The 2018 Synod: Key themes, deep tensions, and many questions

The working document is an interminable and exhausting assembly of ideas and popular notions about the situation of youth in today’s world.  Its predominant tone is not spiritual, moral, or sacramental.

Pope Francis is pictured next to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, during a group photo at a pre-synod gathering of youth delegates in Rome March 19. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Despite the now ever-increasing number of reports and articles across the world about the preying on children and young people by priests and bishops (along with cover-ups, denials, and obstructions by various bishops), Pope Francis is going ahead with his latest synod, the Synod on Young People, The Faith, and Vocational Discernment, on October 3-28.

American Archbishop Chaput has said that he has written to Francis to advise him to put off the Synod because the bishops have no “credibility” on the subject of youth. He has now been joined by American bishops Burns and Strickland. In addition, Dutch Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, elected as a delegate to the Synod by the Dutch bishops, has said that he will not attend the Synod because “he does not find the right time to keep a synod about young people” in light of “the investigation and the news about sexual abuse.” Chaput recently published a critique of the working document, Instrumentum Laboris, for the youth synod, and earlier today Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of an upcoming Synod, criticized that text, saying, “I do not think [the abuse crisis] is an impediment,” adding that it is perhaps a “providential opportunity… to show to young people and everyone else what the Church is.” So, the Catholic Church is going to make statements about youth in the midst of its absolute crisis about preying on and despoiling youth?

This graphic shows a breakdown of who will participate in the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment. The meeting will take place Oct. 3-28 at the Vatican. (CNS graphic/Robert Duncan)

The latest Vatican synodal document

In June, the Vatican released Instrumentum Laboris, which is a compilation of responses from bishops’ conferences from across the world together with a pre-synod document, supposedly written by youth themselves immediately after a closed one-week conference in the Vatican in March of this year.  “Youth” are identified as those 16-to-29 years old, which in this country means Millennials and the post-Millennials, Generation Z.

The working document is an interminable and exhausting assembly of ideas and popular notions about the situation of youth in today’s world.  Its predominant tone is not spiritual, moral, or sacramental.  One is tempted to say that the document is sociology rather than Christianity, but it may be more accurately described as a restatement of the Western socio-humanistic consensus. In fact, an objective sociological study, based on valid and unbiased sociological research, of the contemporary Church could be very beneficial to the Church.  That kind of writing has been noticeably lacking in all the pre-and post-synod documents in both the family and youth synods.  The document with questionnaire that the Vatican sent to dioceses at the beginning of 2018 in preparation for this youth synod was said to have been based in part on “the result of research in the social sphere,” but no specific research was cited or quoted.

Now, the youth synod’s working document refers to “sociological studies” twice, likewise without reporting any results of such studies. It elevates the “social sciences” to the level of providing “an essential contribution,” but says nothing about any particular conclusions of the social sciences.  By far, the working document’s inspiration and its most frequently cited authority and background are the writings and speeches of Pope Francis.

Nevertheless, out of the obscurities of the verbal wanderings and prolix statements of the working document, five predominant themes can be predicted to become the basis of the directives of the final report.


The first is accompaniment, which Pope Francis introduced in his 2013 Evangelii Gaudiam, as a new thing for the Catholic Church: “everyone – priests, religious, and laity” in the Church must be “initiated” into the “art of accompaniment.” (169).  In the youth synod’s working document, the theory and practice of accompaniment occurs well over a hundred times and is both the subject of its own separate chapter and an essential theme of every chapter as well. In the document’s first paragraph it is stated that the Church must “accompany all young people, without exception, towards the joy of love.”

Francis has further elaborated on the meaning of accompaniment.  In Evangelii Gaudiam, he says that “one who accompanies others” must correct “help them grow” but “without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability.” (172). And in Amoris Laetitia, he says there that the Church must “avoid a bureaucratic morality;” instead, the Church must be “ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate” in “dealing with more sensitive issues.” (312).

The working document of the youth synod extends accompaniment beyond previous conceptions.  “All accompaniment,” it is stated there, “precedes any moral and religious obligation,” and thus, “it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom.” (165).  Youth “expect,” the document asserts, “to be accompanied not by an unbending judge nor by an unbending judge” nor by being told that “it has always been done this way.” (142).

