Sunday 27 September 2015

Circoli Minori or Minor but Furious Whirlpools

At the Synod of the Family in October 2014, after the very controversial Relatio Post Disceptationem had been presented to the delegates, small groups (circoli minori) were set up in four language groups – French, English, Italian and Spanish.

When their reports were presented to the full session, the Synod Secretariat, under Cardinal Baldisseri, refused to publish them.

As Edward Pentin in his must-read book “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod” describes this decision resulted in a furious row:

Date: October 16, 2014
The synod fathers present the report of the circuli minors (small working groups) to the synod secretariat. Cardinal Baldisseri announces that they will not be made public, contrary to the established practice at synods. Numerous synod fathers, led by Cardinal Pell and including Cardinal Napier, Cardinal Parolin, and Archbishop Leonard of Brussels, protest vigorously and demand publication. Pell says people have a right to hear what bishops are saying. The secretariat is reportedly booed and jeered for a few minutes. During this time, Cardinal Baldisseri and other members of the secretariat sit in silence. Pope Francis eventually nods his head to indicate that the reports can be published.

Even now these reports do not appear with the Synod documentation but on the Vatican Press website. Thanks to Edward Pentin I have been able to find them. Each of the ten groups had a Moderator and a Relator together with about 15 or 16 other Synod fathers with some extras.

French Language Groups

The first French language group had the redoubtable Cardinal Robert Sarah as Moderator. He is the author of “Dieu ou rien” (shortly to appear in English) which is the most amazing testament I have read in years; clearly a man in the model of St John Paul II and papabile. His relator was Monsignor Dumortier S.J appointed by Pope Benedict to be Rector of the Gregorian University. Presumably it is the relator who is speaking when he says that they did not limit themselves to amending the Relatio Post Disceptationem (RPD) but to actually rewriting it.

However, the texts they proposed for rewriting have not been published so even the publication of these reports of the Circoli Minori is deficient. The relator goes on to mention the emotion and the dismay that the RPD provoked which did not help reflection. He goes on to explain that the problems are different in different parts of the Church and that therefore local Churches should have a certain autonomy in looking for answers to the pastoral problems in each locality. I suspect this meant that what might appear important in say Germany might not be so in Africa.

Indeed, he speaks of the problems for families caused by poverty and inhuman misery: “misery surrounding big cities … situations of violence and war”.

They rewrote the second part of the RPD with a text centred on Christ upon whom marriage is founded. In respect of marriage problems they ask for respect for those involved but also the need to encourage repentance and help for them. However, they also say attention must be paid to faithful marriages besieged by poverty, unemployment, sickness, mourning, sterility and difficulties with the education of children.

They insist upon maintaining the existing teaching on remarriage and exclusion from the sacraments but at the same time call for a review of the annulment procedures. As to homosexuality they clearly support the current teaching as set out in the Catechism. They end by calling for a deeper reflection on all these problems before the next Synod.

The second French language group had Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna as Moderator – a man of paradoxical views – but his Relator was Archbishop Andre Leonard of Belgium who took over from Cardinal Daneels and was indeed a total contrast to his predecessor.

They posed two questions:

  • How to unite doctrine and discipline in a manner which would not shock either son in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
  • How to take account of the differing pastoral problems throughout the world at the same as respecting the catholicity and universality of the Church.

Whilst regretting the turgid, wandering, excessively verbose and thus generally boring style of the RPD (their words not mine!) they made several changes as follows:

  • They voted (9 for, 5 against, 4 abstentions) to take out any mention of graduality and 'seeds of the Word' as these expressions might be interpreted as justifying sinful situations.
  • They did not agree on communion for the remarried – some going for the existing discipline; others for a different discipline but not specifying what.
  • They recommended further study of spiritual communion for those who could not receive eucharistic communion.
  • They insisted on mercy in order to conduct people to a way of truth, conversion and peace.
  • They reiterated the current teaching on homosexuality and deplored the manoeuvres of international organisations trying to blackmail poor countries into accepting 'gay marriage',
  • They wanted Humanae Vitae to be properly presented.

English Language Groups

The first English language group had Cardinal Burke as Moderator and Archbishop Dew from New Zealand as Relator - any pair further apart it would be difficult to find. They propose several major and minor amendments to the RPD but again not published. They wanted an introduction based on theology and said the RPD “must proclaim the truth of the Gospel, the truth of human life and sexuality as revealed by Christ”. Even though only a pastoral document it must have “references to the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterial documents”.

