Reports and Commentary, from Rome and Elsewhere, on the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops
Synods are unique bodies, but the Synod fathers can learn things from the experience of other international gatherings, including the United Nations. This is especially true of Synod 2018, where a lot of agendas are at play within and beneath the formal synodal theme of ‘Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment’.
On this 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, and with the sexual revolution assuming various new forms even as its proponents become more aggressive at the national and international levels, it’s not surprising that one of the agendas at Synod 2018 involves the effort by some to get various neologisms and euphemisms, all supportive of a “liquid” concept of human sexuality, into the Synod’s final report. In dealing with those efforts, Synod fathers who take their cues from a classic Catholic anthropology of the human person and from St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, rather than from the ambient public culture of the West, will want to remember (or learn from) the debate to redefine the family and human sexuality that’s been underway for a long time at the UN and in its various affiliated organisations. That history is not as well-known as it should be; neither is the fact that the Vatican has been a leader in contesting the abuse of language for ideological ends.
In the UN context, language debates are not all that straightforward. Terms are usually vague and undefined. Discussions often unfold under the imperative of “finding consensus.” And such “consensus,” when it’s achieved, might only mean that the most powerful have insisted upon a neologism or euphemism; on the rare occasion that these things are put to a vote, the neologisms and euphemisms often fail to win the day.
All of this puts the alert observer in mind of the great German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper, who wrote about the connection between the abuse of language and the abuse of power, as did George Orwell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In one of the classic political essays of the 20th century, the Czech human rights activist Václav Havel defined the “power of the powerless” to resist totalitarianism by “living in the truth;” and living in the truth includes using works properly, rather than as euphemistic placeholders for ideological agendas. During and after the Nine Days of John Paul II in June 1979, Poles grasped the profound power of living in the truth. That power led to the Solidarity movement (with its famous slogan, “For Poland to be Poland, 2 + 2 must always =4”) and to the nonviolent collapse of the Soviet external empire. Countless others have quietly lived lives that conform to the truth and to speaking the truth – and if necessary, speaking truth to power, be that political power or cultural pressure. These are the saints – known and unknown – of every time and place.
Ideas have consequences may have become a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It is. And the words used to convey ideas shape our lives because they shape our self-understanding, defining who we are and who we want to become. So the use of a new vocabulary that redefines the “family” goes hand-in-glove with other efforts to fundamentally our understanding of the meaning of human sexuality, and indeed of the human person. Those efforts are based on notions of the plasticity or liquidity of the human condition, in which nothing is “given” and the only thing that counts is what is “asserted”. It’s all willfulness, all the way down, especially in what the academy now knows as gender theory.
This global effort to redefine the human includes any number of what we might call ‘names games’. These names games aren’t all that difficult to identify, notwithstanding the ease with which they’ve slipped into the public conversation and the media. Among the most prominent of the neologisms and euphemisms being deployed in service to the deconstruction of any stable notion of human nature and the family are ‘various forms of the family’; ‘sexual orientation’; ‘gender’; ‘non-traditional families’; and indeed ‘sexuality’ itself. In the world of international organisations, each of these terms is a freight-carrier for an agenda.
Synod fathers should note that each of these words or phrases has appeared in either the Synod’s working document, the Instrumentum Laboris, or in the reports of the Synod’s language-based discussion groups: and therein lies a serious problem. It’s important that the Synod fathers understand how these terms are used in the international organisational world, which ought to raise cautions about their use in an official document claiming to express the mind of the Catholic Church – like the Synod’s final report. Understanding names games and understanding the ideological freight these neologisms and euphemisms carry today is also critical to ensuring that the Synod does not – even unintentionally – promote the very gender ideology and ideological colonisation that Pope Francis has clearly and frequently decried.
The Synod’s final week of deliberations provides an opportunity for the Synod fathers to bend every effort to craft materials for a Synod final report that speaks Catholic truth with clarity. Young adults are hungry for the truth, even when it is hard; they can rise to the invitation and challenge the truth offers. And the truth does not speak through names games or ideological euphemisms that act as placeholders for an agenda that has nothing to do with the truth of the human person contained in the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Theology of the Body.
