Whatever else the Synod on Synodality turns out to be it will remain a tongue-twister. It never helps when a novel initiative—one that is guaranteed to be greeted with skepticism in certain quarters—comes with a seemingly redundant title.
I did not participate in any of the synod’s listening sessions, but have followed the process and surrounding controversies with interest. I read the USCCB’s report, “National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod” (also a tongue-twister). My reaction was mixed. Like most reports written by a committee, the national synthesis is a bit unwieldy, a bit repetitive, and a bit bland. Unlike the synod’s conservative critics, I think it is entirely appropriate for the Church to ask Catholics to listen carefully to one another while refraining from challenging those with whom they disagree, at least for the moment. “Intentional listening” and theological “discernment” can be difficult disciplines, but they are not impossible—and they are not pointless. The synod’s critics seem to think such forbearance is nothing more than a Trojan horse that will soon disgorge all the forces of liberal disarray that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI supposedly banished and that Pope Francis is allegedly determined to smuggle back into the Church. Writing at the Catholic Thing, Robert Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute, observes that “many people have been puzzled by the Synod on Synodality—the ‘walking together’ that seems to have some figures in the Vatican (and their immediate allies) highly enthused, but almost no one else.” Even after a year of listening sessions, Royal claims, no one really knows “what ‘synodality’ means.”
Honestly, it’s not rocket science. Perhaps Royal should reread the USCCB report, where the purpose of Pope Francis’s initiative is stated simply. “Discernment is a practice of the Church carried on in a spirit of prayer, meditation, and ongoing dialogue,” the report states. “The rediscovery of listening as a basic posture of a Church called to ongoing conversion is one of the most valuable gifts of the synodal experience in the United States.” Careful listening, the report reminds us, is “a spiritual discipline,” not a diabolical secular invention. Critics of the process obviously do not trust the current pope, an awkward posture for those beating the drum for “orthodoxy.” They have convinced themselves that he is using the synod to lay the groundwork for, among other things, the ordination of women and the wholesale revision of traditional Catholic sexual morality. But is there really any evidence for such suspicions? On some fraught theological and ecclesial issues Francis sometimes muddies the waters, but he hasn’t issued any ringing reversals of traditional teaching. Clearly, he is looking to decentralize decision making and open opportunities for greater lay participation—but also presumably greater lay responsibility—for the Church. Accusations that the synod is an effort to sideline the bishops and hand the keys over to those in the pews are frivolous.
Still, the USCCB report is not beyond criticism. Francis X. Maier, also writing at the Catholic Thing, is more measured than Royal. “I found that diocesan consultation efforts were impressive. Intentions were admirable. Portions of the final document have real merit. But overall, the text is crippled by tone and focus.” The tone, Maier goes on, “has a familiar therapeutic ring…. It’s a warm bath in varieties of victimhood, marginalization, ‘pain and anxiety,’ and vulnerability.”
I think that is a fair criticism, and one that helps to articulate a legitimate concern about the synodal process. I, too, was struck by the prominence of therapeutic assumptions, victimhood language, complaints about “impediments to full participation.” I was also somewhat perplexed by the repeated complaints of participants that the Church is too “judgmental.” The assumption seems to be that when it comes to same-sex marriage, LGBTQ identities, divorce, and sexual morality generally, the Church should avoid passing judgment lest it commit the sin of “marginalization.” Bracketing those specific issues for the moment, I wonder if simply embracing whatever decisions or “identities” individual Catholics might make or have is a winning strategy for evangelization. We go to church, after all, to be converted, not just applauded. The report states that “people want the Church to be a home for the wounded and broken, not an institution for the perfect.” But when has it ever been an institution for the perfect?
I, for one, want the Church to interrogate me about my decisions and behaviors. I also want a Church that can be pretty damn judgmental when it comes to sins of violence, greed, pride, envy, selfishness, hate, theft, sexual profligacy, neglect of the poor. Jesus, as I remember, did a fair amount of judging. I suspect that those complaining about judgmentalism when it comes to sexual morality are eager for the Church’s judgment when it comes to how the poor are treated, why we fight wars, and what we are doing to the planet. But when it comes to our own first-world wealth or sexual morality, we find it all too easy to deceive ourselves. If we had known that the sexual liberations of the 1960s and ’70s would lead not only to less fear and guilt but also to disregarding biological sex differences, would we have been so eager to abandon many of the guardrails of traditional sexual morality? On these questions, I think it’s time to take a deep breath, not just plow ahead.
Judgment must be a two-way street. It cannot be reserved only for those we disagree with; it applies to you, but also to me. The understandable temptation, as one great Protestant theologian famously put it, is to think that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”