Process & Reality

Updates below.

ROME—In one of my favorite scenes from the Mel Brooks classic, History of the World: Part I (there was no second part), Moses descends from Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s laws, carrying not two but three stone tablets. “I have these fifteen”—he announces, just as one tablet crashes to the ground—“oy…ten commandments!” That came to mind as the day’s major synod news—that thirteen cardinals had signed a letter to the pope more or less calling the entire process into question—went from looking like a potential threat to Francis’s project to a strange episode that could leave the synod’s critics looking disorganized.

To those of you who haven’t been playing along at home, a recap: Early this morning, veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister—who lost his Holy See press credential for leaking a late, but not final draft of Laudato si’—reported that thirteen cardinals, several with senior positions in the Vatican, signed a letter criticizing key features of the synodal process. According to Magister, the list included Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Müller, and Cardinal Napier, among others. High-energy church observers such as Damian Thompson soon announced that the synod was on the verge of a breakdown: “The seniority of the signatories shows how close the church is to civil war.” But reports of the synod’s collapse appear to have been exaggerated. Because by late this afternoon, four of the thirteen alleged signatories had denied signing the letter: Cardinals Erdő, Piacenza Scola, and Vingt-Trois.

Update (Tuesday afternoon): Gerard O'Connell reports that thirteen cardinals did sign a letter, but that Magister got four of the names wrong. The four missing names are: Di Nardo (United States), Njue (Kenya), Rivera (Mexico) and Sgreccia (Italy), according to O'Connell. Update (Tuesday afternoon): At the conclusion of Tuesday's press conference, the Holy See Press Office released a statement from Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City denying that he "signed the alleged letter with the attributed content that some mention." 

Magister published a transcript of the letter—but not an image. All we know about its contents are typed out on his blog. (Crux has one source who alleges that Magister got the contents of the letter wrong, but he doesn’t say how. Late Monday, Cardinal Pell issued a brief statement acknowledging the “concerns” of some synod fathers, alleging that Magister’s version of the letter along with his list of signatories contained “errors,” without saying whether the inclusion of his name was erroneous. I have not seen any reports of cardinals confirming that they signed the letter. Update (Tuesday morning): In another Crux interview, Cardinal Napier acknowledged signing a letter, but not the one Magister published. The one he signed was more focused on the composition of the drafting committee for the final summary document, according to the cardinal. Still, as David Gibson noted, the cardinal "also echoed the other concerns in [Magister's version of] the letter. Update (Tuesday afternoon): During Tuesday's press conference, Fr. Federico Lombardi, Holy See spokesman, passed on a message from Cardinal Napier, who wanted to correct the Crux interview to reflect the fact that he affirms Pope Francis's right to appoint the members of the drafting committee. Update (Tuesday evening): In response Crux posted the full transcript: “I only know of one that was expressing concerns about some of the things. One of the concerns was, and this I really would share, is the choice of the people that are drawing up the document, challenging Pope Francis’s right to choose them. If we’re going to get a fair expression of what the synod is about, what the Church in Africa really would like to see happening, we wouldn’t like to see the same kind of people on that committee that were there the last time, that caused us the grief that we had.”)

According to Magister, the letter claims that the synod’s instrumentum laboris—that is, its working document—is seriously deficient. The structure of the three-part text, which was released over the summer, bears a striking resemblance to that of Laudato si’. That is, it begins by describing the situation of the family today—what are families like in this day and age, what struggles do they face? It moves on to the theology of the family—what is and what undergirds Catholic teaching on family life? Finally the document takes up various pastoral realities—how can the church better accompany her people?

The instrumentum laboris, which governs the bishops’ conversations over these three weeks of meetings, “cannot adequately serve as a guiding text or the foundation of a final document,” according to the letter. Those problems aren’t really spelled out, but the letter does take issue with the process dictated by the working document. “The new procedures guiding the synod seem to guarantee it excessive influence on the synod’s deliberations and on the final synodal document.” Remember, on Tuesday, in what may have been a response to this letter, Francis reminded the synod fathers that he personally approved this process, and that the only three official texts of this year’s synod are his two speeches from last year’s, along with the instrumentum laboris.

