Reflections on the Synod

A few days have passed since the Extraordinary Synod on the family, a tumultuous event, to say the least. With its completion, we now have some critical distance to help us better digest the meaning of this event. I will focus on three aspects of this episcopal gathering.

1.  Bishops: “No rubber-stamp synods!”

By all accounts, it appears that Pope Francis intended to tightly control the Synod’s proceedings through Cardinal Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod. Eventually, the bishops had enough and made it known.

A first red flag came in the form of an announcement that the media would not be allowed to observe the Synod’s proceedings; furthermore, those bishops who wished to speak needed to have their speeches submitted in advance to the central committee over a month before the Synod began, and their interventi could last no more than four minutes– if they were allowed to speak. Information would be fed to the world only through press conferences at the Holy See Press Office, where only highlights of the day’s events– not the transcript of the various debates, as in past Synods– would be released. A media blackout plus internal censorship: so much for the openness of which the Pope so often spoke.

Francis personally appointed, without notice to the Synod or to any of the national episcopal conferences, the six-man committee responsible for drafting the Synod’s mid-term report (Relatio post disceptationem) and the final report (Relatio Synodi). Of course, the Pope as Supreme Pontiff has the right to do so, but this was a step unprecedented in the history of Synod since Paul VI founded it. Normally, men are elected to such positions by consensus of the Synod Fathers. Immediately, many commentators noticed a two glaring flaws in the committee’s composition. The first: all the men are of a certain theological bent (a bit Kasperish), whereas, the usual consensus procedure in past Synods guaranteed the representation of diverse views, with controversies handed to the whole Synod for deliberation. The second flaw is more scandalous: no Africans were on the committee.

Africa is the continent where the Church is experiencing its largest growth. It is also the continent where, in the intersection between Muslim, Christian, and indigenous traditions, the family faces particularly grave problems. Africa’s Christian communities, and especially her Catholic bishops, are among the most outspoken defenders of Catholic doctrine concerning abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and marriage. Cardinals Arinze, Napier, Turkson, and Sarah represent the heart of African Catholicism, and a simple internet search will reveal their candid and direct comments on the aforementioned topics. It is a shame that these men had no representation among the drafters.

13 October saw the release of the mid-Synodal report, the so-called relatio post disceptationem (RPD). Cardinal Erdo, Archbishop of Budapest, was the Relator-General, with overall responsibility for compiling both this relatio and the relatio synodi (RS), with the assistance of Archbishop Bruno Forte (the Synod special secretary, a symbol of liberal theology in Italy in the mold of Cardinal Martini), as well as the six-man relatio committee. As Relator-General, Erdo’s signature goes on the relatio, though he does not write the whole document. The RPD contained controversial paragraphs concerning homosexual persons, whose vague language seemed a departure from perennial Catholic teaching. In the press conference following the RPD’s release, Erdo was asked about the section on homosexuals, and if it indeed represented a change in Catholic doctrine. Erdo, wanting to distance himself from such language, gave the floor to Archbishop Forte, saying, quello che ha redatto il brano deve sapere cosa significa— “the one who redacted the text should know what it means”; in the presence of over 200 journalists from around the world, Erdo effectively outed Forte as the author of the controversial paragraphs. Furthermore, the Relator-General used the word “redacted”, implying that the text was inserted personally by Forte, not as a result of discussions on the Synod floor. In fact, Cardinal Pell would later say that three-quarters of the Synod Fathers had some kind of problems with the texts in question, and that the RPD paragraphs on homosexuals was not composed secundum mentem synodi.

14 October: in the presence of American journalist Edward Pentin and two other reporters (one British, one French), Cardinal Kasper gave an interview after one of the Synodal sessions that sparked much outrage. When Pentin pressed Kasper about the stance of African bishops, Kasper said, among other things which belittled African contributions to the Synod, this shocking statement, “They [the Africans] should not have to tell us what to do.” When Pentin published the interview on Zenit, Kasper vehemently denied his comments, and Zenit deleted Pentin’s article. Pentin replied on his own website, republishing the transcript as well releasing as a recording of the interview. Faced with incontrovertible proof, Kasper was shamed into acknowledging his remarks, then cried victimization, criticizing Pentin for not using “journalistic methods”. In the furious wake of Pentin’s report, Pope Francis augmented the relatio drafting committee with Cardinal Napier of South Africa.

16 October, the anniversary of John Paul II’s ascent to the throne of Peter, saw a dramatic turn of events. Cardinal Baldisseri announced that the relationes of the circuli minores (the discussions of the ten synodal working groups on the relatio post disceptationem) would not be published. It was another move which censored the proceedings of the synod. Cardinals Pell and Erdo immediately opposed themselves to the decision. Baldisseri reaffirmed the decision not to publish. At that point, the bishops’ patience with the restrictions had worn thin.

