I understand spin. Spin is not lying. It is capturing the narrative. If your side does not capture the narrative, the other side will. The other side most likely will have the media on their side so capturing the narrative is so much easier for them. Still, you must try.
Therefore, I fully understand the gaggle of faithful Catholics gathered here and there in cafés near the Vatican pressroom during those October days of the Extraordinary Synod last fall. Huddled together, coming up with talking points, trying to capture the narrative.
The progressive narrative on that first day when the Vatican released the interim document was that Church teaching on homosexuality and on communion for the divorced and civilly remarried was at least softening, if not changing altogether. This news rocketed around the world in the moments after the document was released. Some hopeful people practically danced in the streets.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The counter narrative cooked up in those cafés that afternoon and on subsequent days was that nothing had changed. The interim document did not change doctrine. It only softens the practice. We are meeting people where they are. We were told the Holy Spirit protected the synod and that everything would turn out okay.
There is a tendency, a good tendency, for faithful Catholics to step in and defend the Church, to explain what is almost always misunderstood, either through ignorance of Church teaching, or through willful manipulation. It is natural to step in and defend your Mother.
It seems to me that these faithful Catholics, some of them anyway, were being used. Still others were taking advantage of their good natural inclination. In actuality, this counter narrative was not so much counter after all. It was a narrative hewing closely to what some in the synod were driving for all along, that nothing much had changed when, in fact, a great deal had changed. Moreover, while these good Catholics thought they were defending the Church and the Pope, they were actually supporting something called the “synodal process” that was cooked-up by those wanting to change Church teaching.
There was a third narrative coming from faithful Catholics who were also huddling around Rome that week: that is, a great deal might change, and that the document was an enormous problem striking at the heart of Church teaching born from Scripture, tradition, and other sources of Magisterial teaching. The document represented nothing short of revolutionary change. These people had the better argument.
I was in the pressroom during that week when the document was released. It was a remarkable scene for a synod. Something big was clearly up because we were told the pressroom for a synod is usually largely empty. This time, it was packed to the rafters.
It was hard not to see that controversy would surround this synod. It was preceded by a deeply misguided attempt to discern popular Catholic opinion about certain hot button Church teachings through a survey sent to all the bishops in the world. Not surprising at all that those pushing certain points of view used the results for their own ends.
The pressroom was electric; journalists practically shouted their questions. Experienced Vatican journalists exchanged shocked expressions as the Vatican spokesman and two bishops fumbled through answers about how adulterous couples could be accepted for communion, or exactly how the Church could or would welcome homosexual couples. Question after question, fumbled answer after fumbled answer. It was a disaster. Subsequent days in that room further revealed a synod out of control, and one that pitted bishops against each other.
What we saw in the pressroom that week was only a peek into the machinations going on behind the scenes. Some of this broke into the open, by means of what some bishops said in the pressroom, especially Archbishop Wilfred Napier of South Africa, who was disgusted that the initial document misrepresented the actual discussion in the synod.
One of the journalists in the pressroom made global news when he caught German cardinal Walter Kasper denigrating the African bishops, who were the biggest block to the German attempt to change Church teaching. Edward Pentin of Zenit and National Catholic Register caught all this on tape, so when Kasper denied it, he walked right into a revealing moment: the Germans might do and say practically anything to advance their cause and denigrate their critics.
Pentin tells this and many other stories in his new e-book The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? I think his Ignatius editors must have insisted on that question mark because the book is page after page of evidence that the synod was rigged stem to stern by the synod secretariat led by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Archbishop Bruno Forte, and others in cahoots with the Germans Kasper and the aptly named Cardinal Reinhard Marx, all of whom were explicit in their desire that Church teaching change.
Pentin presents evidence of manipulation in practically everything related to the synod, including the fact that homosexuality was barely a topic of conversation for the synod fathers, yet loomed large in the interim document. Pentin reports, “Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said he recalled only one speech out of about 265 that discussed homosexuals during the debate.”