If the methodology was to be listen, judge, act the listening or seeing must be “through the lens of the Gospel”. They would prefer see to listen.

On cohabitation they wrote:

“For example, where the Relatio appeared to be suggesting that sex outside marriage may be permissible…then concerned parents could very easily say, 'Why are we trying so hard to encourage our sons and daughters to live the Gospel and embrace Church teaching?'”

They did not recommend communion for the divorced and remarried. They criticised the presentation of the principle of graduality and conclude by saying the Relatio must not be confusing.

The second English language group had Cardinal Napier Archbishop of Durban and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin – again a contrasting pair! This group was overwhelmingly from Africa and Asia. “The uditores (sic) and a fraternal delegate contributed significantly to the reflection of the group”.

The group felt strongly that the RPD was much too concerned with problems and lacked enthusiasm about marriage. Again, they wanted an introduction so that the Word of God and the beauty of the Gospel of Marriage would be central to the final report.

“The group asked me to record explicitly its concern about some of the conclusions drawn in the Relatio, about its methodology, its complicated language (compounded by poor translation) and of the effects of its publication before it had been reviewed by the Synodal Fathers.”

Further on they wrote:

“Many in the group felt that a young person reading the Relatio would if anything become even less enthusiastic about undertaking the challenging vocation of Christian matrimony.”

They wanted leadership from the Church and some wanted pastors to recognise their “own failures and their inadequacies in fostering support for families”. They wanted the final report to be an encouragement to those committed and witnessing to the Christian ideal and not to allow those, who do not, to steal the narrative. There is then a bit of waffle from one member (Martin?) about “knocking on forbidden doors”.

Their conclusions were to maintain the existing teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage even if it is presented in a new way. There is an unacknowledged reference to Familiaris Consortio saying how the divorced and remarried should be encouraged to 'attendance at Mass'. The Secretariat in the Instrumentum Laboris 2015 have deliberately misquoted the same document as 'participation in the celebration of the Eucharist'.

  • They did not want any reference to “positive elements” in irregular situations. They supported the existing teaching on homosexuality. 
  • They wanted Humanae Vitae to be promoted. They want a study on the problem of polygamy amongst new converts by the Bishops in Africa.
  • Finally, they wanted an emphasis on the role of Our Lady 'our Blessed Mother' in the lives of the married.

The third English language group had Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville as Moderator and Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town as Relator.

They said they were surprised by the release of the RPD to the media. They went on to set out the teaching of the Church on marriage evidently seeing this as not having been mentioned in the RPD. They continue:

“We strongly felt that the tone of the entire document should express our confidence in marriage”. 

Married people need encouragement and those not married should be encouraged to see the beauty of marriage. They do not want insipid solutions for those in irregular situations rather than Christ's words “go and sin no more”. Generally pastoral care of marriage should be encouraged and improved.

Italian Language Group

The first Italian language group was moderated by Cardinal Filoni and related by Archbishop Menichelli of Ancona-Osimo.

My Italian is not great so I my understanding of their reports may be deficient. They refer to the problem of migration and also how bio-technology is turning the family into an experimental laboratory.

  • They criticise the use of 'graduality' in the RPD and ask the Secretariat to rewrite that part in particular emphasising the theology of marriage and its scriptural basis.
  • The family must be recognised as a pastoral subject and there is a need for all, including the clergy, to improve pastoral care. In particular they did not like the heading “Positive Aspects of Civil Unions and Cohabitation” but wanted it changed to “Pastoral Care”.
  • On communion for the divorced and remarried they recommend study of Familiaris Consortio which gives the current teaching that the divorce and remarried cannot receive communion unless they regularise their situation.
  • They refuse to equate 'gay marriage' with true marriage and say that children should have a father and a mother.

The second Italian language group had Cardinal Bagnasco Archbishop of Genoa as Moderator and Archbishop Fisichella as Relator. It will be remembered that the latter was removed from the dicastery for the Family after a vote of no confidence because of his questionable views on abortion.

  • They wanted a more positive view of the family based on the Gospel and not a disproportionate part devoted to irregular situations. 
  • They mention various aspects of marriage including adoption. They want the Word of God and not some populist measures. 
  • They quote Ezechial (3, 17-19) on the subject of responsibility for correcting the wrong-doer viz:

Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.  If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life.

The third Italian language group was moderated by Archbishop Massafra of Shkodre-Pult, Albania and related by Father Manuel Conde described as a Spanish expert.

