While all sensible and faithful Catholics ought to be grateful that the worst fears of many about the Synod were not realized, there are still several elements of the Final Document that require comment and critique. To be sure, there are many good contributions in the Final Document. The ones highlighted here are flagged to give priests, teachers and youth ministers a “heads-up” on where they need to balance and/or correct incomplete or erroneous statements.
I should note at the outset that I am working from the original Italian, especially since no official English translation is yet available.
Paragraph 33: “The Importance of Motherhood and Fatherhood”
While the Synod Fathers rightly point out that the roles of mothers and fathers are equal but distinct as points of reference in forming children and transmitting the Faith to them (elsewhere in the final document, when discussing human sexuality from a biblical perspective, the bishops reiterate the essential equality and difference of males and females), they are quick to emphasize all the positives of the maternal role, with not a single example of what constitutes bad motherhood, while highlighting mostly negative aspects of fathers who are “absent” or “vanishing,” “oppressive” or “authoritarian.”
The Synod Fathers then make an abstraction. They deduce, and rightly so, that absentee, vanishing, oppressive and authoritarian fathers reflect negatively on the exercise of “spiritual paternity” as it pertains presumably to priests and bishops (although this is not clearly stated in the document). However, the Synod Fathers, not having identified any defective forms of motherhood, do not therefore come to the conclusion that defective forms of motherhood have any negative impact on the exercise of spiritual maternity as it pertains to consecrated women religious.
The evaluation of motherhood and fatherhood here is short-sighted and excessively biased in favor of the mother as though mothers can do no wrong while fathers are solely to blame for dysfunctional and unchurched children. The idealization of the maternal role does not correspond to the reality that there are bad mothers in Christian families as well. The Synod Fathers should have been more careful and more precise in their phrasing. Unfortunately, their approach “canonizes” the image of fathers perpetuated in all too many sitcoms and television commercials as stupid, absent buffoons.
Paragraph 36: “Friendship and Relationships among Equals.”
The last sentence reads: “Young people are capable of guiding other young people and of living out a true apostolate in the midst of their own friends.” This is a blanket statement for which there is little concrete evidence, at least not in my past experience as a young person or in my present experience seeing how young people actually relate to one another in today’s context. Frankly, this statement of the Synod Fathers would appear to be more the fruit of wishful thinking than a realistic evaluation of youth in our contemporary society and Church; we have only to consider the all-too-prevalent reality of bullying, gangs, and negative peer pressure.
Paragraph 39: “The Questions of Young People”
The paragraph refers to the Church’s “rich tradition” concerning sexual morality but only in passing refers to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the theology of the body developed by Saint John Paul II, and the encyclical Deus caritas est of Pope Benedict XVI, all without providing a single citation from any of those rich texts.
Then, in almost contradictory fashion, the Synod Fathers state that young people who “know and live such teaching” still express a desire to receive from the Church a “clear word.” But what could be a more “clear word” on the topic of sexual morality than the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see, for example, paragraphs 2331-2400)? Furthermore, the Synod Fathers add that those same young people who “know and live such teaching” not only desire a “clear word” from the Church but a word that is likewise “human and empathetic,” leading one to believe therefore that the Church’s teaching is somehow “inhuman” or “unempathetic,” which is patently false.
From my experience as a priest of nearly 22 years, I do not believe it is fair for the Synod Fathers to conclude that the teachings of the Church on sexual morality are frequently a “cause of misunderstanding and of the distancing of young people from the Church” because they are perceived as a “space of judgment and condemnation,” when more often than not young people do not even hear the Church’s sexual morality preached from the pulpit or taught in the classroom, let alone discussed at home by their parents and grandparents. How can Catholic young people claim to be so “judged and condemned” when so many bishops, priests and religious refrain from broaching the topic of sexual morality, let alone explaining Church teaching in an in-depth fashion?
This paragraph is also very problematic because, without using the acronym “LGBT,” or “LGBTQ,” or similar acronyms associated with “gender ideology” (an ideology frequently condemned by Pope Francis), the Synod Fathers give the impression that Catholic young people are in fact disoriented about their sexual identity, severely hampered in their ability to distinguish between a masculine and feminine identity, and thus incapable of understanding the reciprocity between men and women and the nature of homosexuality. This is an insult to the intelligence of young people who are practicing Catholics and who, as this paragraph already points out, “know and live” Church teaching.
