Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!


As discussion of Synod-2018’s Draft Final Report (the DFR, or in Vatican-speak, the Progetto) continues in preparation for the completion of the Really-Final-Draft-Final-Report that will be voted on Saturday (which vote will produce the text of the Final Final Report), various observers have raised more points of concern about a document that is otherwise, as we noted yesterday, a considerable improvement over the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris. Some of these concerns touch questions of substance; others, questions of language and nomenclature; still others, questions of synodal procedure and competence going forward.

Substantive Issues                               

Ecclesiological issues—questions of the Church’s fundamental self-understanding—continue to concern various Synod fathers as they scrutinize the Progetto more closely. Does the DFR, in its sometimes-bend-over-backward concern to present a “listening” Catholicism, pay too little attention to the Ecclesia Docens, the teaching Church? A cursory reading of the Progetto could give the impression that 21st-century Catholicism lacks the confidence necessary to make its evangelical proposal persuasively, so the Church is now banking on agreeability, openness, and attentiveness to the world’s preoccupations as door-openers to the offer of the gospel and friendship with Jesus Christ. Openness to the concerns and fears of others is, of course, an important part of being a missionary disciple. But as G. K. Chesterton famously remarked, “An open mind, like an open mouth, should close on something.”

Faced with the deconstructive passions embedded in a cultural tsunami that is systematically dismantling the biblical idea of the human person—and that is all too frequently concretizing that deconstruction through national and international law and abuses of the notion of “human rights”—some Synod fathers are asking, rightly, whether a little more confidence in the power of the gospel to move human hearts might be evidenced in the Synod’s final report.  Pope Francis has frequently said that the 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) is the grand strategy of his pontificate; the Synod’s final report should certainly reflect that. It won’t, at least not fully, if it doesn’t affirm humbly but clearly that the Church believes itself to be the bearer of truths essential for human flourishing and social solidarity. And in this regard, shouldn’t the Synod affirm that, while the Church listens to its people and to the world, it listens first and foremost to God?

More than one Synod father has remarked privately on the oddity of a Synod that seems to be ignoring the most compelling papal youth minister in a very long time, Pope St. John Paul II. This forgetting seemed particularly noteworthy in the reports from the Synod’s German-language discussion group, which kept reiterating that there are issues involving human sexuality that need more in-depth “anthropological, theological, and pastoral elaboration” (language that has made it into the Progetto). More elaborated than what, one wants to ask? More elaborated than John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, with its rich, complex “anthropological” meditation on the meaning of our embodiedness, which drew on themes and images from the Bible, philosophy, literature, theology, and John Paul’s extensive personal pastoral experience?

That John Paul II’s name does not appear in a single footnote of the Progetto is, at the very least, curious. And it reinforces the unhappy suspicion among some that, as the Synods of 2014 and 2015 were designed to deconstruct John Paul’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Synod-2018 has been designed to deconstruct John Paul’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, thereby reversing that encyclical’s rout of the critics of Humanae Vitae on its fiftieth anniversary. Such “deep state” (or, one supposes, “deep Church”) speculations aside, it is surely a substantive flaw in the DFR that it does not make greater use of material from the Theology of the Body, the most successful presentation of the Catholic understanding of embodiedness and sexuality in modern times.

In postmodern cultural environments, the Catholic Church is the last major institutional defender of the fact that there are certain givens in the human condition: or, in more philosophical terms, the fact that there are deep truths written into the world and into us, truths that we can know by reason as well as revelation. This conviction is absolutely central to resisting the notion of the plasticity of the human, the notion that we can be anything we choose or desire to be, irrespective of what used to be understood as “givens.” This reduction of our humanity to sheer willfulness is at the root of a host of personal sorrows and social evils. And things have now gotten to the point where, in certain Western societies, that willfulness to be-whatever-I-want-to-be is taken as the essential meaning of “human rights”—and something the state should not only protect, but help advance (and even pay for). In that context, the Progetto’s claim at several points that young people “construct” their identity is seriously problematic, and such language should be modified or even eliminated—not least because it opens the door to the claims of transgender advocates.

