A critical look at the Synod and its aftermath

From The Catholic Thing comes a piece by Robert Royal in which he looks with a critical eye at the closing propositions of the Synod of Bishops.

My preface: The problem with criticizing the Synods of Bishops is that, by negative comments, you give ammo to liberals.  Liberals will squawk that greater power ought to have been given to this collegial body.  Liberals want to limit the power of the Roman Pontiff and the Roman Curia and extend greater governance of the Church to the college of bishops and the laity who should elect the bishops.  “If a Synod doesn’t do anything important,” they’ll say, “then it must be given more power so that it can do something!”  So, to criticize a Synod as ineffectual plays into the liberals’ hands.

That said, let’s have a peak at Royal’s piece.  He buries the lead, unfortunately, so let’s skip down a bit.

Sin and the Synod
By Robert Royal


Despite wide-ranging aims, there’s an awful lot that seems missing. [Yes.  Indeed there is.] Most significantly, the documents and proceedings rarely seem animated by what the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once called “the fierce urgency of now.” And he was only talking about the Vietnam War; the bishops are dealing with the eternal destiny of souls. [To be fair, closing propositions of Synods aren’t usually informed by fire in the belly.  Come to think of it… neither are Synods.  Quaeritur… which actual Synod of Bishops made much of a difference?]

That’s evident in the forty-five “Propositions,” the final document passed by the Synod and passed on to the pope as he prepares the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.

Cardinal Dolan remarked that the Synod participants wanted to make its other closing message (“to the People of God”) “positive, uplifting, evangelical” – generally a good approach in the modern world. But the Church needs something more if it hopes to cut through our cultural pandemonium.  [Royal might have, however, underscored Dolan’s intervention at the Synod about restoring the Sacrament of Penance.]

It may not be easy for the bishops to say openly, but our situation in a secularized world is not, as the Synod “Propositions” claim, “similar to that of the first Christians.” The early Christians lived in a pagan society untouched by the Good News.

Our culture is deeply shaped by rejection of that News and by a sustained effort to live life on explicitly non- or even anti-Christian grounds.

If we are not absolutely clear about that, much effort will be simply wasted.

The Synod also affirms that, “The message of truth and of beauty can help people escape from the loneliness and lack of meaning to which the conditions of post-modern society often relegate them.” Quite true. But these are only social and psychological problems that even non-Christians deplore.

[This is good…] When the text tries to say why the Faith is important per se, it speaks of “the splendor of a humanity grounded in the mystery of Christ” and other idealistic, but vague, aspirations. Can we no longer say that there is “no other name” in which we are saved, no other Person who can satisfy the human heart?

If we can’t say it, we can’t expect the world to believe it.

Speaking of being saved: a non-Catholic reading the “Propositions” would have a hard time knowing what there is to be saved from, religiously speaking.  [I think it is called “damnation”.] Violence, war, individualism are condemned and there is call for reconciliation; human rights, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience are affirmed. But even the gentiles largely agree with us about all that.

What’s not mentioned in the final documents? Pornography, sex (“sexuality” gets one mention, not the same thing, of course), drugs (though there are warnings about violence due to drug trafficking and drug addicts as among the new “poor”), materialism, and much else that you would think come high on any general list.

And sin. Sin does appear a few times, but it seems to be mostly an obstacle to justice and progress, and a factor in poverty and social exclusion. (Proposition 19)

Brief sections on conversion and holiness follow, and they are related to efforts needed in the new urban societies, parishes and “other ecclesial realities,” education, the option for the poor, and care of the sick.

There’s nothing wrong with this list, but is this an exciting “New” Evangelization?  [No.]

We’re well down to Proposition 33 before the sacrament of penance puts in an appearance and “a full reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins.”  [Who knows if the Propositions are in order of urgency?]

Bless me Synod Fathers, but it’s not a good idea at this point to add, “Here the penitent encounters Jesus, and at the same time he or she experiences a deeper appreciation of himself or herself.” [?!?] We know what you mean – I think – but you are flirting with some of the very forces you’re trying to overcome.

Why did God have to become man and die on a Cross for that?

Ten concluding sections of intra-Church activities follow: Sundays, liturgy, [Oh by the way.. liturgy…] the spiritual dimension, confirmation, baptism, popular piety etc., as related to the New Evangelization. Much of this appears in any Church document and Benedict will not spend much time contemplating these propositions when he prepares his Post-Synodal Exhortation.  [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

I’ve remarked in this column before that what large-scale events like this mean in the life of the Church depends on what gets done when the talking stops. The mere fact that the Synod occurred may give participants and millions of others a new energy and fervor.  [This is my fear for the Year of Faith and New Evangelization.]

