Damage Limited, Outcome Unknown

For some people, the Synod on the Family has turned into a kind of Catholic LSD flashback, resurrecting experiences from the post-Conciliar 1960s and 1970s that weren’t such a great trip the first time around. That certainly is one part of what’s been happening – and probably will continue to happen for no little while, now that these matters have been resurrected and “debated.”

But there is perhaps a better way to assess things so far. If you expected this Synod to be an inspiring endorsement of the Catholic vision of marriage and family, you will – to say the least – be dismayed (but kudos to you for your high level of hopefulness). If you expected that, given the rebarbative document the bishops have been stuck with and are laboring to fix, the best we can hope for at this point is damage control, you would be justified in – cautiously – being of some good cheer, at least as far as the final document of this Synod is concerned. What comes after will be another matter, entirely.

In one of the major developments, almost wholly unreported, there seems to have been a double retreat on Communion for divorced/remarrieds, and perhaps tangentially, treatment of gays. The Kasper proposal is dead. So there was among its not numerous proponents a notable turn to a fallback position to allow local bishops’ conferences to respond to their own “situations,” a way of getting changes in practice (or is it doctrine?) locally that could not be achieved globally. That too now seems destined not to find majority support.

So there seems to be talk brewing about a third option: setting up a Commission on the subject – there may even be an attempt to introduce this proposal into the Progetto, the first draft of the final document. A Commission would mean prolonging the tortuous attempts to change teaching while denying you’re changing it, which has already gone on too long. And we can hope that the world’s weary bishops may simply say: enough is enough. In any event, it’s no small thing that the progressives appear to have been driven to such expedients.

Entirely too much time has been devoted to such departures from tradition according to several bishops who are more and more ready to go home. Not only has that been unfortunate in itself. It’s meant that some of the real threats to the flourishing of the family – even in the Western nations – have been neglected. One bishop’s advisor, for instance, mentioned the tremendous damage that pornography has done to family relationships. And if you really wanted to deal with the mission and vocation of the family, that should have been among the main topic of discussion, since it’s the source of all sorts of problems. In the event, it’s barely been mentioned.

In a similar vein, African Cardinal Robert Sarah was among the first to recognize – echoing one strand of Pope Francis’ thinking – that, on a more abstract note, “gender” theory has provided a bizarre view of the human person that can’t help but destabilize male/female relationships in a whole spectrum of ways, and therefore marriage and the family as well.

Paul VI with Bishop Karol Wojtyla, a member of the Pontifical Commission that studied artificial contraception
Flashback: Pope Paul VI with Bishop Karol Wojtyla, a member of the Pontifical Commission that studied artificial contraception

And then there are the practical troubles of immigrant and refugee families, being divided, in many places around the world. If for some reason you wanted to focus solely on the troubles in Western nations, how about the problem – which will have enormous consequences in coming years – of the young not marrying, and among those who do marry, not a few now deciding not to have children? This has literally put the very future of our developed nations in jeopardy.

The word around the Synod is that well over 1000 modifications (modi) to the Working Document have been proposed by the small language groups, and we may hope that at least some of those modifications will introduce such concerns into the Progetto, that draft of the Final Report, which was scheduled to be presented to the Synod Fathers late Thursday.

It’s set off alarm bells that a last-minute re-jiggering of the Synod schedule was announced late Monday evening. The bishops will not see that text now until Thursday evening, reducing even further the already short time that they will have to react to it and suggest final changes.

Was this an innocent recognition that the drafters just need more time to deal with all the proposed changes, or a move to limit input, once the draft has been produced? In other circumstances, the question wouldn’t even arise – or even matter very much. This year, every detail is being subjected to very careful scrutiny by the bishops inside the meetings as well as by observers outside.

At the press briefing yesterday, a reporter asked Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, why he expressed satisfaction with the Synod procedures this year. Napier’s was the singular voice who, after the outrageous Midterm Report last year, announced to the press the next day that the text had been released before the bishops had seen it, did not accurately reflect what they had been discussing among themselves, and had led to the erroneous press reports that had gone out all over the world – a situation that had become “irredeemable.” He is also rumored to have signed the letter sent privately a few weeks to the pope by a group of cardinals warning of possible manipulation of this year’s Synod.

Napier offered a generous answer to the question. Last year, he said, the bishops had little suspicion about the proceedings – until the Midterm Report debacle. This year began with further concerns about procedures and appointments. After the Holy Father responded to the cardinals’ letter, Napier and others chose to take him at his word that the procedures this year would not result in manipulation. More importantly there has been an expansion of time for the small language circles – which is where the real work gets done.

