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Final Document for Youth Synod: A typically uneven and often vague exhortation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 23, 2019

Documents arising from the Synod of Bishops are a bit of a slog. They typically attempt to cover a tremendously broad array of concerns grouped around the Synod’s theme, which makes them long. They typically lack differentiation when it comes to the relative importance of the various concerns, which makes them ineffectual. And they are largely pre-scripted, replete with pre-arranged jargon, which makes them boring. All of these drawbacks have been accentuated under Pope Francis who, in pursuit of a “synodal church”, likes to hold a universal synod at least once a year.

Perhaps we should begin with this word synodal or synodality, since nobody knows precisely what it means. It is fair to say that the point of the term is to encourage the whole Church from top to bottom to act together to carry on the mission of Christ. “Synodal” seeks to convey an emphasis on the active responsibility of the whole body, as opposed to structured responses which depend solely on ecclesiastical leaders. It seeks to energize the Church as a Christic totality characterized by a rich diversity.

There is a footnote to this effect in the Synod document which cites the International Theological Commission’s study of Synodality in the life and mission of the Church in March of last year. A small part of that text reads:

It is possible to go deeper into the theology of synodality on the basis of the doctrine of the sensus fidei of the People of God and the sacramental collegiality of the episcopate in hierarchical communion with the Bishop of Rome. This ecclesiological vision invites us to articulate synodal communion in terms of ‘all’, ‘some’ and ‘one’…. This correlation promotes that singularis conspiratio [singular breathing together] between the faithful and their Pastors, which is an icon of the eternal conspiratio that is lived within the Trinity. [No. 64]

Clearly, synodality can actually be a rich theological concept for the nurturing of an active responsibility for mission throughout the entire Church. But it is also sufficiently vague as to degenerate easily into mere buzz and blather.

“Youth”

In preparing their documents, synods are typically preoccupied with applying the favorite words of the reigning pontiff to the topic selected for their consideration. In this case, the topic is “youth” and the favorite word is “accompaniment”. As a kind of Scriptural structure for the document, which of course grew out of the text prepared before the Synod ever met, the episode of Christ’s meeting with certain disciples on the road to Emmaus is used as a paradigm: Christ (1) accompanies them by listening, (2) responds to their desire for an understanding Faith, and (3) inspires them to go forth in mission.

But in this case, two of the key building blocks of the document (youth and accompaniment) have the same studied vagueness as synodality. The text documents many of the supposed concerns of youth on the unlikely pretext that these concerns are markedly different from those of other age groups. In fact, anyone who has ever worked with youth knows that they seldom as a group present original cultural concerns, but rather reflect the concerns they have been carefully taught to latch onto by the dominant culture in their lives.

I grant that young people, by virtue of their developing bodies and immaturity, face new challenges related to sexuality and even personal identity. And these are certainly exacerbated by the sexual libertinism of the West. Especially for those who spend time being pampered in the centers of irresponsibility we call colleges and universities, it is easy (a) to become selfish in terms of sexuality, while (b) condemning the inauthenticity of older people who are selfish in terms of money and power. But this just means they are subject to the temptations of their age group. The reality is that those who do not learn to master those temptations will proceed to indulge the materialistic temptations of their elders as their life-situations shift with age.

The Synod document recognizes many challenges, concerns, gifts and triumphs of young people, but apart from the age-related trajectory I have just outlined, these are generally reflective of the environments in which they are nurtured and the attitudes that have been carefully inculcated in them. Young people who grow up in solid Catholic families, receive a truly Christian education on through college, and/or come into close contact with one of the vibrant Catholic movements while they are in college, overwhelmingly end up urging the Church to renew herself spiritually. The rest worry about lack of representation, changing Catholic doctrine, economic problems, sexual and gender diversity, and the physical health of the environment—to which the Church appears largely irrelevant. None of this requires them to examine their own lives; this is the laundry list of issues they have been trained to revere.

So when we read passages like the following, we can only roll our eyes:

The presence of young people was a new departure: through them the voice of a whole generation was heard loud and clear at the Synod. Journeying with them as pilgrims…we experienced how coming together in this way creates the conditions for the Church to become a space for dialogue and a witness to a life of giving fraternity. The strength of this experience overcomes all weariness and weakness. [1]

Earth to Synod: Youth is a moving, culturally-conditioned target, and nothing is more fleeting. As with all persons, it is the quality of the observations of the committed Catholic minority that matters, not their age group.

“Accompaniment”

I mentioned that the key buzzword in this document is, predictably, “accompaniment”. While accompaniment should not be something fleeting, but enduring, it is far too vague a term to serve as a basis for true renewal. Nobody is quite sure why Pope Francis thought it necessary to invent this particular concept. We would have referred to a similar need in the past by speaking of “engagement”, “involvement” and “support”. But again, synods come complete with two things: Preparatory documents which signal the required themes; and a natural desire to latch onto the reigning pope’s terminology. This natural desire can either grow into the supernatural, or shrink into sycophancy.

Take number 122, for example, which argues as follows:

For the sake of mission, too, the Church is called to adopt a relational face that places the emphasis on listening, welcoming, dialogue and common discernment in a process that transforms the lives of those taking part… “A synodal Church…is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7)” (Francis, Address for the Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, 17 October 2015). In this way the Church presents herself as the “tent of meeting” in which the Ark of the Covenant is preserved (cf. Ex 25): a dynamic Church, in movement, which accompanies while journeying, strengthened by many charisms and ministries. Thus does God make himself present in this world.

I do not think anyone would say this is wrong; they would just wonder what it really portends, and grasp instantly how easily it can be used to justify any outcome whatsoever.

