Whither Now? and What is the Church?

A typical milky blue sky, fresh then hot, presided over yesterday’s canonizations. And St. Peter’s Square was surprisingly packed mostly with Spanish and Italian speakers, but also many Poles and Americans, and small groups of others. It was a welcome pause from Synod business, and a reminder of the still global reach and influence of the Church, whatever troubles we may face.

And more are soon to come, because we’ve finished the “sociological” phase of the Synod on Youth – the part (roughly the first week) where allegedly neutral, empirical observations of the situations of young people are placed on the record. The second week – analysis of the data and reflection on what it means (roughly week two) is over as well. Now the real work begins: this week various principles and plans for action will be formulated and debated, with the drafting of the formal document to be presented to the pope in the next week to ten days.

Somewhere during this process a crucial decision will have to be made – probably only if a large enough group of bishops who demand it. It was once standard procedure that each numbered paragraph would be voted on and included in the final report only if it received two-thirds of the votes. Pope Francis abrogated those norms in September, just two weeks before the start of the Synod, with Episcopalis communio.

As is often the case with the pope, the result is not clear. Instead of a concrete procedure, the new rules give wide powers to the General Secretary of the Synod, Cardinal Baldisseri, who is to seek “moral unanimity insofar as this is possible.” He also determines when such moral unanimity has been reached. Unless a number of bishops insist of paragraph-by-paragraph voting, this means they could all have the names connected to a document while never having agreed to its specifics.

On top of all that, it seems that if the pope approves the final document it can be formally entered in the Church’s teaching, the magisterium. The potential for mischief here is large and palpable.

All this may sound like boring technicalities, but much is at stake – especially if the officials of the Synod continue to press for the inclusion of LGBT language and, as seems likely, other doctrinal and pastoral innovations. Pope Francis was notably angry at the end of the 2015 Synod on the Family, where the old system of voting – despite his many efforts to shape the outcome – did not end with the desired result. And he not only disagreed, but said opposing views had “unfortunately, [been expressed] not in entirely well-meaning ways.”

It would not be cynical, merely realistic, to believe that the changes in procedures are intended to keep any of that happening again. Which is why bishops must insist on voting on specific points. Some seem to understand that.

The above summarize the structural questions; but there are substantive questions about to arise as well, not least about what now the Church is and its status among young people.

Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

In the Synod, many participants, even bishops, often speak of the Church as if it were almost superfluous. We’re hearing it said, again and again, that the role of the Church is to facilitate an “encounter with Jesus”; that our faith is not in the Church – let alone in sinful Church members, including priests and bishops – all, of course, true up to a point.

More radically, it’s sometimes hinted that the current crisis might be viewed (in the words of Newark’s Cardinal Tobin, chosen for the Synod by Pope Francis but absent, owing to the abuse crisis in his diocese) as God “smashing old structures” to prepare the way for reform.

It’s a hazardous thing to pronounce on what God is or is not doing in your day, especially in terms of smashing things that he has already used for 2000 years, unless you are a prophet whose lips have been purified in advance with a burning coal – preferably by an angel.

To the rest of us, it seems more like not only old structures but all structures are under the wrecking ball, and that the message being indirectly conveyed to young people is that it’s not such a bad thing. Structures and Spirit, in that perspective, are largely in opposition.

This was emphatically notthe vision of Vatican II, at least as the wishes of the Council Fathers are registered in the actual documents. Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, affirms in its very title, “Christ is the Light of nations.” But it goes on from that opening phrase immediately to say:

Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils.

In other words, the light of Christ not only shines on the face of the Church; the Church is closely knit in union with God and carries on his redeeming mission.

It’s difficult to see how this substantial vision of the Church can be made to fit with the open, receptive, accompanying – almost always “listening” – version. Ironically, the young people invited to the Synod often speak of wanting spiritual paternity in the absence of strong parenting, of beautiful liturgy, of the need for a greater presence of the riches of the tradition in their lives. No surprise given how little catechesis and formation most have received.

Whether they will get any of that from their elders will in large part depend on how much real adult responsibility over the remaining process the bishops decide to exercise this week.

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.