  • They said that the larger part of the fathers were surprised at the public distribution of the RPD. There were two different views on its content. They wanted the first part to insist that the only form of marriage which corresponds to the teaching of the Church is that between a man and a woman. 
  • They wanted greater emphasis on this teaching based on both scripture and the magisterium. They criticise the wrong use of 'graduality' and wanted it cut out. 
  • They wanted more on the riches of marriage as the world urgently needed such a message.

On homosexuality they wanted a return to the text of the instrumentum laboris. Presumably they wanted that document's reference to the text of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family.”

They wanted the annulment process to be looked at again. A majority wanted some process to enable the divorced and reamarried to receive communion under precise conditions (not defined) but there were strong objections to this.

Spanish Language Group

The first Spanish language group was moderated by Cardinal Robles Ortega Archbishop of Guadelajara, Mexico and related by Archbishop Quiroga of Tunja, Colombia.

This group was made up of 17 fathers from the Synod, a priest expert, three assessor priests and four very competent lay people. They lamented the terrible translation of the RPD!

  • They said the first thing that should have appeared was a salute to all those families who live according to the doctrines of the Church as well as the parishes and lay movements who promote the gospel of the family.
  • They said the present crisis arose from a crisis of faith which ignored God. 
  • They wanted a fuller account of the demographic crisis arising from low natality which leads to IVF and destroys the dignity of human love. They saw the necessity to denounce female genital mutilation, prostitution and sex slavery. They mention the problem of street children, often without families, and the general exploitation of childhood.
  • They wanted an explicit reference to the teaching St John Paul II. However they go on to praise the parts about finding Seeds of the Word in irregular situations but they want those concerned to follow the call of Christ until they enjoy the fullness of communion and divine grace.
  • They want better pre-marital teaching particularly with regard to chastity and purity which are absolutely essential. They need to learn to pardon each other.
  • Divorced people who do not remarry are heroic witnesses to indissolubility and fidelity.
  • With regard to homosexuality the document should speak of people with homosexual tendencies and not homosexuals.
  • They wanted mention of the role of Our Lady.
  • This group did suggest specific amendments of the RPD which are included in their text.

The second Spanish language group had Cardinal Martinez Sistach Archbishop of Barcelona as Moderator and Mgr Rodolfo Nuez Bishop of Verapaz, Guatemala as Relator. The text deals only with points on which there was consensus.

  • They start by saying they thought the RPD was a fair representation of what had been discussed but they said it was capable of improvement.
  • There must be greater clarity about the propositions regarding communion for the divorced and remarried. The same for annulments.
  • They said it lacked emphasis on important subjects such as abortion, murder, adoption, and conscientious decisions by spouses. Homosexuality need to be dealt with more clearly. All this needed to be studied before the 2015 session of the Synod.
  • They did not like the substitution of listen/judge/act for see/judge/act. God sees it all!
  • The RPD does not sufficiently emphasise the positive message of the gospel of the family in concentrating on the pastoral problems.
  • Finally whilst this is a pastoral Synod there must be insistence on basic doctrine. They mention the teachings of the Popes from Paul VI onwards.
  • They want to underline the lights of the family and the importance of matrimony, to affirm the doctrine and to give life to family pastoral action, in the hope that the Synod will shed light and give directions on the new matrimonial situations.

Commentary and conclusion

As to the composition of these group besides the Synod Fathers (generally about 17 or 18) in each group there were others. Edward Pentin reports that:

“Various synod fathers recall, that during the circoli minores, figures known for their sympathies to the Kasperian proposal would be present at each of the small groups. If one left, he would be replaced by another.” 

It sounds rather like the role of political commissars under the Soviets. Summarising the views on the various issues there is a pattern in the papers of the Circoli Minori.

  • On communion for the divorced and remarried six of the groups came out definitely against it, three wanted further study and clarity and only one – the 3rd Italian – seemed to be in favour subject to precise conditions which they did not specify.
  • In respect of homosexuality the current teaching was insisted on by all with the possible exception of the 2nd Spanish group who wanted the position to be stated more clearly.
  • There was support for reviewing the annulment process but not with any great precision.
  • Those who mentioned Humanae Vitae wanted it to be better taught.
  • There was only one group – the 2nd Spanish group – who thought the RPD reflected what had been discussed and I think they were just being polite. Others were pretty dismissive of it and objected strongly to how it had been released to the media before even the Synod fathers had seen it.
  • They all thought the RPD was insufficiently positive about marriage and lacked any setting out of the teaching of the Church both scriptural and magisterial. They criticised the lack of any reference to the role of Our Lady.
  • The misinterpretation of 'Graduality' came in for a deal of criticism from four groups and no one supported it.

