The Vatican released the final document of the Youth Synod on Saturday evening, and although the 249 synod fathers who voted on the document gave it a sustained round of applause after the voting ended, various paragraphs are causing concern, even if all obtained the requisite two-thirds majority. These passages can be summed up as follows:
1. Instrumentum Laboris:
According to paragraph no. 4, the document is to be read “in continuity” with the Instrumentum laboris (working document) for the synod. This is causing concern because the working document was widely criticized before and during the synod for numerous reasons, the main one being that it was too sociological in nature. It also contained the loaded acronym “LGBT” used by the homosexual lobby, but this term didn’t make it into the final document. One synod father was said to speak for many when he said he hoped the working document would “die” so that a new one would “germinate and grow.” Now that both documents are to be read in the light of each other, the concern is that these and various other weaknesses and errors in the working document will continue to have validity, which would be especially problematic if Pope Francis decides to make the final document part of the papal magisterium (the Vatican says the Pope hasn’t decided on this yet, only that the Church “will ponder and pray over the document and then move forward”).
Despite considerable opposition by some synod fathers in the final days of the synod, all the paragraphs on synodality passed with a two-thirds majority — but they also attracted the most votes against. Many synod fathers were uneasy with the inclusion of the term as it had hardly figured in the synod debates, was inserted into the document at the very end of the assembly, wasn’t in the working document, and, in their judgment, deserves a synod of its own given its importance. Some were apprehensive about such an emphasis on the subject (it dominates Part III of the final document) as they saw it as a means of decentralizing and democratizing the Church and the magisterium away from the papacy and the Vatican to local churches. By doing so, they believe it makes it easier to introduce heterodox teachings into the Church. Pope Francis and others, however, say it creates a more “listening” Church which promotes involvement of all the faithful in Church governance. (See a more detailed analysis of the pros and cons of including synodality in the document here).
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said many felt that synodality was not a “natural fit” in a gathering “themed to young people” and deserves “serious theological reflection” and discussion among the bishops. “That didn’t happen, which doesn’t seem consistent with a coming-together of Pope and bishops in a spirit of collegiality,” he said.
Within the synodality section, paragraph 150 — the most unpopular passage with 65 synod fathers voting against it — is being criticized for vague language that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Although more problematic elements of the paragraph were removed from the draft (e.g. three references to sexual orientation — a term never used before in Church documents — were replaced by just one, in quotation marks), it still speaks of sexuality requiring “a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral elaboration” in multiple but “appropriate ways.” As mentioned earlier in the week, the German-language group has been trying to introduce similar terms to replace the loaded acronym “LGBT’” used by the homosexual lobby, but with the same end in mind: softening the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Archbishop Chaput said this need for “deepening” or “developing” our understanding of anthropological issues is one of the most “subtle and concerning” problems in the text. “Obviously we can, and should, always bring more prayer and reflection to complicated human issues,” he said, but added that the Church “already has a clear, rich, and articulate Christian anthropology. It’s unhelpful to create doubt or ambiguity around issues of human identity, purpose, and sexuality, unless one is setting the stage to change what the Church believes and teaches about all three, starting with sexuality.”
A further concern is that the paragraph also speaks of a Church commitment “against all discrimination and violence on a sexual basis,” words at variance with no. 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which opposes “unjust discrimination” in this regard, not “all discrimination.” Some are now wondering if, for example, it might now no longer be possible to dismiss someone from a Catholic institution if they perpetrate acts opposed to Church teaching in this area. Informed sources close to the process have told the Register that “many proposed and requested” an amendment to ensure it would say “unjust discrimination” but this was ignored.
Some synod fathers, probably mostly from Africa, managed to insert a reference to a 1986 letter to bishops from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which reasserts the Church’s pastoral teaching on the issue of homosexuality. But paragraph 150 goes on to speak of encouraging the accompaniment “in the faith of homosexual people,” remaining unclear how that should be carried out (it could be in the controversial manner of Jesuit Father James Martin who appears to wish to normalize homosexual practice in the Church, or the Courage apostolate that counsels men and women with same-sex attractions to live chaste lives in “fellowship, truth and love”). The paragraph makes no explicit mention of chastity. Despite this, sources say the paragraph is much better than it could have been: “Kudos to those synod fathers who successfully worked to get the worst parts out,” said a source close to the process. (See a translation of the full text of no. 150 below, and its draft version).
4. Women in the Church:
The role of women in the Church, while certainly important, figures far more than any were expecting, even compared to the draft report, and features in paragraph nos. 55, 148, and 163. The gist of all these paragraphs, said synod spokesman Paolo Ruffini, is to give “greater recognition of role of women at all ecclesial levels, including decision-making processes,” while “fully respecting” the “ordained ministry which reflects way Jesus interacted with men and women in his time.” Critics say this “excessive emphasis” on the issue that the document calls “unavoidable change” is merely a means of paving the way towards the acceptance of women deacons (a Vatican commission begun in 2016 is continuing to examine the possibility). The ultimate goal, they argue, is women’s ordination, although Pope Francis has definitively ruled that out. During the synod, various protests were made about the fact that two religious male superiors were allowed to vote but not their female counterparts, despite their participation in the synod. Some are now speculating that was done deliberately to provoke the protests and thereby justify this emphasis for greater participation of women in the Church at “all ecclesial levels.”
5. Sexual Abuse:
The passages on clergy sexual abuse were largely unsatisfactory for those synod fathers from countries hardest hit by the crisis. Other bishops, however, thought there was too much of it in the document, and it was best left for the meeting in February. Archbishop Chaput said the passages were “inadequate and disappointing on the abuse matter” and that Church leaders outside abuse crisis-hit countries “clearly don’t understand its scope and gravity.” There’s “very little sense of heartfelt apology in the text,” he said, and clericalism “is part of the abuse problem, but it’s by no means the central issue for many laypeople, especially parents.”
Despite these concerns, much of the document is to be commended. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said it has “some inspiring even lyrical passages” while acknowledging some passages “are turgid and repetitive.” Overall, he said, it is “far too long to be read by many young people, youth ministers or clergy” and so “summaries and study guides” will be needed. Others have said it does not matter how worthy the good parts are if the document’s ambiguous passages could be used to present the appearance of a change in Church teaching. “Vagueness is always going to be interpreted in the worst way,” said a source close to the synod process.
Further concerns were related to procedure: many bishops were frustrated by the lack of advance translations, especially as they were to vote on the text of a document that could, under new rules, end up as part of the papal magisterium. In a departure from the regulations, the first two parts of the document were read out in the morning with simultaneous audio translations and voted on after lunch. The third part was then read out in the same way, and then immediately voted on, without any time for the synod fathers to reflect on the text. “All paragraphs of the document as presented were passed,” Archbishop Fisher said, “though not all with equal enthusiasm.”
The English translation of the document is expected to be published in a few weeks’ time.