To Catechist Café Patrons and friends everywhere:
For reasons not fully clear to me, many dioceses and parishes in the United States opted to ignore the pope’s invitation to participate in the first universal synodal conclave. My initial reaction was anger. However, I now believe that more pastors and bishops are fearful of what they may learn from their people. And there is a syndrome of shame and powerlessness when your congregations seek renewal and programs that are far beyond your expertise and means.
“The Synod on the Synod” obviously will, at some point in the future, address these and many other issues facing the Church. But the Pope’s main concern here seems to be that we talk to each other and how we converse with each other. So, we enter the process with humble hearts, good intentions, and considerable reflection.
The following discussion outline—about fifteen points, I think--is put forward to generate thought and enthusiasm for the synodal process. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does reflect many of my major concerns. Yours may be different, and you can communicate these to the Synod as you see fit. I left out several hot-button issues for one obvious reason—if you read these proposals in their entirety, you will come away with the sense that we are nowhere near ready to be making all kinds of massive structural changes. I have added a SYNOD stream on the Café menu and will add my reflections [and yours if you’d like] as we go along.
You may use this as you please. No attribution is necessary. You can gather friends to participate in discussion and submission if you wish.
The best suggestion I can make—editorially—is that you copy the text below and attach it to your own word processor file to put your own additions on it. The mailing address is at the bottom.
God bless and let me know how it goes.
SYNOD PROPOSALS FOR DISCUSSION AND SUBMISSION
____The disciples put forward the first great “synod agenda” when they beseeched Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Spirituality is the most talked about and least understood element of baptismal life. Since Vatican II we have floundered about looking for definitions and routines of prayer. The Baltimore Catechism’s definition of prayer as “the lifting of the mind and heart to God” is a description of the most profound conversion a human can experience. To be honest, it does not seem like we have yet formulated a catechesis—better, a mindset—of leading baptized Catholics into mystical union with God, at least in the United States, and of integrating spirituality into sacramental catechesis, for example. The idea of universalizing the Liturgy of the Hours has been bandied about since the Council, but it has come nowhere near common practice among the faithful.
____The true heart of prayer is greater than its individual parts. While the Church pays public respect to its “mystics” such as Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa, we gloss over the true inner anguish of all the saints. Who of us has the courage to pray like St. Peter, “"Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Our Church needs less exhortation to pray and more immersion and companionship in the spiritual-psychological encounter with the Heart of all reality. This recommendation assumes a pool of suitably trained spiritual directors, which we currently do not have.
____The holiness of the Church comes down to the personal spirituality of each of its baptized members. Over the years we have been catechizing [some would say frantically] to instill what Catholics should be doing, i.e., the Catechism. Where we fall short is the formative process of divine reflection where Catholics reflect upon their very being. Some excellent breakthroughs are evident in lay movements of faith, particularly under the tutorage of religious orders, such as the Trappists, the Jesuits, the Franciscans, etc. who organize and assist lay communities in developing deeper spirituality. The term “Lectio Divina” or divine reading and reflection is—finally-- finding its way onto more Catholic tongues. That said, the American Church still has no common denominator of personal and common prayer. And it often distrusts its spiritual outliers. What the late Carl Sagan observed about education in general applies equally well to Catholics of every age: “You go talk to kindergartners or first-grade kids, you find a class full of science enthusiasts. They ask deep questions. They ask, “What is a dream, why do we have toes, why is the moon round, what is the birthday of the world, why is grass green?” These are profound, important questions. They just bubble right out of them. You go talk to 12th graders and there’s none of that. They’ve become incurious. Something terrible has happened between kindergarten and 12th grade.
____Painful as it is to admit, the ministry and science of “catechetics” in the United States has ground to a halt. The U.S. Bishops’ post-Conciliar teaching “To Teach as Jesus Did”  began the official tolling of the bells when it taught, with a straight face, that Catholic school religious formation and CCD were equally effective. What the Conference of Bishops could not publicly concede then [or even today] was the wholesale departure of college educated professionals, notably women religious, from the religious education field. Today, catechesis across the age spectrum is conducted by parish volunteers. While there are notable exceptions, most dioceses do not demand or provide their catechetical volunteers with anything commensurate to basic college level religious and educational skills. Rather, dioceses have become traffickers in “on-line certifications” whose authorization ceases at the diocesan border.
____The recruiting and discernment processes of approval of seminarians bears discussion. Consider that  The full process is never explained to the faithful.  Laity, by and large, are not involved in the discernment process.  There are wide swings in the pastoral qualities of seminary graduates now being ordained: from the inherently wise, intelligent, widely read, and personable, on the one hand, to others who appear to have learned nothing from Vatican II.  The U.S. is experiencing an influx of seminarians from other sites. mother tongues, and cultures. We may be devolving from the ideal of the priest as the persona of Christ in our homes and classrooms into a class of exclusive “confectioners of the sacraments,” a linguistic-cultural cross to bear for them as it is for the general body of Catholics. I would ask the Church to publicly consult and study on the possibility of broadening its pool of future candidates for the priesthood to at least current parish deacons who have distinguished themselves in parochial work, married men, and those laicized priests currently in good standing in the Church who would seek to serve again. Moreover, it would be wise to make public that, for all practical purposes, the United States is a missionary country.
