VATICAN CITY — As the synod on the family concludes in Rome Saturday, two discussions will start in earnest.
The first will focus on what the synod fathers agreed upon as the fruit of their deliberations and, given the different views that animated the synod, there will be differing interpretations on how to interpret what they said. A second discussion will be about whether the synod itself proceeded in an authentic way, i.e., is the final report of the synod a true reflection of what the synod fathers did?
The second discussion is easier to address now that the synod is over. Was the synod rigged? That question dominated the second week of the synod, with the leak at the beginning of the week of the “13 cardinals’ letter” to the Holy Father and the interviews by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington at the end of the week, dismissing in strong language such claims, even going so far as to suggest that those accusing the synod of being manipulated “just don’t like this pope.”
At the conclusion of synod 2015, after dozens of conversations with synod participants, it seems the best answer is that the synod was rigged — last year. The extensive reporting of my Register colleague Edward Pentin in his e-book makes the claim convincingly, and it was not hard to find synod fathers who agreed in broad strokes with Pentin’s reporting that, in 2014, the synod managers hijacked the process in favor of advancing the proposals of Cardinal Walter Kasper and other progressive agendas.
In contrast, this year’s synod is widely acknowledged to have been free of such manipulations. There is no doubt that a great many synod fathers feared that a repeat of synod 2014 would take place this year. Indeed, the letter of the 13 cardinals expressed just that, a concern that the synod would be steered by its managers toward a particular conclusion. It is now clear that the intervention of some of the most senior cardinals in the Church, which prompted Pope Francis to respond to their letter with an address in the synod hall, prevented a recurrence of the rigging.
Cardinal Wuerl was then correct to observe that, this year, the procedures in place favored an open discussion. The fact that the language-group leaders were elected by the groups themselves, rather than appointed by the synod secretariat; that all three of the various language-group reports were released publicly; that the final document was voted on paragraph by paragraph — all this favored the bishops having confidence that their contributions would be authentically reflected in the final product. And much of that was still ambiguous when the synod started. In the final days of the synod, many of the participants — including those who signed the letter — confirmed that the three weeks unfolded in a frank and fraternal spirit, largely due to the clarifications that the cardinals’ letter appeared to have prompted.
The clearest evidence of a more open and honest synod process in 2015 was that the fruit of last year’s synod — the instrumentum laboris, or working document, for this year’s synod — was regularly lambasted by nearly all the language-group reports. It must have been painful for the synod secretariat, which composed the document after last year’s synod, to publish the near-universal disdain for their work, but it is to their credit that they did so. After the second round of such reports were published, with their withering evaluation of the poor document they had been given, the dynamic for a much different conclusion was set in motion. After the reports were published, simply ramming the instrumentum laboris through was no longer an option.
That the final report was so radically different from the original instrumentum laboris was described by more than one synod father as a “miracle.” But it wasn’t a miracle. It was the difference between a document designed to reflect the priorities and vision of the synod secretariat, which from the beginning favored Cardinal Kasper’s proposal, and a document drafted to reflect the considered judgments of the synod fathers from throughout the Church.
Was the synod rigged? It was once, but not this year. And the reaction to the rigging last year made for a different synod 2015. It was more the kind of synod that Pope Francis said he wanted, with open discussion, free of fear and suspicion. A repeat of synod 2014 would have been disastrous for the Church’s witness and unity. It is an occasion for gratitude that such did not occur.
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent 1998-2003.