The release of the “explosive” interim report during last year’s synod provoked allegations of a rigged process—but that was just the beginning. An exclusive excerpt from a new investigation into what went on at the headline-making meeting of bishops.
THE CATHOLIC WORLD REPORT
September 02, 2015
[Editor’s note: The III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family that took place in October 2014 was controversial not only for the subject matter it discussed, but also for the way it was run. To find out what really went on before, during, and after that heated fortnight, renowned reporter and analyst Edward Pentin spent months speaking to many of those who were there and piecing together what happened behind the closed doors of the Vatican’s Synod Hall. His findings have been published in a new book, The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation of Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, available now as an e-book from Ignatius Press. In this exclusive excerpt, Pentin examines one of the most controversial aspects of last year’s synod: the notorious Relatio post disceptationem, or interim report, released half-way through the synod discussions.]
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The Interim Report
What had provoked many to allege rigging of the meeting, both inside and outside the synod hall, was the publication on October 13 of the Relatio post disceptationem, or interim report, on the first week of the synod’s discussions.
Many synod fathers were angry that the Relatio did not represent the majority view of the synod’s participants or the discussion that had occurred during the week and was issued without them seeing it.
George Cardinal Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, was the first to protest in a debate in the aula on the day of the Relatio’s release, followed by a number of heated interventions. Concerned that the report would go out without anyone remarking on it, he pointed out what was good about the report, but he also noted some serious deficiencies in the text. The Australian cardinal had to persist in his protest in the face of the synod managers who would have liked him to be quiet, sources who were present said.
In a television interview on October 16 with Catholic News Service, Cardinal Pell said the document was “tendentious, skewed, it didn’t represent accurately the feelings of the synod fathers.” He said “three-quarters” of those who discussed it afterward “had some problems with the document”. He added that “a major absence” in the document was scriptural teaching and “a treatment of the Church tradition”.
“It was as though there was an idealized vision of every imperfect situation”, Cardinal Pell said. “One father said to me…that he wouldn’t want his young adult children to read it because they’d be confused, and that was said in some of the working groups.”
The interim report “created an impression that the teaching of the Church has been merciless so far, as if the teaching of mercy were beginning only now”, said Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan.
At issue were three controversial paragraphs the contents of which had been barely, or not at all, discussed by the synod fathers. One of these paragraphs referred to proposals, supposedly made by some of the synod participants, for readmission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Holy Communion, and two other paragraphs dealt with the pastoral care of homosexuals and cohabiting couples.
The most contentious paragraphs were under the heading “Welcoming homosexuals”. The section started off by saying homosexuals “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community”, adding: “Are our communities capable of providing (a welcoming home), accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
It continued: “Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”
Critics pointed out that there was no reference to Catholic doctrine that sexual relations between people of the same sex are “intrinsically disordered”, that the acts are gravely sinful (or sinful at all), or that homosexual orientation was “objectively disordered”.
In an interview on October 17, Cardinal Burke described the interim report as a “gravely flawed document that does not express adequately the teaching and discipline of the Church and, in some aspects, propagates doctrinal error and a false pastoral approach”.
Trying to explain how the document came to be, Cardinal Erdö told Vatican Radio that the sixteen officials who drafted the report struggled to synthesize the positions of thirty to forty bishops on any given topic and rushed to finish it on time. He acknowledged that there may have been instances when the report said “many” bishops had proposed a certain position when only “some” had, the Associated Press reported.
Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod’s special secretary, was widely considered to have been the main author of the document. He had been known for his “progressive” positions and for earnestly promoting changes in pastoral practice toward people in “irregular” unions, while claiming these changes are true to Catholic doctrine.
The Italian theologian, together with all the members of the drafting committee, drew on the lengthy written speeches of each synod father submitted prior to the meeting. Apparently, certain points from these written speeches found their way into the draft report, even if the bishops had not mentioned them during the four minutes allotted to each speaker. Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said he recalled only one speech out of about 265 that discussed homosexuals during the debate.