____There are fewer than six Catholic weddings per year in the average U.S. Catholic Church, per the CARA/Georgetown annual survey of diocesan records, down over 80% since 1970. [See 2022 figures at CARA FAQ website.] By this measure most married Catholics today are “living in sin,” which common sense tells us is either catastrophic or absurd. [I opt to the absurdity end of the scale.] In many ecclesiastical locales, engaged couples come to the church to seek sacramental marriage “guilty, till proven more guilty.” The obstacles to the approval of a parish wedding seem insurmountable and incomprehensible to these kids whose entire religious education quotient was taught to them around the age of ten by nervous moms who signed on to teach a week earlier. I recommend that the U.S. Church—and ultimately the global Church--discuss its entire theological/pastoral/psychological/liturgical approach to the celebration of the Catholic marriage sacrament. Rather than demand 100% church attendance and flawless catechism recital—and Natural Family Planning, for that matter—let us welcome them back into the Church the way our grandmothers were so happy to see us on their doorsteps, with all our youthful faults—including angling for her fresh-baked frosted sugar cookies.
____I recommend that national/diocesan/regional/ consultations be hosted by U.S. Catholic leaders to hear the experiences of individuals who have sought and received ecclesiastical declarations of nullity [annulments] in the United States. The “guests of honor” at such a conclave would also include those whose cases were not approved due to lack of evidence as well. Special emphasis should be placed on the spiritual, personal, parochial, and matrimonial impacts of the annulment process. Particularly helpful would be the experiences of those who, through no fault of their own, could not receive the legal clearance to enter a Catholic marriage. The results of such a hearing would be forwarded to Rome toward a long term synodal reflection upon the nature of the marriage bond and the current pastoral efforts to preserve it and celebrate it.
____Paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church labels the sexual affections between parties of the same sex as “objectively disordered.” In the first instance, the choice of language here is contradictory, as the same paragraph states earlier that the number of such couples is “not negligible.” [Roman-speak for “a lot of couples” whose sufferings and good will are receiving more sympathy, protection, and concern by “straight” Catholics in many parts of the world.] When something is observed in nature repeatedly, it is hard to label the phenomenon as “objectively disordered” or a rare occurrence in nature. Fifty years ago, the planet Saturn was viewed as “objectively unique” because it alone had a ring system. Today it is documented that all planets beyond Mars have substantive ring systems as our body of scientific research considers growing. And yes, we are learning more about the human species just as we are about the solar system.
___Continuing from the previous paragraph, I am deeply concerned about the term “objectively disordered.” Again, the question arises: “disordered compared to what?” Compared to all human beings sorting out the meaning of their existences in their prayers, walks with God, and searching for human intimacy? The language of para. 2358 is a generic and baseless slur against a large population of persons, all of whom are children of God, belong to families who love them, and who deserve the protection of religious conscience and protection of civil rights. Consider if the Catechism employed the phrases “Objectively Discolored” [for non-Anglo-Saxons] or “Christ Killers” [for all Jews]. In 1959 the Vatican removed the term “Perfidious [faithless] Jews” from the Catholic Good Friday rite. It is distressing to see the Church, in its Catechism, revert to class condemnation it has condemned elsewhere. But worst of all, Nazi atrocities began in the 1930’s with a collective literal denigration of an entire class of religious people, the Jews. It is often forgotten, however, that the Holocaust expanded its “philosophy” to homosexuals, the mentally ill, deformed children, political dissidents, etc., many of whom were also slaughtered. Words have consequences: Inflammatory, prejudicial, and potentially violent language has no place in a Catholic document, particularly one that holds itself up as the final word on Catholic faith and morals.
____In 1974 the Vatican released the post-Council renewed Rites of Penance, which included provisions for General or group Absolution, a practice well-known to military chaplains in battlefield locales. I recommend that the Church revisit the current strictures placed upon the third rite, popularly known in the United States as “General Absolution.” Present day practice allows for General Absolution in only life-or-death circumstances, such as the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident near Harrisburg, PA, in 1979. In terms of sacramental efficacy, oral confession is not literally necessary for forgiveness. The current disciplinary restrictions seem to assume that Catholics who attended General Absolution services quite enthusiastically several decades ago were “trying to get away with something” or “seeking cheap grace.” There is no research to support this, and such restrictions run the risk of “guilt shaming,” a tendency which seems to arise with increasing frequency each decade regarding numerous points of Church discipline. The Church would be well-served to consult with the faithful on pastoral needs regarding the celebration and ongoing catechesis of the Sacrament of Penance. For example, is it necessary—or even historically and theologically justifiable—to assert that children must make First Confession prior to First Eucharist?
