Four Takeaways from the Floor of the Synod

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VATICAN CITY – This afternoon in Rome, Father Federico Lombardi delivered the tenth Synod briefing in the St. John Paul II Hall inside the Holy See Press Office. Spanish, French, and German media attachés translated his remarks and commented on interventions made in their languages. Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki from Poznań, President of the Polish Episcopal Conference since 2014, and Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes from Tlalnepantla in Mexico, until recently President of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (or, CELAM), fielded questions from journalists.

At the top of his remarks, Father Thomas Rosica indicated ninety-three interventions were made on the floor of the synod aula between Wednesday and Thursday morning. That number adds to the four hundred interventions made on the first part and the three hundred sixty contributions offered on the second part of the Instrumentum Laboris. An entire section of the document — significantly lengthier than the first two parts — remains for discussion in seven more general congregations next week.

Takeaway one: Such a volume of comments makes it necessary to synthesize the bishops’ remarks. By its very nature, a synthesis is always a work of interpretation; but, it is also a summary report. One wonders whether the synthesis of several hundred interventions will result in an interpretation of the synodal discussions that emphasizes certain aspects of this month’s work. 

Certainly, many more interventions are expected next week. During the third and final week of the Synod, discussions will focus on the third part of the synodal working document on “The Mission of the Family Today.” That part ranges across four chapters on “The Family and Evangelization,” “The Family and Formation,” “The Family and Accompaniment by the Church,” and “The Family, Procreation, and Upbringing.”

These sections broach some of the most contentious issues explored at last year’s Synod on “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” including the admission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to sacramental communion and pastoral care of homosexual persons. Debates inside and outside the Synod have mostly centered on precisely these matters.

In this connection, it is worth noting that this afternoon’s briefing concentrated on communion for the divorced and remarried, leaving practically unaccounted the question of gays and lesbians in the Church. Although a week remains of the Synod, signals suggest concluding discussions could focus on the first question.

Takeaway two: Whereas Synods are meant to affirm doctrine and consider pastoral practices that best serve the Church's teaching, it may well be the case that this synod will end with some unresolved discussions. That places significant emphasis on what comes afterwards.

Heading into week three, one wonders about the ultimate trajectory of this Synod. Where will things end up? No clear answer has been given. Even after crossing the midpoint of this month’s assembly, no new information has been made available about the final document of the Synod. 

Not all assemblies have issued texts. And, the earliest meetings of the permanent Synod of Bishops issued their own documents. One case in point is Justice in the World, issued by the Second Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “The Ministerial Priesthood and Justice in the World,” which the blessed Pope Paul VI convened between September 30 and November 6, 1971.

It wasn't until Evangelii Nuntiandi that papal documents became the usual course toward the conclusion of synodal assemblies. Promulgated on December 8, 1975, that text marked the first time a pope closed out a synod with an apostolic exhortation, formally ending the Third Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome between September 27 and October 26, 1974.

At this late juncture, it has been confirmed that a final report will be prepared by the Commissione per L’Elaborazione della Relazione Finale (i.e., the commission responsible for putting together the final report) tasked with representing the bishops who will vote on their document forty eight hours after getting it in hand. That leaves little time for final discussion, amendments, and revisions, but the Pope will have final say over that document. Of course, the question remains: What will he do with it?

He might not do anything, issuing no post synodal text. That does have historical precedent. Alternatively, he could take a lengthy course toward issuing a document, using the interim between the end of next week and the delivery of any Synod document to develop his thinking, to continue his personal discussions with bishops, and to mull over the text of the relatio finalis (or, final report).

Regardless, for now, the short answer to the question is that we don't know. We can only speculate. 

Takeaway three: Given the status of a final Synod declaration is unknown at this late date suggests the Pope is biding his time, waiting to hear how the discussion concludes. Possibly, he’s approaching this month’s meeting as a Synod of… well, bishops.

At this week’s end, there will have been thirteen general congregations, ten circoli minori sessions of thirteen language workshops, and two submissions of written reports from those. (Wednesday saw the release of these relazioni.) By the end of the Synod, the Pope will also have the final report and its votes. As a Jesuit, he’s keen on the discernment of spirits. And, all accounts suggest the bishops are giving him a spirited discussion this month.

Even still, the option of a lengthy route to a final Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation in the style of Pope St. John Paul II’s 1980 Familiaris Consortio remains.

At today’s press conference, Archbishop Gadecki spoke about the 2016 World Youth Day scheduled to take place next summer in Kraków. Once again, bishops from around the world are expected to join the Pope and tens of thousands of young people for a week of prayer and catechesis. There will be workshops and testimonies on issues of importance to young people, including marriage and the family. 

The meeting of the Pope and bishops will not constitute a Synod as such, but it will be a meeting in the context of the “Pope of the Family’s” signature pastoral initiative. That could offer an opportunity for further reflection and discernment on the themes of the two Synods called by his successor Pope Francis. If the Pope chooses a lengthy course toward a final document, he could draw on these discussions, finding a way to incorporate them into his final text. 

Notably, some of the small group reports expressed concern about their ability to conclude discussions by the end of the third week. Since post-Synodal declarations typically do not appear until a year after a Synod concludes, there’s time to unofficially continue discussions at this summer’s World Youth Day. As Pope Francis has called for the renewal of both the Synodal structure, introducing his own methodological innovations, as well as the recovery of synodality as a key feature of the Church, further intra-Church discussions would not be unimaginable.

Takeaway four: However this synod concludes, and regardless of the documents it issues, the conversation about marriage and the family is just beginning. One prays it will continue cum et sub Petro with renewed pastoral zeal for the formation of young people, married couples, and families.