Sin and the Synod

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.