The Synod’s Final Report would do a great service to the Church and the world if it offered a far more compelling explanation of the virtue of chastity than is evident in the DFR. This is not all that hard to do, and the proposal comes in four steps: Everyone wants to live with an undivided heart; an undivided heart is one that loves with integrity; chastity is  the integrity of love, whether it is lived in marriage, celibate consecrated life, celibate ordained ministry, or chaste single life; friendship with Jesus Christ, the incarnation of radical love lived in integrity, is the sure path to living chastely in a world that celebrates unchastity.

The Progetto is also noticeably un-cruciform: It devotes virtually no attention to the Cross, nor does it propose an embrace of the Cross as the answer to the suffering, pain, disappointment, and betrayal that young people will inevitably experience in life. Perhaps the Cross is deemed off-putting or not quite in tune with the “accompaniment” that is such a buzzword in certain Catholic circles today. But if a Synod on “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” is ultimately about evangelization, then surely it should make some mention of the Lord’s injunction in Matthew 16:24: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, he must renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Such a reminder would also be a useful counter to the culture of self-assertion, offering instead a countercultural community of self-gift, the ultimate warrant for which is the self-gift of the Son of God on Calvary and the vindication of that self-offering in the Resurrection.

There are other problems at the level of substance—why does the Progetto celebrate a “youth culture” that has too often proven destructive, and why does it foul the Church’s own nest by asserting that the Church has not lived the vision of Vatican II?—but the issues above are key, and really ought to be addressed.   

Name Games, Again

As we noted yesterday, the Progetto clearly states that the Catholic Church does not define anyone by his or her sexual desires. And the phrase “LGBT youth,” which was slipped into the Instrumentum Laboris by the Synod general secretariat staff, has been eliminated from the DFR. Still, there is concern among Synod fathers and observers that substitute euphemisms appear through the Progetto, usages that could be read in a manner other than what the majority of Synod fathers intend. Chief among these is the term “sexual orientation,” which is a staple in the vocabulary of those most active in using international organizations to impose Western cultural norms (in their current, decadent form) on the world—the very practice Pope Francis has freqiuently deplored as “cultural colonization.”

“Sexual orientation” may seem a neutral, even clinical term. But in many world contexts, it is used as a placeholder for the notion that sexual identity is liquid, plastic, and fungible; in other contexts, it expresses the claim that some people simply “are” attracted sexually to others of the same sex. Neither the notion nor the claim is compatible with a biblical or Catholic-theological understanding of the human person, and efforts are underway to eliminate the phrase “sexual orientation” from the Really-Final-Draft-Final-Report and thus from the Final Final Report.

To those inured to this usage, it may seem a small point. But the more alert Synod fathers know that the opponents and critics of the Catholic ethic of human love will be quick-scanning the Synod’s final report for certain usages (like “sexual orientation”) and will declare victory if they find what they’re looking for, no matter how the term is contextualized or nuanced. This will create significant and ongoing difficulties for the Holy See at the U.N., UNICEF, and other international organizations. So it would be especially helpful if Synod fathers with Vatican diplomatic experience would make this point, publicly, in the Synod’s remaining days.

A Synodal Church, Whatever That Means

The Progetto spends a lot of time on the “synodality” of the Church, which in itself seems to have little to do with “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”

Some references to the synodal process are clearly defensive while also troubling. Thus the DFR suggests that the oft-criticized Synod-2018 Instrumentum Laboris is somehow incorporated into the Synod’s total product, along with the Final Report. This has never been done before; the working document was previously considered dead and buried once the Synod fathers started constructing the final report, which became, in effect, the working document’s tombstone. So why, now, is the Instrumentum Laboris considered some sort of zombie, or golem, with an ongoing life? Is that, in this instance, an attempt to salvage the “LGBT” language that even the Synod managers recognized would not get the approval necessary to include it in the Final Final Report? And in any case, why is an Instrumentum Laboris prepared by the Synod general secretariat staff a permanent part of the product of a Synod of Bishops?

