Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia gave probably the best description of the Synod’s Working Document – and by extension of the Synod’s discussion so far. In his October 7 speech at the Synod, published on the archdiocese web site – Archbishop Chaput said that the working documents “present us two conflicting views: pastoral despair or the decision to hope.” The Synod Fathers’ sentiment after one week has been swinging between these two poles.
Pope Francis’ role
Pope Francis has taken the floor two times in this first week. His first, planned speech was given at the opening of the Synod. In that speech, he remarked that the Synod “is not a parliament or a senate, where you can find an agreement.”
His second, unplanned speech was aimed at backing the new Synod’s procedures after a group of Synod Fathers had questioned them. He also asked the Synod Fathers “not to be taken in by a hermeneutic of conspiracy.” This phrase was not reported by Fr. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See Press Office. But he did not deny that the Pope had spoken these words.
In both speeches, Pope Francis tried to cover over every controversy with his authority by trying to foster the “parresia” (frankness) he asked of the Synod Fathers at the beginning of Synod 2014. Now presenting himself as a guarantor, a guardian of the unity of the Faith, he stressed that the 2014 Synod’s official documents are only three: the Final Report and both speeches he gave, one at the beginning and one at the end of the Synod. This way, the Pope removed the controversial mid-term report from the fray, and with it the weak Synod Message to the People of God. But if the Pope thought that through his own authority he could quieten down the lively internal debates, he probably overestimated his hand.
From the 2014 Synod …
This Ordinary Synod was born following the controversial 2014 Synod Final Report. That report had accepted some of the objections of the Synod Fathers to the Synod’s mid-term report, but it also included issues that did not receive a general consensus. The outcomes of the votes on each paragraph – votes that Pope Francis wanted to be made public – showed that a great majority of bishops agreed with the traditional positions of Church doctrine and Holy Scripture, while issues like pastoral care for homosexual couples and the possibility of access to sacramental Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics had not gained the Synod’s consensus.
Even though they had failed to receive consensus approval in the 2014 Synod – a consensus which is achieved only when a paragraph gains the supermajority of two-thirds – the paragraphs concerning these issues were incorporated just as they were into the Working Document for this current Synod. The text therefore left many doors open, and it was characterized by a sociological rather than a theological approach, a criticism strongly registered by the book “Christ’s New Homeland,” a collection of essays written by ten African prelates.
This is to say that the 2014 Synod Final Report was a mere snapshot of reality, without any theological analysis or critique. On the one hand, it pushed for maximum understanding of complex situations, and for mercy in cases of persistent sin. On the other hand, the theological part was somewhat put aside. It seemed that the Synod Fathers had just given up trying to offer a strong, Christian alternative to the world. An alternative, in the end, that did not fit the current fashions and circumstances.
… to the 2015 Synod
The first week of this Synod began with an introductory speech by Cardinal Petr Erdo, the Synod’s General Relator. As the Cardinal himself put it, the speech “systemized the Working Document.” Above all, Cardinal Erdo’s speech was centered on Catholic teaching. Pastoral accompaniment for people in difficult or irregular situations and mercy were both considered. But these two issues were coupled with a strong call to conversion and a path to redemption. Cardinal Erdo showed great understanding for the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics, and he clearly underscored that they are not excluded from the life of the Church. However, he also stressed that mercy or understanding do not change a comma in the doctrine of the Church. So, there is no possibility for them to receive sacramental Communion.
Many Bishops felt relieved when they heard Cardinal Erdo’s speech. In fact, many identified themselves with the “subtle despair” that Archbishop Chaput had highlighted in the Working Document. And this feeling was not totally unjustified.
The dirty way to the Synod
The Synod was preceded by a series of maneuvers that made one think of a hidden directorate. The German, Swiss and French bishops’ conferences met on May 25 in what has been called the “Shadow Synod.” The texts of the speeches – delivered in three languages, following a well-orchestrated publicity campaign – argued the need for a change in the Church’s pastoral approach, which also implies a change in doctrine. Even on that occasion, theology was replaced by sociology. The ideals of the Gospel were often presented as “difficult to be lived.”
The Pontifical Council for the Family followed the same line. This Vatican dicastery hosted a series of three closed-door meetings in January, February and March, gathering a total of 50 experts. The great majority of them showed the same approach as the “adapters,” that is, those who think that doctrine must be changed to fit the times. The collected texts of those meetings were published last August, but only in Italian. The book went almost wholly unnoticed. Yet it showed where the Pontifical Council for the Family stood.
In the meantime, the General Secretariat of the Synod started to work on changing the procedures. Changes were needed. The 2014 Synod also witnessed modified procedures, but during it many Synod Fathers raised numerous criticisms of them. The new procedures were aimed at avoiding last year’s criticisms.
