The news that Pope Francis could establish papal secrecy in the synodal debate has created a bit of a stir. For now, the regulations of the Synod have not yet been published, and there could be some procedural changes, especially regarding the methods of participation in the debate and voting. However, the fact that the first official communications from the Synod establish that any interview with the Synod fathers must first be requested via an email to the communications manager of the Synod’s General Secretariat has triggered the debate on the transparency of the Synod process. The indiscretions regarding the papal secret have added agitation to agitation.
We must clear the field of any inference: the pontifical secrecy on other people’s opinions and debate was already foreseen in the previous regulations of the Synod. Paul VI wanted to allow as much debate as possible, and this decision had not been changed by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. The votes on the Synod’s final text gave an example of all this. The vote was paragraph by paragraph, and if one of the paragraphs did not reach synodal consensus (i.e., two-thirds of the votes) it was not published or shared.
Suppose the question of secrecy was present right from the start. In that case, it must be said that the communication machine of the Synod of Bishops, definitively developed under the direction of Joaquin Navarro-Valls’ Press Office, cleared the field of any possible inference. Faithful to Cardinal Schotte’s principle – “There is nothing that deserves to remain secret at the Synod” – all the debates were reported by publishing the summaries of the interventions in six different languages, with a precise system of codes and colors that allowed to immediately know the original language, the moment in which the text was released, and the translator.
Therefore, every day there was an informal briefing divided into linguistic groups, which allowed all journalists to have news on the progress of the process. The synod fathers were often invited as guests to these briefings and treated the journalists with great openness.
Pope Francis centralized the communication of the Synod, reducing everything to a single, more formal briefing and distributing neither texts nor summaries of the texts. However, in the first synods of Pope Francis, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, then general secretary of the Synod, justified the decision not to formally distribute the texts with the fact that the synod fathers were free to speak with whomever they wanted and also eventually to give the drafts of their speeches.
What has changed now? The climate has drastically changed. The problem is no longer the formal question of whether or not the pontifical secret applies to the synodal debate. Rather, it is that in recent years words have been used deprived of their full meaning, or interpreted differently. The problem is, first of all, linguistic. However, it becomes a practical problem.
I have already noted how Pope Francis often decontextualizes phrases and sentences, extrapolating them from a speech and giving them unique interpretations. The problem also applies to the concept of synodality. Pope Francis has always declared that Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi is his reference. And there, in that exhortation, Paul VI invited us to learn from the Synodality of the Eastern Churches.
In some ways, Paul VI was not trying to change the paradigm of the Church. He tried to understand how the Church could exist in modern times. He gave great importance to the Synod, so much so that one of the reform proposals of the Conclave provided for the General Secretary of the Synod to be included together with all the members of the General Secretariat of the Synod in the election of a pope. He dropped the idea because the election of a pope concerns the cardinals who the Pope himself creates, have a profound spiritual meaning, and cannot, therefore, also be delegated to bishops and archbishops who are papal appointees but have a temporary role. Electing a Pope is not a democratic process in which those with a temporary position participate.
This anecdote alone – which Benny Lai told before the 2005 Conclave – shows that Paul VI looked at synodality not as an alternative form of government, as part of a reform of the Church, but rather as a model of debate that would keep the council discussion alive.
Pope Francis carried that idea forward. He circumvented the problem of including the Synod General Secretary in the Conclave by making all his general secretaries of the Synod cardinals. He then launched a synodal process which, in his eyes, serves to overcome old patterns of power. The debate at the Synod must give new opinions and points of view but also be able to question the models of management that have been perpetuated until now. After all, the Pope always talks about his experience as general rapporteur of the 2001 Synod and how the texts, according to him, were manipulated or, in any case, preprogrammed.
To overcome manipulation, the Pope uses the method he has always used: maximum confidentiality, and transparency only at the end of the decision-making process. The speeches are not published; the bishops can speak but are discouraged from speaking concretely about the debate, but then everyone’s votes are counted and made known. The Synod’s final document thus becomes complete even with the paragraphs that do not have synodal consensus, overcoming all preprogramming.
At the same time, however, the Pope speaks of the Synod as synonymous with the Church. He refers to the synod process as a new model. He speaks of transparency and debate on decisions. This is where the linguistic problem arises. Synodality is an abstract concept, never used in the documents of the Second Vatican Council precisely because it had no concrete basis. The model of the Synodality of the Eastern Churches – Ines Murzaku explained it well in Catholic World Report – is not free from problems, starting from excessive nationalization or even the impossibility for a patriarch to decide without being influenced by external factors that influence his own Synod.
These difficulties do not appear in the Pope’s statements, in which he does not indulge in nuances but instead provides a general sense of things when he speaks. If the language is not precise, however, anything is possible. And this is how grand expectations for the Synod are developed. Even among those closest to the Pope, there is the belief that the structures of the Church must be changed, but it is not clear that the Pope agrees, and it is not certain that the Pope wants a reform in those terms.
From a communication point of view, we have come to think that a synod should be a transparent process and, therefore, with the participation of journalists. In practice, the Synod is like an open-door session of Parliament, where public opinion can scrutinize every speech. This is not what the Pope wants – and Pope Francis has made it clear – but the statements and gestures have gone so far that it is now what is expected.
Therefore, every word is brought to exasperation, creating a polarized and speculative debate. The division between progressives and conservatives no longer exists because the concerns are similar, namely that the Pope might want something different from what is generally understood. It will probably be like this at the next Synod, too.
Amid this polarization, an interview with the soon-to-be Cardinal Victor Fernandez, prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, highlights that the problem is, in fact, both on the progressive side and on the conservative side but also warns against taking a position that could create a schism. Because ultimately – this is his argument – the Pope has a dynamic charisma, and only he, holds the correct interpretation of the doctrine. Words, these too, that risk reducing the doctrine to papal arbitrariness. This is probably not what Fernandez means, so much so that in another interview passage, he speaks of a doctrine that does not change and a Gospel that is already revelation. However, even in this case, the reaction to one exasperation leads to another.
The problem of the next Synod will not be papal secrecy, which has always been there, nor communication, because the bishops will always be able to speak. It will be more about understanding terminology. It will be necessary to return to the original meanings of the words, to contrast their historical meaning with their present meanings, and to overcome the dichotomies between mercy and doctrine and between the Christian ideal and reality, which do not reflect reality. And that is, that the Christian life is an integral vocation. The doctrine serves to assist this vocation, and sin is a specifically human limit but a limit that can be overcome with the grace of God.
Probably, this is what helps the synodal debate. The rest risks being just a stretch.