The Explainer: what does the new synod working document tell us about what will happen in October?

Cardinal Baldisseri discusses the working document yesterday (CNS)

The Vatican has released the eagerly awaited instrumentum laboris, or working document, of the family synod in October. The 73-page text, which takes about an hour to read, consists of 159 numbered paragraphs, divided into three sections. The first is devoted to “the Gospel of the Family”, the second to challenges to family life, and the third to “openness to life” and parental responsibility.

The document is based on responses to questions in the synod’s preparatory document, released last November. It’s written primarily for the select group who will take part in October’s synod. The text was put together by the general secretariat of the synod of bishops and the ordinary council of the general secretariat, which explains why it’s written in the slightly stilted dialect known as Vaticanese.

How will the working document be used at the synod?

The instrumentum laboris says the synod fathers’ task in October is to “thoroughly examine and analyse the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family”.

The document’s aim is to offer a coherent overview of the unprecedented number of responses to the preparatory document from around the world “for an orderly treatment at the synodal assembly”.

Most speeches are likely to make reference to the working document, though speakers are not obliged to do so.

What kind of authority does the working document have?

The copyright notice attributes the text to the general secretariat of the synod of bishops. The only named author is Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod of bishops, who has signed the introduction.

Media reports quite understandably attribute the document broadly to “the Vatican”. Take this headline: “Vatican softens tone towards gays and lesbians”). Technically, it should be: “General secretariat of the synod of bishops adopts softer tone towards gays and lesbians”. But it would be exceedingly fussy to insist on this.

This is one of the less authoritative Vatican documents and is nowhere near as significant as, say, a papal encyclical or an Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Does the document foreshadow a change in Church teaching?

The theme of October’s synod is “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation”. The working document therefore focuses on pastoral rather than doctrinal questions. Throughout it assumes that it is the Church’s pastoral approach, rather than its fundamental teaching, that is up for debate in October.

Even on the question of whether some remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion – the most widely discussed possible change – the text implicitly supports the current practice.

Has the document identified many areas of consensus?

No. The striking thing is just how few areas of broad agreement it identifies.

The problem is that the Catholic experience of the family is so varied. While Europeans may be concerned with Communion for the remarried (paragraph 93), Latin Americans are preoccupied by the plight of poor single mothers (140), Africans worry about the prohibitive cost of weddings (147) and Asians fret about excessive pressure on schoolchildren (76).

The term “consensus” is mentioned only once in the 25,000-word document – and then to describe its absence (119). The one major area of agreement it identifies is also negative: that the idea of natural law is “highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible” to the “vast majority” of respondents (21).

The text does say that “very many responses” called for simplified procedures for granting marriage annulments (96). But it qualifies this by saying that the requests came especially from Europe and North America, and listing a number of objections to the change (99). The text underlines geographical differences again and again.


Judging by the working document, the synod fathers may find it hard to find meaningful areas of consensus in October.

Given their vastly different cultural backgrounds and priorities, it’s hard, right now, to see how they can reach agreement on the most controversial and complex subjects such as Communion for the remarried.

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