The recent meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops in Baltimore attracted significant notice, with Kansas City’s Archbishop Joseph Naumann defeating Chicago’s Blase Cardinal Cupich for the leadership of the bishops’ influential pro-life committee. The contest between Naumann and Cupich was framed as a contest between the bishops’ historical focus on abortion as the primary pro-life issue and a return to the “seamless garment” approach popularized in the 1970s and 1980s by Detroit’s John Cardinal Dearden and Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. It is thought that the seamless garment approach is more in line with the views of Pope Francis.
Coverage of the race took a predictable turn. The U.S. bishops, we were told, are simply opposed to Francis’s agenda, and their choice is a way of resisting its implementation. This is nonsense—though the progressive narrative about the Church has its flaws, as well. The problem with the conventional wisdom about the Baltimore meeting is that it obscures important preparations by the bishops for the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment.
The bishops chose Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Archbishop José Gomez, and Bishop Robert Barron to represent the United States at the Synod next October. It is worth noting that Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop Gomez, and Archbishop Chaput had been chosen to attend the 2015 Synod on the Family, which led to Amoris laetitia. One probably should not read too much into the presence of DiNardo and Gomez in the delegation: As president and vice president of the bishops’ conference, they were practically guaranteed to be named.
The selection of Chaput and Barron is more interesting. Both prelates have extensive experience with the issues the Synod will be addressing, particularly vocations. Chaput, furthermore, hosted the World Meeting of Families in 2015. But both are also seen as out-of-step with the current pontificate. Though their selection should not be considered a rejection of Francis’s agenda, it does tell us something about how the U.S. bishops want to engage with the universal Church.
What the Vatican hopes to see at the Synod is another question. The preparatory document, released back in January, gives a sense. Clearly written by elderly and middle-aged men whose last experience of youth (or with youth) was in 1968 or so, this document is laden with references to young people’s suspicions of the stodgy old ways of doing things. There is little mention of the increasing indications that young people are hungry for tradition and beauty.
Consider this passage:
Pastoral vocational care . . . means to accept the invitation of Pope Francis: “going out”, primarily, by abandoning the rigid attitudes which make the proclamation of the joy of the Gospel less credible; “going out”, leaving behind a framework which makes people feel hemmed-in; and “going out”, by giving up a way of acting as Church which at times is out-dated.
Swap “Francis” for “Paul VI,” and you could not tell that this wasn’t written in 1970. Gone are both John Paul II’s visionary confidence and Benedict XVI’s careful restoration of continuity. Ignoring the young people who want a way to be authentically Catholic in the modern age, the Synod secretariat seems to want to reach the kids in bellbottoms yearning for the AMC Gremlin with the Levi’s denim interior.
Joshua McElwee, the National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent, informs us that the Synod of Bishops is going to leave open a survey aimed at youth through the end of the year. No doubt they want to get lots of data to support the conclusions they want to put in the final report. It will be a shame if the Synod becomes yet another opportunity for progressives and modernists to get their wish lists fulfilled before the next conclave. Francis understands better than most of his supporters that liberalism’s promises have by and large been a trap for young people. In Laudato si’, he perceptively wrote that “people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities.” This is especially true of young people.
It is possible to see in the American political controversies of the past year this lack of confidence. Whether it is the white nationalist rallies that garner media attention (if not mass attendance) or the various leftist demonstrations, it is clear that many young people no longer see a happy future, as Francis puts it, for themselves under liberalism. Though their responses may or may not be creditable, the impulse is hard to argue with. Francis, in fact, finds much wrong with the anthropocentric, technocratic society that modern liberalism has built. He calls for “a bold cultural revolution,” which would “recover the values and great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”
Given the clarity with which young people see the problems with modern society, and given their hunger for values and great goals, it seems that Francis would find support among the youth for his cultural revolution. So it is unfortunate to see the Synod secretariat falling into the shopworn slogans of the past fifty years. One hopes that the U.S. delegates to the Synod can move the discussions away from such out-of-touch views and toward a more realistic assessment of the issues confronting young people. If they do, they will be in line with Francis’s agenda, notwithstanding the proclamations of the pontiff’s partisans in the press.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.