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It’s very rarely pleasant to have to issue a self-correction, but I’m quite happy to do so today, especially since the error was to underestimate the workings of the Holy Spirit – and even of a Synod of Bishops. I’ve been a bit more optimistic than most observers here in Rome over these past weeks (as you may have noticed), and readers have chided me for everything from criminal naiveté to having drunk deep of the synodal Kool-Aid. But though I have not yet personally seen a copy of the Final Synod Report, those who have, and whom I trust, are, in two words, pretty happy. So my judgment that the best we could hope for was damage control, but no more, was actually a little too pessimistic.

We have to wait and see what will make it to the final text. And I remind gentle reader that we are only – for now – considering the very narrow question of a document that will come out of this whole synodal process. A much more worrying development is that, though what you will soon see in that text will contain nothing that flatly contradicts the truths of the faith, as was once feared, this synodal process has set in motion a narrative that the Catholic Church under Pope Francis is engaged in radically rethinking fundamental questions about marriage and family. In the short run, that may be more damaging to genuine Catholicity than any particular problem that has arisen.

Belgian Cardinal Lucas Van Looys, for example, said at the press briefing Friday that Pope Francis’s announcement of a “synodal Church” means an end to a Church that judges people, the beginning of a Church that shows tenderness towards everyone, a new Church. The problem with a synod like this one is that you can never tell when people like Van Looys – sometimes even the pope himself – are speaking informally or saying something substantial. Is “new” Church here, for example, a colloquial expression, meaning a new spirit, a body renewed, emphasizing different things – or “new” as in, a departure from the 2000 year-old tradition?

It may be that Francis and some of the Synod Fathers want this last option, and they may continue to pursue it. But it will not be on the basis of the document that he will soon be given by the Synod.

Here’s a quick summary of how that document is shaping up this morning: No Kasper Proposal, no gay outreach, some passages on Communion and on bishop’s conferences that still need strengthening or reformulation. And there are still two rounds of further comments by the bishops to come. Yesterday (Friday) morning they were making oral presentations (and submitting written suggestions) on what they would still like to add, subtract, or modify in the text they’ve been given. The Drafting Committee has received those suggestions and will present the Synod Fathers with a final draft that they will vote up or down on, paragraph by paragraph, this evening. Something might still go awry, but by the end of the day today, despite media narratives to the contrary, we may end up with a surprisingly good text.

Even more surprising, however, is that those I know who have read the report all say it’s actually beautiful in places, with copious quotation from Scripture (something badly missing in the original), and passages of evangelical fervor. Much of the ungainly sociology and anthropology has been recast. I stole a line from one of Archbishop Chaput’s interventions several days ago: “the Church deserves better,” and added that if we kept on, as some like him were laboring to do, Deo volente, we might get it. There were many doubtful moments along the way, but it seems now, that the Church will get something more like what it deserves.

Archbishop Chaput at the Synod
Archbishop Chaput at the Synod

There are still some unfortunate consequences of this whole exercise. Many Catholic faithful have been upset over what threatened to be a meltdown in Catholic doctrine and practice such as we have not seen since Vatican II. I always thought – and said – that those fears were a bit exaggerated. But fears of that magnitude have made many suspect anything said by the bishops, and even by the Holy Father himself. That loss of trust will not be easy to repair in the post-Synodal period.

And as Cardinal Reinhold Marx said in a press briefing earlier this week, the Synod’s work doesn’t end when the Synod ends. It may be that, knowing the votes and the drafting were going against the positions most forcefully advocated by the Germans, that Cardinal Marx was holding out a possibility that the Holy Father will do something “prophetic” or markedly “merciful” during the Year of Mercy. That might still happen, but it’s difficult to imagine that, after this expression of strong adherence to traditional Catholic doctrine and practice, that the Holy Father would do something divisive.

Another sign of the strength of the commitment to traditional teaching in the Synod: the votes on members of the Synod Council, who will guide futures synods, basically followed the breakdown many have suggested existed within the General Assembly of the Synod itself: about two-thirds of those elected, from all five continents, are conspicuous supporters of traditional doctrine and pastoral practice. The pope also appoints members to that Council. We’ll report on its composition here when the public announcements have been made and we’re allowed to talk about the votes.

It’s worth noting that some of the members of the progressive press were already asking yesterday whether the desire to arrive at a compromise document that everyone would find acceptable has not led to a weakening in the expression of certain positions. One such person explicitly mentioned the “internal forum,” one of the alternative ways some of the groups advocating change in pastoral practice on Communion for the divorced/remarrieds believe it might be possible without a formal change by vote of the Synod Fathers. Press Office Director Father Federico Lombardi asserted that the Final Report will only speak in more general terms of conscience and the moral law.

You may recall that Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich created a stir earlier this week when he seemed to say in a private press conference that conscience somehow had to be followed even when it arrived at conclusions different from divine law. From what one hears, those important paragraphs where conscience will come up will clarify that often mistaken impression.

And Cardinal Peter Turkson argued yesterday that to look at compromise in the text as a weakening of doctrine was to misunderstand “synodality” – which allows that we won’t agree entirely, but we decide to respect one another’s differences in what we approve.

Both Lombardi’s and Turkson’s remarks reflect how great the momentum in a traditional direction really was. When’s the last time you heard a liberal objecting to dialogue because the end result was basically conservative?

So good news for now, and we will take the day off Sunday from these Synod Reports so that we can give you a final wrap-up on Monday based on the definitive final text. But perhaps one of the strongest signs of all that you may see in the next few days would be something that several Synod Fathers will be proposing today: that the Final Report begin and end with the words “Jesus Christ.” If that is inserted into the final text, we will have a very signal achievement indeed.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.