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Don’t be fooled – this was an extraordinary synod

2014 October 24
by Paul Vallely

The Church of Rome may think in centuries, as the ancient trope has it.  But the attention span of the media is notoriously short, and seems to get shorter. The faster that technology gets the news out, the worse journalists’ historical memory appears to become.

I was in Rome last week during the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I was not there as a journalist but to research a book. I had chosen that week because I thought the Synod would mean that most of the cardinals, bishops and curial officials to whom I wanted to speak would be in Rome then. But the timing also allowed me to observe the journalistic community at work on a story without being caught up in deadline perspectives myself.

The end of the Synod was met with headlines along the lines of “Pope Francis snubbed over moves to introduce friendlier approach to gays and remarried Catholics”. Liberal hopes dashed, tweeted the twitterers.

But what determined this conclusion was their own foreshortened news dynamic. The verdict omitted any appreciation of what an innovative event they had just sat through.

This synod was extraordinary in many ways.  First, its agenda was based upon a questionnaire sent, unprecedentedly by a pontiff, around the world to discover the views of ordinary Roman Catholics on the teachings of their church on a range of controversial issues like pre-marital sex, contraception, divorce, remarriage and same-sex relationships. Previous popes did not want to know what the people in the pew thought – indeed when Cardinal Hume took the views of the National Pastoral Congress to Rome in 1980 Pope John Paul was utterly dismissive.

Next, Pope Francis angled the agenda by inviting Cardinal Walter Kasper to address cardinals on Communion for the Remarried, knowing that he would strongly advocate lifting Rome’s ban.

Then, at the opening of the Synod, the Pope made it clear that he wanted a strong and vigorous debate. People should listen with humility but speak with clarity and boldness, parrhesia was the Greek word he used. Nothing should be left unsaid for fear that the Pope would not like it.

The contrast with the last two papacies – in which debate was restricted and theologians silenced – was striking.  In previous synods Vatican officials went round privately telling synod fathers not to mention certain subjects and upbraiding those who demurred.

Pope Francis certainly got the genuine debate he wanted. When an interim report on the discussion was produced halfway through – giving ground-breaking succour to gays and divorcees – it was met by strong dissent from a minority who felt their views were unrepresented and a final vote declined to endorse it in its entirety, prompting the Hopes Dashed headlines.

But the key votes got majority approval, and the section welcoming gays was within two votes of a two-thirds majority. A year of intense debate will follow, on not just the final document but all the process papers of the fortnight, before an even larger Synod next October. Huge change is afoot. Don’t let a few short-sighted headlines convince you otherwise.


Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis – Untying the Knots


from The Church Times

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