Silence at the Synod: A Proposal for Greater Openness

Bondings 2.0 writers Robert Shine and Francis DeBernardo are in Rome for the month of October covering the first global assembly of the Synod on Synodality, particularly LGBTQ-related developments. For the blog’s full coverage of this multi-year synodal journey, click here.

REPORTING FROM ROME—While the news that LGBTQ+ issues received scant and disappointing attention in the report of the Synod on Synodality’s October 2023 assembly here in Rome, the more disappointing news was that very little information about the meeting’s actual discussions on the topic are able to be known. That’s because there was a gag order on the participants. Just before the assembly began, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis asked the meeting members to refrain from speaking with the media about the discussions inside the synod hall.

I confess that when I first heard this news, I thought there was some merit to it. I felt that this confidentiality rule might empower participants to speak more candidly and boldly, which Is a necessary part of synodality. However, after four weeks of what was basically a news drought about the synod discussions, I have moved in the direction of believing that the shroud of silence over the synod hall was not helpful, and actually is harmful. 

I have had press credentials for the 2015 Synod on the Family, the 2018 Synod on Youth, the 2018 World Meeting of Families, and the 2019 Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse.  All of these events had midday press briefings at which three or four of the meetings’ participants were put before the press corps to give a statement of what they heard and said at the meeting, and then answer questions which mostly focused on the content of the conversations. In addition, the Vatican press conference would routinely release the texts of the synod participants’ prepared speeches to the assembly.  Summaries of the small group discussions were also provided. Most importantly, reporters could request personal interviews with individual participants, and these reports often gave a wealth of information about what was actually transpiring within the synod hall. 

None of these things happened  this year.

Bishop Daniel Flores, left, and Cardinal Michael Czerny at one of the daily press briefings.

Yes, there was still a midday press briefing, but they did not happen every day. Furthermore, the most of the speakers from the assembly only gave statements which described the process of the meetings, but not the content.  These contributions generally amounted to: “We sit at round tables. We talk. We listen.” The time for questions from journalists to elicit more information was limited, and most speakers avoided providing real answers to any questions designed to elicit the content of conversations. In one case, a speaker who was asked several questions by different journalists kept repeating the same stock answers and phrases, giving fairly obvious evidence that the speaker had been coached to deliver “talking points.”

This year, a very few synod participants gave individual interviews to journalists, and these reports provided very little insight into the meetings’ discussions.

How was this silence around content so harmful? The silence harms LGBTQ+ people, the synodal process, and the entire church,

For LGBTQ+ people, this silence is all too familiar, and can seem to be “business as usual.”  For decades, it is obvious that discussions about LGBTQ+ people were taking place among church leaders, but the only thing that ever was revealed were documents from the Vatican and bishops’ conferences which gave the final decisions of the discussion, but none of the debates–if any–which took place.  With the synod gag order, the past is repeating itself.  Without information about synod assembly discussions, LGBTQ+ people do not know who in the synod were advocates for them and who opposed them. Moreover, LGBTQ+ people cannot learn what arguments and evidence were being proposed on both sides of the discussion. How can we be sure if accurate descriptions of LGBTQ+ lives and faith were being presented?

The pope participates in a roundtable discussion in the synod hall.

The silence also threatens the synodal process itself because it appears contradictory to the synodal spirit. Catholics all over the world were encouraged to speak with one another and listen to one another. Now, at this most important phase of the synod, Catholics around the globe were not allowed to listen. Silence ignores the millions of Catholics who participated in the synodal process.  Ignoring people at this phase threatens to make people less trustful that the synod is a worthwhile project.

The synod silence is also detrimental to the entire church. Silence breeds all sorts of conspiracy theories. Silence allows manipulative and deceptive practices to take place. Silence allows unchecked power to flourish. Silence maintains the status quo, often in destructive ways.  Our church should have learned from the clergy sexual abuse crisis that secrecy and silence only serve bring about new problems, worsen existing ones,  and continue to alienate church members. 

