Can the Vatican control the synod narrative?
In his speech opening the Synod on Synodality yesterday, Pope Francis reserved his last word for reporters covering the synod. “We have to provide a communication that is a reflection of this life in the Holy Spirit. It takes an asceticism—excuse me for speaking to journalists like this—a certain restraint of the public word to protect this. And what is published, let it be in this atmosphere,” the pope said.
He continued a moment later, “More than the priority of speaking, there is the priority of listening [in the synod]. And I ask journalists to please make people understand this.”
The pope’s comments came after weeks of speculation over what secrecy—or, to use Francis’ preferred term, “privacy”—rules would govern the synod. In mid-September, news broke that the pope and synod secretariat were seriously considering placing all of the synod’s debates under the “pontifical secret,” the Vatican’s highest level of confidentiality, which has the unfortunate public relations effect of sounding like something out of a Dan Brown novel. Violating the pontifical secret is considered a grave sin and can, in some cases, result in excommunication. (The pope removed the pontifical secret from clerical sexual abuse investigation results in 2019, a move that was widely praised by survivor advocates.)
Pope Francis sees secrecy as paramount for ensuring that synod participants can speak freely. But what if people start talking anyway?
America has independently confirmed that the idea to impose the pontifical secret on synod proceedings came directly from the pope, and that some advisors pushed back against it. The rules distributed to synod participants yesterday do not use the term “pontifical secret,” but they explicitly state, in Article 24, that “each of the Participants is bound to confidentiality and discretion regarding both their own interventions and the interventions of other Participants. This duty remains in force once the Synodal Assembly has ended.”
In practice, this is not very different from previous synods. In fact, at the last ordinary synodal assembly in 2018, Pope Francis applied the pontifical secret to the participants’ “opinions and votes”—so, one could argue, this synod is actually more open than the last. In this case, violations of the secrecy rule would not have the canonical penalties provided for under the “pontifical secret.”
It is clear from Pope Francis’ comments that he sees secrecy as paramount for ensuring that synod participants can speak freely, something he has urged every synod to do since the beginning of his pontificate. Notably, under Francis, synods have become much more of an open conversation, without taboo topics, than they had been under previous pontificates. From the start, Francis has encouraged synod participants to speak with parrhesia, a Greek word often translated as “boldness” or “courage.” He would rather people hash out their differences in the synod hall than pretend to agree and turn to the press to voice their disagreements.
Risks to consider
Limiting what synod participants can reveal about the conversations that happen in the synod hall, though, brings with it some risks. For one, there is the risk to the credibility of the synod: When the pontifical secret debate became public, commentators including stalwart Vatican reporter John L. Allen Jr., pointed out that an imposition of secrecy at the synod that was “designed to be the crowning achievement of [Francis’] papacy” would seem to be in stark contrast to the pope’s repeated insistence on transparency in what has been a papacy largely aimed at reform.
Then there is the obvious possibility that the participants will not keep secrecy, as has been the case in every synod in recent memory—and even in the last conclave, where cardinals shared vote totals with America Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell, despite technically being subject to an automatic excommunication for doing so! (An old Vatican joke goes, “A pontifical secret means you only tell one person at a time.”)
There is the obvious possibility that the participants will not keep secrecy, as has been the case in every synod in recent memory.
I want to make clear that I do not think there is an inherent risk to the synod should participants break secrecy; the risk, I think, is that those who seek to undermine the synod might be more willing to break secrecy in order to promote their own narrative of what is happening in the synod hall. This would likely prompt the synod’s supporters, then, to leak counter-narratives, obliterating secrecy altogether and making the primary information communicated to the media that which is driven by ideological motivations.
It is possible this has already begun: Cardinal Gerhard Müller, one of the most vocal opponents of the synod, accepted the pope’s invitation to be a full member of this synod. He skipped the synod participants’ three-day pre-synod retreat and has already announced an appearance this evening, on the second day of the synod, with the Rev. Gerald Murray on EWTN. Cardinal Müller and Father Murray are both members of the “papal posse,” a recurring segment on EWTN anchor Raymond Arroyo’s “The World Over” that often offers extreme criticism of the pope. It is, of course, possible—and indeed, something I hope for—that Cardinal Müller will adhere to the synod’s guidelines and not reveal anything about his own or his fellow participants’ private interventions.
What is to be done?
The Vatican, for its part, is doing its best to communicate with journalists regularly while protecting the confidentiality of the synod’s discussions. Accredited reporters were admitted to yesterday’s opening synod Mass and to the first round of speeches by Pope Francis, synod Secretary General Cardinal Mario Grech and Relator General Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich. Those events were also livestreamed publicly on YouTube, and the instructions that were given to synod participants this morning about how to synthesize and submit the results of their discussions were distributed to reporters.
For the rest of the synod, there will be regular press briefings, and the opening sessions of each “module” (the five segments of this month’s meeting: synodality, communion, mission, participation, and recommendations or next steps) will be livestreamed and open to accredited journalists, as will the moments of prayer beginning each “general congregation” (discussions in the full synod assembly rather than in small groups).
The Vatican is doing its best to communicate with journalists regularly while protecting the confidentiality of the synod’s discussions.
The small group conversation syntheses will be saved in an archive, the Vatican said this morning, but it seems unlikely any of those will be published for a number of years. If the assembly produces a final document—which is still undecided as of today—it is possible that it would be published a few months after the end of the assembly.
It is clear that the Vatican is doing its best to communicate what it can about the assembly within the limits of conversation confidentiality that have been above all advocated by the pope. It seems prudent that Vatican officials should avoid imposing the “pontifical secret” and thus possible canonical penalties for breaking secrecy, as it would only strengthen the synod’s opponents if a participant were punished for (they would likely argue) ensuring the transparency the pope so often calls for.
Personally, I believe the wisest way for the Vatican to control the narrative around the synod while also ensuring transparency and privacy would be to anonymize and then publish the small group discussion syntheses after this October’s synodal assembly ends. The synod’s organizers have often spoken about “circularity”—feeding the results of the synod’s later phases back to the local churches to ensure that it accurately reflects the sentiments of the local communities. Publishing the syntheses could be a way to ensure such circularity in the 11-month period between this year’s and next year’s synodal assemblies, a time that has already been described as a chance for further discussion and deepening discernment on what is discussed in the first session.
Pope Francis phrased this assembly as a “pause” in the church’s life: a time for listening even more than speaking. But that pause will end, and discussion outside the assembly will continue. The best way to ensure that that discussion is not dominated by ideological voices would be for the Vatican to provide as transparent as possible an account of what has been heard in this moment of listening.