Roman synods are complex and expensive affairs. They draw bishops from around the globe. Pressed by some of those bishops to reschedule or cancel the 2018 Synod on Young People because of sex abuse troubles in the United States and elsewhere, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod’s secretary general, declined. He argued that, “I do not think [the abuse crisis] is an impediment,” but rather a “providential opportunity… to show to young people and everyone else what the Church is.” So planning proceeded.
Conducted throughout October (3–28), and now winding down at the Vatican, the synod has been far more tranquil than its 2014 and 2015 predecessors, which dealt with the nature of the family. Imposing presences like Cardinal George Pell are absent. Some bishops, like Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher, have dealt with the abuse issue frankly and intelligently in their comments. Others have avoided it entirely. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, sparked new tensions on October 19 with a third public letter alleging Vatican mishandling of the Theodore McCarrick affair. But overall, the Viganò letters have had little traction in Italy.
One of the great strengths of every synod is the exchange of views among bishops from very different environments. This synod has been no exception. No one disputes the urgency of the synod’s theme, “young people, the faith, and vocational discernment.” The bleeding out of young people from any engagement with the Church has grave implications for the future. Fraternal spirit in the synod hall has therefore been good, and bishops have listened patiently to a wide range of interventions.
That does not mean they agree. Bishops from Africa and Asia, dealing with poverty, migration, ethnic and political violence, cultural colonialism, and persecution, tend to see the abuse issue as a Western problem. Most have little sympathy with the “developed” world’s obsession with sex, especially in the form of LGBT and transgender issues, woven subtly into various passages of the original working text. African bishops in particular, but joined by many others, resist any softening of Catholic teaching on matters involving homosexuality.
Meanwhile, despite the pope’s frequent warnings that the Church is not just another NGO, interventions from various European and other bishops have sounded exactly like routine NGO comments at the United Nations on arms trafficking, economic policies, military interventions, border restrictions, and ecological issues.
These internal differences, combined with ambiguous synod rules, an original instrumentum (working document) turgid with social science, and worries among some bishops that the synod’s outcome is predetermined, have made Pope Francis’s goal—reaching and inspiring young people—more difficult. Back home in the United States, the abuse issue is not going away. Unrest in the ranks of the faithful is high. So is skepticism toward leadership. In the words of one veteran American youth evangelist, “If I were talking to a non-believer today trying to explain the moral authority of the Church to lead us, I’d feel like a fool.”
Those are hard words. But they touch on a deeper problem lurking under the oddly fawning approach to young persons that has marked much of the synod. The most serious challenge to the Church in our day, even among many of her leaders and scholars, is a seeming loss of confidence in the substance or relevance of key Catholic teachings, notably on sexuality. The Christian understanding of who and why man is, of human meaning and purpose, is becoming confused.
As others have noted, Benedict XVI described this as a “silent apostasy,” the withering of a supernatural awareness and vocabulary in our experience of the world. As a result, faith gradually peters out into a helpful system of this-world ethics, a message of compassion and accompaniment without the balancing demands of justice and truth. It has the power to convert no one.
What might this mean for the future, if unarrested? Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican journalist largely unloved by the present Roman leadership, has few good things to say about the Francis pontificate. But in conversation midway through this month’s synod, nearing the 40th anniversary of Karol Wojtyła’s election as pope, he instead turned his critical eye on John Paul II, a man he profoundly respected. John Paul’s biggest mistake, he said, was assuming that the new churches of Africa and Asia, along with the formerly persecuted churches in Eastern Europe, would re-evangelize the so-called “developed” world when secularist culture ran out of gas.
But the process of secularization, said Magister, will not run out of gas. It will burn through and transform every culture. The seeming hypocrisy of Church leaders on matters of sex is simply an accelerant to the process.
This can easily lead to a loss of hope. As tempting as that might seem, it would be a mistake. The Church has faced similar, and worse, challenges in the past, including ugly periods of her own internal corruption. The task of winning the hearts of young people—as Pope Francis clearly understands—is, as always, vital to the life of Christianity. It must be pursued. The reality is that only a smaller, more zealous, and hopefully purer Church will accomplish it.
Michael Degnan writes from Rome.