Not all that many years ago, whenever a synod took place in Rome, almost no one noticed. If you went to the trouble, you could find perfunctory, brief accounts of a day’s speeches in one or another Roman publication, usually the Vatican’s own L’Osservatore Romano. One sage priest, who had been to every one of them, remarked of the experience that they were not worth the trouble and should be eliminated. Another, equally perturbed by the vacuity of the proceedings, called them a World Youth Day for bishops. It was no grand surprise when a camera caught John Paul II dozing during one session.
It was Paul VI who set up the whole modern system of synods towards the end of the Second Vatican Council – essentially advisory meetings called by the pope, usually every three years, in which he invited certain bishops to help him see to “the good of the universal Church.” Typically, these were on Church-y subjects like strengthening the faith, priesthood, evangelization, catechesis, reconciliation, the consecrated life, bishops. Inside Catholicism stuff.
No more, and considering the wild scramble to understand what’s going on in the current Synod – along with the 2014 preparatory synod, the only ones in which there are no daily reports about what was discussed by the Synod Fathers – one almost longs for a return to the boring days of the past. Previous synods did not much directly touch upon matters that directly affect people’s daily lives. And that’s looking more and more desirable. No changes proposed about the pastoral care of the many divorced Catholics. No discussions about welcoming language to people in same-sex relationships. No impression given that Catholic doctrine is a matter of majority voting, like some partisan public policy debate.
And also not such vigorous or obvious politicking, so much so that the Holy Father had to warn, in his unusual intervention of Tuesday morning, about participants adopting a “hermeneutic of conspiracy” against one another. What he meant by this rather esoteric phrase is that the bishops should not be looking at one another as, perhaps, involved in advancing certain private interests or in manipulating the process – a charge that has been made against the committee running the Synod and, by some, against the pope himself.
We now know, for example, that thirteen cardinals of a traditional bent petitioned the Holy Father Monday with their concerns that the Synod rules seem to have been crafted to lead the whole process towards “openness” to controversial changes in pastoral practices. The public accounts  of what they said are not particularly accurate, according to people well informed about the effort, who for the moment don’t wish to speak on the record. But it doesn’t happen every day that thirteen important cardinals resist, as a group, not only specific proposals but the whole structure of the synodal process.
And in fact, the problem may go even deeper than the way this particular synod has been organized, though that may mean more than one headache for several future popes. If you pay careful attention to the way that the secular media – who generally know little and are not very curious about the Church – report on Catholic matters, you will very quickly see that the world regards Catholic teaching as a set of “policies,” not revealed truths given us by God to which we must be faithful. Whether by design or not, the Church has given the impression in its way of conducting to this Synod that the bishops of the world can just decide, after a couple of weeks of discussion in Rome, to permit what amounts, in real-world terms, to Catholic divorce or acceptance of homosexuality.
Any real Catholic knows that is not true. Cannot be true. And Pope Francis explicitly warned against regarding the synodal process as similar to some democratic debate: “the Synod is not a parliament in which to reach a consensus or a common accord, in which there is recourse to negotiation, to deal-making, or to compromise: indeed, the only method of the Synod is to open up to the Holy Spirit with apostolic courage, with evangelical humility and confident, trusting prayer, that it might be He, who guides us, enlightens us and makes us put before our eyes, with our personal opinions, but with faith in God, fidelity to the Magisterium, the good of the Church and the Salus animarum. [“Salvation of souls”]
Those are well chosen words. But as PR people will tell you, there can be a huge gap between what is said and what is communicated. It’s been one of the frustrations in trying to understand the papacy of Francis that so many people feel confused what about what he says and does. I myself believe he wishes to go ahead with allowing Communion for the divorced and remarried (without annulment). And that he wants to take away, as much as possible, any stigma towards homosexuals, without accepting homosexual acts as such. He believes, it seems, that he can do these things as a way of reducing some of the reflex rejection of the Faith and attracting some back to the Church.
But it was already clear in the 2014 Synod that what the world hears in all these moves is that these hot-button issues “are being debated” at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. And for most people in our culture, unfortunately, that means they’ll probably prefer to wait until the “policies’ of the Church turn in their preferred direction.
That would, to say the least, not advance Pope Paul VI’s goal in creating synods, to serve “the good of the universal Church.”