Sexual morality

Second, concerning sexual morality, the working document referencing that March preparatory document supposedly prepared by youth themselves, points out that those young people who “do not agree” with the Church’ moral teachings “still want to be part of the Church anyhow.” Those teachings concern the “controversial issues” of “contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, and marriage.” (53). (In fact, the youth preparatory document called those same issues “polemical” rather than just “controversial.” See my March 29th essay “The Youth Synod: The next step in the Francis papacy”.)

The working document states that young people say they are “discovering our sexuality.” (16).  It is said that “sociological studies show that many young Catholics do not follow Church teachings on sexual morals.”  To that reality, the document adds that “no BC [bishops’ conference] gives solutions or prescriptions, but many [bishops’ conferences] believe that the sexual question must be discussed in a more open and unbiased way.” (53).  That is, the Vatican’s working document explicitly and unambiguously asserts that no conference of Catholic bishops anywhere in the whole world has any “solution” or even a “prescription” for the fact that “many” – most? – young Catholics do not follow Church moral teachings.


Third, as part of sexual morality (and despite the crimes of pederasty by priests across the world in recent decades), the synod seems certain to arrive at some conclusions and directives about integrating homosexuals more into the daily life and offices of the Church.  In Amoris Laetitia, Francis has said that “I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves,” and “it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and deprived of sanctifying grace.” (297, 301). The final reports of both the first and the second sessions of the Synod on the Family held that, “men and women with a homosexual tendency ought to be received with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

With the 2017 publication of his book, Building a Bridge, American Jesuit James Martin has unceasingly lectured the American Church about the more rapid integration of homosexuals into the daily life of the Church. In the book itself, he challenges the Church’s moral teaching by asserting that “some bishops have already called for the church to set aside the phrase ‘objectively disordered’” in the Catholic Catechism.   By his invitation to speak at the just-completed World Meeting of Families in Ireland, Fr. Martin’s crusade was subsequently placed on the agenda of the world-wide Church.

He pointedly entitled his World Families’ address: “How parishes can welcome L.G.B.T. Catholics.”  Thus was the parlance of “LGBT” further incorporated into the Catholic Church.  His thorough-going and detailed speech is a general marching order for the Church together with specific orders to Catholic parishes. He said that “the testimony of almost every psychiatrist
and biologist” is that LGBT people do not choose their sexual orientation. They bring “special gifts” to the Church.  Martin then brought up no fewer than ten separate principles for integrating LGBT persons into parishes. He declared that homosexuality should not be preached against: “people should never be degraded or humiliated from the pulpit,” and specifically the “ministers” of the Church should “apologize to them.”

Martin then went on to proclaim the obvious and inevitable purpose of his book and crusade: “L.G.B.T. people should be invited into parish ministries: eucharistic ministers, music ministers, lectors, bereavement ministry and every ministry.”  All parishes should sponsor “specific L.G.B.T. events and outreach programs.”

As already pointed out above, the youth synod’s working document describes “homosexuality” as one of the “controversial” (or “polemical”) issues to be discussed.  Specifically about homosexuality, the document states that some bishops’ conferences “ask themselves what to suggest to young people who decide to create homosexual instead of heterosexual couples” while still wanting to be “close to the Church.” (197). And in a vein similar to Fr. Martin’s advocacy, the working document says that it is taking notice of “some LGBT youths” who were not included in the preparatory document  or in the bishops’ submitted materials but who “wish to benefit from greater closeness and experience greater care by the Church.” (197).  For, young people “face inequality and discrimination” because of “sexual orientation.” (48).


Fourth is women. In Evangelii Gaudiam, Francis expressed the view that pastors should recognize “more fully” the possibilities for women to assume “decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life” and in “the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.” (103, 104).  And in Amoris Laetitia, he said that despite some forms of “inadequate” feminism, we “see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of he dignity and rights of women.” (54). He said that women should be more involved in seminarians’ “priestly formation.” (203). The youth synod’s working document is more aggressive in demanding social and political power for women. One of the “major issues of our time,” the document says, is “recognizing and enhancing the role of women in the Church and society.” (70).  “Today, there is a general problem in society in that women are still not given an equal place. This is also true in the Church.” (48).  One of the things that young people are in a “rage” about is “discrimination against women and minorities.” (128).  The working document goes on to sharply criticize the failure of “the responses given by the BC [bishops’ conferences]” to take these matters “into due account.” [128].

