A Modified Synod Process, “Dangerous” Experiments and a Francis Drafting Team

October 4, 2015 Report

Recently, Deacon Nick Donnelly, writing for the National Catholic Register, released “A Survivor’s Guide to the Synod.” Citing his iconic hero, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Donnelly fuses the “dangerous” pattern of bishops engaging in dialogue to the rise of clinical depression in Catholics who feel threatened by such dialogue.

“I am hearing directly and reading about Catholics becoming ill, disillusioned or driven to desperate measures by the chaos caused by the two synods. Friends tell me that the constant news of cardinals questioning, even brazenly contradicting, doctrines of the faith has resulted in relapses into clinical depression.”

I could only imagine Donnelly’s readers furiously flipping through his guide as Monsignor Krzystof Charamsa, a mid-level official in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declared his love for another man and his hope that synod officials and the Church would find a way to put aside long-held, toxic notions of homosexuality.

As expected, Charamsa has been relieved of his duties, but the unshakable fortress that once surrounded the Church’s view of sexuality and marriage is crumbling and, as Donnelly and Cardinal Burke suspect, Pope Francis is at the heart of it — making a mess.

The next three weeks will continue to reveal the major fault lines between bishops on divorce and remarriage, same sex relationships and contraception, but it will also reveal the aspirations of Pope Francis and his strategy for making the Church more pastoral, more humble, more accepting — a field hospital for all – including those in the hierarchy who may not recognize their own need for such a Church.

A Modified Synod Process, “Dangerous” Experiments and a Francis Drafting Team

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, recently laid out the new format for the synod process. Instead of days, even weeks of large group presentations and discussions, the synod will be structured thematically with small language groups (Circuli Minores) meeting each week to delve deep into that week’s topics.

According to C. Baldisseri, Synod “Fathers requested the enhancement of the work in the Circuli Minores, where there is more active participation in the discussion, more direct and immediate connection between the Fathers in their own language, and in which the auditors and fraternal delegates can intervene.”

A move in the right direction, this “dangerous” experiment will give auditors and experts (with 30 women) more opportunity to shape the final synod document. Since their interventions and observations will be a matter of public record, it will be useful to see what weight they carry as the final document is developed.

The language groups will be expanded from last year to include German speakers, as well as English, French, Spanish and Italian. The fact that the Germans have been on record with some progressive ideas for reforming pastoral practices makes this an interesting development.

Finally, the makeup of the drafting committee is remarkable and includes a majority of clerics friendly to Francis’s reforms.

While Cardinal Peter Erdo, the Synod’s Relator General, recently declared that nothing will change in terms of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and Bishop Mathieu Madega Lebouakehan signed an open appeal asking Pope Francis to avoid watering down Church teaching on sexuality, many others on the drafting committee have demonstrated pastoral, even progressive, leadership.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisserri was appointed by Pope Francis to structure a more robust Synod of Bishops and to shape the new processes intended to facilitate greater dialogue.

Archbishop Bruno Forte’s pastoral leanings were called into question when he was famously accused by Cardinal Burke of singularly misconstruing the discussions of the bishops in the surprisingly open mid-term report. Despite conservatives calling foul, he has retained his role on the drafting committee.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias is a moderate who has spoken out against discrimination against LGBT people, called out priests who condemn homosexuals, and called for a Church that recognizes and value and dignity of gay people.

While Cardinal John Dew’s pastoral voice seemed to be drowned out by Cardinal Burke in their English language group last year, he has long been on record for his pastoral views towards Catholics who have been excluded and continues to seek a Church that invites all Catholics to the table.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is a fan of Pope Francis and certainly represents a moderate U.S. voice.

Archbishop Victor Manual Fernández is well known as one of Pope Francis’ most trusted theological advisors who helped write Evangelii Gaudium.

Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, SJ has been compared to his progressive predecessor, Fr. Pedro Arrupe.

Bishop Marcello Semeraro was appointed secretary to the G-9, announced the creation of two new congregations at the last Consistory, and according to conservative Catholic bloggers, opposes the Society of St. Pius X and has used a controversial, “Machiavellian” means of discouraging Catholics from attending services saying they incur excommunication.

Since this committee has been charged to guard against minority takeovers, it will be useful to see how they weave together the chaotic and conflicting opinions that are sure to emerge over the course of these three weeks.   

What to Expect Tomorrow
As the first session opens tomorrow:

  1. The President Delegate will greet Pope Francis
  2. Pope Francis will give an opening greeting
  3. The Secretary General and Relator will give their reports
  4. The Relator will set out the three themes for the three weeks
  5. A married couple will give their testimony
  6. Bishops will make interventions
  7. Small group sessions will ensueAltogether, over 315 people will attend the 2015 Synod in some capacity. Thirty women will participate as auditors or experts, but will not vote, a strange and deeply troubling aspect of this synod process.  In all, 270 Synod participants coming from five continents will vote on a final document.  Europe will still dominate with 54 from Africa, 64 from America, 36 from Asia, 107 from Europe and 9 from Oceania.As I witness the synod proceedings here in Rome, I am ever aware of the strange reality I am watching – a synod on the family that is largely determined by male celibate clerics. For the first time, a book of essays by Catholic women called “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table” will be distributed to the synod participants thanks to the skill and work of Tina Beattie and a whole bunch of other women.  And the 30 women who will be part of the small language groups throughout have a greater chance than ever of making an impact with the new processes put in place this year. Still, I am ever mindful of how broken this model of a Church is.  In an institution where women are not included in real decision making roles, the Church is still wheezing, “breathing with only one lung” as it launches the final phase of this synod on the family.
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