There has been a lot of talk in the Catholic world over the past year on the concept of synodality—the idea of coming together and agreeing on a path forward by consensus rather than by diktat.
The bishops in Germany have been particularly vocal about this as the pathway forward for the Church. And Pope Francis seems to be a fan, as does the USCCB. In fact, the USCCB has developed an approach to this:
Pope Francis invites the entire Church to reflect on a theme that is decisive for its life and mission: “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” This journey, which follows in the wake of the Church’s “renewal” proposed by the Second Vatican Council, is both a gift and a task: by journeying together and reflecting together on the journey that has been made, the Church will be able to learn through Her experience which processes can help Her to live communion, to achieve participation, to open Herself to mission.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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They’ve even developed a…um…cool graphic:
In my own diocese, our bishop duly passed along the exhortation for individual parishes to weigh in on how they might make synodality a reality. I don’t know of a single Catholic who has taken this seriously (maybe we’ve finally learned the art of salutary neglect?), but I’m going to step out in faith and accept the challenge. You want renewal, communion, active participation, and mission? You claim that “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium”?
OK, then, I got it right here: I’m calling for a Lay Synod. A national meeting of prominent lay Catholic leaders (and only laity) who will convene to tackle the challenges facing our Church in the modern world: Our collective failure to evangelize and live out our Gospel commission. Our beleaguered families. Our struggles with sin and the difficulties we face in how to respond properly to sin in a modern world that condemns judgment. And yes, we’ll also discuss the elephants in the room—heterodox teaching from our pulpits, the thunderous silence from too many of our bishops on too many issues, the covering up of predatory priests and the active support for leftist causes.
I am fully aware that, in calling for this, I run the risk of being labelled as a (gasp!) Protestant because I believe this needs to happen without any ordained figure, and I don’t want to have the patronage of any bishop. I truly believe we Catholics are far too wrapped up in clericalism—so much so that we don’t recognize it anymore. Why do our conversations always devolve into complaining about “bad” or “weak” prelates when, in fact, the failure of the Church in America is our fault as much as it is theirs? Actually, more so, since there are far more of us, and we’re the ones living in the world, failing to carry the Gospel message to a post-Christian world.
Are our parishes uninspiring? What are you doing to inspire your fellow parishioners? Is your bishop silent on predatory priests? Are you speaking out for victims and pushing back on the cover-ups? Is your diocese still funneling money to the CCHD? Why, then, are you still giving money to your parish (which is giving money to your diocese, which…you get the idea)?
I have no illusions that a lay synod would solve all the problems, but it would be a great start.
Don’t lump me in with the “We Are Church” movement of a few decades ago that demanded changes in doctrine. Our synod isn’t going to tackle doctrine at all. That’s not our place. (Note: it is the place of lay theologians to weigh in on doctrinal discussions.) But there are plenty of other things we can tackle, such as:
- Formally demanding accountability from our bishops regarding who knew what about Ted McCarrick;
- Calling for tighter screening at seminaries, ensuring that only sexually mature heterosexual men are considered for the priesthood (and stopping the practice of screening out young men who are deemed “too pious”);
- A discussion about beauty and its role in worship and a call for a return to beauty in our church architecture;
- Evangelizing a post-Christian society.
Yes, there are lots of local gatherings we can attend where these things are discussed. We can attend them and feel edified in our faith. But there’s a huge difference between a Catholic conference and something that bills itself as a Lay Synod. Simply holding such a Synod speaks volumes: we’d convey a strong anti-clericalist sentiment in all the right ways—we are the Church, and we demand holiness and proper reform. Honestly, we are so mired in clericalism that we won’t even conceive of the reality that we all know we need—a laity that is empowered for co-responsibility for the Church.
Right now, you’re all like, “Jason, who the hell are you to call a lay synod?”
And that’s precisely the problem. I’m nobody. I’m probably even violating some minutiae of Canon law in the way I’m calling for this. I have some standing in my local parish, but I don’t have any at all in the larger Church. Actually, in terms of official standing, nobody has any except for the ordained clergy. So, it seems that the groundswell of lay involvement that we need will never get off the ground because anybody who might support the idea will wait for someone else to initiate it; and then they’ll throw stones at them for not being the right person to do it.
I remember my spiritual director telling me decades ago how a nuclear power company decided, after extensive market research, to put a power plant in a particular Pennsylvania community, in part, because of the high concentration of Catholic residents there—because “Catholics don’t protest.” This is telling.
I’m sure that a majority of readers of this essay will nod their heads sympathetically and say, “It would be a good thing”; and then they’ll come up with a list of reasons why it shouldn’t happen. Whatever. I’ve made the call publicly. Let the Napa Conference folks figure out how to make it a reality.