– Xavier Rynne II
Worldliness, Mediocrity, and Us
In his very first homily as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis spoke to the cardinals who had just elected him about the dangers of a Church that seeks to do many good things but fails to proclaim Christ. “If we do not profess Jesus Christ,” the Pope said, “things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord”. In fact, the Holy Father went one step further: “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”
Since that first homily, Pope Francis has returned to the theme of worldliness again and again. In Evangelii Gaudium, for example, he wrote of an “insidious worldliness” by which “evangelical fervor is replaced by the empty pleasure of complacency and self-indulgence”.
Worldliness is not a new danger: think of the parable of the sower and the seeds, and the thorns of worldly cares that choke out faith. What is new is the widespread affluence and technological prowess that has developed over the last century and accelerated in recent decades. In just one or two generations, hundreds of millions – often in Christian or formerly Christian countries – have attained material security unrivaled in human history.
For those of us who have never know anything else, this remarkable advance in material well-being is easy to take for granted. This shortsightedness leads us to risk casual ingratitude for the astonishing blessings we enjoy, but also leaves us vulnerable to a certain blindness to perils we might otherwise find alarming. Of course, poverty and deprivation persist even in the midst of the wealthiest nations, and few would despise material progress in itself. But the ubiquity of our affluence means that, for the first time in history, entire societies are materially secure enough and technologically advanced enough that the illusion of self-sufficiency has become tantalisingly real.
The ubiquity of this worldliness is itself a challenge for the Church, and one worth considering in light of the current Synod and the challenges facing a younger generation. In many places, worldliness is so unexceptional as to be virtually invisible. Even those who profess belief in God can fall unawares into a kind of practical materialism. And practical materialism is hard to distinguish from practical atheism.
It is difficult to consider the crisis of faith in the West apart from this worldliness. In the United States, for example, most Catholics don’t go to Mass even once a month. The vast majority say they rarely or never go to confession. (Meanwhile, nearly everyone who does show up for Mass receives Holy Communion.) It’s depressing to consider that the situation in the US is much better than in most of Europe.
Worldliness breeds, and feeds upon, a culture of accommodation. Marriage rates have plummeted in recent decades. This collapse of marriage rates can be found across demographics, but the drop in Catholics getting married in the Church has been particularly severe. The begetting and rearing of children is increasingly seen as an optional accessory to marriage rather that its primary purpose. Something like two-thirds of American Catholics approve of same-sex marriage. This breakdown of the family and other forms of social solidarity has been most apparent among those least equipped to deal with the loss: the poor.
The problem isn’t just immorality – sin is old hat – but a sort of immunity to the remedies for immorality. We are comfortable and easily confuse our comfort with satisfaction. Comfort leads to complacency, and for the most part, we’re secure enough in our complacency to be prideful in defense of it. We feel entitled to it.
We have learned to live, and have come to believe that we can afford to live, as if by bread alone. We like to imagine that we are in control, or at least, that we ought to be – that we deserve to be. And this makes us reluctant to acknowledge limits on our own ‘self-expression’, which is just a nicer way of saying our willfulness.
Even many Catholics take religious conviction and practice to be just another mode of this self-expression. Increasingly, young Catholics are finding that Catholicism doesn’t express very well what they believe about the world and so they leave the Church. Often, our young people decide to leave the Church before they’re even out of high school. They find the Church’s teachings – especially on sex, but not only – to be irrelevant or oppressive or both. They are taught, though not always in so many words, that a gulf exists between faith and reason and, being so well-schooled in the wonders of science and technology, have few qualms about siding with the latter over the former.
The situation is most common in places where modern notions of progress have inoculated souls against the very idea of objective truth. The givenness of reality is forgotten or denied. Nature is forgotten or obscured, and because it is forgotten, easily and often abused. I don’t mean “nature” just in the ecological sense but in the fullest sense of creation imbued by its Creator with meaning and purpose. It’s no accident that an incarnational faith struggles mightily where nature itself – including human nature, the nature which the Second Person of the Trinity took upon himself and through which he redeemed the whole human race – is so out of fashion. A people that sees nature as mere stuff to be manipulated, as so much jiggling energy and matter subject to mastery, is not a people inclined to worship, at least not in a sacramental way.
