Synod on the Family – Please fasten your seat belts

Gerard O’Connell
The Synod on the Family reached its cruising altitude with the publication of the reports from the 13 language groups on Friday, Oct. 9.
The early part of the journey was somewhat turbulent. To begin with, there was some confusion among participants about the new process that was the result of a reform approved by the pope on Sept. 7, which not only allocated far more time than in previous synods to discussion in language groups, but also limited the time each synod father could speak for in the plenary assembly to three minutes.
A certain amount of turbulence was also caused by various “conspiracy theories” that were being floated through the air here and elsewhere, alleging that the secretary general (Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri) and the special secretary of the synod (Archbishop Bruno Forte) were somehow engaged in a manipulation of the process and the elections. Cardinal Pell added to the turbulence by challenging the composition of the special commission established by Pope Francis to draft the synod’s final document. That same day a letter was given to the pope signed by a group of synod fathers, all cardinals, including Pell, that complained about the process of elections to the leadership of the groups and the way the special commission was established, while informed sources say at least one other – a Prefect of one of the main Vatican congregations – backed them behind the scenes (see note at end of this article). Cardinal Baldisseri clarified the process on the morning of the second day, and the captain of the plane, Pope Francis, intervened unexpectedly to calm the atmosphere by urging the 270 fathers to give no credence to the “hermeneutic of conspiracy” but, instead to trust each other and work together for the good of the church
The turbulence subsided soon after Francis spoke, and that afternoon the synod fathers and the 48 other participants (including 18 married couples) began discussing Part I of the working document (the “Instrumentum Laboris”) in the different language groups.  Not surprisingly, it took a little time to find an acceptable working dynamic because, as English working group “C” reported, they felt “somewhat uncertain by the task presented” to them. By the third day, however, participants had settled down as the synod plane glided forward.   They had “adjusted” to the new process as Italian “A” stated.
By the end of the first week, it became abundantly clear that the vast majority of the synod fathers are truly satisfied with the process that allows them much time to discuss the issues in depth in the language groups.  French “A” expressed “great satisfaction” at this, as did French “C,” while the fathers in French “B” felt united as they walked together with the church “to read reality with the eyes of faith and the heart of God.” Spanish “B” concurred and hailed “the great freedom with which participants can discuss the themes.”
The first week revealed not only the ethnic but also the theological and cultural diversity of the synod fathers, which French “A” described as “a unique experience of Catholicity.”  It also highlighted the fact that some appear to be married to the deductive method while others are tied to the inductive one. And while Pope Francis has called on all of them to approach the discussion with open hearts and minds, to speak boldly from the heart, to listen “with humility” to each other, and to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church, one cannot but be struck by the fact that a minority of fathers have stated publicly that they have already made up their minds on certain questions even before the discussion begins. On some issues they claim “there is nothing more to discuss.” That position has led other fathers to ask, “Why then have we come to the synod?” It remains to be seen whether some will experience a “conversion of heart” over the next two weeks.
One of the more interesting developments in this first week was a proposal, that appeared both in individual interventions and group discussions, suggesting that perhaps some questions could be best dealt with at the local level, and do not need to be decided at the Vatican.
English working group “C,” for example, reported that “the sense of diversity led us to ask if this or that analysis or argument would be best dealt with at the local or regional level rather than at the global level. There was decentralizing tendency in much of our discussion; yet paradoxically this did not undermine our sense of unity in the task.” French “C” took up and reported the suggestion of one of its members “that bishops’ conferences be given certain power to allow their pastors to be Good Samaritans.”
If this proposal were to be adopted by the plenary assembly and incorporated into the final document that could open new horizons for addressing several questions.
Highlighting some of the many positive elements at the synod, several fathers have commented on the “fraternal spirit” that prevails in the groups, and the fact that several groups were able to approve by consensus the “modi” (that is, proposed amendments to the working document).  It remains to be seen if this can happen too when the 13 groups discuss Part III of the working document, which contains the hot button issues, on Oct. 17, 19 and 20.
It should be mentioned too that in spite of the seemingly tranquil flight after the pope spoke on the second day, the synod plane again hit slight turbulence two days later when it became known that the secretariat of the Polish bishops’ conference violated the synod’s rules by publishing brief summaries of the speeches of a number of selected fathers on its website without first gaining permission from all of them. The bishops had been given clear instructions in writing before the synod that neither the contents of the interventions nor any personal attribution was to be made public. In the plenary session the following day, in the presence of the pope, Cardinal Baldisseri, the secretary general of the synod, came down hard on this breach of the rules, specifically naming the Polish bishops’ conference as the violator.
That same afternoon, the synod moved into the second and perhaps easiest stage of this “journey together” with presentation of Part II of the working document.  Participants will discuss this in the language groups on Oct. 12 and 13, and present their results to the plenary assembly on the morning of Oct. 14.
