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Although some ambiguities remain to be clarified as this issue of LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD gets put to bed, it now seems as if Synod-2018’s draft final document will be voted on paragraph by paragraph, after which the amended really-final-document will be  subject to another vote, with a two-thirds threshold for approval. This begins to resolve one of the question marks that was hovering over the Synod’s end-game, causing considerable concern late last week and over the weekend: Would the Synod fathers be able to make their judgments known by multiple votes, as in the past? The anxiety on this point reflected some recent history.

Veterans of these exercises will remember that, prior to Synod-2015, it was also unclear whether the traditional way for the bishops to manifest their judgments—votes on the Synod’s draft final report, paragraph by paragraph—would be utilized. The issue was resolved in favor of paragraph-by-paragraph votes (each paragraph requiring a two-thirds majority for inclusion in the final report), thanks to an appeal to Pope Francis by thirteen senior cardinals whose request for votes the pope honored.

Now, however, the Synod is governed by a new apostolic constitution, Episcopalis Communio (Episcopal Communion), which was issued last month. While attempting to give the Synod more magisterial gravitas, Episcopalis Communio also muddied the procedural waters. And that murkiness was, at first blush, not resolved by examining Synod-2018’s procedural “Instructions” (available only in Italian, be it noted).

The apostolic constitution makes no provisions for voting, or none that anyone can discern. Rather, Episcopalis Communio decrees that the Synod General Secretary, in this case Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, is to try to get “moral unanimity insofar as this is possible” on a draft final report, which is first constructed by a commission elected by the Synod fathers (one member is chosen from each continental group, and the commission is then filled out by papal appointments). Synod-2018’s schedule seemed to provide for proposing amendments to the draft final report (which the Synod fathers are given very little time to examine); but even now there remains no absolute clarity on whether these proposed amendments are to be voted on, or whether they, too, will be subject to Cardinal Baldisseri’s sense of “moral unanimity” or consensus. The apostolic constitution also provides that the final report should receive the “approval of the members” before being presented to the pope (whose acceptance then turns the report into an exercise of the ordinary papal magisterium, according to Episcopalis Communio). Again, no voting procedures or thresholds for measuring approval were specified by the constitution; but Article 60 of Synod-2018’s “Regulations” (not to be confused with the aforementioned “Instructions”) states that “The final document is approved by a secret ballot. The majority has to be two-thirds of the Synod fathers who are present at the vote.” This now seems to have been confirmed at a Monday press conference.

It’s all rather muddled, and unnecessarily so. It would be very helpful indeed if all such procedural issues were clarified, once and for all, before Synod-2018 enters its final week on October 22. It is crucial that there be a clean, transparent, agreed-upon, and well-understood mechanism by which the Synod fathers can register their judgments issue by issue, thereby making those judgments known to each other, to the world Church, and to the pope. But even with Monday’s announcement of paragraph-by-paragraph votes on the draft final report, there remains considerable ambiguity on what the consensus of “moral unanimity” means, although, as noted, the “Regulations” specify a two-thirds majority vote on the really-final-report; but does two-thirds equate to “moral unanimity”? And who decides that?

This muddle might be thought typically Italianate, the product of a culture that has many virtues but in which transparency, efficiency, and the use of the indicative are not  prized. Still, across the spectrum of theological opinion at Synod-2018 there has been a concern forming: a concern that those in charge of the Synod of Bishops may have designed a process to deliver the result they want—and that this is in response to (or, if you prefer, this is payback for) both Synod-2014 and Synod-2015 failing to deliver the “consensus” the Synod managers wanted, namely, a consensus on changing the Church’s sacramental disciplines regarding marriage and worthiness to receive holy communion. In fact, the consensus that was achieved in 2014 and 2015 was against such a change. Before they arrived in Rome, more than a few Synod fathers wondered whether, in an attempt to forestall another synodal rebuff of a preferred outcome, the Synod general secretariat tried to stack the deck before Synod-2018 by its deleteriousness in releasing both the Synod’s working document and the official list of its members, which tended to preclude both close study of the working document and organizing by Synod members. There remain concerns—and those concerned are not just the bishops caricatured as “conservatives”— about whether Episcopalis Communio doesn’t only institutionalize control of the pre-synodal process and the Synod’s own work in the Synod’s (largely unaccountable and frequently unresponsive) general secretariat; that has been the case for some time. One hopes that Monday’s announcement resolves further concerns that the end-game procedures would skew the process by which the bishops at Synod-2018—who, after all, are “the Synod”— will make judgments, and make those judgments known. 

