Whose Synod Is It, Anyway?

ROME—Previously, at the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops:

Last Monday, in remarks opening this three-week meeting on issues related to family life, Pope Francis urged the two hundred seventy synod fathers to remain open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, to allow themselves to be "guided by God who always surprises, by God who reveals to the little ones that which he has hidden from the wise and intelligent.”

Moments later, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, the synod’s general relator, delivered a seven-thousand-word address that, in part, urged the assembly not to be guided by arguments for readmitting some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Communion. “The integration of the divorced and remarried in the life of the ecclesial community can take many forms, [but that] is different from admission to the Eucharist,” he said. He ruled out the “law of graduality,” used by some to discuss how the church might talk about couples in “irregular relationships.” Gradualism holds that moral decision-making develops over time. “We cannot always have 100 percent,” as Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German bishops conference put it during last year’s synod.

Erdő disagrees with that approach. “Between truth and falsehood, between good and bad, there is no graduality,” he said last Monday. Likewise, Erdő ruled out comparing traditional marriage with gay relationships: “There is no basis for comparing or making analogies, even remotely, between homosexual unions and God’s plan for matrimony and the family.” As for those who frame the challenges facing families as primarily questions of circumstance—war, poverty, environmental degradation—Erdő thinks something more important is working against traditional marriage: “anthropological change,” that is, moral relativism. The cardinal’s speech, described by some as conservatives’ “first strike” at this synod, seemed designed to shut down the more progressive proposals—which included not only a possible opening to some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, but also the idea of finding more welcoming ways of speaking about gay people—that came up during last year’s synod. The mere discussion of such proposals occasioned a good deal of public pushback during the year between the two synods—from lay observers and bishops alike, including cardinals who are participating in the synod discussions. Something resembling a conspiracy theory emerged. Had the pope rigged the synod, as Edward Pentin suggested?

Pope Francis seemed to answer that question last Tuesday.

During an unscheduled talk, the pope rose to remind the synod fathers that this year’s gathering was not a new meeting, but a continuation of, and thus in continuity with last year’s. In an apparent response to some complaints that this year’s synod process favored small-group discussion over large-group speeches, the pope confirmed that he approved this process. He emphasized that church doctrine on marriage was not up for debate, and called on the synod not to succumb to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy.” (Interestingly, at the press briefing that day, the fact that the pope had used that memorable term did not come up. It didn’t become public until Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, who is participating in the synod, tweeted about it.) The only official synod texts, Francis said, are his two speeches at the previous synod and the instrumentum laboris, or working document, for this meeting.

Today it was reported that last Monday—the day before the pope’s unplanned intervention—thirteen cardinals sent a letter to Pope Francis reiterating criticisms of both the instrumentum laboris, which was published several months ago, and the synod procedures the pope himself approved. The letter also raised concerns about the composition of the committee that will draft the synod’s final summary document. But just hours after Sandro Magister posted the letter online, four of the signatories denied having anything to do with it: Péter Erdő, André Vingt-Trois, Angelo Scola, and Mauro Piacenza; more may come. (As of 5 p.m. Rome time, Magister had updated his original story, removing the names of the cardinals who deny signing the letter. Yet the headline still reads, "Thirteen Cardinals Have Written to the Pope. Here’s the Letter.")

"Members have been appointed, not elected, without consultation,” the cardinals (nine? four? none?) allegedly wrote. “Likewise, anyone drafting anything at the level of the small circles should be elected, not appointed.” They continued: “In turn, these things have created a concern that the new procedures are not true to the traditional spirit and purpose of a synod.” Not that many have experienced a synod like this before, one in which open discussion is encouraged by the pope, even when it brings public disagreement between bishops.

Week two of the Synod of Bishops has just begun, and nobody seems to know what’s coming, or whether something new will, or even should, come at all. While Erdő made it clear that he would prefer it if the synod steered clear of some of the more neuralgic issues (and Francis himself has repeatedly emphasized that this synod is about more than just Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried), last Tuesday’s press briefing made it clear that not everyone agrees. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, for example, told the media that one synod father remarked: If Erdő’s speech was the final word, then what are the synod fathers doing here? Indeed, Erdő’s word wasn’t the last (as he himself later acknowledged). Over the course of that and subsequent press conferences, it became clear that if you are talking about family life in the Catholic Church, you are talking about everything. So, the synod has heard speeches on eradicating male dominance over women, “gender ideology,” forced migration from the Middle East to the West, more merciful language with respect to gay people, whether the Eucharist is a prize for the pure or medicine for the wounded, women deacons, pastoral considerations involving polygamous families, and more.

It’s a big church, with many needs. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, said as much in a recent blog post. Summarizing comments he delivered to the synod on Saturday, Coleridge wrote:

During the Synod discussions and those preceding there was a sense at times that it’s a matter of all or nothing—that we have two options: either to abandon the church’s teaching on marriage and the family or to leave things exactly as they are, saying and doing what we’ve said and done for a long time. I suggested that neither of these was a real option. We weren’t going to abandon church teaching; but it was unthinkable that we would simply say and do what we’ve always said and done. Why bother with the time, energy and expense of two synods and all that’s gone with them if nothing whatsoever is going to change? The impression at times is that there’s really no space between the two extremes, when in fact there’s a huge space—space for all kinds of pastoral creativity.

That space is not occupied by synod fathers alone. And when they wrap up their work in two weeks, whatever conclusions or non-conclusions are reached, the work of the rest of the church—in all her spaces, drawing on the gifts of all her members—will really begin.

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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