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Pope Francis’ vision under threat: synod procedures a ‘deck-stacked’ debacle

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A small cadre of cardinals has created procedures for the family synod which "flattly contradict" the openess called for by Pope Francis, argues a senior correspondent from Rome. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
A small cadre of cardinals has created procedures for the family synod which “flatly contradict” the openness called for by Pope Francis, writes senior correspondent Xavier Rynne II from Rome. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring

Letters from the Synod: Special edition #1 – 4 October

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and around the world on the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II


As Robert Royal wrote in the 1 October issue of Letters from the Synod, questions of dubious process plagued Synod 2014. In the run-up to Synod 2015, serious concerns were expressed that similar manipulations would plague the Synod that commences its work tomorrow.

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Those concerns have now been significantly amplified by reports about the procedures the Synod general secretariat has devised for Synod 2015 – without input from the Synod general council – and by the release of the roster of Synod fathers charged with composing Synod 2015’s final report.

More than one Synod father has described both the procedures and the final- report commission as “unacceptable.”

Their reasons for making that sharp judgement are not hard to grasp.

As to procedures:

The Synod’s discussions, in both general assembly and in language-based discussion groups, will be structured by the Instrumentum Laboris [Working Document] released some months ago – a document that has been subjected to withering criticism from across the Catholic world; a document that is marked by what might be called a striking “Christological deficit;” a document that many Synod fathers believe is a wholly inadequate basis for their work and for the Church’s reflection on marriage and the family.

Speeches (“interventions,” in Synod-speak) to the full assembly of the Synod will be limited to three minutes in duration, i.e., about 750 words – less than the length of a typical daily Mass homily. These interventions, according to the announced procedures, are the Synod’s property and will not be made public.

The bulk of the Synod’s discussions will be conducted in language-based discussion groups (“circuli minores,” in Synod argot), the results of which will not be made public.

Filtered reports on the Synod will be given at daily press conferences, the speakers being chosen by the Synod general secretariat – presumably, for their reliability in conveying the messages that Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, and Archbishop Bruno Forte want conveyed. (Archbishop Forte is Synod 2015’s special secretary and the man who is widely thought to have been the principal author of the deeply flawed Interim Report that caused a large-scale revolt of the Synod fathers at Synod 2014.)

There are, it seems, to be no “propositions” generated by the discussion groups, which means that there will be no votes on propositions, which means that the Synod fathers will not be asked to express their convictions publicly on anything.

As to the final-report commission:

Its membership includes serious churchmen, but as one Synod father put it, very few of the commission’s members have been vocal, public supporters of the Church’s classic teaching and practice on Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly-remarried. Moreover, the commission includes none of those who have most vocally defended that teaching as irreformable because of its basis in divine Revelation.

It is also striking that none of the elected American, Canadian, or Australian, or Polish Synod fathers are members of the commission, just as it is striking that none of the four Synod delegate-presidents are members.

The commission does, however, include Cardinal Baldisseri and Archbishop Forte.

All of this is quite…remarkable.

There is absolutely no precedent in the contemporary history of the Church for a synod at which there are neither propositions nor votes – the primary instruments by which the Synod fathers make known, publicly, their convictions.

The reduction of the Synod general assembly’s discussion to three-minute sound bites during which the fathers are to address the grave and complex issues involved in the contemporary global crisis of chastity, marriage, and the family, precludes any serious exchange among the Synod fathers in general assembly.

And, like many other aspects of the procedures announced by Cardinal Baldisseri on October 2 (including the embargo on the texts of interventions and the lack of public reports from the language-based discussion groups), that restriction seems to many a flat contradiction of Pope Francis’s call for an open dialogue on the grave matters the Synod is considering.

Do the people of the Church not have a right to know what their fathers in Christ are saying about matters that shape the life of the entire Body, and most especially its lay members?

Is this the kind of process that promotes a serious reflection on the Catholic response to the crisis of chastity, marriage, and the family in the twenty-first century?

Moreover, why is it pre-determined that the Instrumentum Laboris, already criticized by many as grossly inadequate (and in some cases doctrinally dubious) will set the structure for these discussions?

The deck-stacking was blatant, and therefore clumsy, at Synod 2014. The deck-stacking has gotten worse in the entr’acte of Synod 2015, most notably in the composition of the final report-commission.

Will a majority of Synod fathers agree with some of their number who have already concluded that this commission cannot be repaired by expansion (i.e., adding new members), but must be rejected by the full Synod and a new slate chosen – thus following the model by which Cardinal Achille Lienart and others changed the course of the first session of the Second Vatican Council in its opening days?

Will the protest against this deck-stacking include Synod fathers from beyond Africa and the Anglosphere – Italians, Poles, perhaps French and Latin American bishops as well?

In creating the Synod of Bishops, Blessed Paul VI was reaching back into a noble period of Church history, the era of the Fathers, in which local synods and ecumenical councils created the fundamental doctrinal template of Catholic orthodoxy through a rigorous (and sometimes cacophonous) exchange of views.

Yet to revisit some of the high points of that period is to see just how unacceptable the current plans for conducting Synod 2015 are, even considering the differences between a synod and an ecumenical council.

Imagine Athanasius at Nicaea I agreeing to confine his remarks on Arianism to a three-minute “intervention.” (Or, if you want to stretch your imagination even further, conjure up the vision of that first council inviting those sympathetic to Arius to help construct the Nicene Creed.)

Imagine Cyril of Alexandria at the Council of Ephesus accepting a “procedure” that confined his critique of Nestorianism and his defence of Mary as “Mother of God” (Theotokos) to three minutes, or that cut the Council’s president – him – out of the process of devising the Council’s canons.

Imagine Pope St Leo the Great agreeing that his “Tome,” which set the framework for the Council of Chalcedon’s teaching on the relationship of the divine to the human in Jesus Christ, would be summarised in seven hundred fifty words.

Imagine any or all of that, and see just how far the proposed procedures for Synod 2015 betray the tradition of the Fathers, one of the high points of episcopal collegiality in the history of the Church.

Synod 2014 reached its crisis point mid-way through its three weeks of work. Synod 2015 will likely reach its first crisis point in its first days.

What is decided in those early days will determine whether Synod 2015 is the “open dialogue” for which the Holy Father has repeatedly called: a dialogue in which the light of Revelation is brought to bear on a set of problems that is causing immense suffering throughout the world; a dialogue that in fact settles the question, at least for this moment of history, of whether the Catholic Church remains a Church founded on, and ultimate governed by, divine Revelation.

Which, in turn, suggests that we return to the original Greek meaning of “crisis,” remembering that a “crisis” is a moment of great opportunity, as well as a moment of considerable danger.

Letters from the synod reports and commentary, from Rome and elsewhere, on the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

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