Synods are consultative, not deliberative. A Synod is not a legislature. But surely a pope interested in consultation with his brother-bishops should himself want a reliable mechanism by which to understand just what his consultors are thinking. Absent such a mechanism, consultation can appear to be a façade: window-dressing for decisions made elsewhere and previously. That appearance must be rigorously avoided if the Synod is to have the enhanced place in the life of the world Church for which Pope Francis called in his important address to Synod-2015 on synodality.

If Synod-2018 is to be an authentic expression of the “episcopal communion” suggested by the title of the new apostolic constitution, it has to have procedures that make unmistakably clear the points at which consensus has been achieved and the points at which consensus is lacking. In a body the size of the Synod, that can only be done by voting. That was why it was important that some clarity began to be brought into Synod-2018’s end-game on Monday. The only actors in this drama who can ensure that there is no further ambiguity going forward about the end-game process—shaping and amending the final report—are the Synod fathers, who should make clear to the Synod’s managers, including Cardinal Baldisseri and his deputy, Bishop Fabio Fabene, that they want their episcopal dignity and authority recognized.  

                                                                        - Xavier Rynne II


Mary Rice Hasson, J.D., is director of the Catholic Women’s Forum and the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. As the Synod continues its last full week of general assembly and language-based small group meetings, her reflections on the use of the term “gender” in Church documents are  worth the Synod fathers’ close attention. XR II


Archbishop Charles Chaput’s first intervention in the Synod on “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” contested the use of the term “LGBT” and “similar language” in the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris (IL), because such language suggests “our sexual appetites defin[e] who we are.” Fr. James Martin, S.J., pushed back on Twitter, saying, “People have a right to name themselves, and this is the name many choose. And there is such a ‘thing’ as an ‘LGBTQ Catholic’ and a ‘transgender Catholic.’ They are members of the body of Christ.” Fr. Martin quotes Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication Paolo Ruffini’s explanation that “LGBT” was used in the IL because it was “used explicitly in some of the contributions from episcopal conferences and in observations from the Secretariat of the Synod.”

The fact that young people—and some Church leaders—have adopted the term “LGBT” actually proves Archbishop Chaput’s larger point: “In reality, young people are too often products of the age, shaped in part by the words, the love, the confidence, and the witness of their parents and teachers, but more profoundly today by a culture that is both deeply appealing and essentially atheist.” He might have added that today’s culture reflects profound hostility to Christian anthropology. When a culture denies God, Pope Benedict XVI said in his last Christmas address to the Roman Curia, it sows the seeds of an “anthropological revolution,” in which “people dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being… Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist” (Dec. 21, 2012).

This is the reality that most young people face, especially in the digital world. Christian anthropology—once implicit in the culture of the West—has been widely displaced by an androgynous anthropology fundamentally incompatible with the Christian vision of the human person. As theologian David Crawford writes, this androgynous anthropology asserts that

the identity of the person is no longer grounded in either masculinity or femininity as naturally and personally ordained to each other and as expressed by the body. The shift therefore effectively demotes the meaning of sexual difference—the correspondence of the male and female bodies as such—to a sub-personal and purely material (“biological”) significance. The body in its sexual ordination…is therefore no longer decisive for the person…This anthropology has emerged even more clearly in the recent debate over “transgender” rights, where its proponents increasingly describe gender as a spectrum or continuum that is not governed by the body’s given order, but rather by an interior act of self-identification in accordance with which the body may be reconfigured.

Although Synod-2018’s IL offers a few overt nods to Christian anthropology, the document by and large (though perhaps unthinkingly) indulges the androgynous anthropology described above.

Thus the IL fails to recognize that androgynous anthropology has displaced Christian anthropology as the basis for law and culture in the vast majority of western countries and in global governance structures, and is making inroads in more traditional cultures. Nor does it recognize the impact of this androgynous anthropology, particularly in shaping the identities and assumptions of young Catholic men and women. 