Dozens of bishops from around the world (including the USCCB President, Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville) stood up to protest Baldisseri’s announcement. Among them included the following Cardinals:

Bagnasco (Genoa)
Burke (Signatura)
Caffarra (Bologna)
Dolan (New York)
Filoni (Propaganda Fide)
Müller (Doctrina Fidei)
Ouellet (Pro Episcopis)
Piacenza (Poenitentiaria)
Rylko (Pro Laicis)
Sarah (Cor Unum)
Scola (Milan)
Vignt-Trois (Paris)

A most telling sign was seen in the person of the Pope’s first collaborator, the Cardinal-Secretary of State Parolin, who also denounced the decision to silence the circuli minores. In all, 41 bishops spoke against Baldisseri, and in a unanimous consensus, the bishops as a body stood with Pell and Erdo, demanding that the circuli minores reports be published. Baldisseri, essentially shouted down by the Synod, turned to the Pope, who observed the entire matter silently; with a stern, serious face, Francis simply nodded, giving permission to publish. We cannot but agree with Rorate Caeli‘s analysis that, on the anniversary of his election, St. John Paul II worked a miracle against the meticulous machinations of Baldisseri, Kasper, et. al. The relatio synodi, significantly modified from the relatio post disceptationem after the backlash of the bishops, produced, as we will see, a clearer statement consummate with Catholic doctrine.

This much is clear– Francis is acting in a more authoritarian manner toward the Synod than Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI ever did. The fact that the Pope added Cardinal Napier into the relatio committee only after Cardinal Kasper’s shocking interview speaks volumes about the control which he has tried to assert over the Synod. The events of 16 October represent a true revolt against a hitherto unseen micromanagement which only stifles debate. Faithful Catholics owe a debt of gratitude to the majority of bishops who, against the deck stacked by Francis and Baldisseri, fought for the truth and won (for now).

2.  Reception of the Eucharist by the divorced-and-remarried

After Cardinal Kasper’s infamous intervento at the 2014 consistory, the issue of admitting the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion became the most prominent matter facing the Synod. The lines were basically split in this way: [1] does remarriage after divorce constitute the grave (mortal) sin of adultery as taught by Christ, and thus precludes one from receiving Holy Communion as taught by St. Paul; or [2] can mercy be applied in specific situations when a person feels penitent because of a remarriage, and thus allow that person to receive the Eucharist? This Synod did not answer the question, nor did the relationes indicate a clear path forward on the issue. This matter was taken up in paragraphs 45-48 of the relatio post disceptationem, and were kept verbatim in the relatio synodi as paragraphs 50-53. RS 51 and 51 each gained the necessary 2/3 acceptance of the Synod Fathers; RS 52 and 53, however, were ultimately rejected. The paragraphs are as follows:

[45 RPD; 50 RS.] Divorced people who have not remarried should be invited to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life. The local community and pastors ought to accompany these people with solicitude, particularly when children are involved or when in serious financial difficulty.

[46 RPD; 51 RS.] Likewise, those who are divorced and remarried require careful discernment and an accompaniment of great respect, while avoiding any language or behavior which might be construed as discrimination. Caring for such persons by the Christian community is not a weakening of its faith and its witness to the indissolubility of marriage, but, in this manner, the community precisely expresses its charity.

[47. RPD; 52 RS.] As to the possibility of partaking of the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some synod fathers argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, while others were in favor of a broader outlook with well-defined conditions, when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, access to the sacraments might take place if preceded by a penitential practice — determined by the diocesan bishop —  and  a clear commitment in favor of the children. This would not be a possibility applied to all, but the fruit of a discernment […] on a case-by-case basis, according to the law of graduality, which takes into consideration the distinction between a state of sin, the state of grace, given that the imputability and the responsibility of an action can be diminished or cancelled by diverse psychological or social factors. [REJECTED BY THE SYNOD]

[48 RPD; 53 RS.] The suggestion of limiting these persons to the practice of “spiritual communion” was questioned by many synod fathers. If spiritual communion is possible, why not allow them to partake in the Sacrament? Consequently, greater theological study was requested, beginning with the links between the Sacrament of Marriage and the Eucharist in relation to Church-as-Sacrament. Likewise, the moral aspect of the problem requires further consideration, listening to and illuminating the consciences of these persons. [REJECTED BY THE SYNOD]

Again, there is nothing definitive in these paragraphs. Relatio synodi 52, which deals with “the law of gradualness,” did not find the agreement of the Fathers. As indicated by the Anglicus A circulus minor moderated by Cardinal Burke, many Fathers

had serious questions about the presentation of the principle of GRADUALITY. We wished to show in our amendments that we are not speaking of the GRADUALITY of DOCTRINE of faith and morals, but rather the gradual moral growth of the individual in his or her actions.

Paragraph 53, expressing a tragic, almost unbelievable confusion between spiritual communion and sacramental communion, was likewise rejected by the Synod.

