VATICAN CITY — The secretariat of the Synod of Bishops on Tuesday stressed the interim report on the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family is solely a “working document,” which is not the interpretation that is being attributed to it by many commentators following its publication on Monday.

The Vatican issued the statement as it emerged that the mixed-and-strong reaction to the report — called a relatio post disceptationem — took the synod participants by surprise.

“In response to reactions and discussions following the publication of the relatio post disceptationem, and the fact that often a value has been attributed to the document that does not correspond to its nature,” the secretariat “reiterates that it is a working document, which summarizes the interventions and debate of the first week,” the synod said.

It added that the document is “now being offered for discussion by the members of the synod gathered in the small groups, in accordance with the regulations of the synod.” The work of the small groups will be presented to the assembly on Thursday morning.

At a Vatican press conference Tuesday afternoon local time, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, said the media reaction to the document — some of which called the report a “stunning” change in the Church’s approach to homosexuals — has caused “such an upset among the synod fathers.” He added: “We’re now working from a position that’s virtually irredeemable.”

 

‘It’s Not What We’re Saying at All’

“The message has gone out that this is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic Church is saying, and it’s not what we’re saying at all,” Cardinal Napier said. “No matter how we try correcting that, and this is my experience with the media, once it’s out there in the public, there’s no way of retrieving it.”

He said his “worry” is that “this is the message that has gone out; it’s not the true message that the synod has taken these positions.” From now on, he said, it’s “as if we’re doing damage control,” but that is certainly not what he or the synod fathers wish for. “We’re here to lay foundations for the next stage of the synod, when we’re going to ask the families and help the families into their mission of transmitting the Gospel [in a way] that’s going to be effective.”

A number of synod participants, speaking privately, said they were not expecting the publication of the relatio, a view backed up by Cardinal Napier. “Just like you, I was surprised that it was published,” he told reporters. “You people got the document before we got it, so we couldn’t have possibly agreed on it.”

At the same press conference, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that the release of an interim report during a synod is standard procedure and that, usually, such reports don’t garner so much attention.

“It’s the nature of the subject matter that has provoked this attention,” he said. “It’s something all of us with anything to do with communications could have foreseen.”

Asked by the Register whether any concerns were raised at the synod as to how this document might play in the media, Cardinal Napier simply insisted this was a working document and inferred such a reaction was never predicted.

“The clarification on the Church’s teaching will come out in the final document,” he said. “This is only a working document, so I don’t think we’ve reached a point where we say: This point has been mentioned or that point has not been mentioned.”

The relatio was discussed during the free discussion of the synod fathers Monday afternoon.

“In general, [the report] was appreciated for its capacity to photograph well the interventions” offered last week, a Vatican summary said. The participants, it was said, believe the document captured the spirit of the assembly and highlighted “acceptance and welcome” as the principle theme of the discussions.

The document, it was said, “reveals the Church’s love for the family faithful to Christ, but also her capacity to be close to humanity in every moment of life, to understand that, behind the pastoral challenges, there are many people who suffer.” The synod, it was emphasized, “should have the watchful gaze of the Shepherd who devotes his life to his sheep, without a priori judgment.”

 

Specific Concerns

The Vatican summary noted that “certain additional reflections” were suggested, such as mentioning “more widely” those families who “remain faithful” to the teachings of the Gospel, “thanking them and encouraging them for the witness they offer.” More emphasis on happy and faithful marriages and families was also called for, and not just “a near-exclusive focus on imperfect family situations.”

Other reflections called for more emphasis on the theme of women, grandparents, the family as a “domestic church” and the parish as a “family of families.” There were calls for clarifications over the theme of “gradualness” to avoid confusion; and on divorce and remarriage, it was said that the mention of catering for “exceptions” was difficult unless there’s a “common rule.”

It was also noted that the word “sin” is almost absent from the document, and the need for a more “prophetic tone of Jesus’ words” is necessary to avoid a risk of conforming with the mentality of today’s world.

Caution was also voiced about welcoming homosexuals (highlighting the need to love all people, including those with same-sex attraction, but indicating that homosexual acts are contrary to Church teaching) and the need to avoid creating the impression of “a positive evaluation of such a tendency,” and the “same care” was advised with regard to cohabitation.

Emphasis was also placed on the importance of baptism for fully understanding the nature of marriage. On streamlining cases of nullity, questions were raised about giving greater competence to local bishops.

Participants also wanted greater emphasis on the spread of pornography and its “real risk to family unity” and more decisive points made about the issue of surrogacy as well as the evil of abortion.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.