on the Family, and to the Nuncio.

    Think twice perhaps before basketting, just in case? [I have no idea what that means. However, if you are sending copies to everyone under the sun, I foresee that no one will take action on what you ask.]

  8. Back in the English translation days, I wrote to several bishops and members of the Vox Clara committee in the Vatican, and received substantive replies from most all, including a number of cardinals. I recall especially a long hand-written letter from Cardinal Arinze, who discussed in detail (and sympathetically) all of the issues I’d mentioned.

    But in regard to the Synod shenanigans (as well as the suppresion of the Franciscans of the Immaculate), I’m reminded of the nationally televised McCarthy hearings in which James Welch famously asked “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency? “

  9. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Jacobi: “To reduce the chances of it being basketed, I always I always copy it. Other bishops as appropriate and the Nuncio.”

    Almost certainly, exactly the wrong thing to do. Bishops see that, and think,” Ah, well public debate about Sr. So-and-so’s garb. No thanks.” or “So, he’s copied everyone in, fine, I need not reply, some else will.” My hunch, you reduce your chances of a real reply, you don’t increase respect that way. [Yep.]

  10. Matt Robare says:

    I should write me bishop a letter about the good priests of my parish. [Yes! When something is good, write about it! Priests and bishops usually get little more than complaints.]

    What sort of consequences does justice demand, should these allegations hold up? (Maybe he’ll argue he should suffer no consequences, if unrepentant, because of mercy. Try that in a court of law.)

  11. Latin Mass Type says:

    I wrote a letter to my bishop in praise of an ardent young priest. In the first few words I let it be known the letter was not a letter of complaint. I am not expecting a reply because it was not a letter with a concern that needed to be addressed. I only hope it was put in his personnel file, if there is such a thing for priests!

  12. Eric says:

    “Free tip: Don’t use a single exclamation point.”

    I couldn’t agree more!!! I have found the use of two or three at the end of each sentence to be most gratifying!!


  13. The Masked Chicken says:

    I admit it. I have never written to a bishop. Bishops scare me. I don’t know if there is name for that phobia.

    The Chicken [what else?]

    P. S. Since this post is sort of about the law, I just want to mention, in passing, that Prof. Charles Rice of Notre Dame passed away, yesterday. He wrote an excellent book on Natural Law theory.

  14. pseudomodo says:

    Ah, the Cardinals.

    I long for the good old days when the stock in trade for cardinals were daggers, poison, the rack, the iron maiden and of course the dreaded comfy chair!!

  15. SimonDodd says:

    The only time I have ever contacted the Archdiocese was when I needed an airstrike on standby in case the parish itself couldn’t eradicate a threatened outbreak of liturgical dance.

    Lookit: Robert Bork started publishing the materials that would become The Antitrust Paradox in the 1960s; he didn’t “write … [r]egularly but not frequently” to the judges, “us[ing] clear, temperate, logical, standard English, and orthodox [legal] reasoning,” “copy[ing] it,” in order to “reduce the chances of it being basketed,” to the Supreme Court Justices. He wrote, he published, he persuaded generations of law students and lawyers, he sought to bend the arc of the intellectual climate over decades. It took forty years. But he prevailed.

    I don’t write to bishops for the same reason that I don’t send them the five-cardinals book: Because I don’t believe that bishops are children. The bishops who agree with what I would say don’t need to hear it, and those who don’t, won’t hear it. I tend to assume that these men are mature adults with established, considered views (right or wrong) that have grown and been refined over many decades, and such people don’t change their minds just because someone wrote a letter. And I know that these men are very busy, and so, even if you posit a bishop who has not made up his mind, he doesn’t have time to read even the most concisely-written and persuasive brief. You can’t “fix” Roger Cardinal Mahony; you can’t change his mind; you might as well have a staring contest with a statue. All we can do is write, published, seek to persuade generations of Catholics, to bend the arc of the intellectual climate over decades.