The bishops were right to say that the “primacy” in evangelization lies in “God’s grace.” It always flows – abundantly. Let’s hope the Church uses it – wisely.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

Once cheer for the Synod!

Now let’s see what actually gets done.

First, we will have to see how long it takes for the Post-Synodal Exhortation to come out.  Then we will have to see just how much the Post-Synodal Exhortation refers to the synodal propositions.  Then we will have count the days before the Exhortation is forgotten.

Remember Sacramentum caritatis?  I do.  I don’t think many other people do.  There were some good things in that document, including the discussion of ars celebrandi which I see pop up all too rarely.

We have to admit that Catechism of the Catholic Church was prompted in a Synod.  However, baseball insiders think that the idea was actually planted by curial officials through interventions at the Synod.  And there are more than one story about who actually proposed the CCC.  But I digress.

The problem with synodal propositions, and the documents that subsequently come out over the Holy Father’s name, are temporizing, non-committal, tentative.

The discussion Bp. Athanasius Schneider caused by his intervention at the 2005 Synod was a good thing.

Perhaps Card. Dolan’s plea about confession will get some play and not just be buried under the avalanche of banality that followed while the Synod slouched to its close.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. “My preface: The problem with criticizing the Synods of Bishops is that, by negative comments, you give ammo to liberals. Liberals will squawk that greater power ought to have been given to this collegial body. Liberals want to limit the power of the Roman Pontiff and the Roman Curia and extend greater governance of the Church to the college of bishops and the laity who should elect the bishops”

    Well, Father Z. You start out with this paragraph at the beginning of the post, but then by the end you affirm our worst fears and the reality of what is to happen and make that first paragraph moot. Likewise I agree … our bosses screwed up here and I agree with the critic, that based on your blog’s coverage it sounds like nothing of solid, catechal or theological importance that will drive a hard hit to our secular world and the gradually de-populating of our Church, occured at this IMPORTANTLY TITLED Synod.

    As a young buck now aware of Church culture in our world, I was hoping that big things would come out of this and FINALLY, we’d have a concrete guideline of what we are supposed to do and not do for the New Evangelization/Year of Faith, so that we don’t receive false teachings or un-Magisterial ones form misguided Liberals or Ultra-Trads (cough Voris cough) who give lectures as if “they have the answer” to the New Evangelization.

    It sounds like the laity is going to be the only ones who will have to, without guidance from the Magisterium, guide the people with the tools we have and new evangelization strategies and carry this out ourselves. This should not be. If the Vatican gives you a new directive from the New Evangelization, and in essence, says “go evangelize,” they should be guiding you with specific instructions or a framework, and not leave it to incompetent bishops (read: Liberal) and laity (read: liberal or ultra-trad) to carry out, mucking up things at the level of Joe Catholic, as what happened with Vatican II (though at least there were documents, but no regulations of how to carry those out).

  2. Fr. Andrew says:

    Fr. Z, you state “Quaeritur…which actual Synod of Bishops made much of a difference?”

    I would answer the Synod on Priestly Formation as the effect of Pastores Dabo Vobis continues to be felt in the reform of seminaries. It gave orthodox rectors/bishops a shot against seminary faculty and leverage to restructure/rebuild when the time came. I think we’re still seeing its effect. It might not be the difference some would want but it has been a good difference.

  3. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Would discretion permit discussion of the digression regarding the proposal of the CCC?

  4. chantgirl says:

    I think of Jesus’ comment that He came to set the world on fire, and that He wished it were already ablaze. Somehow, the Holy Spirit keeps fanning the embers of a largely lukewarm Church, ensuring that the fire does not die, but what will it take for the Church, for me and other everyday Catholics who are tired, to become a bonfire? I hope that it is not persecution or suffering, but in our very comfortable society, I wonder if that would be the only thing to jolt us out of our malaise.

  5. Imrahil says:

    Contrary to the article writer’s assumptions, I do not think that a deeper appreciation of the self is either a bad thing or flirting with a bad thing. It was in Confession that I actually figured out that I had to be sorry for my sins only. I’ve never on determination (leaving out things I consider psychological weeknesses and sins themselves) been sorry for my life as such afterwards.

    However, on the rest, I can only say “spot on”.

    Speaking of Penance, I see only one way how to revive it or continue it in use. Catechesis, advertisement, etc. may help. But if Penance is to be in use (and a Catholic, even given the bad situation of faith knowledge these days, still knows there is such a thing), then there must be priests sitting in those confessionals.

