Christopher McElroy

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Social media and the Synod on the Family

Described by John Allen as a ‘Soap Opera‘ the recent Synod of Bishops on the family was indeed a remarkable event.  The Relatio published at the end of the first week was described as a ‘pastoral earthquake‘ by John Thavis, but the final report published at the end of the synod watered down some of the more dramatic paragraphs of the relatio. 

The narrative painted by some commentators goes along the lines of:

– The more contentious sections of the relatio was written by Archbishop Bruno Forte, not necessarily reflecting the speeches made in the synod hall

– A conservative pushback occurred in the days after the publication of the relatio 

– The final document was a compromise document which weakened the proposals of the relatio, but went further than some of the more conservative fathers would have liked (and equally didn’t go far enough for some more progressive bishops.)

Of course, the context of this whole discussion was the Cardinal Kasper presentation to the College of Cardinals back in February (subsequently published in English) responded to by a book published containing chapters by five other cardinals.

The fault line of progressives and conservatives in the Church is nothing new.  Perhaps the last time that bishops gathered together and were given the opportunity to speak their mind in such a free manner was the Second Vatican Council.  At Vatican II there were also bishops who identified as progressive and conservative: however I would like to highlight a major difference between the conservative voice in Vatican II and the recent synod.

Described as a ‘groundbreaking work of cultural and historical sociology’ Melissa J Wilde’s book Vatican II: A Sociological Analysis of Religious Change proffered the thesis that the progressives at Vatican II, though small in number, were far better organised and prepared to work together to achieve common aims.  The conservatives, partly for ideological reasons (e.g. they didn’t believe in the idea of bishops acting together in groups such as episcopal conferences) struggled to present a unified and coherent argument.  Wilde highlights three ‘chains of occurrence’ (p 17-22: Election of the conciliar commissions/ the debate on the liturgy schema/ the rejection of the schema on the sources of Revelation) which shifted the momentum from the curia (who had prepared the groundwork for the council) to the progressive faction.

The conservative response in the recent synod I would suggest, was far stronger and better organised than during Vatican II (as demonstrated by Wilde’s analysis.)  This I would suggest was largely down to the power of the media, both traditional (books, newspapers etc) and social (Facebook, twitter, blogs etc).

In the first instance, the Cardinals who contributed to the book Remaining in the truth of Christ were able to respond to the original proposals of Cardinal Kasper in their own words.  Newspaper interviews from various leading synod participants outlined the key issues in the weeks and days leading up to the synod.  Surprisingly perhaps, the synod worked on a similar basis to Vatican II, whereby individual speeches during the first week were not immediately published, but rather a daily ‘summing up’ press briefing was given.  This of course allows those involved in such a press briefing to ‘control’ the message to be distilled.

Social media came to the fore upon the publication of the relatio on October 13th.  Conservatives rallied across Twitter, Facebook and blogs that church doctrine and teaching was being diluted.  Equally, the more conservative synod participants seized the opportunity during the Circuli Minores stage of the synod (small group discussion in common languages) to correct what they saw as misrepresentations of church teaching or doctrine.  Upon reconvening in the Synod Hall it was announced that the reports of the Circluli Minores would not be published, however a conservative outcry led to their publication being subsequently ordered.  It could be suggested that the Synod leadership had developed an awareness (due to the speed of social media) of just how much interest was being paid to the synod, and a growing insight into the importance of transparency.

A clear development therefore can be seen between the influence of the conservative faction at the recent synod as opposed to that at Vatican II.  Whereas most of the conservative positions ( particuarly at the outset) at Vatican II were (at best) diluted, at the synod the conservative voice was heard (particularly during the second week) and contributed to the weakening of some of the more contentious paragraphs of the previously published relatio.

Whether this strengthening of the conservative voice was due to better organisation amongst the more conservative synod members is unclear, but what is certain is that social media certainly played a role in both keeping synod participants abrest of how the relatio and other parts of the synod were being received around the world, and also succeeded in applying pressure which subsequently appears to have affected events at the synod itself, such as the publication of the reports of the Circuli Minores and the content of the final report itself.

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