One of the persistent questions at an event like the Synod on Youth – which is by design not open to the press and the public on the principle that a certain degree of privacy allows for more frank discussion and a contemplative atmosphere – is how the flow of information is being managed. Given the basic structure, of course, there cannot be full transparency. Paolo Ruffini, a layman who is the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communications of the Holy See, has been giving fairly comprehensive and credible daily accounts of topics that have been discussed, without revealing who brought them up or how others responded to them.
The daily briefings, on the other hand, involve various participants in the Synod appearing publicly, which also raises questions about why those particular persons were chosen on that particular day. Most of the time, the speakers seem to have been selected either at random, or for a certain variety of interests, or as regional representatives. Thursday seems to have been devoted, on purpose, to social questions with more and less real connection to young people.
Sister Alessandra Smerilli, an Italian nun who also teaches economics and organizes discussions for the Italian Bishops’ Conference, spoke broadly about the environment and how unsustainability creates poverty, especially for young people. This is a view often expressed by the Vatican, but the repetition doesn’t make it any more credible.
Any thinking person will, of course, agree that we must be prudent about managing natural resources – and Christians will acknowledge a further responsibility for care of the Creation, including in particular the human creature. There are many uncertainties about such matters, however. (If you’re interested, you can read about some of them in my now-aging but still pertinent book The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates. )
And then there’s the fact that billions of people have been lifted out of poverty, many of them young people and their families, by industrialization and development. How to get the billion or so still poor into what St. John Paul II called “the circle of production and exchange” is an urgent moral question.
To be taken seriously on these matters, you have to recognize the benefits as well as the dangers of living in our world. Unfortunately, even the pope’s own encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, mostly ignores such tradeoffs. It’s easy to speak in large theoretical generalities about how young people may suffer from environmental problems; the real work of development and environmental care and providing real incomes for the poor – including young people – is much more difficult.
There was also a return Thursday to the subject of Catholics and “gays.” Despite occasional remarks by young people about non-discrimination against homosexuals and the evident desire of the Synod administration to include LBGT as a prominent subject, that line has not much prospered. The young people themselves have by and large not pushed on gays. And that has clearly given many of the bishops a sense that they can steer a steady course on one of the hottest of hot-button issues in Western societies.
Indeed, the overall feeling at the Synod on this topic seems to have intimidated even some you would not have expected. Bologna Archbishop Matteo Zuppi, for instance, wrote the Foreword to the Italian translation of Fr. James Martin S.J.’s notorious best-seller, Building a Bridge. A journalist for a gay activist group read out a passage from that Foreword during the Thursday briefing – basically the usual line about not “coldly applying” the moral law but “accompanying” those with same-sex attraction.
He asked the archbishop whether he had seen signs of other bishops understanding that the “cold” approach was wrong and that outreach to the “gay community” was needed. It would be difficult to summarize the archbishop’s reply because he was visibly uncomfortable: he could neither say what he really thinks nor duck the question. Instead, he fumbled around for an embarrassing minute or two and emerged from a rhetorical thicket in the only direction left to him, affirming that, yes, it’s still a problem.
We have yet to see what the drafting committee may attempt to do on homosexuality in the final Synod document to be presented to the pope and in another planned to be directed specifically to young people. But the archbishop’s discomfort may be a sign that pushing LGBT at this particular Synod is not going to be easy.
The Ethiopian Metropolitan Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel spoke about immigration and made some arresting points. In Europe and America, when we talk about the immigration or refugee crisis we usually think of the numbers fleeing turmoil in the Middle East or crossing the Mediterranean from Africa (in the United States, of course, it’s Latin Americans showing up on the borders).
Metroplitan Souraphiel described another, lesser-known problem. In Africa, 80 percent of the immigration is from one African country to another – usually young people merely seeking the means to live and help their families. Ethiopia alone has one million refugees from places like Yemen, Somalia, and other troubled neighbors. Souraphiel spoke of the international arms trade as a serious driver of chaos – especially in the way it enables warlords to involve young people in unending clashes. And 40 million people- many young – are slaves in today’s world, globally, and not only in Africa.
He also put the question of whether Europe, in particular, is following Christian values by closing the door to Africans seeking a better life. That deserves careful reflection. But part of such thoughts is the reality that the developed countries are strong financially and militarily, but weak culturally and religiously. Massive numbers of immigrants make them fear for their very identities.
Absent other considerations – such as the high youth unemployment in Europe – nations that are confident in their identity can afford to allow fairly substantial immigration. I never tire of reminding people in the Church that they may criticize the United States for many things, but we allow one million immigrants to enter legally every year, while another five million are waiting patiently in line.
People displaced by war or famine, of course, present a humanitarian emergency that has to be dealt with in one way or another. But there are hundreds of millions of poor people around the world, many young seeking a decent future, who would like entry to one of the developed nations. International law does not recognize a right to immigrate for economic reasons precisely because it would create global chaos.
These are serious questions that will only become more acute in the future. We tend to focus on the plight of young people in our developed world – which is dire enough. But it’s good to be reminded that many young people around the world are in a literal struggle between life and death.
*Image: The Garden of Eden by Erastus Salisbury Field, c. 1860 [Museum of Fine Arts Boston]