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Don’t be fooled: this was a big thing

24 October 2014

The Vatican gathering on the family was momentous, says Paul Vallely

THE Church of Rome may well think in centuries, as the ancient trope has it. But the attention span of the media is notoriously short, and seems to get shorter. The faster that technology gets the news out, the less journalists appear to be able to remember.

I was in Rome last week during the extraordinary synod on the family. I was not there as a journalist, but to research a book. I had chosen that week because I thought the synod would mean that most of the cardinals, bishops, and curial officials to whom I wanted to speak would be in Rome.

But the timing also allowed me to observe the journalistic community at work on a story, without being caught up in deadline pressures myself.

The end of the synod was met with headlines along the lines of "Pope Francis snubbed over moves to introduce friendlier approach to gays and remarried Catholics". "Liberal hopes dashed", tweeted the twitterers.

But what determined this conclusion was their own foreshortened news dynamic. The verdict omitted any appreciation of what an innovative event they had just sat through.

This synod was extraordinary in many ways. First, its agenda was based upon a questionnaire sent around the world - unprecedentedly by a pontiff - to discover the views of ordinary Roman Catholics about the teachings of their Church on a range of issues such as pre-marital sex, contraception, divorce, marriage after divorce, and same-sex relationships.

Earlier popes did not want to know what the people in the pew thought. Indeed, when Cardinal Hume took the views of the National Pastoral Congress to Rome in 1980, Pope John Paul II was utterly dismissive.

Next, Pope Francis angled the agenda by inviting Cardinal Walter Kasper to address cardinals on communion for those married after divorce, knowing that he would strongly advocate lifting the ban. Then, at the opening, the Pope made it clear that he wanted a strong and vigorous debate. People should listen with humility, but speak with clarity and boldness: parrhesia was the Greek word he used. Nothing should be left unsaid for fear that the Pope would not like it.

The contrast with the past two papacies, in which debate was restricted and theologians were silenced, was striking. In previous synods, Vatican officials went round privately telling cardinals and bishops not to mention certain subjects, and upbraiding those who demurred.

Pope Francis certainly got the genuine debate he wanted. When an interim report on the discussion was produced halfway through - giving ground-breaking succour to gays and divorcees - it was met by strong dissent from a minority who felt their views were unrepresented, and a final vote declined to endorse it in its entirety, prompting the "Hopes dashed" headlines.

But the key votes got majority approval, and the section welcoming gays was within two votes of a two-thirds majority. A year of intense debate will follow on not just the final document, but all the process papers of the fortnight, before an even larger synod next October.

Huge change is afoot. Don't let a few short-sighted headlines convince you otherwise.

Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: Untying the knots.

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