With his tightly controlled final document of the Youth Synod together with a new Apostolic Constitution that he released just before the start of the Synod, Pope Francis made it clear he wishes to establish “the synodal Church.”
The 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” concluded a month ago, but the final document of the Synod is still available only in Italian.
Several news sources at the close of the Synod reported that many of the episcopal participants objected to the substantial passages about “synodality” in the final document because that subject had not been discussed much during the daily sessions. If that is true, it is all the more remarkable that synodality is by far the major and also the most clearly laid out theme of the document and, thus, of the Synod.
The new constitution of the Church
The Catholic Church, the final document states, is now a synod, for “synodality” is a “constitutive dimension of the Church” (121). Quoting Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, the final document holds that “[t]he establishment of a synodal Church is an indispensable presupposition” for Church reform (118). The Synod participants themselves became “aware of the importance of a synodal form of the Church,” and the Synod brought out a “synodal style” towards which the Church must “convert” (121). The Church is called on “to practice synodality as a way of being and acting” and to “the practice of synodality at all levels” (119). Quoting Pope Francis, “the Church and Synod are synonymous” (121).
What is a synodal Church? It is “a Church of listening”—again quoting Francis (122). “It is a participatory and co-responsible Church.” Synodality allows the Church “to gather and make dialogue the gifts of all its members, starting from the young” (144). Indeed, synodality makes the Church itself appear “more clearly as the youth of the world” (118). “Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating” are “synodal verbs” (147).
In notable contrast to the final document, neither the word “synodality” nor the phrase “synodal church” appear in the Instrumentum Laboris, the Synod’s preparatory document released in May. The October 2015 final document of the Family Synod also said nothing about synodality.
And in his apostolic constitution, Episcopalis Communio, which he promulgated just before the start of the youth Synod, Francis quotes himself—a habit of his in all his documents—in stating that a synod is a “privileged instrument for listening to the people of God” (6) (emphasis in original). In that document, he says that a final document of a synod, if “expressly approved” by the pope, “participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter.” (Art. 18). In his address at the conclusion of the Synod, Francis said “we”—meaning himself and the Synod fathers—“approved” the final document, and that “the Holy Spirit gives this document to all of us.”
Synodal and accompanying
Part of synodality is “accompaniment,” a concept and activity established by Francis in his addresses and writings (e.g. Evangelii Gaudium). Accompaniment, and its relationship to synodality, is a constant theme of the Youth Synod’s final document. The pope had said in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that accompaniment was new, for “everyone – priests, religious, and laity” in the Church, he said there, had to be “initiated” into the “art of accompaniment.”
The final document from a month ago holds that “The Synod . . . recognizes the need to promote an integral accompaniment, in which spiritual aspects are well integrated with human and social ones” (99). Imitating Jesus, accompaniment is “a constant and cordial presence, a dedicated and loving closeness, and a boundless tenderness” (91). A person who accompanies well “knows how to be welcoming towards the young people he accompanies, without moralizing and without false indulgences. When it is necessary, it can also offer the word of fraternal correction” (102). “It is therefore urgent to rethink thoroughly the approach of catechesis and the link between family and community transmission of faith, relying on personal accompaniment processes” (19).
As compared to synodalizing and accompanying, the final document has next to nothing to say about teaching and preaching—either to or by the young. The “teaching of the Church” is mentioned in a few places, as for instance, as “a rich tradition” (39), but the same passage includes a criticism about how it “often” causes misunderstanding and estrangement.” Preaching is referred to only twice, in both instances as just an activity of the Church, not as something that needs to be directed to young people. The pedagogy of youth is touched on twice, once with the warning about avoiding “a set of rules” (70), and the other as “the search for more adequate methods” of teaching sexual morality” (149). Overall, young person themselves “want to be” the “protagonists” of their own lives, not just the students of others (52). “Therefore, it is not a matter of doing something ‘for them,’ but of living in communion “with them” (116).
Sexual morality and the mainstreaming of homosexual persons
There was a substantial controversy, led by American Archbishop Charles Chaput, over the use of the phrase “LGBT” in the preparatory Instrumentum. Although that phrase was eliminated, the final document explicitly emphasizes the “continuity” and “complementarity” of the Instrumentum with the final document. (2-4). Thus, the artful omission of “LGBT” from the final document does not amount to an exclusion of all the themes about homosexuality that the Instrumentum had presented, and before that document, had already been presented in the report of the March 2018 pre-synodal meeting.
The final document itself states that “a more in-depth anthropological, theological, and pastoral elaboration” needs to be undertaken about the “difference and harmony between male and female identity and sexual inclinations” (150). Defining “identity,” it is said, should not start from “sexual orientation,” but the document “recommends encouraging” the “accompanying walks” with “homosexual persons” that are occurring in “many Christian communities.” Which are:
In these ways people are helped to read their own story; to adhere freely and responsibly to one’s baptismal call; to recognize the desire to belong and contribute to the life of the community; to discern the best forms to make it happen. In this way we help every young person, no one excluded, to increasingly integrate the sexual dimension into his personality, growing in the quality of relationships and walking towards the gift of self. (150)
And, of course, the Church is “against any discrimination and violence on a sexual basis” (150).
