Leading Articles

Sense and synodality

As the youth synod entered its final week, there was an air of optimism among the bishops. They had spent almost a month listening to the concerns of young people and were brimful of ideas about how to reach the next generation. The atmosphere of anger and recrimination at the family synod of 2014-15 was almost forgotten. The bruises inflicted then were healing.

But just as the bishops prepared to summarise their discussions in a final report, synod organisers attempted to push the assembly in a different direction. Everyone had assumed up to that point that the central theme of the youth synod was the pastoral care of young people. But the draft final report seemed to propose that it was also about something else entirely: “synodality”.

This is often seen as a synonym for “decentralisation”. But its advocates argue that it is much more than that (though each one seems to offer a slightly different explanation). The draft text reportedly proposed a radical reconfiguration of the Catholic Church along synodal lines. It called for more decisions to be taken at a local level ­– though the precise nature and authority of the decisions remained unclear.

There were two immediate problems. First, the bishops had barely discussed synodality during their month in Rome, so it felt to some that an external agenda was being imposed upon them. Second, the draft report did not offer a lucid definition of “synodality”.

This was an important objection because synodality means different things to different people. For some, it signifies a modest but necessary shift in responsibilities from Rome to local churches. So, for example, local churchmen might have more authority over liturgical translations than they had in the past, thus avoiding protracted disputes with the Vatican over seemingly trivial details. But for others, synodality means that local bishops’ conferences have the right to determine matters that touch directly on doctrine. The German bishops, for instance, would be free to encourage non-Catholic spouses to receive Holy Communion and to develop blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

The draft text was not clear about which kind of synodality it was proposing. According to several reports, Cardinal Vincent Nichols gave a strong speech in which he highlighted this ambiguity. He noted that the Anglican Communion, a synodal body, has fragmented and suggested that an ill-defined concept of synodality could fracture the Catholic Church as well.

We commend the Cardinal for taking this stand. We do not know whether his speech led to significant changes in the synod’s final report. As we write, there is no official English translation of the final report and there are no publicly available copies of the original draft with which to compare it. But many synod fathers – and indeed Catholics around the world – will be grateful to Cardinal Nichols for appealing for a coherent definition of a term on which the future of the Catholic Church may well depend.

Beyond reason

There is overwhelming evidence that anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout the world, even in America, a country traditionally safe for Jewish people. The Pittsburgh massacre is a tragic reminder of what has long been the case, namely the growth not just in dislike of Jews, but also in conspiracy theories that ascribe to the Jewish community malign and secret powers which are the cause of the world’s woes. This is, of course, deeply worrying for Jewish people, but Catholics too should be concerned.

The anti-Semitic mindset cannot be reconciled with universal charity. The Church preaches and strives to uphold goodwill to all people. There can be no exceptions to this rule. Anti-Semites are thus deeply unchristian. As anti-Semitism rises, Christianity decays. It follows then that the Church must unambiguously preach the sinfulness of anti-Semitism, as a manifestation of a deep lack of charity.

The typical anti-Semitic mindset, with its love of conspiracy theories and its obsession with dark forces beyond our control, also challenges Catholic belief in faith and reason as interdependent and mutually reinforcing paths to God, as explained by St John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio. Anti-Semitism undermines human rationality, and represents a return to the darkness of a faith that is no faith, a faith that denies reason.

With its irrational obsessiveness, anti-Semitism does not just mean the death of civility but also the death of revealed religion, which rests on our reasoned acceptance of the Word of God. Anti-Semitism has always had a close ally in obscurantism and irreligion, as the history of the 20th century shows.

Sadly, the Church has not always been at the forefront in the fight for Jewish dignity. While we can be proud of Cardinal Manning (mentioned in these pages last week as a friend of the Jewish people) there have been many Catholics who have pandered to anti-Semites or stirred up anti-Jewish feeling or been silent when others have done so.

There has never been a better time for the Church to explain to all why anti-Semitism is not just wrong, but also dangerous to rationality, and to correct historical injustices to Jewish people. An encyclical on the matter would not be out of place.