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Over the past several months, I’ve received scores of emails and letters from laypeople, clergy, theologians, and other scholars, young and old, with their thoughts regarding the October synod of bishops in Rome focused on young people. Nearly all note the importance of the subject matter. Nearly all praise the synod’s intent. And nearly all raise concerns of one sort or another about the synod’s timing and possible content. The critique below, received from a respected North American theologian, is one person’s analysis; others may disagree. But it is substantive enough to warrant much wider consideration and discussion as bishop-delegates prepare to engage the synod’s theme. Thus, I offer it here:

 Principal theological difficulties in the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) for the 2018 synod: 

I.  Naturalism 

The IL displays a pervasive focus on socio-cultural elements, to the exclusion of deeper religious and moral issues. Though the document expresses the desire to “re-read” “concrete realities” “in the light of the faith and the experience of the Church (§4),” the IL regrettably fails to do so. Specific examples: 

  • §52. After a discussion of the contemporary instrumentalized conception of the body and its effects of “early sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, digital pornography, exhibiting bodies online and sexual tourism,” the document laments only its “disfiguring the beauty and depth of affective and sex life.” No mention is made about the disfigurement of the soul, its consequent spiritual blindness, and impact on the reception of the gospel by the one so wounded.
  • §144. There is much discussion about what young people want; little about how these wants must be transformed by grace in a life that conforms to God’s will for their lives. After pages of analysis of their material conditions, the IL offers no guidance on how these material concerns might be elevated and oriented toward their supernatural end. Though the IL does offer some criticism of exclusively materialistic/utilitarian goals (§147), the majority of the document painstakingly catalogues the varied socio-economic and cultural realities of young adults while offering no meaningful reflection on spiritual, existential, or moral concerns. The reader may easily conclude that the latter are of no importance to the Church. The IL rightfully notes that the Church must encourage youth “to abandon the constant search for small certainties (§145).” Nowhere, however, does it note that she must also enlarge this view with the great certainty that there is a God, that he loves them, and that he wills their eternal good.
  • This naturalism is also evidenced in the document's preoccupation with the following considerations: globalization (§10); advocating for the Church’s role in creating “responsible citizens” rather than saints (§147) and preparing youth for their role in society (§135); secular goals for education (§149); promoting sustainability and other secular goals (§152-154); promoting “social and political engagement” as a “true vocation” (§156); encouragement of “networking” as a role of the Church.
  • The hope of the gospel is noticeably missing. In §166, in the context of a discussion of sickness and suffering, a disabled man is quoted: “you are never prepared enough to live with a disability: it prompts you to ask questions about your own life, and wonder about your finiteness.” These are existential questions for which the Church possesses the answers. The IL never responds to this quotation with a discussion of the Cross, redemptive suffering, providence, sin, or the Divine Love. The IL is similarly weak on the question of death in §171: suicide is described as merely “unfortunate,” and no attempt is made to correlate it to the failures of a materialistic ethos. This is also seen in the tepid treatment of addiction (§49-50). 

II.  An inadequate grasp of the Church’s spiritual authority 

The IL upends the respective roles of the ecclesia docens and the ecclesia discens. The entire document is premised on the belief that the principal role of the magisterial Church is “listening.” Most problematic is §140: “The Church will have to opt for dialogue as her style and method, fostering an awareness of the existence of bonds and connections in a complex reality. . . . No vocation, especially within the Church, can be placed outside this outgoing dynamism of dialogue . . . . [emphasis added].” In other words, the Church does not possess the truth but must take its place alongside other voices. Those who have held the role of teacher and preacher in the Church must replace their authority with dialogue. (In this regard, see also §67-70). 

  • The theological consequence of this error is the conflation of the baptismal and sacramental priesthood. From the foundation of the Church, by divine command, the ordained ministers of the Church have been invested with the task of teaching and preaching; from her foundation, the baptized faithful have been tasked with hearing and conforming to the preached Word. Moreover, the mandate of preaching is co-instituted by Our Lord with the ministerial priesthood itself (Cf. Mt 28:19-20). Were the Church to abandon her ministry of preaching, that is, were the roles of the teaching Church and the listening Church to be inverted, the hierarchy itself would be inverted, and the ministerial priesthood would collapse into the baptismal priesthood. In short, we would become Lutherans.
  • Apart from this serious ecclesiological problem, this approach presents a pastoral problem. It is common knowledge that adolescents from permissive households typically yearn for parents to care enough to set limits and give direction, even if they rebel against this direction. Similarly, the Church as mother and teacher cannot through negligence or cowardice forfeit this necessary role of setting limits and directing (Cf. §178). In this regard §171, which points to the motherhood of the Church, does not go far enough. It offers only a listening and accompanying role while eliminating that of teaching.

III.  A partial theological anthropology

Discussion of the human person in the IL fails to make any mention of the will. The human person is reduced in numerous places to “intellect and desire,” “reason and affectivity” (§147). The Church, however, teaches that man, created in the image of God, possesses an intellect and will, while sharing with the rest of the animal kingdom a body, with its affect. It is the will that is fundamentally directed toward the good. The theological consequence of this glaring omission is extraordinarily important, since the seat of the moral life resides in the will and not in the vicissitudes of the affect. Other examples include §114 and §118. 

IV.  A relativistic conception of vocation

Throughout the document the impression is given that vocation concerns the individual’s search for private meaning and truth. Examples include: 

  • §129. What is meant by “personal form of holiness?” Or, one’s “own truth?” This is relativism. While the Church certainly proposes the personal appropriation of truth and holiness, Scripture is very clear that God, the First Truth, is One; the devil is legion.
  • §139 gives the impression that the Church cannot propose the (singular) truth to people and that they must decide for themselves. The role of the Church consists only in accompaniment. This false humility risks diminishing the legitimate contributions that the Church can and ought to make.
  • §157. Why should the Church be about “supporting pathways to change lifestyles?” This in conjunction with exhortations for youth to take responsibility for their own lives (§62) and to construct meaning for themselves (§7, §68-69) gives the impression that absolute truth is not found in God. 

V.  An impoverished understanding of Christian joy 

Christian spirituality and the moral life are reduced to the affective dimension, clearest in §130, evidenced by a sentimentalist conception of “joy.” Joy seems to be a purely affective state, a happy emotion, sometimes grounded in the body or human love (§76), sometimes in social engagement (§90). Despite its constant reference to “joy,” nowhere does the IL describe it as the fruit of the theological virtue of charity. Nor is charity characterized as the proper ordering of love, putting God first and then ordering all other loves with reference to God. 

  • The theological consequence of this is that the IL lacks any theology of the Cross. Christian joy is not antithetical to suffering, which is a necessary component of a cruciform life. The document gives the impression that the true Christian will be “happy” at all times, in the colloquial sense. It further implies the error that the spiritual life itself will always result in felt (affective) joy. The pastoral problem that results from this comes to the fore most clearly in §137: Is it the role of the Church to make youth “feel loved by him [God]” or to aid them in knowing they are loved regardless of how they might feel? 

Besides the above considerations, there are other serious theological concerns in the IL, including: a false understanding of the conscience and its role in the moral life; a false dichotomy proposed between truth and freedom; false equivalence between dialogue with LGBT youth and ecumenical dialogue; and an insufficient treatment of the abuse scandal. 

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Philadelphia and a member of the Synod of Bishops’ permanent council. His council term will conclude in October.

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