Editor’s note: The following article appears at The Catholic Thing and appears here, slightly adapted, with permission.
A few days ago, I promised one last report on Synod 2018 on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, held October 3–28 at the Vatican. Its final document still exists only in Italian. There have been many quick journalistic reactions, useful in themselves, but they tend to focus on the usual controversial points and to stir up emotions that are then forgotten within a couple of news cycles. If we want to be a Church, however, that does more than just try to grab onto a few shreds of truth among the swirling digital and spiritual waters around us, we owe it to ourselves to make a serious effort whenever we can to move more deliberately, dive more deeply.
Still, it’s less than a week since the final document was approved, so this is only an “intermediate-range” assessment. More, much more, will need to be said and done in coming days, because the fallout from this synod will probably be with us for decades.
But at least I’ve done a first, penitential slog through all 25,652 words now — which is mercifully about 10,000 fewer than the original, working document — though partly through the fog of jet lag and despite several mishaps in the course of traveling home. (A new commandment I give unto you: Do not trust New Jersey Transit to get you from Manhattan to Newark Airport.)
In particular, I was looking for an answer to the main question as I formulated it in the previous report: “Which future for the Church?”
Would the synod fathers accept vague language about sexuality and synodality that could lead to anything — and probably will, as the vague formulations of Vatican II did in the 1960s and 1970s — or would they affirm not only Catholic moral teachings in a world that doesn’t understand them but also the Church’s sense of itself as, of course, engaged with the world but as possessing a truth and a Spirit that is not of the world?
The crucial points are there in the document but smothered by committee-speak to the point that — if you read through the entire text without specially looking for such things — you’d hardly notice them. And these, of course, are the main concerns for anyone truly distressed over how to help young people negotiate our troubled time.
The one real strength of the document is the overall realization that young people today live in a much changed and rapidly pluralizing (some might say fragmenting, even self-destructing) world. In a way, that’s a cliché, of course, since the world is always changing. But the pace and scale and nature of change now is something unique.
So far as I know, only Eamon Martin, who bears the suggestive title Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, spoke cogently about the value the Church’s steady wisdom could have for young people struggling with such forces.
Sadly, the notion of sin has almost disappeared from the world of the young — as it also very nearly has from the document. The Devil is nowhere mentioned in those thousands of words, or the age-old struggle between Good and Evil. Is all that too strong a brew — is the whole dynamic of Redemption too overwhelming — now for the young people the Church seeks to help?
Which is why you can’t help wishing that the synod fathers had gone easier on the repeated calls for dialogue, accompaniment, listening, etc., which, given the urgency of the challenges, sound terribly weak. Subjects like environment, immigration, etc., which also came up repeatedly over the past month, are — by comparison, and by far — of secondary importance. There’s no sense of putting first things first.
I’m reminded of how, at Vatican II, the whole question of Communism — the foremost anti-human ideology of its day, responsible for 100 million deaths in the 20th century — was excluded from the Council’s deliberations, and on purpose. (At one point, 400 priests at the Council from 86 different countries proposed a formal condemnation of this murderous ideology, but the proposal was rejected.)
Various factors and subsequent explanations have been brought forward to explain how such a thing happened. But the simple fact remains that the bishops of the Catholic Church meeting in a formal ecumenical council could not find a way to express their rejection of the greatest evil of their time.
I wonder how we will look back at the past four weeks. The bishops at the Youth Synod mention subjects such as the sexual revolution, abortion, divorce and the breakup of the family, the digital pseudo-world, and the flattening of the human horizon by widespread materialist and scientistic attitudes in modern societies.
But the almost ritualistic repetition of “listening,” “accompanying,” “discerning” reminds me of nothing so much as the old Christian–Marxist dialogue. The Church during the Cold War was dealing with a deadly serpent and treated it as if it were merely another dialogue partner. Indeed, lots of Christians went over to the Marxist/socialist side. The reverse was far more rare.
Where is the clear talk about discerning a religious vocation? About marrying? About having children, marriage and children being one of the ways young people often find their way to full adulthood and faith in the modern world? If you want to dabble in sociology, as the synod organizers clearly did: Social science itself has shown beyond all reasonable question that marriage, family, and children constitute the documented pathways to a better life, happiness, health, prosperity, and religious commitment.
