World·Analysis

At Vatican synod, the biggest change is to change itself

While synods are usually where the Catholic church's hierarchy debates doctrine and advises on implementation, this one was more an exercise in airing opinions. But it would be a mistake to think of this as a failure for Pope Francis's reform movement.

Transparency and open criticism are signs of Pope Francis's push for reform

The church should confront difficult issues 'fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand,' Pope Francis says at synod 5:10

So, the Vatican synod has released its final report on the family and, as expected, there are no recommendations for big changes in doctrine, and no massive shifts in church teaching (although there is a definite softening toward remarried Catholics).

Rather, the text offers gentle words about the importance of family, discernment and mercy. Hardly a barn-burner..

No, while synods are usually where the church hierarchy debates doctrine and advises on implementation, this one was more an exercise in airing opinions. But it would be a mistake to think of this as a failure for Pope Francis's reform movement.

It was pretty clear from the beginning the Pope wasn't looking for the synod to knock out a new rule-book when he said it "is not a parliament in which to reach a consensus or a common accord."

But of course, the final text was a compromise — 94 paragraphs bridging deeply divergent opinions and recommendations on divorce, the nature of family and homosexuality. Many opinions got left out. Now we have to wait to see what Pope Francis does with it all.

For Vatican watchers the nitty-gritty of the synod offered up some exciting stuff. 

From a nun who said that there was far too much, what would we call it, bishopsplaining going on — that the guys in collars were sucking up all the oxygen in the room and condescending to women — to "secret" letters being circulated by an anti-Francis cabal, to Cardinals taking verbal swipes at each other during press conferences, to rumours (untrue) of a papal brain tumour

But don't dismiss this stuff as fluff.  It's symptomatic of what the synod has changed.

Change the rules, change the game

Two and a half years ago when Pope Francis first stood on the balcony all decked in white, we knew he faced a church at a crossroads, and that change was going to be difficult.

Francis wants a church in which people aren't afraid to speak their minds, even when they disagree with him. A sort of, "Ya? You want a piece of this? Bring it!" church.  And they are.

Pope Francis talks to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri at the end of a morning session of the synod of bishops at the Vatican on Friday. Two cardinals had a bit of a 'what?!?' moment during the three-week-long assembly of church officials. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

On the surface the synod discussions were pretty "inside baseball." Should there be a doctrinal path by which divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion? What does St. Thomas Aquinas teach us about marriage? Not really the stuff that generates shocker headlines and gets the average person all ginned up to explode on Facebook. Still, and this is key, change how the rules are hashed out, and over time the game changes.

What the 270-odd participants of the synod were really trying to do was to codify compassion, the idea that the rules should be tempered by mercy.

What this synod debated was the way to entrench that idea in church practice. How, for example, in a church opposed ("totally unacceptable") to gay marriage, should a local priest deal with the lesbian couple who has adopted children and wants to get them baptized?  Of course the pat answer is with decency and respect.  But what that actually looks like — squaring it with church law — is as complicated and divisive as it has been in secular law.

Francis is pope, so he has the power to just say, "Here's how it's gonna be.  And you'd better like it." But he didn't.

The mechanism for change has itself changed.

Cardinal called out

The true legacy of this synod will not be what they debated, but how they debated.

While the meetings themselves were behind closed doors, throughout the event the 270 or so participants gave hundreds of interviews to media organizations from around the world. They talked about what was working and what wasn't. Why women in the meetings didn't get to vote. What they agreed on, and what they didn't. They even debated whether the Pope had stacked the deck of participants and thus delegitimized the whole process.

This synod has just been a long series of transparency "firsts."

As just an example of a recent "what!?!" moment, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx called out Australian Cardinal George Pell during a press conference — saying members of a working group had been "negatively touched" by an interview Pell had given. "Negatively touched" is Vatican speak for "back off, buddy."

Seems tiny. But it's a major shift for an institution that is notoriously opaque when it comes to acknowledging internal disagreement. 

And this is the gamble Francis is taking with his church. 

When you try to shift an institution from a place where dissent is "whispers in the hallways," to personal public disagreements, there is a great risk of polarization.

Francis being strategic

There are about 5,130 Catholic bishops around the world.  And that means at least as many opinions on how to deal with sensitive cultural issues.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx used Vatican speak to basically tell another cardinal, 'back off, buddy,' David Perlich writes. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

While during these latest meetings the Vatican went to great lengths to downplay the depth of these divergent opinions by stressing "open and collegiate discussions" and the Pope called on the church hierarchy to "journey together," the reality is factions form.

Transparency and openness means nasty stuff can happen. Things get said. Feelings boil over. Some people get their mean on.  

So what's Francis up to?

This is a strategic Pope. A Change Management Pope. And it looks like he's playing the long game here.  By changing the very nature of debate in the church, he continues to chart a new course.  But the destination is still up for debate.

About the Author

He has produced television, radio and online programming in Calgary since 1992 — including CBC's 2015 Alberta election special. He worked for Al-Jazeera in Washington, D.C., was the managing editor of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen and also reported as CBC's Vatican analyst in the 2005 and 2012 conclaves. He was born in Calgary, grew up on a farm, and now calls this city home.

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