    Sorry, dear priests, and eternal rewards for your sacrifices! By sacrifices I mean primarily the depressing job of sitting in the Confessional while nobody comes… But, as I know a bit of myself and my weaknesses (of course, however, the thing is that I have access to Confession of such kind as I prefer, which I’m grateful for, but which might spoil the statistics), if a priest only offers “Confession opportunities upon previous arrangement”, the simple result will be that people do not come to him for Confession.

    To have to trouble the pastor’s leisure time with my (perceivedly) little problems and to out oneself as (perceivedly) one of these especially hard cases which cannot by helped with anything less than the Sacrament of Confession, both of these are not encouraging thoughts; they’ll be a hindrance to Confession for actual heavy sinners and for any practice of regular Confession; they’ll make impossible often (monthly, or so) Confession on a large scale.

  6. CatholicMD says:

    I’m reminded of Fr Z’s anecdote about the old cardinal saying “less jabbering, more processions”. My plan for the New Evangelization: frequent confession, frequent communion, daily rosary, lectio divina, study the catechism, perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. So basically what the Church has always done and which accomplished the first evangelization but which since the 60’s a bunch of committees have been trying to do away with. Also every Catholic should memorize St Peter’s speech on Pentecost. If Catholics can not say with burning conviction that Jesus Christ died for your sins and by His Resurrection destroyed death to save sinners from eternal separation from God in Hell we will not be able to convert the world like our ancestors in the Church.

  7. anilwang says:

    > Synod participants wanted to make its other closing message (“to the People of God”) “positive,
    > uplifting, evangelical” – generally a good approach in the modern world.

    I get a completely different impression.

    Walk through the isles of any North American book store, especially the “religious/spiritual” section. What do you see? Book cover after book cover of ear to ear smiles claiming “we’ve got the answers to make you happy”. There’s a complete lack of gravitas and seriousness in any of them (even for Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for meaning” has a smiling contemplative picture of the holocaust survivor on recent book covers).

    We don’t need any more warmed over pap. We need meat not milk.

    “Clappy happy” may be comforting when you don’t “need the Church” but when you’re hurting or hungry for God or just plane disillusioned with the snake oil salesmen, you need more…much more. “Clappy happy” is a real turn off.

    When you actually want to turn to God, you *need* something personal, something sacred, something quiet, something sacred. When you’re going through a dark night of the soul or just too tired to keep trying, you need to know that God is still with you in the darkness and “you’re not supposed to always be happy or inspired or even feel God”.

    If you only use “clappy happy evangelism”, all you will attract are fair-weather Catholic that would just as easily leave the Church or just plain ignore when there are difficulties or even a hint of a cross. If you’re evangelism has some gravitas, you might lose some fair-weather Catholics but you will gain a generation of Catholics that will die for the faith, because they know and love the cross of our Lord.

  8. Johnno says:

    The solutions are most simple, though implementing them is not necessarily easy, and requires fighting fire with fire:

    – Bring back the Inquisition. Staff it with both religious and laypeople. These are to be stern people ready to accept the tough responsibility. They’re not here to make friends and hold hands. They should wear black clothing too. Any other stereotype people have in mind about the Inquisition can also be leveraged to our advantage. The point is to intimidate and eradicate.

    – Set the Inquisition loose throughout all Church institutions – hospitals, schools, colleges, universities etc. Root out troublemakers. Get RID of them!

    – Set plans in place to have any new employees sign Statements of Faith documents that they will not contradict the Catholic faith. If they do. Fire them. Do not forgive, do not rehire. Zero tolerance. I know, it’s sounds so ‘bad’ and ‘unchristian’, give me a break… enough is enough!

    -Prioritize hiring Catholics! We need to look after each other, especially in a world where increasingly Catholics will lose their jobs for their beliefs! Do your duty to your fellow Christian and St. Paul commands us!


    – On that note, force all employees in all Church run institutions to attend general classes about the Catholic Faith and general apologetics for it. Make it mandatory. We’re not ‘forcing them to convert.’ We’re training them to work efficiently in line with our Catholic beliefs and to respect them. And so that they will have been properly informed so when they break the rules they can’t claim ignorance. Whether they want to hop on board the faith later is up to them. If we have to attend LGBT tolerance workshops at our workplaces, then we sure as heck can create ‘Catholic understanding and Tolerance’ workshops too!

