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Call to Synodality: Are we living through the 1970s again?

The differences between then and now are obviously very real. Then it was the Vatican that nixed national pastoral councils; now it’s Pope Francis who is the moving force behind synodality.

Detail from synodal artwork on the Vatican's Facebook page for Synod 2021-2023. (Image: www.facebook.com/synod.va)

People fretting over the pros and cons of synodality should seek enlightenment in the story of “shared responsibility” half a century ago. History doesn’t literally repeat itself, but what happened then suggests why we need to move ahead carefully now while avoiding new mistakes.

Shared responsibility—the Synodality Lite of the 1970s, you might call it—was all the rage in the heady days right after Vatican Council II. Meetings were held and documents published promoting the idea, and preliminary steps were taken by setting up pastoral councils of clergy, religious, and laity in dioceses throughout the country.

As planners saw it, the capstone of this burgeoning superstructure would be a National Pastoral Council where bishops, priests, religious, and lay people could hammer out policy for the Church’s socio-political program at the national level.

According to the plan, this national body would be a fusion of the United States Catholic Conference (created after Vatican II along with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops) with the National Advisory Council recently created to counsel the bishops.

But the Vatican stepped in and, in a letter to bishops, essentially said: No, not now. The reason seemed to be that a National Pastoral Council in the Netherlands was held to blame for the dismaying implosion of Dutch Catholicism then taking place.

Rather than go away quietly, however, shared responsibility made a noisy comeback via a boondoggle with the provocative name Call To Action. Who were called and to what action were left unstated. Promoted as the crown jewel of the American bishops’ contribution to the U.S. Bicentennial and preceded by “hearings” staged in several parts of the country to whip up interest, Call To Action brought together 1,340 delegates in Detroit for three days in October of 1976.

And who, you may ask, were those delegates? Conservative writer Russell Kirk, there as a journalist, called them “church mice.” Most were chosen by their bishops and, as later investigation determined, half were on the Church’s payroll.

Among the 218 recommendations produced by this highly unrepresentative body were proposals for ordaining women and married men, taking an open attitude toward homosexuality, approving contraception, and giving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages hadn’t been annulled.

The conference of bishops promised to study the proposals. Not surprisingly, that was the end of it.

The differences between then and now are obviously very real. Then it was the Vatican that nixed national pastoral councils; now it’s Pope Francis who is the moving force behind synodality.

But the Call To Action of 1976 unquestionably has a family resemblance to the recent “Synodal Path” in Germany with its much discussed set of proposals that, while bearing the imprint of 2023, nevertheless sound remarkably like the Call To Action laundry list of 1976. Is this perhaps a case of what Yogi Berra memorably called “Déjà vu all over again”?

The Vatican shelved Synodality Lite at the national level half a century ago. But now the Holy Father wants universal synodality, and the synod of bishops that meets this October (and again, for reasons not clear, in October next year) will undoubtedly give it to him.

Moreover, just as in 1976, so now there really is a case for greatly expanding the participation of loyal, competent lay people in setting directions for the Church. But the experience with Call To Action is a disturbing reminder that there also are excellent reasons to hope the big winner doesn’t turn out instead to be today’s woke Catholicism.


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About Russell Shaw 295 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

29 Comments

  1. The comparison between old-hat Call to Action and the new red-hat Synodality, together with the reference to Yogi Berra, calls to mind a remark made by Yogi’s son, Dale. Said he: “the similarities between me and my father are different.”

    • Dale is his father’s son, but I think he made the slipery point.

      Excerpt: Real confusion… “Call To Action is a disturbing reminder that there also are excellent reasons to hope the big winner doesn’t turn out instead to be today’s woke Catholicism.” WHAT does woke Catholicism mean? Enter Governor Ron DeSantis. He is the WOKE champion. He uses the acronym over and over in his politiacl campaign. I have not seen him or Mr. Shaw explain the acronym, yet.

      • I am not aware that WOKE is an acronym.To a certain group of pathetic and self loathing people, it means to be THEIR version of “self aware”. It means someone with much less education than you has decided that YOU are the reason they and their family have not achieved success. These people are applauded for their “brilliant” observation as they abscond with millions in donations, intended for others but used by themselves. They are “victims”, you know?? That is in spite of all sorts of minorities working freely in occupations from medicine to politics to astronaut, YOU are the problem, and they are oppressed. Companies jump on this band-wagon for fear of being thought “racist”. Coke, Hallmark, bud Light, the Dodgers. Its the reason mobs can mass shoplift stores and dangerous criminals are never brought to trial or locked up. Its the reason that teachers will now TRANS your kid without telling you, while they are not permitted to offer them an aspirin. And its why if you complain about it at a school board meeting, the FBI will target you as a “domestic terrorist”. Are these crazed activist folks fueled by the DEMs?? Absolutely. They are in the pocket of these activists and have their votes sealed up. Like their friends the teachers unions in blue cities, who have set back our children by years they will never recover. Indeed, if after ALL that has happened in the last two years; deaths in Afghanistan and abandonment of billions of advanced weapons to our enemies, food shortages, closed churches, rising prices for necessities, unaffordable mortgages, and an open border bleeding the worlds poor into our nation on our dime; if you still think things are A-ok, I can only say to all Democrats, your elevator is a few floors shy of the top, and the blood of your country is on your hands.

