One of the worst of contemporary hymn-texts bids us to “Sing a new Church into being.” Not only does this injunction debase the noble hymn-tune “Nettleton;” it teaches a pseudo-Christian hubris that is contrary to the Gospel. I know of more than one bishop who has banned “Sing a New Church” in his diocese. That ban should be universally enforced.
In parishes that take their music program seriously, “Nettleton” is typically the tune to which the hymn “God We Praise You, God We Bless You,” is sung. That hymn-text is an adaptation of the ancient Te Deum, one of the Church’s most solemn anthems, and its third clause — “God we name you Sovereign Lord” — reminds us why the admonition to “sing a new Church into being” is pernicious nonsense. The Thrice-Holy God is sovereign lord of the Church; we are not lords of the Church, no matter what our position in a hierarchical communion of disciples. Christ gave the Church its constitutive form; the Holy Spirit inspired the Church’s scriptures and the development of its doctrine; Christ and the Spirit lead us to the Father. We don’t create our own road map for that journey, and when we do (as St. Paul spent 16 chapters explaining to the Romans) we are headed for serious trouble.
Yet the notion that Catholicism is “ours” to refashion into something new has permeated the “synodal process” throughout the world Church. It also dominated the German “Synodal Path,” which seems ever more like the world’s Synod’s döppelganger — or perhaps its stalking horse. That the Church has a “constitution” (in the British sense of the term) given it by Christ is not robustly affirmed in Synod-2023’s Instrumentum Laboris (its Working Document, or IL). Worse, the “Worksheets” appended to the IL — which pre-structure the Synod’s discussions in a way that seems incompatible with Pope Francis’s call for parrhesia (“speaking freely”) — muddy the ecclesial waters by putting questions on the synodal table that were once given definitive answers by the Church’s magisterium. Thus the “Synodal Assembly” is bidden by the IL and its Worksheets to talk a new Church into being — but only by speaking freely about those matters the Synod General Secretariat, which prepared the IL, deem urgent and appropriate.
This is not the official line, of course. In presenting the IL, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ, Synod-2023’s relator general, said that the Synod’s purpose was not changing Catholic teaching but “listening.” To which one must ask, “listening to what end”? Was the Luxembourgian cardinal suggesting that certain issues dear to Catholic progressives — women as ordained deacons; the ordination of married men (viri probati) as priests; Holy Communion for those married outside the Church; Catholic moral teaching, especially with regard to sexuality; the exercise of authority within parishes and dioceses; climate change and its implications for ecclesial life — haven’t been discussed and agitated ad infinitum (and in some cases ad nauseam) for decades? What is the purpose of airing all this again? If the suggestion is that settled matters are in fact unsettled, then the appeal to “listening” is either very bad theology or disingenuous (and bound to contribute to further anger among progressive Catholics when the unchangeable is not changed because it cannot be changed).
As the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, I am wholly committed to a Church permanently in mission in which Catholics own the Great Commission they received on the day of their baptism: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). I am further convinced that one of the IL’s bugbears — “clericalism” — is indeed an obstacle to meeting the challenges of the New Evangelization: if clericalism is understood as autocratic leadership. Having written more than 1,500 of these Catholic press columns over the decades, I fully support a “listening” Church whose ordained leadership takes lay input seriously.
I also believe that when Catholics say, “it’s our Church and we have to take it back,” they’re making a grave mistake. For the Church is Christ’s Church — his Mystical Body (as Pius XII taught), called to bring his light to all the nations (as Vatican II taught in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), and to do so with “the joy of the Gospel” (as Pope Francis styled his first apostolic exhortation).
We are not going to sing, talk or otherwise dragoon “a new Church into being.” That must be the premise guiding the world “synodal process” that is scheduled to culminate in Rome in October 2023 and October 2024, if these exercises are going to bear evangelical and spiritual fruit.
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