What I Saw at the Synod and What it Means for 2015

I begin to write this article in a taxi on the way to the Rome airport. I cut and paste from my notes piled up during the Extraordinary Synod of the Family. Roman traffic swirls at mid-morning, no less than my own thoughts as I process and report what I saw and heard during the Synod.

Crisis readers know that this Extraordinary Synod had controversy—and some intrigue—aired in both the Catholic and the secular press. You know the issues that remain after this preliminary Synod include these tender questions: How shall the Church speak with pastoral care to the divorced and civilly remarried? What hope should we offer to those with homosexual inclinations?

Already some insist that the Synod was hijacked and will forever be known as the Synod for the Divorced and the Gay. Others believe they witnessed the Holy Spirit throw a coup into confusion; wherein the proponents of “opening” to the divorced and remarried and gay unions were knocked on their heels by Synod fathers who refused to submit to their machinations.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

What follows are my observations specifically about the reportage on the Synod; what it means as the race begins for the next synod, scheduled for October, 2015.

One curious note at the outset is how surprised (and unprepared) the Vatican Press Office was to find so many reporters assigned to cover the Extraordinary Synod. On Monday, October 13, at the start of the second week of Synod deliberations, Fr. Frederico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, expressed his astonishment that “so many members of the press are here today.” He had in mind the media’s usual lack of interest in the work of extraordinary synods.

The irony in his comment came, just minutes later, when frenzy erupted over the release of the Relatio, the midterm report on the work of the Synod to that point. Within hours online publications in Europe and the US trumpeted some version of “Vatican Says Gay OK!” One of my sisters from South Carolina sent me a phone photo of a headline from her morning paper, “Bishops: Gays have gifts to offer Catholic Church,” with a note, “What on earth is going on in Rome?”

If the Vatican Press Office resembled an anthill kicked over, one can imagine what the scene was like inside the synod when it reconvened that afternoon. Cardinal George Pell of Australia criticized the Relatio as “tendentious and incomplete.” Cardinal Raymond Burke, currently head of the Apostolic Signatura, said the interim report was one “no faithful shepherd can accept.”

We heard reports of distressed bishops who demanded to know why the press had been given a rough draft. Worse, Synod fathers themselves had not seen much less approved the draft before it was given to the press office.

This fact was made known the next day by Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa. Several times he noted the draft was a mere compilation of ideas and interventions, a free exchange in the spirit of fraternal openness. Pope Francis had asked that the Synod work in total freedom. (In his opening remarks to the Synod the Holy Father said, “A basic general condition is this: to speak clearly. No one must say: “This can’t be said; he will think of me this way or that.…”)

Again and again, Cardinal Napier reminded the press that the Relatio did not represent a consensus, or any prioritization of issues. He insisted that no weight be given it, as the whole body of participants had never seen the Relatio until after the press has launched it into the world.

Thus, Cardinal Napier told the assembled reporters, they had the wrong information and “a message has gone out and it is not a true message.” Everything from that point, he said, would appear to the public as damage control. The situation, said the Cardinal, was “irretrievable.” He suggested that the press had “heard” what they wished to see the Church say.

There followed a tense exchange. The secular press asked repeatedly, “Who authorized the publication of the Relatio?” The Catholic press asked, “Who wrote the Relatio?” Both questions received hazy answers.

Reporters jabbed fingers in Cardinal Napier’s direction, voices rose and Reuters denied that the press had reported erroneous information: “It is in the document!” Reuters demanded of the prelate, “Will you, or will you not, own this document? Is the Catholic Church open to gays or not?”

Calmly, Cardinal Napier stressed that the document was only a working document and had absolutely no authority, therefore what was in the Relatio should not have been reported as if it carried any doctrinal or pastoral weight. There is “no matter of ownership at this point” he said, precisely because it is a draft, not a final document. The damage, as he rightly stated, was done. What the world had heard was the “gay question” and the phrase “divorced and remarried to receive Communion” as coming from the synod … and took it as gospel.

The following day brought the cynical retractions: “Vatican to Cohabitators and Gays: You’re Kind of Okay. (Update: Actually, Never Mind.)”  The National Catholic Reporter opined that gays and lesbians “reacted with disappointment after a tumultuous week….”

At this point, we know bishops had frantic messages from home—people were scandalized, people were confused. Ordinary Catholics were whipsawed by competing commentary in liberal vs. orthodox outlets. Talking heads such as Chris Matthews assembled panels of gay persons and divorced Catholics to discuss the “wisdom” of the Church. The Wall Street Journal carried an op-ed by Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute assuring everyone that the reaction to the Relatio was overwrought.

New Ways Ministry, a homosexual lobby group, is headed by Francis De Bernardo who predicted, “[n]ow that these voices have been bold enough to speak, more bishops who think like them will surely follow their example.”

 ¤  ¤  ¤  ¤

What went wrong?