Yet, while “spiritual motherhood” and the Church as “mother” are referenced at several places in the working document, the document has nothing to say, recommend, or advocate whatsoever about the prospects, possibilities, or “vocational discernment” of young Catholic women concerning motherhood.

Social justice

The fifth dominant theme is social justice, a major theme of the pontificate of Pope Francis.  Rather than the Church, the human and physical setting of the document is “the concrete circumstances in which we live (family, work, and civil engagement).” (90). Building on the pope’s environmental encyclical, Laudatio Si, the working document says that “accompaniment towards full human maturity includes caring for our common home.”  (152).  It remarks that “vocational discernment” should “refer to the choice of social and political engagement, or a profession,” thereby criticizing “the reductive view” of “many BC [bishops’ conferences]” who restrict it to the choices concerning the “state in life (marriage, priesthood, consecrated life).” (110).  Concerning the “social reality” of “growing structural inequality, contempt for human dignity, human rights violations, discrimination against women and minorities, organized violence, and injustice,” the working document again criticizes the bishops’ conferences for their failure in their responses to the youth synod to provide for “space to discuss these issues in Christian communities.” (128).  And the Church should institutionalize dealing with these and other social concerns in the parishes themselves where “greater operational pragmatism” can be realized. (71). “Networking,” that is the Church allying herself with other persons and institutions on social issues, is “one of the key activities that needs to be developed in the third millennium.” (204).

Overall, in a document supposedly concerned with “vocational discernment” in a church that suffers from a lack of priests and women’s vocations, the vocations’ crisis is barely mentioned.  Indeed, the “decline in priestly and religious vocations and the emptying of churches that are happening in some parts of the world” is actually described as “the emergence of a new paradigm of religiosity” which is “not too institutionalized” but “increasingly liquid.” (63).  Likewise, religious education or “catechesis” occupies one short subsection in which it is concluded that “the opposition” between “experience-based catechesis – the common “service” projects” in this country, for example – and “content-based catechesis” should be avoided (191). The working document does not address the actual content of catechesis, and, thus, has nothing to say about what such content-based instruction may have been found to have been successful.

On their own, the American bishops decided to send Cardinal DiNardio, the president of the American bishops’ conference, Archbishops Chaput and Gomez, and bishops Baron and Caggiano as their delegation to the youth synod.  Francis amended that decision by requiring the addition of two of his personal cardinal appointees, Cupich and Tobin, the latter of whom has since withdrawn to deal with the sexual-abuse ramifications in his diocese.

The working document was issued in June of this year, that is, before the report of Pennsylvania grand jury on child sexual abuse and other reports from across the world.  On sexual abuse, the working document praises the Church’s “zero-tolerance stance on sexual abuse within her institutions.” (66).

As a consequence of the working document and the previous preparatory document, it can be wondered whether the synod will openly promote certain things: homosexual and/or women deacons, lowering the age and educational requirements of deacons, requiring that women be placed in offices of power in parishes and chanceries, the establishment of mandatory social-justice offices with full-time paid employees in each parish, and the application of the Amoris Laetitia principles of divorce-and-remarriage to the sexual behavior of youth.

One thing, however, is certain: the final document of the youth synod will be of great importance. In issuing Episcopalis Communio on September 18, Pope Francis made the characteristic unilateral decision – comparable to his previous unilateral decisions about annulments, the death penalty, and divorce-and-remarriage — that the final document of a synod of bishops shall be considered to have official teaching authority of the Magisterium.

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About Thomas R. Ascik 22 Articles
Thomas R. Ascik is a retired attorney who has written on a variety of legal and constitutional issues.