  16. An exclamation point could be useful after the phrase, “Thank You.” Otherwise, I agree. While I am not a cleric, like many of them I do hold a credible claim to humanity. The more exclamation points I see in a note, the more likely my eyes are to glaze over. Dr. Peters is right about CC lists as well. If I get a note and everyone else in the office also received it, I will probably say exactly what he suggests: “let George do it.”

    If I have too many exclamation points around, I detach the periods, which are always useful, and I take the vertical shafts, rotate them 90 degrees– and use them as dashes.

    I also agree that this will raise the cynicism level among the faithful, which is the last thing we need. We already have too many people thinking that the Church is just another fraternal organization with no more credibility than the Girl Scouts or an Elks Lodge.

  17. jflare says:

    I’m afraid Dr. Peters’ logic escaped me slightly.

    I have understood a “blunder” to refer to an act that should not have been done, but did, because someone made a mistake. A “crime” on the other hand, tends to be an act that should not have been thought of or done, but did, because someone intended that it should.

    That being the case, how would a blunder be worse than a crime?

  18. jflare says:

    Might it be possible that if you intend to address some serious problem in your diocese, that you could attempt addressing it first to the pastor of the parish, then write the bishop if the pastor won’t act? And then, if the bishop fails to act or responds in other negative fashion, would you not be capable of writing the nuncio?

    Based on my own professional background, I might’ve assumed that cc’ing the nuncio and other bishops might be wise, not in the sense of raising a threat to the bishop being addressed, but as a means of informing others that you see a problem within the diocese. In a heirarchical organization, which the Church is, this sort of thing allows the whole “chain of command” to know what’s going on. I will admit though, Dr Peters and Fr Z have a legitimate point.

    I should think that “going up the chain” in a manner like I mentioned a moment ago would make sense though.

  19. jflare says:

    “Free tip: Don’t use a single exclamation point.”

    I wish various organizations would learn that point. Catholic apostolates in particular.

    “ALL CAPS IS FUN TOO !!!!”
    In all seriousness, Eric, I often toss mail directly into the circular file if I see this.

    I’ve never been a chancery staffer, but I’ve long since grown weary of plowing through a few pages of all caps and exclamation point hype to get a simple message that someone wants money.

    I literally refuse to waste time on such mail.
    Knowing this, we ought to offer the same courtesy to those we write.

    (My apologies for the multiple postings, Fr Z.)

  20. LA says:

    I once wrote to the Holy Father about the Tridentine Mass, and then he published the Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum. You’re welcome, folks! ;)

  21. ray from mn says:

    How long will we have to wait before Pope Francis removes Baldisseri from the Synod of Bishops responsibility and assigns him to the Virgin Islands or some other tiny Catholic diocese? And if he doesn’t, does that mean that he endorses censoring information aimed at the Bishop delegates?

  22. McCall1981 says:

    Vat spokesman denies anyone confiscated books sent to synod members. “Some even received 2 copies.” [Piffle. The envelopes with the books in them were removed from the mail slots. And it doesn’t follow that because some member wound up with two copies in some way that, therefore, it didn’t happen.]

  23. Nicolas Bellord says:

    To say that a Bishop gets to read every letter sent to him seems to me to depend upon the amount of post he gets purely as a matter of practicality. However I know of one very eminent lay Catholic legislator telling me that his letters sent by mail to a particular Cardinal (and a good one) frequently did not get to him and he found that he had to hand letters personally to a priest who was very close to the Cardinal in order to make sure they got read by him. Some of those who surround Bishops think it is their job to guard the Bishop from anything critical so they tend to use the shredder.

  24. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    “Vat spokesman denies anyone confiscated books sent to synod members”: careless speaking before investigation? equivocation upon the word “confiscated”? or something worse?

  25. Grateful to be Catholic says:

    I do occasionally write to bishops: short, concise, no exclamation points, positive as well as negative. I rarely get a reply and see almost no evidence that anyone follows my advice. (BTW, LA, good job on Summorum Pontificum!) I do it because Canon 212 gives me the right and the duty to make my concerns known to the bishops. When I stand before my Judge, I do not want to have to explain why I never said anything. And when the bishops are being judged, I do not want them to be able to say nobody ever made that point to them.

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