The specific language about “accompanying the walk” of homosexuals in the Church found in the final document and the prior Instrumentum inevitably brings to mind American Jesuit James Martin. His 2017 book Building a Bridge [see Dr. Janet Smith’s CWR review of the book] was about promoting sensitivity to homosexuals in the Church, and Martin, in his new role as a consultant to the Vatican’ Secretariat for Communications, enlarged upon the book’s purposes in his address to the world-wide Church at September’s World Meeting of Families on the subject of how parishes can “welcome and respect LGBT Catholics.” In that address, he stated that “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,” Martin said.
One remaining question now seems to be whether Francis, in his followup to the Synod, will specifically include the ordained diaconate and catechetical offices as parish ministries open to homosexuals. Regardless, by virtue of the words of the Instrumentum and the final document, it would seem that any bishop could make those decisions on his own.
As for sexual morality in general, although the Church should not “delude” young people with a “minimal” pedagogy, it should likewise not “suffocate” them “with a set of rules that give Christianity a reductive and moralistic image” (70). The Church’s teaching “often causes misunderstanding and estrangement from the Church, as it is perceived as a space of judgment and condemnation.” Young people today “explicitly desire to compare” questions “related to the difference between make and female identity, to the reciprocity between men and women, to homosexuality” (39).
These passages can be compared to the language of the incorporated Instrumentum (53) about the “controversial issues” of “contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage,” concerning which young people “ask for greater clarity.” The Church should “speak in practical terms” about “homosexuality and gender issues,” the Instrumentum continued.
Of the total of 268 members of the Synod who had voting rights, only 181 had been elected by bishops’ conferences (or men’s orders) from around the world. The rest were members of Vatican offices or the Synod’s permanent staff (31), heads of the Eastern Catholic churches (15), and 40 members personally nominated by Francis. Every paragraph in the final document was separately voted on, and a two-thirds voted was required for passage. The results of each vote are included at the end of the final document. It is no hazard to conclude that the 71 members from the Vatican and Francis’ personal appointees voted as a bloc in favor of the paragraphs of the final document, which paragraphs, of course, was written by the staff of the Synod. The United States delegation, headed by Archbishop Chaput and by Cardinal Dinardio, the chairman of the USCCB, had five duly elected members, but Francis personally added Cardinal Cupich of Chicago.
All the paragraphs proposed by the writers of the final document were approved by more than the required two-thirds vote. Of the specific votes, the paragraph (150) on sexuality received the most opposing votes (65), with 178 members voting in favor. Without the 71-member bloc, that paragraph would have received only 101 favorable votes, just 41 percent, from members from bishops’ conferences. Similar results obtained concerning other paragraphs that received the most opposition votes: the paragraphs on the final document itself (51%), young people (52%), “the synodality form of the Church” (52%), and conscience (55%).
Women and social doctrine
Besides synodality itself, the two subject areas heavily stressed in the final document are women and the social doctrine of the Church. “A Church that seeks to live a synodal style cannot but reflect on the condition and role of women within it, and consequently also in society” (148). The final document recognizes the obvious and everyday experience that women are already the backbone of and have “an irreplaceable role” in every parish, but that is not what the Synod is interested in. The Church must undergo an “unavoidable change” by placing women in positions of power, that is, by involving them in “decision making processes” (55). “It is a duty of justice” to include women “in ecclesial decision-making processes” and in “daily pastoral practice” (148). There is no comparably emphatic statement on any subject in the entire final document.
There are a few passing references to “mothers” (or to fathers), but motherhood as a vocation, except concerning Mary and the Church as mothers, receives no emphasis or development. Marriage is mentioned only twice; young people (16-29 years) having their own families is given only one passing reference in a subordinate clause of a single sentence.
Speaking for the Synod, the final document “recommends the enhancement of the social doctrine of the Church” (94). “Fidelity to the Gospel” and “the inspiration of the principles of social doctrine” will allow the Church to “respond to the dual cry of the poor and the earth” (127). With respect to “ecological issues, it will be important to offer guidelines for the concrete implementation of Laudato si’ in the ecclesial practices” (154). Additional social issues are “work, family support, marginalization, the renewal of politics, pluralism cultural and religious, the path to justice and peace, the digital environment” (132).
The final document, described as only “a stage” in the synod process, points to an “implementation phase” at every level of the Church (120). Youth are central to implementation, for, in order “to move towards a participatory and co-responsible Church,” what is needed is “the active participation of young people in the places of co-responsibility of the particular Churches” (123). And that implementation emphatically includes parishes, which the final document holds, is in need of “a pastoral rethinking” because it has “fail[ed] to correspond to the spiritual needs of our time, above all because of some factors which have changed the lifestyles of people” (129). “Pastors are required to increase collaboration in witness and mission and to accompany processes of community discernment. . .” (124; emphasis added). Additional implementation includes the establishment of “training centers” (160), a “youth pastoral directory” at each national episcopal conference (140), specific training in synodality” for “ecclesial leaders” (124), and a new office at the Vatican (124).
This article has concentrated on several large themes of the final document. However, the longest passages and the overall majority of the text of the 25,000 word document is a sprawling survey—with minimal evaluation or criticism—of the sociological, socio-political, spiritual, and even psychological (cf. 30, 43) condition not only of youth but also of the Church in today’s world. Although the document recognizes that “a considerable number of young people, for different reasons, ask nothing of the Church because they do not consider it meaningful to their existence (53), what the document does not, in fact, propose is a content-based plan and strategy to evangelize the young.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!