The Catholic Thing
Sin and the Synod Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 29 October 2012

The great modern poet William Butler Yeats once complained:

“The Holy Spirit is an intellectual fountain,” and did the Bishops believe, that Holy Spirit would show itself in decoration and architecture, in daily manners and written style. What devout man can read the Pastorals of our Hierarchy without horror at a style rancid, coarse, and vague, like that of the daily papers?

Yeats was not a “devout man,” so the indignation here is a little put on. Still: a fair claim. But aesthetic criteria alone are never enough. They can distract from other, even more serious questions.

The Synod on the New Evangelization ended on Saturday in Rome. Something like 260 bishops (and 400 total participants) assembled from every continent. Their deliberations occasionally rose to real insight and eloquence. The pope himself seemed pleased – which should count for a lot in anyone’s book.

A bishop is a shepherd, and has two large responsibilities: 1) the good shepherd makes sure to feed his sheep; 2) he also keeps the wolves away, and warns the flock where the wolves lurk.

The bishops know this. And unless you’ve spent time yourself struggling to communicate the Word in the modern world or faced the many challenges they do, everywhere, every day, it’s only right to get behind their efforts.

But one way to help them along is to add what we can to carrying out this massive task – in a spirit of collaboration. So a few post-Synod observations, since even a Catholic sympathetic to the whole undertaking may feel a little disappointed at what seem unfocused results.

Despite wide-ranging aims, there’s an awful lot that seems missing. Most significantly, the documents and proceedings rarely seem animated by what the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once called “the fierce urgency of now.” And he was only talking about the Vietnam War; the bishops are dealing with the eternal destiny of souls.

That’s evident in the forty-five “Propositions,” the final document passed by the Synod and passed on to the pope as he prepares the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.

Cardinal Dolan remarked that the Synod participants wanted to make its other closing message (“to the People of God”) “positive, uplifting, evangelical” – generally a good approach in the modern world. But the Church needs something more if it hopes to cut through our cultural pandemonium.

It may not be easy for the bishops to say openly, but our situation in a secularized world is not, as the Synod “Propositions” claim, “similar to that of the first Christians.” The early Christians lived in a pagan society untouched by the Good News.

Our culture is deeply shaped by rejection of that News and by a sustained effort to live life on explicitly non- or even anti-Christian grounds.

If we are not absolutely clear about that, much effort will be simply wasted.

The Synod also affirms that, “The message of truth and of beauty can help people escape from the loneliness and lack of meaning to which the conditions of post-modern society often relegate them.” Quite true. But these are only social and psychological problems that even non-Christians deplore.

When the text tries to say why the Faith is important per se, it speaks of “the splendor of a humanity grounded in the mystery of Christ” and other idealistic, but vague, aspirations. Can we no longer say that there is “no other name” in which we are saved, no other Person who can satisfy the human heart?

If we can’t say it, we can’t expect the world to believe it.

Speaking of being saved: a non-Catholic reading the “Propositions” would have a hard time knowing what there is to be saved from, religiously speaking. Violence, war, individualism are condemned and there is call for reconciliation; human rights, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience are affirmed. But even the gentiles largely agree with us about all that.

What’s not mentioned in the final documents? Pornography, sex (“sexuality” gets one mention, not the same thing, of course), drugs (though there are warnings about violence due to drug trafficking and drug addicts as among the new “poor”), materialism, and much else that you would think come high on any general list.

And sin. Sin does appear a few times, but it seems to be mostly an obstacle to justice and progress, and a factor in poverty and social exclusion.  (Proposition 19)

Brief sections on conversion and holiness follow, and they are related to efforts needed in the new urban societies, parishes and “other ecclesial realities,” education, the option for the poor, and care of the sick.

There’s nothing wrong with this list, but is this an exciting “New” Evangelization?

We’re well down to Proposition 33 before the sacrament of penance puts in an appearance and “a full reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins.”

Bless me Synod Fathers, but it’s not a good idea at this point to add, “Here the penitent encounters Jesus, and at the same time he or she experiences a deeper appreciation of himself or herself.” We know what you mean – I think – but you are flirting with some of the very forces you’re trying to overcome.

Why did God have to become man and die on a Cross for that?

Ten concluding sections of intra-Church activities follow: Sundays, liturgy, the spiritual dimension, confirmation, baptism, popular piety etc., as related to the New Evangelization. Much of this appears in any Church document and Benedict will not spend much time contemplating these propositions when he prepares his Post-Synodal Exhortation. 

I’ve remarked in this column before that what large-scale events like this mean in the life of the Church depends on what gets done when the talking stops. The mere fact that the Synod occurred may give participants and millions of others a new energy and fervor.

