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At the Synod, liberals tout their own conspiracy theories

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 19, 2015

  • Pope Francis calls for free and open debate at the Synod of Bishops. But when a group of cardinals write a confidential letter to the Pontiff, pointing out ways in which free discussion might be undermined, they are portrayed as a cabal of plotters, undermining the Pope.
  • The German-speaking bishops assured us that no one is contemplating a change in Catholic doctrine. But when prelates say that we must not change Church teaching, they are denounced as Pharisees.
  • Vatican spokesmen dismiss any “conspiracy theory” about attempts to manipulate the Synod. But when bishops argue against potentially revolutionary changes, they are charged with conspiracy.

Double standards, anyone?

The most unseemly aspect of this year’s Synod meeting has not been the lively argument, but the aggressive effort by a cadre of committed ideologues to depict their ideological adversaries as villains. While the debate goes on within the Synod, there has been a lively propaganda campaign going on outside: a bid by dedicated partisans to make their chosen enemies look partisan.

Yes, there have been some serious differences of opinion among the bishops gathered in Rome this month. That was to be expected. Some major changes in Church teaching have been suggested; it would be unhealthy if such proposals did not prompt vigorous debate. The purpose of the Synod is to hash out ideas, to give the world’s bishops an opportunity for serious discussion and debate. Even without the Pope’s repeated encouragement, some level of disagreement among the bishops would be inevitable. If there were no differences at all among them, the bishops could all stay home.

Naturally, prelates who have strong opinions do their best to convince others. Bishops make alliances with others who share their views, and try to bring undecided prelates on board. Again there is nothing unusual or unnatural about that effort. As Archbishop Charles Chaput observed: “I have never been at a Church meeting where there aren’t groups that get together and lobby for a particular direction.”

What has been extraordinary about this Synod meeting is a two-pronged effort to curb open discussion: first by manipulating the Synod, second by silencing all those who dare to report on the manipulation. Regular readers of Catholic World News have seen the evidence of manipulation: a process that has now been going on for more than a year, and has been documented by Edward Pentin in his investigative work, The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?. In this column I want to call attention particularly to the second prong of the strategy.

For the regular daily briefings on the progress of the Synod, the Vatican press office has, understandably, leaned toward prelates who provide an upbeat description of the discussions. (Have you heard of Cardinal Peter Erdo recently? As the relator general for the Synod, he should be in the best possible position to sum up the process. But since delivering a strongly conservative address on the opening day of the October meeting, he has virtually disappeared from view.)

Still it is not surprising that the Vatican press office would want to ensure that the Synod’s discussion is presented to the public in a favorable light. What is remarkable is that a press-office aide—Father Thomas Rosica, the Canadian priest who has been helping out with English-language media—has emerged as an active partisan, tweeting out messages from liberal prelates and commentators. Still more remarkable, Father Roscia, who as a PR man for the Vatican should be looking for the widest possible audience, has taken to blocking conservatives from his Twitter feed, so that they cannot see what he is writing. As the Synod debate heated up, Father Rosica passed along advice on How to handle toxic people—thereby demonstrating that while liberal Catholics don’t want anyone excluded from the Church, they do want some people excluded from the conversation.

Still more troubling has been the polemical tone adopted by Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor of the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, who has worked closely with Pope Francis throughout the Synod process. On his Twitter feed Father Spadaro has poured out barbs, mocking those who question the apparent direction of the Synod. Thus on October 10 he wrote, “The Church isn't a fast train of doctrine which runs without any understanding of the landscape around it.” Later in the day he took a more explicitly adversarial stand: “Those who want a rigid & mummified #Synod15 are attacking its method & communication.”

A popular American Jesuit commentator, Father James Martin, joined in the campaign, with a series of Twitter comments praising liberal prelates and criticizing conservatives. Father Martin reached his own peak of partisanship when he claimed that Cardinal Robert Sarah had compared homosexuals with Nazis. That claim was grossly unfair to the cardinal, who had spoken on the dangers of gender ideology.

Yet another Jesuit pundit, Father Tom Reese, produced a classic example of “us vs. them” thinking in his summary of the Synod debate: “One side sees only the law—the marriage contract is permanent and can be terminated only by death. The other side sees millions of people suffering from broken marriages that cannot be put back together.”

And in a truly spectacular example of the double standard, Father Reese dismissed fears about manipulation of the Synod by invoking a sweeping conspiracy theory of his own: “They’re saying that it’s being manipulated and preprogrammed when, in point of fact, all of the synods since the Second Vatican Council were manipulated and programmed but by the conservatives.”

Years ago, when I worked in Washington, I noticed that Congressional staffers were more fiercely partisan, more prone to demonizing their opponents, than the lawmakers for whom they worked. The Congressmen themselves could engage in ferocious debate while remaining personal friends; their aides saw each other as bitter enemies. Perhaps a similar dynamic is at work in the Synod. Many bishops have remarked that for all their disagreements, the Synod participants are united by a common purpose.

However, the reverberations from the partisan barrages are obviously having an effect on the prelates themselves. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in an interview with America, showed the same unfortunate tendency to demonize those who disagreed with him, speaking disparagingly about “some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway,” who “paint something in false tones,” and of whom he wonders, at last, “if it is really that they find they just don’t like the Pope.”

Yes, there are conspiracy theories abroad at this Synod. And they aren’t all coming from one side of the partisan divide.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Langton7139 - Oct. 19, 2015 11:00 PM ET USA

    I have contained my reading on the Synod. How often are we going to go through this? Like US elections, all Synod all the time is very bad for one's mental balance.