Perhaps the greatest irony about the current Synod is that the bishops speak frequently and passionately and rightly about the need for clear and positive language. Yet what the process has produced so far is anything but clear and, therefore, evokes negative emotions like fear and confusion among the faithful Catholic who are following the deliberations, and perhaps among the bishops themselves.
There’s been a lot of media coverage the past few days about the letter signed by thirteen Cardinals and sent on the opening day of the Synod privately to the Holy Father. It raised two main questions about the overall synodal process, and added a third concern. That letter and the reactions to it tell an interesting tale.
First, the thirteen Cardinals expressed their fear that the way the procedures had been structured, they seemed intended to produce a certain outcome. This has turned out to be both a legitimate fear, and also somewhat off the mark. The closed nature of the Synod seemed initially to run the risk of manipulations such as went on at the last synod. They might have happened again. Except that, it now appears, the procedures have been so poorly thought through that it was only yesterday (one hears through the grapevine) that Synod President Cardinal Baldisseri even made clear to another Cardinal that the bishops will be given a chance to vote not merely on each section, but each numbered paragraph of the final document. Imagine, two weeks into the process and there was still doubt about one of the central and seemingly simple procedural questions. And it still may not be decided whether the bishops will need a two-thirds or simple majority to approve or reject any given passage.
All that’s already bad enough, but the thirteen Cardinals also rightly objected to the lack of clarity in the content and the whole structure of the document – which as we reported yesterday (and anyone can verify simply by reading their reports) is now a near universal complaint among the small language groups meeting to revise the Working Document. So on their second point, the Cardinals may have been a bit ahead of their fellow bishops in seeing that trouble lay down the line. But what they said is now very nearly a commonplace among the synod participants.
Finally, the thirteen raised the question with the Holy Father about the composition of the drafting committee that will prepare the draft of the final text to submit to the bishops. Here, perhaps, they did diverge a bit from their fellows. As eminent Churchmen, they’re more sensitive to how personnel drive policy than others might be. And it didn’t take a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” as the pope would later say, to wonder whether Cardinal Baldisseri and Archbishop Bruno Forte (the latter the author of last year’s controverted passages) should still be on the drafting committee.
Or to think that another member of the drafting committee Anthony Spadaro, S.J., who several days ago sent out this Tweet . . .
. . . has virtually disqualified himself. Whatever you think about the procedures and content, the job of the drafting committee is to reflect impartially the views of the Synod Fathers in the final text. A member of that committee simply should not have publicly denigrated a large segment – my guess is a significant majority – of those Fathers.
We got into yet another PR spat this week when Durban Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, one of the thirteen signers of the letter, was wrongly reported by CRUX to have said in an interview that he challenged the pope’s right to appoint the people he had to the final drafting committee. What he really said, as CRUX later corrected the record, was:
One of the concerns was, and this I really would share, is the choice of the people that are drawing up the document, [but not] challenging Pope Francis’ right to choose them. If we’re going to get a fair expression of what the synod is about, what the Church in Africa really would like to see happening, we wouldn’t like to see the same kind of people on that committee that were there the last time, that caused us the grief that we had.
This is a perfectly valid point, shared by what are probably scores of Synod Fathers. And far from being a slap at the pope, it might even by read as a desire to help the Holy Father avoid difficulties where they don’t have to exist.
The letter from the thirteen Cardinals – and the Tweet and mistaken interview to which they led – could all be dismissed as making mountains out of molehills, except that it’s clear that some elements in the media (and who in the Vatican leaked a letter addressed privately to the Holy Father anyway?) are now trying to set up a narrative of subversive conservatives thwarting the pope. In fact, the thirteen raised some questions that have proven to be prescient, and when the pope responded to them last Tuesday, they respectfully left matters in his hands.
In the meantime, there are serious questions to be discussed this week. And the lack of clarity as to procedures, content, personnel has impeded the work needed to find authentic and faithful ways to greater charity and mercy. Those paths will not – pace the media – be Communion for the divorced and remarried or acceptance of gays or any other departure from fundamental Catholic doctrine.
But they might lead to new, perfectly Catholic ways to work with people suffering through a divorce or with same-sex attraction, drawing on the deep wells of charity which God has inspired in our tradition. The lack of clarity has turned out to be an obstacle to that growth of charity.