Lessons from the Synod debacle

Lessons from the Synod debacle

“How,” I’ve often wondered, “was the Second Vatican Council so artfully reinvented, that the very bishops who attended the Council implemented changes in its name which they had never envisaged?”

Books have been written answering that question, and I don’t think the answer is settled even now. But there’s another question — a related question — which I think is being definitively answered at this very moment.

“If the Council were to occur today could it be manipulated and reinterpreted as it was in the 60s?”

I’ve suspected not. In the first place, the media is much more democratic these days. It was possible, at the time of the Council, to mould and control a media image. But the abundance of independent media voices — especially online — now makes that impossible. Just ask any government, anywhere. (North Korea excepted.)

In the second place, within the Church unquestioning obedience is a distant memory. At the time of the Council, if the local bishop made a decision, priests would faithfully communicate and execute that decision, and the vast majority of lay faithful complied. That doesn’t happen anymore. Not in the West, anyway.

The present Synod of Bishops, which has become something of a debacle, proves these points. I think there was an attempt to manipulate the synod, just as the Council was manipulated, but it hasn’t worked.

Proceedings of the present synod are closed to the media: an unprecedented innovation which enables the General Secretariat to control information flow. Synod Fathers are unable to publicise the speeches they table, but they’re free to speak to journalists outside session. So they have — and many have openly criticised the control of information.

Following convention, Synod Fathers elected representatives to draft the synod’s final report. In another unprecedented innovation — which as pope he is entitled to do — Francis appointed six of his own nominees to the task. But the official news bureau of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference underlines the political significance of this intervention:

The fact is worrying those who want to maintain the current discipline of the Church regarding these issues, considering that all the persons named by the Pope are of a liberal tendency, unlike Erdö.

In yet another unprecedented innovation, the General Secretariat has published an interim report. And this is where the attempts at manipulation have really unravelled. The report is, to say the least, problematic — both in its content, and in the fact that it doesn’t represent the synod. Archbishop Gądecki, who heads the Polish Bishops’ Conference, has called it unacceptable. Cardinal Müller, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has called it “undignified and shameful.”

But the most damning evidence of attempted manipulation? During the press conference which followed the report’s release — a press conference which left at least one Catholic journalist unedified — Cardinal Erdö, who is charged with officially speaking for the Synod Fathers, handballed a controversial question to his assistant, effectively disowning a document bearing his signature:

The Hungarian cardinal […] gave the floor to Mgr. Forte because, he said, “he who wrote the text must know what it is talking about.”

I have only quoted the misgivings and criticisms of Synod Fathers. A cursory glance at the Catholic blogosphere will reveal even greater disquiet among disinterested observers. Much of the online commentary is overblown and hysterical because the Internet is a hot house of wild opinion and speculation. But even so, the online response demonstrates that resistance to the attempted manipulation is widespread and savvy — a phenomenon which wasn’t present 50 years ago. If the Internet had existed during the Second Vatican Council, I think the implementation of that Council would have been very different.

Interpreting the Council

Interpreting the Council

Father Stefano de Fiores SSM died last Saturday. He was 79.

A Google search uncovers only one book of his translated into English. Jesus Living in Mary is a step-by-step handbook on the Marian spirituality espoused by St Louis de Montfort. (It is not a book I have read, but that will be quickly remedied, since I’ve ordered a copy online.)

Fiores is much better known in continental Europe. He was perhaps the greatest Mariologist of the twentieth century, or at least its second half. He taught at the Gregorian, the Lateran and the Marianum, and published more than thirty books on Mary, including a definitive three-volume dictionary of Mariology.

A friend who is better acquainted with his Italian works credits him for providing a theological basis to popular devotion:

Unlike some post Vatican II theologians who would view popular piety as excessive, outdated or superstitious, Fr Stefano sought to develop, purify and build upon Marian piety and devotion in order to present Mary the mother of Jesus as an example for Christians in the contemporary age.

This is a view which was probably shared by Fiores himself. In a 2006 interview with Zenit, he presented his three-volume dictionary as a reponse to what he called “a Mariological crisis.” It reached its zenith in the 1970s, when Fiores received advice from various quarters to embrace the times and abandon Mariology. The interview is in Italian, but my aforementioned friend has kindly furnished a rough translation:

It was at that point that I intensified my study of the Mother of Jesus, working to uncover her presence in popular piety, the liturgy and contemporary theology . . . above all I commented on chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council. I found myself favoured when Paul VI’s Marialis Cultus (1974) and John Paul II’s Redemptoris Mater (1987) relaunched Mary in the Church and the world.

The dictionary would like to represent the mature fruit of a serious Italian Mariology, which would undo the trivialised discussion about Mary and extract the Marian cult from devotionalism or from vulgar Christianity, where it has been banished by the intelligentsia of liberal theology.

These are the sorts of developments which cause my generation to view “the Spirit of Vatican II” with suspicion, and even cynicism. There is a lot of merit in the case that the Council was greater than the documents it produced. But I do wonder at those critics who accuse successive popes of systematically betraying the Council.

The fortunes of the cult of Mary make a good example. Was marginalisaton of the cult of Mary — and, indeed, the discipline of Mariology — a legitimate manifestation of the Spirit of the Council? Were the efforts by Paul and John Paul to revive Marian devotion a betrayal of that Spirit? Or was that short-lived marginalisation an aberration, an illegitimate development which was rightly corrected by two popes?

I don’t pose these questions merely to be provocative. I ask them in good faith. Fifty years after the Council was called, and not having been alive when the Council was in session, I can see no other way to apply its teachings, except by interpreting its texts using the hermeneutic of continuity which has always informed the development of Catholic doctrine.