This past Saturday the Vatican released a 7,000 word “final document” of a pre-synod meeting held in March, a prelude to the synod called by Pope Francis to be held in October of this year on the subject of “youth, faith, and vocational discernment…” The document describes itself as “a statement reflecting the specific realities, personalities, beliefs, and experiences of the young people of the world.” It’s purpose is to provide “a compass” and “a navigational guide” to the bishops who will attend the synod so that the Church will be informed “of what she needs to do moving forward.”
The March meeting was attended by 300 youth from around the world and included those “from various religious and cultural backgrounds.” For the purposes of the synod, “youth” are 16-to-29-year olds. In his widely-reported Palm Sunday homily, Pope Francis, while not referring specifically to the synodal document, urged youth to “shout.”
There are three main themes. Overall, and by far, the predominant theme is social justice and the social aspects of life. “Young people seek to engage and address the social justice issues of our time.” They are intent on “building a better world.” Just about every known social justice issue is included: ecology, climate change, human trafficking, “femicide,” war, public corruption, racism, “social inequalities,” immigration, “the end of war,” and “a sustainable global economy.”
The social aspects of each person’s life, including the effect of the social on the formation of personality, are also stressed. “A sense of belonging is a significant factor to the shaping of one’s identity.” But youth today experience personal formation in other social contexts than their “experiences with the Church.” “Key places of belonging” include social networks and “our social and natural environments.” Youth are particularly invested in “seeking diversity,” and they “value the diversity of ideas in our globalized” and “pluralistic” world. All in all: “Young people look for a sense of self by seeking communities that are supportive, uplifting, authentic and accessible: communities that empower them.”
Women are the second major theme of the document. A “common perception that many young people have is an unclear role of women in the Church.” In society and in the Church, “women are not given an equal place.” All young people, but especially women, find it difficult “to feel a sense of belonging and leadership in the Church.” A reference to “how the priesthood is perceived” seems to be a reference to how it is perceived in relation to the status of women in the Church. Accordingly, the document calls for a “clear” statement of “the role of women” in the Church, which should “deepen its understanding of the role of women and . . . empower women.” And this empowerment should occur “in the spirit of the Church’s love for Mary.” Thus, in a document that mentions Mary only twice, Mary is connected with women’s desire for power.
As it happened, an article titled “The (almost) free work of sisters” was published this month in Women Church World, the women’s edition of the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. The subject of the article was the alleged economic exploitation of women religious, and the article was widely reported in both the secular and religious media as concerning their “servitude” in the Church. In fact, Pope Francis himself, at the 2016 meeting of female religious orders, criticized the treatment of women in the Church as “more servitude than service.” And it is well-known that Francis has created a commission to study ordaining women as deacons.
As the third major theme, echoing numerous statements of Pope Francis and his advisors, the document states that “the Church oftentimes appears as too severe and is often associated with excessive moralism.” “This implies a Church that is not “merciful” and fails to “love everyone.” “Simplistic answers” to “complex issues” do “not suffice,” the youth say. They “desire answers which are not watered-down, or which utilize pre-fabricated formulations.” Certain moral teachings of the Church, that is, “contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage, and how the priesthood is perceived,” are re-labeled “polemical issues” about which there is “internal debate.”
In addition, part of “the development of our identity” is “discovering our sexuality.” Thus, youth “may want the Church to change her teaching or at least to have access to a better explanation and to more information on these questions.” In a similar vein, Jesuit priest and Vatican insider, James Martin, said in his 2017 book, Building a Bridge, that “some bishops have already called for the church to set aside the phrase ‘objectively disordered’” concerning homosexuality in the Catechism.
The final document’s criticisms are in keeping with the words of the Preparatory Document for the youth synod released by the Vatican exactly one year ago, which said that “rigid attitudes” must be abandoned, and the Church must give up any “way of acting” that is “out-dated.” And, indeed, the Pope himself in Amoris Laetitia, spoke of “a framework and a setting which help us avoid a cold bureaucratic morality in dealing with more sensitive issues.” (312).
Almost all of the final document could have been composed by secular youth. Prayer is brought up only five times, all in passing, never as a regular practice or way of life. Without naming any particular saints, the “saints” are mentioned at the very end as people who are “still” relevant, although the document had earlier stated that “not all of us believe that sainthood is something achievable and that it is a sign of happiness.” Any importance that the Mass might have is ignored, except to state that attending Mass, without more, is not sufficient as the basis for community. “Eucharistic adoration” is mentioned at the very end as a “tradition” of the Church, not for its essence. Reference to the sacraments is confined to one paragraph at the end, and there the sacrament of reconciliation is mentioned in passing.
Scripture is never cited, quoted, or referred to. The name of Jesus first occurs half-way through the document; his humanity is mentioned, but there is little sense of his divinity and what it might mean or imply. There are no references to any papal or Church documents on youth, education, or vocations. No saints, Catholic theologians, or philosophers are named or cited.
Besides the strong emphasis on the empowerment of women, there is nothing about “male” and “female.” In a document concerned with “vocational discernment,” there is nothing about the possibility that young men and woman might have different vocations or about a possible common vocation, marriage. Except for that empowerment, the document is uni-sex throughout. Motherhood, fatherhood, and children are never discussed.
The final document is firmly grounded in and takes its cues from the contemporary post-modern world, and its overall tone is that youths themselves are both the source of and reference for the present and future. Last year’s Preparatory Document stated that the Church must adopt a “new approach” about youth and must “make a self-examination and . . . re-discover her vocation of caring for others in the manner recommended by Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate.” In dealing with the Francis-emphasized themes of social justice, the empowerment of women, and the avoidance of moralizing, this new final document of the Pre-Synodal Meeting of Young People seems to have accomplished that.