The Problem of the “Two Synods”

In the early days of a synod, it’s very difficult to assess what’s going on  – especially because observers and journalists are not allowed into the hall. And that’s under the best of circumstances. In current circumstances, the communications office says that it has been taking special steps to ensure that as much clear information as possible is being released. A phrase has come up several times – even alluded to by the pope: they hope to keep what is really going on (“the synod of the room”) from being distorted in various outlets (“the synod of the journalists”).

This is hardly a new concern. Pope Benedict XVI spoke often of how Vatican II – which he and JPII and many others who actually participated in the Council thought of as balanced effort at renewal – quickly turned into the “Council of the journalists,” aided and abetted by heterodox theologians. In a media-interpreted world like ours, appearances can easily be made to replace reality.

But this papacy itself does not have clean hands when it comes to such things. At the first synod called by Pope Francis, the 2014 Synod on the Family, the infamous midterm report (relatio post disceptationem), which among other controversial things called for “valuing” homosexual relations, was concocted by bishops close to the pope and issued after Francis had read and approved it.  It caused a stir worldwide, not least because the very next day several cardinals appeared in a public briefing to deny that such subjects had even by discussed by the synod fathers.

One of the Cardinals, Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa, made a moving statement (I was in the room and the tension was palpable) about how the problem was like much else that happens in the Church these days: A “false message went out,” after which, in his words, the situation was almost “irredeemable.”

After such shenanigans during the first family synod, around a dozen cardinals sent a private letter to Pope Francis (later somehow leaked to the press) before the second synod on the family had even begun. They objected that the event had been rigged by the selection of  participating bishops; the structuring of the process; and the mechanism for the writing of the final report.

The pope was not delighted by this pre-emptive move, of course, and was only able to circumvent the opposition by the bishops of the world to what he hoped to achieve by weaving well-known ambiguities into his Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia.

And it didn’t stop there. The 2018 Synod on Youth was clearly oriented towards proposing further ambiguities – and perhaps more than ambiguities – this time regarding LGBTs in the Church. A substantial contingent of African bishops made it clear quite early on that no such thing was going to fly with them. As a result, the final document of that synod made no mention of LGBTs and was mostly devoted to “synodality,” which the synod fathers (again)  said they were surprised by, because the subject had not been prominent in their discussions.


And now here we are at the Amazon Synod. Pope Francis often indicates what he’s thinking more by gestures than words. For instance, he recently received, cordially and in a private audience, Fr. James Martin S.J.  – who seems almost schizophrenic advocating for LGBTs while claiming not to be contradicting Church teaching.

This right after Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote quite civilly to his flock that Martin’s appearance at St. Joseph’s University (not technically under the archbishop’s jurisdiction) was confusing people about Church teaching. Meanwhile, the pope has often and on little enough evidence been quite judgmental about young orthodox priests, whom he sees as suffering from buried psychopathologies.

The pope’s presence at the strange tree-planting ritual this past weekend was another such gesture. Some have suggested that what was initially thought to be a penis on the male figure may have been an upraised arm. But either way, if the Vatican communications office is concerned about journalists not mischaracterizing the synod, why haven’t they explained what was and was not present at the ritual?

And didn’t the pope know what he was getting himself into by being a witness to it all as the Successor St. Peter?

And if he and his advisers did not know, why is that? He was using his position as chief shepherd of the flock to say something – but does anyone know what? Is no one in the Vatican communications office interested in clearing up, so far as may be possible, an early event that could skew perceptions of the entire rest of the synod?

It would also be helpful if some of the commentators who generally favor what Francis is trying to do would step forward and acknowledge what are probably their own doubts about the wisdom of introducing what look like fertility rites into the current event. It would be a good way to demonstrate that they, too, are servants of the Truth.

Many traditional Catholics feel ignored and patronized at the moment, which – rightly or wrongly – has spilled over into generalized mistrust of everything coming out of the Vatican. The pope is still the pope and a fellow Christian who most Catholics, even those who don’t like the current trends in the Church, would like to treat with the same respect they would like him to show towards them.

But what are they to do? The Holy Father is supposed to be the Pontifex, the bridge-builder, the one to hold together the various elements of the Church in the unity Christ intended. For the moment, the Vatican is concerned that the synod not be framed in divisive ways in the press. But do we see anyone in the Vatican concerned about taking real steps to maintain Church unity?

*Image: Claudio Peri/ANSA via AP

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.