Information about the ongoing discussions within the Synod has been reduced to the barest possible minimum. As during the Synod 2014, journalists are not given the texts of the Synod Fathers’ addresses. They can report on the Synod only by reporting the narrative given by the Holy See Press Office, and obviously by reporting gossip.
Moreover, the time for a discussion in the small language groups (circuli minores) has been lengthened. After two days of general congregations – during which each bishop is allowed to speak for just 3 minutes – the Synod Fathers split up into 13 small groups.
Each week is dedicated to discussing one of the three parts of the Working Document. There are a couple of days of general discussion on each part, and then the discussions are developed in small circles. At the end of every week, each small group will issue a report, presenting their “modi”, that is amendments, to the Working Document. A commission of ten people, appointed by the Pope, is entrusted with the task of drafting the Final Report, if there will be any: still it is uncertain what the Pope will decide. However, everything will be topped off at the end with a papal address.
The commission is composed of: Cardinal Petr Erdo, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Archbishop Bruno Forte, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Cardinal Donald William Wuerl, Cardinal John Atcherley Dew, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, Archbishop Mathieu Madega Lebouakehan, Archbishop Marcello Semeraro and Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, SJ.
The composition of the commission has raised some concerns. During last year’s synod the Pope appointed a commission to help the General Relator (Cardinal Erdo) and Special Secretary (Archbishop Forte) to draft the Final Report. There is no news in that. However, of the ten members comprising this year’s commission, only two were elected to take part in the Synod by their respective episcopal conferences. All the others are Synod members appointed by the Pope. Moreover, no general criterion was identified behind the papal appointments to the Synod. Finally, in general those chosen to be part of the 10-person commission mostly lean more toward the side of the adapters of doctrine, than toward the side that is faithful to doctrine.
The concern of Synod fathers. And the response of the adapters
So it was to be expected that some Synod Fathers would raise their concerns about these matters at the beginning of the Synod. After the Pope’s opening address, aware of the need to make the Synod’s procedures more transparent, certain Synod Fathers voiced their concerns about the new procedures. But, it was also to be expected that the Pope would try to dampen down any dispute. In stating that “the Synod is not a parliament,” he gave a clue as to what he was thinking.
Behind the scenes, the General Secretariat of the Synod had moved to defend itself. Cardinal Baldisseri probably spoke with the Pope or with some of his collaborators. In addressing the Synod, Baldisseri stressed that all of the new procedures had been approved by the Pope personally, and that the Pope was always present during the meetings of the General Secretariat at which the changes were discussed. In the end, the critics of the synod methodology were depicted as directly criticizing the Pope. This move attempted to isolate the estimated 13 cardinals and bishops who had made some kind of specific request to make the Synod more collegial. Baldisseri’s move received a green light from the Pope.
On Tuesday, October 6, Cardinal Baldisseri restated the new procedures, and insisted that everything had been approved. The Pope then took the floor in an attempt to calm the disputes.
A hermeneutic of conspiracy?
The Pope’s mention of a “hermeneutic of conspiracy” was directed not only to those who were complaining about the Synod’s new procedures. He was also challenging the champions of the so-called “agenda of mercy”. It seems that some bishop told Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, that his statements had also contributed to fostering conspiracy theories. And it seems that Cardinal Marx was not very happy to hear this.
Synod’s side meetings
Cardinal Marx organized a press conference with other German delegates to the Synod on October 5 at the Teutonic College adjacent to the German cemetery within the Vatican walls. He and his group will hold other press conferences of that kind in the future. In the first presser, Marx opened up about his favorite topic: the language of the Church is not the language of exclusion. This is the same argument he used at the 2014 Synod to support the controversial mid-term report.
Even bishops in the Francophone small groups are hard at work in this sense. Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp (Belgium), who has supported civil unions, was one of the first to make public his intervention at the Synod. His speech was vague, aimed at extending a hand to the contemporary world, and to find the “seed of good” in civil marriages.
Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, of Gatineau (Canada) also published his intervention. He advocated a greater role for women, and supported the idea of women deacons. This topic, however, seems to be beyond the bounds of a Synod on the family.
Even pastoral care for homosexual couples should be beyond the Synod’s competence, as Cardinal Erdo noted in his opening address. During this Synod, only a single bishop, the New Zealander Charles Drennan, raised the issue in a speech from the floor. However, the way the whole question was reported to the media – but not by Fr. Lombardi – allowed the press to conclude that numerous Synod Fathers had mentioned the issue in their speeches.
These little manipulations, or exaggerations, suggest that there was an agenda at work behind the Synod’s back, one that comes from the agenda at work behind Pope Francis’ back. Obviously, the existence of this agenda cannot be proven. But the lack of transparency is suspicious. And there is also the growing suspicion that a restricted group within the 10-member commission currently drafting the message – that is, the group closest to the Pope – has already prepared a first draft of the eventual Final Report.
