[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome] Being close to the synod has been like watching a very complex piece of new machinery sputter into life, with many standing around wondering how it is all going to work, a vocal minority complaining that its engineering is skewed, while most are pleased with it, regarding it as making progress despite early stumbles.
As delegates from across the world adjusted to an intense schedule and a radically new format, among some there was grumbling and bewilderment at the task ahead. In some cases there were also strong objections, expressed, for example, in a dubious letter from 13 cardinals revealed today (dubious because it has been disowned by its signatories) to the synod’s new format.
It was after the receipt of this letter, or something similar — Cardinal Napier has confirmed to Crux that he signed a letter objecting to the 10-man writing commission — that Pope Francis last Tuesday spoke up against what he called a “hermeneutic of conspiracy” among some synod fathers.
Yet after an uncertain start the format has worked well, and has been welcomed by a vast majority of the synod fathers as a huge improvement on the previous model.
The small groups
Last week, some 70 of the 270 synod fathers gave three-minute presentations on Monday and Tuesday, before spending Wednesday through Friday in 13 small groups divided into five languages (English, French, Spanish, Italian and German), working on the text — which is where the real business of the synod is done. On Saturday, they began again with speeches, before returning today and tomorrow to small groups.
Last week the small groups worked through the first part of the working document, or Instrumentum Laboris (IL), on the challenges to the contemporary family. The small groups then submitted some 475 modi, or amendments, to be reviewed and then incorporated into the final document issued by the synod at its conclusion on 15 October. They also produced general reports on their activities which give an important insight into the synod’s direction of travel.
(Some) English confusion, Spanish delight
The confusion and bewilderment at the process have been mostly confined to the English-language groups.
“If the task itself has been unclear in this new Synod format, so too has been our method of working,” complained English-C, moderated by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh. “At times our work has seemed more muddled than methodical.”
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto was anxious that, unlike previous synods that made proposals to the Pope who would respond in a document usually a year later, this was essentially a group-editing task. “Trying to get almost 300 people editing a text — it’s a very difficult thing to do in a short space of time,” he said.
The English-language groups were also confused about the status and purpose of the document that emerges: was it a teaching, evangelizing document, or something more internal?
English-A, for example, moderated by Cardinal George Pell, assumes it is a public statement. “The message of the synod must announce the Good News of Jesus Christ clearly and attractively”, it begins. English-D was less sure. “We felt limited in our ability to respond by not knowing clearly who the audience of the document is,” it reports. “In other words, are we writing to the Holy Father, to families of the Church, or to the world?”
The Spanish-speaking groups, made up mostly of Latin-Americans familiar with this process from the Aparecida meeting of 2007, seem to grasp more easily that what is going on is group discernment, as Fr Jim Martin explains: the text is the medium rather than the object of that process. The Spanish-language groups also find it easier to understand that the final text will set out the Church’s pastoral strategy for boosting the family in challenging times — a public document, to be sure, but intended for church leaders.
“The shared methodology in this synod, and the great liberty and fraternity with with which the topics have been treated, have been regarded very positively”, noted Spanish-language group B, moderated by Mexican cardinal Francisco Robles Ortega of Guadalajara.
The French groups too seem overall satisfied with the method. “We appreciated the shorter and more focussed interventions [speeches] in the wider assembly,” writes French-C. One Italian group says the new methodology “provoked an understandable difficulty at the start, which has been progressively overcome” while the other praises both the text and the “broad and deep discussion” which more time in the small groups has enabled.
Four common themes
There are common themes across the different language groups in four main areas in their response to the first part of the IL, on the challenges to the contemporary family.
- Call for a more naunced ‘lights-and-shadows’ appreciation of modern challenges, and a more faith-based way of seeing.
The small groups generally believe the assessment of the current moment made in the IL is “overly bleak” (English-A), and fails to see God’s grace also present in contemporary families. “There exist everywhere problems and difficulties, and sufferings, but in every part of the world there also exist families who happily live out their rootedness in Christ and the Faith”, says French-A, while French-C notes: “Let us remember that families in the Bible are often dysfunctional; yet the Word of God is carried out in them and through them. God can still perform the same marvels today.”
“True, there are negative forces at work at this time in history and in the various cultures of the world, but that is far from the full story,” reports English-C. “If it were the full story, all the Church could do would be to condemn.” The group adds: “Many young people still want to marry, and there are still remarkable families, many of them Christian, heroically so at times. To see and speak positively of things is not to indulge in a kind of denial. It is rather to see with the eye of God, the God who still looks on all that he has created and still finds it good.”
English-B, moderated by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, also calls for looking at the contemporary scene primarily through the eyes of faith. “An analysis based on the light of faith can lead to a deeper discernment of how families suffer marginalisation and forms of poverty, which go beyond economic poverty to include the social, cultural, and spiritual,” his English-B observes.
The German group also calls for a more nuanced critique. “Our text speaks frequently about individualism, but the positive signs of the times, arising from respect for the individuality of people, are little appreciated. If we do not perceive here in a differentiated way, we also come to different assessments of our society and subsequently different pastoral recommendations. Our circle asks not to succumb to an overvaluation of the rather pessimistic perception of our society.”
- Critique of a rich-country or western bias.
