Rorate Caeli

Book Review (and exclusive interview with Father Joseph Fessio): The Rigging of a Synod, by Edward Pentin

The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? by Edward Pentin

a guest book-review for Rorate Caeli,
 by Maike Hickson

In addition to the recent publication of the two pre-Synod books written by prelates of the Catholic Church, namely the Eleven Cardinals Book and the African Prelates Book, a book written by a reliably faithful layman is also of great importance in the wider preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family. Edward Pentin, the well-respected Vatican Correspondent, has published with Ignatius Press a new book, interrogatively entitled The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? And the author's question mark in the main title was intentional and emphatic so that the reader may more freely draw his own cumulative conclusions. The subtitle of the book is An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. In the book, he presents the results of his research in Rome and elsewhere concerning the many weighty proofs that the last Synod on the Family was intentionally manipulated in order to promote a more liberalizing message concerning marriage and the family.

In preparation for this book review, I thought to ask Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., the founder and editor of Ignatius Press, a few questions about the book to which Father Fessio has kindly responded. I will present that brief interview here first, before discussing the book itself.

Q: What was the reason why you accepted to publish Pentin's book on the manipulations at the last Synod?

Father Fessio: We decided to publish it because it was an accurate, well-researched account of the ways in which the extraordinary synod of 2014 was manipulated in an attempt to shape the outcome according to the agenda of an activist minority. Pope Francis has called for greater transparency in the Church and we are doing what we can to help him achieve that.

Q: What is your own reasoning concerning the problem as to how to present potentially scandalous material about events in Rome without thereby undermining the authority of Rome?

Father Fessio: In my experience, attempts to avoid scandal have led to much greater scandal. Innocent people should be protected. Those who are not innocent have themselves to blame if their machinations are made public.

Q: What are your own expectations about the upcoming 2015 Synod in Rome? Are we again to expect another undue influencing of the discussions, and of the later presentations of those discussions to the public?

Father Fessio: Because of the reporting of Edward Pentin and others like him, it will be much more difficult for anyone to have an undue influence on the outcome of the synod. There is now a heightened level of scrutiny and awareness on the part of all synod participants.

Q: In your eyes, how will the recent September 8 move by Pope Francis, to make the annulment process easier, affect the discussions to be held at the upcoming Synod?

Father Fessio: Some will say it reduced the need for the “Kasper accommodation”. Others will say (and have already said) it is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough. Still others will express concern about the confusion that has resulted both from some of the provisions of the new motu proprio itself, and from of the process by which it was prepared and announced.

Father Fessio is to be honored for publishing Pentin's account of many reliable facts concerning the last Synod. Pentin himself, in a recent interview (, expressively said that he intended to provide the reader with the sufficient information in order that he can make his own assessment and judgment. When I asked him about the broken trust in the Synod process and how to restore it, Edward Pentin stressed: “It seems somehow ludicrous for one side to have to propose that those upholding orthodoxy be given fair representation at a Vatican synod, but that’s where we are.”
Pentin intended with his book to help the next Synod “to be more open, fair, and honest,” as he points out in his own book. He was able to interview many sources from within the Synod secretariat and from among Synod members – many of them then wanting to remain anonymous. This is due, I believe, to his reputation as a very fair, calm, intellectually differentiated and well-researched journalist.

This British journalist addresses, first of all, the problem of the Interim Report (Relatio post disceptationem) of the October 2014 Synod, which was described by many critics as not representing “the majority view of the synod's participants or the discussion that had occurred during the week and was issued without them seeing it.” As to the question of homosexuals, Pentin describes how only three Synod Fathers even talked about this issue during the first week of the Synod, so that it is evident that the paragraphs in the Interim Report were not flowing out of the deeper discussion held at the Synod.

Most troublingly, as Pentin shows, the Synod Fathers themselves only heard about the official report after the media had been informed about it. He reports:

“Cardinal Napier remembered listening to the BBC in the morning and hearing the reporters 'telling us how the Catholic Church was changing its policy on gay unions on this, that, and the other regard. We hadn't even discussed this thing, where is this coming from? When the document was read to us, we learned where it was coming from.'”

