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As the Synod Opens….

 Rome is putting on its best autumnal face as Synod-2018 opens. The days are full of high, blue skies, sunshine, and warmth without humidity; the evenings are pleasantly cool. A friend noted this past Sunday that the city seems less graffiti-ridden than in the past, and while the usual chaos prevails on the streets and sidewalks, the alert visitor never loses the sense of walking along the pathways of more than two millennia of history, even when dodging cars and motorini. When the pasta is al dente, the pollo arrosto is in the wood-burning oven, the wine is flowing freely, and gelato con fragole is on the horizon, it’s easy to forget that Italy is essentially ungovernable, that Europe and indeed the entire West is in a crisis of democratic conviction, that the United States is displaying many of the characteristics of a banana republic—and that a lot of the Catholic Church is, to put it gently, stressed out.

The latter helps explain why there has been little anticipatory buzz about Synod-2018, “On Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” Four years ago, prior to the extraordinary Synod on the family, Catholics were still in the glow of a fresh pontificate that seemed full of promise. In 2015, when this exercise in theological journalism began, those at the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, those participating in the Synod’s “Off Broadway” dimensions,  fellow-scribes, and serious Catholics looked forward, with both anxiety and relish, to a global reflection on the dignity of married love and family life, and a good, strong debate about the sacramental character of marriage and the Church’s Eucharistic discipline. There is not much of that sense of excited anticipation surrounding Synod-2018. Why, requires some unpacking.

A Church in Crisis?

“Crisis” is perhaps the most overused word deployed in describing Catholicism these days, and it’s important to stress that the Church is manifestly not in crisis in its growth areas, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Your editor recently had a conversation with a Nigerian Dominican, a theologian and educator, who was quite emphatic on this point: Whatever the mess in which Catholicism in the West found itself, especially in terms of the relationship between clarity of doctrine and evangelization, that wasn’t the case in his part of the Church. So it’s always important to keep in mind that, whatever is afoot in North America and Europe, that is by no means a complete measure of world Catholicism.

That being said, however, there is no denying that a good part of the historic Catholic heartland, and that European heartland’s expressions in the American hemisphere, is in serious trouble.

Some fifty years ago, scholars spoke of “the Rhine flowing into the Tiber,” a metaphor for the leading role German theologians had played at the recently-completed Second Vatican Council; today, too much of the Church in Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland is both dying and in de facto schism, living a different ecclesial reality than the evangelically vibrant parts of the world Church. The German bishops, as a body, threaten Catholics who opt out of the state-collected Kirchensteuer (“Church tax”) with excommunication and refusal of Christian burial; but many of those same bishops support offering holy communion to Protestants and Catholics whose marriages have not been blessed by the Church. The Catholic Church in Germany is the second-largest employer in Europe’s richest country; but there is little evidence that a vast Catholic bureaucracy has solved the many problems facing evangelization and Christian witness in a spiritually jaded, postmodern culture.

A similar state of de facto schism exists in a lot of Belgian Catholicism, where prominent Catholic leaders, like many of their German counterparts, display a tenuous grasp on the truths of the Catholic faith and seem to have surrendered wholesale to the sexual revolution in its sundry permutations. Swiss parish councils defy the local bishop when he tries to remedy situations of clerical concubinage; other parishes, despite the availability of a priest, prefer to celebrate on Sunday a Service of the Word with lay preaching followed by the distribution of holy communion with pre-consecrated hosts. Across western Europe, churches have become concert halls, and Sunday Mass attendance is not untypically less than that of the concerts.

In Latin America, the world Church’s demographic center, Catholicism has largely failed to realize the possibilities sketched in the 2007 Aparecida Document, where the bishops of the continent committed themselves to a future of intensified mission and evangelization, recognizing that the old ethnic and cultural transmission belts had ceased to pass the faith along to the next generation. And despite a few exceptions, the Latin American Church has not, in the main, shown itself adept at shaping political cultures that can sustain honest, responsible governance, despite Catholicism’s having been at the center of Latin American culture for half a millennium. 

The Church in the United States is, arguably, the best example of the “New Evangelization” for which St. John Paul II called and which Pope Francis seemed to endorse in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). But while those parts of American Catholicism most deeply committed to evangelizing remain focused on intensified Catholic mission, the U.S. Church has been severely shaken in recent months by another round of reports of sexually abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops—this, despite the fact that the leadership of the American bishops’ conference has shown, since this past summer, a welcome and settled determination to deal decisively with these issues. Sadness, frustration, and anger, not the joy of the Gospel, are the dominant emotions in American parishes this fall. Few Catholics in the United States, one suspects, have read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a staple of evangelical Protestant piety; but those same Catholics are having a lived experience of what Bunyan meant by getting stuck in the Slough of Despond. And that is not an experience conducive to living, much less energetically advancing, the New Evangelization.

