After the chicanery of last year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the Vatican has clearly been taking steps, on paper at least, to make the larger and longer Ordinary Synod that begins on Sunday more transparent and less open to manipulation. 

Various officials, synod fathers and observers had been expressing private concerns that the three-week synod, which acts as a consultative body for the Holy Father, will lack transparency.

Some of those concerns remain, in addition to some new ones (these are listed below), but some novelties, announced at a Vatican briefing on Friday, have been introduced that mark an improvement on last year’s meeting. These are:

  • Reports from the 13 small working groups, each made up of 20 members, will be published at the end of each of the three weeks, so 39 in total, allowing those outside the synod to see how the debates are progressing.
  • A commission of 10 synod fathers from all five continents will supervise the work over the three weeks and write the final report. This is to “ensure there is no suspicion, no manipulation, so to say”, according to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops.
  • Africa’s representative on the commission, Bishop Mathieu Madega Lebouakehan, president of Gabon’s bishops’ conference, signed the Filial Appeal calling on Pope Francis to clarify Church doctrine at the synod.
  • 50 synod fathers will be attending press conferences across all language groups over the three weeks.
  • Synod fathers are allowed to give as many interviews as they wish, and the Vatican is even providing a venue for television and radio, the Augustinianum adjacent to St. Peter’s square, where they can be interviewed.
  • The Vatican will publish the names of the heads of each working group, and provide a list of all those synod fathers who took the floor.
  • Synod fathers’ interventions during the General Congregations are shortened to 3 minutes due to the large number, but they can provide additional texts expressing more of their thoughts.
  • Although Cardinal Baldisseri was reticent to confirm the statutory 2/3 voting rules, sources say the final report will be voted on paragraph by paragraph with a required majority of 2/3 vote to be approved. Final approval of the report depends on Pope Francis.

Concerns remain, however, and these are as follows:

  • Members of the final report-oversight commission* are largely made up of synod fathers known for their dissenting opinions. Around half are known to support Cardinal Walter Kasper’s thesis for admitting some civilly remarried divorcees to Holy Communion, including Cardinal Baldisseri who continues to manage the synod.
  • Two of the commission’s members monitoring this year’s meeting were those most criticized for engineering last year’s meeting: Cardinal Baldisseri and Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod’s special secretary, known to have been the principal author of last year’s highly controversial interim report.
  • Critics argue that a greater focus on small groups during this synod is aimed at weakening the voice of certain groups, most noticeably those of African synod fathers who will be split up according to language.
  • It’s not clear yet how the make up of the groups will be determined.
  • The bulk of the synod’s proceedings will continue to be filtered through language attachés, some of whom are known to favor dissenting views. The reporting will also be incomplete as the attachés will largely report on what synod fathers in their own language say.
  • The Holy See Press Office has considerable unchecked control over what it disseminates to the media. The Vatican has also invited the media to request interviews with synod fathers through the Press Office, but observers see this as a means of controlling who says what to whom. The Augustinianum venue for interviews is also seen as a means of preventing ad hoc and informal exchanges.
  • The Instrumentum Laboris remains, at the moment at least, the basis of the Ordinary Synod, despite critics arguing that it is has philosophical flaws and undermines the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
  • There is no confirmation of a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, thereby leaving open the possibility that the synod will issue nothing definitive, and the subject matter will remain liable to interpretation and perhaps the responsibility of individual bishops' conferences.

Despite these flaws (and more may arise during the three weeks), taken as a whole, the new procedure appears to be an improvement over last year. It will arguably be more difficult at this month’s synod to push through an agenda over the heads of the synod fathers as happened last October.

Furthermore, as Cardinal Baldisseri told reporters yesterday, “the Pope has the final word”, consistent with canon law. So regardless of what the synod decides, ultimately anything definitive, or not as the case may be, now rests solely with the Holy Father.

But as one senior Vatican official told me, there is a sense that whatever steps have been taken to avoid manipulation at this month’s synod, those running it have already achieved what they wanted “by having their agenda placed in the public mind.”

“This synod could be predominantly Thomist or champion the teachings of John Paul II – it makes no difference, “ he said. “They’ve accomplish what they wanted. They have established doubt and confusion in the minds of many, and given conviction to those supportive of their agenda.”

Looking at it more hopefully, however, perhaps this month's synod offers an opportunity to at least go some way to addressing that confusion and finally put things right.

The Pope has recommended this can best be done through prayer, but also perhaps by the synod fathers heeding Benedict XVI's advice, given privately after last year's assembly: “Halten Sie sich unbedingt an die Lehre!” (“Strictly adhere to the doctrine!”).

* The full list on the commission:

Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary, Rapporteur General;

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the General Secretary;

Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto,Italy;

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, India);

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.,;

Cardinal John Atcherley Dew of Wellington, New Zealand;

Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina;

Bishop Mathieu Madega Lebouakehan of Mouila, Gabon;

Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy;

Father Adolfo Nicolas Pachon, superior general of the Society of Jesus, representing the Union of Superiors General.