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.

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.