The Extraordinary Synod on the Family is a two week gathering at the Vatican of over 250 Bishops to grapple with “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” Each day was dedicated to contemplating a different issue. This Extraordinary Synod will produce a working document which will lay a foundation for an ordinary synod in 2015 which would implement any formal changes to church guidelines touching about difficult family matters as well as a prospective Apostolic Exhortation.
The Synod Fathers heard from selected lay Catholics from across the globe to illuminate some of the challenging issues facing the modern family. “Synod 2014" touched upon hot button issues such as: cohabitation; divorced Catholics who civilly remarry, contraception, homosexuality; and the current elite cause celebre same sex so called marriage. Considering the subject matter the secular media keenly monitored the Synod and promoted any signals of progressive politics.
Unfortunately for the faithful not participating in the proceedings, there are conflicting signals coming from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. For example, Pope Francis encouraged participants to “speak fearlessly and listen humbly.” Pope Francis spoke out against bishops afraid to disagree with the Pope when he said: “This is no good. This is not synodality.” Archbishop of Durbin, South Africa Winfrid Cardinal Napier certainly followed this exhortation.
This sounds like there would be a robust exchange of views and not a pre-ordained set of conclusions. But Pope Francis took the unusual step of appointing six prelates to draft the final report from the Synod fathers. Conservative Catholics lamented that many of the committee, including Washington Archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl, are reputed to have liberal tendencies. However, the Synod participants elected relegators to report on the small working groups. These relegators include Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura Raymond Burke (formerly Archbishop of St. Louis), President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum Robert Cardinal Sarah (of Guinea) and Arbishop of Brussels-Melechen Andre-Joseph Leonard, all of whom have conservative leanings.
Despite assurances from the Vatican Press Office at the start of the Synod that there would be no doctrinal changes only better strategies for communicating the truths of the family, the secular and liberal Catholic media reports as demonstrated by Jesuit Fr. James Martin report of “stunning changes” on how the Catholic Church approaches the LBGTQQ? persons. This characterizes the Synod of the Media, which capitalizes on the media blackout to interject their Synod spin.
Since Synods are messy, General Secretary of the Synod Lorenzo Cardinal Badissiri (of Pisa, Italy) imposed a media blackout on the “interventions” (speeches made during the Synod) but with a daily press briefing from three participating prelates. Chary observers like Fr. John Zuhlsdorf think this media gag could be to coordinate leaks to control the agenda.
Mid way through the Synod, a relatio post disceptationem was released which summarized the large group session discussion for the small working groups. Progressives praised the relatio, implying that it marked monumental changes rather than discussion points. Conservatives are concerned that final pastoral positions may be preordained.
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Archbishop of Poznan Stanislaw Gadecki, the President of the Polish Episcopal Conference seemingly rejected the relatio as being unacceptable. Archbishop Gadecki postulated:
"Is the purpose of this Synod pastoral support to families in difficulty, or is its goal the study of special cases? Our main task is to support the family pastorally, not to hit her, exposing these difficult situations that exist, but which do not constitute the nucleus of the same family; they [the special cases] do not void the need for support, which should be given to good, normal, ordinary families, who are struggling not so much for survival as for fidelity.”
The Polish Prelate expressed concern Pope St. John Paul II's teachings on the Family seemed to be ignored. Gadecki urged preaching the truth and not give the impression that the Church has not teaching mercifully in the past.
Cardinal Burke's reaction to the relatio has be likened to aftershocks to the pastoral earthquake of the synod summary. In an interview with Catholic World Report, Cardinal Burke blasted:
“While the document in question (Relatio post disceptationem) purports to report only the discussion which took place among the Synod Fathers, it, in fact, advances positions which many Synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept. Clearly, the response to the document in the discussion which immediately followed its presentation manifested that a great number of the Synod Fathers found it objectionable.”
After the relatio was released and not universally welcomed, the Synod avoid a media briefing which included the regular question and answer session. Catholic media sources like the Archdiocese of New York's Catholic Channel on Sirus XM satellite radio went wall-to-wall to correct impressions of the relatio.
The groundswell of dissent coming from within the Synod demonstrates that those pulling the strings did not appreciate how the interim report would be proclaimed as the gospel truth in the so called Synod of the Media which has its hot button issues on sexuality. In addition, the relatio did not reflect a balanced view of the discussion points. Moreover, this relatio concentrated pastoral approaches without clearly reaffirming Church teachings.
As the Synod on the Family proceeds, it will be curious how the groundswell of concerns about the interim relatio are corrected. Furthermore, how these disputes in the final relatio are addressed may make a difference. During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Blessed Paul VI wanted there to be unity coming from the Council. Thus language in the final documents required 90% approval, which practically meant that there was ambiguity which allowed for various interpretations. Hence a liberal "spirit of Vatican II" which led to innovations and consequence not anticipated by Vatican II council fathers. Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI would disparagingly label this as a "hermaneutic of rupture".