That Catholic young men and women cannot identify the nature of this anthropological crisis themselves is unsurprising. Most have come of age within the new paradigm, and uncritically accept its premises. Parents or youth leaders likely failed to recognize the seismic anthropological shift driving cultural change. But the Synod fathers cannot make the same mistake. If they fail to name this false anthropology, they will compound the confusion it creates. More importantly, the Synod fathers must affirm—as a foundational proposition, not as an aside—that young people are not androgynous “youth” in search of an identity, they are young men and young women whose sexual identity (male or female) is a given and whose vocation is deeply connected to their identity as sons or daughters of God.

It is striking that a document devoted to faith and vocational discernment generally treats young men and women as fungible or generic “young people” or “youth.” It betrays little awareness of the specific cultural challenges that young men face and limited awareness of the specific challenges young women face. (The IL does reference the problems of “discrimination” against women and rape in armed conflict and calls for enhanced women’s roles in Church and society.)  

Catholicism teaches that God creates each person male or female—our sexuality is “given.” In contrast, the IL references “discovering our sexuality” as a “crucial moment” in youth identity development. The IL’s discussion of young people’s vocational discernment largely avoids the language of sexual identity (male or female), apart from sprinkled references to “men and women” in religious communities. A single sentence references “sexual difference” as a “key element in educational and faith journeys” and the “vocational dynamics...peculiar to males and females.” As a result, the IL fails to orient young men toward fatherhood (whether spiritual or physical) and young women toward motherhood (spiritual or physical). The Church’s teachings on these topics are profound. Given the prevailing anthropology of androgyny, the serious cultural confusion about sexual identity (fatherhood and motherhood flow from sexual identity), and the devaluing of motherhood and fatherhood, the IL’s neglect of these topics is a glaring omission.

Decades ago, “gender” was a linguistic placeholder for “male” or “female.” Its connection to the bodily reality of biological sex was unquestioned. The opposite is true today: “Gender” represents self-identity—disconnected from one’s bodily sex—across an infinite spectrum of possibilities, including “non-binary,” “transgender,” and “gender-queer.” In the new paradigm, “sex” is “assigned at birth” based on genital inspection, while a person’s “gender identity” is discovered, realized, or chosen and bears no intrinsic relationship to bodily anatomy. Although past Church documents have used “gender” to mean male or female, this practice must change. “Gender” is understood, especially by young people, to mean a person’s asserted identity—regardless of biological sex. Because gender theory rejects core tenets of Christian theology—that God creates us male or female, a unity of body and soul—the language of gender should be eliminated from Church documents. 

The IL, however, incorporates the language of gender and the assumptions of androgynous anthropology in numerous places. It references discrimination experienced by young people because of “gender” and “sexual orientation.” It notes that young people want “Church leaders to ‘speak in practical terms about controversial subjects such as homosexuality and gender issues, which young people are already freely discussing without taboo.’” The IL validates the false assumptions (and language) of an androgynous anthropology by referencing “LGBT youths.” Instead of reinforcing each person’s primary identity as a son or daughter of God, the LGBT label reinforces a person’s sexual attractions or “gender identity” as primary. Paragraph 53 also incorporates the logic of androgynous anthropology (and suggests a stance of moral neutrality) by noting that bishops’ conferences wonder “what to suggest ‘to young people who decide to create homosexual instead of heterosexual couples…’” To “characterize both same-sex relationships and the man-woman relationship as merely alternative ‘orientations,’” observes David Crawford, “abstracts the essence of sexuality from the natural correspondence of man and woman.” Curiously, when the IL mentions “marriage,” for example, it doesn’t reference men and women (presumably it intends that meaning), but elsewhere it casts Church teachings on marriage as “controversial.”

The IL clearly conveys the longing of Catholic young men and women to understand who they are. It is a terrible shame that the answers on offer lack the fullness of truth. Those answers should be supplied in the Synod’s final report.

[For more analysis by Mary Rice Hassson of “gender theory” and the agenda it drives, go to this link.]

Photo by Gary Campbell-Hall, via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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