None of that can entirely dispel nervousness about what things now stand. It’s unlikely that the drafting committee will try something as crudely radical as in last year’s Midterm Report. There are just too many eyes on the process. I’ve argued here several times that some of the reactions to the odd bits that crop up in any meeting like this are overwrought. But if we see the drafting committee trying to introduce notions – say greater autonomy for bishops’ conference on doctrinal matters – that have, by all accounts, already been rejected by something approaching a majority of the small circles, there’s no telling what will erupt among the Synod Fathers. It wouldn’t be pretty.

There are sage Vatican observers who warn that this two-year process wasn’t set up merely to arrive at the realization that: yes, the vast majority of the bishops of the world are still mostly Catholic. So let us all return, quietly, home.

Something surprising, more subtle, will likely emerge when we see that Progetto. So stay tuned.

  • And it morphs, and morphs, and morphs, …

  • Morton

    Is Francis building on the work of the two previous pontificates or making what he thinks is a needed course correction? In other words, does he generally accept John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s interpretation of Vatican II or does he have a different interpretation?
    I took for granted on his election that he would build on the work of the two previous popes. I now hold a different view. I surmise that a number of cardinals and bishops have come to the same realization. I remember as a 17 year old in 1978 in my small home town where the parish was into the latest fads of the day and Catholicism had been reduced to secular pop psychology and secular social activism. Then John Paul II arrived on the scene and I immediately was able to see the greatness of the faith. Benedict continued in the same vein.
    Under Francis I am getting the same sense I had when I was 17, of a reduced, smaller and less confident Catholicism. Francis wants to go back in time prior to the last two pontificates and find what he feels is a better way. He will push in that direction as much as he can.
    On the other side of the aisle are many cardinals and bishops who will resist as much as they can – unstinting vigilance will be their watchwords.

  • thomistica

    “Something surprising, more subtle, will likely emerge when we see that Progetto.”
    Yes, what more of indication do we need of this than that the the Pope spoke about a new ecclesiology a few days ago. And that the American Kasperite Cupich aired the radical views he did, one can assume with the knowledge that the Pope is generally in line with them.

  • Romulus

    Your evaluation is more optimistic than my own. I have no confidence in Gracias or Wuerl. I am convinced Baldisseri is playing for the other team.

  • Francis

    Your reading of Wuerl is, unfortunately, naive. From what I have seen, he is fundamentally someone who likes to be in the spotlight and especially to exercise power, and doesn’t care if he does so honestly/justly, or if he ruins careers. He predictably “tacked left” with the change of the prevailing winds from Rome.

    • Athelstane

      It may be a little more complicated than that – or less complicated, actually. Consider the original report, which we have from Edward Pentin in Catholic World Report last month (Sept.9, 2015):

      Cardinal Napier noted with concern that the paragraph on same-sex unions was still in the section on marriage, even though the Church does not recognize same-sex unions to be marriage at all. He tried to raise this concern, but the committee “just carried on discussing how the proposition should be phrased in Italian”, he said.

      “I tried to intervene a second time”, Napier recalled. “This time they said, ‘Ah, yes, all right, okay, we’ll try and change it.’ But continued working on the wording, ‘but only as it would be in Italian.’”

      It was then that an American cardinal on the committee “got really angry”, Napier remembered. He protested that, as a member of the committee, Cardinal Napier had as much right to be heard and listened to, and “you’re just ignoring him.” He demanded that the secretary general stop saying he was going to change only the Italian and insisted the document was for the whole Church, not just for Italy. “Oh, he was angry”, Napier said. “He really ripped into them. He said: ‘What’s going on here? You’re not listening to this guy? He’s on the council, on the committee, and you’re just ignoring what he’s saying.’ Thereafter they took a little bit of a breather and changed things around a bit.”

      According to an inside source, the American cardinal in question was Donald Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C..

      Now, while Wuerl has not marked out territory as as a Kasperite radical, he’s also not exactly known for being worked up about access to communion (certainly Canon 915 is a dead letter in his jurisdiction), either – so why did he pick this fight? It may well be that he did so for personal reasons – a special regard for Cardinal Napier, and how shabbily he was being treated.

