It is October, which means it is time for the Youth Synod. Already it is clear that doctrinal novelty is once more on the agenda. There has already been a skirmish about the appearance in the instrumentum laboris of the term “LGBT.” The Synod’s top official, one of Francis’s earliest supporters from his time at the Congregation for Bishops, indicated erroneously that the term had been used by youth. Not so, but he refused to remove the term, according to Life Site News. One anticipates that the Synod will be a battleground for the renewed dialectic over same-sex attraction, contraception, and other moral issues much beloved of modernists and progressives. However, the Synod comes at a difficult time for Francis, following a dreadful summer of revelations about the abuse crisis and the sense that Francis’s pontificate is winding down. It remains to be seen how much all of this will affect the final product of the Synod.
It is clear that progressives in high places have not abandoned their agenda. It is clear from the instrumentum laboris that the Synod will address youth with same-sex attraction and, once again, the battle between the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church and the pressures of secular liberalism will be joined. The same will no doubt be true with respect to contraception. No doubt other issues related to sex will be taken up, with the familiar tension between the doctrine of the Church and the apparently unfailingly progressive youth heightened. We anticipate hearing that, not only do young people want an unqualified endorsement of same-sex relationships and contraception, young people want married priests, deaconesses, and greater theological exploration of the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. Whether two-thirds of the Synod fathers will agree to these novelties remains to be seen.
In the 2014-2015 process, there was still some question about Francis’s doctrinal commitments, and that made the really extraordinary battles in the Synod seem altogether more significant. However, in 2018, it is clear where Francis’s doctrinal commitments lie. It is unlikely that he will endorse wholesale revisions of Church doctrine. Instead, the language of pastoral accompaniment and development of doctrine will be employed. In this regard the stakes for this Synod are much lower. There is, in fact, a sense that we have returned to the stage-managed Synods of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The final report is probably mostly written. Francis can choose to endorse it and give it magisterial weight, or he can choose to issue an exhortation. It probably will not be openly heterodox, but it probably will contain ambiguities and openings to immoral conduct under the guise of discernment and pastoral accompaniment. The stories write themselves at this points.
Of course, Edward Pentin reports that there is substantial confusion about the voting procedures at the Synod, perhaps in an effort to avoid subjecting controversial propositions to a straight up-or-down vote, instead requiring bishops to vote on the entire document. Given how the 2014-2015 process worked, it is reasonable to expect that the Synod secretariat, with Francis’s support, will manipulate the process to achieve the predetermined result with a minimum of dissent. While the concept of a synodal, “listening” Church is one of Francis’s favorite talking points, there are significant questions whether this is anything more than a talking point. Clearly, the Pope likes the idea of consensus backing up certain moves; however, he has shown himself time and time again willing to go it alone, relying on his inherent authority and the willingness of his supporters to defend his decisions.
This is not to say that the outcome of the Synod is inconsequential. As we have written before, history has begun again in the Church. The dialectic between continuity and rupture, between tradition and novelty, is in full swing, and this Synod will be for a few weeks the epicenter of the process. Perhaps this one is a little different, in that it is impossible to deny that things have changed in the world and even the pastoral strategies of 1978, 1988, 1998, or 2008 are inadequate to reach today’s youth. Traditionally minded Catholics point to the young people who engage enthusiastically with tradition; modernists point to the young people who want same-sex relationships blessed and contraception permitted. The strategy of tension employed by modernists since the days of Pascendi will no doubt be observed. But to say that the dialectic is inconsistent with apostolic faith, which rests primarily in tradition, and has since the days of St. Paul (cf. Gal. 1:8), is somewhat beside the point. The fact is that the dialectic will take place.