The criticism of the IL as too European and north-American in its assumptions appears in all the language groups, except the Spanish. All three French groups, two out of the four English groups, and one of the three Italian groups, critique the document for its parochialism.
“Some of the sections seemed narrow in scope and excessively inspired by West European and North American concerns, rather than a true presentation of the global situation,” said English-D, while Italian-C said the focus on the threats from secularization and individualism were peculiar to “consumer societies”, and called for the text to be broadened to embrace other perspectives. “We cannot say that everywhere the number of marriages (and baptisms) is in decline,” notes French-A.
- Call for more deliberation at local level.
One of the emerging questions at the synod is whether it is is impossible for the global Church to have a one-size-fits-all pastoral strategy, and that it may be better to leave such policies to local churches. After all, what can Europeans or Latin-Americans advise Africans on the pastoral challenge of monogamy?
One Latin-American delegate on Friday even put forward a suggestion that future synods be preceded by local-church assemblies, which then report to the synod in Rome. Although this was just one suggestion, it created considerable buzz in the synod because it appeared to respond to a feeling tentatively expressed in the small groups.
For example, it was proposed, said French-B, “that bishops’ conferences can dispose of a certain power to allow their pastors to be “Good Samaritans’ in their ecclesial service”, while English-B says each local church should try to identify the particular of family marginalization in their own society.
- Call for language grounded in reality.
There is a strong drive in the small-group reports for language that is grounded in knowledge of realities, rather than the kind of abstract, normative language often found in Church documents.
Spanish-B, for example, calls for the final document “not to speak of family in the abstract, but rather from its different realities”, while Spanish-A calls for a “major renewal, not just of people but also of communities, taking care of the language and the way the doctrine is presented.”
English-B felt that the language of the final document should be more simple, accessible to families, showing also that the Synod Fathers had listened to and heard their contribution and comments to the synodal process.
French-C put this call at greater length, emphasizing that the synod fathers were not speaking about the family as something outside their own experience.
We are firstly family men. We have parents, brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters in law, cousins, nephews and nieces. The families of which we speak are not strangers to us, they are part of our lives, and live in us. This must be apparent in our language, in the tone of our text, in our concern and our compassion for the families on this planet. There is a danger of talking of family in the abstract, as if it were a reality outside us.
Where are the real tensions?
As the synod is entering the second week, there is little doubt that some of the tensions will emerge more visibly. But while the media remain fixated on the two dividing issues of sacraments for the remarried and response to gay people and their relationships, the second issue, at least, was barely touched on. In more than 70 speeches, for example, the ‘gay issue’ made it only into two ‘interventions’, and then only in passing. Synod fathers stress over and over that they are there to consider how to support and bolster the family as centered on a male-female union for life, rather than other kinds of relationship.
The real division is a deeper one, between a small but vocal minority who were comfortable with synods that reaffirm continuity doctrine, and those who support Pope Francis’s invitation to come up with new responses to changed times while leaving doctrine untouched.
As Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane puts it:
During the free discussion, I decided to speak. I tried to say that 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. We need, I said, to expand our vision of possibility, think laterally, outside the square. That’s the task of this Synod and the real challenge to our corporate apostolic imagination: neither to abandon Church teaching or to leave things untouched, but to explore the vast territory that lies between iconoclasm and immobilism – and to do so in a way that’s practical at the point of both language and action. We have to speak differently and act differently, but staying within the wide parameters of Church teaching which has its roots in Jesus. At the end of the first week, I have a stronger sense of that that’s possible than I did earlier in the week. But it’s still early days and a lot will emerge in the next two weeks. Who knows what the fermentation will produce?
In interviews and statements today, both Cardinal George Pell and Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa have said that they signed a letter to Pope Francis, but not the one published by Sandro Magister. The substance of their complaint, they say, was the composition of the 10-person writing commission responsible for the redaction of the final report, or relatio finalis.
“We wouldn’t like to see the same kind of people on that committee who were there the last time, who caused us the grief that we had,” Cardinal Napier told Crux, referring to the controversial interim report in 2014 that seemed to embrace a progressive line on some debated questions. Cardinal Pell’s spokesman meanwhile has said he believes that “concerns remain” among “many synod fathers” about the composition of the drafting committee of the final relatio of the Ordinary Synod on the Family.
That 10-member drafting committee, which originally included only three or four members of the synod’s General Secretariat, was expanded by Pope Francis last year to include representatives of the different continents. Cardinal Napier sits on it, as well as Cardinal Erdö, the relator general; both are considered conservatives. Others on the committee, such as Archbishop Bruno Forte, might be considered progressive. But most are hard to pin down. Mostly their qualification for being there is that Pope Francis trusts them to do a good job in distilling the enormous quantity of amendments produced by the small groups. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who also sits on it, tells Crux: “It looks to me like it reflects the makeup of the synod”.
The document that they produce at the end will anyhow be subject to a vote by the synod — the best insurance against any ‘rigging’.
“If you’re convinced this is all rigged, then you’re going to see that everywhere,” he said. “I think that was the single most powerful negative element as this synod opened, that there was an aura around fostered by a number saying this isn’t going to be a fair synod. So no matter what you do, that’s the starting point.”
Echoing Pope Francis’s warnings about a “hermeneutic of conspiracy”, he added: “Everything looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.”