Defenders of the report, therefore, say it is not surprising that much did not seem familiar in the interim report because the written submissions were not made public or distributed to the bishops themselves. The oral presentations only reflected a summary or particular point that a bishop wanted to make. As none of the verbal interventions was transcribed, it would also have been difficult to work on summarizing every synod father’s submitted intervention and then adjust it as the synod went on according to what the synod father said in the synod hall. Also, as the interim document, it had to be produced quickly so it could form the basis of discussions for the second week.
Father Stephen Fawcett, an assistant at the synod responsible for keeping an official diary of the entire proceedings, said that “in fairness to them [those who drafted the report], it was a huge task because you had the Lineamenta [guidelines for the synod] that came out beforehand and was seventy-five pages long. Then you had 182 synod fathers making 189 inputs. There were also five hours of free debate, and in forty-eight hours they had to summarize accurately all of that into fourteen pages in five languages. That’s a hard task.”
But he added: “On the other side, I don’t think anyone could say it was all a summary of the discussions. It just was not.”
The inclusion of the homosexual issue into the interim document seemed to upset Cardinal Erdö, who, as general relator, was responsible for the document’s contents. This, too, made many critics suspect that some kind of manipulation had taken place. Asked about the relevant paragraph during an October 13 press briefing on the report, he handed the floor to Forte, saying: “He who wrote the text must know what it is talking about.”
Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield wrote that there was “no real way to know which bishop or bishops had proposed such ground-breaking language or whether it was more a reflection of Forte’s view”. As time went on, however, it was revealed that during the first week at most only three synod fathers referred to the same-sex issue. According to one source who was present in the synod hall, it “wasn’t an issue”, but was “made into an issue by the way the report was handled by the synod managers.” One synod participant, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Church is normally “very accurate” in the words she chooses, and “we never use that language.” Those paragraphs, he said, “didn’t even come close to coming up, so it’s not realistic to think that phrase was accidentally introduced.” He said the passages “bore no relation” to the Lineamenta or the discussions but “came out of the blue.”
Speaking to reporters the day after the report was made public, Wilfrid Cardinal Napier, the archbishop of Durban, said the document was not what they were saying at all, adding: “Just like you, I was surprised that it was published.” He said the media saw the document “before we got it, so we couldn’t have possibly agreed on it.”
One eyewitness at the synod on the morning of the release of the interim Relatio recalled a synod father commenting, after hearing the document read out in the synod hall, that he would be “nervous about this document if it was going to go to the press”.
“Is it?” he asked the synod managers. “Err, it already has”, one of them replied, according to the eyewitness, adding: “We sent it to the press before we read it to you.”
The six-thousand-word Relatio was also translated into several languages just forty-eight hours after it was published. For many critics, this amounts to further evidence that at least some of it had been written before the first week of discussions had ended or possibly even before the synod had even started.
Cardinal Napier, one of the fifteen members of the permanent council of the synod, noted how the interim report was received by the media, which portrayed the Church as making a “stunning” and “revolutionary” step toward accepting homosexual activity as morally legitimate. Once such media perceptions are “out there”, he observed, “there’s no way of retrieving them.”
For critics, it is clear that anyone with foreknowledge of the Relatio could have predicted the media’s response. Even Father Lombardi admitted as much at a press conference on October 15, telling reporters it was “something all of us with anything to do with communications could have foreseen.” So it seems reasonable to conclude that whoever was behind the release of the document to the media most likely knew the impact it would have and effectively sent it over the heads of the synod fathers in addition, it seemed at the time, to that of the pope.
Behind the scenes, synod officials came under fire from synod participants for the way the interim report was communicated, with some arguing that the incident highlighted the need for a decisive synod communications strategy. “No interim report has ever generated news—ever”, observed Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. “They should have anticipated it.”
Ivereigh, who is also co-founder of Catholic Voices, a group aimed at improving the Church’s representation in the media, believes it highly unlikely that the report was part of a wider strategy to influence public opinion in order to put pressure on the Church to change, as that would not be consistent with the personality of Francis.
“If some people in the synod were trying to do that, or thought that is what really would happen, they really don’t get Francis and they don’t understand the Church.” Francis, he said, “would abhor any attempt to put pressure on the synod from the outside, to an extent that I think would surprise people.” Ivereigh, a former deputy editor of The Tablet, said the pope “hates the idea of lobby groups, self-interested groups, ideological groups.”
