As 270 Catholic bishops from around the world debate issues related to the family inside the Vatican’s Synod Hall from Oct. 4-25, activists, advocacy groups, and ordinary people with a cause to promote or a question to raise have descended on Rome to be active on the sidelines of the event, representing views across the spectrum. Crux is offering periodic snapshots of this “synod outside the synod,” profiling people and their causes.
ROME — There are those Catholics who hope the synod on the family includes discussion about contemporary issues facing families because they want the Church to change — this despite the fact that Pope Francis has said repeatedly that doctrine is not up for debate.
And then there are those Catholics who hope that bishops talk about challenges such as divorce, gender theory, and homosexuality not because they want the Church to liberalize on these issues, but because they believe Catholics must find better ways to engage a skeptical world about the beauty of traditional Church teaching.
Alix Verdet is in the latter camp.
She’s come to Rome from France on behalf of the Association pour la Formation Chrétienne de la Personne, a Catholic organization that promotes the teachings of St. John Paul II, based at a Benedictine abbey dating back 1,000 years in Solesmes, France, a village about 150 miles southwest of Paris.
Verdet says the world is experiencing “an anthropological crisis” that has caused people to call into question what were once considered basic truths about gender, the definition of marriage, and what constitutes a family.
The association also runs L’Institut Karol Wojtyla, which exists “to train people to become disciples of Pope John Paul II” and to promote his teachings, especially his Theology of the Body.
The Theology of the Body is based on a series of lectures about sexuality given by the late pontiff that remains popular with some Catholics who see it as an antidote to the sexual revolution.
The institute uses Wojtyla’s given name, Verdet explained, rather than Pope John Paul II, in order to use his philosophy as a way of engaging with people who might not be open to religion.
“When you start from a space of philosophy, you can talk with everybody. It’s the best way to talk to people who don’t agree with you, people who are not believers,” she said. “It’s a common base.”
Verdet, who spent 13 years as a consecrated member of a religious community before joining the association as a communications specialist, said she welcomes a synod to discuss pastoral responses to family life.
“I’m enthusiastic about Pope Francis’ pastoral gift,” she said. “He can talk to so many different people, and lots of people feel loved by him, feel touched. The Church needs this pastoral renewal, and it is why I expect some craziness, some Holy Spirit craziness.”
But, she said, changes in pastoral practice cannot stray from orthodox doctrine.
“The doctrinal and the pastoral are the two sides of a single mystery,” she said. “They can’t be separated.”
If bishops go soft on doctrine, even in the face of opposition from the laity, she fears the Church will be seen as wishy-washy to its most devout adherents.
“If the teaching of the Church would change because of fashion, I wouldn’t be interested in it, because it would be like politics,” she said.
Still, she hopes that the synod is able to articulate creative ways to engage those whose lives might not be in accord with Church teaching.
“We all have friends who are divorced, who are gay, and we are asking God, ‘What is the response you want us to give them?’” she said. “I’ve met some gay people who have asked 10 priests for help, but they couldn’t help. Nothing. That’s not normal.”
Some people reject Church teaching because they don’t comprehend it, she said, and she hopes that the synod can provide some suggestions on how to “accompany” people through life’s challenges, opening up new opportunities for evangelization.
“I think the teachings of the Church are difficult to understand, are difficult to achieve, to fulfill, but I think in life everything that has a big value is difficult to achieve,” she said. “Many people didn’t know very well the teaching of the Church, but once they discover it, they find it very beautiful and start to understand it from the inside.”
One of the issues threatening a Catholic understanding of family, according to several bishops at the synod, including Pope Francis, is gender theory, the notion that gender is a social construct that does not bind individuals to a certain identity or behavior.
Verdet shares this view — and she’s looking south for inspiration.
“The ideology of gender, it’s quite seducing,” she said. Many people, especially teenagers, struggle to understand their place in the world, and gender theory offers some answers. But she believes it must be rejected, she said, because it calls into question our understanding of human beings and leads to an inability to believe any objective truths.
“It’s a wide anthropology crisis, especially in the Western world,” she said. “It’s not the same in Africa, because the values of family are very strong: a man is a man, a woman is a woman.”
Ultimately, Verdet said she hopes the synod will serve as a catalyst for Catholics to learn their faith so that they can help others encounter Christ.
“In France, if you ask Catholics to explain their faith, it’s not brilliant. So, first, we have to know our faith and our creed very well,” she said, “and then we have to witness to it.”
Up next: An international group of Catholics pushing for Church reform, including women priests.