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The Explainer: what does the new synod working document tell us about what will happen in October?

A guide to the harder-to-grasp aspects of Catholic news stories

By on Friday, 27 June 2014

Cardinal Baldisseri discusses the working document yesterday (CNS)

Cardinal Baldisseri discusses the working document yesterday (CNS)

The Vatican has released the eagerly awaited instrumentum laboris, or working document, of the family synod in October. The 73-page text, which takes about an hour to read, consists of 159 numbered paragraphs, divided into three sections. The first is devoted to “the Gospel of the Family”, the second to challenges to family life, and the third to “openness to life” and parental responsibility.

The document is based on responses to questions in the synod’s preparatory document, released last November. It’s written primarily for the select group who will take part in October’s synod. The text was put together by the general secretariat of the synod of bishops and the ordinary council of the general secretariat, which explains why it’s written in the slightly stilted dialect known as Vaticanese.

How will the working document be used at the synod?

The instrumentum laboris says the synod fathers’ task in October is to “thoroughly examine and analyse the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family”.

The document’s aim is to offer a coherent overview of the unprecedented number of responses to the preparatory document from around the world “for an orderly treatment at the synodal assembly”.

Most speeches are likely to make reference to the working document, though speakers are not obliged to do so.

What kind of authority does the working document have?

The copyright notice attributes the text to the general secretariat of the synod of bishops. The only named author is Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod of bishops, who has signed the introduction.

Media reports quite understandably attribute the document broadly to “the Vatican”. Take this headline: “Vatican softens tone towards gays and lesbians”). Technically, it should be: “General secretariat of the synod of bishops adopts softer tone towards gays and lesbians”. But it would be exceedingly fussy to insist on this.

This is one of the less authoritative Vatican documents and is nowhere near as significant as, say, a papal encyclical or an Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Does the document foreshadow a change in Church teaching?

The theme of October’s synod is “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation”. The working document therefore focuses on pastoral rather than doctrinal questions. Throughout it assumes that it is the Church’s pastoral approach, rather than its fundamental teaching, that is up for debate in October.

Even on the question of whether some remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion – the most widely discussed possible change – the text implicitly supports the current practice.

Has the document identified many areas of consensus?

No. The striking thing is just how few areas of broad agreement it identifies.

The problem is that the Catholic experience of the family is so varied. While Europeans may be concerned with Communion for the remarried (paragraph 93), Latin Americans are preoccupied by the plight of poor single mothers (140), Africans worry about the prohibitive cost of weddings (147) and Asians fret about excessive pressure on schoolchildren (76).

The term “consensus” is mentioned only once in the 25,000-word document – and then to describe its absence (119). The one major area of agreement it identifies is also negative: that the idea of natural law is “highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible” to the “vast majority” of respondents (21).

The text does say that “very many responses” called for simplified procedures for granting marriage annulments (96). But it qualifies this by saying that the requests came especially from Europe and North America, and listing a number of objections to the change (99). The text underlines geographical differences again and again.


Judging by the working document, the synod fathers may find it hard to find meaningful areas of consensus in October.

Given their vastly different cultural backgrounds and priorities, it’s hard, right now, to see how they can reach agreement on the most controversial and complex subjects such as Communion for the remarried.

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  • Guest

    AKA The October session will agree to ask the Holy Father for further time to consider all the complex implications raised, for this they will need the greater assistance of experts and a wider scope of vision than originally set out. If this does not sound familiar it jolly well ought to, and I trust the Holy Father – and the Council (sorry ‘Synod’) Fathers – will resist the imperative push of popular Modernist-fed (European et al) opinion to ‘redirect’ the ‘object’ of the meeting (whatever that objective might be). And therein lies the grave difficulty with this as with so many free-wheeling synods, not least the Second Vatican Council, where the object in view was not at all clear; the mood music is clear and soothing enough, looking at new ways to deal with old difficulties, and some way to engage with unheard of choices (again like Vat II), the aim is not.

    St John XXIII set out the his final purpose of the Second Vatican Council clearly – placing Sacred Tradition securely in happy-buzz of the ever up-to-date Post War world .. this was ignored. Pope Francis, it seems, has no such ‘vision’ of what he desires to see (only a vague hope something will emerge, any old thing, that he can sign his name to in evidence of ‘progress’ made – toward God knows what), perhaps he will get more of what he wants. But vaguely constructed synodal ends (however worthy and sincere), given over to ‘experts’ for re-working, must strike horror into the heart of the faithful – if the faithful have any notion of history merrily repeating itself – it need not, of course, but it will take some mighty effort to stop it, and to knock something like a ‘Catholic Faith’ shape into what lies ahead.