After that, the synod will turn its attention to Part III of the working document where a heated debate is expected on such vexed questions as what pastoral approach the church should take to cohabiting couples, whether divorced and remarried Catholics may be allowed to receive Communion under certain conditions, and how the church should address homosexuality and homosexual families.
The synod plane has traveled one third of the way, the journey is still long, and one cannot exclude further turbulence in route, especially when it comes to discussion of Part III of the working document, Oct. 19 and 20.  One cannot exclude turbulence either when it comes to the discussion of a draft text of the final document in the plenary assembly on Oct. 22. One thing is certain: the energy that the fathers have brought to this discussion will insure that this plane will not run of out fuel! It is due to touch down with the vote for approval of the final document on Oct. 24.
Note: A letter said to be from the 13 synod fathers (all cardinals) to the pope was published in Rome by the Vaticanist, Sandro Magister, on Oct. 12., with his comments: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1351154?eng=y However, Father Lombardi told a press briefing that same day that two of the cardinals –  Scola and Vingt-Trois – have denied signing it. Lombardi did not wish to comment on the letter since it was sent to the pope.
Thirteen Cardinals Have Written to the Pope. Here’s the Letter
by Sandro Magister
On Monday, October 5, at the beginning of work at the synod on the family, Cardinal George Pell delivered a letter to Pope Francis, signed by him and twelve other cardinals, all present in the synod hall.
The thirteen signatories occupy positions of the first rank in the Church’s hierarchy. Among them there are, in alphabetical order:
– Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna, Italy, theologian, formerly the first president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family;
– Thomas C. Collins, archbishop of Toronto, Canada;
– Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, United States;
– Willem J. Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht, Holland;
– Gerhard L. Müller, former bishop of Regensburg, Germany, since 2012 prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith;
– Wilfrid Fox Napier, archbishop of Durban, South Africa, president delegate of the synod underway as also at the previous session of the synod of October 2014;
– George Pell, archbishop emeritus of Sydney, Australia, since 2014 prefect in the Vatican of the secretariat for the economy;
– Robert Sarah, former archbishop of Conakry, Guinea, since 2014 prefect of the congregation for divine worship and the discipline – Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Italy;
– Jorge L. Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas, Venezuela.
In the letter, concise and perfectly clear, the thirteen cardinals bring to the pope’s attention the serious “concerns” of themselves and other synod fathers over the procedures of the synod, in their judgment “designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions,” and over the “Instrumentum laboris,” viewed as inadequate as a “guiding text or the foundation of a final document.”
Here is the text of the letter, in the original English.
Your Holiness,
As the Synod on the Family begins, and with a desire to see it fruitfully serve the Church and your ministry, we respectfully ask you to consider a number of concerns we have heard from other synod fathers, and which we share.
While the synod’s preparatory document, the “Instrumentum Laboris,” has admirable elements, it also has sections that would benefit from substantial reflection and reworking.  The new procedures guiding the synod seem to guarantee it excessive influence on the synod’s deliberations and on the final synodal document.  As it stands, and given the concerns we have already heard from many of the fathers about its various problematic sections, the “Instrumentum” cannot adequately serve as a guiding text or the foundation of a final document.
The new synodal procedures will be seen in some quarters as lacking openness and genuine collegiality.  In the past, the process of offering propositions and voting on them served the valuable purpose of taking the measure of the synod fathers’ minds.  The absence of propositions and their related discussions and voting seems to discourage open debate and to confine discussion to small groups; thus it seems urgent to us that the crafting of propositions to be voted on by the entire synod should be restored. Voting on a final document comes too late in the process for a full review and serious adjustment of the text.
Additionally, the lack of input by the synod fathers in the composition of the drafting committee has created considerable unease. Members have been appointed, not elected, without consultation.  Likewise, anyone drafting anything at the level of the small circles should be elected, not appointed.
In turn, these things have created a concern that the new procedures are not true to the traditional spirit and purpose of a synod.  It is unclear why these procedural changes are necessary.  A number of fathers feel the new process seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions.
Finally and perhaps most urgently, various fathers have expressed concern that a synod designed to address a vital pastoral matter – reinforcing the dignity of marriage and family – may become dominated by the theological/doctrinal issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.  If so, this will inevitably raise even more fundamental issues about how the Church, going forward, should interpret and apply the Word of God, her doctrines and her disciplines to changes in culture.  The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.
Your Holiness, we offer these thoughts in a spirit of fidelity, and we thank you for considering them.
Faithfully yours in Jesus Christ.
On the afternoon of that same Monday, October 5, during the first discussion in the assembly, Cardinal Pell and other synod fathers referred to some of the questions presented in the letter, without citing it.
Pope Francis was present and listening. And the next morning, on Tuesday, October 6, he spoke.
The text of these unscheduled remarks has not been made public, but only summarized verbally by Fr. Federico Lombardi and in writing by “L’Osservatore Romano.” As follows:
