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



Dean Gooderham Acheson, whom some consider the greatest Secretary of State in American history, may seem an odd choice as a posthumous counselor to Synod-2018. But let’s remember that, in 1952, this son of the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut gave a magnificent address on the meaning of the Bible in American life, when the Revised Standard Version was inaugurated at a great public ceremony in Washington. So perhaps, at a Synod whose working document was a little thin biblically, Acheson may be considered amicus curiae: not as a worldly-wise statesman but as someone with things to say about the moral life and the dignity to which the young aspire.

In a 1957 letter to his former boss, President Harry Truman, Dean Acheson reflected on a lesson he learned from the senior partner who hired him at the prestigious Washington law firm of Covington & Burling. J. Harry Covington had been a long-serving Congressman and a key player in getting Woodrow Wilson the 1912 Democratic presidential nomination before returning to the practice of law. As Covington took Acheson under his wing, the future diplomat and architect of NATO noticed that his mentor and benefactor never said, “I have to do it.” Rather, he said, “I have it to do.” As Acheson put it to Truman, “What a difference! In the first, one is coerced into action; in the other, a free man assumes an obligation, freely contracted.”

And therein lies a lesson for the Synod, and indeed for every Catholic. For, setting  aside the lawyer’s language of contract, J. Harry Covington’s formulation, “I have it to do,” summarizes precisely what Synod-2018 should propose to young adults as they receive Christian formation in the moral life.

How often is the moral teaching of the Church caricatured, and then dismissed, as a matter of “you have to do this”? But if the Beatitudes are the Magna Carta of the moral life and the moral law—both the moral law given in revelation and the moral laws we can know by reason—is the guard rail that allow us to journey to beatitude (and happiness, and human flourishing) without too many fender-benders or lurches into the ditch along the roadside, then a truly, radically converted Christian never says, “I have to do it.” The radical disciple instinctively says, “I have it to do”—because the doing grows from my  discipleship and is an expression of what friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ has taught me about my dignity, the dignity of others, what we owe each other in solidarity, and our eternal destiny. 

The renewal of moral theology was one of the great goals of the pontificate of John Paul II, who was elected Bishop of Rome forty years ago tomorrow. In the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul sketched a path beyond the “legalism” of such concern to some in the Church today—a “legalism” that appears on both the Catholic left and the Catholic right. The “legalist” charge is typically laid against the latter, the conservatives or traditionalists. But progressive moral theologians also tend toward the legalistic, the difference being that they want looser rules more laxly interpreted. Protestations to the contrary, an awful lot of what imagines itself progressive Catholic moral theology is still wedded to a rules-centered concept of the moral life.

Veritatis Splendor (whose twenty-fifth anniversary on October 5 went unremarked by the Synod leadership) was an attempt to change all that, as John Paul sought to redirect Catholic moral theology by locating the moral life as a means to beatitude—toward the “eternal life” the rich young man in Matthew 19 is seeking. The rich young man, a kind of first-century yuppie, asks what he’s supposed to do. Jesus suggests who he must become (i.e., a disciple who follows the Master unreservedly). What he’s to do (i.e., freely make good choices as a matter of habit, or virtue) follows from that first conversion and smooths the path to the eternal life the rich young man seeks. That Gospel story and the Lord’s linkage of the moral law to conversion, beatitude, and eternal life, set the dramatic context for the balance of John Paul’s encyclical. In drawing out its implications, I hope I may be permitted to quote myself, from the section in Witness to Hope on Veritatis Splendor. For the ironies and problems addressed there are still very much in play in Synod-2018.

Many Catholic moral theologians who had vigorously criticized the pre-conciliar “manuals” for their rigidity and legalism never made a radical break with the cause of that rigidity and legalism—the identification of freedom with willfulness, and the opposition between law and freedom that results from thinking of the moral life as a struggle between God’s will and mine. The basic, wrongheaded question remained in place: “How far can I go?” Some of the new moral theologies, by shifting the center of moral analysis from the moral act to the actor’s intentions and the act’s consequences, lowered the bar of Catholic morality by saying, in effect, “You can go farther.” But that drained the moral life of its inherent drama and rewards, and failed to resolve the intellectual problem of freedom and its relationship to truth and goodness.

A lax version of the old manuals’ legalism could not be considered a major improvement in Catholic thinking about the moral life. Genuine renewal in moral theology will come, the encyclical suggests, from retrieving and developing the idea that freedom, informed by reason, is ordered to the truth and finds its fulfillment in the goodness—the beatitude—of human flourishing, not in winning a few more skirmishes in the battle between God’s allegedly arbitrary will and mine….