  1. This whole process is going to be a trainwreck. It will drive home with great clarity the incompetence of Pope Francis and prove to anyone who doesn’t already know that Church teaching based on scripture and tradition means very little to him. To see Mother Church taking the same road followed by “mainstream” Protestant denominations over the last forty years is heartbreaking – every one of them is on a fast track to oblivion: the Anglicans are on life support. And, if anyone is awake in the Vatican, what the spiritually bankrupt secular West needs more than anything is an institution to stand against the ideas and policies that are bringing ruin to the lives of millions of people. Francis wants to make the Church part of the problem. (And mothers do intervene in the behavior of their youth – and they’re quite judgmental, if you’re lucky enough to have a good one. And so was Christ if you read the gospels.) Pray for the Church.

    • Bergoglio is anything but incompetent. He knows exactly what he is doing and he is executing it with diabolical skill and cunning. One underestimates him at one’s own peril. We must pray for the Pope’s conversion. Let that thought sink in. And then pray for him some more.

  2. #1. I was in college from ’66-’70. It was during these years that universities were handed over to 18-22 year old spoiled brats. We can see the results. The Church now wants to silence the wisdom of elders to those with limited or no life experiences. Good luck.
    #2. As far as women as deacons among the
    clergy is concerned, if that were to happen I will be submitting my papers for laicization or else will ask admittance to one of the Eastern Rite Catholic churches. The Roman Rite is fast going off the rails.

    • Isiah 3:1-5
      [1] For behold the sovereign the Lord of hosts shall take away from Jerusalem, and from Juda the valiant and the strong, the whole strength of bread, and the whole strength of water. [2] The strong man, and the man of war, the judge, and the prophet, and the cunning man, and the ancient. [3] The captain over fifty, and the honourable in countenance, and the counsellor, and the architect, and the skillful in eloquent speech. [4] And I will give children to be their princes, and the effeminate shall rule over them. [5] And the people shall rush one upon another, and every man against his neighbour: the child shall make it tumult against the ancient, and the base against the honourable.

      Isaias is a prophecy that has both happened and will happen again. These particular verses seem quite applicable, no?

  3. We might as well write off everything this Synod decides as more heterodox claptrap intended to water down Catholic doctrine in favor of more politically correct moral relativism. It’s doomed to failure before it even started.

  4. This is nothing more than the polis of the Jesuit university/prep school (since the 1970s) writ large.

    No need to apply to Georgetown or Marquette anymore.

    • I accompanied my son to a college travelling recruitment this past week and it included some big names: Harvard, Penn, Duke, Stanford and…Georgetown. I was so disheartened to hear the GU representative describe the college thus: “We don’t want to be the number 1 Catholic University, we want to be a top academic institution which happens to have been founded by Catholic Jesuits. We still retain about less than a 40% practicing Catholic population but we hope to decrease that number in favor of greater diversity”. I pray to the Holy Spirit that this is not the future of the Catholic Church, and I find it harder and harder to believe that under the current Catholic leadership that the American Catholic Church will not go the same route as the French and German churches. Jesus, Mary and all the Saints save us from mediocrity and the triumph of Pragmatism.

  5. Wow, if this synod even remotely justifies or condones moral relativity, then Francis will have totally undermined any moral high ground in the clerical abuse issue [which involves moral relativity by corrupt bishops].

  6. An expensive gathering of a self-impressed mob. Unfortunately, financed by the faithful pewsitters to carry out a preordained result.
    Archbishop Chaput’s analyses is absolutely correct. May God bless and protect him because something wicked this way comes.

  7. What a disgusting farce this pope and his coverup cronies are.

    They are hanging themselves on their own the rope.

    May the Lord keep these men away from all young people and families and children.

    And may the Lord defend all faithful Bishops, priests, religious and laity in battle against these men.

    • Finally! This is the core of the horror of very sick priests and of the evil of the bishops that hide them for the sake of their so called Church! My Lord God; please protect our young from this evil!!!

  8. The Church, until it addresses and fixes the current crisis by excommunicating and holding accountable the homosexuals, molesters and pediphiles has NO moral authority with our teens.
    In their eyes, the Church is Hypocritical.
    Hate the sin, love the sinner.
    If the Pope re-writes God’s moral law, judgement is not far behind.

    • The book “On Islam” is by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., and is published by Ignatius Press, who operates this website. The book is an analysis and critique of Islam, especially in recent years.

  9. If anyone has even a speck of hope for orthodoxy during the current pontificate, put it aside. I think it is fair to say that the blather will continue and the concomitant destruction will follow in its wake.

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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