Pentin reports on some things not previously revealed. For instance, he records that the synod secretariat deliberately excluded “conservative” theologians as experts for the meeting. He also reports that Archbishop Bruno Forte was elected to the position of special secretary of the extraordinary “by only a small number of the fifteen-member Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops.” Forte is generally blamed for writing the most controversial paragraphs of the interim document. Indeed he was outed as the author of the gay paragraphs by Napier of South Africa during the raucous first-day press conference.
Pentin also presents voluminous evidence that Kasper, seemingly with the approval of Pope Francis, initiated a global campaign to change Church teaching on marriage, beginning with his two-hour address to a consistory of cardinals wherein he “floats the idea of admitting divorced and ‘remarried’ Catholics to Holy Communion without amendment of life.” Kasper then published this confidential talk and took his arguments on the road, including to Fordham University in New York.
So it’s odd that Kasper and his allies got so angry when a group of cardinals and other experts published a book upholding Church teaching on marriage, and then tried to get copies to the synod fathers. Their efforts were blocked by the synod secretariat. Pentin tells this story in great detail and the story reveals a malicious attitude that the synod managers seem to have toward Church tradition and those trying to uphold it.
Kasper’s proposal to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive communion was challenged in the Ignatius Press book Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. It included essays by Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal George Pell, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Ignatius Press was eager to get the book into the hands of the synod fathers. They decided the best way was to send them to the temporary addresses, which turned out to be Casa Santa Marta, the hotel-like residence within the Vatican walls. Organizers of the book did display a bit of skullduggery. They made sure the books were deliberately mailed from a post office away from the Vatican, and that “the books were placed in envelopes of different types and colors…”
Trouble brewed when a synod staff member looked inside of one of the packages after “an envelope came open and the book was identified.” Pentin reports that Cardinal Baldeserri “was ‘furious’ to learn that the book was being sent to synod fathers.”
Pentin states that Baldeserri believed Father Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press was trying to interfere with the synod; further, that Baldeserri tried to get the postmaster of the Vatican post office fired for letting the books through. Pentin says Baldeserri wanted the deliveries blocked, but was told that was illegal. Because most of the books had not been stamped by the Italian post office, he decided to send them back for stamping figuring the delay would mean synod fathers would never get them, which turned out to be true.
The cover-up of what happened with the book is quite remarkable. But there is also the fallout—the score settling. Pentin reports that Baldeserri’s cronies tried to get American Father Robert Dodaro to resign his post as president of the Institum Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome because Dodaro served as editor of the book.
The narrative from the Kasper camp was that the book created a battlefield in the synod, and that it was intended to undermine the synod, even though it was Kasper who began the debate.
Remarkably, Kasper said the book should have been given to him in advance so that he could “review it.” Vaticanista Marco Tosatti wrote in La Stampa that a group of Italian bishops told the Pope that the five cardinals who wrote the book had the “sole intention of fighting against Kasper,” and that the cardinals had committed a “mortal sin” in publishing it.
So angry was Kasper that he actually shouted at Cardinal Burke on the floor of the synod meeting. It is said the book was the final straw that caused the Pope to fire Burke from head of the Apostolic Signatura, thereby guaranteeing that he would not be present at the synod starting in a few weeks, where all these questions will come up for debate again.
Burke will certainly be missed. He has been fearless in continuing the debate as he circles the globe in his new role as Patron of the Order of Malta. Anyone who thought he would go quietly is sorely mistaken.
But even without Burke, many others oppose these doctrinal changes, including the contributors to Eleven Cardinals Speak, available from Ignatius Press next week.
Included in this group is African cardinal Robert Sarah of the Ivory Coast. He will not be the lone African at the synod. Wilfred Napier of South Africa will be there again, along with others. When Kasper lashed out at the Africans a year ago, it was these men to whom he was talking and they are weary of taking ideological guff from pushy condescending Europeans. I see this at the UN, too. There, too, it is primarily the Africans who are standing up to the West.
Could it be that the Africans will save the synod, the Church and the world?