The Synod Final Document: A Rush to Judgment

COMMENTARY: The process employed to draft and approve the final document renders implausible any claim that it is the fruit of mature deliberation by the synod members.

Synod hall during Bishops' Synod on Youth
Synod hall during Bishops' Synod on Youth (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY —  “I don’t know if this document will do anything,” Pope Francis said in his brief, extemporaneous address to conclude the synod on youth. “We approved the document. The Holy Spirit gives us the document so that it can work in our hearts.”

The final document of the synod may do something indeed, as the new regulations promulgated just before this synod by Pope Francis make it possible that he may designate it as an act of the magisterium of the Church. As a novelty, it remains to be seen what exactly that would mean.

What decision the Holy Father will take in that regard has not yet been decided, as clarified at the final press briefing by Paolo Ruffini, head of Vatican communications. It will be some time until that decision is made.

The final document also included a reference to the instrumentum laboris — the heavily criticized working document prepared months before the synod — saying that it should be read in “complementarity” with the final document. That adds a further question about status. The “working document” was not prepared by the synod, nor was it voted upon by them. How, then, could it have any status at all, let alone that of being “complementary” to a potentially magisterial document?

All of the paragraphs in the final document passed the necessary two-thirds threshold easily.

The paragraph regarding the status of the instrumentum laboris had 43 negative votes out of 249, the highest number for any paragraph save for the paragraph on homosexuality. That paragraph could be read in an orthodox fashion, citing previous Church teaching, but was sufficiently ambiguous to garner 65 negative votes out of 248. So it is clear that the final document received sufficient votes to pass, with most paragraphs achieving near-unanimity. What is not as clear is whether the synodal process allows sufficient time and space for the discernment necessary for a document that might be recognized as magisterial.

The final document is some 60 single-spaced pages, more than 30,000 words in length, divided into three parts, 12 chapters and 167 paragraphs.

The synod members first saw a draft on Tuesday. According to Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, one of the most senior collaborators of Pope Francis as a member of the council of cardinals (C9), and also a member of the drafting committee for the final document, significant sections of the document introduced subjects and language not addressed in the synod itself. “They’re very heavily stressed, discernment and synodality, which really were not very much prominent in the discussions,” said Cardinal Gracias.

“There was some resistance when it was publicized because this document has so much on synodality when we really haven’t discussed it.” The synod then had Wednesday to speak about the draft documents, proposing changes. On Thursday, the drafting committee addressed the changes, and the designated secretaries polished the text on Friday.

On Saturday morning, the text was read to the entire assembly in Italian, with simultaneous translation in the hall. The text provided to the synod members was in Italian only, and only in hard copy, frustrating any electronic attempts to have it distributed for translation. The schedule permitted four hours to reflect upon the Italian text before voting began, allowing readers 20 minutes per chapter, assuming that they did not each lunch.

But even that accelerated schedule was not followed. The text was so mammoth that the entire morning session — some three hours — was exhausted in just reading the first two parts. The afternoon session then commenced with voting upon parts one and two, after which the third part was read and voted upon immediately, with no time permitted for reflection at all.

“The synod is not a parliament,” Pope Francis said in his final address. Exactly. Parliaments pass thousand-page bills that few, if any, have read. But theology is more important than civil laws, and a higher standard should be expected of synods — if synods are to be taken seriously.

Cardinal Gracias found the process inadequate to the potentially magisterial task at hand.

“I am not in favor of putting that responsibility on the synod fathers,” he said. “It’s not fair to the synod fathers, to the Church, to say that this is now magisterium. I think the Pope wanted to give importance to the synod, but there certainly are things there that could be theologically misunderstood and could be controversial.”

The inability or unwillingness of the synod secretariat to provide translations of texts — despite repeated requests from the English-speaking bishops, at least — was a point of friction. Multiple sources said that Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, secretary-general of the synod, was so annoyed during one meeting about requests for translations that he stormed out of the room, threatening to run the next synod entirely in Latin.

It is not clear why the synod secretariat could not have had teams of Vatican priests from different countries, seminarians present in Rome, or even graduate students hired for the purpose, work overnight on translations. But the refusal to provide translations of a text so prolix, coupled with the brief time allowed between recitation and voting, renders implausible any claim that the document is the fruit of mature deliberation by the synod members. All the more so considering that important parts of the text were not significantly discussed in the synod itself.

“One of the disadvantages is that many [bishops] do not know sufficient Italian, so I don’t know how they’ll respond, whether they’ll abstain, go with the group. I don’t know,” Cardinal Gracias said. “If we don’t understand it, how can we vote on it? Some have said we don’t have sufficient Italian to be able to make a judgment. We’re saying Yes to something we don’t know, and that’s not right.”

In his concluding address, Pope Francis said that the document now needs to be prayed over, studied and reflected upon, before proper decisions can be made. Prayer, study and reflection would have also been suitable before it was approved.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of

 Convivium magazine.

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