Reflections on the 2018 Synod on Youth
As the 2018 Synod on Young People draws to a close in Rome, synod participants and the Church family across the world will begin the process of reflection, debate, and perhaps even action that follows from this type of gathering. Last week, I had the privilege of visiting the Eternal City to witness the process of (and be an American youth witness to) the synod.
While there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Church, the synod process seems overly bureaucratic, inefficient, and political, which calls into question its effectiveness in solving the issues of the Church today.
When compared to the two previous synods this synod stands out for its relative placidity. The synods on the family of 2014 and 2015 revealed deep divisions within the Church, especially on the issues of marriage and sexuality. Perhaps in reaction, or to put on a more coherent face for the outside world in these times of crisis, the spirit surrounding the synod this year seems better.
The theme for this year, “young people, the faith, and vocational discernment,” is an urgent one, and the steady decline of engagement in the Church by young people has likely had an effect on the bishops’ willingness to get along.
This is all well and good, but the problem of outward image is perhaps, quite obviously, superficial; there are much deeper and more important issues at stake which lead me to question the need for these types of synods all together.
Synods are very complex, not to mention pricey, affairs. Bishops from around the globe, specially elected or chosen based on their region, must travel to Rome for about a month. While this may not be an issue for the American bishops, who often travel with large contingents of support staff, it is a decent obstacle for some African bishops whose yearly budget is $50,000.
The whole thing exudes a distinctly political scent, the kind that has plagued the Church in varying degrees throughout the centuries—it is a human institution, after all. During the synod, the bishops gather each day for many hours of speeches, as each delegate is allowed time to speak; this goes on for two weeks. The bishops are placed into small groups by language to discuss the points of the instrumentum laboris (the working document of the synod), and it is well known that ecclesiastical gerrymandering is part of that process.
Technically, according to synod procedures, participants will vote on the final document paragraph by paragraph, with a two-thirds majority necessary for approval. However, it is widely accepted that the document will largely remain the same throughout this arduous process.
To be extremely cynical, the synod seems to be at best a time when the Church leaders come together to catch up with the issues that affect other parts of the church around the world. At worst, it appears to be a political stunt, since the point of the synod, the production of a document, is already completed before the bishops have even convened.
In addition, should the Pope approve the final document, this year it would become part of the Church’s “ordinary magisterium.” In September, in a new apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio, the pope established that the final document of a synod assembly can be considered ordinary magisterium if it receives a particular level of papal approval. Good or bad, this new synodical twist magnifies the politics already at play.
Geographical division was clearly present at this synod, with participants presenting vastly different experiences of the young people in their churches: while Western Catholics are focused on sex abuse, pornography, and decadence, young people across the world face persecution on a daily basis.
How can one synodal document encompass all these different challenges and situations? Which principle would better serve the Church in her great variety of needs, subsidiarity or bureaucracy?
This synod seemed to exemplify the latter, not only because of the politicking but also because of the general inefficiency that accompanies such a large group of people trying to deliberate on one document.
In times such as these, when young adults need a Church that is rock-solid, when clarity and conviction must abound, when the youth need to be prepared to lead the Church into the future, the synod does not seem to be the answer.
Pope Francis has emphasized the task of winning the hearts of the youth; this task must be pursued thoughtfully and courageously. Young Catholics around the world do not need another synod; we need engaged clerics, real transparency, clarity of teaching, and as always, grace through the sacraments.
Soren Hansen, a senior, is a proud member of the Program of Liberal Studies and a recent convert to the Church. She is also pursuing a minor in Constitutional Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.