ROME – Heading into an Oct. 5-19 Vatican summit of bishops to discuss the family, the single most controversial question was whether Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church ought to be allowed to receive Communion. Since the meeting reaches its halfway mark Sunday, it’s logical to wonder where things stand.

Alas, the answer is: We really don’t know.

To be sure, the divorce and remarriage debate is hardly the only iron in the fire at this Synod of Bishops on the family. African prelates have talked about the challenges of polygamy and witchcraft, while Middle Eastern voices have pointed to the impact of war on family life. Westerners have pondered how to overcome a pervasive cynicism about making a lifetime commitment to anything.

In addition, there are a couple of things we actually do know about the Communion question. One is that there’s no push for changing Church teaching that marriage is for life. As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, put it Saturday, “Nobody’s talking about Catholic divorce.”

Another is that there’s a growing consensus around the idea that annulments need to become faster and simpler. An annulment is a declaration that a union was never really a marriage, even if it involved a Church wedding, because it failed to meet one or more of the tests for validity, such as truly intending to make a lifetime commitment. Once a person has an annulment, they’re free to marry again in the Church.

Yet on the heart of the matter – whether Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church without an annulment should or shouldn’t be able to return to Communion and the other sacraments of the Church – there’s no way right now to tell where the synod stands.

There’s been sharp debate, occasionally with a fairly nasty personal edge. Some of the testiness has been directed at retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who floated the idea of allowing the divorced and remarried to return to Communion after a period of penance back in February.

(Kasper was asked to give that talk by Francis, so to some extent, attacks on him may be a proxy for how people feel about the pope.)

On the other hand, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher of Quebec pointed out during a Vatican briefing this week that only those bishops who feel most passionately one way or the other have spoken so far, which means that the majority has yet to show its hand.

On Friday, another German cardinal, Reinhard Marx of Munich, tried to articulate a consensus with the phrase “Not for no one, and not for everyone.” His point was that not every divorced and remarried Catholic is the same – there’s a difference, for instance, between someone who walked out on their first marriage, and someone who was abandoned.

Marx was suggesting a case-by-case approach that would result in some, but not all, divorced and remarried Catholics being welcomed back to Communion.

Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, a top church lawyer, offered the example of a woman who married a man outside the Church whose first wife walked out on him, leaving him to care for three children.

“She cannot abandon that union or those children,” Coccopalmerio said. “In these cases, we have to do something.”

Yet for every Marx or Coccopalmerio, there’s a Cardinal George Pell of Australia, now the pope’s finance czar, who warned of “doctrinal backflips” this week during a public forum sponsored by Crux, and who told the synod on Friday that “pastoral practices and moral codes separated from Catholic doctrines are not merciful, but misleading and sometimes damaging in the long term.”

Both Marx and Pell, by the way, are members of the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisors, suggesting that the divisions run all the way to the top.

Although most arguments so far have been familiar, Americans may take consolation that one of the few points resembling an original insight came from the president of the US bishops’ conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, in an interview with Crux.

Kurtz said he’s wary of change on divorce and remarriage, in part because of the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Church wants to support married couples, he said, it can’t send a not-so-subtle message that it really doesn’t expect them to make it.

While the clash has been captivating, the debate won’t be resolved by next week. This meeting’s role is to lay the groundwork for another, larger Synod of Bishops next year.

In any event, under Church law, synods can’t vote anything in or out. All they can do is to make recommendations to the pope, so the only thing that truly matters is what Francis will do.

In one sense, Francis has already turned a page, in that he has rehabilitated and emboldened the reform position. Bishops who support change have said things out loud this week that not so long ago they would have hesitated to even whisper among friends, for fear of falling out of favor.

In other words, Francis has already changed the climate. Now it remains to be seen if he will also change the code, meaning the official body of law for the Catholic Church. The only safe thing that can be said at this stage is, “Stay tuned.”

A closed shop at the synod

To read the foregoing analysis, you’d think for all the world that I’ve just spent the last week in Rome covering the Synod of Bishops. In truth, while I am indeed in Rome, I’m not really covering the synod and neither is anyone else.

That’s because a Synod of Bishops is basically a closed shop, in that none of the sessions are open to the public. Small press pools are taken in each morning to witness the daily prayer, but we’re shooed away before any of the substantive discussions begin.

The Vatican offers daily briefings, which are informative, but that’s not the same thing as witnessing the exchange for ourselves. Many synod participants also make themselves available to the press around the edges, and they often lift the veil on what’s going on inside, but once again, it’s a second-hand way of gathering information.

