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  • John Thavis

Cutback of information makes this synod harder to read

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Getting a read on any Synod of Bishops is not easy, at least from the outside. This synod is proving especially difficult for reporters because of the lack of raw material provided to the media.

Granted, it’s only Day 3 of the synod, which is discussing marriage and family issues. But already, more than 100 short speeches have been given on the synod floor. No texts or summaries have been published, unlike previous years, except for the opening working document and a few talks delivered by lay couples who are attending as auditors.

Moreover, the Vatican press briefings, while checklisting some of the themes raised by bishops, are carefully avoiding detailed accounts of the interventions and the reactions in the hall. No names are named – we are not being told who said what.

The impression of the synod so far is unclear and fragmented, with opinions and points of emphasis all over the map. We are told one moment of a call for “empathy and tenderness” in presenting church teachings, and then of the need for “severe” preparation for married couples.

We are told the synod appreciates the input of Catholics in surveys conducted ahead of the assembly, and then warned that these surveys must not be seen as public opinion polls.

We are told the church must dispense the “medicine of mercy” to couples and families, but that it must continue to proclaim firmly the truths about marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman.

We are told that the high rates of unmarried couples who live together represent a crisis for the church, and that cohabitation also can reflect positive values and be a pastoral opportunity and a seed to be nurtured.

Again, it’s early in the synod, and I’m hoping the synod briefers will find a way to describe how and if consensus is building on specific issues.

There are a few themes that seem to be emerging as important ones:

— Recognizing the “law of graduality,” which acknowledges that the Christian path toward holiness develops in steps and stages, and that immediate acceptance of church teachings (like the rejection of birth control) may be an unrealistic expectation.

— The church’s language on marriage and family issues should be welcoming and invitational, not absolute and off-putting.

— The annulment process needs to be simplified. There’s a strong case being made that many modern marriages may be invalid because couples lack the proper level of faith and understanding of the sacrament.

— Despite social changes, the nuclear family is not outdated and remains the ideal for societies around the world. In this sense, the synod seems reluctant to entertain the notion that the changing configuration of families may bring positive values and new opportunities.

— That no change in doctrine will be considered at this synod. We’ve already heard this proclaimed several times, though I’m not sure what it means. Doctrine develops in the church, just as people’s understanding of Scripture and revelation develop. I expect this point will be taken up more fully on the synod floor – but it’s too bad we on the outside may not hear much about it.

By giving journalists only a drip of information, the Vatican is clearly trying to give bishops the freedom to talk frankly and openly. It is also trying not to feed the media’s tendency to proclaim winners and losers, as if this were a legislative process with up and down votes.

This synod will unfold in two phases, with a second session in October 2015. I think Pope Francis wants to bring about important changes – yes, including new pastoral policies for divorced and remarried Catholics – and he’ll need that time for new ideas to take root and find acceptance. In that regard, making the synod’s deliberations more confidential may make tactical sense.

But it also gives the impression that the church is still afraid to face these questions openly – and air internal differences publicly. At a synod on issues that directly affect the lives of millions of families, that’s hard to understand.

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