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
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
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.