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If Dognetus and Bernanos were Synod Fathers

“The menacing crisis,” noted the French novelist, “is one of infantilism.”

Pope Francis and prelates pray at the start of a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 11. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

An anonymous letter publicized by Archbishop Chaput critiques the working paper for the Synod on Youth, Faith and Vocations, and then by some is dismissed and even humiliated because it is anonymous. What then of the historical and highly-regarded and yet anonymous Letter to Diognetus?

The early writer probably had no reason to fear reprisal or even dismissal, for responding too-naively to invited dialogue by telling the truth and hoping to get away with it. But, why such paranoia today? Why indeed? Even with the king-maker and peasant-maker McCarrick now in Kansas, are all such whisperings really past-tense?

If Diognetus himself were a synod bishop, the still-anonymous first lines of his intervention might be fitting and familiar:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs [….] And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives [….] Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them….

And, confronted with our now post-Christian world, Diognetus might also recall the recent and prophetic words of Georges Bernanos, recounted by Hans Urs von Balthasar in Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence:

The modern world will shortly no longer possess sufficient spiritual reserves to commit genuine evil. Already . . . we can witness a lethal slackening of men’s conscience that is attacking not only their moral life, but also their very heart and mind, altering and decomposing even their imagination . . . The menacing crisis is one of infantilism.

What does one say to the broken young, abandoned to a larger world that for its part is both old and infantile? Diognetus might at least alert the young that they simply have been lied to—lied to by a “culture” gone off the rails into a foggy soup of celebrity cults, half-truths, evasive euphemisms, escapism and finally value-neutral brainwashing. And, how much has the Church failed the young in our recent decades of insipid, coloring-book evangelization combined with partisan political engagement detached from the Gospel in its entirety?

Time now to own up as well as grow up. And therefore, for example, instead of only hoping for an amended synod agenda, perhaps the synod fathers in the peanut gallery, together, will notice the multi-decade McCarrick elephant in the living room (and in seminaries and in blotted-out moral teaching). Of the entire swamp culture, both the laity and ecclesial, Diognetus might call again upon Bernanos who said this in his famous novel The Diary of a Country Priest:

Purity is not imposed upon us as though it were a kind of punishment, it is one of those mysterious but obvious conditions of that supernatural knowledge of ourselves in the Divine, which we speak of as faith. Impurity does not destroy this knowledge, it slays our need for it. I no longer believe, because I have not wished to believe. You no longer wish to know yourself.

If Diognetus and Bernanos were heard in the synod might the synod fathers as a whole be stirred to demand—not individually request—that the LGBTQ insignia be removed from Instrumentum laboris?

Isn’t this as a prerequisite for going forward? Why are the individual synod fathers encouraged to amend their four-minute interventions as things move along, but this wise counsel does not apply to a fly (pun intended) in the ointment—this opening to possibly ratify, probably with a strategic footnote follow-up, the homosexual subculture? To the cardinal headmaster’s (feigned?) surprise, the clumsily-planted collectivist slogan “LGBTQ” was not even part of the youth “compass” paper.

False advertising. Fake news. Out damn spot, out I say! First because the Church simply does not identify or reduce any human persons to their sexual appetite or to any other appetite.

But also because rainbow code language has another and equally demeaning application in very recent history. In 1929 the genocidal Joseph Stalin tried to deconstruct altogether the institutions of religion and the family—simply by replacing the seven-day calendar with a five-day calendar. The five work brigades of the “workers’ paradise” were each assigned a rainbow color. Members of individual families were then divided by color and regimented into different work schedules under the new five-day weeks. Color-coded diversity rendered gatherings of community and family impossible, especially for religious observances.

So, away with the smuggled LGBTQ symbolism. Or, if not, then openly embrace a new focus as was once sarcastically explained to a Protestant critic of Catholic devotions: “No, the Church absolutely does not worship statutes; ever since Vatican II we now worship banners!”