Nevertheless, is an autumnal feel to this process, and not only because it is happening in October. There is a sense that there is more time behind Francis than before him. Already people are making plans for the next conclave. In fact, just in the last couple of days, it has been announced that a well funded group is going to be investigating cardinal electors so that compromised candidates will be known prior to entering the conclave. (The suggestion is that Cardinal Bergoglio was compromised and would not have been elected pope if that had been known; whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess.) There is not much reason to think this, other than Francis’s age. Unlike John Paul II, Francis has not had high-profile health crises or sudden trips to the Gemelli clinic. And unlike Benedict XVI, who grew visibly frail before abdicating, Francis does not appear to be weakening with age. It is strange therefore that all this activity is taking place. However, there is still a feeling that the Synod may be one of the last major engagements of Francis’s pontificate. For this reason, despite the lower stakes and likelihood of few surprises, the Synod may well be significant as a sort of referendum on the future direction of a post-Francis Church.
However, for reasons entirely aside from doctrine, this Synod comes at a terrible time for Francis (and the Church). There has been a steady drumbeat of allegations that Francis has either downplayed abuse or simply ignored abuse. It began with the case of Bishop Juan Barros in Osorno in Chile, who was accused of being involved with the coverup of Chile’s most notorious abuser, Fernando Karadima. Francis first backed Barros, but that position became untenable when it was revealed that one of Karadima’s victims had passed a letter to Francis through Cardinal O’Malley regarding Barros’s involvement. The affair resulted in the abdication of most of Chile’s bishops, though only some of the resignations have been accepted—most notably Barros’s. Given Francis’s decision to back Barros in unmistakable terms, the affair damaged his credibility on abuse.
However, the fall of former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick has proved to be a more serious crisis for Francis than even the Barros affair. McCarrick, long one of the most prominent figures in the American Church, was credibly accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and a minor. Rumors about McCarrick had circulated for years, even reaching the Vatican when a professor at a seminary wrote to Rome about McCarrick’s behavior after his appointment to Washington was announced. Quickly, McCarrick resigned from the cardinalate and was ordered to a life of prayer and penance while the canonical process wound its way through Rome. Given McCarrick’s prominence and influence, the case was proving to be embarrassing for Francis and some of his most prominent American supporters.
Until Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote a lengthy “testimony” about a long-running coverup in Rome of McCarrick’s misconduct. Viganò made many allegations, the upshot of which is that Benedict XVI ordered McCarrick out of public life, and Francis rescinded the order because McCarrick was a friend and supporter of Francis. Francis has not really answered the allegations. However, it appears that Benedict XVI did direct McCarrick to keep a lower profile, but McCarrick basically ignored the direction. It is impossible to say more than this, given the Vatican’s silence on the matter and the fact that some key figures, such as Pietro Sambi, the former nuncio, are dead.
In the background of the allegations about what Francis knew or didn’t know, the American Church has been dealing with another iteration of the abuse crisis, this time focused on several Pennsylvania dioceses. While Philadelphia had addressed the past instances of abuse and coverup, other dioceses had not, and the Pennsylvania attorney general initiated a grand jury probe. The results of the probe are chilling: over 70 years hundreds of predator priests abused over a thousand children. There have been calls for immediate action, ranging from greater civil oversight of the Church to improved reporting and compliance mechanisms within the Church, including greater participation by the laity.
However, the overwhelming reaction to the Pennsylvania report has been grief and outrage. Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh for some of the time covered by the report, was named and accused of furthering the coverup of an instance of abuse. He contests the allegations, but he has also indicated that he intends on asking the Pope to accept his resignation so that Washington can move forward with new leadership. Joseph Cardinal Tobin, whose Newark archdiocese has a direct connection to McCarrick’s abuse, has informed Francis that he will not be attending the Synod, instead staying in Newark to address the issues there. One has only to look at Twitter or Facebook or do a Google search to see the numerous outraged comments from Catholics stunned by all these revelations.
With all of this going on, the Youth Synod seems like a pointless exercise. For one thing, many youth find the abuse crisis to be a major stumbling block in their relationship with the Church. Indeed, it seems that the abuse situation has the potential to undermine any renewed presentation or engagement with young people. It will not make much difference if clergy present Church teachings in a new, more attractive and understandable light if clergy are simply not believed by young people, upset and confused by the abuse crisis. Given that there are allegations about Francis’s conduct, though the allegations are by no means proved, it is impossible to dismiss this as a purely American problem.