ROME – As an Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops in Rome enters its second week, reports were released Tuesday from small working groups that provide the first real x-ray into how this gathering of prelates and other participants from around the world pondering young people, faith and vocational discernment is thinking.
Judging by the results, the child sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism are a major preoccupation, but hardly the only one.
Migration, the ambivalent realities of a digital world, the presentation of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, women, the difficulties of conveying the faith in a secular world, and many matters beyond also appear to be on the bishops’ minds.
The following are Crux summaries of the small group reports by language. More will be added as they’re ready for publication.
A common theme among nearly every English language group was that of sex abuse, with the expressed desire that the crisis that is currently overshadowing the Church not be “skimmed over tangentially in a few short sentences,” but rather the synod should offer an honest reckoning with “the shattered trust, the trauma and lifelong suffering of survivors; the catastrophic failures in case management; the continued silence and denial by some of these awful crimes and sins.”
At least one English language group believes the final document of the synod could establish the groundwork for a February 2019 meeting Pope Francis has convened in Rome to address the issue of sexual abuse with the head of every bishops’ conference from around the world.
Another recurring theme was how to address the concrete realities of young people today — on both a pastoral level and the outcome document itself. One proposal was made for the communications committee of the Synod to release a weekly progress report, no longer than 400 words and to be accompanied by a photo.
Recommendations were also made that the pope “road test” a condensed version of his anticipated apostolic exhortation, or the exhortation itself, with a sample group of young people from around the world.
“Perhaps if this is successful, all major church documents could be presented with such youth friendly characteristics,” the group recommended.
Also of concern was the fact that, since many young people will not read the full exhortation, to include with it an interactive study guide with video summaries or introductions by the pope.
In terms of questions of doctrine, multiple groups concurred that the “Christological perspective” should be stronger in the final document and that the relational nature of Christianity be highlighted as many young people are most compelled by it.
While one group specifically stated that the outcome document offer a more explicit case for chastity, another group emphasized that the Church is at its “best with young people by avoiding a moralistic or polemical approach — as if we had all the ‘ready- made’ answers — but instead accompanying young people in a climate of joy and adventure of discovery.”
Other recommendations included a specific section on the desire young people have for friendship (apart from romantic relationships) and the challenges of the digital age — including a specific mention of “sexting” — while also being aware that many of the challenges discussed to date are too Western in their focus.
German-speaking bishops at the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops began with an acknowledgment of the global diversity of Catholicism, saying “we all were astonished about the great differences between the concrete situations of young people in the many countries,” and adding, “we sense that the European context takes a back seat in favor of a global, pluralistic perspective.”
Despite those differences, the Germans identified several issues that seemed to be widely shared:
- Challenges of sexuality
- The issue of abuse
- Difficulty of conveying faith
- Attractive liturgy and preaching
- The desire of young people to be accompanied in freedom and authentically
- Active participation of young people
- Justice for women in the Church
In an echo of the arguments that led many German bishops to be active supporters of Francis’s opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in the 2016 document Amoris Laetitia, they insisted on respecting the different situations of individual persons.
“We want to look at the concrete people and their concrete situations and understand how God’s presence shines forth – for instance, even if this concrete reality does not correspond, or does not yet correspond, to an ideal of Christian life.”
In a point of special emphasis, the Germans argued that the working document for the synod is overly optimistic in assessing the digital world in which young people live in the 21st century.
“We believe that digital reality should be described in more concrete terms in terms of its positive potential but also in terms of its destructive dangers (for example, age of entry into viewing hard pornography and violence in boys is on average 11 years),” they said.
“We do not know the implications of continuing to stay in digital worlds for young people in the long run. See the medical talk of “digital dementia,” or new addictions or lack of concentration, of dwindling ability to read more complex texts, lack of relationship skills or the like.”
Finally, the Germans suggested the synod’s conclusions should present a positive vision of the Church to young people, including:
- Reliability in a changing world
- Objectivity in, for example, sacramental or judgmental beliefs
- Charismatic phenomena
- The possibility of objectively judging injustice within an objective jurisdiction
The small working group Hispanicus B noted that the Instrumentum Laboris the bishops are working from seems to differentiate between the Church and young people, “as if young people weren’t Church. Young people are Church. They are a part of her; they constitute the Church.”
The text also says that members of the group noted the final document of the synod will be addressed not only to Catholic youth, but to young people in general, as the “Catholic Church must approach everyone with humility to help them achieve the sense of their lives in the joy of love.”
A similar note was struck in the Hispanicus A group. Members wrote that the working document reflects what young people have said during a two-year long consultation process, and they’re “asking us to open a space for them in the Church, recognizing that our youth has great value and the right to make mistakes.”
The synod, the two Spanish groups noted in one form or another, must be in continuity with the previous Synods of Bishops on the family.
Something else both groups had in common is the reinforcement of the role of dads in the transmission of the faith, something that is often considered a mother’s responsibility.
