Philly’s Chaput: Bishops sorting out into lobbying groups at synod

Archbishop Charles Chaput at the opening of the synod on the family Oct. 5. (CNS/Paul Haring)
This article appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

Vatican City — Bishops at the Vatican's worldwide meeting on family life issues are dividing amongst themselves to form lobbying groups in favor of various positions, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput has said.

“I’ve never been at a church meeting where there aren’t groups that get together and lobby for a particular direction -- and that’s going on, I assure you,” the archbishop said at a Vatican press conference Wednesday.

“That’s what happens when human beings get together,” said Chaput. “We shouldn’t be scandalized or surprised by that, as long as it’s done open and honestly and not in a way that tries to win than to arrive at the truth.”

“We’re not here to win anything, we’re here to arrive at the truth that the Lord, through his Holy Spirit, is guiding the church towards,” he said.

The archbishop was speaking about the Synod of Bishops, an Oct. 4-25 meeting called by Pope Francis that has brought some 270 prelates to Rome to discuss issues of family life.

While Chaput’s comments widely confirm what was already known about the meeting, they are notable for the way in which they publicly acknowledge that different bishops are actively pushing different viewpoints and trying to convince others to support their views.

Among the issues known to be at discussion among the prelates is church practice towards Catholics who divorce and remarry without first obtaining annulments from the church.

Anecdotal reports from inside the gathering indicate that the discussions have become quite fierce at times, with some bishops forcefully talking over others or sharply rebutting their arguments.

Brisbane, Australia Archbishop Mark Coleridge said in a blog post Wednesday that the discussions had a certain similarity to popcorn.

“One of the bishops said to me that listening to a different speech every three minutes was like watching corn pop,” wrote Coleridge. “Stuff was going off in all directions.”

Chaput was speaking Wednesday at a briefing alongside Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi and two other Synod members: Peruvian Archbishop Salvador José Miguel Piñeiro García Calderón and French Archbishop Laurent Ulrich.

The U.S. archbishop is one of nine American prelates participating in the Synod. He was answering a question about reports that Francis had spoken to the entire Synod gathering Tuesday morning, asking them not to give into a sort of “hermeneutic of conspiracy” that views other bishops’ ideas with negative intent.

Ulrich, who leads the archdiocese of Lille in northern France, said he heard the pope’s words as an exhortation that “everybody can say and think what he feels, but what we must do is a sort of common work.”

“We must work in order to be united,” said the French archbishop.

The Synod bishops are meeting Wednesday and Thursday in small discussion groups, divided by language preference. They will reconvene on Friday and Saturday into open session.

All the meetings are held behind closed doors, with daily briefings on the deliberations hosted by the Vatican press office.

Chaput spoke several times at Wednesday’s briefing about reports that some bishops in the Synod have called for the church to use more open and inclusive language in its teachings on family issues.

The archbishop said one concern expressed in his small group was that inclusionary language should not be unclear regarding church doctrine and should not allow politicians to interpret such language in ways the church does not intend.

Some bishops, Chaput said, asked questions like: “What does this word mean for our people? Can it be misinterpreted? Will it be used against the church rather than in favor of the church?”

“There was a desire on the part of the bishops to be very careful about what we said,” he said. “Careful so people don’t get hurt and also that the doctrine of the church is clearly presented.”

Chaput also said the task of evaluating the different Synod documents is made harder for English speakers, because generally they do not speak other languages and many of the Synod documents are in Italian. Sometimes, the archbishop said, the English language translations of the documents are inaccurate.

The archbishop also spoke about the recent World Meeting of Families hosted by the Philadelphia archdiocese, the event that Francis closed with an open-air Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway during his September visit to the United States.

Many families at the world meeting, Chaput said, had a “hunger for reaffirmation” of current church teachings on family life.

The working document for the Synod, he said, “has a tendency to be caught up in a bit of despair about what the church teaches and whether people can live it.”

“People want it and want to live it and were very, very enthusiastic about it,” the archbishop said of the sentiment at the world meeting towards church teaching.

“Let’s make sure that we encourage the 99 sheep who are a part of ... the church’s understanding of family life -- who believe in it -- as we go look for the one that has felt abandoned by the church,” he said. “We have to do both.”

In response to an NCR question about reports that some Synod bishops had suggested the church use more inclusionary language towards gay people, Chaput said that was not “a dominant part of the conversation” in the first days of the Synod.

“I hope we find language that we can all agree to be both faithful to the church’s teaching and faithful to love and support of people with same-sex attraction,” he said. “That didn’t come up this morning in our small group discussion because it wasn’t yet the topic. It will come up, though.”

The Vatican announced the leaders of the 13 different small discussion groups being used at the Synod.

There are four English-language groups, led respectively by moderators: Australian Cardinal George Pell, British Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Irish Archbishop Eamon Martin, and Canadian Cardinal Thomas Collins.

The four English groups also have relators, or secretaries. Those, in the same respective order, are: U.S. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Coleridge, and Chaput.

Coleridge wrote Wednesday that his group had seen some good discussions take place. But he said he feared that some of the prelates’ language might be “idealized and detached.”

“Some times we bishops can indulge in a kind of churchspeak, which may seem wondrous to us but which communicates little or nothing to most people,” wrote the Australian.

“We will have failed if all we can come up with is a final document full of churchspeak which the Synod fathers may admire but which most of the world find incomprehensible,” he wrote.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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