Was it too judgmental or controversial to say this outright? And to encourage young people to marry and have children if they don’t have a religious vocation? Instead, the text spends much time fretting over social pathologies; social and spiritual remedies are given very ginger treatment in very general terms.
And as our courageous American Archbishop Charles Chaput has pointed out, the deadly evil of sex abuse received shamefully inadequate treatment, in just three flat paragraphs, while the text flirts with the sensitivities of young people about homosexual activity and same-sex attraction.
You have to read almost one-third of the way into the text before you come upon some real religious approaches to problems youth face — for example, the hope that the sacrament of confirmation can become the beginning and not the end (as it more commonly is for most Catholics) of an adult commitment to the faith.
And despite all the handwringing in the text about the need to understand how young people today are driven by images, feelings, and peers and how they often seek a religion of well-being, the bishops are, at one point, forced to acknowledge: “In Christian communities, sometimes we risk proposing, without intending it, an ethical and therapeutic theism that responds to the human need for security and comfort instead of the living encounter with God in light of the Gospel and in the force of the Spirit.”
But on to another large question about both the text and the event. The late introduction of “synodality,” a topic barely discussed by the bishops themselves over three weeks, seems to reflect the intention of Pope Francis to make the whole Church “synodal.” He emphasized that theme in the midst of the 2015 Synod on the Family and was visibly frustrated and angry at the end of that synod when the deliberations and voting of the participating bishops did not give him the outcome he desired.
This time, the process was far more tightly managed. Two bishops named by the pope worked out the last quarter or so of the final document, which deals with “synodality.” And the pope himself seems to have been involved in the drafting. But this last-minute — and not very carefully thought-out — proposal for changing the understanding of the whole Church was itself not very “synodal” or polite.
Even quite reasonable requests by the bishops that translations be done in a timely way for those who do not know Italian, so that they could give careful attention to what they were being asked to approve (within short time frames as well), were rather brusquely turned away — a strange thing when the alleged desire of “synodality” is for all to listen and be heard, to “walk together” in an open and respectful and intelligent dialogue.
So, in the end, we got a document that was not exactly the result of a consultative process, even among the bishop delegates. We have a new conception of a “synodal” Church in which all are part of the conversation and “walking together,” but in different ways — some as proper authorities, others as their collaborators, still others as voices of various experiences who are to be encouraged in their differences but also expected somehow, by an unspecified process or mechanism, to come together in a symphonic whole.
It took America’s Founding Fathers four months to write a carefully worded Constitution that would both give order to a diverse nation and, as far as humanly possible, avoid the danger of tyranny. It wasn’t until the year after that the people ratified it, and another year until it came into effect. Synodality, a matter of far greater import for the whole world, received no such serious treatment this past month. One wonders whether it’s really supposed to be treated seriously or will rather become just another example of idealistic religious language with no real connection to anything.
And, in the final analysis, this document is addressed to whom? Under the old system, the bishops, in consultation with one another, produced a text on some topic and presented their conclusions to the pope for his approval or disapproval. (The rest of us were just incidental observers, so to speak, of the synodal process.) In the current dispensation, the pope himself seems to have been involved in the drafting, and it’s quite unusual for anyone to send a message to himself. Especially a message that he says could now become part of the ordinary magisterium.
So is the text — for most people, sequestered for now behind the barrier of the Italian language and of a forbidding complexity and length — meant for the pope, the bishops of the world, the Catholic faithful? Does anyone know?
The synod fathers proposed, and then actually wrote, an additional brief message directly to young people, which you can read here. That at least has a definite purpose and audience — it is a gallant gesture, though I myself wish it had more sheer evangelical fire.
For all its lumbering indecision, the final document ends well, indeed very well in its closing, 167th paragraph. On this All Saints Day, it’s good for us to read words reminding us that the whole point of the faith and of human existence is to become a saint:
Through the holiness of the young, the Church can renew its spiritual ardor and its apostolic vigor. The balm of holiness generated by the good lives of so many young people can cure the wounds of the Church and the world, recalling us to that fullness of love to which we have always been called; young saints spur us to return to our own first love.
Let’s hope that, despite the many shortcomings of us elders, it is so.