      But even without Wuerl, samton909 is correct that there’s a solid majority with some demonstrated sympathy or enthusiasm for the Kasperite position, and that is indeed a very deep concern, and what ultimately drove the “13 Cardinals” to write their letter to the Pope.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    If Pope Francis is true to form he will not directly abrogate doctrine on marriage or the widespread spreading issue of homosexual behavior. I do not believe that he can do that, The Holy Spirit will prevent him. If he is- which I still have hope he is not-a grand master of deception as so many as I have learned since participation in these responses believe he will be ambiguous and suggestive regarding mercy in contradistinction to doctrine and slowly encourage regional bishops conferences to independently express their own views and policies as you Dr. Royal view as a tragic possibility. He according to previous form will try to offset that perception by orthodox pronouncements. The best outcome is what we all should hope and pray for is strong confirmation of essential doctrine without ambiguity. He is an intelligent man with a high degree of perspicacity and I cannot be convinced that he is not aware of the desultory direction his leadership is having on the Church.

    • Dave Fladlien

      I think if we look at the history (short though it is) of Pope Francis, we see a pattern of seeming to “stir the pot” with commentary, then shut it down with a clear statement of reaffirmation, or near reaffirmation, of more traditional Christian thought. I’m not sure why, but

      1. He seemed to be almost a socialist, but in his speech to Congress he called business a “noble vocation” if I recall correctly, and affirmed that its role is creation and distribution of wealth. Hardly socialist, Thank God.
      2. His fixation on environment worried many that he would next support population control, but he said some time ago that he reaffirms the Church’s position on birth control, which I am sure heartens many people.
      3. It seems to me that he might have liked to have women ordained, but again his ultimate comment was that “the Church has spoken”. Again he upheld the position he inherited.

      I’m not sure what motivates the pattern of seeming to open or reopen debate, only to then shut it down, but at the risk of sticking my neck out, I’d be surprised if he approved much — if any — real consequential changes from the Synod. I may be wrong, I find him confusing too, but I think when the “rubber meets the road” as they say, he’s a pretty conservative Pope with a flair for controversy. We’ll see if I’m right.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        You see the vacillation on issues more positively than I do but I definitely hope you are right.

  • So there seems to be talk brewing about a third option: setting up a Commission on the subject – there may even be an attempt to introduce this proposal into the Progetto, the first draft of the final document. A Commission would mean prolonging the tortuous attempts to change teaching while denying you’re changing it, which has already gone on too long.

    Bet on this or something like it. Every concrete action the Holy Father has taken has been in favor of the St Gallen Mafia/Kasperite agenda, and in light of his speech over the weekend, there’s no reason to think he’s given up. You’d almost think there was a quid pro quo lurking somewhere in the background.

    • And here we go. From Ed Pentin over at the Register:
      BREAKING: Pope Creates New Vatican Department for Laity, Family and Life

  • Athelstane

    …In any event, it’s no small thing that the progressives appear to have been driven to such expedients.

    Indeed, it is no small thing; but in a sense, even a “win” for those adhering to the traditional doctrine and praxis arguably are losing for winning, by the mere fact that the entire discussion in the Church has been shifted on to this ground. The very fact that certain problematic statements from the bishops’ interventions are being quoted in the press – accurately or not – moves the debate immeasurably in their favor, whether we like it or not.

    And the ultimate say on this lies in the hands of the Pope, not the Synod Fathers. A pope who, on, on most evidence, seems to have some sympathy for the Kasperite position. The final exhortation may not come for months, long after the bishops have gone home; what can – what will – they do if he opens some small door to greater autonomy for conferences on this question, as his address this week about “decentralization” so strongly hinted? Most bishops may well be unhappy with all of this, but the great majority are also very reluctant to take on the pope publicly, too.

  • Evangeline1031

    Ugh, this is horrible, like a level of Dante’s hell. The level of the heretics in the Vatican dangling the faith over a precipice while the faithful nervous bite their nails below.
    There is no way these men will accept this defeat. Robert Royal is right, they didn’t do all this just to go home. This is unsightly.

  • Tanyi Tanyi

    Francis has led the Church into deeply uncertain waters! There is so much confusion in the Church. We just have to pray for the Church.

  • CadaveraVeroInnumero

    The only point of dragging this out into the netherworld of commissions is to wear some down and to make others wary of engaging again over these concerns.

    Maybe the big daddy commission waiting in the wings – and one instituted in the final report – will be one assigned to make adjustments and additions to the Catechism. It will operate mostly on the sidelines generating little angst until its release, but whose effects will be monumental.

    [Did you hear the one about roping “disorder” to the stake, piling fagots onto the pyre and setting it afire?]

    Leftist – clerical or not – are very adept at squirreling away on such commissions; they understand their usefulness, how they can be tooled up to advance their agendas. Leftist are constitutional constructed to relish such work; they do not mind in the least it is out of sight and without applause.

    Is there a bookie out there managing bets on the probability if the final report will establish such a commission?