At the Synod: Circling Wagons

As the synod approaches its end, the language group reports are released.

The second week of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family draws to a close. Participants were divided into language groups to hammer out a more precise version of the ideas presented during the first week, which ended with the publication of the controversial relatio, or midterm report.

The circuli minori, small circles, issued their reports yesterday. A shadow of Vatican intrigue hovers in these reports, like light and dark between the famous Bernini columns.

At the outset of the synod, the wager was on a more “open” pastoral response to families of all configurations. Space would be made for divorced and remarried Catholics, with a more “welcoming” stance toward homosexuals, as well. These particular objectives appear to be the goalposts set in advance of the synod.

Standing near these goalposts are Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and Archbishop Bruno Forte. Both prelates are known to prefer the theological direction of Milan’s late Cardinal Martini, a theology often seen as opposed the theology of Saint John Paul II. Cardinal Baldisseri is the Secretary General of the Synod, the coach coordinating the plays.

Despite a call for open and fraternal discussions, in fact, the interventions and statements of the Synod participants were not made public, per the directive of Cardinal Baldisseri. Even participants did not always know who said what. Little surprise, then, that when the relatio was released it was deemed an “earthquake”!

Monday afternoon, following the publication of the relatio, Archbishop William Skurla, the Ruthenian archbishop of Pittsburg, assured me that much of the material contained in it would be smoothed out. “What you had in the first week is like sandlot baseball,” he said.

By Wednesday of this week the press had heard from Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville, the president of the USCCB, that in the English language circles much of the focus had returned to pastoral support for the families who live by their faith and whose witness the world needs to see. He said the circles would enter amendments and refine the original interventions.

Thursday, Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna reiterated the assurance that the relatio had been provisional, and the final synod document to be presented on Saturday would be quite different after all the amendments were voted upon. He stressed his own commitment to the primacy of a focus on the natural family as God’s blueprint for society, despite the deep disappointments of broken families. The cardinal shared his own intimate understanding of that brokenness and sorrow—“my parents are divorced”—but stated that it was within the bonds of family and faith that they had survived the rupture.

However, questions remained unanswered. Who wrote the summary of the relatio that caused such an uproar? Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa clearly put distance between the published relatio and his own understanding of what was said in the first week. Then who, asked reporters, wrote the midterm report, and who decided to publish it before the Synod Fathers themselves had seen the summary?

Father Lombardi, the director of Vatican press office, referred inquiries on to the Synod Fathers. And no one wanted to say who wrote or who authorized publication of the report. But there were persistent whispers that it was Archbishop Forte who had offered to relieve other bishops of the need to write the distillation of the first week’s discussion.

Next came the revelation that Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa had been “unexpectedly” assigned to the committee that would write the final Synod Report.

“Ah, yes” said a veteran Vatican watcher, “these new men have recalled the mechanisms employed during Vatican II.” 

While we await the final presentation of the Synod document on Saturday, the reports of the circuli minori, based on language groups, indeed indicate that there is an effort to return the synod to its stated purpose, the role of family in the New Evangelization.

Here are some of the crucial statements from the English language group reports, moderated by Cardinal Napier, assisted by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin:

The group strongly felt that the Relatio ended up placing too much emphasis on the problems facing the family and did not stress sufficiently the need to provide an enthusiastic message which would encourage and inspire hope for those Christian families who despite many challenges and even failures—strive every day to live out faithfully and joyfully their mission and vocation within the Church and society.

The group proposed to add at the beginning of the Report — as was done in the Instrumentum Laboris – some paragraphs clearly stressing how the Word of God, and the beauty of the Gospel of Marriage, must be central to the entire focus of the Final Report of the Synod.”

The group asked…to record explicitly its concern about some of the conclusions drawn in the Relatio, about its methodology, its complicated language (compounded by poor translation) and of the effects of its publication before it had been reviewed by the Synodal Fathers. …

The main thrust should be to encourage those who are committed and witness to the Christian ideal… as we move towards the Ordinary Session of the Synod of 2015 which is about “the vocation and mission of the family”. …

The problems should not be allowed to steal the principal narrative…

It is not primarily a question of producing new documents or of simply repeating the Church’s teaching, but of reaching out and finding a language which can help the men and women and especially the young people of our time to open their hearts and minds to the Gospel of the Family, to understand it and to be attracted by it. This new language must dig deeper into the treasury of the faith and tradition of the Church and find ways of listening to the lived experience of faithful couples of their Sacrament of Matrimony. …

The group felt that the Church should revisit and give a positive reevaluation of the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae for the formation of conscience regarding family planning. …

The group recommended a new conclusion to the Relatio focusing on our Blessed Mother, who with her spouse St. Joseph, because of her unique role in the Holy Family of Nazareth and at the wedding feast of Cana and continues to play an important role in the Church. Married couples should have recourse to her especially when they face difficult challenges in their lives so that Mary our Mother may be an anchor of hope for all Christian families.


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About Mary Jo Anderson 31 Articles
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on EWTN's "Abundant Life." She was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council (NAC), 2010-2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.