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Cardinals clash on doubts about process at the Synod of Bishops

ROME — Two high-profile cardinals taking part in the Synod of Bishops on the family offered different views on Monday about some elements of the process, with one scoffing at charges of manipulation and stacking the deck, and another saying there are real uncertainties and doubts.

Cardinals Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, and Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa, spoke Monday afternoon in separate Crux interviews.

Wuerl is part of a 10-member drafting committee charged with producing the synod’s final document, a role he also held last year during the 2014 edition of the synod. Napier, who was added to that group halfway through in 2014, is currently serving as one of four delegate presidents at the 2015 synod.

Wuerl is known as a moderate on most political and theological questions, while Napier emerged during the 2014 synod as a leader of the conservative opposition to progressive proposals on matters such as divorce and homosexuality.

Wuerl bristled at suggestions that the outcome of the synod has been pre-determined, which were widely voiced among predominantly conservative commentators prior to the event, and which he said are also shared by some inside the synod itself.

“I had never been in a synod that has been as open,” Wuerl said of the 2014 gathering, “and the one we’re in right now follows that same openness.”


“I don’t see this intrigue, because I don’t know how you could make that happen,” he said.

Wuerl said much of the content of the synod’s conclusions will be determined in small group discussions, and “unless you had some way of silencing everybody in all 13 circles, I just can’t buy this idea that it’s all rigged.”

He specifically defended the 10-member drafting committee for the final report, of which he is a member.

“It looks to me like it reflects the makeup of the synod,” he said.

Wuerl acknowledged that the “media didn’t create” the impression of alarms over a stacked deck, saying it’s present among some fellow bishops inside the hall. He also argued that the conspiracy theories have had a negative impact.

“If you’re convinced this is all rigged, then you’re going to see that everywhere,” he said. “I think that was the single most powerful negative element as this synod opened, that there was an aura around fostered by a number saying this isn’t going to be a fair synod. So no matter what you do, that’s the starting point.”


Cardinal George Pell with his successor as archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher. Pell reportedly hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis signed by 13 cardinals unhappy with the synod process. (Getty)
Uncertainty surrounds cardinals’ letter voicing doubts about the synod
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Pope Francis greeted Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican June 30, 2015. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
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“Everything looks yellow to the jaundiced eye,” he said.

Napier, however, believes some of the complaints have merit.

Among other things, he objects to the composition of the 10-member drafting committee on which Wuerl serves.

“I really would share” concerns about “the choice of the people that are writing up the final document,” Napier said.

Wuerl said past synods have “never” had an elected drafting committee, but Napier said that the current lineup may leave questions hanging.

“If we’re going to get a fair expression of what the synod is about, [such as] what the Church in Africa really would like to see happening,” he said, then different people should be chosen.

“We wouldn’t like to see the same kind of people on that committee who were there the last time, who caused us the grief that we had,” he said, referring to a controversial interim report in 2014 that seemed to embrace a progressive line on some debated questions.

Napier also said he’s worried that the preparatory document for the synod, known as the Instrumentum Laboris, will have too much influence on the final result rather than the actual content of the synod’s discussions.

“It’s almost like the Instrumentum Laboris is the base text, not what’s come out of the group’s discussions as concerns that need to be put forward as proposals for the final document to take to the pope,” he said.

Napier said an avalanche of queries from the media about the synod process reflects real concerns inside the hall.

“The uncertainty is quite generalized, otherwise you wouldn’t all have the same questions,” he said.

Napier said it’s not yet clear even to synod participants how the final document of the synod will be shaped, and what Francis plans to do with it, which he said makes concerns about the result legitimate.

“That kind of uncertainty worries me, because what are you actually working toward if you don’t know what the goal is?” he said.

On the question of whether he’s worried that the final result has already been determined, Napier would say only that “at this stage, it’s hard to tell.”

Earlier on Monday, veteran Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister published a letter allegedly signed by 13 cardinals, including Napier, expressing fear that “the new process seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions.”

Napier acknowledged signing a letter, but said its content was different from that presented in Magister’s report. The letter he signed, he said, was specifically about the 10-member commission preparing the final document.

Wuerl told Crux he was unaware that any letters were making the rounds in the synod and had not been asked to sign one, saying his impression is that they may not have been widely circulated.

The Synod of Bishops run until Oct. 25. During a Vatican briefing on Monday, the Rev. Federico Lombardi confirmed that there will be a final document, but said it’s not yet clear whether it will be immediately released or whether Pope Francis will take it under advisement to serve as the basis of his own eventual reflections.

“We have to wait to see what the pope decides,” Lombardi said.

Reflecting on some of the upheaval and confusion that has already characterized the 2015 Synod of Bishops, Napier said it could be a blessing disguise.

“The Holy Spirit also works through confusion,” he said, “as long as it doesn’t cause us to get at each other’s throats.”

* * * * *

In a version of this story published Monday, Crux quoted Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier as challenging Pope Francis’ right to appoint members of a drafting committee for the synod’s final document. On Tuesday, a Vatican spokesman issued a denial on Napier’s behalf, saying that “no one challenges the pope’s right to choose.”

Here is the full transcript of that section of Napier’s recorded interview, which took place Monday afternoon outside the synod hall. Crux had asked him whether he signed a letter raising concerns about some aspects of the synod process, and whether he knew of other such letters.

“I only know of one that was expressing concerns about some of the things. One of the concerns was, and this I really would share, is the choice of the people that are drawing up the document, challenging Pope Francis’ right to choose them. If we’re going to get a fair expression of what the synod is about, what the Church in Africa really would like to see happening, we wouldn’t like to see the same kind of people on that committee that were there the last time, that caused us the grief that we had.”

Since it is unclear whether the concern Napier said he shared with others was simply the choice of the synod committee members or also the pope’s right to choose them, Crux has removed the quote from the story.

By Michael O’Loughlin, Inés San Martín, and John L. Allen Jr.


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