But the pope and the synod leaders have an opportunity to repair these potential harms. The synod is not over. Over the next year, Catholics around the world will again be encouraged to provide input once again. And then in October 2024, there will be another, and final, synod assembly in Rome. I suggest that the Vatican allow greater openness for synod participants to discuss the contents of the meeting sessions.  At the very least, they could institute the following guidelines:

  1. Allow synod assembly participants to discuss their ideas freely with journalists and others outside the synod hall. Participants can protect confidentiality by not mentioning the names of other participants when they report what was said.  
  2. Feature press conference participants who are willing to speak about the content, not just the process, of the synod discussion. Feature participants who have made strong arguments, pro and con, for any particular issue.
  3. Ask press conference speakers to limit their presentation to five minutes so that more journalists can get their questions answered. 
  4. Release the texts of all the speeches made at the plenary meetings of the synod participants.
  5. Provide summaries of the conversations of the small group discussions.

These are the least that could be done.  The best thing to do, especially in our 21st century technologically-saturated world, is to live stream all the sessions, so that any one who wants to hear the discussions may do so.

The synod is supposed to be a consultation of the whole church. By instituting these reforms, and others which encourage openness, would truly allow the whole church to be part of the consultation. 

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 29, 2023

6 replies
  1. Beverley McClure
    Beverley McClure says:

    Such an excellent assessment of the detrimental impacts of the silence around the discussions. Fr. Martin tried to shape our expectations, but to not have LGBTQ issues even mentioned in the final summary is so disheartening.

  2. Michelle Landry
    Michelle Landry says:

    Yes, I agree, I am deeply saddened that there is nothing in the final report about we, Lgbtq people, and also apparently no mention of the ordination of women. As a woman, I once again feel invisible. That I am not worthy to be heard.
    The SILENCE whose effects you describe so well, Francis, thank you, feel devastating to me, like a big sucker punch to the gut. It may not have been the purpose of the report or this session of the Synod to get into specifics, but at least a mention that these issues were being and would continue to be addressed would have made such a difference. But nothing, silence, another big black hole of disregard, disrespect, lack of sensitivity. Francis, your reference to the impacts of silence around the clergy sexual abuse scandal is very apt. That you all at NWM for all your hard work and for wanting to keep us in the loop about the Synod. I hope LGBTQ people take time to recover from this blow before Re engaging in the ongoing Synodal discussions.

  3. David J Cichanowicz
    David J Cichanowicz says:

    Is anyone really surpised? This was almost pre-ordained. I’m sure God is frustrated with these people too. Working in mysterious ways indeed! At some point, we have to believe good will triumph over evil, however well evil is clothed in good intentions.

  4. Robert E Nee
    Robert E Nee says:

    So sorry that you didn’t get any NEWS. This is ongoing. This was not the most important aspect of the journey. We take the synthesis of this point and seek how the Spirit calls us forward.
    Sure news mongers are upset, especially in our community. The news is old: we have more to do to because the majority of Catholics world wide have yet to meet us. With grace and generosity we can engage further…there is a chink in the wall. That is new, perhaps not the headline you wanted. Thanks for being there. I don’t think it was a waste of your time.

  5. Anna
    Anna says:

    While I don’t agree that the small group discussions should be live-streamed – though that would be fun!! – I like your suggested guidelines. Perhaps we should all try to call for them in whatever small way is possible for us ahead of the next synod. There is certainly a disparity between how LGBT issues were spoken about pre-synod assembly and how the synthesis report discusses them. A transparent explanation for that would be nice.

    But I also agree with Robert E Nee’s wise words in the comment above – though frustrating, it is an ongoing process. And your hard work is definitely appreciated!

  6. Patrick Riley
    Patrick Riley says:

    I imagine greater weight was placed on participants being able to speak freely rather than worrying about how their positions would be analyzed. It places limits though on the Holy Spirit, thinking that the Spirit can’t work beyond round table discussions.


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