Family Synod 2015: An Uncertain Process With an Unknown Outcome

As week one ends, the outcome of the synod might actually be less clear than it was at the outset.

VATICAN CITY — As the first week of the synod on the family drew to a close here on Saturday, exactly how the subsequent proceedings will unfold and what outcome might result — if any — remains shrouded in mystery.

And while the first week emphatically manifested that widespread opposition exists to any attempt to change Church doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage and the immorality of homosexual behavior, the uncertainties about process and outcome leave open the possibility that the synod still might endorse pastoral practices that would constitute a de facto shift in Church teachings in these two contentious areas.

Throughout the first week, the synod’s organizers have refused to publish the texts of the interventions (talks) made by synod fathers at the synod’s general congregations, on the grounds that this facilitates more open discussion within the Paul VI Synod Hall. However, this means that the texts are available only when individual bishops choose to release their interventions themselves through outside channels. This, in turn, has forced media correspondents to rely on the highly selective accounts of what was said in the synod hall, provided at the daily press briefings by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Holy See Press Office’s director, with the assistance of a trio of Spanish, French and English language assistants (Father Thomas Rosica is the English language assistant, just as at last year’s synodal gathering).

While the synod organizers may not have intended through this process to foster confusion about what was actually said in the general discussions, and to trigger suspicion that some viewpoints are being deliberately suppressed from public view, in practice that’s exactly what has resulted, courtesy of this highly idiosyncratic approach to media relations.

The president of the Polish bishops’ conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, apparently became so frustrated by the process that on Thursday he released a summary of various interventions on his website — an action that provoked a subsequent caution from the synod secretariat that, while bishops remain free to publish their own interventions, they should refrain from publicizing what anybody else has said.

Consequently, as far as can be determined, next week should be just as muddled as this one was for journalists, in terms of gauging the tone and content of the general discussions.


Working Document Comes Under Attack

Friday saw the release of the initial reports of the 13 circuli minores, or small groups, into which the 278 synod fathers have divided themselves in order to discuss each of the three parts of the synod’s instrumentum laboris, or working document.

The groups are organized by language, including four English-speaking groups, three French-speaking, three Italian-speaking groups, two Spanish-speaking groups and a single German-speaking one. And their reports were models of clarity, in terms of communicating what the participating bishops really thought about Part I of the working document, compared to the scattershot way information has been disseminated about the synod’s general sessions. But since the most widespread sentiment expressed across the reports was that the entire instrumentum laboris is a seriously flawed document, their publication actually increased the uncertainty about the synodal process.

Indeed, the small-group criticisms were so widespread that all three episcopal representatives at the Friday briefing — Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra of Madrid and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky. — openly acknowledged that the instrumentum laboris might not survive the synodal discussions. Or, as Cardinal Tagle pungently put the matter, it might prove to be a “martyr document” that needs to be “shot” in order to allow the formulation of a better one. Archbishop Kurtz seconded Cardinal Tagle’s assessment, suggesting as well that instead of the bureaucratic way the instrumentum laboris was drafted by committee, a final document probably would require a “single writer” who could provide it with a coherent “single narrative.”

A major difficulty with this idea, however, is that, doomed or not, the existing instrumentum laboris will continue to serve as the text under discussion, with the remainder of the synodal deliberations scheduled to follow its organization. Another obstacle: A papally appointed 10-member committee of synod fathers has already been charged with consolidating the proposed changes that will be submitted by the various small groups, near the end of the third week, into a document that is supposed to be placed before the collective synod fathers for a final vote of approval on Oct. 24.


No Document at All?

Cardinal Tagle, moreover, went out of his way to stress at the Friday briefing that it’s quite possible that there will be no final synod document — period. He noted that this decision rests with Pope Francis, who has yet to indicate whether he intends to authorize publication of a final document or will subsequently release a post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

Yet another wildcard with respect to the process is the question of how the final synodal text will be voted on by the synod fathers. During Saturday’s press briefing, a reporter asked if it remains the case that propositions included in the text by the drafting committee could only be removed with the approval of a two-thirds majority of synod fathers.

Father Lombardi responded that it would require only an “absolute majority” (meaning a vote of 50% plus one) for small groups to vote in favor of revised language proposals, which then will go to the drafting committee. The two-thirds majority provision, he continued, would apply only to elements that are included in the document submitted to the synod fathers’ collective final vote. This appears to leave the door potentially ajar for the controversial language in the instrumentum laboris regarding reception of Communion and homosexuality to survive into a final document, if the drafting committee concludes it ought to be preserved after reviewing the submissions from the 13 small groups.

But echoing Cardinal Tagle’s earlier comments, Father Lombardi stressed that it’s not even known if there will be any final document. The synod is only “approaching the end of the first week, so I cannot know what will happen at the end,” the Vatican spokesman said, noting that the Pope may provide clearer indications in the coming days.

Also, in his remarks on Friday, Archbishop Kurtz had remarked that the “synod process is unfolding,” with the current plan being to provide two days for the synod fathers to review a proposed final document and “a full day” to respond before any final vote. It is, he said, “a healhy process we are going through,” listening to different viewpoints.


Showdown Looming?

Add all this together, and about the only thing that has become clear is that virtually nothing has been clarified.

More could be known on Monday, however. The small groups are not scheduled to discuss Part III of the instrumentum laboris, which contains the paragraphs referencing the divorced-remarried Communion issue and the pastoral care of persons who have homosexual tendencies, until the third week. But it was disclosed at the Saturday press briefing that the synod fathers progressed through Part II of the synod document with unexpected speed at their general congregations on Friday and Saturday. So they will now kick off their Part III interventions on Monday, at which time the battle lines among them may start to be drawn openly on the two contentious issues potentially in play.

Even if that happens, though, it’s unknown how fully and accurately such a discussion will be conveyed to reporters at Monday’s press briefing. Media transparency at this year’s synod on the family, in other words, remains very much a process in progress.

Tom McFeely is the Register’s news editor. He filed this report from Vatican City.