Now consider number 150, in which all of this is applied to one specific problem:

Many Christian communities already offer journeys of accompaniment in faith for homosexual persons: the Synod recommends that such initiatives be supported. In these journeys, people are helped to read their own history; to adhere with freedom and responsibility to their baptismal calling; to recognize the desire to belong and contribute to the life of the community; to discern the best ways of realizing this. Thus, all young people, without exception, are helped to integrate the sexual dimension of their personality more and more fully, as they grow in the quality of their relationships and move towards the gift of self.

Again, wrong? No. But this is astonishingly open-ended at a time when we cannot presume pastoral leaders are faithful to the moral norms known from Divine Revelation and the natural law, which norms must be the very signposts of true discernment.

More clearly disastrous is the brief section on “Education, school and university” (no. 158), which emphasizes the importance of Catholic educational institutions as “precious arenas for encounters between the Gospel and the culture” without even hinting at the crisis of Catholic higher education, at least throughout the West, in which rampant secularism has turned them into environments deadly to the faith of students. Such naiveté should have long since been overcome. “Accompaniment” of the faculties at allegedly Catholic schools has been a failed policy for well over fifty years, an exercise which has never gotten past the effusive recognition of various professorial gifts.

In a similar abandonment of responsibility, the text resolutely refuses to single out clerical sexual abuse of the young, preferring to lump it together with every sort of ecclesiastical failing, particularly under this pope’s favorite heading of clericalism (nos. 29-31).

Another broader issue reflected in the document has as yet no real resolution in all of Catholic history. Young people are called to grow in their commitment to Christ and the mission of the Church while at the same time engaging in the task (for which the Synod document claims they are particularly well-suited) of dialogue with all cultures and religions in order to promote the common good and create a more open and welcoming society (see nos. 155-156). But nowhere in the document (and, I think, nowhere in Church history) are these two goals effectively reconciled. There has been little or no deeper discernment of the real dangers the latter poses to the former. Commitment to truth (the mind’s conformity with reality) always wanes when the embrace of diversity become paramount. There is a serious tension between these two poles which has yet to be effectively addressed.

Good things too

I could go on at great length distinguishing sound passages from relatively aimless blather. There is a great deal of small group work in Synod documents, and each sub-section of the document typically reflects the quality of Christian thought and witness characteristic of the group which had primary responsibility for it. Consequently, there are some very good sections—always allowing for the excessive verbiage of such documents as a whole.

For example, the document reaffirms the importance of “maternity and paternity”, if not with a sharp tone, at least with a steady persistence:

Mothers and fathers…are equally important as points of reference in forming children and passing on the faith to them. The maternal figure continues to have a role that young people consider essential for their growth, even if it is not sufficiently recognized in cultural, political and employment terms. Many fathers perform their own role with dedication, but we cannot conceal the fact that in some contexts, the paternal figure is absent or evanescent, and in others oppressive or authoritarian. These ambiguities are also reflected in the exercise of spiritual paternity. [33]

I can also generally recommend Part II, Chapter IV on “The Art of Discernment”. Whoever put this section together actually knew quite a lot about how true discernment works in the context of the Church (nos. 104-113). If we could guarantee that everyone would be schooled in this model, with the concomitant removal, from Rome down to local parishes, of Catholic leaders who go astray, real progress toward a vibrant (and, yes, synodal) Church might well be made. The habit of personal prayer, by the way, is the first and most important factor in the quality of Christian discernment. In any case, in terms of synodality, the fact that the laity are increasingly demanding leadership accountability measured against Catholic faith and morals may be an important sign of the times after all.

Some good ideas for authentic renewal in a synodal Church are also included in the text, especially Part III, Chapter II in the subsection on “From structures to relationships”. For example:

Missionary synodality does not merely apply to the universal dimension of the Church…. It is therefore necessary to reawaken in every local reality the awareness that we are the people of God, responsible for incarnating the Gospel in our different contexts and in all daily situations. This involves stepping outside the logic of delegation, which so greatly conditions pastoral action.
We may refer, for example, to catechetical courses in preparation for sacraments, a task that many families delegate entirely to the parish. This mentality has the result that children risk seeing the faith not as a reality that illumines their daily life, but as a collection of ideas and rules belonging to a separate sphere…. So it is not enough to have structures, if authentic relationships are not developed within them; it is actually the quality of these relationships that evangelizes. [128]

Conclusion

This is a complex document, driven by the organizers, and fleshed out by the labors of many bishops working in many different sub-groups, constrained by a necessarily flawed and laborious process. As such, like all synodal documents, it is a mixed bag. This is neither surprising nor alarming; it is the nature of the beast.

Apart from ephemeral publicity, the impact of synods is generally felt in two ways over the longer term: First, by the personal impact on bishops who have caught new fire from the synodal experience; second, by the particular themes that are emphasized repeatedly from the pope down, and that become instrumental in the selection of future bishops and priests. Both of these sources of impact actually suggest that issuing a document may well be a superfluous distraction.

In any case, to be helpful, the key themes will have to be more carefully selected, clarified and implemented throughout the Church—with discipline to boot—if the result is to be anything other than bishops, priests, religious and laity continuing to chase the goals of the dominant culture in the name of God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jan. 27, 2019 9:37 AM ET USA

    james-w-anderson8230: There was not much on maternity and paternity; what I quoted was very close to the whole.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Jan. 26, 2019 12:43 PM ET USA

    Thank you for parsing a document which very few others will want to read (including myself). The last sentence quoted was actually true. And I will check out the Discernment part. BTW, even when I was a teen (in the 50s), I distrusted Church pronouncements aimed solely at “Youth”. I yearned for the permanent, not the transitory. Still do.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jan. 25, 2019 7:33 PM ET USA

    Thanks Jeff for slogging through the document for us. I was particularly interested in the Good Things too section. Was there a particular section that discussed maternity and paternity?