Pope Francis attends the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The Synod and the Media: Culpable Naïveté or Shrewd Calculation? | Russell Shaw | CWR
The disastrous mid-term relatio seeded confusion, conflict, and lingering bitterness at every level of the Church. But the synod itself was only Act One.
Upon becoming director of media relations for the American bishops in late 1969, I quickly made a crucial discovery about my new employers. With just a handful of exceptions, the bishops were painfully naïve about the news business, yet convinced they could manipulate the process to get the story told as they wished.
They were wrong of course, and eventually they learned that. But in the interim their attempts at manipulation were a continuing source of confusion, conflict, and embarrassment—to the Church and to themselves.
These ancient memories came to mind as I tried to make sense of the chaotic, not to say catastrophic, communications emanating from the synod on marriage and family. Not to put too fine a point on it, this synod was one of the strangest examples of Church miscommunication in many a year.
Among the howlers were these: an international gathering of more than 200 people whose managers sought to conduct it in semi-secrecy after an intense and deliberate media buildup; a meeting supposedly operating on collegial principles at which a document dealing with highly sensitive matters (the now famous relatio) was released with fanfare but without being reviewed and approved by the bishops whose views it claimed to reflect, thereby evoking angry pushback; coy, unresponsive answers by leading churchmen to reporters’ questions during a critically important news conference.
And on and on and on.
In the end, the Synod Fathers papered over their differences with a closing document from which the relatio’s most inflammatory elements were eliminated. This was accompanied by soothing talk from Pope Francis, followed by standing applause for the Pope. Just a big happy family, it seemed. Except that it wasn’t.
There are two possible ways of explaining all this.