The threshold of hope, the threshold of human dignity, is not crossed by lowering the bar of the moral life but by reaching higher—and then, if one has failed, by reaching higher again.

Reimagining the moral life as a matter of “I have it to do” was at the center of John Paul II’s message to young people on World Youth Days around the world. He would, of course, first summon the young to conversion, proposing that Christ was the answer to their questions and friendship with him the royal road to the happiness they sought. And then came the challenge, in many variations on a single, great theme: Never, ever settle for less than the spiritual and moral grandeur the grace of God makes possible in your life. You will fail; we all do. But that is no reason to shorten your horizon of expectation. When you fail, get up, dust yourself off, seek forgiveness from the Lord and reconciliation with those you’ve hurt. But never, ever settle for anything less than the greatness that God’s life—grace—makes possible in your own.

Is this an impossible standard, a too heroic goal? I hope not. And I hope the Synod doesn’t foreshorten the horizon of spiritual and moral possibility it proposes to the young adults of the mid-21st century.

                                                                        - George Weigel


One of the curiosities of the current Catholic scene is the emergence of an extreme form of ultramontanism on the port side of the Barque of Peter. Not only does this insistence that a proper deference to the pope requires a blind acceptance, even celebration, of all his judgments; it also contradicts Pope Francis’s own oft-repeated calls for arguments, serious conversations, and genuine dialogue within the Church, especially among bishops called to collegiality and synodality. To be sure, some of the more fevered criticisms of Pope Francis contribute little to wrestling with the serious problems confronting this pontificate. But to indict all criticism of and challenge to the Holy Father as “dissent” is not serious theologically; it betrays a certain nervousness about the plausibility of the prosecutor’s own position; and it certainly isn’t what used to be called “churchmanship,” which is badly in need of revival these days.

A walk back in time always helps get the present into sharper focus, and thus it’s worthwhile to revisit a man whose name is not frequently in play at Synod-2018: Melchior Cano. A Spaniard, Cano was a 16th-century Dominican theologian who helped shape the thinking of the bishops at the Council of Trent. That council, it will be recalled, met at a historical moment when the office of the papacy and the entire hierarchical constitution of the Church were under often-violent assault from certain Protestant reformers and their political allies, so the papacy as an integral part of the divinely-warranted constitution of the Church had to be defended. Cano also knew, however, that several pre-Reformation popes had made things much worse in Christendom, treading water when they should have been vigorously implementing the reformist Fifth Lateran Council. So he was not prepared to think of the pope as some sort of oracle whose every utterance bore the uniquely authoritative stamp of the Petrine office.

Thus a few words from Melchior Cano, O.P., which are worth everyone’s reflection as Synod-2018 continues its work:

Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See—they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations.

                                                                        - Xavier Rynne II  


Dr. Deborah Savage is Professor of Philosophy and Theology and Director of the Master of Pastoral Ministry Program at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota. Asked by LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD for a reflection on the Synod’s theme of “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” Dr. Savage responded with the following open letter to the bishops at Synod-2018. XR II

Dear Bishops,

I write to you with a real and fearful sense of urgency. Like a child who runs to her father when danger looms or confusion besets her, I write to plead with you on behalf of all your children—especially the youth you have gathered together for these days in Rome, but also on behalf of their friends, their peers, and their families. I write in the name of those who, like you, are tasked with guiding them. We are their parents, their teachers, their ministers and priests. I write to you now, bishops, because we need your help. Our children are drowning and we seem unable to do anything about it.

In the Instrumentum Laboris that set the stage for your deliberations at the Synod, I note that you affirm a point the Holy Father has made several times—that “[r]ealities” are greater than ideas.” I have to admit that I am actually not sure what this means, since my understanding is that ideas proceed from a prior encounter with reality itself. Indeed, I have been taught that the measure of the truth of human knowledge is the extent to which it conforms to reality. But we can set that aside for now. I take this claim to be an indication that the point of departure for your work will be the lived experience of our young people. And if lived experience is now the touchstone of truth, that is where I shall begin. For the young people you have consulted have already given us a clue to what is at stake in your proceedings. In fact, the situation has recently been well described by one of your own.

In one of the first interviews to appear after the start of your collective efforts, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia expressed surprise at what the young people he spoke with prior to the Synod pointed to as their first concern—their own mental health: “The biggest single issue they raised was mental health issues…a lot of young people suffer from depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, issues with eating disorders, and other related issues.” The archbishop continued, “I never would have guessed this was the first issue on their mind,” stressing: “They care very strongly about mental health issues.” The archbishop’s report is perceptive; he has done us all a great service in highlighting this finding.

