2014: Synod Day 12 – On the Way to a Decision?

Late in life, St. Augustine issued his Retractationes, which may be translated, I believe, as either “retractions” or “re-treatments” of things he had written earlier. I’m going to do one of the latter. Yesterday, I reported that the Synod bishops voted – against the clear attempt by Cardinal Baldisseri, the leader of the Synod, to suppress the reports of the ten small language groups – that they should be published. That was not accurate.

So let me “re-treat” the situation. With fuller information today, it seems to have gone like this: Baldisseri seems to have decided, on the spur of the moment, not to authorize publication. At that announcement, a general (i.e., loud) murmuring began in the Synod hall. Cardinal Pell’s, as I properly reported, was the most prominent voice. But Baldisseri was defeated – and embarrassed as the pope sat silently and watched. The Synod participants didn’t even need a vote because the decision to make the documents public came virtually by acclamation.

It was an imprudent effort to stop them and, really, the widespread dissatisfaction with where things were going wasn’t exactly going to be easy to hide anyway. There are some sharp statements in the reports of the ten languages groups – in all ten of them – but not as much as you would find in a document produced by other public assemblies this large.

The French group “regretted” the language of the Relatio post disceptationem saying it’s style was “turgid, rambling, excessively verbose, and therefore rather generally, boring.” (My translation, and though I’ve translated several whole books from French, I had to look up some of the deliberately cutting terms the French groups chose to make this point.) But the French will be French.

On more substantive matters, other things have emerged as well. We still don’t know exactly how the four radical paragraphs on homosexuals found their way into the original Relatio. I was not present when the Relatio was read out last Monday. (I’d just arrived in Rome.) But someone who was told me something significant – that must be kept in mind in coming months.

Archbishop Bruno Forte and Antonio Spadaro, S. J., editor-in-chief of La Civiltá Cattolica, the official/unofficial voice of the Vatican and the place where the Holy Father published the first of many controversial interviews, gave each other an open thumbs-up when the sections on gays were read out. This seems to suggest that not even they were certain (Forte wrote the section on gays) that those passages would survive into the interim document.

There is not a large group of Synod bishops behind such proposals. Between St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI (1978-2013), there are thirty-five years of bishops’ appointments – not all of them, to be sure, even under those great men, can be classified as solid. But thirty-five years of real orthodoxy have an effect. The pro-gay, pro-divorced-married-Communion bloc is a minority, but a committed minority.

        Kindred spirits: Schönborn and Bergoglio

Many have asked me, in America and here in Rome: what does the pope think? Some journalists are planning to pressure the Vatican this morning to force some kind of statement – or the embarrassment of not wishing to say. There’s no easy answer. The pope – everyone agrees – has said nothing and given no indication of where he stands since his opening address to the Synod. Some have asked me whether he saw the troublesome document before it appeared. We can only speculate because of the limits the Synod leaders have placed on coverage, but I have not encountered anyone in Rome who thinks Francis didn’t see it. The best-informed sources say he saw it Saturday and returned it to the drafting committee Sunday.

Tomorrow (Saturday), is the final day of the Synod. I’ve spoken with veteran journalists and people I trust in the Synod structure itself. Every one of them believes there will be no final document tomorrow. (I’ll be flying back Sunday, so unless there’s some unanticipated development late Saturday, we’ll hit the pause button on these reports, and I’ll give you a final report on Monday.) There is just too much complexity and public disagreement to arrive at a consensus text in the time that remains.

If that happens, what should we take away from such a conclusion?

There are two large possibilities. Someone close in to the drafting process says it will not be a disaster – though it would certainly be an embarrassment. That source says the pope really wanted to hear what people were thinking. And now he has – perhaps more so than he bargained for. So he’s felt the weight of the different positions by observing, and if a document appears at some point that will help him in deciding what to do going forward.

Another view is that the failure of this group to come to some agreement indicates an utter disaster. If you back away from the past days a little, it may strike you that maybe it was wishful thinking to expect that 200+ people could arrive at a consensus, given the utter madness that currently exists in our world when we talk about marriage, family, and sexuality.

For example, Vienna’s Cardinal Schönborn, a man I once admired immensely, went out of his way Thursday to speak on and on about a homosexual couple he knew. When one of the members of the couple fell ill, the other cared for him in “exemplary fashion.” No doubt. But how exactly does the care of one person for another – parent for child, child for parent, relative for relative, friend for friend, all real expressions of love of neighbor – also require us to re-evaluate homo-eroticism? Where exactly does the erotic, homo or hetero, come into this at all? Perhaps we should all send Cardinal Schönborn and other such figures a copy of C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.

It’s not hard to see that whatever happens now – document or no document, final vote or no vote – “outreach” to gays and Communion for the divorced and remarried are now inserted into the discussion at the highest levels of the Church. And unless there’s some strong action from Pope Francis, they’re going to stay there.

There’s been some shrewd manipulation of the parliamentary procedures all along to get us to this point. Even if there is a course correction in the coming months, the Church is now going to be dealing with these divisive confusions for the foreseeable future.

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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.