Pentin's Pernicious Attack on the Synod

by Michael Sean Winters

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Edward Pentin is coming out with a new book unhappily entitled The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation of Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I have not read this tome, but a lengthy except has been published at the Catholic World Report, lengthy enough to give us some flavor of what the work contains. Even the title demonstrates why this book is unhelpful: Rigging?

This book was written by Pentin, but it could alternately be called The Synod According to Cardinal Burke. The petulant cardinal made a beeline for Pentin and other conservative reporters at the end of each session of the synod last year. This was ironic, in a sad sort of way. +Burke frequently condemned the media manipulation of the synod, but he and other conservative prelates were the ones feeding information to the press. Indeed, several high profile journalists, having acquired sources in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been reduced to becoming shills for the opposition to Pope Francis. The opposition leaks like a sieve. Pope Francis’ team not only declines to leak items to the press, no one in the press has even been able to write a definitive account of who is on the pope’s team.

The focus of the excerpt is on the release of the Interim Report midway through the synod. After a week of speeches, and before the synod broke into small group discussions, the Interim Report was read out to the Synod fathers. Pentin echoes the charge made at the time that the Report did not accurately reflect what had been said in the aula. I do not envy anyone who has to summarize interventions, especially in this instance where, as Pentin notes, the spoken interventions often differed from the written submissions, which understandably formed the basis of the Interim Report. If the task is one of compilation, text always trumps speech.

The second charge Pentin levels is more pernicious. He suggests that the Interim Report was given to the press in an effort to sway the synod towards its purportedly more “liberal” views, especially on the hot button issue of homosexuality. Apparently, few if any of the spoken interventions even mentioned the topic, so people were surprised to see it in the Report. This is one of the problems with the Synod format: If the topics are not assigned in advance, and each of the synod fathers can speak on whatever they want, they are more likely to focus on the issues affecting a vast majority of families, not on a relative side issue like homosexuality. We do not know how many of the written interventions discussed the topic, nor how often the topic was addressed in less formal settings. I thought the language on homosexuality in the Interim Report was unimpeachable: It basically said everyone should be welcomed in the Church. Full stop. It happily, and hopefully, avoided the language of “intrinsic disorder” which, whatever its theological precision, which is questionable, its pastoral significance is obvious and malign.

The problem with Pentin’s charge that the Interim report was made public in order to shape the internal debate is two fold. First, there is not a shred of evidence to support it. Second, it had the opposite effect of the one alleged. If the decision was made to give the Interim Report to the public so as to sway the synod debate in a more pastoral direction, it was poorly considered. What happened was the conservative opposition was put on notice that they should fight.

Pentin does not appear to be the most self-aware of authors. In this section of the article, he quotes papal biographer Austen Ivereigh:

Behind the scenes, synod officials came under fire from synod participants for the way the interim report was communicated, with some arguing that the incident highlighted the need for a decisive synod communications strategy. “No interim report has ever generated news—ever”, observed Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. “They should have anticipated it.”

Ivereigh, who is also co-founder of Catholic Voices, a group aimed at improving the Church’s representation in the media, believes it highly unlikely that the report was part of a wider strategy to influence public opinion in order to put pressure on the Church to change, as that would not be consistent with the personality of Francis.

“If some people in the synod were trying to do that, or thought that is what really would happen, they really don’t get Francis and they don’t understand the Church.” Francis, he said, “would abhor any attempt to put pressure on the synod from the outside, to an extent that I think would surprise people.” Ivereigh, a former deputy editor of The Tablet, said the pope “hates the idea of lobby groups, self-interested groups, ideological groups.”

What is this book except an “attempt to put pressure on the synod from the outside”? This book, or at least this article, like the petition drives being circulated, are aimed precisely at trying to stiffen the spine of conservative bishops who resist any development of Church teaching or practice. Failing that, this work amounts to an attempt to furnish the foundation of a conspiracy theory worthy of Oliver Stone: If we do not get our way, if there is any development, it must be because of pernicious influences operating beyond the bounds of Vatican normalcy. Just so, this article, and I am guessing the book too, is what is really pernicious.

Synodality is ancient, but it has been fifty years since it really has been attempted in the Universal Church. Pope Francis has been a part of CELAM, where synodality has worked for decades, but Vatican II was the last real example of this approach to Church governance in a universal scale. Synodality requires, as Pope Francis has said, patient listening and an effort to build consensus, which is hard work. And, if the synod fathers are being encouraged to view other synod fathers as possessing not only a different point of view, but as agents in a malign effort to “rig” the synod, the hard work of building consensus is made that much more difficult.

We need not be naïve that there is politics going on at the Vatican. Claude Rains claimed he was “shocked” to find gambling going on at Rick’s, before pocketing his winnings. Bishops are people and people are political. But, synod fathers, in my experience, take their job very seriously. They are aware of the politics involved but they are aware that something more than politics is involved. There is an effort to discern where the Spirit is leading the Church at this point in time. Most of the bishops I know are not malevolent Machiavellians, but earnest men, trying to do what is right for the Church. They make mistakes, as do we all, but they are less likely to impugn the motives of those with whom they disagree than I have found in secular politics, and far less likely to think they possess all the answers on any given issue. I believe the bishops, even those with whom I disagree, act in good faith, and out of real faith. The last thing they need as they prepare for next month’s synod is a book that collects incendiary charges, so unproven that Pentin had to put the adjective “alleged” in the title of his book.

This book may be the first effort by the right to frustrate a synod they wished had never been called, but it won’t be the last. Although the Vatican has not announced whom the Holy Father is appointing to the synod, press reports indicate that Pope Francis will name two Americans, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago and Bishop George Murry, SJ, of Youngstown. I can’t wait to see the meltdown on the right if those two names are confirmed. Heaven forbid the pope should decline to appoint bomb throwers who like to dress up in more lace than my grandmother while railing against homosexuality and, instead, appoint two bishops known for their intellectual gifts and their pastoral sensitivity. The horror! But, efforts to frustrate a synod are doomed to fail, perhaps not in the short-term, but always in the long-term. Reading Pentin’s article this morning I was reminded of a song from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” in which the celebrant sings, “You cannot imprison the Word of the Lord.”




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