That didn't take very long. A mere twenty-four hours after the Vatican released the Synod on the Family's surprising document summarizing the discussions so far, Holy See spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, is trying to calm everybody down. That relatio post disceptationem shocked Vatican observes when it called on the church to "appreciate the positive values" present in "irregular" relationships--including couples who cohabitate, those who have divorced and remarried, and gay couples. As soon as today's press conference began, Lombardi emphasized that the text its merely provisional--a point he made again later in the briefing. "The contents of the document were not properly understood," he explained. It is very much a "work in progress." The smaller language groups, he continued, are revising the text, which will be released later in the week.

When it came time for Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa to speak, his comments effectively undermined the relatio. He too complained that the media "misinterpreted" the text. But he also suggested that the document misleadingly presents some subjects as though the synod had discussed and agreed on them; he claimed that simply wasn't the case. After being prompted by an employee of the website Lifesitenews, Napier shared a conversation he had with Cardinal Raymond Burke, who shared his view that the relatio had presented ideas the synod fathers had not discussed. Later in the briefing, he was asked whether he was "disowning" the text. "We are working on the document," Napier replied. And after the bishops vote on it, "that's when we own it."

A Holy See statement issued after the press conference, however, takes a different view.

According to that news release, when the synod fathers discussed the relatio as a group, it "was appreciated for its capacity to photograph well the interventions that have been offered during this last week, capturing the spirit of the Assembly and highlighting acceptance and welcome as the principle theme of the works."

Cardinal Burke came up again at the press conference, when representatives of two other conservative organizations (I wouldn't call them news organizations) mentioned that he has given yet another interview to a conservative Catholic outfit. This time he ups the ante, decrying the way the synod is unfolding as "not of the church," and instructing Pope Francis that a statement from him clarifying Catholic doctrine--the doctrines he wants emphasized, naturally--"is long overdue." For his part, Cardinal Fernando Filoni--who was appointed prefect of the Congregagtion for the Evangelization of Peoples in 2011 by Benedict XVI--told the media that the synod's approach is "substantially positive."

Napier spoke of prior synod documents that "very closely" related the points of agreement among the attending bishops. He failed to acknowledge that under the past two popes, bishops were hardly encouraged to air their disagreements during the synod. Indeed, they were expected to "rubber stamp" Vatican positions. At one point Lombardi intervened to remind the room that this is the first time synod fathers have been encouraged to speak freely--including to the media. The person encouraging them to do so is the pope.

So what would Cardinal Napier have preferred? He's glad you asked. Because the majority of his opening remarks were taken up with explaining how his own small group would reshape the relatio. In some detail, he sketched out that proposal for the world press. An interesting approach, considering the fact that he expressed his initial "surprise" that the relatio was published at all. The decision to publish the text conforms to the practice of past synods, Lombardi clarified.

But, given the reporting on the relatio, it may be too late. "We are working from a position that is almost irredeemable," Napier said. Even though the document does not contain misrepresentations of Catholic teaching, he continued, some news accounts suggest otherwise. "No matter how we try correcting that...there's no way of retrieving it," Napier said. "The message has gone out, and it's not a true message."

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

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