How the Family Synods Prepared the Ground for the Synod on Synodality

ANALYSIS: Will the synod assembly uphold the Church’s established teaching, or will voices faithful to orthodoxy be marginalized?

The synod assembly on the family gathers in the Synod Hall Oct. 18, 2014, at the Vatican.
The synod assembly on the family gathers in the Synod Hall Oct. 18, 2014, at the Vatican. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — The first two synods of this pontificate that took place nearly a decade ago set the stage for the synods that followed and contain some useful pointers for the upcoming Synod on Synodality. 

The 2014 and 2015 Extraordinary and Ordinary Synods on the Family were ostensibly aimed at formulating appropriate pastoral guidelines for families and relationships, taking into account the complexities of marital and family life in today’s world. 

Many of the participants said they found the discussions helpful but at the same time fraught and controversial, and the fruits of those assemblies were then overshadowed by concerns and fallout arising from the Pope’s 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)

The Pope’s summary document contained a now famous and much-disputed footnote that could be read as relaxing the Church’s pastoral practice regarding access to Holy Communion for civilly remarried divorcees. Such a change emerged as a clear aim for many of those in charge even before the synods began, having been raised months earlier in an extraordinary consistory by Cardinal Walter Kasper in what became known as the “Kasper Proposal.” 

But Amoris Laetitia also contained several other passages of concern that appeared to contrast with the Church’s moral teaching, leading four cardinals to issue their five dubia, which sought papal clarification of these issues. The Pope never directly responded to them. 

The seeds of these disputes were largely sown in the synods’ methodology. The synod organizers and the Pope himself were quite open in saying they thought it was pointless to rehash the Church’s teaching during the synods. But ultimately the methodology went further than simply airing new views contrary to the Church’s teaching and appeared to have a predetermined end. Observers warned of “Trojan horses” proposed by activists for change, especially to bring in acceptance of illicit unions and contraception, both of which used Amoris Laetitia to buttress such dissenting views on those issues. 

Various machinations aimed at achieving that pre-set goal were catalogued in an e-book I wrote in 2015 called The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into the Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.

In the first family synod, we witnessed its mid-term report, given to the media before the synod fathers had read it. The report gave the media the impression that the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and homosexuality was up for review. Then there was the “stacking of the deck” of synod organizing committees with people who had a clear bias, and the famous “book heist” in which a book by cardinals and eminent Church scholars upholding the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage was deliberately delayed from being delivered to the synod fathers. 

But arguably the most significant effort to steer the synod in a pre-set direction was when three synod propositions, including one on the “Kasper Proposal” and another on homosexuality, made their way into the final report despite failing to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority. That meant they were carried over for discussion into the Ordinary Synod when, according to the synod rules, they should have been rejected. 

Each incident had the effect of either furthering a heterodox agenda or actively closing down voices upholding the Church’s established teaching — a radical departure from synods held under Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which affirmed doctrine while looking for ways to better impart that teaching.

But the overall problem with Pope Francis’ earlier synodal assemblies, and especially the first one, was not just the efforts aimed at achieving a pre-planned result, unseemly though they were, but also that the impression given by the Pope and the synod managers — that everyone could speak frankly and boldly and that all sides would have a fair hearing — simply turned out not to be true. 

As I wrote in the conclusion of the book, those pushing for Cardinal Kasper’s proposal and for a change regarding the Church’s approach to homosexuality “received support from the synod leadership significantly disproportionate to the real support for those positions among the synod fathers,” whereas the side that was “targeted for repression was, bizarrely, the one that upheld the traditional doctrine of the Church, passed down from one generation to the next for two thousand years.” 

“This led the synod to become, in the words of one cardinal, ‘grossly unfair.’ The audiatur et altera pars principle (to hear the arguments of both sides) was aggressively disregarded, despite the fact that it is one of the two norms of natural justice both in canon law and civil law. Suddenly, merely restating the Church’s long-held doctrine on key issues left one open to bullying, intimidation, and threats, not so much by the media as by some in senior Church positions and even those in charge of the synod itself.” 

The aggressive sidelining of the magisterium, especially in the first family synod, even led Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to say, when asked in private what he thought of the first synod: “Halten Sie sich unbedingt an die Lehre!” (“Strictly adhere to the doctrine!”).

Such marginalization of voices faithful to orthodoxy and the perennial teaching of the Church sounds eerily familiar to what we’ve already witnessed in the run-up to the Synod on Synodality. 

Will we therefore see the same practices and biased steering towards a pre-determined result in the coming session and the conclusive synodal assembly next year, and with the sort of disruption that Amoris Laetitia left in its wake? Some revolutionary novelties, the focus on certain heterodox themes, and strict media restrictions suggest we probably will.