        • Right! The death of civilization is no laughing matter. And neither is the unraveling of God’s Church a matter to merely be lamented while we continue to feel obligated to extend formalities towards a man who has clearly aided and abetted crimes against humanity. If there is anything “holy” or “fatherly” about Francis, then let God’s rivers of mercy at his final accounting prevail. In the meantime, his torching of the Deposit of Faith merits no respect at all, certainly not the title traditionally accorded. And no parent who cares about the heart, mind, and soul of their children should let them anywhere near him at any upcoming “World Youth Day”.

        • Dear LJ. I don’t want to get too far into the political weeds, but your exhusting diatribe attempting to define WOKE in the vernaculure and a toxic ideology needs a retort. You even implies domestic violence… “And its why if you complain about it at a school board meeting, the FBI will target you as a “domestic terrorist””.

          That position seeks to incite the “hostile, toxic Right” to destroy the good work of the FBI, our national police force, who protect YOU an me from foreign and DOMESTIC terrorism evry day!

          The 1/6 failed coup by Trump flag waving criminals, The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, etc resulted in the conviction of leaders for Seditious Conspiracy, (treason?). OK’s Tyrants Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Meggs was sentenced to 12 years in prison. A real crime is that we will have to fund their existence and coddle them for those years. The WH command words went from, “you must fight like hell”, to, 3 hours later, “go home, we love you…”. The result of those 3 hours our democracy went dark as a new dangerious ideology arose from the swamp.

          Lets get to WOKE the adjective…

          Merriam-Webster Dictionary states.

          The definition of “woke” changes depending on who you ask.

          The term has recently been used by some conservatives as an INSULT against progressive values.

          The term, however, was originally coined by progressive Black Americans and used in racial justice movements in the early to mid-1900s.

          To be “woke” politically in the Black community means that someone is informed, educated and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality.

          My burnt offering. Watch this space.

          • Thanks for my laugh of the day, and for confirming the deranged view the left has of J6. I seldom respond to leftists because its a waste of time and they have no general regard for facts. Its hard to imagine AMERICAN people indoctrinated enough to believe any sort of REAL “coup” could remotely be conducted by unarmed people. Seriously? My cat could conduct a more effective coup. How far would that sort of coup get against the US military? These were simply angry Americans, many former military, police, etc, wanting to be heard. Were some people over the top and out of control? Absolutely but much less so than the VERY REAL and deadly BLM riots which occurred over a year long period earlier,in MANY cities, which injured thousands and burned down billions in business establishments, ACTUALLY taking over several police stations and American cities. Or did J6 only matter because it took place in Washington DC? The left went on and on about 5 dead on J6, a lie that has been repeated ad nauseam. The cop who lay in state was used as a shill, as was his family, as his doctor reported he died of natural causes, but Pelosi and gang didnt care. All that matters is the accusation, NOT the truth. The only person who died that day was an UNARMED woman shot by a capitol cop. Nor did Pelosi make use of the National guard offered to her by Trump before the rally. Hardly a good strategy by Trump if you are planning a “takeover”. Why was Pelosi’s role never questioned? Why did the FBI have members in the crowd who helped to incite? The fact is the Capitol building was barely damaged in those couple of hours, and film footage FINALLY released shows most people simply wandering through the building. So much of a nothing burger that several hours later Congress returned to session. A statement which could NOT be made about several BLM riots, including the one which happened directly in FRONT of the White House in which a CHURCH was set on fire, and the President and family removed to a safe room. And what of the J6 “Shaman”, sentenced to jail when film footage withheld deliberately by the govt contained enough exculpatory evidence to get his jail sentence immediately terminated? He is not the only one being held for years without trial, something I thought only happened in third rate gulag nations. Keep telling yourself the problem is with the right, who want fair elections ( fought at every turn by DEMs) and dont want their kids propagandized or sexually groomed.Our churches were closed and now people can be fired for using the wrong pronouns at work, while our girls have to change in locker rooms with men.All while the DEMs applaud. The rot I smell is coming from the left.

          • I know what you feel, you feel with great passion. God be with the better side of your instincts. I had such passions when I was young. But no one can afford to be simplistic about words like progressive or even progress itself. What do they really mean? Does progress really exist?

            If you hold to the omnipotence of God, you know in this sense there is no such thing as a proposed new idea that can be new since truth is the reflection of the mind of God and God knows everything already. God allows us discovery and the talent to articulate truth, but we can only discover and witness what God already knows. Anything we discover must simply complement what we have already received. In this particular and real sense progress does not exist, and revolutions are so much human vanity that almost always do more harm than good.