“The pontiff wanted to reaffirm that the current synod is in continuity with the one celebrated last year. With regard to the “Instrumentum laboris,” Francis emphasized that this results from the ‘Relatio synodi’ together with the contributions that came afterward, that is was approved by the post-synodal council – meeting in the presence of the pontiff – and that it is the basis for continuing the debate and discussions of the upcoming days. In this context, the contributions of the various linguistic groups take on essential importance. The pope also recalled that the three official documents of last year’s synod are the two discourses, initial and final, and the ‘Relatio synodi.’ The pontiff emphasized that Catholic doctrine on marriage has not been touched and then cautioned against the impression that the only problem of the synod is that of communion for the divorced, appealing against a reduction in the horizons of the synod.”
To this account from “L’Osservatore Romano,” Fr. Lombardi added that “the decisions of method were also shared and approved by the pope, and therefore cannot be brought back into discussion.”
From this it can be gathered that Francis has rejected the requests of the letter en bloc, apart from the marginal recommendation not to reduce the discussion only to “communion for the divorced.”
And he has not rejected them without a polemical jab, as afterward made known – in a tweet that has not been disowned – by the director of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” Antonio Spadaro, also present in the hall, according to whom the pope told the fathers “not to give in to the conspiracy hermeneutic, which is sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful.”
All of this at the beginning of the synod. But toward the end of the first week of work, something else happened. Once again contrary to the wishes of the letter from the thirteen cardinals.
On Friday, October 9, Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, archbishop of Manila and president delegate of the synod, said out of the blue that with regard to the final relation, “we await the decision of the pope.”
And the next day, Fr. Lombardi clarified that “we do not yet have certainty on how the conclusion of the synod will take place, meaning if there will or will not be a final document. We will see if the pope gives precise indications.”
Incredible but true. With the synod in full swing, a question mark has suddenly been raised over the very existence of that “Relatio finalis” which figured in the programs as the goal toward which all of the work of the synod was finalized.
The “Relatio finalis,” in fact, was the subject of extensive remarks from the secretary general of the synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, in his official presentation on October 2:
> Briefing su tema e metodo della XIV assemblea generale ordinaria del sinodo dei vescovi
That same day, Baldisseri also revealed that Pope Francis had appointed a commission of five cardinals and bishops precisely “for the elaboration of the final relation.”
On October 5, in the opening talk for the work of the synod, Baldisseri returned to illustrate in even greater detail the phases of elaboration and approval for the “Relatio”:
> Relazione del segretario generale
And he talked about it again in the assembly on the morning of October 6, right before the pope spoke.
Not to mention the official working calendar for the synod, which still assigns four full days, from October 21-24, to the writing of the “final relation,” to its presentation in the assembly, to the discussion and presentation of written observations, to its rewriting, to its re-presentation in the assembly and to the definitive vote:
> Calendario dei lavori
In the letter to Pope Francis, the thirteen cardinals expressed their hopes for the restoration of the procedure of past synods, which ended with votes, one by one, on “propositions” to be offered to the pope. Or that at least, in the absence of these propositions, there be a point-by-point vote on a “Relatio finalis” written by an elected commission, not one appointed from on high.
But if even the “Relatio” – as implied – is to be no more, the only product of the synod can be nothing other than a re-elaboration of that “Instrumentum laboris” which the thirteen signers of the letter maintain is incapable of acting as “the foundation of a final document,” partly because of its “various problematic sections,” which are of uncertain fidelity to doctrine.
Because it is true that the 270 synod fathers are working day after day to re-elaborate the “Instrumentum” from the ground up. But it is just as true that the rewriting of the text will be the prerogative of that commission entirely appointed by Pope Francis in which the innovators have an overwhelming majority, the opposite of what holds true in the assembly. And in a sprawling, rambling text like the “Instrumentum” – not telegraphic like the “propositions” of many past synods – it is much easier for a repeat of the 2014 synod to take place, with the inclusion of vague, kaleidoscopic formulas that are hard to praise or reject in assembly with a straightforward vote.
“Catholic doctrine on marriage has not been touched,” Pope Francis pledged in referring to the entire conduct of the synod from 2014 to today, in response to the “concerns” of the thirteen cardinals of the letter.
But Cardinal Tagle, a prominent representative of the innovators, also said at the press conference on October 9, with visible satisfaction:
“The new method adopted by the synod has definitely caused a bit of confusion, but it is good to be confused once in a while. If things are always clear, then we might not be in real life anymore.”
Statement from spokesperson for Cardinal George Pell
Monday 12 October 2015
A spokesperson for Cardinal Pell said that there is strong agreement in the Synod on most points but obviously there is some disagreement because minority elements want to change the Church’s teachings on the proper dispositions necessary for the reception of Communion. Obviously there is no possibility of change on this doctrine.
A private letter should remain private but it seems that there are errors in both the content and the list of signatories.
The Cardinal is aware that concerns remain among many of the Synod Fathers about the composition of the drafting committee of the final relatio and about the process by which it will be presented to the Synod fathers and voted upon.
And in an interview for “Crux,” Cardinal Wilfrid Napier “acknowledged signing a letter, but said its content was different from that presented in Magister’s report. The letter he signed, he said, was specifically about the 10-member commission preparing the final document.”

