Looking back at the 1980 synod on the family

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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The first synod I covered as a journalist was the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the family, which proved to be a month of fun and frustration.

It was fun because it took place in October, the best month for visiting Rome. It was also the pre-Internet world, so it was not heavy lifting. I only had to file three columns for America, the weekly magazine where I was working as an associate editor. I also filed some pieces for Religion News Service as a favor to Tom Roberts, who was then its editor. (Sadly, neither I nor RNS can find copies of these stories.)

But there were no websites, blogs, tweets or Facebook pages to update constantly. On the other hand, filing stories was a challenge. There was no email or fax machines; in fact, there were no computers. I had to type out my articles on the Jesuit Curia's telex machine and pray it went through.

But the best and worst part about the synod was that it was closed to the press. As a journalist, I was appalled by the lack of openness, but as a first-time visitor to Rome, I confess that I was delighted to have lots of time to visit the sights. I bought a copy of the Blue Guide Rome and spent hours visiting as many churches, museums and ruins as I could.

All the press received from the Vatican press office were summaries of the bishops' talks, and it usually took extra days for the English versions to become available.

The bishops were not supposed to give their full texts to the press, but the U.S. bishops circumvented that rule by dropping the first sentence saluting the pope and bishops. But since there were 160 eight-minute speeches at the synod, journalists were secretly happy they did not get the full texts and even happier that they did not have to listen to them. 

The American bishops also held press conferences, just as they did at their annual bishops' conference meetings in Washington, D.C. If I recall correctly, the American press conferences were held in a room used for day care with children's toys scattered around the floor. The Roman Curia discouraged press conferences. Cardinal Basil Hume got around this by inviting selected journalists to tea.

Despite its frustrations, covering the synod as a journalist is a revelation. With over 200 synodal fathers (no women) from more than 90 countries, you get an awesome experience of the universal church with a variety of views about the issues facing the family. But such a culturally and linguistically diverse group also had problems communicating.

Bishops from developing nations, for example, complained that the pre-synodal documents reflected first-world problems, not theirs. Bishops from India wanted to talk about interreligious marriages. And while first-world Catholics might have problems with birth control, the Indian bishops were fighting a government that wanted to impose limits on family size. Latin American bishops spoke of poverty as the root of marriage problems in their countries. Bishops from Africa spoke about polygamy.

The highlight of the first week of the synod for Western journalists was Archbishop John Quinn's speech on Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae. Quinn, who was president of the U.S. bishops' conference at the time, noted that people, priests and theologians had problems with the encyclical's rejection of artificial contraception in all cases. While he reaffirmed his acceptance of the encyclical, he called for dialogue between theologians and the Holy See on the issue of contraception.

Although some bishops, including the bishops' conference of Indonesia, supported him, the negative reaction from the Vatican was fierce. Many felt that Quinn's influence in the church declined speedily after the synod.

Some synodal fathers complained that more of the interventions were on the obligations of marriage than about marriage itself, and more were about marriage than about the family. Valuable time was also wasted with reports from Vatican officials, which were more homiletic than informational.

Most bishops agreed that the best part of the synod were the informal small group discussions, which were organized by language. These were private and impossible to report on.

One of the ironic aspects of the synod was that most bishops spent an inordinate amount of time in their speeches quoting Pope John Paul II to himself, as if he did not know what he had said. It was as if they were testifying to their loyalty rather than actually advising the pope. This became a defining characteristic of all the synods during his papacy.

The synod concluded with a pastoral message of "love, confidence and hope" to Christian families. There was no debate over the final document, which had to be completed in the last week of the synod. Each paragraph was voted on, but no amendments could be offered from the floor. The vote was "placet," "non placet," or "placet juxta modum" ("yes," "no," "yes with amendment"). The same committee that had drafted the statement reviewed the amendments.

The statement reaffirmed Humanae Vitae and maintained the policy of excluding divorced and remarried Catholics from Communion. This was not a surprise because the Pope John Paul's two interventions were on these topics, and he made clear there was going to be no change. At the same time, priests were urged to treat everyone with compassion and sympathy.

Will the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family be a rerun of the 1980 synod, or will it do something different? Stay tuned. 

To read my America columns on the 1980 synod, click the links below:

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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