At the time of the publication of the interim report, the Vatican would not be explicit about whether the pope had seen it prior to publication. When I asked Father Lombardi at a press conference on October 15 if Pope Francis had read it before it was published, the Vatican spokesman said he was tired of simply having to reiterate that it was standard procedure to send out the report, implying that the pope perhaps okayed it without reading it. He was unable to say definitively if he had read it.
This seemed probable as such documents are usually published during a synod, but normally they are in Latin, never make news, and few therefore pay much attention to them. One theory at the time was that the pope, trusting the document would be acceptable and routine, simply left it to the synod of bishops to deal with as they felt appropriate.
Eventually, nearly four months after the synod, Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, secretary general of the synod of bishops, acknowledged that the pope had “seen and approved” the document. “This point is important not only because of his authority, but also it puts the Secretary General at ease”, Baldisseri said in an interview with Aleteia in January 2015.
Reflecting on the events of that week, Cardinal Napier told me he knew there was something wrong as soon as he heard the report being read. “What’s this? Everything’s been put in such a positive light”, he recalled. “I didn’t know then that the media already had received it before us! Indeed, it had gone onto the wavebands even before we got to discussing it.”
“It was so unfair, just unbelievable”, said Fawcett. “It just didn’t seem like the synod I was at, what I was reading [in the press].” But he said the way the press reported was not completely surprising when he later saw what they had been fed by the synod releases, so he did not think it was entirely the fault of the press. “I don’t actually think the press was completely to blame at all, but I just couldn’t relate what was being reported to the synod I had attended.”
Cardinal Napier remembered listening to the BBC in the morning and hearing the reporters “telling us how the Catholic Church was changing its policy on gay unions on this, that, and the other regard. We hadn’t even discussed this thing, where is this coming from? When the document was read to us, we learned where it was coming from.” By that, the cardinal meant the General Secretariat of the synod.
Asked how the Relatio was received by the synod fathers in general, Cardinal Napier said: “Oh, there was an explosion. And it got worse.”
They received the document on Monday morning of the second week of the synod, and so they had not had a chance to read it before they went into small working groups. During the coffee break, some members of Napier’s discussion group came across reports on the Relatio in the press, and Napier advised his group to take a closer look at these at the end of the session.
He and other moderators and secretaries of the working groups were then summoned to a meeting with Cardinal Baldisseri in the aula. “That was a hot one”, he said. “That’s when I realized how angry people were. That’s when they started describing the reaction of their groups.”
Cardinal Napier remembers a synod father saying he had put his name to the document, but it was not what he had written. “Others asked: How then could this be stated as coming from the synod when the synod hasn’t even discussed it yet?”
Another synod participant added his voice of concern, saying, “there are things said there about the synod saying this, that, and the other, but nobody ever said them. So that’s when it became plain that there was some engineering going on”, the South African cardinal recalled.
George Weigel, biographer of Pope Saint John Paul II, wrote in a January article for First Things that the interim report “really put iron into the spines of many synod fathers”. The document, he said, was supposed to be a snapshot of the principal themes of the first week’s debates in the general synod assembly, which were to be further explored and refined in the language-based discussion groups during the synod’s second week. But Forte crafted it as a draft final synod document, highlighting issues that would be of greatest interest to an international media eagerly awaiting the Great Catholic Cave-In to the sexual revolution—and found himself, and the interim report, essentially disowned by Cardinal Péter Erdö, the synod’s relator (or official summarizer), at the press conference at which the interim report was presented.
Veteran Vaticanista Sandro Magister said the “openness” at the synod to Holy Communion for the civilly divorced and remarried “and the startling change of paradigm on the issue of homosexuality” that found its way into the interim report “would not have been possible without a series of skillfully calculated steps on the part of those who had and have control of the procedures”.
One source very close to the synod process said if the three controversial paragraphs had never appeared, the synod fathers would have “never talked about the doctrinal issues. It would never have been an issue”, he said. “That’s what really made them wake up to the fact that the doctrinal part was missing in the document.” He said he is expecting it to be a “lesson learned”. Archbishop Forte remains special secretary for the October 2015 synod, he noted, but he believes “the process is going to change.”
About the Author
Edward Pentin has reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for numerous publications, including Newsweek, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, and is Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register.