Synod Day 9 – Bishops to World: “Never mind”

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I’ve said here that Monday, the day the document officially known as the Relatio post disceptationem (Synod interim report) was issued, was the strangest day I’ve ever spent in Rome. I take it back. Yesterday, the daily Synod press briefing essentially retracted much that was said Monday and by implication parts of the document, while stopping just short of admitting as much. It was a 180-degree turn such as may never have been seen in so short a radius on Vatican soil. Ever. Throughout the ages.

And as details emerged Tuesday, the rollout of the relatio looked to rival the rollout of Obamacare for sheer jaw-dropping ineptness.

South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier was perhaps the most candid participant. Like all the others, he pushed the line that the relatio presented Monday was wrongly seen as a set of conclusions, when it is in fact a work in progress merely intended to guide further discussion. More on that below. But he also admitted that a message went out that was not the right message. And even ventured that, though the final document will doubtless be better balanced and much better worded, the misimpressions fostered in the press by the document and already given wide dissemination have put the Synod in  a position that may very well be “irredeemable.” (His term.)

I myself look forward to hearing more from Cardinal Napier. But it seem wrong – for once – to blame the media for misunderstanding what the Church is doing. The media emphasized the troubling parts of the text, of course, but for the most part understood quite well what the text and the way it was issued had done. It would have been quite easy for Vatican spokesmen – or the text itself – to have made clear that the relatio was only a series of points the bishops had in fact discussed. That was not made clear. And in Tuesday’s indirect recantation, it was hard to determine, despite persistent questions by journalists, how this sorry mess ever saw the light of day.

Before things even got started at yesterday’s briefing, Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J., director of the Holy See Press Office and panel discussion leader announced that he had been asked to issue a declaration and “clarification” by the General Secretary of the Synod, Cardinal Baldisseri. According to official sources, at least forty-one bishops who are involved in the Synod were quite surprised – and quite “agitated” – at the appearance of the document Monday.

Cardinal Burke even did an interview in which he said the Holy Father himself now has to publicly explain things since the document was “not the work of the Church.” (Where Francis fits into this whole scenario is a much asked question in Rome: Is he allowing this debate, to see how far it will go, or has it taken on a life of its own in directions he never intended?)


Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier

Burke further claimed that those moderating the discussions were being biased. This is difficult to confirm because the deliberations are closed. And there are other problems. Only one participant may have mentioned the pastoral care of children of gay couples, for example, but if that remark is given disproportionate space in the text by the drafters, it distorts public perceptions about what the bishops are focused on. Cardinal Müller has called for the publication of all formal comments. That would help. But the ship, such as it is, has already sailed.

Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni delicately alluded to “a certain perplexity” among the bishops, both at the form of the text and the manner of its release. He explained that the goal of the whole process, which continues in the “small circle” discussions followed by rewriting and formal votes between now and Thursday, is to produce a text to present to the Holy Father so that he can decide what to do about the various points discussed.

Filoni also tried to situate the controversies in a larger positive vision of marriage and the family. It’s not, he argued, just two or three points but a rich and broad discussion of the family, which he and Napier claim puts the positives first and deals with problems and difficulties by building on that.

Perhaps so, but the press – a quite large group as Fr. Lombardi noted – were not satisfied. If the text gave the wrong impression, one reporter asked, why publish it in this form? There was no clear answer to that, though Cardinal Filoni said it’s “always been done this way.” The difference is that in other cases, this sort of “interim” document is usually dealing with rather dull Church matters and hardly anyone, let alone the press, is much interested in the text or the process. Close to 200 people were in the briefing Tuesday and paying very close attention.

Perhaps expectations ran too high and people came to the documenting hoping to find what they want there? That’s an answer, of a sort, but seemed to satisfy few in the room. Admittedly, “Phrases in the relatio might lead people to believe that it’s a document that reflects the view of the Synod as a body.” Indeed.

The ever-inquisitive John Allen brought things to a point: what the world heard was outreach to homosexuals. Will that still be there after revisions? Others remarked that the panel was “disowning” parts of the relatio. But the homosexual stuff was in there. How did it get there? Who’s responsible?

The only answer to that very good query came from Cardinal Napier. Everyone knows that it’s Archbishop Bruno Forte. (When questions about paragraphs 50-53, the most controversial part, came up Monday, the other bishops were visibly relieved to be able to let Forte handle them.) Napier could only say that, whatever the conceptual static and whoever put the troublesome words there, the small language groups are at work. On Thursday, they’ll reunite to discuss what they decided separately. Sometime later, probably Saturday, the whole Synod will vote on a final text: then we “own it.”

Let’s pray the final text is worth owning.