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Synod Day 11: Some Numbers

There has been a lot of talk – in dozens of languages – about the Extraordinary Synod since the Relatio post disceptationem (the interim report) was published to great controversy this past Monday. Much of what people who are not here in Rome are saying is worthy of some attention. But since we are awash in so many words, perhaps the best way to analyze Thursday’s news is via some hard numbers.

Yesterday morning, the 10 small language groups delivered their formal reports (Lat. relationes – don’t confuse these with the earlier document). Every one of them is basically solid and sets out a very different vision than the interim report did. (You can read them, if you can manage the languages, here [1].)

In addition, though there has been no little effort on the part of spokesmen to characterize everything as just business as usual in a process of this sort, there were roughly 700 requested modifications to the text. So many, in fact, that Fr. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Vatican Press Office, expressed some doubt whether the work on the final report will be done by the end of the Synod Saturday evening.

A reporter asked: so how do the participants vote on the final text then? A good questions without a good answer, and even Fr. Lombardi had to laugh about it.

But let’s do a little math. There were 58 paragraphs in the Relatio post disceptationem. You haven’t seen most of them discussed because they’re the kinds of generalities about families and the Christian life that wouldn’t raise much controversy – or even interest. Such as this:

25. Proclaiming the Gospel of the Family is urgently needed in the work of evangelization. The Church has to carry this out with the tenderness of a mother and the clarity of a teacher (cf. Eph 4: 15), in faithfulness to the mercy displayed in Christ’s kenosis. Truth became flesh in human weakness, not to condemn it but to heal it.

I will make a low estimate that half of the 58 sections, which are not long (that’s the whole of 25), are of a similar nature. So if there are fewer than 30 or so with some debatable material and 700 requested modifications (modi), there could be more than 20 per section. Actually, if you bore in on where most of the action is, there are probably at least 40-50 points of debate on the tougher sections.

          Archbishop Denis Hart

  While we’re talking about such numbers, by the way, it’s just come out, from reliable sources, that only two of the Synod’s bishops pushed the outreach to gays, which took up four whole sections of the Relatio — and which, therefore, gave a vey different impression of the place such ideas occupied in the overall work of the Synod.
Even allowing that some of the modi are only slight improvements of wording or minor corrections, this constitutes a massive rewrite. And not only did Fr. Lombardi announce that it might be too much for the five original members of the drafting committee to handle – all of a basically liberal bent – he also announced that the pope had added two new members: Cardinal Napier from South Africa and Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne.

We recounted Cardinal Napier’s aplomb and careful candor in Day 9 [2] of this series, and I’d like to be able to report that it was because of those qualities that he was appointed. But there seems to have been some complaint that “no one from Africa” was involved in the final drafting. And this coming after the casual slight of the Africans by Cardinal Kasper may [3] have caused the Vatican – or at least some elements therein – embarrassment. Some Europeans (Kasper among them) aren’t especially “open” to listening to voices from Africa or Asia, where Catholicism is growing rapidly, because those societies are more traditional and not very appreciative of liberalizing currents.

In any event, it’s well that the good cardinal is involved in that process. Archbishop Hart replaced Cardinal Pell when the latter was moved to Sydney, and given that he was a JPII appointment at a time when Pell was influential, this appointment too seems a step in the right direction. And imagine: two native English speakers were added in what seems to be an effort to balance the committee.

But don’t get comfortable just yet. If this Synod has demonstrated anything, it’s that Catholics need to be quite vigilant about what’s going on, even in Rome. Pope Francis called on young people at World Youth Day in Rio to “raise a ruckus” (hacer un lio). Instead of hoping that somehow a tidy process can be anticipated, we all need to emulate those bishops who stood up and stopped what was not just a matter of a few mistranslated words and a flawed drafting process and document release.

It was all of those things and more. But it was also an indication of resurgent radicalism within the Church – which overplayed its hand and drew attention this time. But all of us need to be vigilant and active in making sure that bishops, priests, and Catholic groups stay firm between now and the 2015 Synod that will carry into action some of the recommendations of this one.

I’m sorry to say this, but the next year is most likely to resemble a political campaign in which contending parties, different voices – currents from the past we thought were long gone after thirty-five years of Wojtyla-Ratzinger – will be in action again.

There’s only one way to stop this. Cardinal Pell, it’s rumored today, stood up during the proceedings on Thursday when the Synod leaders seemed to have decided on their own authority not to publish the reports of the small groups, presumably because they were uniformly tough on what’s been too soft. He slammed his hand on the table and said, “You must stop manipulating this Synod.” That forced a general vote – and the reports were published.

We’re going to need a great deal more such courage and a true openness.  

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as the St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at Thomas More College. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.