“We must have clarity over who we’re addressing,” the second Spanish-speaking group wrote. “The youth are people before being Christians and baptized; for this reason, the document must be inclusive in all its extension. We’re talking to the young people of the world in general.”
Again, both groups spoke about the need for the final document to be approachable, and for it to perhaps have a “different format,” including audio-visual aids.
Group A also noted that even though young people are interested in religion and spirituality, “this interest does not reach to the Catholic Church.”
They noted three key points: To listen to young people “with freedom, empathy, without prejudice, in the style of Jesus; abuses, in addition to harming the Church, go against being disciples of Jesus;” and “giving young people a role in transforming social and ecclesial structures.”
The second group went through each of the points of the first section of the Instrumentum Laboris, suggesting word changes, removal of adjectives they found to be repetitive, and at various points calling the document to be “deficient,” as if they were taking for granted that the document they’re working on is a draft of what the synod’s final document will be.
Among the words they suggested be replaced is “gender,” asking that it be changed for “sex” or “sexual orientation.”
As many of the other groups did, the Portuguese-speakers noted the fact that for the Church to be able to reach young people, it must immerse herself in the digital world.
The prelates coming from Brazil, Portugal and several African nations underlined the “fundamental role of family in the lives of young people and the identity crisis of the roles of mothers and fathers.”
They also noted that in “some contexts,” the Church has difficulties in correctly transmitting to young people the Christian anthropological view of the body and sexuality. “She has good practices of dialogue with young people and formation in this field that can be better shared.”
The group also debated over the relationship young people have with the liturgy, saying that in many places they want to be further involved, while in others this participation is already palpable.
In relationship to young people and consecrated life, they called for a “renewal,” especially in four areas:
- Relationship between authority and obedience
- Complementarity between men and women
- The administration and use of goods
This was the first time since the Synod of Bishops was instituted by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s that there was a small working group for Portuguese-speaking prelates. This is something the group requested become a permanent feature, seeing that it’s a language spoken by 350 million people in Africa, Latin America and Europe.
In the first Italian group, four points were highlighted, one of which was the “urgency” for the Church itself to undergo a process of conversion. Part of this conversion, they said, is due to the difficulty Church leaders often have in getting on the same page as young people, meaning the youth distance themselves.
There is also a need, they said, to recognize the damage done to young people by scandals of sexual abuse, and the abuse of authority. “Because of this, an urgency is felt for the whole Church to place itself in an attitude of conversion in order to accompany youth in their growth.”
Young people, the group said, must be considered part of the Church and must be included, so they don’t feel “that they are outside.” On a pastoral level, they said there is a risk of “projecting initiatives for youth, instead of with youth.”
Finally, the group highlighted the need to find ways to transmit the faith, which they stressed is not only an issue in the western world, but throughout the globe, with the spiritual life often being reduced to “a self-centered generic psychological wellbeing” which is detached from both the sacraments and the ecclesial community.
In the second Italian group, led by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Vatican’s prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and Archbishop Bruno Forte, archbishop of Chieti and a member of the synod’s organizing council, a strong emphasis was placed on sexuality and migration.
They pointed specifically to young migrants and youth who live in situations of war, hunger, poverty, corruption and a lack of democracy, and who are often “seduced by the mirage of an illusory wellbeing.”
Demographic changes due to migration were also highlighted, with an emphasis placed on the need for international collaboration in offering “safe and legal channels” for migrants to use.
Mention was also made of the “second-generation,” the children of migrants who at times also struggle with integration, finding it difficult to develop roots in society and who are often also victims of the “culture of waste.”
On the topic of sexuality, the group identified this as an area where young people typically have many questions, and find the Church’s teachings difficult to accept. To help them on this front, young people, the group said, “need those who speak to them with clarity, deep humanity and empathy.”
The third Italian group, with members from Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia, Hungary, Lebanon, Greece, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovakia, Iceland and South Korea, acknowledged the “different types of awareness and evaluations with which the bishops took their place.”
Like the Germans, the third Italian group also took a dimmer view of the digital world than the working document.
“The transversal dimension of the web, as was highlighted in the democratic dream of young people twenty years ago, has been reversed in the progressive experience of a ‘fort’ that everyone controls and orients,” they said.
Italy has been hard-pressed in recent years by Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, and it was unsurprising to hear the third Italian group emphasize the issue.
“Migrations are another great theme,” they said. “It’s an antique phenomenon, no longer an emergency but a true sign of the times, which the Church at all levels, united with the Holy Father, can’t help but take up, thereby helping cultures to open themselves to a decisively and historically inevitable reality.”
Finally, the third Italian group called for discussion about women in the Church not to get bogged down in “a sterile confrontation over roles,” but rather to focus on “a productive sharing of responsibilities in the construction of the Kingdom, through ever-more human formation that responds better to the dignity of both [sexes].”