Despite considerable rhetoric about an historic opening in the direction of transparency and outreach under Pope Francis, the reality is that this synod is actually more sealed off than any in recent memory.

In the past, the Vatican would release summaries each day of the speeches bishops had given, identifying the speakers by name. This time around, Vatican spokesmen are delivering only generic overviews of the day’s discussion, without specifying who said what. That makes it difficult to judge how seriously to take any given comment, since there’s clearly a difference if the speaker is the bishop of a minor diocese or the cardinal of a powerful Roman office.

The presentations have raised questions about whether the information flow is being deliberately sanitized, with some points played up and others minimized. In an environment in which hard information is scarce, there’s also a disproportionate media echo for the few talks that are public.

The idea of keeping the synod closed is to protect the freedom of its discussion, but it’s a fair question whether this much confidentiality is truly necessary. German Cardinal Gerhard Müller obviously doesn’t think so; he said this week that the texts of the bishops’ talks ought to be made public because “all Christians have the right to be informed about [the] intervention of their bishops.”

(“Intervention”, by the way, is Vatican-speak for a speech.)

In reality, these things always leak sooner or later anyway. The only real question is whether the information will emerge in an orderly fashion that reflects the real flow of the synod’s work, or haphazardly, in a way that risks creating a skewed and fragmented vision of what’s going on.

The seemingly ham-handed attempt to keep things under wraps is especially ironic, given that the synod is a positive story for the Vatican.

It shows senior Church officials listening to laity, including 12 married couples from around the world; it shows Church leaders honestly airing their differences and wrestling with difficult questions, and it shows the pope listening patiently and mingling freely with participants, yet another chapter in his commitment to collaboration.

A colleague of mine once observed that while the Vatican is bad with bad news, it’s actually terrible with good news. In some ways, the 2014 Synod of Bishops is a classic case in point.

A bishop fires back

One of the top notes at this synod has been a press for a more positive language to present church teaching on sex, getting away from terms such as “living in sin” and a “contraceptive mentality,” and finding a more compassionate way of putting that teaching into practice.

An Australian couple, for instance, told the bishops a story about some friends who are faithful Catholics but had welcomed their gay son’s partner at Christmas, because, as they put it, “He’s our son.”

To say that emphasis on mercy over judgment isn’t playing to universally positive reviews would be an understatement.

Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano, formerly of the diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, wrote the following on his personal blog: “Inside the Church, and recently from some of its highest circles, new winds blow that aren’t from the Holy Spirit.”

Livieres, who belongs to the Catholic organization Opus Dei, recently became a cause célèbre when Francis sacked him, citing conflicts with other bishops and various alleged instances of mismanagement. Having lost his job, the bishop clearly doesn’t feel inclined to hold anything back.

“The situation is very grave and I’m not the first to notice that, regretfully, we’re facing the danger of a great schism,” he wrote on Thursday.

Livieres accused Kasper and the Jesuit-edited magazine Civilità Cattolica, which ran a celebrated interview with Francis early in his papacy, of being “the active propellers that lead this confusion in Bergoglio’s church.”

Opus Dei headquarters in Rome was sufficiently alarmed that it issued a statement on Saturday: “This office wishes to clarify that the very regrettable words of bishop Rogelio Livieres about the Synod on the Family as published on his blog represent entirely and exclusively his own opinion.”

Granted, all this might be chalked up to sour grapes from a fired bishop. On the other hand, it would probably be a mistake to think Livieres is the only guy who feels this way.

Three side notes

Amid the larger narrative of the Synod of Bishops, smaller moments and insights often get lost. Three such side notes from Saturday are worth recording.

    • First, the Vatican presented a press conference about a thanksgiving Mass Pope Francis will celebrate on Sunday for the recent canonization of two Canadian saints, St. François de Laval and St. Marie of the Incarnation, who was born as Marie Guyart.

One fascinating element of the press conference was that it was led by Cardinal Gérald Lacroix of Quebec as well as the Anglican bishop of Quebec, Dennis Drainville, who was joined by his wife, Cynthia Ann Patterson.

I may be wrong, but I don’t recall a previous occasion when a bishop brought his wife to a Vatican press conference.

Patterson actually sort of stole the show, explaining why she regards Marie of the Incarnation as a role model for working women everywhere.

“She was single working mom,” she said, “She was widowed at a young age and had a little boy. She had to work to support her family, and her letters are rich in the social history of the women at the time as well as her spirituality.”

