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Notes on a rollicking hump day at the 2015 Synod of Bishops

Synods of Bishops may be many things under Pope Francis, but dull is certainly not among them.

On Wednesday, the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family heard the final set of reports from 13 small working groups. They brought into focus how the summit seems likely to handle its most contentious issues, especially the question of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

The German report also featured an unusual public complaint about others in the synod, expressing “sadness and dismay” over the public comments of some unnamed participants.

During the daily news briefing, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany lifted the veil by naming whom they had in mind: Australian Cardinal George Pell, who in an interview with Le Figaro, had phrased the division over the divorced and remarried as a battle between followers of German Cardinal Walter Kasper and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, using his given name, Ratzinger.

Finally, the day also got a jolt from a report in an Italian newspaper that Pope Francis has a curable brain tumor. That claim has been denied twice by the Vatican in remarkably strong terms as “unfounded,” “seriously irresponsible” and “completely unjustifiable.”

Though there was no overt evidence that the report was timed to coincide with the synod, some observers in Rome couldn’t help but wonder if it was a preemptive strike — a way of casting doubt on the solidity of the pope’s judgment and thus putting the credibility of whatever decisions he’ll make based on the synod into doubt.

Here are three quick observations about the significance of each of these developments.

First, many things have changed about the synod under Pope Francis, but one thing seems to have remained the same: Recommending study commissions or “internal forum” solutions to problems when the bishops are just too divided to propose anything else.

On Wednesday, two of the small groups floated the idea of recommending that Pope Francis create just such a commission to further ponder the divorced and remarried debate, while others suggested that such cases could be handled in the “internal forum.”

In Catholic argot, the “external forum” refers to decisions that are handled in full public view, while the “internal forum” means things that are handled quietly, often between an individual person and a confessor or a bishop.

In other words, the internal forum is a prescription for case-by-case solutions handled out of the public spotlight, making them an attractive way of dealing with something when there’s no agreement on a general policy measure.

The bottom line is that when Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the other day it was probably always unrealistic to believe the synod would reach consensus on such matters, he seems to have known what he was talking about.
On the Marx v. Pell clash, it’s certainly no surprise to anyone who’s been following the drama since the first synod on the family in October 2014 that these two prelates, both big men with bigger personalities, aren’t on the same page. In truth, most observers had assumed Pell was the figure the Germans had in mind even before Marx confirmed it.

Marx is a supporter of the Kasper proposal for the divorced and remarried, while Pell is a firm opponent. In general, Marx would be seen as fairly liberal on many matters and Pell a strong conservative.

What was unusual, however, is hearing one of them express it out loud, which suggested to many that Marx and the German bishops generally were speaking up in defense of Kasper. It remains to be seen if the outspoken Pell will hold his fire this time, or will decide to keep his powder dry.

As a footnote, Marx’s choice to name his target ruined a nice line that was already making the rounds in Rome: That for the Germans Pell was the Voldemort of the 2015 synod: “He who must not be named.”

Finally, a Vatican spokesman said Wednesday that he believes the affair about the supposed brain tumor should be “immediately closed,” but there are two good reasons why that’s unlikely.

First, there’s a long history of the Vatican either playing down or flatly denying rumors about the pope’s health which later turn out to be true, and that history has created an understandable “hermeneutic of suspicion” in the press corps and the wider world.

Even if all the principals in the story were to issue stinging denials in their own names, and not just through spokesmen or statements, there almost certainly would be people who suspected something’s being swept under the rug.

Second, all we’ll have to do is wait until the next time Francis says or does something that comes off as surprising or provocative — which could come as early as Saturday, when he’s likely to say something at the close of the synod’s work — and somebody, somewhere, will almost certainly suggest that perhaps his tumor is affecting his judgment.

In all, Wednesday brought an escape route on a contentious issue into view, spotlighted a cardinal v. cardinal clash, and provided people disenchanted with Francis a new card to play.

That, by the way, was all before lunch. Who knows what the next 72 hours before the 2015 synod actually comes to a close will bring?

By John L. Allen Jr.


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