The bishops were right to say that the “primacy” in evangelization lies in “God’s grace.” It always flows – abundantly. Let’s hope the Church uses it – wisely.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (26)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, October 29, 2012
Mr Royal,
Thanks for another eye openining
written by DEacon Ed Peitler, October 29, 2012
I was at a meeting in Rome last week at which a few of the bishops attending the Synod came and addressed our group. Most impressive was a French bishop from Toulon who simply encouraged getting out into the square and proclaiming Christ Jesus who came to give us life by the forgiveness of our sins. He also said that we will know how to evangelize by evangelizing (a novel idea). It just so happens that this bishop has more seminarians and recently-ordained than all the other dioceses in France. He might be on to something...just get out there and proclaim the kerygma.
written by Suzanne, October 29, 2012
Such a good article!! Thanks for saying things as they be said Mr Royal! God bless.
written by Manfred, October 29, 2012
Thank you for this informative report, Dr. Royal. The New Church has not been able to "find the handle" for at least fifty years. When my wife and I married forty-six years ago and began bringing our seven children into the world, we were countercultural to both the secular world, but ALSO THE CHURCH! In fact, one of our adult sons asked at a family dinner recently if our lives would have been any different if there had not been either a hierarchy or a papacy? In fact, many years ago my wife and I demanded to see our archbishop (McCarrick) in Newark, NJ, on the subject of the textbooks used in our children's catholic (sic) high school. We were directed to aux Bp McHugh+ who was so incompetent we were laughing in his face. (Of course, his main role was to be on the board of SIECUS).
Do you think any thoughtful Catholic would ever rely on an institution which, after fifty years refuses to tell its members of the full Third Secret given by the Mother of God?
Or, after thirty years, cannot tell its members whether the apparitions at Medjugorje are valid?
written by Bangwell Putt, October 29, 2012
The comment by Manfred brought to mind the truth that, sin and weakness notwithstanding, "all things are passing; God alone sufficeth."

The men and women to whom the care of the Faith is particularly entrusted and we who are faithful believers fail, again and again, "in what we do and in what we fail to do". Yet God remains the same.

Pope Benedict teaches, "The Eucharist takes us out of ourselves and into him, so that we can say, with Paul, "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me". I, yet no longer I - a new and greater self is growing, which is called the one body of the Lord, the church. The Church is built up in the Eucharist...".

Human sin is pathetic and paltry. "... indeed, the Church is the Eucharist."
written by Willie, October 29, 2012
Professor as usual great insight! When conscience trumps truth we have moral chaos. Thus there is little need for Reconciliation. I do believe the Church needs to address this quagmire of moral confusion among the faithful. New Evangelization is meaningless if there is no sense of sin then Christ's suffering becomes meaningless. This is the spreading cancer of Western Civilization it seems to me.
written by John Sobieski, October 29, 2012
The new evangelization seem so to be more of the same, and just as lame.
written by Robert Royal, October 29, 2012
Let me caution commenters here not to be too sure of their own insight and courage. The typical bishop in the modern world has a daunting set of responsibilities and critics on every side. Catholics who claim to be faithful but who are too quick to condemn don't help the cause. By all means, let's encourage the bishops to be even bolder in their witness, but let's do so in a spirit of full support.
written by Ernest, October 29, 2012
Robert Royal,

I was for you before I was against you.

I was for you when you quoted Yeats and built your argument.

I am against you post that the faithful are "too quick to condemn..."

The faithful follow Jesus and He was quick to condemn the Pharisees.
written by Dave, October 29, 2012
Bob's comment about not criticizing our bishops is right on the money. A priest friend of mine commented yesterday that the modern Church is something like the thirteenth-century Church. God raised up a St. Dominic and a St. Francis and the world has never been the same. God can do the same here and now, if only he finds a soul earnestly searching for him.

A recently canonized saint wrote in one of his foundational texts, "A secret, an open secret: these world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of men 'of his own' in every human activity. And then... 'pax Christi in regno Christi — the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ'." (To allay any concerns, "men" can and should be read in its traditionally inclusive sense to include men and women.)

It's always easy to say that the bishops aren't doing enough. It's probably good to recall, especially as we head into November, that at each of our particular judgements the good and just Lord will ask each one of us, "But what did YOU do?" We need to be men and women of prayer, men and women who know the teaching of the Church -- beginning with Holy Scripture --, men and women who frequent the sacraments and bring others to them, especially the Sacrament of Penance, men and women whose homes reflect the peace and power of the Gospel. The temptation to blame them for not making it easier for us to do so is all too easy, but look at it in this light: when did you last speak to your pastor about making Confession times longer, or restoring some of the Church's best-loved music to Mass, or celebrating Exposition and Adoration.

