The Devil in the Details

At Saturday’s press briefing, Fr. Federico Lombardi, the main spokesman at the Vatican Press Office, made what has to be one of the most surprising admissions to date at the 2015 Synod. Asked about the procedures by which the various modi (modifications) to the Working Document would be handled, he replied, “If I understand the process right. . . .”

It’s no small thing when the Vatican’s own spokesman confesses, even with a bit of self-deprecating humor as Lombardi did, that he’s not quite sure himself that he understands how the whole thing is being conducted.

Questions have been multiplying about the seeming chaos of the new parliamentary rules intended to guide the Synod’s proceedings. Some see the disorder as planned and sinister – a way to rig the whole process and to force changes through undetected loopholes. Others – including several reliable sources directly involved in the day-to-day proceedings – are inclined to believe it’s more a matter of sheer incompetence. A combination of the two, of course, should not be excluded. But the preponderance of the evidence seems to point, mostly, in the direction of more than ordinary human bumbling.

Questions about procedure may not seem all that sexy compared with the usual controversies about gays and Communion for the divorced. Other subjects have been raised that I, for one, think have not received nearly enough attention in the secular or religious press. For example, the Francophone elements in the Synod have, several times, said that the bishops themselves should do an “examination of conscience” about the ways in which they have failed to convey Catholic doctrine to their people.

Such unusual and possibly fruitful topics may emerge more fully as time passes. But the way things are done will also play a large role in what the Church ultimately gets from this Synod. Fr. Lombardi made his profession of uncertainty about two things that will loom large in creating the final document – oh, and by the way, he said he wasn’t certain whether there would even be a final document, though the President of the Synod, Cardinal Baldisseri, said there would be, only at the beginning of last week.

The first question has to do with how modifications are being handled. Are they approved by a simple majority in the small language groups now making recommendations? He called it an “absolute majority,” but Fr. Lombardi seemed to think that they were. So then, what happens when those are forwarded to the drafting committee – a sensitive point because debates in the circuli minores are known to all those who take part (it was very good that their summary reports were released publicly). And individual bishops are being allowed to release their own interventions. By contrast, no one but the ten members of the drafting committee (whose composition, as we’ve reported here, has raised eyebrows) knows how the hundreds of suggestions – many no doubt contradict others – will be represented in the draft text.

Fr. Federico Lombardi
Fr. Federico Lombardi

A couple of very reliable sources inside the Synod have confirmed that, so far, the handling of all those discrete points has been “not too bad.” (A caveat: these early adjustments are general recastings of the framework – e.g., putting more emphasis of Jesus Christ and Scripture, and reducing the sophomoric sociology and anthropology that were front-loaded in the Working Document. The more contentious subjects and pastoral decisions are yet to come.)

But then what? Last year it took a two-thirds majority to “pass” any given paragraph in the final document. Will that be the same this year, and what about the controverted paragraphs about Communion for the divorced and remarried and about how to treat homosexuals? They were “included” (but by recording that they failed to receive sufficient votes) in last year’s document, the one the Holy Father took the extraordinary step last Tuesday of announcing to the whole Synod was among three official documents that should guide them.

Lombardi’s answer seemed to be yes – and no. The two-thirds majority rule seems still in effect, but he doesn’t know about the paragraphs placed in limbo, or quite know how the final text will be crafted. So like the rest of us, he will have to wait and see what is included, and not, at the end of the whole process.

One thing is certain amidst these multiple uncertainties: whatever else happens, the bishops will need a fair amount of time to read and react to the final draft. It’s been misreported in several places that they will only be given the text the very morning they are supposed to vote on it. That’s not so. They’ll have it two days earlier – still not a long time – even if the Synod stays on track.

There are many reasons it may not. For example, it’s long been the plan that each of the three weeks of the Synod would be devoted to one of the three parts of the Working Document. That seemed only reasonable and orderly. But during the debates in the small circles the past week – in other words, before the first week had even come to an end – some of the Synod Fathers asked to be allowed to discuss questions from the crucial third week, the week when practical decisions about pastoral matters were supposed to be made. There were so many questions to deal with and so many comments that the Synod Fathers wished to make that there wouldn’t have been enough time to discuss them thoroughly in the one week that would have remained had they stuck to the original plan..

It’s difficult to say what this may mean. Are the bishops so divided that they fear even three weeks does not suffice for them to come to some conclusions together, or was the Instrumentum laboris so badly flawed that they are essentially now engaged in trying to rewrite it?

So as we begin Week Two, Week One does not seem to have been entirely concluded, Week Three is already with us, the main Vatican spokesman isn’t sure how, let alone what, is transpiring. But be of good cheer, such problems are nothing new and at times in the past have been much worse. As Hilaire Belloc once put it in a different context, rather tartly, the Church is “an institution [we are] bound to hold divine – but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

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.