The wording of this paragraph is most unfortunate and very misleading as it creates a false amalgamation of young people who are faithful and practicing Catholics with their peers and contemporaries who have no faith or Church membership whatsoever. I find it hard to believe that the former group, especially if they are the products of a decent Catholic education and parochial environment, would experience the same type of sexual and moral confusion as “nones” or young people with little to no religious background and formation.
Paragraph 47: “Art, Music and Sport”
Here the Synod Fathers mention the significant importance of music in the life of young people today. While this is undeniable, it hardly follows that “musical language represents also a pastoral resource, that involves in a particular way the liturgy and its renewal,” especially when one considers the forms of music to which all too many young people actually listen. To what extent, for example, would any of the following serve as a “pastoral resource” for the renewal of the Sacred Liturgy: hip hop, gangster rap, heavy metal, not to mention many other forms of contemporary music, which are frequently replete with explicit, indecent and often vulgar lyrics referring to sexual promiscuity, “pimping out” women, gross materialism, the highs and lows of drug and alcohol abuse?
Paragraph 51: “The Desire for a Living Liturgy”
What is meant by a “living Liturgy” is not clearly defined by the Synod Fathers. They also speak of a “fresh” liturgy that should be “authentic” and “joyful.” These expressions reflect an impoverished theology of worship, which is fundamentally more “horizontal” in nature than “vertical.” Sunday Mass and the sacraments are not primarily about us, the community. They are primarily about divine worship whose “source and summit,” the Eucharistic Sacrifice, is not just a community gathering to make us feel good but indeed the once-for-all Sacrifice of Calvary sacramentally re-presented on the altar.
Is it not a “fresh” enough experience for the Church in every age that her Lord and Master has willed to provide His beloved Bride with a sacramental re-presentation of the greatest, most dramatic and most profound act of divine love in salvation history in the Lord’s salvific death on the altar of the Cross? Could anything be more “authentic” than the Mass?
And what “joy” should Christians, even young people, expect to feel at the foot of the Cross? Were Our Lady and the Beloved Disciple, who represent the nascent Church, full of “joy” as they beheld the Son of God whom they knew and loved intimately, suffer an ignominious death by crucifixion, the cruelest form of capital punishment known in the ancient world?
Furthermore, it is a fallacy to suggest, as do the Synod Fathers, that simply because something is a “moral precept” (e.g., Sunday Mass attendance) that this is somehow contradictory to or incompatible with “a happy encounter with the Risen Christ and with the community.” Here, many of the bishops themselves apparently fail to grasp the purpose of going to Mass, which is to worship God in joyful obedience to His commandment. The “moral precept” is not a negative precept. Rather, it is a positive precept. And if it were not for the Third Commandment, would we go to Mass at all?
And should we not find joy and enthusiasm in obeying God because we know deep down that we owe worship to our Creator, for “without the Creator, the creature vanishes,” and that, in the words of Saint Augustine, “our heart is restless until rests in Thee,” meaning God?
Is not Sunday our “Christian Sabbath,” our Christian “day of rest,” which anticipates and points to the eschatological peace of Heaven at the wedding feast of the Lamb? And when we go to Mass, do we go to encounter the Risen Christ before uniting ourselves to Him Crucified? As the spiritual wisdom has it, “Post crucem, lucem,” (“after the Cross, the light”).
The Christian way—the way epitomized by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Sacrament of Sacraments—is, above all else, the way of the Cross. We must encounter Christ Crucified before we can encounter the Risen Christ and thus through our communion with Him do we begin to share in the joy of the Mystical Body of Christ as an “Easter People,” the people whose song is “Alleluia,” according to the felicitous expressions of Saint Augustine of Hippo, fifth-century Father and Doctor of the Church.
Speaking of whom, Augustine, who spent 33 years of his often dissolute life in search of God, could have served as a patron saint of youth for the 2018 Synod but, alas, the Synod Fathers proposed no patron saints as such (although the Final Document does mention the role of the Virgin Mary in paragraph 83 as well as Saint Mary Magdalene in Paragraph 115 on “A Young Church: An Icon of Resurrection”). In fact, Saint Augustine is cited only once in the Final Document, in paragraph 61, while his extraordinary life, especially those youthful years he reflects on so beautifully in his moving, autobiographical masterpiece, The Confessions, receive no mention at all. That omission speaks volumes about those who produced the Final Document.