            I met Martin Luther King when I was 14 years old and was proud to join a civil rights demonstration in NYC, but the change he envisioned was for an innate divinely endowed vision of justice. So much of what today’s left seeks are the politics of a venomous hatred and resentment. This is not justice. If there is not a willingness on the part of a reformer to personally suffer with the downtrodden, there is no authentic desire to make the world better.

  2. Thanks to CWR for publishing Russell Shaw’s reminder about the Call to Action. Oddly, I instantly recognized the name, but wasn’t clear if it was from a 1970ish political bumper sticker. Then a few snippets came back: one or two articles in the archdiocesan weekly newspaper announcing the opening session, but never any follow up. It was all “call” no action.
    Perhaps for Catholics who are confused by the term “woke Catholicism,” Shaw or CWR can provide something like The Five Telltale Signalings of Woke Catholics. Would the first one be admitting one remains a Democrat?

  3. Based on what I read, priorities seem to be synods about this and that, the environment, alphabet-related issues, aligning the Gospel with modern culture, and realpolitik. This has not and will not produce a dynamic evangelizing Church.

  4. It’s good to remember those tumultuous times. The days when churches were gutted of everything that was beautiful and replaced with pastel paints and blandness. The ultimate goal is an architectural cross between a cafeteria and auditorium. First to go was the pulpitum and altar rails. The service itself ceased to be an exchange between the priest and the altar boys with the participants silent observers meditating on the mystery.. It became a service between priests and people proclaiming the mysteries together. Into this interaction stepped the paid music director and modern liturgical music was “Gathered” into a song book. So today’s mass is conducted by the priest and the responses provided by a musician and an opera singer, with no one to control their volume. Painfully loud braying and playing have replaced the altar boys. Once again the people are silent. And for some unknown reason, people are abandoning this mass for the traditional mass. Families, Men, women and children all attend together. I recently attended mass at the new SSPX church in ST Mary’s Kansas. Well over 1,000 people from new born to near death attended the Sunday mass, there were three masses that Sunday all equally full. God gave us his greatest gifts, communion, his son, and the bible. It seems he has left all the churches to our devices.

  5. We needed an update on the Ratzinger Report, not another reason why a new one should be written. Enough with the crises! We still haven’t recovered from the one in the 1960’s, for PETE’S SAKE!

  6. “admitting one remains a Democrat?” That sounds political. With the current painful self-destruction of my unrecognizable Republican Party, how can I say I will “remain”?

  7. When I look back I do not see it as disjointed but as past things bearing their fruit and continuing to add “new dimensions” and crops.

    Things don’t inhere in the Church because they are accommodated or worked through with Christian or spiritual language. Spiritual language itself is not Christian just because it wants to be about being “spiritual” or about “being selfless”.

    Substitute the word “moral” as it is used say in “moral high-ground” sometimes -you find another confusion.

    Unfortunately it would seem many in the the priesthood will have difficulty catching sight of it or just won’t preach/warn against it. They instead get taken up with every kind of awe-things said to be about being “spiritual” or “selfless” or “caring”. Going like this down through those decades.

    Shaw’s use of the term “woke” comes from it being topical, I think; and his use of it doesn’t detract from the force of his thought and the lesson he draws from history.

  8. I feel just like Charlie Brown in ‘A Charlie Brown Chritmas’ sometimes and want to shout out, “Doesn’t anyone know the true meaning of Christianity?’ Yes the Christian world could use a Pope Linus right now.

  9. The one good thing that came out of Call to Action, oddly enough, was the Call to Holiness conferences, a reaction similar to what I just read elsewhere on CWR about a pushback group in Germany called Neuer Anfang (New Beginning). The lesson there is that we can’t just sit back and do nothing while others are out to dismantle the Church.

  10. Stephen in Acts openly scolded the particular set of Jews gathered there and they stoned him to death. Nowadays you’re likely to get “talked to death” while everyone “walks together” – instead of a stoning; with no-one to take charge of the situation according on what is true. It still escapes me why either case should be considered necessarily so problematic every time that no-one may ever be reprimanded. If you are afraid to speak as truth demands sometimes, you join up with stiff-necked!

  11. God showed Jonah His care for the people and His solicitude to lead them OUT of their wrong way. He didn’t put Jonah through all the turmoil in order to have him pander to them in His Name. Jonah had to bear out the responsibility of a weighty task naming the wrongs; which as it it happened would come out favourably.

    If something will come our unfavourably it is not that God is endorsing milksop preaching etc. The precedents for such business are all on the bad side.

  12. The revolt by Episcopalians across the globe against Welby and his circles, is a serious setback for Pope Francis’ “legalize” homosexual “civil union” idea. The think tanks with that are back to the drawing board, things are not quite what was anticipated.

    Meantime those who revolted demonstrate soundness of mind but Pope Francis can’t build an appeal in it, he has “sided with Welby” and made himself appear to join the coronation of King Charles III and to be an establishment-ish suitor to Anglicanism.

    I love the Papacy, it’s Christ’s. It is very untoward to be highlighting the misgivings of these times that has to be done because there is not escaping them.

    https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/254487/pope-francis-to-sign-human-fraternity-document-with-nobel-laureates-in-st-peter-s-square

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