As just this one example shows, the procedures, as planned and exercised by the Synod Secretariat, could also remind one more of a Communist coup d'etat than a serious Vatican doctrinal and pastoral operation oriented toward the preservation of the fullness of the Catholic Faith. Pentin also shows that Pope Francis – who had put the major leader of this rigged Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldissieri, into this formidable position and also then worked closely with him – had earlier given his own full approval to the scandalous Interim Report before it was presented to the public. Pentin says:

“Eventually, nearly four months after the synod, Lorenzo Baldissieri, secretary general of the synod of bishops, acknowledged that the pope had 'seen and approved' the document.” 

But not only this, Pope Francis had also put Bishop Bruno Forte into his position as Special Secretary from which he could inordinately influence the Interim Report, and Forte himself put in the passages about homosexuality which were not at all coming out of the earlier discussions at the Synod. He also now remains in this important position again at the upcoming October 2015 Synod, even though his own conduct had (and has) gravely damaged the trustworthiness of the Synod procedures themselves. The same applies to Cardinal Baldissieri whom Pope Francis also decided to keep in his position as General Secretary.

Edward Pentin himself also quotes critiques about Pope Francis' personnel decisions:

“Why, they [the critics] argued, would Pope Francis have appointed people who were also supportive of the Kasper position to run the synod if he were not himself supportive of Kasper's position?” 

Additionally, Pentin is able to show how Cardinal Baldissieri was pressuring the kindly and somewhat pliant Cardinal Peter Erdö – the General Relator of the Synod – into re-writing the Interim Report and thereby himself softening the clearer Catholic message at the beginning of the document. As one source told Pentin: “'Every reference to truth, the Word, bothered Baldissieri,' the scholar observed. 'That's Baldissieri,' he said. 'He wanted mercy, a lot of mercy, less truth.'” Erdö himself, as we all know, distanced himself from parts of the document at the official press conference when he handed to floor to Bishop Forte, saying “he who wrote the text must know what it is talking about .” Later – and perhaps ironically – Cardinal Erdö even called the Interim Report “my so-called document.”

Cardinal Kasper and his close collaborator, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, both stressed after the first Synod on the Family in 2014, that it was all about changing “the application of the doctrine” – while claiming that “doctrine cannot change.” However, according to Pentin, one Vatican expert even specifically pointed to the Gramscian method of changing first the culture which then would also affect the formative doctrine itself: “It's about changing the Catholic culture: a subtle way of changing doctrine but without doing so directly or overtly. It's sheer Gramsci.”

Indeed, there needed to be a strong and intense reaction, from the inside of the Synod itself, by some Synod Fathers in order to be able to stop the most overt attempts to manipulate the Synod. When Cardinal Baldissieri announced that the reports about the discussions of the second week of the Synod would not be published, it was Cardinal George Pell who “slammed his hand on the table and insisted that people had a right to hear what the bishops were saying.” He was supported by “thunderous and lengthy applause.” Pentin continues: “During this time, Cardinal Baldissieri and other members of the secretariat sat in silence. After Baldissieri's suggestion of a vote was so unanimously shouted down, that Pope Francis eventually nodded his head to indicate that the reports could be published and let it go.”

How is it, one could (and should) ask, that a Pope who so repeatedly asks for openness and dialogue, is then shown to be presiding over such a scandalous Vatican event and he does not even make a course-correction after such a resistance develops? It seems, however, that the primary managers of the upcoming Synod have already adjusted the procedures in such a way, that there will now be no official documents at all that will be published. As the famous Vatican expert Sandro Magister reports:

“So, this time there will be no “Relatio post disceptationem” halfway through the work, after a first phase of free discussion about everything, as in the synod of October 2014. Nor will there be a final message this time, seeing that there is no longer as in the past a commission charged with writing one.”

That means that the direction into which the Synod is to be maneuvered will be even less visible now and, therefore, likely much more difficult both to understand and to combat. If there are no official recordings of the discussions, one can afterwards more easily manipulate the ostensible message of the Synod, and, by that time, the Synod Fathers themselves will have already likely left Rome and gone home again.

Very fittingly and earnestly do I thus recommend Edward Pentin's excellent book to the reader, that it may be closely read and savored in its entirety. He has put so much work into it, and has written it with integrity, out of love and concern for our beloved Church. May he one day receive the honors and gratitude he deserves from the Church for this