Examining each group's contribution:

First French: The idea of local autonomy is not about doctrine but about different pastoral problems – Germany may be concerned with second marriages and homosexuality but Africa is more concerned with poverty, polygamy, migrant workers etc.

Second French: Basically orthodox presumably with Archbishop Leonard being a firm hand.

First English: Evidently Cardinal Burke dominated over Archbishop Dew. But, surprise, surprise, Pope Francis by dismissing Cardinal Burke from the Apostolic Signatory has ensured that he will not be attending the 2015 session. On the other hand the Pope has since created Dew as a Cardinal and although the New Zealand hierarchy did not select him as their representative for the next session, the Pope has issued a personal invitation to Cardinal Dew to attend. I could not possibly comment!

Second English group: Here again one suspects Cardinal Napier had to see off Archbishop Martin in asserting orthodoxy. The latter was left to knock on “forbidden doors” whatever that meant. Lets not speculate.

Third English group: Wanted a more positive document on marriage.

First Italian group: Got its request fulfilled that the heading “Positive Aspects of Civil Unions and Cohabitation” should be changed to “Pastoral Care of Civil Unions and Cohabitation” in the Relatio Synodi.

Second Italian group: Cardinal Bagnasco must have frightened the horses with his very apt quotation from Ezechiel asserting the need for fraternal correction and warning that those who fail to correct the sinner will suffer the same fate as the sinner

Third Italian group: Was entirely orthodox.

First Spanish group: Led by Latin American Bishops one might have expected that this would be other than orthodox but it was not. They made several specific suggestions with new wordings most of which were subsequently ignored in the final Relatio Synodi although sometimes the points they raised were covered by other wordings. One point they did get in was saying that the merciful thing to do was to tell the truth although the attribution to St Augustine was left out. Their suggestion that purity and chastity should be taught to the young was ignored completely so there is no mention of either. However their suggestion about couples learning to pardon each other was included. But their final suggestion that the innocent victims of divorce who did not remarry should be regarded as heroic was also ignored.

Second Spanish group: From Barcelona and Guatemala was the only one to say they liked the RPD. However they too wanted more clarity. I am afraid they hope to square the circle as to opposing concepts of doctrine and discipline.

One point raised by at least two of the groups was that they did not like 'listen/judge/act' but preferred 'see/judge/act'. I presume they are suggesting that one should see the reality on the ground rather than listening to experts propounding academic theories which have little basis in reality – very much a feature of the later Shadow Synod in May 2015.

Generally speaking, as I have mentioned in my comments in another paper, the final Relatio Synodi was a great improvement on the RPD but there was still considerable work to be done not least in what was omitted. Looking at the voting patterns in the 2014 session of the Synod and the partial accounts of what was discussed in these Circoli Minori the majority of the fathers wanted to keep with orthodoxy. However the Instrumentum Laboris 2015 taken one step back with the secretariat doing their best to promote the agenda of the Kasper Kampf.

Let us hope and pray that the orthodox majority of the fathers do not lose their nerve.


  1. Cardinal Burke, in his keynote address in Steubenville (I think it was there), praised the analysis of the Synod of the Family by Matthew McCusker, of Voice of the Family. So, I looked up the analysis which is in a .pdf file, available here, if links are allowed:

    While McCusker acknowledges the successful efforts of the orthodox Cardinals to improve the interim document, he maintains this about the final document:

    "The document remains gravely flawed however because, despite the amendments that have been made, the approach adopted in the interim report remains fundamentally unchanged. This approach, as we will demonstrate in this analysis, is a serious threat to the integrity of the Catholic faith."

    I would encourage all to read the analysis. Unfortunately, I am not good at summarizing, so cannot provide a summary here. The document is certainly enlightening, and shows the grave danger to the Faith, if one accepts the 'interpretative key' promoted by the 'Synod Management'.

    1. geneticallycatholic: Thank you for that. All I can say is that the final Relatio Synodi was an improvement! What I have hoped to show is how the other Fathers objected so strongly to the first RPD. The extent to which the Secretariat is trying to influence the Synod and countermand the views of the majority is truly wondrous. If the final Relatio Synodi was less than perfect the Instrumentum Laboris 2015 has made it much worse. I trust we will have fireworks at the upcoming session!


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