The letter is more specific about the problems its signatories (however many there are) have with the process of arriving at the synod’s final summary document. It complains that the synod process lacks openness and 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 letter writers (whoever they may be) are displeased with the idea of having a drafting committee come up with a summary text that the synod fathers vote on, paragraph by paragraph, after it has already been written. They want input beforehand.

They also disagree with the composition of the drafting committee itself: “Members have been appointed, not elected, without consultation.” Of course, the committee did not appear out of thin air. So the question is, with whom do the letter writers wish the pope had consulted? The letter doesn’t say. “A number of fathers feel the new process seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions,” according to a letter whose signatories are dropping by the hour.

Finally, the letter gets to its most urgent worry: “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.” Of course the synod was not convened solely to reinforce church teaching on marriage. Pope Francis has been clear about this. He too doesn’t want the synod to focus on just one issue. Rather, he wants the bishops to hear each other out. He wants them to learn about the many challenges facing Catholic families around the world—and “to find concrete solutions,” according to the first sentence of the instrumentum laboris.

“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,” the letter concludes. Unmentioned was the experience of the Eastern Churches, which for hundreds of years have maintained the indissolubility of marriage while allowing for a second marriage—a rite that is penitential in nature—and appear not to have collapsed.

As of this writing, no new names have dropped from the letter (the night is young). Its authorship remains unknown. What exactly did Magister obtain? How did he come by his list of signatories? How was that list was compiled in the first place? The world may never know. But what we do know is that a group of bishops, possibly a small group, is deeply concerned about the process of the synod. They worry that it’s insufficiently open, that it was designed to push predetermined conclusions. Given that the process of the synod is one of its most important, indeed historic, features, their critique is not insignificant. But is it true?

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., a member of the committee that will draft the synod’s final summary document, seems unconvinced: “Unless you had some way of silencing everybody in all thirteen [language group] circles, I just can’t buy this idea that it’s all rigged.” To the contrary. Speaking of last year’s synod, Wuerl told Crux, “I had never been in a synod that has been as open, and the one we’re in right now follows that same openness.”

Update (Tuesday morning): In an interview with Corriere della Serra, Cardinal Müller has called the release of this letter a "grave" matter, compared it to the Vatileaks scandal, and said that whoever released the text "sought to sow strife." He would not confirm or deny signing the letter. Asked who Pope Francis was referring to when he urged the synod fathers not to give in to a "hermeneutic of conspiracy," Müller replied: "Those who say and write that there are wolves, that Francis is surrounded by wolves. It is an expression that is offensive and criminal. I'm not a wolf against the pope." Pope Francis Among the Wolves, happens to be the title of veteran journalist Marco Politi's latest book. Müller continued: "As prefect of the Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith], I am the first collaborator of the Holy Father, not just me but all those who are part of it. And I do not let that put in doubt my obedience and my serve the pope and the church."

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn also weighed in on the synod procedures:

At former Episcopal Synods, we would listen to statements read out one after the other and in no way connected for up to three weeks. Today we are proceeding according to the Instrumentum Laboris and spend a whole week discussing for each section. At least half the time is spent in the language groups, the so-called circuli minores, which means far more intensive participation, far greater concentration on each topic, a far more effective way of working and thus far greater satisfaction. The feeling of frustration that I experienced at former synods has -- as far as I could see -- completely disappeared this time.

At his indispensable blog, Archbishop Mark Coleridge comments on the letter

Another thing is that some of the complaints about the Synod – the process of which is certainly open to criticism – are that they are driven by a fear that can become a kind of paranoia. It’s as if, were the Synod to touch the smallest jot or tittle of what we have long said and done in the area of marriage and the family, the entire edifice of Catholic doctrine, all that has been built up over 2000 years, would begin to unravel and we’d be left sooner or later with nothing, lost in a world without truth. I simply don’t believe that.

Coleridge continues: 

We need a new language, which in the words of the Synod working document is “symbolic”, “experiential”, “meaningful”, “clear”, “inviting”, “open”, “joyful”, “optimistic” and “hopeful”. The Synod would do well to become what Vatican II was – a language-event (John O’Malley). That would mean drawing more deeply on sources both older (Scripture and the Fathers) and more contemporary (taking account especially of the behavioural sciences).

And finally (for now), Sandro Magister has updated his piece by posting, without comment, the recent statements from Pell and Napier. The headline remains the same. 

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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