110 bishops have conspired in Portugal in a “secret” ultraconservative rival to the conference Pope Francis has planned on a more sustainable economy.

Driving the news

The Portuguese religious affairs website 7Margens reported January 28 on what it called, quoting sources present, the “discreet, confidential, private, friendly [and] informal” meeting of 110 bishops from 42 countries from January 22-25 in the Hotel Penha Longa, in Sintra, on the Portuguese Riviera.

The invitation came from the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, an ultraconservative US-based think-tank which has long criticised what it sees as Pope Francis’ incompetence on economic and ecological issues.

At least three cardinals took place in the ultraconservative Acton meet in Sintra, according to 7Margens, though the website could only confirm the name of one: the Ethiopian Catholic Archbishop of Addis Abeba, Berhaneyesus Souraphiel.

A second cardinal there was Mexican, perhaps the Archbishop of Guadalajara, Francisco Robles Ortega.

Go deeper

7Margens met with a certain reluctance among the Acton meet participants it had contact with to nail down precisely what was discussed at the ultraconservative conclave.

Insisting on the discreet and “informal” nature of the event, however, those participants did let slip that the Acton meet was above all an opportunity for “study, discussion and the exchange of experiences”, above all on the theme: “Faith, reason and social justice”.

On the agenda, then, were the world’s “socio-economic and demographic imbalances and the role of faith in the construction of social justice”. In other words, “the ethical deficit” in today’s world, which leads to “corruption, injustice and inequality”.

Those are precisely the themes Pope Francis wants to work on at the “Economy of Francesco” meet in Assisi from March 26-28.

The gist of what was discussed at the Acton conference in Sintra can be gleaned from the words of one African bishop present, speaking to 7Margens:

“It is necessary to form families, because of the tendency for the number of children to decrease. In the West, there are more and more families without children but with pets and the family is disappearing; in Asia, families are getting older and older; and in Africa, the tendency is also to reduce the number of children”, that African prelate said, reflecting on studies on the future of the family in fifty years.

Why it matters

With the 42 countries the bishops came from for the Sintra conference – the US, Chile, Mexico, Angola, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and nations of the Middle East among them – nearly all continents were represented.

Latin Americans prelates were in the majority, followed by Africans and Asians, and to a lesser extent Europeans and Americans.

The Cardinal-Patriarch of Lisbon, Manuel Clemente, was invited to the Sintra event, but did not attend. One of the participants 7Margens spoke to said Clemente “sent a message” to the conference, but a Lisbon diocesan source denied that claim.

Another prelate who declined an invitation to the Acton conference was new Portuguese nuncio Ivo Scapolo.

Scapolo did, however, make time to meet with bishops at the meet from his former posting, Chile – a country in which Scapolo has attracted relentless criticisms for his role in clergy sex abuse scandals.

Also on the agenda of the Sintra meet of bishops, at least for some prelates, was a pilgrimage to Fátima.

Although again, as at the conference, secrecy and discretion were the order of the day at the Marian shrine, to the extent to which the prelates’ presence there was neither confirmed nor announced officially.

For the record

Why all this insistence on “privacy”, “confidentiality” and “discretion” – in the words of the participants themselves – at the Sintra meet?

7Margens‘ sources refused to go into detail, other than to confirm that the imposition of secrecy came at the request of the Acton Institute organisers, who didn’t answer 7Margens‘ requests for more information.

On Saturday 25 – that is, the last day of the Acton meet – 7Margens said it tried to speak by phone with one of the bishops who was still in Penha Longa.

To the website’s inquiries as to whether the bishop in question was still at the hotel and whether the Acton event had finished. it received only the answer that that was “confidential” information.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.