The Synod and the Media: Culpable Naïveté or Shrewd Calculation?

The disastrous mid-term relatio seeded confusion, conflict, and lingering bitterness at every level of the Church. But the synod itself was only Act One.

Upon becoming director of media relations for the American bishops in late 1969, I quickly made a crucial discovery about my new employers. With just a handful of exceptions, the bishops were painfully naïve about the news business, yet convinced they could manipulate the process to get the story told as they wished.

They were wrong of course, and eventually they learned that. But in the interim their attempts at manipulation were a continuing source of confusion, conflict, and embarrassment—to the Church and to themselves.

These ancient memories came to mind as I tried to make sense of the chaotic, not to say catastrophic, communications emanating from the synod on marriage and family. Not to put too fine a point on it, this synod was one of the strangest examples of Church miscommunication in many a year.

Among the howlers were these: an international gathering of more than 200 people whose managers sought to conduct it in semi-secrecy after an intense and deliberate media buildup; a meeting supposedly operating on collegial principles at which a document dealing with highly sensitive matters (the now famous relatio) was released with fanfare but without being reviewed and approved by the bishops whose views it claimed to reflect, thereby evoking angry pushback; coy, unresponsive answers by leading churchmen to reporters’ questions during a critically important news conference.

And on and on and on.

In the end, the Synod Fathers papered over their differences with a closing document from which the relatio’s most inflammatory elements were eliminated. This was accompanied by soothing talk from Pope Francis, followed by standing applause for the Pope. Just a big happy family, it seemed. Except that it wasn’t.

There are two possible ways of explaining all this.

One is that what happened in Rome was the product of extreme—and, in the circumstances, culpable—naïveté on the part the small group of synod participants and Vatican staff who were responsible for it. The other is that it arose from calculation, shrewd—one might almost say cynical—but self-defeating in the end, intended to present the bishops who weren’t part of this inner circle of would-be reformers with a fait accompli. In charity, I favor the first explanation—culpable naïveté—but others will see it differently.

In either case, the effects were the same: confusion, consternation, ill will, conflict, and lingering bitterness were seeded at every level of the Church, from the synod hall to the local parish, while scandal was given to a large number of loyal Catholics. Welcome to the one, united Catholic Church c. 2014!

Exhibit A in this unholy mess was the relatio—a report on the deliberations that emerged at the synod’s midpoint on October 13. A shoddier piece of work has seldom been seen.

Here was a meeting billed in advance as a pastoral look at marriage and family life in today’s world. And here was a document that focused on cohabiting twenty-somethings, divorced and remarried thirty- and forty-somethings, and homosexuals in same-sex unions. To judge from its gelatinous prose, heterosexual married couples doing their best to cope with the many burdens of married life today—and hoping for a little encouragement from their Church—were nowhere on this synod’s radar screen.

A great deal has been said elsewhere about the many inadequacies of this sorry document. I make only one point: a point about what it says and doesn’t say, about communication in other words.

The draft invokes the principle of “graduality”—meaning, roughly, that people usually proceed toward conversion step-by-step instead of by one huge leap. But if what cohabiting couples, Catholics in second marriages whose first marriages haven’t been annulled, and people in same-sex unions are doing isn’t especially wrong, why should they undertake—even gradually—to stop doing it and seek conversion? And if it really is wrong, why shouldn’t cardinals, archbishops, and bishops—official teachers of the Christian message, that is—say so?

In healing the sick, Jesus seems to have made it his practice to tell them: sin no more. The relatio was strong on healing but neglected to say why the objects of its concern need to be healed.

Not surprisingly, the small-group discussions that followed the untimely issuance of this deeply flawed document took a unanimously negative view of the relatio and its claim to represent a true and accurate summary of the bishops’ views. One of the synod’s genuine high points came when the bishops slapped down a clumsy attempt by its general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, to block public release of the small-group reports.

In the end, the synod eliminated the worst of the relatio from its closing report. But by then the harm had been done, thanks to media reporting that accurately captured the tone and substance of the relatio. And Pope Francis, in a belated gesture to transparency, insisted that what had been eliminated be published anyway.

During and since the synod, I’ve often heard people seeking to explain away the relatio say, “This is not a change in substance but in tone.” That also is either naïve or else culpably cynical. It’s half a century since McLuhan reminded us that the medium is the message. But the tone in which something is said is a central element of the medium and therefore of the message. Changing the tone in which matters such as those the relatio dealt with are discussed changes the substance of the message as well.

I’ve also heard it said often that the media sensationalized and misrepresented what was happening at the synod. But that’s just scapegoating. Scapegoating the media is a familiar tactic, in the Church as elsewhere, but this time it doesn’t work. The media reported this story accurately and with more sensitivity than those responsible for the fiasco deserved. The blame rests somewhere else.

Ineptitude, lack of communications savvy, is no doubt part of the explanation, and here the perpetrators of this disaster resembled the American bishops back in 1969. The mistakes included a heavy-handed secrecy policy, the incompetence of spokespersons in direct encounters with the press, the release of a draft document that didn’t represent the views of a significant number of those it claimed to represent, and a blatant attempt to silence voices that objected.

But the impression is strong that something much more troubling that ineptitude also was at work—a calculated intention to manipulate the process and control the result to suit the would-be liberal reformers. A man I know puts it like this: “The second week of this synod was more disturbing to me as a Catholic than any since the days just after Humanae Vitae, when dissent was breaking out everywhere. The difference is that this time the dissenters were cardinals and bishops.”

The synod of 2014 was Act One. Act Two of this drama will come next October with the synod that formulates specific recommendations. That will be followed, probably early in 2016, by a summing-up from the Pope. The lobbying and politicking aimed at shaping these events will be intense in the year ahead.

Against this background, what has lately happened in Rome may be a blessing in disguise. By their ineptitude as communicators and their overreaching, the would-be liberal reformers’ program stands exposed. It’s an ugly sight, vouchsafed us at a terrible price. But now at least the rest of the Church has been warned.

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About Russell Shaw 275 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).