A ploy that will boomerang
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
As the smoke clears, somewhat, over the “Letter of the 13” cardinals to Pope Francis regarding the Synod of Bishops, a couple of things stand out.
First is that some synod participants – a small minority, it appears – don’t trust the synodal process as modified by Pope Francis to be fair or collegial. They chose to raise the issue in a private letter rather than on the floor of the synod; that set a political dynamic in motion, one that was easily exploited.
Second, despite Pope Francis’ reform efforts at the Vatican, the culture of leaks, manipulation and power struggles is still very much alive in Rome. Indeed, at times this week the clock seemed to have turned back to the final days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, when petty scandals and internal conflicts became such an embarrassment to the church.
We still don’t know exactly what the letter said, but by most accounts it included objections to the process by which the synod’s conclusions will be expressed, specifically the role of a 10-member writing commission appointed by the pope. The suggestion that Francis cannot be trusted to select an unbiased editorial group and to guide the synod to an honest conclusion is rather astonishing.
The letter also warned that a synod that was intended to reinforce the church’s teachings on the dignity of marriage and family could end up being dominated by the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Maybe Pope Francis does not believe that raising these issues is out of line. After all, he has said repeatedly that he wants to hear directly from those who disagree with him. And the pope, in fact, appeared to respond to the letter-writers in two ways: by having the synod’s secretary-general explain the procedural details more fully, and by saying himself that the synod would not change church doctrine on marriage, and was far from a single-issue discussion on divorced Catholics.
The pope also pointedly cautioned against what he called a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” by which I can only suppose he meant the eagerness to embrace the rumors that this synod has been “rigged” from the start.
In effect, I think the pope neutralized these objections with his unexpected words to the synod, which came a day after the “Letter of the 13” was hand-delivered to him.
And that’s precisely when the move to “leak” the letter – or a version of it – was made, clearly an attempt to make it look like the pope was facing an internal revolt. The wheels began falling off this maneuver almost immediately, when several cardinals denied having signed the letter and others said the content was mistakenly reported.
Today, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said the leak was a “disruption” to the synod that was not intended by the signatories, and that a very positive atmosphere reigns at the synod.
My reading of all this is that the ploy has backfired. I suspect most synod participants are not amused at this rather obvious attempt to pre-emptively discredit the synod’s outcome.