Some may respond that that’s not the case, as this year’s working document, as the DFR notes, reflected a pre-synodal process of consultation, including reports from episcopal conferences and a sort of “pre-Synod” with young adults from all over the world. Such ripostes should not be taken seriously. It is widely known at Synod-2018 that the Synod general secretariat is unresponsive to its own elected bishop-members, including senior cardinals. And it is also well known that the “pre-Synod” was arranged, and most of its participants chosen, to deliver the Synod general secretariat’s desired result—a process that has continued in the Synod itself, where some young adult auditors have tried (presumably with some “accompaniment” and coaching) to reinsert material preferred by the Synod managers into discussion groups reports from which that material had been eliminated. 

And why, one might ask, does a genuinely “synodal” and world Church insist, as the Synod general secretariat does, on conducting that global Church’s business in Italian, the first language of 0.8 percent of the world’s population? Your editor enjoys reading documents in Italian. But others don’t, or can’t, and the rude response of the Synod’s managers to the bishops’ suggestions that translations of the DFR be provided in at least English and French hardly bespeaks a spirit of synodality and collegiality.

There was virtually nothing on “synodality” in the Instrumentum Laboris; there was no surge of interest in the topic in either the Synod general assembly or the language-based discussion groups. Why has this now suddenly appeared and why does it get so much attention in the Progetto’s third section? Are the Synod fathers being asked to sign off on a warm and fuzzy, but undefined, change in the Church’s self-understanding without thorough discussion? Has anyone pushing this seriously reflected upon the experience of “synodality” in the now-imploding Anglican Communion?

Despite some unsubstantiated claims that young people expect a “synodal” approach to the Church’s life, meandering and theologically imprecise talk of synodality does not belong in the final report of a synod devoted to the evangelization of young people. There is not a single inquiring young adult in the world who gives a hoot about any of this, or who will hear in it anything remotely resembling a dominical call to “Come, follow me.” So why not drop it?

In the nature of the case, the focus in these further observations has been on problems. There are a lot of good things about the Progetto. But it needs improvement, and those truly interested in a Church on fire with evangelical zeal for the youth of the world must hope that those improvements are accepted—and then make it through to the finish line on Saturday.

- Xavier Rynne II


[The alert Nathaniel Peters, executive director of New York’s Morningside Institute, noted that one of the English-speaking synodal discussion groups had taken what seemed a rather gratuitous sideswipe at homeschooling, early on in Synod-2018. Peters, who holds the PhD in theology from Boston College, asked LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD if he might respond. His essay, linking this rapidly growing social movement with Vatican II’s concept of the universal call to holiness, follows. Any relationship between this analysis and Dr. Peters’s descent from one of the original Trapp Family Singers, an early experiment in homeschooling brought to the world’s attention by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is, we are sure, entirely coincidental.  XR II]

Homeschooling and Holiness

When I was in high school and college, I held fast to a number of educational prejudices. One was that Catholic schools were more focused on athletics than rigorous academics. These homes for less-intelligent jocks also lacked real formation in Christian faith. Students who left an evangelical Christian high school were probably Christian college students; there was no such correlation for Catholic schools. I was even more suspicious of homeschooling. I doubted that parents without qualifications could teach their children to write well, or master disciplines in which they themselves had received no training. Homeschooling was isolating and prone to curricular eclecticism. Students, I thought, needed to get out of the house and learn in a structured environment with other students.

These prejudices were not without some foundation, but over time I came to recognize my myopia. After converting to Catholicism, I befriended people who had taught in Catholic schools and saw the life-changing work they can do, particularly through programs like Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education and the Cristo Rey network of schools. And I discovered that some of the most intellectually curious and well-rounded people I met in college and after had been homeschooled.