    – On that note, college and university students. Given the increasing manner in which they’re shutting down Christian and Evangelical college groups for ‘hate’ or whatever BS excuse they want to use. Increasingly lobby hard and give the establishment liberals a hard time about ‘CHRISTIAN SAFE SPACES.’ If the LGBT people can get a club room, then surely you can use their same tactics to get your own safe spot where you can practice and discuss your faith and meet like minded people free from abuse, bigotry, violence and intolerance. SHOVE THE SAME REPETITIVE MANTRAS DOWN THEIR THROATS FOR ONCE! Keep doing it no matter how much they turn you down. Exaggerate if you want. Give them a taste of their own medicine!

    – It’s time to give up certain things. Do you enjoy TV shows with severely immoral content? Stop watching them! I love movies, but even I personally boycott films that look great but I know have some illicit content or meaning behind them! Boycott companies, retail chains and products when you are able. I know you can’t do it all the time because you need certain essential things. Just try your best.

    And of course – prayers, penance, good liturgy etc. all that goes without saying.

  9. Clinton R. says:

    Sadly, 50+ years of poor catechesis has caused many to not know what we should believe in or why. From the lukewarm statements coming from the Synod, it appears the bishops don’t have the answers themselves. We hear about the need of a new Pentecost, but what happened to the Pentecost in Holy Scripture? We need to listen to the Holy Spirit, as He has never left the Church. Less innovations and a return to the traditions of the Church will cause the New Evangelization to be a success. And of course, the return of the TLM as the ordinary rite of the Mass must be first and foremost in the plans of the New Evangelization. The Church cannot have the erosion of the Faith that we have seen in the years following Vatican II.

  10. CatholicMD says:

    “Arguments and evidence for creationism and geocentrism” ???

  11. JKnott says:

    It’s disheartening to me. Sounds like all the usual talk talk talk. If pastors gave SERMONS on sin once in a while, there would be no need to “bring back” Confession. Big, bright idea – Confession. WOW. And that contribution from a Prince of the Church who calls Obama “honorable.”
    I cannot even imagine St. John Vianney or any other manly saint of our Church sitting through a bunch of wispy consultant-like meetings complete with “new ideas” on power point, lunch and workshops.
    Too much talk and not enough prayer and intestinal fortitude.

  12. anilwang says:

    CatholicMD wrote “Arguments and evidence for creationism and geocentrism” ???

    Actually that’s an easy one. Catholics believe that God created the universe, life, and a literal Adam and Eve (i.e. no Polygenism), so all Catholics are creationists. The details of creation however aren’t part of Church doctrine and any attempt to force a particular theory as Catholic dogma are mistaken.

    As for geocentrism, according to modern science all points in space are equal so you could validly say that the earth is the center of the universe in your frame of reference. (i.e. our universe on on a 4 dimensional sphere so just as Greenwich is the center of our longitude, so can the Earth be for our universe). Of course, that also means that an egoist can validly say that he is the center of the universe, but that’s another story:-)

    More seriously, the argument for geocentrism is made here:

    It all hinges on statements such as this one from the First Vatican Council: “In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret holy scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers”. All the fathers of the Church say a geocentric belief, therefore they believe it.

    Personally I think that this is misunderstanding Church teaching and the quotes given do not appear to be teaching doctrine and there are no condemnations on heliocentrism as outright heresy, other than some strong discomfort around Galileo’s theory (which wasn’t proven at the time). But if someone wishes to declare that the earth is the center of the universe, they’re free to and they would be right, but not for the reasons they claim (see above on modern science).

  13. Imrahil says:

    Dear @anilwang, I wonder about that poor possible fair-weather Catholics, though. What about them? As you did bring the meat not milk imagery, St. Paul did preach milk first. Meat afterwards. And then meat is tasty; perhaps we had better not presume that if we really do approach the truth that it then will be a hard one.

    And the thing is also that the really happy clappy Catholicism, is orthodox. Note: talking about how to be happy is a quite distinct thing from actually making someone happy. It is orthodox Catholics, rather not the other sort, who really appreciate good liturgical music (which to me includes, if I may say it, good liturgical pop-music), a good joke, a company of equally-minded friends, prayer with special focus on joint prayer, Eucharistic adoration, an exhortative and proud-to-be-Catholic sermon, a good meal, and a beer. (No order of importance!)

    You are, of course, spot on about geocentrism. Actually the geocentric issue has happily been solved by Galileo, RIP, after he got a useful little reminder by the Holy Office… We have this thing called a reference frame, and you can safely calculate between them with the so-called Galilean transformations (if non-relativistically)… Hence, whoever says the Sun is in the center of the solar system with the tone of speaking absolute truth, is unscientific.