That was the question a group of Catholic journalists discussed at an informal gathering. “Could these bishops be so naïve as to believe the press wouldn’t spin the Relatio?” “Is it possible the bishops are blind to the effect of that Relatio—now the entire Synod is in danger of being driven by the media, much as the release of Humanae Vitae was?” And, “Whose idea was it to publish the Relatio in the first place, especially as the intervention statements themselves remained unpublished?”

We had no reports of what was actually said, and by whom. Was this emphasis on “change of tone” toward “irregular situations” a universal goal of the Synod or did it reflect a particular conference of bishops?

A young reporter based in Europe pulled out his copy of the Relatio and said, “I mean, now listen to this … ‘Are our communities capable of proving that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?’”

“Don’t we need to know who said that?” he asked. “No we need to know who wrote it,” another replied. “We don’t know if that was an actual statement made by any participant, do we?”

All that we had in this Relatio was a synthesis of anonymous interventions made during the first week of the Synod. Only later would the press learn that the authorization for the publication came from Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, appointed by Pope Francis. The Relatio itself was written by a small committee appointed by the Pope. The section addressing the matter of pastoral care for gay persons is now understood to be primarily the work of Bishop Bruno Forte, appointed as special secretary to the Synod. Few think that topic was widely discussed within the Synod. Fr. Lombardi said of the 260 plus interventions he’d heard, he recalled only one that mentioned welcoming homosexual persons.

The release of the Relatio was an unusual step in itself, part of a new format adopted during this synod. Throughout the Synod the Holy Father remained present but silent. He understood that any interjection he made would have the effect of signaling a particular direction. To remain an observer was to insure the freedom of participants to speak frankly. Could it be that the stunning effect of the Relatio on the public was not anticipated?

However, as veteran journalists point out, in the past, the interventions themselves were always published so you knew who said what. Why close that procedure if the idea is openness? Several complained about the lax process which seemed designed to favor manipulation, or, misinformation.

The next day the English briefing was led by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the president of the USCCB. Archbishop Kurtz acknowledged the confusion and upset. He outlined the process for the remainder of the week: The Synod now formed circuli minori, small circles, based on language groups. The circles would discuss the Relatio and propose amendments. He emphasized that all amendments to the draft would be framed by Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church.

Additionally, we learned of a stunning change in the drafting committee. Pope Francis made two new appointments to his original committee; Cardinal Napier of South Africa, and Archbishop Denis J. Hart of Australia. It is impossible to determine what took place within the Synod overnight—had a number of Synod fathers insisted that the original committee led by Bishop Forte needed “balance”? Or could it have been the humiliating remarks by Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany whose comments about the African bishops were seen as racist? Cardinal Kasper is the outspoken proponent of communion for the divorced and remarried. The Africans view divorce and remarriage as a type of Western serial polygamy. Cardinal Kasper said the African bishops “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”

No matter the reason, orthodox observers welcomed the new additions to this crucial committee. As the small circle discussions came to a close, stories leaked that a far more doctrinal document was emerging. Cardinal Baldisseri then announced that the circle statements would not be published, whereupon Cardinal Pell is reported to have forcefully demanded, “You must stop manipulating this synod!”

Predictably, the secular press put spin to the press itself, that is, to the Catholic press. On Thursday reporters asked the briefing panel if the intense pressure from conservative Catholic press groups had influenced the Synod’s retraction of the open doors to the divorced and civilly remarried and homosexual unions. The response noted the necessity for pastoral practice to reflect the doctrinal teaching.

Next to me a CBS reporter chuckled, “Sure. Whatever. Like P.T. Barnum, just get them in the door then we’ll see what we can sell them.” His remark characterizes the attitude of many who would welcome a relaxed pastoral approach to the thorny issues of divorced and remarried Catholics—“first give us relaxed ‘pastoral practice’ and we’ll worry about theology later.”

When the votes were taken on Saturday morning, the Synod passed the much amended document, with the exception of three paragraphs. Those paragraphs addressed the question of communion for the divorced and remarried and a relaxed pastoral approach to homosexual issues. Some see the failure of these paragraphs to receive the 2/3 required votes as a victory.

Others are far less sanguine. They see a dodged bullet—for now. In the year ahead we will see every sort of article, social media flood and radio/ TV exposure of sad stories of “irregular situations” meant to influence public opinion and thus the Catholic bishops in advance of the 2015 Synod.

Cardinal Pell rightly sees the battle for divorce and homosexuality as a symbol—“a prize in the clash between what remains of Christendom in Europe and an aggressive neo-paganism. Every opponent of Christianity wants the Church to capitulate on this issue.” If she does, she loses her identity.

Our own task in the year ahead is to portray the beauty of marriage and the joys of family life despite its struggles. I hope to see Catholic media embrace stories of the grace of the sacraments, the good news that God has not given us a model that we cannot achieve.


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...