Pontifical Disappointments

And then there is the unhappy fact, symbolically represented by a serious decline in the attendance at papal general audiences, that the pontificate of Pope Francis is fraying, and not just at the edges.

The recently-announced “Provisional Agreement” between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, which seems to have given a leading role in the nomination of Catholic bishops to apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist party, was but the latest in a series of Vatican diplomatic fumbles that have depressed the stature of the Church in a world that had learned to look to Rome for moral clarity under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. A 2013 papal initiative for peace in Syria did nothing to halt the murderous Assad regime, and may have made its lethal efforts at suppressing anti-Assad dissent easier. The Vatican has yet to use the words “invasion” and “illegal annexation” to describe Russia’s takeover of Ukraine, nor has it managed to call the ongoing Russian-sponsored aggression in eastern Ukraine by its proper name, i.e., “war.” Vatican diplomacy has been singularly ineffective, and in some cases actually counterproductive, in dealing with leftist authoritarians and dictators in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, where it has succeeded primarily in demoralizing the democratic opposition. Just a year ago, a senior European diplomat accredited to the Holy See told your editor that the absolutist position taken by the Vatican on the question of migrants and immigration in Europe had severely narrowed the available space on which a reasonable solution to the many-faceted migrant challenge might be devised.

Then there are the problems (and worse) caused by the pope’s response to the sexual abuse crisis that has now shown itself to be a global phenomenon, not an American singularity. Pope Francis regularly meets with the victims of clerical sexual abuse, and that is to his credit. But he seems far less sure in his response to unchaste and abusive priests; to bishops who have mismanaged the discipline of abusing priests, as in Honduras; or to bishops who have themselves been credibly accused of abuse, as was the case in one notorious instance in Chile. His negative reaction to recent proposals by the American bishops’ leadership for Vatican-assisted remedial action in dealing with historic episcopal derelictions of duty and ongoing malfeasance has caused a serious breach of confidence between Rome and the United States. That breach may yet be repaired. But it should never have been opened in the first place, and the fact that it opened may have been influenced by those American bishops (one of them now retired in disgrace) who told the pope that the U.S. bishops were against him: a narrative belied by the stunning welcome Pope Francis received in the U.S. in 2015, but that has clearly had a deleterious effect on the atmospherics in Rome.

And as there is no greater countersign to the evangelization of young adults and their vocational discernment than these failures, sins, and crimes by priests and bishops, the abuse scandals around the world necessarily create serious issues for Synod-2018.

Of even greater consequence for this year’s Synod, though, was the formal papal response to Synod-2015. It was obvious at the end of October 2015 that there was no consensus among the Synod fathers on changing the Church’s sacramental discipline regarding holy communion for Catholics living in marriages not blessed by the Church; indeed, the weight of Synod consensus was on maintaining the traditional discipline, which was rooted in both the Lord’s words on the indissolubility of marriage and St. Paul’s injunctions to his rowdy Corinthians on both worthiness to receive holy communion and the grave penalties for those who received while not in full communion with the Church. Then, four and a half months later, the pope (whose closing remarks to Synod-2015 might be described as “frosty”) issued the lengthy post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. That document was full of beautiful affirmations of the vocation of marriage and displayed a lot of good sense in analyzing the erosion of marriage-culture in the West. But its ambiguities on certain points were quickly interpreted by bishops who had lost the arguments at Synod-2015 as a warrant for the radical change in Church discipline they had been promoting—a change that could not be easily squared with the teaching of John Paul II in his 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, which Amoris Laetitia cited in bowdlerized form. 

So, wittingly or otherwise, the pope who had placed “synodality” at the center of his papal program seemed to disregard a solid synodal consensus and facilitated a situation of sacramental incongruity in the Church, in which what was regarded as a font of grace in Germany was understood to be a grave sin on the other side of the German-Polish border.

Stacking the Deck in 2018?

Other indicators in the run-up to Synod-2018 helped contribute to a less-than-joyful atmosphere as the Synod opened.

A pre-Synod meeting in March 2018, attended by (often carefully selected) young people from around the world, delivered what struck more than a few observers as a pre-planned outcome: The meeting’s closing document (itself somehow prepared overnight) stressed the difficulties that many young adults had with the Church’s teaching, especially when that teaching cut against the grain of the promises of the sexual revolution. One participant in the meeting, an outlier, told an American bishop of her dismay that her request for prayer at the beginning of the discussion group to which she was assigned had been denied by the group’s chair, on the grounds that praying the “Our Father” and the “Hail, Mary” might be found offensive by the non-Catholics in the group. Other outliers reported being badgered to deliver the results the Synod general secretariat evidently wanted, long into the wee hours of the morning.

