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
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
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
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
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
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