“She was doing that juggling that we women do,” Patterson said, who added that Marie also founded the first systems of education for young women in North America.

    • Second, it’s worth noting that the synod is presently in the stage of discussions in what are called circuli minores, meaning small groups organized by language. Each such group elects its own chairman, a position known as the “moderator,” and it raised some eyebrows on Saturday when one of the English-language groups picked American Cardinal Raymond Burke for that role.

Burke is well known as a traditionalist and as a hawk on the divorce and remarriage question. Before reading his election as a vote by these English-speakers against the Kasper line, however, it’s important to realize that there may be another consideration involved.

Last December, Burke was removed by Pope Francis from the all-important Congregation for Bishops, which is responsible for recommending new bishops to the pope. Rumors now abound that he is also to be removed from his present position as head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, to be assigned to a largely ceremonial role in Rome with no real influence.

In that context, it’s possible that the election was largely a sympathy vote, fueled by a desire to give Burke one last moment in the sun. That hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that several of the English-speakers in that group have a reputation as doctrinal moderates.

That said, all eyes will be on whatever Burke’s group, which is called “Anglicus A,” comes up with.

    • Third, a Saturday Vatican briefing on the synod featured Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, whose experience of these gatherings goes all the way back to 1980, when he served as an official in the first Synod of Bishops on the family.

Martin made the interesting point that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis decided to devote their first synods to the family, arguing that it’s because they were both diocesan bishops just before they became pope and thus realized how important family life is at the grassroots.

Martin is seen as a leading reformer on the clerical sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in many parts of the world. I asked him if that topic has come up in the synod, given that it’s been a source of suffering for many Catholic families.

“A number [of bishops] have mentioned it in passing, how it’s made things more difficult for the Church in the task of evangelization on marriage and the family,” he said.

“Obviously in certain countries, the scandals have had an impact on the effectiveness of the Church’s catechism on marriage and the family,” Martin said.

In terms of a general observation about how the Church deals with complex family situations, Martin observed that the Catholic Church is good at law, but “we’re not very good at exceptions.”

He noted that there are both hawks and doves in the Church, “but most people live their lives in the gray areas in between. We have to exercise our pastoral responsibility in the gray areas.”

Finally, a comic footnote: Vatican protocol requires that questions be asked in Italian, so I began by asking Martin in Italian if it was okay to switch to English. He laughed at the idea of two English-speakers asking one another if it was okay to speak their common language, and told a story about going to the States for the first time and being invited to watch a program on American TV devoted to Ireland.

“I noticed that every time they had an Irishman on, they used subtitles,” he said.

Crux launch in Rome

On Wednesday, Crux organized a launch event in Rome that was held at the Pontifical North American College, the residence for American seminarians in the city. The main speakers were Australian Cardinal George Pell, the pope’s Secretary of the Economy, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

The two prelates gave brief talks, and then were interviewed by myself along with Crux Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín and national reporter Michael O’Loughlin.

O’Loughlin’s write-up and a video of the entire event is online here.

In terms of the hierarchy, in attendance were Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.; Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston; Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference; Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, Australia; Archbishop William Skurla of the Ruthenian church in the United States, and Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.

(Jokingly, one veteran ambassador looking at the front row that night said any embassy in Rome “would have killed” for such a lineup.)

Also on hand were Monsignor Peter Wells, the highest-ranking American in the Vatican’s Secretary of State, as well as the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, and Greg Burke, the Vatican’s communications advisor.

The room was dotted with diplomats, including Kenneth Hackett, US ambassador to the Holy See; Nigel Baker, ambassador of the United Kingdom; John McCarthy, ambassador of Australia, and Emma Madigan, the newly appointed Irish ambassador to the Holy See.

In other words, this was a cross-section of movers and shakers in the English-speaking Catholic world. There was a strong media contingent as well, including many journalists who have been colleagues and friends for years.

News interest naturally focused on what Pell and Dolan had to say, both about the Synod of Bishops and also about Pope Francis.

Personally and professionally, however, one highlight for me came when Brian McGrory, editor of The Boston Globe, described the vision for Crux, in much the same terms he used during an earlier launch event in Boston.

“The way we plan to matter is to be journalistically pure, meaning we want to be straight down the middle,” McGrory said. “We will not have an ideological bent to this site, but nor will the site flinch from ideological issues, stories, and debates.”

Journalistic purity is an awfully lofty standard, and no doubt there will be days when we come closer to it than others. As an aspiration, however, you won’t do any better, and now Crux has committed to it on a global stage.