Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Thanks to a combination of irresponsible reporting and the vague language contained in the first document released by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, the Vatican was forced to issue a statement yesterday reminding the public that this is just a “working document” and reflects no doctrinal changes in Church teaching.
According to the National Catholic Register (NCR), the Synod Fathers are so distressed over the rampant public misunderstandings about the work of the Synod thus far – contained in the Relatio post disceptationem – the General Secretariat of the Synod was forced to issue a clarifying statement.
” . . . (I)n response to reactions and discussions following the publication of the, and the fact that often a value has been attributed to the document that does not correspond to its nature,” the statement reads.
It goes on to once again reiterate that the Relatio is “a working document, which summarizes the interventions and debate of the first week, and is now being offered for discussion by the members of the Synod gathered in the Small Groups, in accordance with the Regulations of the Synod.”
The work of the Small Groups will then be presented to the Assembly in the General Congregation next Thursday morning.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa spoke at a press conference yesterday and said media reaction to the Relatio – which some described as a “stunning” change in the Church’s approach to homosexuality and other issues relating to the family – caused “upset among the Synod fathers”, adding that “we’re now working from a position that’s virtually irredeemable.”
“The message has gone out that this is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic Church is saying, and it’s not what we’re saying at all,” Cardinal Napier said. “No matter how we try correcting that, and this is my experience with the media, once it’s out there in the public, there’s no way of retrieving it.”
He stressed that the sensational headlines in the press do not reflect the positions the Synod has taken but this is the “message that has gone out; it’s not the true message . . .”
From now on, it’s “as if we’re doing damage control,” he said, which is not what the Synod Fathers intended. “We’re here to lay foundations for the next stage of the synod, when we’re going to ask the families and help the families into their mission of transmitting the Gospel [in a way] that’s going to be effective.”
Several Synod participants, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, expressed surprise about the publication of the Relatio, a view shared by Cardinal Napier.
“Just like you, I was surprised that it was published,” he told reporters. “You people got the document before we got it, so we couldn’t have possibly agreed on it.”
However, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at the same press conference that the release of an interim report during a synod is standard procedure, but they don’t usually attract as much attention as this one did.
“It’s the nature of the subject matter that has provoked this attention,” he said. “It’s something all of us with anything to do with communications could have foreseen.”
Of course a press that is hungry to malign, divide, and misrepresent the Church and its faithful will be quick to seize on the imperfect wording of a working document full of hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, divorced and remarried, cohabitation, etc.
“Catholic bishops go liberal on sex” the Daily Mail trumpeted. “Summit on ‘family life’ says unmarried couples living together can be ‘positive’, gays and divorcees must be welcomed and contraception ‘respected'”
Reuters employed the customary tactic of publishing the distorted headline “Vatican document challenges Church to change attitude to gays” and then buried facts that contradicted the headline later in the article. “While the text did not signal any change in the Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts or gay marriage,” the article admits in the fourth paragraph, “it used less judgmental and more compassionate language than that seen in Vatican statements prior to the 2013 election of Pope Francis.”
Perhaps part of the problem is that the secular world too often mistakes mercy for a free pass, even though this is not the kind of mercy Jesus showed while on earth. He welcomed sinners with open arms, seeing the good in them, the potential, the hope for conversion. But, like when He intervened to save the life of the woman caught in adultery, He didn’t say, “oh that’s okay – you can sleep with married men.” He distinctly said, “Go and sin no more.”
When He hung dying on the cross for the very sinners who nailed Him to the beam, He didn’t ask the Father to “Forgive them because what they did isn’t all that bad”. He said, “Because they know not what they do.” Thus, he showed mercy by forgiving their wrongdoing, not by making their wrongdoing right.
This is what Pope Francis means when he asked the Synod Fathers to come up with a more merciful approach to those in irregular marriages, same-sex or cohabiting unions; but how can we expect the unchurched or poorly catechized to understand this much more profound concept of mercy unless it is carefully and thoughtfully taught?
Until we learn how to do this, as Cardinal Napier so aptly said, the Synod Fathers will be forced to operate in “damage control” mode while all those sensationally inaccurate headlines continue to misrepresent the Church and her timeless teachings.
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