VATICAN CITY — Critics of the as-yet unreleased changes to the methodology of the upcoming Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family say they threaten not only to smother voices opposed to certain controversial changes to pastoral practice on family and marriage issues, but also leave the meeting inconclusive and various proposals open to interpretation.

The Synod of Bishops is expected to announce new rules on Friday, but it is already clear that discussion time at the Oct. 4-25 meeting will be reduced; there will be no final message from the synod fathers, as no commission has been set up to write one; no interim report will be issued; and contentious issues largely will be left until the final week.

There is also talk that the Pope will take the unprecedented step of issuing no post-synodal apostolic exhortation — a papal document drawing conclusions from the synod usually published a few months after the meeting. Instead, everything is expected to hinge on his final message delivered at the conclusion of the synod discussions. Informed sources say the Pope has explicitly asked for “nothing in writing” to come from the synod, thereby leaving its conclusions ambiguous and its proceedings largely unknown.

As well as a possible lack of transparency with such new rules, various synod participants and prominent theologians believe they could favor certain controversial proposals likely to be raised at the synod, such as Cardinal Walter Kasper’s thesis for readmitting some civilly remarried divorcees to holy Communion, as well as altering pastoral practice on issues relating to human sexuality that would be in conflict with Church doctrine.

Much of the pressure for such pastoral innovations is coming from Germany and German-speaking nations and is partially, if not wholly, backed by those in charge of managing the three-week synod.

Next month’s meeting, which will discuss the theme of “The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World,” follows last year’s meeting that had been marred by controversy and allegations of manipulation in terms of synod procedure and methodology.

The highly unusual absence of an interim report is occurring because discussion of the chapters of the instrumentum laboris (working document) will continue throughout the three weeks, divided into three parts, one for each week of the synod — an approach that obviously precludes the release of a midterm report that would encapsulate the synod fathers’ initials views of all the topics in the instrumentum laboris. The final week also will be devoted to seeking pastoral solutions on to the issues discussed, including the controversial ones.

 

Transparency and Timing Concerns

At last year’s meeting, the interim document, properly called a relatio post-disceptationem, caused controversy after it was sent out to the media before the synod fathers had read it. Critics said the document lacked references to Scripture and Tradition, and most controversially, appeared to imply the Church was considering giving tacit acceptance of same-sex relationships — an issue that was hardly discussed during the meeting’s first week.

The probable decision not to have an interim report may be an effort to avoid last year’s controversy from recurring. But some fear it will lead to less transparency and worry the timing could be intentional in order to facilitate the advancement of controversial proposals as time runs out for discussion.

The upcoming synod is also expected to have less discussion, with talks lasting three minutes (last year it was four), but there will be more debate within small groups.

One synod father who participated in a synod in the 1980s and again in the 1990s told the Register on condition of anonymity that the method used then — an interim report followed by small-group discussions — “worked better.”

“There won't be enough time in the last week to discuss the last and most important part,” he said. He also disliked the idea of having only three minutes to speak, saying it would be “too short.”

As with last year, the talks are not expected to be published, or, if any are, they won’t be attributed to the bishops who made them. More likely is that, as last year, they will be filtered by Italian, English and Spanish-language attaches — respectively Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Father Thomas Rosica and Father Manuel Dorantes — who will provide daily briefings.

Furthermore, the small groups are to be set up by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, and they will report through him to Pope Francis. If they are not published, some speculate the synod fathers won’t know what each group said, nor what will be reported to the Pope. An informed source has also warned that the small groups are being engineered in such a way that African bishops — who have been most vocally opposed to innovations regarding marriage, divorce and the sacraments — will be split up. By doing that, he speculated there won’t be a majority in many, if not any, of the groups, thereby weakening their voice.

Both Cardinal Baldisseri and Cardinal Wilfred Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa, a prominent critic of the problems that arose at last year’s gathering and who subsequently was added to the synod’s organization as one of its four president delegates, declined to comment to the Register about the concerns voiced about the 2015 process, in advance of the formal announcement expected later this week.

 

Other Potential Problems

Overall, in the view of those concerned about the process, such new rules could lead to the Pope pronouncing there never has been an insurmountable dogmatic problem with these controversial proposals and that he subsequently might introduce some contentious pastoral issues relating to human sexuality to national bishops’ conferences.

“This will mean ‘Catholic divorce’ in Germany and other European countries and something rather different, say, in Nigeria,” warned professor John Rist, one of the Church’s leading patristics scholars and a contributor to the book Remaining in the Truth of Christ, published last year to counter Cardinal Kasper’s thesis.

Adoption of such new rules, he told the Register, would not only result in “bad outcomes, but the lack of publicity (no interim report) would ensure that completely misleading accounts of what went on could be put around — and to the Pope — virtually with impunity.”

Just as alarmingly for those who have been concerned about the confusion surrounding the synods is the high probability that the Holy Father won’t issue a post-synodal apostolic exhortation — a conclusive document drawing together all the debates of the three-week meeting. Instead, the synod is likely to end with the Pope’s final speech, a move which critics say would not be in the spirit of collegiality.

However, according to one informed Vatican source, the Pope doesn’t favor post-synod apostolic exhortations because he wants to give the impression that the synod “decides” various measures, which, supposedly, he would outline in his closing message of the meeting.

 

Majority Rule?

Another rumored change is that the rule on propositions having to pass by a two-thirds majority might be eliminated and a simple majority take its place.

This would favor a controversial proposal, such as Cardinal Kasper’s, because his thesis only received a simple majority at the last synod. (It should have therefore been rejected under the rules in place, but the Holy Father insisted that it, and the paragraph on a new approach to same-sex relationships that also failed to achieve a two-thirds majority, remain in the lineamenta, or guidelines, for this October’s synod).

Given the gravity of the matters discussed, critics argue that the new rules must ensure that Synod of Bishops and the Pope explicitly authorize how to make pastoral decisions on these matters if they are proposed and cannot be left up in the air or at the mercy of an ambiguous synod procedure.

The Register understands that, like much of the new methodology, the precise details are still being decided and tweaked and won’t be finalized until shortly before Friday’s announcement.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

He is the author of The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? (Ignatius, 2015).