ROME — It just wouldn’t be a Synod of Bishops in the Pope Francis era without some behind-the-scenes drama bursting into public view, and that certainly happened on Monday with a sensational report concerning a letter 13 cardinals supposedly addressed to the pontiff complaining that he’s stacking the deck.
The letter was allegedly hand-delivered by Australian Cardinal George Pell to Francis on Monday, Oct. 5, the first full working day of the Oct. 4-25 summit, and signed by 12 other cardinals, including Timothy Dolan of New York.
Almost as soon as it appeared, however, at least four cardinals reported to be among the signatories backed away from it, denying that they’d ever signed it.
As presented in Monday’s report from veteran Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister, the letter raised three major objections:
Bishops taking part in the synod will not be asked to vote on individual propositions, raising concerns about whether the pope will get a full picture of where the assembly stands on controversial points.
Members of a 10-member drafting committee charged with preparing the synod’s final document were appointed by the pope rather than elected, causing doubt about how representative they really are.
The synod’s working document, called the Instrumentum Laboris, is described as inadequate to serve as the basis for the synod’s final conclusions.
On the whole, the letter as presented by Magister suggests the possibility that these moves were calculated to manipulate the synod’s outcome in the direction of liberal positions.
“A number of fathers feel the new process seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions," it says.
Adding to the explosiveness of the report, Magister is the same journalist who saw his Vatican press credentials revoked over the summer for publishing an advance copy of the pope’s encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si’, and in general is seen as a conservative whose feelings about Francis are mixed at best.
Speaking on background, one senior member of the synod told Crux on Monday that while there actually was a letter, the content as reported, as well as the list of signers, was “not correct."
The source declined to elaborate on what the letter actually did contain, or who really did sign it.
While we wait for more details to emerge, here are two quick observations on what now seems destined to go down as “letter-gate."
Some bishops are concerned. Regardless of what the now-famous letter actually contained, it seems clear by now that concerns about the process at this synod are not simply a media invention, but are shared by some number of bishops — though how many, and how deeply any of those bishops personally feel the objections, remains unclear.
It’s important not to over-interpret that fact, however, in either direction.
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It might be possible for someone to think that because there are 270 bishops in the synod and just a handful reportedly signed whatever letter was actually passed along to the pope, then the vast majority must be okay with how things are working.
On the other hand, one might think that if a number of cardinals felt strongly enough to take their concerns to the pope, the ferment must be quite widespread.
Both would be premature conclusions, because there’s been no ballot on any of the procedural issues inside the synod, and most bishops haven’t openly expressed themselves one way or the other.
There could be a disturbing endgame. If the synod’s final document is seen as the result of a manipulated or stacked process, then there will be doubt in some quarters about whether it really represents what a majority of bishops believe.
That perception likely would also be used by whoever’s unhappy with the result to discredit it.
As a result, the most important point about letter-gate may not be the precise details of the objections it voiced or the number and names of the people who signed it.
Rather, the bottom line may be that it would behoove the leadership of the synod, up to and including Pope Francis, to try to lance this boil before it festers, perhaps by using one of the afternoon free periods this week to clear the air and reassure the bishops that the final result will represent the thinking of the majority.
Otherwise, all the efforts of the past two years to steer the synod toward a strong reaffirmation of the family may end on a sour note.
By John L. Allen Jr.