Bishops’ Synod in Rome at Halfway Point: Keep Your Friends Close…

Bishops’ Synod in Rome at Halfway Point:   Keep your friends close and your enemies at stiletto-length


As the Synod of the Bishops comes to the mid-point of its three weeks of meetings in Rome focused on pastoral reform, there is growing opposition to the Pope’s agenda, some of it coming from cardinals Francis has relied upon in the running of the Church, and one American cardinal hand-picked by him to get around the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

Cardinal George Pell, the tough Aussie who needs all of his rugby-playing skill to bring to account the Vatican’s non-transparent financial institutions;

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of NY, considered to be a strong supporter of Francis; just ask the cardinal if in doubt.

If the Synod fails to implement the Pope’s modest reform proposals (Communion for divorced Catholics, a friendlier face to gays), or waters th proposals down to ridiculousness, the core of the Pope’s legacy will be pastoral style, not doctrinal substance.  On the subject of il ridicolo, Hungary’s Primate Cardinal Peter Erdo [no Hungarian umlaut, sorry] has rejected the suggestion that divorced Catholics living in sin could receive the Sacrament if they remain celibate!  A new canonical category: Friends without benefits.


With Talmudic-like scrutiny by the specialized corps of vaticanisti, extensive coverage in the Italian media and some pick-up in the U.S., the ongoing Bishop’s jamboree in Rome has reached the halfway mark, heading towards its scheduled close of October 25.

What do we know at halftime?

This is harder going for the Pope than anticipated.There are increasing signs of resistance to his reform agenda: Communion for divorced Catholics; and a more welcoming attitude (read less hostile) towards gays, but don’t even dream of seeing the LGBT acronym in the discussion documents.

And there is an increasing likelihood of an inconclusive outcome, something along the lines of a watered-down U.N. Security Council Resolution.

To those who say, what’s the point of following the deliberations of a clerical group of elderly, self-styled celibates, a few geo-religious reminders:

  1. The Roman Church by its own stats counts almost 1.3 billion adherents;
  2. Spectacular growth rates in sub-Sahara Africa, notwithstanding violent Islamist opposition – cfr. northern Nigeria;
  3. Dwindling flocks in Europe, but still a significant presence – almost 290 million faithful, but in demographic decline;
  4.  A Catholic buffer zone between Russia and Europe of about 50 million believers in the resident population of 57 million, running from the Baltic to the Adriatic:  Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia; and
  5. A Church in the U.S. in accelerating decline, but still a substantial presence concentrated in strategic electoral swing states:                                   Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin in the Catholic America’s ‘rust belt’;  Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico in high-growth Hispanic areas.

The resistance to the Pope is epitomized by the curious case of A Letter from Thirteen Cardinals alleged to have been sent to the Pope, and supposedly signed by 13 Princes of the Church, raising in somewhat forthright style (compared to the usual oleaginous formulations) points such as the following:

a number of concerns;”

the Synod discussion document which “would benefit from substantial…reworking;”

“lack of input by the synod fathers;”

procedures…not true to the traditional…purpose of a synod;” and

A Synod that “may become dominated by the…issue of Communion for the divorced.”

 For those of you who have not suffered through Vatican documents and deliberations, these are blunt words when addressed to the Vicar of Christ on Earth, especially since the letter attacks the centerpiece of his pastoral agenda.

What is even more surprising is the identity of the 13 signatories.

While the roster has not been confirmed, and ‘some’ (unnamed) have disavowed their support for, or involvement with, the letter, there are some striking names:

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s economic supremo, and the ‘Oceania’ rep on the Pope’s Council of Nine Cardinals – his most important advisory body;

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, keeper of the faith through his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict’s selection for that key post;

Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of the world’s largest diocese – Milan, and a leading contender for the Throne of St. Peter at the 2013 Conclave, significantly ahead of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio by the handicappers;


Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York.

This last name is a surprise. Cardinal Dolan is high profile – punto e basta.  But he was overlooked by his American brother-bishops when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops named its delegation to the Synod.  And to add insult to this injury, the USCCB did include Archbishop Charles Chaput, the decidedly conservative ordinary of Philadelphia. However, the Pope has the prerogative of naming delegates of his own to the Synod; ‘it’s good to be the Pope’ as Mel Brooks might say.

So as the opening date approached, Cardinal Dolan got his admission ticket to the Synod directly from Francis, giving the cardinal a voice and one vote among the 270 that will be cast by the Church fathers when the conclusions of the Synod are presented for endorsement.

It is really not a stretch to believe that Francis named the NY cardinal in the hope of support for the pontiff’s agenda.

Francis convened the Synod in 2014 to move through by consensus some modest pastoral proposals involving divorced couples and gay Catholics.

Keep in mind that the Pope’s global popularity is built upon his personal style, as well as a message of mercy and inclusiveness.


The Synod is his chosen mechanism for doctrinal (oops, make that ‘pastoral’) reform.

However, the law of unintended consequences may be at work as the Synod develops a life of its own.

Thirty years ago a reformist leader took over a global empire that had been stuck in a doctrinal time warp for 70 years, the USSR. In retrospect it is clear that Mikhail Gorbachev was not a revolutionary, not even a CIA plant (as millions of Russians still believe), but a believing Communist (to this day) who launched two reform initiatives:

Transparency (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika), both of these entirely within the four corners of Marxist orthodoxy.

And where is Russia today? Heading back to the USSR in all but name.

It is worth remembering Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous observation:

The most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform itself.

To which one might add, regarding faith-based empires:

Schism happens.






2 thoughts on “Bishops’ Synod in Rome at Halfway Point: Keep Your Friends Close…

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