Synod diary: Projection, walkback, and the media

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican press briefing today featured a big effort from the Synod to walk back some of the analysis that took place on the release of the Relatio yesterday. Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa expressed dismay over the release of the document, the phrasing used within it, and especially the media reaction to it. At one point during the briefing, the prelate lamented that the Catholic Church is now in a potentially “irredeemable” position. When the final document comes out and it doesn’t match the media’s take on the draft, it will look like “damage control” rather than a positive step forward in bolstering family life.

The briefing today appeared to be an effort at damage control now. The spokesmen for the Vatican humorously expressed surprise at the nearly full house at La Sala Stampa for the daily briefing. For most of the synod, the turnout had been about half or perhaps two-thirds at best of what was seen today. The three spokesmen each made it a point to stress that the relatio released yesterday was a “working document,” and Cardinal Napier suggested that the publication itself came as a surprise. Father Lombardi later clarified that synods usually publish relatio when they are crafted, so this was not necessarily irregular.

The reaction of the two visiting cardinals for this briefing appeared to have been following the coverage. Both Cardinal Napier and Cardinal Fernando Filoni made reference to the press coverage. Napier in particular stressed that the media understanding of the relatio was significantly distanced from the discussion that had taken place in the Synod itself. He specified paragraph #24 as an example, which read that the synod had been in “agreement” on pastoral needs, when no agreement had been reached or even request as of yet. Napier noted that the topics are of great interest and subject to misunderstanding on their own, but that people appear to be projecting their own agendas on the relatio and its language. In particular, the paragraphs on homosexuality did not reflect “at all” the tenor of the conversation in the small group session today, according to Napier. When asked if he was “disowning” the document, Napier said they were “working” on the document — and that each passage will be up for a vote for inclusion or change.

The document itself reflects some of what was discussed in the Synod, especially the need to use better language to instruct on Church teachings. But that doesn’t mean the Church will change its teachings. Napier further clarified that much of the relatio would probably remain, but with a much better explanation of context for the statements. Napier dismissed calls to “rescind” the relatio, but that the document has to be changed to reflect the actual consensus of the synod, and not just the remarks of one or two participants. In that statement, Napier specified the paragraphs dealing with homosexuality. The media’s analysis of it and the Synod, however, was rejected by Napier.

The small groups have begun their work on the topics under discussion. The Vatican said they would have publish the final report from these committees on Thursday, and the general synod would then begin work on the official version of the relatio, probably voting on the final draft by Saturday. Interestingly, and unlike other briefings, the panel did not stick around to answer any post-briefing questions or interviews (after the usual briefing Q&A). The walkback was concluded by a determined retreat.