An old saying regarding parents and children is “don’t let the kids see the parents fighting.”
This phrase has come across my mind several times while seeing the numerous responses these past days during the extraordinary synod on the family in Rome. Now, after the release of the relatio post disceptationem of the synod—even though some of its key controversial passages did not make their way into the synod's final report—there are a number of reactions regarding statements in the relatio concerning the Church’s approach to homosexual men and women, among other issues.
I mean here to consider that many, if not all, of the relatio-related explanations and clarifications might not be necessary if the relatio (or the summaries of daily discussions) had not been released and widely distributed. There would be no hysterical reactions on either side (whether of gloom or ecstasy), and there would be no need for numerous attempts to downplay the significance of the relatio. I believe that the reactions we have seen to the relatio (and the numerous statements leading up to the synod itself) are a clear example of how there is such a thing as too much transparency.
Claiming that “too much transparency” or “too much openness” is even possible certainly puts me at odds with many in the present culture. However, the possibility of too much transparency becomes a reality when we see the confusion that accompanies open expositions, such as the relatio, of highly complex and nuanced discussions. Disputing questions about the faith in the public square (whether about doctrine itself or the practical application of doctrine) is tricky business. Saint Thomas Aquinas asked whether it was appropriate to debate questions of the faith publicly with non-Christians. Doing so certainly introduces the possibility of strengthening the faith of some and refuting the errors of others, but, as Aquinas states, “it is dangerous to dispute in public about the faith, in the presence of simple people” (ST, II-II, q.10, a.7). For those hearing the debate, if they should be novices in the faith, may be led to a false view of the faith or be confused as to what is the actual content of the Christian faith.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in one of his last public statements prior to his resignation, commented on the problems that followed the Second Vatican Council. Benedict spoke of “two Councils,” the “Council of the Fathers” and the “Council of the media.” The first was the actual ecumenical council, while the second was the understanding of the council formulated by those in media attempting to explain to a largely uninitiated audience the theologically rich and nuanced statements occurring in conciliar debates. Benedict explains that,
the Council that reached the people with immediate effect was that of the media, not that of the Fathers. And while the Council of the Fathers was conducted within the faith – it was a Council of faith seeking intellectus, seeking to understand itself and seeking to understand the signs of God at that time, seeking to respond to the challenge of God at that time and to find in the word of God a word for today and tomorrow … the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today's media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic.
Vatican II sought to respond to the changing circumstances of modernity. Council Fathers wanted to discover how the Holy Spirit was moving the Church to present the teachings of her faith to a new world. The Council Fathers sought to discover how to follow Our Lord’s great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19) in the cultures of modernity. The attempts by the Council Fathers to answer these questions and to present the fruits of their deliberations, however, were hindered by a media contingent attempting to explain the conciliar debates in terms alien to the council and divorced from a deeply historical and nuanced understanding of the faith. Thus, many misleading and false interpretations of council spread quickly. If nothing else, it allowed for the so-called “hermeneutic of rupture,” which saw Vatican II as a clear split with the tradition of the faith, to survive and take root. Those who were not already well catechized and firm in their faith were unable to differentiate the true faith from that presented to them by a largely secular media.
Currently, we see the same kind of discussions and conflicting interpretations. No matter how many knowledgeable and skilled Catholic writers attempt to explain the synod and dispel inaccurate interpretations (e.g. Fr. Robert Barron), numerous secular media outlets will draw and circulate their own conclusions. Whether they are accurate interpretations is doubtful, and such widespread and varying accounts of the synod will have numerous negative effects.
First, and perhaps most immediately evident, these widespread and disparate accounts will cause confusion and doubt regarding what the synod actually says. Questions concerning the content of faith and morals may appear to be changeable or open to majority vote; many interested parties observing the synod in fact already seem to hold this view. Confusion and doubt on matters such as the relatio's interim treatment of homosexuality could lead some to believe that the Church's teaching in this regard is a matter of personal opinion or that the Church is merely one voice among many that the average Catholic man or woman must take into account in questions of sexual morality. Adam DeVille has noted the dangers of the expectations of change that were occurred prior to the release of Humanae Vitae, one of the most rejected and criticized (and yet also prophetic) encyclicals in contemporary times.
A second difficulty is that too much openness could actually become detrimental to the very purpose of the synod. The purpose of this extraordinary synod, we have seen, is to address questions regarding the family in the cultures of modernity. The current extraordinary synod is, actually, only raising and gesturing toward answers that will be considered next year by the full synod of bishops. However, if confusion and misunderstanding concerning the council persist, can it even achieve its goal of aiding families? Benedict XVI suggested that there were in fact two councils in the period of Vatican II. The very goal of finding new ways of proclaiming the timeless truth of the Christian faith fails when no one can understand precisely what the council actually said. Similarly, with a multitude of varying interpretations and explanations regarding what the synod has actually done, the true practical purpose of finding new ways of helping families live out their Christian vocations is frustrated.
I am not suggesting that the Church should take a position of complete and utter disconnection from its followers. It is not the case that laity must simply “pay, pray, and obey.” Each member of the faithful, lay and religious, must “think with the mind of the Church” in order to grasp and live out the faith in his or her particular life.
However, when proposals and questions are openly debated without any clear determinations as to their answers, confusion as to the actual teaching of the Church follows. It is one thing to deliberate on the pastoral options open to homosexual men and women wishing to live out their Christian vocation in front of a room of skilled theologians who possess the requisite understanding of the content of the faith and the subtle nuances of moral theology. It is quite another to broadcast these same disputes in front of a world largely lacking in faith. Such public disputes heighten the danger of misunderstanding the Gospel, the Church, and its authority to speak on matters of faith and morals.
Many of the reactions to the synod and the relatio (as well as statements made prior to the synod) are an example of how it is possible to have too much transparency. The relatio was a “working document,” i.e. a work in progress. No writer wants readers to see a first draft of his work, and no artist wants others to see her work in progress. Similarly, it seems pastorally dangerous to display openly the work in progress that is a synod or its interim documents.