ROME – True old-timers in the Vatican press corps still love to reminisce about how much fun it was covering the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of the world’s Catholic bishops from 1962 to 1965 that launched the Church on a course of modernization and reform.
It was a gripping story, filled with colorful characters. There were the great lions of the reform camp, such as Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium and Giacomo Lercaro of Italy, facing off against the old guard, personified by Italian Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, whose episcopal motto Semper Idem, “Always the Same,” was an entire ideological program in miniature.
Underneath the drama was the sense that something momentous was happening — a Church that had seemed frozen in place was suddenly on the move. Whether it was doing so in a wise or haphazard fashion is a matter of debate to this day, but no one denied that the plates were shifting.
Over the past two weeks, that kind of drama has been back on the Vatican beat.
Synods of Bishops under John Paul and Benedict tended to be fairly cut-and-dried affairs. There were always interesting points made along the way, and while intriguing fault lines opened up and fascinating insights were voiced from different corners of the Catholic world, there was rarely much suspense about the final result.
That certainly cannot be said about the Synod of Bishops on the family in October 2014.
On Monday, the world was stunned when Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary, who’s serving as the synod’s general reporter, delivered what’s known as the relatio post disceptationem, the “speech after the debate,” meaning a sort of interim report. In the past when that speech was set to be delivered, sales of No-Doze in pharmacies around the Vatican would spike notably — but not this time.
The speech was crafted by an editorial team supplemented by six papal appointments that set off fevered speculation that Francis was stacking the deck in favor of progressives. The report is widely known to carry the imprint of Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte, one of the more noted theological minds in the Italian hierarchy.
By voicing words of appreciation for people living in what the Church regards as “irregular” situations, such as gays and lesbians, couples living together outside of marriage, and the divorced and remarried, the document seemed to mark a big win for mercy over judgment and became an instant media sensation.
Immediately, push-back from forces worried about blurring Church teaching began.
Over the past six months, we’ve become accustomed to cardinals criticizing each other in public, but Monday night brought a first: American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a fair candidate to emerge as the Alfredo Ottaviani of this synod, all but suggested that Francis owes the world an apology by issuing a clear statement of Catholic doctrine.
Although Francis obviously didn’t draft the document, Burke seemed to imply that what he saw as its muddled message wouldn’t have seen the light of day without Francis’ influence.
Inside the synod hall, the exchange has been no less intense. Though participants repeatedly have praised the fraternal spirit of the gathering, nevertheless there have been a few tense moments.
At one point last week, a fellow prelate asked retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper to retract his proposal to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, arguing that instead of the “medicine of mercy” it had spread “sickness and disease.”
Likewise on Monday, one cardinal rose to object to the interim report, wondering aloud where the concept of sin had gone and asking, “Don’t we see anything negative anymore?”
Another measure for whether some Vatican development has gotten the world’s attention is whether activists start showing up at news conferences to press their agenda, and that’s happened, too.
Already by Tuesday, members of a conservative Catholic group called “Voice of the Family,” which had earlier called the interim report a “betrayal,” were in the Vatican press hall to ask Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa, whose turn it was to meet the press that day, if the report ought to be formally rescinded.
(For the record, his answer was that the suggestion was “a little radical.”)
Even before the fracas over the relatio, there was already a buzz in Rome about the synod.
Some conservative observers have been complaining that the decision not to release the texts of speeches given by bishops in the synod, substituting a generic overview of the day’s discussion by Vatican spokesmen, was an attempt to muzzle dissenting voices — “dissent” in this case understood as those who aren’t on board with the Francis revolution.
Last week, Catholic intellectual Robert Royal, who’s in Rome for the synod, posted a blog about perceptions that Francis is too hard on defenders of Catholic tradition. He cited some unnamed people in the Vatican calling the pope a “Latin dictator,” and even hoping that his health scares mean his reign won’t go on too long.
I can confirm the accuracy of that report, because I’ve heard the same things. On the other hand, there are also people inside the Vatican saying that this is the pope they’ve dreamed of serving their whole lives, and who laud the more relaxed and open atmosphere they believe Francis has introduced.
The comment element in both reactions, as in Vatican II, is that something big is going on — that Catholicism is undergoing a transition, even if the precise nature of the shift and where it’s going to lead are unclear. People may be dismayed or elated, and there are articulate voices on both sides, but no one seems to believe it’s mere window-dressing.
We won’t know until Friday how the final version of the synod document will shake out, and no matter what happens, it won’t be anything like the watershed in Catholicism represented by the 16 documents of Vatican II. On the other hand, this synod already seem a good sampler of the broader tensions unleashed by the pope who convened it.
One thing we can say for sure: The Synod of Bishops 2014 is putting on a great show, and for that, the viewing public can be grateful.