Opportunities Lost: A Synod Wrap-up

There’s already been so much reporting on what happened in Rome last week, that let’s try a little Synodal thought-experiment:

1)    Suppose that instead of deciding not to report the gist of the daily speeches by the Synod Fathers, the Vatican had followed the usual procedure and provided the daily summaries on what the various speakers had said – and therefore we had known during the past two weeks exactly how much various items had been discussed, when, and more or less by whom;
2)    Suppose, further, that instead of publishing the final Relatio on Saturday with the three sections that had not passed by two-thirds vote (indicating the numbers for and against), it had just appeared the way a normal Synod document does.
What would have been the upshot?

In the first case, the utter “earthquake” (in John Thavis’ words) of the interim report last Monday would have immediately appeared as what it was – a distortion and unauthorized publication that gave the misimpression that the Synod was deeply engaged in dubious kinds of “outreach” to gays and families in all sorts of irregular situations. The really radical language and “new tone” that seemed to value homosexual orientation in itself – and that many lazy reporters identified with the pope himself – would have seemed without foundation, except in the pen of one archbishop. And no small thing: The anger and backlash in the Synod when the participants read the text (after it had already been published) could have been avoided.

In the second case, we would have had a final Synod Document on marriage and Evangelization that wouldn’t have anguished in a weird way over homosexual couples or Communion for the divorced and remarried. Indeed, wouldn’t have mentioned them. Imagine.

It would have been a less theatrical two weeks, to be sure, but the news would have been quite a bit closer to the reality of what the Church still thinks. Cardinal Napier of South Africa had to point out the “sideshows” that had diverted attention from many other things badly needing study and action.  

People like to think Francis is a pope of openness, but the openness they usually mean is liberalism. Never the radical call of purity and the “strait gate” of Jesus Himself, which are easy to find in his public speeches – and not least in his frequent references to the Devil and his role in promoting gay marriage in the developed world.

So it’s no surprise that, when the Synod Final Report appeared, the BBC immediately sent out: “Pope Suffers Setback.” The NBC and CBS Rome correspondents were overheard complaining about “two wasted weeks.” Gays groups were disappointed. Italian papers lamented “conservative resistance.” That’s one way to look at it, of course. More significant, though, Cardinals Burke, Pell, Müeller, Napier, and others took the unusual step of publicly complaining about what they thought a biased process. The facts support them, but we don’t entirely know who was at fault – or if it was just sheer incompetence.

The pope’s own views have been impossible to detect – though many reporters pressed – because he said nothing at all this week. Presumably, he does desire some pastoral developments. He did invite, after all, Cardinal Kasper to give the keynote at the February consistory that got that whole controversy going. But to identify him with the most radical language in some garbled documents does him an injustice.    

In that light, it’s interesting that his final discourse to the Synod was described by those who heard it as brilliant and moving – it got long applause. Read as a text, it’s something less than that, but it’s worth looking at the “temptations” he outlines in that discourse. Even though they tend to be a little general – on the one hand, on the other – they show a man trying to hold together progressive and traditional elements.

The media like it when he starts by saying that we have a temptation to rigidity that doesn’t allow us to receive the surprises God has in store for us. Zealots, the scrupulous, those in a hurry, and so-called “traditionalists.” And intellectualists. All offend here. Fair enough, but given the anti-Christian forces of the modern world a certain firmness, perhaps some outright rigidity, is the only thing that will keep us from being crushed.

Francis balances that off with what he calls a “destructive buonismo,” a hard word to translated, but maybe being a glad-hander or optimist or do-gooder. Those who succumb to this temptation “wrap the wound but don’t really cure it.” The offenders here are progressives and liberalizers.

Then there’s the temptation that Satan offered Christ Himself: to turn stone into bread, a devilish diversion from our ascetic path – and the opposite seems to be co-ordinated with it, that we turn bread into stone to fling at sinners, the suffering, and the poor.

All of us also sometimes feel the temptation to come down from the cross to make people happy, instead of staying there to fulfill the Will of the Father, to bend to the worldly spirit instead of purifying that spirit and bending it to the spirit of God.

Finally, the temptation to overlook the depositum fidei considering ourselves not as the guardians but the owners and masters of the Faith; or conversely, the temptation to overlook reality, using elaborate language to say nothing: Byzantinism, in Francis’ formulation.

The rhetoric is clever and there’s much worth contemplating in these reflections, little that settles concrete questions. Francis most often encourages us to welcome the Spirit, whose well-known fruits are: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

According to reports, there was an extraordinary amount of all that in the Synod hall until the publication of the interim report. Everything, we’re still being told, is a work in progress as we walk toward the Ordinary Synod of 2015. But an opportunity, many opportunities, were lost through bungling in this Extraordinary (in several senses) Synod. And the Holy Spirit certainly didn’t intend that.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
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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.