Synod Day 2 – “Openness,” Leaks, and Fear of Frankness

The mood in Rome is – let’s just speak the truth – tense. According to one quite reliable source on site, it’s not only the “Ratzingerians” like Cardinal Burke who have been feeling an icy wind. It’s also more “moderate” Cardinals and members of the Curia who simply don’t know what to make of what’s going on. And fear what might happen if they say the “wrong” thing – difficult to avoid when things are so unclear.

I reported on some of the pope’s harshness towards upholders of tradition in yesterday’s Synod Report, an odd homily that might be taken to mean all those over the centuries who had upheld the indissolubility of marriage were somehow authoritarians and self-serving legalists. But the responses to the pope in private – again, beyond the usual conservative suspects and into more neutral, mainstream figures – has been equally tart: “a Latin dictator,” “a Peron,” someone who likes to be center stage in the limelight. And perhaps the most shocking comment of all from more than one person: “His health is bad, so at least this won’t last too long.”

The directives at the start of a meeting like this often betray not where the organizers believe things are going, but where they fear they will not. The pope’s talk about a spirit of openness Monday may fall into that category. There are knowledgeable figures in Rome who believe that if real openness occurs, heads will roll. Some already have.

Then there was Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő who, in an opening statement, proposed to take doctrinal questions off the table and deal solely with pastoral questions. That’s a consummation devoutly to be wished, but easier said than done. Many of us remember that Vatican II was a pastoral council, or so we were told. How did so many people get the impression it had also changed doctrine and, in fact, did do so in many Catholic institutions?

It’s important to see all this in perspective. Normally, a bunch of bishops gathering to discuss a handful of well-worked theological matters is of no interest to the world and little interest even to most Catholics. A Catholic journalist said to me just this weekend that he wasn’t much of a “court follower,” meaning he didn’t pay much attention to intrigues within the Vatican. A good attitude – when it comes to petty gossip about who’s in or out, up or down. But as we know from the history of Vatican II, given the modern media environment, what happens in Rome and how it gets reported can affect Catholic life around the globe in incalculable ways. Theologians and moralists may then waste decades that might have been better spent on other subjects just trying to correct simple errors.

“Xavier Rynne” (i.e., Fr. Francis X. Murphy) famously produced a series of polarizing Letters from Rome in The New Yorker during the Council, which virtually created in America what Benedict XVI called the “Council of the Media” as opposed to the real Council, which the young Ratzinger attended, applauded, and help shape. A Church concerned to carry out its proper teaching function today cannot fail to recognize the importance of assuring that its work is perceived as clearly as possible – in an age when every word of a pope, president, prime minister, even sports figures gets merciless scrutiny. Further, social media is everywhere – even the pope takes selfies now, and they get sent around.

All that may be regrettable, but whatever the intention of the primary actors, people inside and outside the Church now believe, given media spin, that questions that were settled and largely known to be such during the past two papacies are now regarded as “open” again. And the unholy conspiracy between the heterodox and media outlets who smell a big story will make sure it’s hard for the Vatican to keep the message focused.

       Cdl. Baldisseri and spokesman Fr. Lombardi: freedom and sincerity

That’s one reason why the decision to limit the information the Vatican releases daily about the Synod is puzzling. You could read it is as a way of “controlling the message,” to keep various groups from spinning a phrase here and there, and trying to influence the Synod participants. Or maybe it was thought that the participants need a certain privacy to carry out their work more frankly. Who knows which?

We do know that the Vatican had second thoughts and decided to allow the first working session to be televised (you can view it, in Italian, here). All other sessions, except the concluding one, will be closed. But in a Church that has been talking about greater transparency and openness, such strategies strike me as not only misguided, but utterly hopeless.

I say this not out of any sharp frustration over the new limits, but from experience. When I covered the Conclave that elected Pope Francis in 2013, one of the striking things for someone like me, who has lived in Washington for thirty years, was how quickly conversations that were supposed to be off the record – even the presentations the Cardinals swore to keep secret at the General Congregations that preceded the Conclave – were leaked to the Italian papers. We have leaks in Washington, too, but they are basically a few drops, one here – another there. In Rome, they seem to use a fire hose.

Shortly after the 2013 Conclave, a Cardinal told me privately that he was astonished that the intervention by Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis of Brasilia had somehow been transcribed and published in the press the very next day, despite Vatican security efforts to insure the private nature of the presentations: “And what’s even more amazing, he spoke without a text. I was sitting next to him and he was just talking, without anything prepared in advance. Someone must have recorded him since there was no text to leak. His remarks appeared, virtually word for word so far as I could tell, the next day in print.”

It’s no secret in Rome that Cardinals and other high Vatican officials have “their” special journalists to whom they leak material – knowing that some of the colleagues they’re doing battle with have their own information conduits also working overtime to shape the public perception of what’s going on. This happens during Conclaves. It will happen, with even more swirling commentary, as time goes on with the far less security conscious Synod.

The General Secretary for the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Baldisseri, who is guiding the discussions, called yesterday in his opening remarks for “a spirit of freedom and sincerity” and urged that  “a broad freedom of expression must also characterize this synodal assembly, because expressing one’s convictions is always positive as long as it is done in a respectful, loving, and constructive manner.”

As we saw in the unprecedented public resistance by prominent cardinals to proposed pastoral changes, something other than respectful and calm dialogue is all but inevitable – even behind closed doors. We will hear about that quite soon, also.

Rome is a place of gossip. But it’s typically about the kind of office politics most people don’t care much about. Usually, it can be safely ignored. Not this time. Nasty public name-calling by cardinals. Sharp criticisms about the pope. Unkind remarks about his poor health and possibly short reign.

In modern times, it’s never been quite like this.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.