[During the Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Crux editor John Allen will offer regular analysis under the heading of the “Synod Files.”]
ROME – Yesterday’s big news out of the Synod of Bishops really did come from outside, i.e., it didn’t emanate from within the Paul VI Audience Hall where the event is taking place, but rather from someone who isn’t even there: 91-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong, whose Sept. 21 critical letter made the rounds of various Catholic news outlets.
Officially speaking, the only news from inside the synod yesterday came from Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, who delivered the first of his regular briefings, and found himself in the unenviable position not of telling reporters what happened, but rather trying to defend why he can’t.
Pressed on the requirement in the synod’s Regolamento, or rule book, of more or less absolute confidentiality, including prohibiting participants from discussing either their own contributions or those of others, Ruffini did his best.
Such measures, Ruffini argued, are intended to achieve a “suspension of time,” and thereby a “silence which is deafening in its own way, because it’s totally different from the normal routine accustomed to the stereotypical point/counterpoint.”
“The way in which such a large institution as the Church allows itself a moment of silence in faith, in communion, in prayer, is news,” Ruffini bravely insisted.
To be fair, Ruffini’s got a tough gig – as one Italian media headline put it, serving as the spokesman for an event with an information blackout is basically a “mission impossible.”
Note, however, that Ruffini twice used the word “silence.” In reality, what we got yesterday wasn’t silence at all, it was a lot of noise surrounding the Zen letter, in large part because there was no other voice about the synod with anything interesting to say.
In substance, the Zen letter raises by-now familiar objections, including the prospect of doctrinal innovations, fears of a stacked deck and manipulated outcomes, and concerns of subverting the hierarchical character of the Church. All are messages which have been heard multiple times already from a variety of figures, including other senior prelates.
Zen was one of the five conservative cardinals and well-known Francis critics who recently submitted a set of dubia, or doubts, to the pontiff about the synod, making his leaked letter arguably even less newsworthy – in effect, the story boils down, “Forty-eight hours later, dubia cardinal still unhappy.”
It was, in journalistic terms, classic “dog bites man” stuff, yet it lit up the scoreboard yesterday because there just wasn’t much else to report.
The bottom line is that the result of the secrecy requirement will not be the sound of silence. Instead, it will be handing the microphone to synod critics, allowing the narrative to be dominated by controversy and complaint, as yesterday aptly demonstrated.
In 1974, Robert Pirsig published his classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe when this synod is over, somebody will give us an updated version titled Zen and the Art of Narrative Maintenance – I don’t know if would be quite the best-seller as the original, but it would be instructive reading nevertheless.
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Although the Synod of Bishops has a detailed agenda, it’s inevitable that what’s going on elsewhere will seep into the discussions. One such bit of Vatican context right now is the ongoing trial of ten defendants, including Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, for various forms of alleged financial crime, which is entering its home stretch with defense presentations scheduled all this month.
The trial shapes up as an acid test of the reforms adopted under Pope Francis, amid accusations that what’s really going on isn’t so much the application of justice but rather scapegoating based on ad hoc legal maneuvers, which is designed to distract from the failures and incompetence of higher-ups in the system.
The day before the synod began, that point of view drew a strong endorsement from a key personality.
Father Filippo Di Giacomo, 70, is a frequent commentator on Vatican affairs for the Italian media, especially the national broadcaster RAI. He was a university student of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former Secretary of State under Pope Benedict XVI, and worked for 15 years under then-Cardinal Jospeh Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Interviewed on Oct. 3 about the Becciu trial, Di Giacomo didn’t pull any punches.
Noting that verdicts are expected before Christmas, the 70-year-old Di Giacomo said, “Maybe only then will we understand which procedural code has been applied, given that between new ad personam Vatican laws, Italian laws never actually received into the Vatican system and extemporaneous improvisations, this is less a trial, which some obstinately insist on calling the ‘trial of the century,’ and more a soap opera with mediocre actors from the 19th century.”
(Full disclosure: To some extent that was a shot at me, since I’ve been using the phrase “trial of the century” for the last two years, but point taken anyway.)
Di Giacomo argued that the legal basis for the prosecution is open to serious question.
“First of all, the trial has seen the intervention of the Holy Father with four rescripts which, among other things, enhanced the discretional power of the Promoter of Justice and broadened the scope of the investigations,” he said.
“The second anomaly is that it’s a trial which, in reality, includes at least three different cases – the affair of the building in London, that of the Catholic charity in Sardinia, and that of the self-described intelligence expert Cecilia Marogna, risking confusion regarding who’s charged with what,” Di Giacomo said, referring to different sets of charges against Becciu.
“Finally, it’s also not clear whether some of these charges, which are now crimes under current Vatican law, were actually in force at the time the presumed facts of the case actually took place,” he said.
Di Giacomo also underscored other oddities, including that the erstwhile star witness for the prosecution, Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, has basically disappeared from view after it emerged that some of his testimony had been scripted by two figures with obvious axes to grind against Becciu.
As far as the chief prosecutor, Italian attorney Alessandro Diddi, Di Giacomo derided his understanding of the Catholic Church in a strong candidate for soundbite of the year: “He’s amply demonstrated that he’s incapable of telling the difference between a consecrated host and a fried egg,” Di Giacomo quipped.
Whatever one makes of that perspective, it’s inevitable that the trial and its tribulations will be in the air during synod discussions – meaning that however much Pope Francis and his team may want the focus to be on the tomorrow of the Church, they won’t be entirely able to escape the shadows of its yesterdays.