____ Much of Church morality and pastoral catechetics does not seem conversant with psychiatry and mental health science. Many Catholics seeking counseling from priests in the parish office or in the confessional—including the young--are often manifesting clinical symptoms ranging from substance abuse, mood disorder, family dysfunction, vocational confusion, and personality disorders. Moreover, they can be particularly resistant to “secular treatment modalities” [particularly in pastoral counseling outside of confession] and to medicinal interventions, as when a confessor or pastoral counselor suggests a penitent consult with a physician in addressing such matters as mood disorders—e.g., depression. “Only a priest can help me!” Often, a sincere and well-intentioned confessor can become unwittingly engaged in the ‘circle of madness” that appears in personality-disordered individuals. The ideal of frequent and devout confession is not always what is best for the penitent, nor for that matter is it efficacious for the priest, who would normally share in the healing graces of the sacrament. Penance, as a sacrament, is a process toward spiritual health and growth; repetitive failure—i.e., no evident effort toward changes in destructive behavior by the penitent--is a recipe for despair and self-loathing for penitent and confessor alike.
____ I recommend that the U.S. Bishops publicly lead the country in a growing consciousness of the moral-justice-Scriptural imperative that every human being in our country receive the necessary prenatal, infant, child, adult, and senior healthcare necessary for a meaningful existence regardless of ability to pay. We are created as bodies and souls, Temples of the Holy Spirit. The healing of the body and the healing of the soul were one in the works of Jesus according to the four Gospels; the sacred scripture should serve as our guide as we plan. Catholic health care systems are among the largest in the country and in positions to lead industry standards in reforms of civil and private health care systems.
____ I am disappointed, disturbed, even scandalized at both singular and generic shows of disunity which have emerged in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is discouraging that many [not all] bishops have opted to reinforce the paralyzing and hostile divisions which afflict the United States as a whole. We are fueling hatred, not healing it! Some bishops have gone so far as to parrot themselves as “more papal than the pope.” [Many bishops are far too ensnared in American civil election politics]. Many more flaunted the Pope’s calls for the Synod consultation, with no explanation or apology. I would request that the bishops of the United States come together for a public absolution and reconciliation, seeking the forgiveness of Catholics across the country and rededicating the USCCB with words from the Last Supper and Jesus’ blessing of his apostles: [St. John 17:21] “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”
____It is rare to see a published, independently prepared line-item audit of one’s parish and/or diocese. Too many media accounts expose pastors or bishops funding pet projects while important ministerial positions—including those mandated by Canon Law in areas of religious faith formation or school support—go begging. Canon 537 mandates a parish finance board for every parish, a law which is flouted routinely in nearly every parish of my acquaintance. To enhance a quote from “All the President’s Men,” a famous film of the 1970’s, “follow the money” …or the man who is hiding it. I note with interest that Catholic finances in the U.S. are the next major scandal around the corner, per veteran Catholic journalists.
____I would recommend that all church entities in the United States read, line by line, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the decree on the sacred liturgy, from Vatican II, particularly its directives on church music, art, and architecture. And on the lighter side, consider that the English-language liturgical calendar in the United States and elsewhere currently uses ordinal nomenclature to describe the forty-some Sundays of the year outside the seasons of Incarnation and Redemption. In my youth a summer Sunday was called “the 9th, 10th, or 11th Sunday after Pentecost, etc., which focused us weekly on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and our work in the world. In similar fashion, the Sundays of January and February were addressed as “the Sundays after Epiphany.” Christ among us! Today, we refer to all these Sundays as “Ordinary Sundays,” which frankly sounds, well, pretty “ordinary.” A small thing, perhaps, but symptomatic of the loss of catechetical moments. Can future revisions of the Roman Missal and its US translations take a hard look at this Sunday impoverishment?
To strengthen the point, it might be worth noting here that Church Law also refers to the bishop of a place as “the ordinary.” In all my years as a Catholic, I have never attended a Confirmation where the bishop addresses the congregation, “It is a privilege to stand before you as your ordinary.” And what mother prays her daily rosary with the intention that her son grow up to become an “ordinary?” The word has got to go.
+ + + + +
The concerns raised here are many and complex, and we may not live to see them resolved. I offer them here to encourage thought, conversation, and study as we labor together in the vineyard of the Lord. Pope Francis, in convoking this synod, is not looking for concrete answers as far as I can tell. Rather, he hopes to lead the Church in collective unity toward its identity and mission, calling forth from each of us our Spirit-given wisdom from generation to generation.
I conclude with prayer for Our Holy Father and the efforts of all who labor for the sanctification of the Church. Thank you for your kind attention.
[Additional discussion points optional]
[Name and contact information optional.]
All matters regarding the Synod can be mailed to this address:
General Secretariat of the Synod
Via della Conciliazione 34
00120 Città del Vaticano
Do not include the word “ITALY” in the address. The Vatican is a separate nation.
The Synod Page