ROME – Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the tumultuous Synod of Bishops on the family, conclusions are up in the air as to what it all meant. Given the clear divisions that ran through the summit, it should be no surprise that after-the-fact interpretations are also all over the map.
For some, the outcome was a defeat for Pope Francis and the more open line they perceive him to represent on issues such as gays and divorce and remarriage. For others, the fact that even watered-down language on those points survived in the synod’s final document represents a watershed, even if, like Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the United Kingdom said, they feel it “didn’t go far enough.”
Those in favor of allowing Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church to receive Communion can claim a breakthrough in a call for further study on the issue, since previous Vatican documents have closed the door entirely.
Some believe the soap opera quality of the two-week gathering, with conservatives complaining of a plot to stifle their voices and liberals grousing about a lack of nerve, suggest Francis has let loose forces he can’t control.
“I don’t think he’s much of a strategist,” one cardinal told Crux Sunday night. “I used to think there was a plan underneath the chaos … now I’m wondering if the chaos is the plan.”
Others believe that this synod was the opening salvo in Francis’ vision for the future. He now knows where the bishops of the world stand, they say, and perhaps what he needs to do to bring them along.
Beyond all the competing views, here are three conclusions about the 2014 Synod of Bishops that seem reasonably objective.
This is not the end, only the beginning. All along, the 2014 synod was designed to do no more than prepare an agenda for the larger Synod of Bishops on the family called by Pope Francis for October 2015.
Among other things, that’s why the fissure Saturday night over whether the bishops had “rejected” two paragraphs in the final document by failing to get a two-thirds vote, one on gays and the other on divorce and remarriage, was a category mistake. In reality, the purpose of this meeting wasn’t to “accept” or “reject” anything.
Between now and next year, Francis will likely make some important personnel moves that may alter the character of the next group he brings together. For one thing, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who emerged as a leader of the conservative forces during the synod, likely won’t be at the next one because he’s about to be replaced as the head of the Vatican’s highest court.
It’s also possible that German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was another strong conservative voice in the synod, will no longer be running the Vatican’s top doctrinal office by October 2015. Depending on who takes over, that, too, could alter the chemistry.
In general, if the pope’s plan to streamline the Vatican by eliminating or consolidating some its departments is in place, there may be fewer Roman officials in the next synod.
By the same token, retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the chief protagonist of the permissive line on Communion for the divorced and remarried, was at this synod only by special papal invitation, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back, especially after a sideline controversy over remarks about Africans “not telling us what to do.”
For their part, the African bishops were surprised when none of them were named to the drafting committee of the final document, and it’s likely they won’t wait to get to Rome next time before making it clear that they expect a place at the table from the very beginning.
In other words, don’t assume that by putting the same questions to the synod next year, Francis is destined to get the same answers. To use a DVR analogy, the next synod won’t be a rewind but a fast-forward.
The 2014 synod marked a big win for transparency. For that, those on the conservative side of its arguments can claim most of the credit.
At the beginning, Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the synod, announced that the texts of bishops’ talks would not be released, and that Vatican spokesmen would provide only generic overviews to the press without citing speakers by name. That led to mounting protests from conservatives, who suspected an effort to mute criticism of the more liberal line held by some of the synod’s key figures.
The discontent burst into full public view last Monday, when an interim report contained remarkably positive language on gays, living together outside marriage, and divorce and remarriage. Conservatives objected, and rightly, that the report was taken as the conclusions of the whole synod when not everyone agreed with it.
From that point forward, things became steadily more open. Baldisseri was compelled to go along with releasing all the internal reports from the 10 small groups at the synod, and at the end, Francis decided to release not only the synod’s final document, but also the vote totals for each paragraph — and in record time.
It seems probable the next synod will be far more transparent from the beginning, because no one will want to go through this again.
(As a footnote, it’s also a safe bet that a few prelates may quietly suggest to Francis that he consider finding other work for Baldisseri, who left a number of people underwhelmed by his performance.)
Francis doesn’t choke in big moments. He delivered a speech at the end of the synod that virtually everyone agreed was among the best of his papacy.
It offered the vision statement of a moderate pontiff, urging the Church to shun both a “hostile rigidity” and a “false mercy.” He drew thunderous applause, including from prelates who shortly before, at least metaphorically, had been at one another’s throats.
In effect, it was the kind of speech that both a Raymond Burke and a Walter Kasper could walk away from feeling as if the pope understands them, and it seemed to allow what had been a sometimes nasty two-week stretch to end on a high note.
However neat a trick that was, however, it may pale in comparison to the challenge of holding the Church together as things go forward.
Saturday night, Francis simply had to worry about soothing feelings in the wake of a bumpy two-week debate that didn’t actually resolve anything. Next time it won’t be enough just to thank the bishops for speaking up, because people will be expecting Francis to make some decisions.
For now, the pope’s appeal to “unity and harmony” seemed to resonate, but the question is whether people will still be inclined to embrace it when Francis stops collecting advice and starts acting on it.