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  1. Sebastian says:

    I really think that this synod is one of the greatest scandals of our time. The level of manipulation and conspiracies is alarming and sadly starting from the head. You here may disagree but I think the Holy Father stuck the deck way before the synod, he knows what he wants and he has made sure he advances it. The synod is just a formality because everything is predetermined.

  2. Michael C says:

    Pope Francis ; “the hermeneutic of conspiracy”—which in English would be called “the conspiracy theory” ……… “is sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful.” He asked instead to engage in “a profound discernment to seek to understand what the Lord wants of his Church.”

  3. What’s emerging at the Roman Synod? — something quite deflationary: bishops have not been thinking seriously about the issues at all (discouraged by the 2 previous popes) — they seem to be mere bureaucrats who have nothing concrete to say.
    Their final report, if there is one, will just be the same sawdust as last year. Nor will the pope be able to make up for that by an inspired document of his own, for he has no special insight or enlightenment on women, marriage, etc.
    Does this mean that the Spirit has deserted the hierarchy? Or perhaps it is Providence that allows the hierarchs to give a public demonstration of their mediocrity and ineptitude, so that they and everyone will come to realize that you cannot have any real progress on such issues if you exclude (a) theologians (b) lay experts (c) real-life couples and parents (those invited as observers seem to come from weird cult-like formations like the New Catechumenate).

  4. An Internet search unearthed the following : Marriages in the West were originally contracts between the families of two partners, with the Catholic Church and the state staying out of it. In 1215, the Catholic Church decreed that partners had to publicly post banns, or notices of an impending marriage in a local parish, to cut down on the frequency of invalid marriages (the Church eliminated that requirement in the 1980s). Still, until the 1500s, the Church accepted a couple’s word that they had exchanged marriage vows, with no witnesses or corroborating evidence needed.
    It would appear, if this is right, that a couple who decide to live as lifelong partners according to old custom, without the bother of going to church to marry are not necessarily “living in sin”, but may be in fact validly married, at least in the eyes of God.

  5. Mary Burke says:

    The history of the Synod of Bishops over the past 50 years has largely been as you describe this one to be, except for the fact that a genuine freedom of expression seems to characterize the current synod. The joke about older synods was that their commencement had to be postponed because the curia had mislaid the final report.

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