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Rome synod: happy, or divided?

24 October 2014

THE Roman Catholic synod was a story that got even better as the week rolled on. It is also an interesting example of how little even the very best journalists can understand of what is happening in fast-moving stories - not because we are particularly stupid or ill-informed, but because no one knows.

If some latter-day Cardinal de Retz ever publishes his diary of this synod, we will learn that the participants themselves did not know from Monday to Friday how it would turn out, or what they had done.

The story started the week as an undiluted triumph for the liberals. The interim report, or relatio, from the synod, had welcoming things to say about gay people, and - more importantly - about remarried couples. By midweek, the conservative backlash was in full swing, although you mostly had to go to blogs and newspapers in the United States to watch it.

John L. Allen, on the Boston Globe's Crux site, quoted "the Catholic intellectual Robert Royal", who "cited some unnamed people in the Vatican calling the Pope a 'Latin dictator', and even hoping that his health scares mean his reign won't go on too long". Allen added: "I can confirm the accuracy of that report, because I've heard the same things. On the other hand, there are also people inside the Vatican saying that this is the pope they've dreamed of serving their whole lives."

Allen also had a wonderful piece of invective from inside the debates: "At one point last week, a fellow prelate asked retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper to retract his proposal to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, arguing that instead of the 'medicine of mercy' it had spread 'sickness and disease'."

Then there was Damon Linker, writing on another American site, The Week, about the way in which Cardinal Burke is being demoted for shouting too loudly what remains the official hardline doctrine on gay people: "Francis would like to liberalize church doctrine on marriage, the family, and homosexuality, but he knows that he lacks the support and institutional power to do it.

"So he's decided on a course of stealth reform that involves sowing seeds of future doctrinal change by undermining the enforcement of doctrine today. The hope would be that, a generation or two from now, the gap between official doctrine and the behavior that's informally accepted in Catholic parishes across the world would grow so vast that a global grassroots movement in favor of liberalizing change would rise up at long last to sweep aside the old, musty, already-ignored rules."

The only thing wrong with this analysis, it seems to me, is the timescale. It will hardly take a generation for the rules to be ignored and swept away. Anyone who doubts this should take the time to reread Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors.

The conservative commentator Edward Pentin published an outraged piece in the National Catholic Register: "More and more there is talk in Rome that this synod is being engineered by groups intent on steering the Church in a heterodox direction, and increasingly evidence is coming to light that points to it.

"The first and most obvious example was the interim report published on Monday. It still remains unclear who exactly wrote it and how many eyes had seen it before it was made public, but the strong criticisms of it from such church leaders as Cardinals Raymond Burke and Gerhard Mueller are enough to point to a lamentable lack of scrutiny, with consequences for souls."

The thought that a synod of Roman Catholic bishops in Rome might be fixed in advance is, indeed, one to distress the sensitive soul. In fact, there hasn't been anything shocking in quite that way since Captain Renard made the dreadful discovery, in Rick's Bar in Casablanca, that gambling had taken place on the premises.

By Friday, it seemed that the backlash had subsided, and Austen Ivereigh assured his readers that: "In stark contrast to the headlines outside about division and chaos, the synod has drawn to a close today with its members saying they are happy with both process and results, and expressing confidence that its conclusions will be approved with an overwhelming majority this afternoon."

Then, on Sunday, Lizzie Davies reported in The Observer: "Pope Francis appeared on Saturday night to have lost out to powerful conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church after bishops scrapped language that had been hailed as a historic warming of attitudes towards gay people.

"In the final report of an extraordinary synod on the family which has exposed deep divides in the church hierarchy, there is no mention - as there had been in a draft version - of the 'gifts and qualities' gay people can offer. Nor is there any recognition of the 'precious support' same-sex partners can give each other."

This one will run and run.

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