First Reports – Part II

Yesterday, we brought you some of the salient points of seven (4 English and 3 French) of the fourteen circuli minores, the small language groups that have met and submitted brief reports to the Synod administration. Here, we examine the seven remaining language groups: German (1), Portuguese (1), Italian (3), and Spanish (2).

A word of caution: many people, including some journalists who should know better, pick out something that has been said in one of those groups as evidence that “the Synod” has attacked or supported some outrageous view or other. This is my third synod and, in every one of them, things have been said – foolish, incoherent, or outright obtuse – that it’s hard to believe came from a delegate to a meeting at the Vatican.

In the Synod on the Family, for example, a Latin American cardinal suggested that we go back to the law of Moses on divorce – the very law that Jesus said was NOT what God intended from the beginning. In the current Synod, it’s clear that the official administration has been much more eager to include LGBTQ than the young people themselves.

What matters, however, is what makes it into the final documents. Many of us suspect that the conclusions are, this time out, already baked into the process – there are few voices like those of Archbishop Chaput at this Synod. And the process has been deliberately formulated to allow the greatest possible control over the outcomes. Yesterday’s announcement of the members of the drafting committee for the final document confirms that the pope expects to dictate the final result.

But say not the struggle naught availeth. Gay paragraphs were rejected at the family Synod. Italian vaticanisti tend to believe the same will happen again this time – though definitions of family will be further weakened in worrisome ways.

All the more reason to pay close attention to what’s happening – and intervene as effectively as circumstances permit, so that an event intended to reach young people does not end up leading them still farther from Jesus and His Church.

But on to our discussion groups.

Circulus Germanicus: Germany has been the source of some of the most troubling elements in the current papacy: The Kasper Proposal – Communion for some divorced and remarried Catholics; intercommunion for non-Catholic spouses of Catholics; the bald assertion that the national bishops’ conferences don’t need to wait for Rome to make divisive decisions. These and other troubling stances are the results of decades of liberal theology in Germany.

The German group’s report is quite weak and suffers from some of the same diseases as Western liberalism more generally. On the one hand, it opens with what seems modesty in the face of the diverse situation of young people in different cultures. On the other hand, it still says that, although the Western perspective should take a backseat to other, multicultural perspectives:

some issues and problems in the different places still recur very frequently: the challenges of sexuality, the issue of abuse, the difficulty of conveying faith, digitization, the question of an attractive liturgy and preaching, and migration, the desire of young people to be accompanied in freedom and at the same time authentically, the question of the active participation of young people, the question of justice for women in the church and more.

In other words, we value whatever is non-Western, but we’ll stick with our issues, not the poverty, corruption, oppression – even persecution – facing young Catholics in many parts of the world.

There are good points on peer pressure. But these tend to be obscured by an odd experiential approach: “We are moved by the fact that listening is a theological and not just a pedagogical concept – and we wanted to better practice listening. That’s why in our group we shared each other’s experiences with young people, including our failure to deal with them. We feel that it is important to judge from concrete experience rather than just theoretical or abstract language.”

The group invokes one of Pope Francis’ four guiding principles in this context  – “Reality is greater than ideas.” But this idea, taken seriously, is self-refuting. It’s only through ideas, concepts, words that we can apprehend the meaning of reality at all or know that it’s greater than ideas.

To the pope’s left: Maradiaga

Like most other participants following the buzzwords of this Synod, the Germans want an unmediated encounter with young people – while in the end, really expecting to judge what they’ve experienced: “we want to look at the concrete people and their concrete situations and understand how in which God’s presence shines forth – e.g., even if this concrete reality does not correspond or does not yet correspond to an ideal of Christian life.”

They speak, rightly, of the need for careful thinking about what it means to be a human being – perhaps they mean a better understanding of what’s been called for years “Christian anthropology,” i.e., how knowing God helps us to know man. But that, and much else, is only mentioned perfunctorily in this surprisingly weak German report, which may reflect their belief that they are already going to get all the liberalization they desire without much effort.

Lusitanus: For the first time, Portuguese is one of the official languages of a synodal circulus minor. It shows the continuing emphasis on Europe, all words to the contrary, that German, spoken by about 90 million people, has always been part of the mix, while Portuguese – with 350 million in countries as different as Portugal and the Azores, Brazil and Mozambique – has been left out until now.

It’s odd and perhaps telling that of all the reports, only the main Latin nations – the Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian speakers – mention how important it is to reach young people at the university level, which is where the main intellectual problems – a main driver of young people leaving the Church – usually arise, and might be confronted.

The Portuguese also added the notion of escolhas de vida (“schools of life”), which clearly go beyond even intellectual formation to teaching concrete ways to live. And they emphasized – amidst a lot of the usual analysis of problems and opportunities – that there need to be attractive physical spaces in the Church, especially at the parish level where there can be activities for young people. In short, practical approaches to concrete problems – perhaps because in most Portuguese speaking countries the acids of modernity and postmodernity have not reached full force yet.

Italicus A, B, &C: I remarked yesterday that Italian is one of the two main international languages in the Church (English is common everywhere these days, but people who come to Rome to study or work inevitably have to be reasonably fluent in Italian.) So it’s not surprising that the Italian groups offer some of the more “clerical” observations, in the sense of reflecting current obsessions within the walls of the Vatican.

For instance, it seems to the Italian-speaking bishops that it would be a “pastoral risk” to propose initiatives for young people instead of with them. There’s something to be said for this, of course, but there’s the opposite risk of over-democratizing the Church and giving the impression that young people are fully capable of evangelizing themselves and living their own way of Christian life without guidance from the adults, especially the hierarchy. Italicus A gives that impression even as it says that there needs to be a brief, pointed document addressed to young people in addition to whatever else get produced.

Italicus B performs the magic act of counseling an avoidance of generalizations, and then going on to make all sorts of generalized judgments – not the only self-contradiction in these reports but perhaps one of the most striking. For example, the Christian adults are supposed to avoid Puritanism and at the same time guide the young through the complexities of sex by indicating how God is present there. If we look at youth, they say, we’ll see how well they are doing on their own in evangelizing and caring for the poor.  This circle is probably the most “clerical” in the sense that it affirms what it wants to be as already largely in being among young people.

Italicus C, begins with a kind of hymn to the “polyphony” among its various participants (Cardinal Ravasi, fan and promoter of both pop and classical cultures, seems to have inspired some of the more florid passages here.) And it goes on to state explicitly its desire to continue along some of the recent gains achieved during the two Synods on the family. Enough said.

Which leaves only the Spanish-speakers. Since the pope’s mother tongue is Spanish, you might expect a certain harmonic resonance between his views and theirs. You would not be wrong.

Hispanicus A, led by Cardinal Maradiaga – a figure compromised by his friendship with Cardinal McCarrick and scandals at home in Honduras – makes a very strong restatement that the Church must look at the realities in front of it and not merely be a “dictator” imposing laws. The “law of love,” however, should be widely taught: “What counts is the joy of the Gospel, Truth, Love, Holiness” – in capital letters. Hispanicus B mostly engages in a very close exposition of the Working Document, section by section, with few serious departures from the orientation already provided by the Holy See.

To be fair, these are the first reports that deal mostly with some of the indigestion-inducing sociology of the first part of the Synod’s Working Document. Digestion – i.e., analysis of the data – comes next, and the week of practical proposals only after that. But there’s little here that suggests the Holy Spirit is pouring out great new creative energies on the Church – as Pope Francis has hoped. And the drafting committee for the final document, as we now know, is packed with known progressives.

So let us continue to work – and pray – that the Spirit does take charge. Soon.

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.