Synod Journal: The return of tired Catholic Lite euphemisms

The Swiss, German, and Belgian bishops’ appeal to "the lived experience of the people" is an excuse for rejecting the Church’s call to holiness

I am growing weary of the hypocrisy of the phrase “the lived experience of the people.” This slyly loaded phrase is being employed by waffling and dissenting Catholic bishops in the lead-up to the Synod on the Family, October of 2015. Bishops the world over were asked to produce statements in response to the Lineamenta, the working document in preparation for the Synod on the Family. Two examples of open antipathy toward Catholic teaching are these statements from the Swiss Bishops’ Conference:

The history of the reception of Humanae Vitae has left profound marks. . . .Many responses indicate that the Church would do better to express herself with more restraint on questions of sexuality and to abstain from giving concrete norms and restrictions.


The commandments of the doctrine [of the Church] are no longer acknowledged as obligatory directives and as undisputed normative precepts. The affirmations of doctrine are rather evaluated in the light of the life and faith experiences of people.

If that causes a gulp, prepare yourself; there will be more such reports between now and October. The Swiss conference joins the German Bishops’ Conference in leading the movement that is pressing the Synod for relaxed pastoral approaches for “stable” same-sex pairs and Communion for the divorced and remarried. In various formulations, the justification given by the bishops for this spongy “pastoral care” of persons in sinful relationships is “the the life and faith experience of the faithful.”

That phrase–“lived experience of the faithful”–is nothing other than a Catholic Lite euphemism for “doing my own thing”. It is a flaccid excuse for rejecting the Church’s call to holiness. And it is an old saw newly trotted out as if it were a sudden inspiration for Synod 2015.

In the 1990s I covered several national conventions of dissident American Catholic organizations under the umbrella association known as Call To Action. Uniformly, these groups sought to dismantle the Church. Their petulant grievances included ordination of women, voluntary celibacy, Gay Dignity, elected bishops, a democratized hierarchy, and a lay magisterium. Their poster priest-theologian was Hans Kung. (Kung, a high profile Swiss theologian, along with Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, had been part of a group of young theologians at the Second Vatican Council. Years later, after the failure of their attempts to dialog, Pope St. John Paul II revoked Fr. Kung’s license to teach Catholic theology. For his part, Kung attacked papal infallibility and has spent the years since coaching dissidents.)

Briefly, Call to Action was born in 1976 after the United States Catholic Conference (later renamed United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) under the leadership of Abp. Joseph Bernadin, later Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, met to discuss reforms in the light of The Second Vatican Council and the 1971 Synod of Bishops. Within a few years a large group of lay and religious Catholics grew dissatisfied with the slow progress toward a liberalized church under the USCC. At that time prominent liberal Catholics had already defied Pope Paul VI’s binding authority in Humanae Vitae. And they did so with impunity. If Humanae Vitae need not be adhered to as Catholics, then, logically, all other itchy teachings could be scratched away. Emboldened, CTA members styled themselves the as the vanguard of the “church we are building.”

One constant refrain in speeches given at Call To Action conferences was that the Church is irrelevant because it ignores the “lived experience of the faithful.” When questioned, CTA leadership claimed that “lived experience” was the “reality of our life in 20th century.” It was acknowledged that CTA members had more faith in the secular progressive culture than in the “moribund” teachings of the Church. CTA leaders understood their mission to be the renewal of Catholicism in the image of modernity because “this is how people will live, with or without the blessing of the Church.”

By 1984 the group had grown in membership and in scope. Celebrated Catholic professors and hundreds of priests, catechists and diocesan personnel attended their national meetings. They pressured bishops and publicly denounced Church teaching. By the early 1990s many dissidents believed the NewChurch was within their grasp. 

Some suggest that the Fall of the Wall, the discrediting of Communism and the rising credibility of Pope John Paul II slowed the thirty year march of NewChurch. The elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Throne of Peter continued the rebalancing of the Barque of Peter after the choppy waters following the Council. However, underneath the surface of those papacies Kung and his acolytes continued to agitate for their vision of “Vatican ll” church. Their perseverance is revealed in the statements we have this month from the Swiss, German, and Belgian Bishops’ Conferences.

Thus, the old justification for an impenitent life, “the lived experience of the faithful” is announced as new pastoral insight for the Synod on the family. Devious theologians attempt to conflate the phrase with Sensus Fidelium, which is not to be confused with a prevailing trend. In late 2013 Pope Francis warned the International Theological Commission that this sense “must not be confused with the sociological reality of majority opinion.”

In all charity, here is a list of the “lived experience of the faithful” that participants at the Synod on the Family might keep on their dashboard: broken families, skyrocketing out-of wedlock births, rampant growth rates for all STDs, AIDS, increased rates of HPV, cervical and testicular cancer, abortion, commercialization of women via egg “donation” and womb surrogacy, increased rates of depression and suicide, and addiction to pornography.

The “faithful” are not leaving the Church over contraception, abortion, and divorce or same-sex pairing. They leave because their parishes did not teach them that hope and holiness lie in the guidance of the Church whose care for her children includes the truth about human sexuality. Any “pastoral care” that pretends otherwise is a mess of porridge.

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About Mary Jo Anderson 31 Articles
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on EWTN's "Abundant Life." She was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council (NAC), 2010-2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.