Good news from the Synod of Bishops! 12 things to know and share

The last couple of days have brought signs of hope from the Synod of Bishops on the family. Here are 12 things to know and share . . .
The last couple of days have brought signs of hope from the Synod of Bishops on the family. Here are 12 things to know and share . . . (photo: Register Files)

The last couple of days have brought some good news from the current synod of bishops on the family.

Where things are going is still far from certain and there is still reason for concern, but there have been a number of welcoming signs.

Here are 12 things to know and share . . .


1) If you had to boil it down, what’s the single most important piece of good news?

That there has been widespread pushback among the synod fathers against the document issued Monday, called the relatio post disceptationem.


2) What is a relatio post disceptationem?

The phrase means “the report after discussion” or “the report after debate.”

Basically, it’s meant to be a document summarizing the themes that emerged in the first part of the synod.

Its purpose is to serve as a basis for further discussion in the second half of the synod.

At this point, various groups of the synod fathers—based on their primary languages—are discussing it and are due to propose modifications.

These modifications are meant to be voted on and to go into a second version of the document, which will serve as a basis for discussion during the next year, leading up to the October 2015 synod, which is also on the topic of the family.


3) Why is it a sign of hope that this document is receiving pushback?

Because the document has a lot wrong with it.

Before we look at substantive problems with the document, allow me to make a point that pertains to the English-language translation of the document that was released by the Vatican Information Service: It stinks.

The English translation (flagged as “unofficial”) reads as if it was translated by a native Italian-speaker and then not checked by a native English-speaker.

It contains typos and grammatical mistakes, it uses words that either do not exist in English or that are not used in that way in English (what the heck is “the pastoral of the family” or “today’s pastoral” in this context?), and it contains translations that may be misleading.

More on the translation’s problems here.

This, however, is a criticism of only the English version of the document and does not deal with what’s substantively wrong with the document?


4) What’s substantively wrong with the document?

Among other things:

  • It’s written in turgid ecclesiastical bafflegab.
  • It is written in a one-sided way that deliberately favors a particular point of view.
  • It contains elements that are difficult to square with Church teaching.

It also has been subject to various other criticisms.


5) What’s an example of the bafflegab?

From section 10:

Today’s world appears to promote limitless affectivity, seeking to explore all its aspects, including the most complex. Indeed, the question of emotional fragility is very current: a narcissistic, unstable or changeable affectivity do [sic] not always help greater maturity to be reached.

I won’t go into everything that’s wrong with the way this is phrased, but to illustrate the problem, consider the statement that “a narcissistic, unstable or changeable affectivity [i.e., emotionalism] do [sic] not always help greater maturity to be reached.”

Does a narcissistic, unstable, or changeable emotionalism generally help people reach greater maturity?


6) What’s an example of it being written in a one-sided way?

One of the issues under discussion at the synod is the question of whether those who have divorced and then contracted a civil marriage and who are having sex with their present, civil partner should be allowed to receive absolution and Holy Communion.

Here is what section 48 says on that subject. I have highlighted the words devoted to the “no” position in blue and the words devoted to the “yes” position in red:

48. As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.

Does that look one-sided to you? By my count, the “no” position gets 13 words and the “yes” position gets 100.

This lopsidedness, unfortunately, is not confined to this passage in the document.


7) What’s are examples of elements that are difficult to square with Church teaching?

Here are two passages from the document’s treatment of homosexuality:

50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

52. Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.

The reference to “valuing” the homosexual orientation may be an artifact of the poor English translation.

It has been suggested that, based on the Italian original, the intent might have been to ask whether churches can provide those with same-sex attraction a home, accepting and weighing or considering their sexual orientation “without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”

More on that here.

But what is the purpose of saying that “there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the [same-sex] partners”?

Can’t examples be found in which there is “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” between any two types of people, even if their mutual activities are contrary to divine law?

Can’t two adulterers offer mutual aid to the point of sacrifice? Can’t two thieves? Or any two people engaged in acts that, by their nature, are disordered?

Should the Church be celebrating such mutual aid as “a precious support” in their lives and gloss over the fundamentally disordered nature of what they are doing together?