Time is the main evidence behind this suspicion. The last group of reports on the third part of the Working Document will be given between the Thursday and Friday of the last week of the synod (October 22-23), while the Final Report will be presented on Saturday (October 24). Time is too tight for a commission of 10 to draft a really original Final Report, unless there is a draft already written, or they simply submit as the Final Report the Working Document with a few amendments. Both choices would leave people unhappy.
Conspiracy is only a hermeneutic?
It’s for these reasons that those who are defending doctrine feel surrounded, spied upon and uncertain whether to voice their concerns or not. They also suffer from media naiveté. Their need always to be precise hurts the timing of their interventions, slows down their communication with the media, and heightens the likelihood of their being manipulated.
Above all, they are so faithful to the Church that they are not willing to claim papal support for their position when this has not been expressed clearly by the Pope. But the Pope never takes a strong position while a discussion is still on going. Nevertheless, he has spoken clearly about the family continuously over the past year. And even in his intervention at the Synod, he reassured the bishops that “no one wants to change doctrine.”
Moves on the other side
However, the media narrative for the promoters of the agenda of mercy is all polished. For months Cardinal Walter Kasper has presented his agenda of mercy as the Pope’s agenda, making others think that those opposed to his views in the end were opposing the Pope. This led Cardinal Wilfried Fox Napier of Durban (South Africa) at one point to insist publicly that “Kasper is not the Pope’s theologian.”
Cardinal Napier is one of the most prominent prelates of the African corps at the Synod. The African periphery is one of the most determined to defend doctrine, together with the Eastern European peripheries. African prelates periodically hold meetings in order to maintain a common line in the Synod. But Archbishop Charles Palmer Buckle, of Accra (Ghana), rejected the notion that Africans are blocking the Synod’s works. Instead, he said, they are making proposals. In the end, Africa is at the frontline in combating the ideological colonization of the family that Pope Francis has always denounced.
Polish Bishops are united, too. Before the Synod, they published a manifesto in 9 points, while a group of 100 laypeople in Poland sent a letter to the Synod Fathers asking them to preserve the Church’s doctrine. Archbishop Gadecki, President of the Polish Bishop’s Conference, has posted some notes from the Synod on his blog. He revealed that there was at least one Synod Father who backed some form of Catholic theological acceptance of divorce: Cardinal Maestrojuan of Panama. The General Secretariat of the Synod censored him, with the excuse that some of the Synod fathers might feel biased. The notes were then removed.
The need to voice concern
The majority of Synod Fathers share the concerns and the mission of these peripheries, as the small circles reports on the first part of the Synod’s working document show. Most of the Synod fathers noticed the lack of a theological framework, and moreover the need to present the family in positive terms. The report – they noticed – highlighted the difficulties of families, but it never highlights the bright examples of family. One of the small groups affirmed that “Pope Francis and the people of the Church deserved a better document.”
However, only a few of them find the courage to voice their worries while the general discussions were ongoing. Cardinal Erdo’s introductory speech has been put aside, and is now officially considered just a document like any other. At the same time there is a risk that the deposit of faith is being put into question as Synod Fathers debate how to find a new language for the Church. This is a hot topic for the adapters. Even indissolubility is considered a notion too difficult to be understood, and some of the Synod Fathers have proposed that a new way be found to refer to it.
These discussions on language are symptoms of one of the Church’s disorders: searching for a new language to speak to the world instead of speaking to the world with the Church’s own language. The sense of despair has indeed replaced hope. Pope Francis has put himself forward as a sort of mediator between the parties. However, the impression exists that polarization is too high for a successful mediation, and that the Pope should therefore choose a side. But there is every possibility that he will not do this.
So what’s next?
The adapters who are trying to influence the Synod will focus on two main topics. First, the issue of conscience. Personal conscience will be given a prominent role in disciplinary questions. Whether access to sacramental Communion will be given for the divorced and remarried, or for those who live in homosexual relations will be decided on the basis of personal conscience. Each person will be encouraged to solve it for himself in the “foro interno,” that is in sacramental confession. True, the Church teaches that conscience needs to be well-formed, but it is possible that the adapters will not highlight this aspect.
The second issue adapters will focus on will be the need to devolve authority to make some disciplinary changes in keeping with the sensitivities particular to different geographic areas in the Church. No changes in doctrine will be mentioned, just changes in disciplinary practices. This way, every episcopal conference will adopt its own guidelines to meet doctrinal challenges. But the risk here is that the deposit of the faith could in the end be dismantled, and the centrality of the communion with Rome be lost.
These proposals carry with them many questions. What is the value of the Eucharist? What is the value of Church’s catechism? What is the value of papal teaching on marriage and family?
These issues will be raised by many bishops, who are not seeking pre-determined solutions, but who, at the same time, do not seek a revolution for the sake of the secular world. These bishops have definitely made the decision to hope.
As Archbishop Chaput stressed in a media briefing, it is normal for there to be many different positions. But the final goal of the discussion is not a win. It is the Truth.