    Here then is the ‘consensus’ that you (and the Synod Fathers) seem to find lacking, all wrapped up, clearly and concisely addressed, and with the still urgent need to be tackled: Motherhood, wrought in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

    ‘Remember that your children are the adopted sons of God and specially beloved of Christ; remember that their angels look for ever on the face of the heavenly Father; and so you too as you rear them must be angels in like manner, in all your care and vigilance keeping your eyes fixed upon heaven. It is your task from the cradle to begin their education in soul as well as in body; for if you do not educate them they will begin, for good or ill, to educate themselves.’

    God Bless Our Pope! Lord, help us all!

    St Michael defend us in the day of battle!

    Papa Pacelli – Beato Subito / Santo Subito!

    Holy Mary, Mother of God, prayer for us sinners!

  • paulpriest

    It’s a shambles: Handwringing, posturing, bewailing and bemusing: They’ve been bombarded with a barrage of complaints and demands and because they’ve given up understanding any of the doctrine other than presuming the authentic fundamental teaching is some florid complementary comment/disposition aspect of the teaching rather than the inherent teaching itself [part one simply doesn't understand the doctrine and its apologetic - it provides conditionals and qualifiers as if they are 'further considerations' rather than the actual doctrine itself!! [e.g. the nature of marriage as emulating the Trinity of multiple persons sharing one nature is left to an almost footnote by referring to one of the papal sermons where Pope Francis didn't really understand what he was saying anyway!!] I am absolutely stunned it didn’t include Ephesians nor anything remotely on the nature of masculinity and fatherhood and a husband’s duty to love their wives and children as Christ loved the Church – laying down their life for them…

    It’s jaw-droppingly bad – it wants to discuss isshoooos rather than the major issues – pander to the rash rather than the disease – and why?
    Our clergy don’t know the faith and haven’t a clue how to convey it and even if they did they most certainly wouldn’t wish to do it from the pulpit [which is now frankly a bit of social comment on the weekly news or a 'nice' interpretation of the Gospel or just a 'let's be nice to each other and not feel so guilty' attempt at empathy.]..
    Yes the ‘most certainly won’t-work-ing document’ emphasises the homily for evangelisation – but frankly YOU WOULDN’T WANT today’s average cleric preaching on sexuality and bioethics and the theological nature of the family – because THEY DON’T KNOW IT!! Nor – to be quite honest – are the avaliable pamphlets or the pseudo-theology of the body-lite books with their patronising middle class stepfordesque notions of NFP and normality – without a bleeding clue of what’s happening in Catholic families and the millions of families which should be Catholic [hardly surprising given our endorsed media commentators don't know the teaching nor the reality either!!]

    This document foreshadows one thing: Chaos and denial and a return of the futile and profligate early seventies committee/commission vanity-projects which alienated everyone – a conferencification of the Vatican

    and ultimately Vatican III or Rio I or Jerusalem II or whatever

  • beentheredonethat

    I don’t think you should get yourself in a teasy. This synod will not change anything. It’s just a get-together for the bishops to help explain away the world’s ills which of course you implied. Do what the great saints did: live your life by being a faithful Catholic who receives the sacraments, has a great prayer life & is charitable to others. Remember, Jesus will never let the bishops or anyone else destroy His Church

  • Guest

    A dreadful thought; though a Vatican III that really did seek to complete the work left undone at Vatican I, and merely pastoralised in doctrine at Vatican II, would be a real – and measurable – degree of progress (toward effective witness the Sacred Tradition of the Church to a changed/ changing world .. in saving souls, drawing converts to Christ, influencing the world for the better stc).

    The article and the Synod framers themselves set out the real difficulty: lack of aim, purpose, goal, or end .. call it what you will. They can see no object at which to aim and thus struggle to find a coherent manner of addressing this lack; let alone begin to consider any secure foundation on which to build ‘consensus’ to achieve what it so fundamentally lacks. This offers a Second Vatican II ‘expert’ hi-jack scenario to the Accuser, wide open, and ready to be devoured.

    Here, however, are three simple objectives for the Synod to consider and to provide the ‘consensus’ that is lacking – all wrapped up, clearly and concisely addressed, and with the still urgent need to be tackled:

    i) Motherhood, as wrought in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

    ii) Fatherhood, learned with our mother’s milk from the Immaculate’s knee.

    iii) Childhood, experienced at the secure arm of her spouse most chaste, St Joseph – often unnoticed amid so many horrors.

    With a summary of the heart of each Family in a concluding reflection on the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

    A clear goal, some simple means, the plan of action! Can you see it happening? No, I’m not holding my breath either …


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  • beentheredonethat

    Unlike many posters here, I believe Vatican 2 was mostly a good thing. The major thing that it did was to bring the filth to the surface so that it was easier to identify. Some of the clergy & religious were becoming a bit weird & non-Catholic in their thinking post WWII & Pius XII knew this. There are a few out there who speculate had Pius XII lived longer he may have called Vatican 2.

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