It is fairly common knowledge that the suicide rate among young people is soaring. The most recently available data from the Centers for Disease Control (in the United States) indicates that, among white children and teens (ages 10–17) living in the U.S. it increased 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. The rate of increase was higher among black teens, at 77 percent. Admissions to American pediatric hospitals of patients ages 5 to 17 for suicidal thoughts and actions more than doubled from 2008 to 2015. The Journal of World Psychiatry reports that this is also an international phenomenon, touching nearly every country on the planet. Scholars point to various possible explanations for these rising suicide trends, including the “loss of social cohesion, breakdown of traditional family structure, growing economic instability and unemployment, and rising prevalence of depressive disorders.”

It should come as no surprise to any of us that our youth would express concerns for their own mental health. Their friends are suddenly, permanently gone, often without explanation or warning. No one is sure whose family it will strike next. It seems to be some sort of mysterious epidemic, apparently impossible to predict.

But it is not a mystery. We have only to consider the larger reality in which our young people live. For they have entered into a culture that truly is a “field hospital:” a battleground already littered with the wounded. They walk among men and women suffering from the diseases, both physical and spiritual, that began with the so-called “sexual revolution,” itself a seemingly unstoppable force now scorching its way through our families, our institutions, and our public consciousness. Ours is a culture at war with itself, caught in a blindness that seems to have the entire breadth of humanity in its unholy grip. We face a crisis not only of faith, but of reason itself—for we have set ourselves against the givenness of things in the mistaken belief that we are the masters of our own destiny.

Bishops, there are few moments in history that can be said to represent a dramatic turning point in its trajectory. The birth of Christ is surely one, the Communist Revolution another. But what characterizes all such moments is the fact that those involved at the time had little real awareness of the significance their actions would have for future generations. Such things are usually known only in hindsight. This is the lot of humankind—that we seem unable to see clearly what subsequent generations will face as a result of our decisions. And though we might sympathize with those who have come before us, we also have the urge to shout to them across time and implore them to recognize the significance of what they are about to do. How I wish I could go back to 1968 and help people to see what was at stake when Humanae Vitae first appeared. There is no question now how prophetic its teaching was. That was a moment when the Church could have changed the course of human history. But because we did not listen then, the consequences of our choices have been visited upon our children.

I wonder if you realize that the Synod on “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” is such a moment. I cannot be sure you fully grasp how critical this moment is to the future of our beloved Church—indeed to the future of humankind. I cannot bear the thought that we might miss this opportunity to help our young people and impact the culture in which they find themselves. And I truly wonder if you realize that the Church’s teaching on the human person and the meaning of human sexuality is the last line of defense in the struggle for our children’s souls.

I am the proud and grateful mother of a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl whom I love beyond measure. She is a gift to me, to my husband, and to the world, as all children are, and my task has been clear from the start: to put all of the energy and talent I possess at the service of her well-being. I felt confident at first, since I have at my disposal the vast treasury of wisdom found in the Church’s teaching on the human person, our dignity, our potential, and our final end. With that as my framework, I began the slow process of forming her in the truth, preparing her to confront the many challenges of our time with intelligence and love. I felt supported in this quest by the Church, for my training had led me to have a firm faith in the Magisterium and in our priests and bishops.

I feel less sure of that now in these days of confusion and danger. For while I remain confident in the promises of Christ and in the Church that he founded, I note with real concern a certain ambivalence toward the truth itself in the Instrumentum Laboris, especially its expression of the perennial teaching on the human person and the meaning of human sexuality. In particular, I am confused that the list of “valuable resources” mentioned in your Instrumentum Laboris (at #17) as aids to the young does not mention the confidence they will find by conforming their identities to the truth found in Christ.

And so, I write to you now, all of you my spiritual fathers, to plead with you on behalf of those for whom I dare to speak. We humbly acknowledge that we are unable to change the course of history without your help. We ask that you remember that these are our children you have taken under your wing. Your central mission must be the salvation of their souls; all other considerations are secondary to that mission. Do not abandon them to the vicissitudes of a culture so clearly set on its own suicide. They need the wisdom of guides who bring clarity to their situation, courageous fathers who can provide the hermeneutic that permits them to diagnose why they are confused and often unhappy. The Church’s moral teaching provides such a hermeneutic, for it is itself grounded in centuries of reflection on human experience seen through the light of Christ. We know without question that human beings are fundamentally ordered toward the true and the good. Indeed, we seek such things with a vigor that is relentless. This search is the signpost of youth—do not deny our children their one remaining hope of finding their way to its fullness.

Saint Catherine of Siena, pray for us.

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