Blog Post

Synod Diary: Three issues, The Letter, and reaction from Cardinal Dolan

Originally posted in The Catholic World Report

Pope Francis leads the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 6. (CNS photo/Ettore Ferrari, EPA) 
Editor's note: Veteran journalist and writer Mary Jo Anderson arrived at the Synod this past Sunday and will covering the gathering of bishops for CWR for the next two weeks, just as she did at last year's Extraordinary Synod. Here is her first report. -------------

At the opening of the second week of the three week Ordinary Synod on the Family the predominant news isn't about the family. Rain is forecast in Rome for the remainder of the week and within the Synod, too, there appears to be a gathering thunderhead in what ABC News has labeled "Pope Francis' divisive meeting on the family." Yet "The Family" is swept aside as concerns mount among Synod participants, particularly about three issues:

1) The changed process for Synod deliberations

2) Dissatisfaction with the working document, Instumentum Laboris

3) Growing suspicion that the a Synod is being manipulated in some way in order to produce a predetermined outcome

The first, a changed Synodal process, has brought enough pressure to delay any substantive work on the plight of the modern family. At the beginning of the first week, prominent prelates expressed doubt about the innovations in the process. The official explanation is that the adapted process is meant to foster greater openness and debate. Others counter that the "openness" is meant to open space to reintroduce the hot button issues of Communion for the divorced and remarried and "welcome" for homosexuals--both issues that were voted down by last year's preparatory Synod. Bishops from Asia and elsewhere have identified those as "euro-centric" concerns that have blocked authentic discussions on the natural family and the family as the domestic Church. Another non-open openness effect is that no mid-term report will be issued, and possibly no final report, or "relatio". This actually hides the work of the Synod from the 300+ Synod participants, who now will have no means to check the collated results of smaller working groups against the final outcome.

The second cause for anxiety is the flawed Intrumentum Laboris, or working document. This document is the outline, so to speak, of how the Synod will progress through the three weeks. When the participants broke into language-based working groups, some expressed misgivings about the negative tone of the document, noting that the positive beauty of the family is missing.  Others, including Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphiaoffered a formal intervention that addressed the proper use of language. He warned that the phrase "unity in diversity" acknowledged the diverse cultures in the embrace of the Church but reminded his brethren that the greatest urgency is to maintain unity,"our greatest danger is fragmentation."

The third cause of intense concern, manipulation of the Synod, is not a media misinterpretation of the usual fraternal wrangle found whenever hundreds of bishop gather. Fr.Federico Lombardi, The Vatican Press spokesman, told journalists last weekthat Pope Francis had warned the bishops and cardinals to avoid  “the hermeneutic of conspiracy”.

However, this week began with an electrifying "secret letter" to Pope Francis apparently signed by thirteen cardinals from various continents. The letter, in English, warned of grave divisions based on the two concerns I outlined above: the changed Synodal process and a flawed working document. A veteran Italian journalist obtained a draft of the letter and its signatories. When the letter was published, first three then four of the named cardinals denied that they had signed the letter. George Cardinal Pell of Australia, who serves as the Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, issued press release that clarified—somewhat—that a signed letter existed, but not the one that had been published, a statement backed up by Cardinal Wilfred Napier.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was listed on the letter, was interviewed this morning on SiriusXM Radio. He said that he was "not embarrassed" by the topic of the letter, saying it came out of concerns that he and Cardinal Pell shared about three issues: the working document ("we were worried that it was the only document we were going to talk about at the Synod"), the particular process being employed at the Synod, and concern over having a say about who would draft the final document of the Synod. He emphasized that the letter was sent before the Synod began and added that he "didn't think [the letter] was controversial at all."

Despite the confusion, everyone understands that what the letter specifically contains and who finally did sign it is less crucial than the truth that a letter with critical observations about the Synod was written and signed by a number of cardinals. The "what's private ought to stay private"  sentiment of Cardinal Pell underscores the the rumbling storm that the second week of the Synod must weather.

Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on the Women of Grace® television program on EWTN. . She was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council (NAC), 2010-2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011.  Mrs. Anderson is co-author with Robin Bernhoft of Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions, published in 2005 by Catholic Answers.

Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.