The New Evangelization will be successful only if we laity let ourselves be re-evangelized and bring our relatives and friends to meet the Lord in Word and Sacrament, in prayer and in apostolate. The onus, I suggest, is on us.
written by senex, October 29, 2012
Mr. Royal’s comments are incisive. What I perceive during the last few years when efforts have been made to counter ‘the spirit of Vatican II’, the advice has been too theoretical, and at times inconsistent. (E.g., see Randall Smith’s summary of the Bishops’ guidelines for Voting on The Catholic Thing on 10/25/12)

What we need, in my opinion, are some precise moral rules (a la the 10 Commandments) brief and direct, followed by explanations of what each of these rules mean and require in daily living. This will give evangelists the message to use in their efforts to evangelize on the personal level.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by MRD, October 29, 2012
Mr Royal:
Great piece!. The bottom line is that the Church no longer has a clear and credible message. In the past the basic idea was simple, man by himself is mortal and sinful, we ultimately if left to our own devices will end up in hell after we spend a relatively brief time in this veil of tears. For the atheistic the ultimate fate is not hell but oblivion. Not too appealing a thought either way. The "Good News" is that by uniting ourselves with Christ in his passion and resurrection, ( that is by an active faith that participates in the sacraments, repents of sin, we can have enter heaven) This is a pretty simple message. One can perhaps reject it or believe it, but it is certainly understandable. Most of what is pout out know by the hierarchy is too vague event to reject. The bottom line the Bishops need to answer, do they still believe it makes any difference to your ultimate fate after you are dead whether or not you are a Christian, and more specifically if you are a Catholic. ?
written by Howard, October 29, 2012
Well written. Of course, I doubt even Martin Luther King, Jr., could have expressed “the fierce urgency of now” through a powerpoint presentation or through a document written by a committee. (Please note that when the Holy Spirit worked through human authors to create the Bible, it was through one author at a time. This is even true of books like Psalms and Proverbs, where different authors contributed different parts.)
written by Angelo Roncalli, aka Pope John XXIII, October 29, 2012
In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church's rightful liberty were concerned.

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.

A Basis For Optimism

Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era. We must recognize here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing men's efforts, whether they realize it or not, towards the fulfillment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church's good.
written by Matthew , October 29, 2012

The Synod appears at worst to subordinate (or at least equate) the reality of the our last judgement outside the "Catholic" Church with the earthly reality of various social justice issues.

The paper focuses on collaboration with - rather than conversion of - those outside the Catholic Church to address those needs. The program is not Evangelical and perhaps is better described as a Red Cross recruiting drive.

The Synod's strategy to re-introduce the modern world to the documents of VII via the yet more obscure hermeneutics interpretation will be counter-productive, for these documents helped remove Catholic identity and purpose from our Catholic institutions.

The synod did not emphasize the requirement to return to the Catholic faith nor select the correct tool to buttress our efforts.
written by Jessica, October 29, 2012
For me the jury is still out in terms of the Synod. What seem to be mundane and somewhat materialistic propositions issued by the Synod Fathers might be transformed into something closer to the Gospel in the hands of Pope Benedict, when he issues the Apostolic Exhortation.
written by Austin , October 29, 2012
I hope the bishops were able to listen to Ralph Martin, who attended and has been an evangelist his entire adult life.
He has recently written a book concerning the idea that it may be only "few" that are saved. He reminds readers that scriptures tell us the broad way is to hell, the narrow way to heaven. And somehow that's gotten reversed. This is a basic reason for evangelization today.
written by Gian, October 30, 2012
"the broad way is to hell, the narrow way to heaven."

CS Lewis remarks that the Dominical sayings are directed to the conscience and the will and not to the intellect, primarily. Thus, the broad way to hell is NOT a quantitative information about the relative population of heaven and hell but the exhortion to the will to make effort necessary for salvation.
written by Greg Mockeridge, October 30, 2012
One way the bishops can better advance evangelization efforts is to not take sides on issues that allow divergent views amongst Catholics like capital punishment and immigration to name a couple. Their taking sides, coupled with the misinformation they often labor under often does much to undermine the New Evangelization
written by Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal, October 30, 2012


written by Ernest, October 30, 2012

But Gian, the results appear to be the same, that is, the results reflect the will, no?
written by Graham Combs, October 30, 2012
Mr. Royal is right. I can think of no more difficult job than to be a successor to the Apostles -- except possibly a parish priest. And when an individual bishops speaks we often here devoutness and courage. But when bishops speak en bank one can't help but taste a watered brew. One hears a diplomat rather than a shepherd. I guess I do like my Catholicism neat.

As a convert I have often thought about my RCIA experience. The instructor was well educated, accomplished (a successful auto executive), and as it happens, a seminary graduate. Yet on reflection I noted two omissions. One: not a single session focussed exclusively on the Mass, both its meaning and its liturgical expressions. Two: there are some hard teachings that cascade from the Magisterium not the least being that abortion is a grave moral evil. Yet as I sat in RCIA one Sunday morning in the fall of 2008 a fellow catechist came up to me to say how happy she was to be "working for the Obama campaign." I didn't know what say to that.

And one more quibble. I would like just one Catholic writer, thinker, member of Holy Orders, Religious, or professor to define in concrete, specific, emphatic terms just what he or she means by "individualism." Is it an encryption for "conservatism?"
written by Gian, October 31, 2012
The road to hell would be broader even if the hell was to be empty.
written by Jeremy Cox, October 31, 2012
I have yet to find an announcement from the Vatican or a Bishop that was short, clear, and phrased in the sort of language that the average man in the street understands.
written by Louise, November 01, 2012
Jeremy, have you ever read any of Paul VI's writings? I've always found his to be the easiest to understand among the writings of modern popes.

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