Did the Synod Really Backtrack on Its Positive Statements? Not Quite.

Following the positive reception that the Synod’s relatio document, its mid-term report, received in the global media over the past two days, a South African cardinal is saying that the document has been misunderstood.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier

The National Catholic Reporter noted the remarks of Durban’s Cardinal Wilfrid Napier:

“One of the prelates participating in the Synod of Bishops on the family has sharply criticized the landmark document the meeting released Monday, saying its message of openness to modern society has put the prelates in ‘a position that is virtually irredeemable.

” ‘The message has gone out: This is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic church is saying,’ South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier said at a Vatican press conference Tuesday.

” ‘And it’s not what we’re saying at all,’ Napier said. ‘No matter how we try correcting that … there’s no way of retrieving it.’

” ‘The message has gone out and it’s not a true message,’ he continued. ‘Whatever we say hereafter is going to be as if we’re doing some damage control.’ “

The cardinal was commenting on the fact that the relatio is only an interim report, which will continue to be debated during the coming week.  And, even at that, nothing from it will be definitive since this extraordinary synod is only preliminary to the ordinary synod which will occur in October 2015.   The relatio is only a discussion of what has been said in the synod so far.

But, this qualification doesn’t mean that the relatio isn’t good news.  For instance, Napier himself seemed to backtrack from these seemingly backtracking comments.  The National Catholic Reporter stated:

“Speaking later at the Vatican press conference, Napier seemed to back away from his criticism. Asked if he would want the meeting to rescind the document, he responded: ‘That’s rather radical, I think, because the relatio actually has a lot of very good, very good things.’

” ‘It would be like saying, “Let’s take back the words that the synod fathers used in the synod hall,” he said. ‘A lot of it is what was actually said.’

” ‘Some of the … dissatisfaction is that individual things that [were] said by individuals … are put in here as if they really do reflect the feeling of the whole synod,’ the cardinal continued.”

And two Catholic LGBT leaders in the U.S. offered reasons to still consider the relatio  as good news.  CNN.com reported:

” ‘I actually don’t think this is as much of a backtrack as we usually see!’ said Marianne Duddy-Burke, head of the gay rights group Dignity USA.

” ‘I think that response to this report was swift and intense, and I’m sure many bishops want to be sure people aren’t reading more into it than is there,’ she continued. ‘However, it is undeniable that there has never been any Vatican document that made positive, respectful statements about same-sex relationships, so that is an undeniable breakthrough.’

“Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, echoed that sentiment.

“‘Regardless of the fact that this is a working document, it is still significant in that it reveals a strong current of affirmative attitudes at high levels in the church towards lesbian and gay people,’ he said.”

In a second news articleThe National Catholic Reporter noted that the debate about the relatio has already begun:

“. . . 41 prelates at the synod made speeches about the text [of the relatio], suggesting additions or changes. Unlike previous synods, the Vatican is not releasing the texts of the speeches made by the prelates.

“According to an unofficial Vatican summary of those remarks, released Tuesday, the prelates praised Monday’s document, but also raised some concerns.”  [You can read the full text of the summary by clicking here.]

The summary of the topic of homosexuality stated:

“In relation to homosexuals, moreover, the need for welcome was highlighted, but with the just produced, so that the impression of a positive evaluation of such a tendency on the part of the Church is not created. The same care was advised with regard to cohabitation.”

So much is yet to be discussed by the synod, but with evidence that there are voices in that body which support positive changes regarding LGBT issues, as well as other marriage and family topics, is reason to give hope.   At the very least, it means that we still have representatives on the inside working for a more inclusive church for LGBT people, which means there will very likely be some steps forward.  So, we can keep hoping, but we still should keep working and praying.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


5 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    And in directly-related news: someone named George Weigel was just interviewed on a public radio network program called “The Take-Away” — where he trashed any suggestion that the Catholic Church is ever going to abandon its “traditional moral teachings”. I did some Googling on Weigel, and it turns out that he’s a far-right-wing media commentator, with close personal ties to the late Bill Buckley’s conservative “National Review” magazine, as well as ties to several Washington-based right-wing “think tanks”. You can read the printed version of his views here:


    The far-right-wing counter-attack against Pope Francis’ “initiatives toward openness and understanding” in the Catholic Church has now clearly begun.

  2. bwelch3
    bwelch3 says:

    Is this going to be a repeat of the process releasing “Always Our Children” by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCCB)some years ago? Many bishops were in an uproar claiming they were not part of any approval process, and that it was the product of a committee of the USCCB and not the consensus of the bishops of the Conference. Certain bishops went out of their way to disown the document and its contents by whatever means and media they could garner, including the public and Catholic press..

  3. bwelch3
    bwelch3 says:

    Is this going to be a repeat of the process releasing “Always Our Children” by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)” some years ago? Many bishops were in an uproar claiming it did not represent their sentiments or feelings; that is was the product of a committee, and not the consensus nor approved by the members of the Conference. A fair number of bishops went out of their way to disown the document via articles, interviews and commentary in the public and Catholic media.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Given the newly-released updated translation of the original document — a revision which suddenly blunts some of the bright promise of the original release — it’s rather obvious that “mortal combat” politics is now taking place in the Vatican. If the retrograde Cardinal Burke faction ultimately holds sway, it may just manage to turn all of us progressive Catholics into newly-minted Episcopalians! Is this really what the Cardinals want to do — or would they merely say: “Goodbye and good riddance to your corrupted and degenerate sort”? I believe this is the alarming subtext of what we’re seeing at the moment. But it’s still very early in the top-level discussions.


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