3.  Homosexuals and the Church

In accordance with secular expectations from the Fantasy Francis, a feeling emerged in society at large (and especially among heterodox/lapsed Catholics) that the Church would change its doctrine on homosexual acts. Such expectations experienced a boost after release of the relatio post disceptationem. The RPD paragraphs on homosexuals read as follows:

[50. RPD]  Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing them a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

[51. RPD]  The question of homosexuality requires serious reflection on how to devise realistic approaches to affective growth, human development and maturation in the Gospel, while integrating the sexual aspect, all of which constitute an important educative challenge. Moreover, the Church affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same level as marriage between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that the pastor’s outlook be pressured or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations based on gender ideology.

[52. RPD]  Without denying the moral problems associated with homosexual unions, there are instances where mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice is a valuable support in the life of these persons. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to children who live with same-sex couples and stresses that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

Notice the ambiguous, even contradictory and oxymoronic language. Paragraph 50 is egregiously misleading. As noted by Fr. Zuhlsdorf and other commentators, homosexuals do indeed have gifts and qualities to offer the Church, in so far as they are human beings with dignity, and not on the basis of their sexual orientation. The suggestion that a homosexual orientation can be “valued” (a word whose definition is left vague) nevertheless contradicts the sense of numerous statements from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and from Saint John Paul II. Paragraph 52, while saying that the “needs and rights” of children must have priority, does not mention Church’s moral objection to adoption of children by homosexual couples, which has its basis in the right of children to be raised by a mother and father.

These paragraphs, inserted by Archbishop Forte, met fierce opposition in the Aula. Now compare this with the text of the relatio synodi, which reaffirmed what was already taught by the Church; there is a clear difference in tone (and, dare we say, doctrinal content) between the two. Relatio synodi 55 took as its basis a statement from the CDF, while paragraph 56 retained the last sentence of RPD 51.

[55. RS] Many families live the experience of having among them persons of homosexual orientation. On the matter, it was asked what pastoral attention is opportune in the face of this situation, with reference to the teaching of the Church: “There exists no basis for comparing or making analogies, however remote, between homosexual unions and the design of God concerning marriage and the family”. Nevertheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be received with respect and sensitivity. “Regarding them, any kind of unjust discrimination should be avoided.” (CDF, Considerations concerning legal recognition of unions between homosexual persons, #4) [REJECTED BY THE SYNOD]

[56. RS] It is wholly unacceptable that the pastors of the Church suffer pressure on this matter and that international organizations make the introduction of laws which introduce “marriage” between persons of the same sex a condition for financial aid to poor nations.


As Cardinal Pell indicated, a lack of reference to Scripture and tradition marked the interventions of those in favor of doctrinal novelties, who seemed to grossly idealize certain irregular situations. The fact that the amendments adopted in the relatio synodi refer more explicitly to past magisterial pronouncements and to Scripture is a guarantee that no heresy was prononced. It furthermore forced certain Fathers to once more take seriously the immutable divine law, as expressed by St. Paul and by Christ himself.

Each paragraph of the relatio synodi was placed to a vote before the entire assembly of bishops. Three paragraphs, 52 and 53 (on communion for the divorced-and-remarried), and 55 (on homosexuals) did not obtain the requisite 2/3 majority of the Fathers, and were thus rejected by the Synod. In a strange move, however, Cardinal Baldisseri and the central committee still published the rejected paragraphs as part of the relatio synodi on the Vatican website! The only way that a casual reader would know that these paragraphs were actually rejected was if he/she read the footnotes, where the tallies of the votes were written; nevertheless, even in the enumerated tallies, there is no explicit indication of which paragraphs were rejected, meaning that the reader needs to personally calculate the placet vs. non placet votes to find the rejected paragraphs. This measure, another unprecendented move, cannot be but another egregious attempt to obscure and mislead the public at large.

Nevertheless, the relatio synodi remains, as Cardinal Burke said, “a significant improvement” over the relatio post disceptationem.” The manner in which the Synod is portrayed in the media, coupled with Baldisseri’s schemes, however, has ensured for faithful Catholics an uphill battle over the next year. Though this crisis of faith will likely find little relief, we must be confident in the promise of the new covenant, that portae inferi non praevalebunt, and that the Church, infallibly protected in faith by the Holy Spirit, will never canonize mortal sin.

May Pope Francis, who so earnest desired frank dialogue and an open Church, never more consent to a gathering stifled by Baldisseri’s restrictions. May the vibrant Church in Africa make her sonorous voice known in the synod hall. May the testimony of Scripture, especially the words of Christ and Paul, ring true in the hearts of bishops. May Christ, who entrusted the sacred deposit of faith to the apostles’ successors, ever shine forth in the pastors of his flock.

Ipsi gloria in Ecclesia.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply