Anyone looking for a remedy for insomnia might try working through the Instrumentum Laboris, or “working document,” for the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to be held in Rome next month on the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” The IL is a 30,000-plus-word brick: a bloated, tedious doorstop full of sociologese but woefully lacking in spiritual or theological insight. Moreover, and more sadly, the IL has little to say about “the faith” except to hint on numerous occasions that its authors are somewhat embarrassed by Catholic teaching—and not because that teaching has been betrayed by churchmen of various ranks, but because that teaching challenges the world’s smug sureties about, and its fanatical commitment to, the sexual revolution in all its expressions.
A gargantuan text like this can’t seriously be considered as a basis for discussion at the Synod. No text of more than 30,000 words, even if written in a scintillating and compelling style, can be a discussion guide. The IL for Synod-2018 reads, rather, like a draft of a Synod Final Report. And that is a prescription for a failed Synod.
So what might the participants in Synod-2018 do to salvage a useful discussion in October?
They might challenge the IL’s oft-repeated claim that young people want a “Church that listens.” That is so obvious as to be a thumping banality: No one, young or old, wants a Church that’s a nagging, unsympathetic nanny. And yes, young people (and the rest of us) want a “Church that listens” in spiritual direction and confession to the difficulties we all experience in living and sharing the Gospel and in obeying God’s law. But above all, and perhaps especially in this time of grave troubles, what young people want (and what the rest of us want, at least in the living parts of the Church) is a Church that lives joyfully, teaches clearly, manifests holiness, offers comfort and support to the needy—and answers our questions clearly and honestly. Young people (and the rest of us) do not want a pandering Church, but an evangelically vibrant Church that manifests and offers friendship with Jesus Christ.
Synod participants might also emphasize that the clarity of Catholic teaching on life issues attracts many young people today, precisely because that clarity is in sharp contrast to the incoherence about what makes for human happiness that people of all ages increasingly detect in the lifestyle libertinism of contemporary Western culture. Someone at Synod-2018 should, for example, talk about the experience of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., which, for years now, has become both larger and younger.
Success stories in youth ministry should be persistently, even relentlessly, lifted up at Synod-2018. The IL betrays a soured sense of incapacity, even failure. Yet the past thirty years or so have seen a renaissance in young adult ministry. So let someone at Synod-2018 talk about the impressive record of Christian formation compiled by campus ministries like that at Texas A&M University. Let someone at the Synod tell the world Church about the intellectual and spiritual achievements of orthodox, academically vibrant Catholic liberal arts colleges and universities in the United States. Let someone bear witness to the great work being done on over a hundred campuses by FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which singularly embodies the “Church permanently in mission” of which the pope speaks. And let’s hope there’s room at Synod-2018 for churchmen to learn about the work of the World Youth Alliance, an international network of pro-life young adults on all continents, whose work is explicitly based on the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person.
Synod-2018’s IL contains no reflection on why St. John Paul II was a magnet for millions of young people, which surely had something to do with both his compassion and his clarity about the truth. Fr. Karol Wojtyla, who later became John Paul II, led a young adult ministry of challenging spiritual accompaniment a half-century before “accompaniment” became code in some Catholic circles for “[This hard teaching] is really a goal or ideal.” So let Synod-2018 rescue “accompaniment” and link it to the truth that liberates.
That’s the least the Church deserves in this time of purification.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.