Circles within Circles

The small circle reports – the crucial ones on the sections in the Working Document relevant to possible change to Church teaching about issues such as Communion for the Divorced/Remarried (CDRs) – were published yesterday by the Vatican Press Office. (Read them here.) So we now have a broad picture of what the Drafting Committee for the Final Synod Document will have to work with. As we’ve been saying here all along, and the reports confirm, the odds are we will probably get a mediocre final text, which – short of a large-scale revolt by the bishops at the outset – was about the best we could hope for. It will in all likelihood not affirm a departure from traditional teachings. But that’s almost all that can be said in its favor, and only about the document that’s taking shape. This whole synodal process – and what might come after – may still take us into an entirely different world.

First the good news: of the thirteen group reports, only three favor the Kasper Proposal on CDRs as such. And we may assume that even within those groups, some bishops would vote against it. The supporters are the Germans, French A, and Italian C (some qualified support by invoking the theological notion of the “internal forum,” an oddity since marriage is a public act). Off the record, people inside the Synod still believe the Kasper proposal would be rejected if it were put to a direct vote, which the drafters will probably not risk for that very reason. But the path from here to the final text is likely to be a minefield in these final three days. More on that below.

Four groups openly rejected the Kasper Proposal: Cardinal Sarah’s French B, and three of the English groups. In addition, Archbishop Chaput’s English C seems to lean in that direction, but did not announce a decision in its report either way. So the four might actually be five out of thirteen, a solid block that indicates why getting to the two-thirds majority that would be needed to pass Kasper – or anything controversial – directly is a very steep climb indeed.

The math after that, however, is more difficult to sort out. Of the five remaining groups – one French, two Italian, and two Spanish – there’s a common vagueness and a seeming wish not to have to decide the hard things, “decide” being the operative word here because they would have to implicitly pronounce on quite profound theological issues along the way. (Not believing this is the forum in which to decide about profound changes is not necessarily such a bad thing; it may reflect a proper sense that this whole process is ill adapted to handle that. Figures as different as Cardinal Napier and Cardinal Marx have more or less said that publicly in the press briefings.)

The stance these five group reports have adopted includes some who would like to see a devolution to local bishops’ conferences on the controversial issues and others who have asked the pope himself to help them reach unity about the matters upon which the Synod Fathers cannot agree.


So here, the path ahead becomes murky, and may not become clear until the very end: Saturday evening when the bishops cast their final votes on the text. Several groups and individuals within the Synod have expressed their opposition to devolving authority over doctrine to local bishops or conferences – which effectively would break down Catholic universality in faith and morals. To take a concrete example, suppose the Polish bishops’ conference, which is ferociously orthodox, decides to affirm the traditional teaching of centuries, while the Germans (as they have already threatened) decide they can choose their own way without waiting for Rome. Two countries sharing a common border would then not only be divided by nationality, but by pastoral practice. And we’d have the absurdity in a universal Church of a Pole who would be sharply warned not to receive Communion at home because it would be a sacrilege, but who, if he takes a short ride, might be able to receive – and even be considered a sign of profound “mercy” – abroad. That doesn’t seem to be the Catholic Faith.

And let us remind ourselves once more: at the moment, we’re only talking about a synodal text here, because the Poles and the Germans could do what’s outlined above whatever the document says. The immediate question is whether the drafting committee would want to include a specific paragraph on devolution of authority to bishops’ conferences for an up or down vote – which would also probably risk outright failure to win two-thirds of the bishops. (Though I admit that after seeing Wednesday’s reports, I’m a little less confident about this than I was even yesterday.)

Which is why, perhaps, the idea of a Commission on CDRs is being floated. The one slightly wavering English-language group (led by Westminster’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols) proposed a Commission in its report – the only one to do so. Could that be a compromise that would get enough support from the uncommitted group of five to make it viable? The three pro-Kasper groups would very likely join such a coalition, especially since the general feeling is that the pope supports CDRs and he would appoint the members of the Commission that would study the question.

People who are very well informed and whose judgment I trust think this is a very remote possibility. Others equally informed and trustworthy believe this is the likely path, and in its practical effects could give us the Kasper Proposal by papal fiat.

I’ve made several risky predictions here these past weeks. This is one prospect about which I simply don’t know what to say. And whether there’s support for such a Commission in the Final Report or not, Pope Francis has the final say. If he perceives widespread opposition to change on the Communion issue, he might be deterred from doing anything radical out of fear of creating a virtual schism. But if there’s one thing we know about Pope Francis, it’s that no one can really predict what he will do.