The “synodal process” in advance of the Synod on Synodality of October 2023 is officially underway, or should be underway, in all local churches. But if you spend any time on the campus of a Catholic college or university—as a student, teacher, member of the staff, parent, or simply because your house or parish is near one of those campuses—you’d never think that the Church is in the midst of the biggest ecclesial event since the Second Vatican Council, one that’s supposed to involve the entire people of God. There just seems to be a feeling of indifference about the whole thing.
This stands somewhat in contrast to the engagement of Catholic institutions of higher education with Vatican II. In 1959 and ’60, in preparation for the council, theological faculties were invited to submit their proposals for the formation of the conciliar agenda. In the United States, these included the Catholic University of America, St. Mary of the Lake in Chicago, and St. Mary in Baltimore. True, the participation of the majority of people in university communities was limited to following the proceedings via mass media, though some of the most influential theological advisors at Vatican II had chairs in Catholic and pontifical universities. And among the final messages delivered on the last day of Vatican II, there was one for youth in general but not specifically for students. Yet college and university engagement with the council picked up in the immediate post-conciliar period, with students and faculty alike becoming actively involved in the celebration and reception of Vatican II. Outside the United States, the impulses of Vatican II for theological and ecclesial reform were part of a more general movement of reform—not just ecclesial but also social and political. The tumultuous post–Vatican II period in theological faculties in Germany famously shocked Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI) and convinced him to move from the University of Tuebingen to the more tranquil University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria.
There just isn’t the same kind of interaction or energy today, at least in the United States. In the preparation for the synodal process launched by Pope Francis in October 2021, there was no special attention to, or guidance set out for, students and universities. The synodal-process program released in April 2021 included guidelines for submitting contributions before April 2022, but they were not very clear: “The Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the University - Faculties of Theology, the Union of Superiors General - International Union Superiors General (USG – UISG) and other Unions and Federations of Consecrated life, and international lay movements, shall also provide their own contributions to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.” Consequently, it’s not very clear what’s happening at Catholic universities in the United States. As for the Vademecum published by the Bishops’ Synod in September 2021, it vaguely mentions the role of schools and universities in the listening phase at the diocesan level (par. 3.1) and concerning the role of the bishop (par. 4.1). Even though the Bishops’ Synod has appointed eminent theologians (women and men, lay and clergy) as experts, it seems to have given little attention to the importance of contributions from the global Catholic theological and academic community. And while Pope Francis often encourages young people to be active in the Church, to shake things up and “make a mess,” the synodal process doesn’t seem to offer college students—or the university community at large—much opportunity to get involved.