ROME – As the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops reaches its midway point this week, two developments on Monday bear on perceptions in some quarters that the process is “rigged” to endorse foreordained conclusions – one that would seem to ameliorate those suspicions, another that could exacerbate them.
First, a Vatican official told reporters Monday that the vote on the synod’s final document on Oct. 27 will be paragraph-by-paragraph, instead of one comprehensive ballot on the entire text.
Second, Crux has learned that a preliminary version of that final document has been prepared and given to members of a drafting committee selected last week, with five members elected by the synod, two sitting on the body ex ufficio, and three appointed by the pope. Though it’s not clear who wrote the preliminary version, it was presented to the drafting committee by the synod office headed by Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri.
To understand why they matter, both developments require a bit of explanation.
First of all, talk of “rigging” of the process probably has been a little overheated from the beginning. As Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles pointed out in a Rome event Oct. 4 sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, every meeting is at least a little “rigged,” in the sense that organizers wouldn’t call it without some basic sense of desired results.
That said, Church conservatives often can’t help but suspect that the deck is stacked against them, and it didn’t help this time that Pope Francis introduced a new set of rules, one element of which is that the synod will no longer end with a series of recommendations which usually lay the basis for an eventual apostolic exhortation.
This time, the synod will produce an integrated final document that will be presented to the pope. If he gives it his approval, then it would become part of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, meaning the routine exercise of its teaching authority.
That new codicil, naturally, raises the stakes a bit in terms of the importance of the document, and bishops participating in this synod want to be sure that the final version genuinely reflects their input. If there had just been one sweeping vote at the end, it would have been much harder to flag which parts of the text were troublesome; now, with paragraph-by-paragraph tallies, it should be easier to know where consensus does and doesn’t exist.
Some observers had floated the possibility that if the only option was an all-or-nothing vote on the final text, some pocket of bishops might actually refuse to sign the final text, in an effort to demonstrate that it wasn’t really the product of genuine consensus.
Of course, ultimately all the synod can do is advise the pope, and it remains up to him what to do on the basis of the advice. In theory, even if a given paragraph doesn’t obtain a two-thirds majority to be part of the text, the pope could decide to revive it; and even if a paragraph does cross the threshold, a pope could still nix it.
Under these rules, however, at least bishops won’t be able to say they didn’t have the opportunity to make it clear where both their support and their concerns reside.
On the other hand, it may not do much among those already inclined to skepticism to hear that rather than waiting for the drafting committee to do its work, the synod office prepared its own working text to put before the group. To some, that’s likely going to sound like an exercise in stacking the deck, essentially confronting the committee with a fait accompli.
In all fairness, one could make the argument that the idea of ten exhausted and frazzled prelates drafting not just a set of recommendations but an entire, cohesive teaching document in just three weeks, ex nihilio, was a fantasy. They need something to start with, and theoretically it makes as much sense for the synod office to provide that base text as anyone else.
As one synod participant put it on Monday, “The thought that somehow [a few] selected people would sit down, craft and write many pages of material … a whole document … is not exactly realistic.”
Further, the great likelihood is that most of the material in the preliminary version of the document is drawn from either the instrumentum laboris, the working document for the synod, or from the early round of discussion inside the assembly. In other words, there doesn’t have to be anything especially nefarious about it.
The problem is that however logical that explanation may be, it wasn’t made public before the fact. Certainly, synod officials understand by now that there’s a certain constituency, including a bloc of bishops, inclined to see the entire exercise through a hermeneutic of suspicion, and the idea that a pre-fabricated text was waiting for the drafting committee immediately after the body was assembled is unlikely to help.
To be honest, none of this may matter much, given that this synod so far has shown little propensity for the drama and pushback of the two synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. While many factors probably help explain that, the most oft-cited is the presence inside the synod hall of 36 young people participating in the event. Virtually every bishop taking part has said their energy and good cheer has been infectious, setting an altogether different tone.
As Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, put it in a recent interview, because the bishops are deliberating cheek-by-jowl with the young people, “This isn’t a synod about ideas, but people.”
In that context, perhaps perceived procedural irregularities won’t really rock the boat. In any event, finding out would seem to form part of the drama of this summit as it inches its way towards the end game.