If Diognetus and Bernanos were synod bishops with their 240 seconds to offer at least a fragmentary intervention, might they speak very directly and charitably to some of the other wording actually supplied by the youth “compass” paper? Maybe with something like this:

That, yes, what seems an “unreachable standard” of Christianity is still possible with the elevating power of supernatural grace, and the interior life;

That, yes, the call for communities that “empower” with a “sense of identity and belonging” is basic, but also risks conflating power with the depth of already gifted and fully human belonging; (as Giussani states in The Religious Sense: “. . .religion is in fact …that in which the human person discovers his essential companionship… more original to us than our solitude…”);

That, yes, for the laity to be missionary means to be partly a “presence within the Church” but mostly out of the kitchen and a leaven in the world;

That, yes, the youth can be met “where they are,” but this does not mean that the Christ within gives any of us a pass for having it both ways (even euthanasia is rationalized as a statutory exception to civil laws against homicide);

That, yes, the Church is relevant to the world, but the ordained Church hierarchy does not claim license or specialized competence for mission-creep to pronounce concrete solutions for the “large social issues” (this is the vocation of the laity);

That alleged “taboos—pre-fabricated, severe and morally excessive” are actually truths about the transcendent nature of the human person, and are already given the requested “better explanation” (in Veritatis Splendor and the Theology of the Body) especially regarding contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, the permanency of marriage”;

That rather than “false images of Jesus,” the center of the assembled Church—distinctly more than a political coalition or even a sola Scriptura study-group “community”—is the concrete fact of Christ in history, fully God and fully Man, and now fully in the Eucharistic Real Presence, entirely “transparent” sacramentally (Catechism, n. 1374).

On sacramentality and living in the crisis world of today, we have this from the eminent Church historian Philip Hughes, author of The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870 (among many other works). Writing on the eve of the Second Vatican Council—a council that discerned the need to listen both to one another and to the Church Fathers—he cites a description of St. Cyril:

Very, very different is the spirit that gives life to the theology of St. Cyril [Christ as redeemer rather than only a model]. Here Jesus Christ is truly God-within-us. The Christian makes a direct contact with Him, by a union of natures, a mysterious union indeed, under the sacramental veil of the Eucharist….To the poor peasant working in the fields of the Delta, to the dock labourer at the port of Pharos [or to the broken iphone-millennial at the back of the bus], Cyril gives the message that, in this world, he can touch God. And that through this contact, whence springs a mystical kingship, he can receive assurance about the life hereafter; not only the guarantee that he is immortal, but that he will be immortal joined with God.

Mystical kingship! But from what source do the young and all of us now hear of a “new paradigm”—a subliminal and false dichotomy between “concrete” accompaniment and now-discounted “abstract” truths? It would be a bit clerical for ghost-writers, probably, to poke criticism at others who write anonymously.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally identified Archbishop Chaput as “Cardinal Chaput”. That error has been corrected.)

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About Peter D. Beaulieu 13 Articles
Peter D. Beaulieu earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in urban and regional planning from the University of Washington (1975), is a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of Beyond Secularism and Jihad? A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity (University Press of America, 2012) and A Generation Abandoned: Why 'Whatever' Is Not Enough (Hamilton Books, 2017).


  1. Unfortunately, owing to the excessive institutionalization of the Catholic Church, as things now stand today neither Diognetus nor Bernanos would be invited, and were they present by sheer happenstance neither would be heard above the hierarchical din.

  2. Cardinal Chaput ?? … the villain Archbishop of Philadelphia, at least according to Archbishop Vigano’s First Testimony.

    Have I missed his elevation to the College of Cardinals, or is this tongue in cheek?

    • The essay wrongly identified Chaput as “Cardinal” rather than “Archbishop”. That has been corrected. Archbishop Viganò’s first testimony makes several references to Cardinal Cupich of Chicago but does not mention Archbishop Chaput.

  3. Why do we believe? God has spoken. Bernanos’s insight that “I no longer believe because I have not wished to believe” identifies the desire to believe. That the unseen is true. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu chides his victim. Her faith is the desire to believe what she knows is not true [The Apostle says faith is evidence of what we hope for]. Herzog an atheist obsessed with religion expresses his own disbelief bordering on belief. Purity is not destroyed, we simply “slay our need for it”. We are made in God’s image. Notwithstanding our denial conscience is evidence that we retain this knowledge. Peter Beaulieu weaves the current crisis of messianic paradigm change in the Church among the highest of Hierarchy with this citation from Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest. Awake! We have one Messiah and He has spoken.

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