I was therefore not surprised to see some bishops at the Synod skeptical of American homeschooling, if not downright hostile. The note was only a few bullet points in a notice from English-speaking group C, but it was telling. The bishops shared my concern about parents’ qualifications, noted their American confrères division over homeschooling, remarked (with a purpose difficult to discern) on children with special needs, and observed that homeschooling can have an ideological bias. I was not surprised, but I was disappointed.

We typically use the word “ideology” in one of two ways: less precisely, to indicate a belief or world view, and more precisely, to indicate that someone holds that belief in such a way that there is no room for compromise, examination, or sympathy with those who disagree. Ideology in the first sense is unavoidable in education. I recall my headmaster mentioning a colleague who said that he did not want his faculty to inflict their opinions on their students. “What utter nonsense,” he hissed. Every act of education involves the infliction of the teacher’s opinions on students. What students read, how they examine what they read, the presuppositions one inculcates in them—all of these come from the teacher’s beliefs about education and, indeed, the rest of life as well. In this sense of the word, ideology is unavoidable in education, wherever it takes place. The key is not to avoid inflicting opinions on students, but to inflict the right ones.

In the more precise sense, ideology is one of education’s greatest enemies. After all, “education” comes from the Latin educere, to lead out. An ideological student is one who is bound up in himself and his own beliefs, someone who can only be led out of himself with great difficulty, if at all. Both conservative and progressive ideologues exist, and they hold in common a lack of willingness to grow and examine that is lethal to the intellectual life and to human community. It is true that homeschooling can form students in falsehood or narrowness, but Catholic schools can turn out conservative or progressive ideologues. The problem is more endemic to education as an enterprise, than to a particular format.

More frequently, at least in the U.S. where so many schools have adopted the Common Core curriculum, Catholic schools often turn out students who lack a robust formation in the great books and ideas of their cultural heritage. These less-than-adequate Catholic schools have also watered down the faith to a least-common-denominator set of “values.” Many students therefore leave Catholics schools ideologically compromised in the first sense, if not also in the second.

A friend saw this recently when she toured a local Catholic school in Greenwich Village with a mother whose children she tutors. Instead of the prayers of the faith, students chanted, “I’m not going to rest until my good is better, and my better is best.” When an inquiring parent asked how Catholic the school was, one mother said that it was more about values. The parish priests came to talk to the children, but they only had Mass once a month. “So, it’s not like there are nuns teaching them?” the other mother asked with a hint of scornful trepidation. “Oh no,” the first replied.

“If they are a Catholic school, why aren’t they Catholic?” my friend’s employer asked in confusion as they walked home. This woman is not one of the American integralists of Father Antonio Spadaro’s nightmares; she’s an Italian with the cultural expectation that Catholic schools have nuns. More significantly, she expects that the schools her Church runs will help her children grow in the faith she is trying to teach them, in addition to making their better best.

Homeschooling is hard work. It can be ideological, like all schooling, but it can also be deeply effective. Some Catholics homeschool because they believe it to be the best method of education. Others homeschool because the Catholic schools in their area have mediocre curricula and are failing to catechize their students. But all Catholic homeschoolers take seriously the call of Gaudium et Spes that motherhood and fatherhood are teaching offices [muneres] analogous to that of a bishop. The bishop’s job is to uphold and hand on the truths of the faith in his diocese; Catholic parents have the same job in their home. Judging by what I have seen, many homeschooling parents are very good at that job and inculcate a vibrant intellectual and religious life in their children.

It would be good for bishops to support those parents in their diocese who are striving to fulfill their domestic teaching office. And it would be good for more bishops to get to know the homeschooling parents in the diocese, to move from bullet-pointed qualms to lived experience. This might allow them to avoid giving the impression, now frequent in some episcopal interventions, that those who take a difficult path to holiness and spur their children on to the same are motivated by animus and wasting their time. It might also allow them to see Catholic homeschoolers as models of sacrificial love, as they are for many of us who do not want to homeschool our own children. 

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter. 

More on: Synod on Youth

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles