Shadow over the synod

The Pope prays with the synod fathers (CNS)

Hilaire Belloc once remarked that the Catholic Church must have a divine origin, because “no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight”. Belloc’s gallows humour applies rather well in the current circumstances. The crisis of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up has demonstrated just how much incompetence and wickedness have disfigured the Church. As bishops from around the world meet in Rome this month for the Synod on Youth, that crisis is inescapable – and, at the outset, some bishops see the problem more clearly than others.

On Thursday October 4, the first day of real working sessions, several bishops spoke with commendable forthrightness. One was Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who told the synod hall: “We must continue to face courageously and honestly the betrayal of young people by clerics to whom they were entrusted. This sin must never again be found in our midst. Only in this way can the youth of the world believe our synodal call to offer them reassurance, comfort, hope, and belonging.”

One might quibble with Bishop Caggiano’s apparent belief that the Church has begun to face her leaders’ culture of betrayal courageously and honestly.

The bishop also spoke generally of “clerics”, but it is bishops who have often neglected to police the general moral culture of the clergy, high and low, or to foster a candid spirit among the men who are the Church’s leaders and among the seminarians who will succeed them. Nevertheless, Bishop Caggiano put the issue front and centre.

The Vatican’s media men tried to give a different emphasis at the start of the synod: what this month is really about, they said, is a process of collective discernment. At one of the daily briefings last week, Fr Antonio Spadaro, SJ, a close advisor to Pope Francis and a senior communications figure at the synod, spoke about a new rule, introduced by Pope Francis: after every five speeches, there will be three minutes’ silence.

Fr Spadaro says that the practice is rooted in the Ignatian charism, and put in place in order to facilitate serene reflection on what speakers are saying.

That’s reasonable, but Fr. Spadaro discussed one further element. It is, he said, a mistake to get caught up in worrying about the rules. Not to put too fine a point on it: if the rules aren’t all that important, then why did Pope Francis just change them? As for the three minutes’ silence, it is only perhaps a little too cynical to note that one might as well call a bathroom break by its name.

To be fair, the rules of procedure inside the hall appear not to have changed all that much. That’s what Bishop Godfrey Onah of Nsukka, Nigeria, told me at an off-campus event at Rome’s LUMSA university on Thursday evening. Bishop Onah, who spent several years as a consultor to the General Secretariat, said there were some minor tweaks, but nothing too complicated in the way of procedural change.

The basic sub-division of the three weeks’ work follows the outline of the Instrumentum laboris, which has three main sections: recognising, interpreting, choosing – slight variations on the threefold process of discernment dear to Pope Francis: see, judge, act. Each section will be discussed in general congregation, followed by small group sessions. There are 14 small groups, organised according to language, each of which will make a report to the whole body at the end of each “unit of work”.

At the conclusion of the three units, the Commission for the Elaboration of the Final Document will meet to prepare a draft that is supposed to integrate the fruits of the Fathers’ labours with the Instrumentum laboris. The synod has just one afternoon, on Wednesday October 24, to debate the draft.

Whatever the Synod Fathers produce, their work is likely to be judged by how it addresses the ongoing crisis. There is one way the Fathers might do this, while keeping to the packed agenda: Recognise – in words – that the crisis is really one of episcopal leadership, the remedy for which cannot be found without real institutional house-cleaning and permanent commitment to the moral reform of clerical culture.

Without such recognition, it is unlikely that the Synod Fathers will be able to speak effectively to any other major issue. For example, there is the question of how to teach in a way that is accessible to young people steeped in a culture that won’t countenance talk of order or disorder. This is an issue affecting not only the developed societies that incubate this stunted moral and spiritual state, but also reaches those societies threatened by what Pope Francis has called “ideological colonisation”.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia spoke to this in both his interventions during the first half-week. “The wealthy societies of today’s world that style themselves as “developed” – including most notably my own – are in fact underdeveloped in their humanity,” he said in his second intervention. “They’re frozen in a kind of moral adolescence; an adolescence which they’ve chosen for themselves and now seek to impose upon others.”

In his opening salvo, Archbishop Chaput said the Synod’s working document is strong on sociological analysis, but does not offer a spiritual diagnosis, much less a cure. “If we lack the confidence to preach Jesus Christ without hesitation or excuses to every generation, especially to the young, then the Church is just another purveyor of ethical pieties the world doesn’t need.”

There is anxiety among some bishops that the synod may go soft on the Church’s hard teaching in an effort to reach young people. They say that’s exactly the wrong way around: the Church’s doctrines, including (though not limited to) those about disordered sexuality, are often where they find Jesus Christ at work in their lives.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban shared a letter from a young woman illustrating this point. His correspondent, 22-year-old Courage member Avera Maria Santos, experiences (in her words) same-sex attraction.

She wrote that she has found the faith preached to her whole and undiluted to be a heady draught and effective medicine. “Telling me that my cross of same-sex attraction is too heavy for me to love as Christ calls me to is not just degrading, it is also a lie. God did not abandon me when man first sinned in the beginning. He will not abandon me now.”

The letter spoke more directly than almost any bishop has managed so far at the synod. “Like Christ remembered me from the cross,” Santos writes, “I pray that you would remember me, and my brothers and sisters like me, dear bishops, as you pray about and discuss how to help young people … especially in regard to the topic of homosexuality.”

Cardinal Napier, by the way, has been elected to the liaison group for communicating with the press, styled the Commission for Information. We were reminded early on that this has often been a controversial area.

At the briefing on October 4, the under-secretary of the General Secretariat, Archbishop Fabio Fabene, confirmed that Cardinal Robert Sarah had been elected to the position first. But Cardinal Sarah refused to serve, citing “personal reasons”. Pressed by journalists, Archbishop Fabene did not elaborate.

Cardinal Sarah, however, has been frankly critical of the methods adopted in the last two synod assemblies – in 2014 and 2015 – on the family.

Cardinal Napier, who took the place when Cardinal Sarah refused, has also been critical of process in the past. At the 2014 synod, an interim report was published, claiming that the synod was taking a looser approach to the questions of divorce and homosexuality.

Cardinal Napier expressed the alarm of his fellow bishops: “The message has gone out and it’s not a true message,” he told the press ruefully.

The test the Synod Fathers need to pass is threefold. It corresponds to the divisions in the working document. Can they recognise the nature and scale of the crisis besetting the Church because of their failures? Can they address the challenges facing them? Can they choose wisely and courageously?

This article first appeared in the October 12 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here