    Now what we do know, and what Pope Alexander VII who is mentioned as last-in-time authority on the website given about did not know since at the time of his death Sir Isaac Newton was just finishing his education, is that the sun-based frame of reference is an inertial system while the earth-based frame of reference is not. – And actually, to think of frames of reverence is (without the terminology perhaps, of course) so clear to me that when I hear (with the said restrictions) that the earth moves round the sun and then, in some Bible verse, the sun moves round the earth, I find awkward the mere thought of a contradiction.

    As to creationism, first of all: which one? And then, dear @Johnno is right on this one thing: It is an at least psychological problem if we are (and must be) told that the Bible is (at very least) the first source of Faith that we have, and the Inspired Word of God (and the idea that it is the latter, besides being true and even dogma, is still in the background of general knowledge, so withholding won’t help), that we are in the next sentence basically told to put aside the first eleven chapters of Genesis, as far as the literal sense is concerned.

    Yes, we have to be told what to do about Genesis. But that does not mean “Arguments for Creationism!”, and especially not if these arguments consist in “the Bible says so” and “after all God can still do miracles” and “if you are a believer you had better believe”.

    We need orthodox theologians. A theologian who likes his little flirt with heterodoxy will only use Genesis to pass the message that the Bible is not so serious after all. An orthodox theologian could perhaps explain to us what, granting these and these and these (but maybe not these) assumptions (and consequent findings) of science, the Bible really does mean. Positively does mean; not “the exact thing is here not part of the doctrine of Faith”, that’s refreshing and true enough but not so exciting.

    Here’s room for the innovative theologian; but it does not consist in watering down morality and old-fashioned dogma, so perhaps our innovative theologians will not think it so innovative.

  14. Norah says:

    “The problem with synodal propositions, and the documents that subsequently come out over the Holy Father’s name, are temporizing, non-committal, tentative.”

    from: The Ratzinger Report:
    It happens then that the search for agreement between the different tendencies and the effort at mediation often yield flattened documents in which decisive positions (where they might be necessary) are weakened.

    Josef Ratzinger had this to say about Bishops’ Conferences in The Ratzinger Report and I think it could well reply to Synods also. Now that he has the power why doesn’t Pope Benedict hammer out some tough decisions which will pull us back from the brink instead of just proposing, proposing, proposing.

  15. anilwang says:

    @Imrahil asked “Dear @anilwang, I wonder about that poor possible fair-weather Catholics, though. What about them?”

    Our course there is balance, as Fr Z often states, you’ll fall in the ditch if you go too far to the right or left of the road.

    The Orthodox and Eastern Catholics strongly discourage the reading of the Philokalia ( the writings of the early desert fathers) to the uninitiated because the rigor expressed will likely discourage you, since you’re simply not ready for it. You need to build up to it through disciple.

    That is the core that’s missing in the evangelization. When St Paul wrote “you need milk not meat”, the Corinthians knew that there was meat and they were getting off easy and there was more to come when they were ready. When a young Catholic is taught “happy clappy Catholicism”, he is not often taught that there is more to it since he’s “spared the difficult details that might turn him off”. As a consequence, when he grows up he gives up Catholicism because “he’s been there, done that, and moved on to bigger and better things”.

    There is also the matter of gravitas in the matters of suffering. Most people who read the book of Job will likely be turned off by it if they never had and serious suffering. But they will remember it, read it again when suffering comes, and cherish it. Once that happens, it will be in their hearts forever. But if there is no gravitas, people will go elsewhere to look for it (likely Buddhism) and might even convert because it can “handle the tougher” issues.

  16. Imrahil says:

    Well, I had been primarily thinking of orthodox happy clappy Catholicism, which is basically a question of musical genre.

    There’ll at the very least be a moment when the Sacrament of Penance is presented, and the happy clappy Catholic is presented an orthodox confession manual (what’s the word for that? I mean the little booklet which has these questions in it, “have you missed Holy Mass on a Day of Obligation? etc. etc.”). He’ll be told the Ten Commandments some time; he’ll know that he must not lie (and probably he knew that before too), and by consequence not lie in the Confessional. And then he’s got as much seriousness as he can possibly wish for.

    And things like that.

  17. catholicmidwest says:

    There’s “critical,” meaning “criticizing” and then there’s “critical” meaning “discerning and analytical.” I do wish people would figure this out.

    There’s nothing at all wrong with being analytical and discerning about something like evangelization or catechesis. In fact, if you don’t think carefully about it, you’re likely to sound like a rube. On the other hand, simply criticizing things to be carping about them makes one look like a crank. We shouldn’t be either rubes or cranks. Rather, we should be thinking carefully about hwat the Church says, and about what we need to do as a result.

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