Such a people will be inclined to see the world as being as good or bad as we make it. Such a people may not acknowledge the givenness of Creation, but they do admire a “faith” that does something useful. Such a people adores a compassionate Non-Governmental Organisation but sees little point in sanctification when there’s so much work to be done. That work, guided by conscience and sense of justice uncoupled from objective truth, is the work of Babel. Even ‘justice’, when it is shorn of any bond to a higher law – natural or divine – is only a facsimile of justice, an artifact of human will. A people governed by and dedicated to such justice is a people turned in upon itself. The emblem of this people is not the cross but the ouroboros: the old Gnostic symbol of a snake eating its own tail replaces the Christian sign of self-sacrificing love.
The Church, for her part, has too often pretended that the cross need not be a sign of contradiction to prevailing worldliness. The evangelical counsels – poverty, chastity, and obedience – have been tamed, domesticated, and when not actually ignored, reduced to safely unattainable ideals rather than guides to perfection. Too often, our pastors have looked to a therapeutic spirituality that treats a restless heart as a problem to be solved rather than a divine summons to a still more excellent way. Conscience has been treated as a means for justifying the worldliness of comfort and self-reliance, rather than a reminder of “a law which [man] does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience” (as the Second Vatican Council put it in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). We’re even told that conscience could affirm the need to live at some distance from the divine law.
To be sure, legalism is no remedy to what ails us. Scolding moralism is counterproductive. All the doctrinal clarity in the world will not solve these problems. But an approach to pastoral care that consistently sets low expectations and downplays the stakes of discipleship, that waters-down the Gospel to make it more agreeable to worldly ears, or that treats mercy as the repudiation of divine law only reinforces the deadly mediocrity against which the Church ought to contend. Exhortations to renewal from popes and some prelates notwithstanding, this worldly mediocrity has underwritten the de facto pastoral approach in most of the West for at least two generations. While exceptions exist where vibrancy and hope flourish, the overall result has been catastrophic.
The Church is called to love a world undeserving of love. In this we imitate our Lord, who, while we were still sinners, suffered and died for us. We must not despise or abandon the world, nor can we delude ourselves into thinking that we, by our efforts alone, can save it. But neither can we love the world by conforming ourselves to it, or by bidding others to do the same out of some misguided sense of compassion. When encounter, dialogue, and accompaniment become excuses for accommodation; when conscience becomes a mode of self-assertion rather than a summons to obedience; when the Gospel we preach sounds more and more like the siren-song of the world, we have lost our way. Too many of us already have.
The Church cannot undue the pastoral failures of the past, but neither is it doomed to repeat them. For the sake of a new generation, and generations to come, it must not. –
TESTIMONIES FOR THE SYNOD
Marco Cerritelli is a FOCUS missionary in the Austrian capital, Vienna, where so many of the ideas being contested in the late modern world were first gestated – and where secularization has cut a broad and deep swath through what was once part of the Catholic heartland. Letters from the Synod asked him to share some of his experiences of the New Evangelisation at ground level while reflecting for our readers on what draws young adults today into an exploration of Catholic faith and community. His answers follow. XR II
A Yearning for True Friendship
As the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris rightly notes, we live in a world of rapidly changing social and cultural dynamics. Transformative technologies and ideologies develop at a faster pace than at any previous time in human history. But regardless of the age or the place, what does not change, what stays ever-constant, is the Lord and the human heart that longs for him. Having been a missionary to university students for four years in different cultural contexts in the United States and Europe, I have seen how diverse cultures influence the human person. But what I have not seen change, and what I know never will change, is a longing, a need, for God, most especially in the hearts of the young.