The Instrumentum Laboris (IL, or synodal working document) prepared by the Synod’s general secretariat for this year’s Synod was uninspiring. Like its predecessor in 2015, the IL for Synod-2018 was heavy on down-market sociology and relatively light on Scripture and serious theology. It also replicated the 2015 IL by evincing a certain embarrassment about Catholic teaching on the ethics of human love. This seemed particularly obtuse at a moment when at least some secular people (as well as Catholics) were thanking Pope Paul VI for his prophetic witness in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, where he had raised the most serious questions about the effects of a “contraceptive culture” on everything from demography to relations between the sexes. The IL also seemed unaware that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was becoming an ever more popular catechetical and formational tool on campuses, including some self-consciously secular institutions of higher learning.

Nor did the Instrumentum Laboris for Synod-2018 spend any time lifting up young Catholic heroes. This lacuna stood in sharpest contrast to World Youth Day-2002 in Toronto, which was thematically “framed” by the witness of several youthful Catholic martyrs and confessors of modernity, including Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati (“the man of the Beatitudes”); Blessed Marcel Callo (arrested by the Nazi Gestapo because he was “too much of a Catholic” and martyred at the Mauthausen concentration camp); St. Josephine Bakhita (a former Sudanese slave); and the patroness of the missions, St. Térèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Their images, on large banners, were all over the World Youth Day venues in smugly secular Toronto: a graphic witness to the possibility of heroic virtue by young Catholic adults. Sixteen years later, the conviction that shaped John Paul II’s youth ministry from his days as a university chaplain in Cracow—the conviction that young people want to be challenged to lead heroic lives—was notably absent from the IL for Synod-2018.

Neither was there any sustained reflection in the 2018 Synod’s working document on some notable successes in 21st-century Catholic young adult and campus ministry. That same inattentiveness seemed to shape the nomination (formally papal, but in fact generated by the Synod general secretariat) of bishops and lay auditors to Synod-2018, for those nominations did not include some of the most prominent leaders of vital, evangelically-driven Catholic work with young adults in North America. Inexplicably—or perhaps not?— no one from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students was named as a Synod auditor, despite the fact that FOCUS currently has volunteer missionaries on more than 150 campuses. Nor is there a Synod auditor from the World Youth Alliance, which does outstanding pro-life work at the United Nations and other international-organizational venues, as well as engaging over a million young people in pro-life activism around the world. Two U.S. bishops, Michael Sis of San Angelo, Texas, and David Konderla of Tulsa, Oklahoma, are former pastors of one of the most successful campus ministries in the world, at Texas A&M University; neither is a papal appointee to the Synod. The connecting thread among these notable absences from the Synod’s roster of participants is that Curtis Martin of FOCUS, Anna Halpine of WYA, Bishop Sis, and Bishop Konderla are all proponents of an approach to young adult ministry that challenges young adults to lead lives shaped by the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person—including the Church’s teaching on the ethics of human love.                   

The Synod general secretariat, led by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri (now three years past the normal retirement age), was not pleased with how Synod-2015 played out. The Synod leadership’s attempts to squelch public discussion and smother voting by the Synod fathers were repudiated at the beginning of that Synod, when the pope acceded to the request of thirteen cardinals for a more open Synod process. Moreover, the stolid, uninspiring Instrumentum Laboris prepared by Cardinal Baldisseri and his collaborators was effectively sidelined by the outstanding opening presentation of Synod-2015’s “General Relator,” Cardinal Péter Erdő of Budapest: a tour de force that opened the Synod’s general sessions and its language-based discussion groups to a real exchange of views and experiences. Synod-2018’s relator is the archbishop of Brasilia, Cardinal Sergio da Rocha, and it would be a considerable surprise if he does what Cardinal Erdő did by scuppering the 2018 IL. Synod communications for 2018 have been placed in the hands of those considered reliable by the Synod general secretariat, and the Synod’s Commission for Controversies seems to have been selected to deliver results that will not cause Cardinal Baldisseri any heartburn.

There is little subtlety here; it is all rather obvious, and it is all quite heavy-handed. Which, alas, contributes to the lack of excitement evident at the beginning of Synod-2018.

What These Letters Propose to Do

Given a working document that is often depressingly defensive about the possibilities of effective young adult ministry today, it seems important to lift up the good news—and there is quite a lot of it—about the renaissance of this distinctive form of pastoral work that is evident throughout the world Church today, not least  in North America. So Letters from the Synod-2018 will try to display, regularly, examples of what is living and vital, evangelical and mission-driven in the Church’s ministry to young adults today. At the same time, these Letters will report on what is happening at the Synod, both inside and “Off Broadway,” while giving voices that should be at the Synod, but aren’t, a forum in which to explain what they would say if they were here in Rome. There are multiple agendas at play in Synod-2018, and your editor and his collaborators around the English-speaking world will also try to identify and analyze those.

We hope, in this way, to foster a genuine synodality in the Catholic Church, however tenuous the “synodality” inside the Synod hall may be. And in doing so, we aim to serve the noble goal Pope Francis laid out in Evangelii Gaudium: the development of a “Church permanently in mission,” in which every Catholic, young and old, is committed to, and living, missionary discipleship.

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