ROME — Almost since it was announced, the two-stage Synod of Bishops on the family has been a magnet for conspiracy theories. One of the most popular is that because the Vatican doesn’t provide texts or transcripts for what bishops say, somehow the message is being massaged.
In the age of self-publishing and social media, however, some of the sting has been taken out of that concern by the fact that many of the 270 bishops are using personal blogs or other means of communication to share not only the full texts of their speeches, but also personal reflections on what’s going on.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan for example, posted the full text of his talk on Tuesday on his blog.
The starting point of the Synod must be what God has revealed to us about marriage and the family: that one man and one woman, united in lifelong, life giving, faithful love, eager for God’s gift of babies.
Dolan closed his post, which he also shared with his more than 200,000 Twitter followers, by taking a subtle shot at media coverage:
I realize you’ve heard otherwise, but the Synod is not about same-sex unions, or Holy Communion to those Catholics in a bond outside the Church — although those topics might come-up — but about what God has revealed to us about marriage and the family, in the Bible, in human nature, in reasoned reflection, and in the timeless teaching of the Church.
Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher did the same on his blog, Chante et Marche, which translates to “Sing and Walk.”
Durocher began his Tuesday post by saying the reason why he was posting his text was the fact that it had been “published almost entirely on the Internet,” without saying who had leaked it.
Available only in French, the blog post confirms what Durocher told Catholic News Service earlier in the week: the focus of his address was women and their role in the Church, including suggestions that married couples should be allowed to deliver homilies and that women be ordained as deacons.
Durocher quoted a reflection by Benedict XVI in 2006:
It is right to ask whether in ministerial service … it might be possible to make more room, to give more offices of responsibility to women.
On Wednesday, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia used his Facebook page to post his own comments on the synod.
Among other things, Chaput warned against “a spirit of compromise with certain sinful patterns of life” and called the synod to show greater confidence in “the ability of people to actually live what the Church believes.”
Some bishops are using their personal blogs to reveal what other prelates have said.
Such is the case of Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, who on Wednesday posted on the website of the Polish Bishops Conference a summary of remarks made by several prelates on Monday and Tuesday, including those of Cardinal Robert Sarah of French Guinea and Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola.
Others have used their blogs to talk not about the content of the synod, but of its process.
Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge has blogged on the Oct. 4-25 gathering several times, providing a thorough account of what’s going on and his views on the procedures.
Regarding the three-minute limit the synod participants have for their addresses to the General Assembly, he wrote that “it’s hard to be substantial in such a short space: you can certainly say something, but it has to be very concise.”
“It’s a bit like a Tweet,” Coleridge wrote.
For some prelates however, the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter is actually perfectly adequate to deliver their message.
Such is the case of South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier, who’s been steadfast throughout the synod process about preserving the Church’s moral teachings, and never shy in denouncing an “excessive media focus on controversial issues.”
His extremely active Twitter account, managed by Napier personally — something unusual for people of his rank who mostly rely on others, as is the case for Pope Francis — is followed by more than 15,000 people and is chock full of tidbits as to what is going on inside the synod hall.
His messages come in the afternoon after the synod sessions close, since a Vatican spokesman indicated that tweeting is not allowed during the meetings.
(In fact, several bishops have complained that Wi-Fi service is unavailable in the synod hall, meaning they not only cannot send out messages, but they also can’t check what they’ve received during working hours.)
Napier is never one to shy away from online spats, even engaging reporters if he has something to say. On Monday, for instance, the British Catholic publication The Tablet quoted a question raised during a Vatican press conference by the Irish Times correspondent in Italy, Paddy Agnew, and Napier responded.
— Cardinal Napier (@CardinalNapier) October 5, 2015
— Cardinal Napier (@CardinalNapier) October 6, 2015
2/2 Now it's the turn of my nephews and nieces to do the same! So, I don't think it's fair to say I'm not qualified to share my experience!
— Cardinal Napier (@CardinalNapier) October 6, 2015
It remains to be seen whether the explosion of commentary and information online will have the same impact on the synod as social media has had on other major global events, such as the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa or the Green Movement in Iran.
To be sure, there are also bishops who have chosen to remain silent online, despite having very active profiles.
Such is the case of Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, who last tweeted about the synod Oct. 3:
— Abp. José H. Gomez (@ArchbishopGomez) October 3, 2015
More and more, however, it seems that bishops aren’t content to allow reporters or commentators to shape the perception of what they’ve got to say; instead, they’re taking to cyberspace to do it for themselves.