Msgr. Bruno Forte, who wrote this section of the document, might claim that he is not proposing that the Church change its teaching on the intrinsically disordered nature of homosexual acts, but it appears that he is proposing such a radical change in emphasis that the Church’s teaching would be obscured in practice.

Fortunately, there are signs of hope in the response that the relatio received.


8) What was the first sign of hope?

The first major one was that the very next morning the General Secretariat of the Synod rushed out an urgent clarification, recognizing that there had been a major misstep and the document was being widely misreported in the world press.

They wrote:

The General Secretariat of the Synod, 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, reiterates that it is a working document, which summarises the interventions and debate of the first week, and 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.

In other words, the document does nothing to change Church teaching. Don’t report it that way.


9) What was the next major sign of hope?

The same day, the Vatican Information Service issued a report on various criticisms that different, unnamed synod fathers had made of the document.

You can read it here.

Without going through the criticisms verbatim, some of them were:

  • The document needs to talk more about those families who remain faithful to the teachings of the Gospel, thanking them and encouraging them for the witness they offer.
  • It needs to stress that indissoluble, happy marriage, faithful forever, is beautiful, possible and present in society, therefore avoiding the document’s near-exclusive focus on imperfect family situations.
  • It is necessary to clarify and explore more deeply the theme of “gradualness,” which may give rise to confusion.
  • With regard to access to the sacraments for divorced and remarried persons, for instance, it was said that it is difficult to make exceptions without those “exceptions” becoming the common rule in practice.
  • The word “sin” is almost absent from the relatio. The document needs to reflect prophetic the tone of Jesus’ words, to avoid the risk of conformity to the mentality of today’s world.
  • Homosexuals and heterosexuals who are cohabiting should be welcomed in a way that does not give the impression that the Church has a positive evaluation of what they are doing.


10) What did individual synod fathers have to say?

Quoting from press accounts of those who have spoken publicly under their own names:

  • Cardinal Raymond Burke: “There’s a confusion with the regard to the question of people who are living in de-facto unions, or people who are attracted to the same sex are living together, and an inadequate explanation of the relationship of the church to the person,” he said. “I certainly hope that this document will be set aside completely, and there will be an effort made to present the church’s true teaching and pastoral practice, the two of which always go together in a new document.” (source) (more)
  • Cardinal Gerhard Muller: "Undignified, shameful" and "completely wrong." This was the terse assessment of Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, about the Synod on the Family's so-called “relatio.” (source)
  • Cardinal Wilfred Napier: [M]edia 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.” “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.” “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.” (source)
  • Cardinal George Pell: [T]he document was an “incomplete resumé” of what the Synod Fathers had said it needed to be “enhanced and corrected”. He added that after the relatio had been presented three-quarters of the participants in the synod hall who had made interventions had voiced problems with the text. “The question of Communion for divorced and remarried is only the tip of the iceberg," he told The Tablet. "In seeking to be merciful, some want to open up Catholic teaching on marriage, divorce, civil unions, homosexuality in a radically liberalising direction, whose fruits we see in other Christian traditions,” he said. He added it was “strange that there was so little in the document on scriptural teaching and magisterial teaching on marriage, sexuality, family.” “The task now is to reassure good practising Catholics that doctrinal changes are not possible; to urge people to take a deep breath, pause and to work to prevent deeper divisions and radicalising of factions.” (source)
  • Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki: “(It is written) as if the world's view prevailed and everything was imperfection which leads to perfection,” commented the president of the Polish bishops' conference. “(In a discussion on the document) attention was paid not so much to what this document says, but to what it does not say. Speak about the practical exceptions, but we also need to present the truth.” The Polish bishops said the relentless focus on mercy is also problematic. “It created an impression that the teaching of the Church has been merciless so far, as if the teaching of mercy were beginning only now" (source)


11) Do these signs of hope mean that everything is okay and we can all just relax?

Heck, no!

(Though take what you read at the link with a grain of salt and be alert for spin.)


12) What can we do?

During the synod? Pray.

After the synod? Study the results of the synod, pray, and then contact your bishop and—respectfully—let him know your views so that the Church’s pastors can be informed of the sense of the faithful (cf. canon 212).


What Now?

If you like the information I've presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

In fact, the very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is information about what Pope Benedict said about the book of Revelation.

He had a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.

In the meantime, what do you think?