Sunday 7 October saw the first student Mass of the academic year for the university campus ministry here in Vienna, Austria. We’re beginning a new university-student-focused Mass on Sunday evenings in the Votive Church, one of the largest and most notable of the city’s many churches. We didn’t know what to expect in terms of student response and attendance. We’d had the idea of the Sunday evening student Mass in mind and prayer for over a year, hoping to new youthful life into a church that had become primarily a cultural landmark in recent years. We did our best to promote this new venture, meeting students on campus throughout the first week of classes and inviting them to join us.
Come Sunday evening, we showed up early to pray and ready the church for a Mass we hoped could foster a new community. When Mass time came we were taken by surprise and unprepared for the more than 200 students who showed up. The monumental, centuries-old Gothic church was not set up to accommodate the size of the young congregation that gathered to worship; we had to organise last-minute sections of chairs, brought out from storage, and devise a new communion system to accommodate all of those who came to receive the Lord.
Experiences like this provide me concrete hope for the youth of our Church. Though times may change and cultural issues may become more complex, young people today continue to long for the same thing. It is built-in to who we are and we cannot escape it. As St Augustine so profoundly realised, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. The young heart is urged on by this restlessness to seek something more than this world can offer.
Recognising this yearning in myself and others that led me to become a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a lay Catholic missionary organisation that equips and sends recent university graduates to serve as missionaries on college and university campuses. Founded twenty-one years ago and is currently sharing the faith through nearly seven hundred missionaries on more than 150 college and university campuses throughout the United States and Europe.
In my undergraduate days I studied philosophy and theology at the University of Notre Dame. Throughout those years my life was transformed by Christ, specifically through faith-filled friendships that encouraged me to examine myself and what I really lived for. Having been blessed to receive this internal conversion in college, I want to bring this same hope to others. As a missionary to university students, I try to reach out and meet students where they are, inviting them to consider the meaning and purpose of their lives.
My missionary work is centred around a relational ministry of sharing life with students through authentic friendship. Large lectures and events play their role and are necessary. But most of all it’s within personal relationships that hearts are transformed. We carry out our mission with students through leading Bible studies, praying together, having conversations over meals, or simply sharing life by working out together. The students that I have met on mission have become some of my dearest friends, with whom I hope to journey the rest of my life. Through genuine friendships, we share the faith and come closer to Christ.
Young people today are longing for real, meaningful, and deep friendships: for friendships that are not afraid to speak the truth even when it might be hard to proclaim. These friendships remind us of and encourage us in our friendship with God: “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” [John 15:15]. God calls us to share with our friends all that the Father has entrusted to us.
The youth of today, who seek this truth from the Father, respond when they encounter it. As a missionary to university students in Vienna, I have seen students be transformed by Christ and take this mission upon themselves. FOCUS has been serving on campus here since 2016, working with the existing campus ministry to augment their efforts. In the past year, we have more than doubled the number of Bible studies from six to thirteen, with nearly one hundred regular participants. Of those seven new Bible studies last year, all but one was founded, not by full-time missionaries like myself, but by students who encountered the Lord anew in a Bible study they attended and who desire to bring this same Good News and joy to their friends.
This is the way of evangelisation. FOCUS seeks to emulate the model that Christ himself gave us when he founded his Church on the 12 apostles who were sent forth to make disciples of all nations. Being on a team of four missionaries serving a city with over 190,000 university students, we are well aware of the limited impact the four of us can have on such a large population. But in raising up student disciples of the Lord, our impact multiplies. With students who have, by their own motivation, committed to following Christ in discipleship, there are now ten of us serving in the university mission in Vienna, and we hope to grow more this year. As Christ told His own disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few, pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” [Matthew 9:37-38].
As the youth of the Church and salt of the earth, we must use the vigour of our young adult years to live out faith more truly than ever and to joyfully share it with our friends. Having been given the priceless gift of a faith that truly and incisively speaks against the lies and disillusions of this world, we are called to share this gift with others. Young adults today want to answer the unique challenges of our time with the timeless, eternal Word, the person of Jesus Christ—and, thanks be to God, many throughout the world already are.