Synod Day 8 – A Bizarre Document and Process

I have been in Rome, by my rough count, 100 times during my adult life. Some visits had to do with secular matters of culture or politics, most with questions related to the Catholic Church. But I think I can say without the slightest doubt that yesterday was the strangest day I’ve ever passed in the Eternal City.

By now, almost everyone interested in Catholic matters knows about what can only be called the truly bizarre document that the Vatican released Monday: the relatio summing up the first week of work by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I was at the press conference after the release and it, too, was a very strange thing indeed. More on that below. But before you despair – I can tell you that there were some questions from utterly astonished old Vatican reporters in that room and journalists walking around in shock outside for hours after – things are both bad and maybe also not so entirely bad as they might first seem.

First, the bad. For reasons that may only be know to certain figures involved – or to the God who searches the human heart – a document coming from the Vatican nowhas passages like these:

    50.        Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
     51.        The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension: it appears therefore as an important educative challenge. The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.
     52.        Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority. [All emphases added.]

If you find your head spinning at the language italicized above, you aren’t the only one. Several of the journalists in the room put very carefully worded questions to the four members of the press conference panel, trying to elicit clarifications. I’m sorry to say that with the exception of Cardinal Erdö, every one of them engaged in a level of spin unworthy of a Church that seeks to proclaim the truth about the Good News of our redemption by Jesus Christ.

I won’t mention the names of respondents out of respect for the nakedness of our fathers. But let me suggest some of the dynamic in the room. One female reporter for RAI Radio, the Italian state-run broadcast services, asked pointedly in response to the last section above about the rights of children, whether they don’t have a right to be raised by a male father and a female mother (an argument that in Europe, especially in France, has been very prominent)? The reply from an exalted cleric was to enter a thicket of platitudes about parental rights to educate a child, which no one objects to or has ever objected to, insofar as they were intelligible. But the fundamental question of having a real mother and a real father went entirely untouched – by a prince of the Church talking about a burning current question.

Similarly, an American journalist raised a question about the absurd phrase in section 50: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” In one way, of course, this is true, since all people have gifts and qualities. The journalist wanted to know, however, whether the Synod fathers were saying that homosexuals have gifts to offer precisely because of their homosexuality? That seemed to be implied.

      Cardinal Peter Erdö

Sadly, more inconsequential commentary followed. The Synod has been talking a great deal about its respect for the intelligence of the Catholic laity. But no Catholic layperson of any intelligence left the press conference yesterday thinking that this subject – and several others – was anything other than more confused than ever and perhaps inclining towards things gay activists have been seeking that cannot be squared with the Gospel.

You can find in the three sections quoted above some nods towards Catholic teaching, of course, but the rest of the summary – which a reliable source close to the process confirmed to me reflected what the bishops actually discussed, even as they “took for granted” Catholic teaching – reads like some hapless running after the small number of people who are pursuing a disordered sex life who might still have some vestigial interest in the Church. John Allen has brilliantly formulated this as “lifestyle ecumenism,” a sequel to the ecclesial ecumenism of Vatican II.

There were also more questions, of course, about Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and how that might be squared with Jesus’ own words. And again, there were words, many words spoken that continued to try the impossible task to square the circle. No statement that has come out of the Vatican – including the scholarly gyrations of Cardinal Kasper – has come close to making this work. And Cardinal Erdö boldly, for this panel, said certain questions present an either/or: either you give Communion or you don’t.

But here’s a slight counterweight to these otherwise alarming developments.

I spoke over dinner yesterday evening with someone involved in the whole process. That person must remain anonymous, of course, and his opinions may or may not be dispositive. But it may just be that the bishops themselves have been surprised by this document. A Synod relatio usually is issued only at the end of the event, and is presented to the pope as the working results of the group he’s asked to advise him. The process is clearly different this time out. There’s still almost an entire week ahead, with small language groups meeting the next few days and the whole group of participants coming together again only on Thursday.    

But even if those behind the scenes assure us that the bishops are aware of how they are being misperceived and that the final document or the overall process or something somehow is different than what it seems (and I have to say that the person who told me this has my full confidence) the Church has now dug itself into a deep hole. And why, pray tell, issue such a poorly crafted, deeply flawed, and basically misleading text?

The relatio concludes:

 58.        The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialog that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015. These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view. All the same the collegial path of the bishops and the involvement of all God’s people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead us to find roads of truth and mercy for all. This is the wish that from the beginning of our work Pope Francis has extended to us, inviting us to the courage of the faith and the humble and honest welcome of the truth in charity.

Nice sentiments, but the only thing the world takes away from this – people back home tell me National Public Radio and other outlets are really going to town – is that the Church is cozying up to gays. That the tone and perhaps the teaching seem to be changing. That divorced and remarried Catholics will soon be able to receive Communion by a process no one can actually explain without sounding like he’s babbling. But it will happen.   

The reality may prove to be something different, but that’s the message the Synod has now sent, whether it intended to or not. We’ll see before too long whether that message now can ever be fixed.

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.