The Synod of the Red Death

Despite all the talk of “building a new Church,” the energy of progressive Catholicism is all in the service of denial and destruction.

When I was a child, I was a huge fan of the Beatles. I listened to their songs over and over again and bought several cassette tapes (Google it, young people!) of their music. I worshiped their genius like an idolater. One of my favorites was the song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which was supposed to be on their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album but was released as a single instead. 

In the song, John Lennon sings about a field near his childhood home and how he got caught in a tree: “nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about.” I used to think Lennon was on LSD when they recorded the song because his voice sounded abnormally low-pitched and groggy on the recording. It turns out this was not the case. The Beatles actually recorded two different versions of the song, one faster and one slower in tempo. But they couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Producer George Martin came to their rescue and combined the two by slowing down the faster version so that the whole song played at the same speed. Hence, Lennon sounds like he just woke up from a coma in the later parts of the song.

You are wondering what any of this has to do with the Synod on Synodality, the Vatican’s planned two-year “listening session,” whose American instantiation just wrapped up recently, issuing in a “synthesis” of its proceedings. The answer is: absolutely nothing. Except that, after reading this synthesis, you might sound like you had been through a coma too. And that, just as the reminiscence of my juvenile musical tastes has nothing whatever to do with the topic of this essay, the synthesis document bears no relation to reality whatsoever.

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This is only slight hyperbole on my part. There are, perhaps, a dozen or so words in the entire document that fail to airbrush out the unpleasant realities of life on Earth in the Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic Church and replace it with the soothing bath of therapeutic HR-speak. To be sure, no one is perfect, as others have pointed out, and they did occasionally let slip in a few archaisms like “the Holy Spirit” and “Jesus Christ,” but this does not dampen the overall effect. Let me give you a few examples.

In the Introduction, the report notes that there are 66.8 million Catholics in America and that some 700,000 participated in the Synod. That amounts to around 1 percent of the Catholics in the United States. This is not a representative sample of Catholics in the United States, numerically speaking. One might think this would be a cause for reflection on the value of this whole process. 

But no, in the next breath the report optimistically states that despite “some apprehension and even opposition as they began their synodal listening…they were surprised by a level of engagement and richness that surpassed their expectations. It was frequently noted how much agreement participants found when they listened to each other.” I’m quite sure a tiny, self-selected group of people found they agreed on many things and enjoyed “sharing their stories” with each other. But why these represent “the honest and authentic contributions of the People of God” I cannot fathom. And the document makes no attempt to justify such a claim.

From there, it gets worse. The document brings up the subject of the sexual abuse scandals in the Church and how they have caused “a lack of trust and credibility on the part of the faithful” toward the hierarchy, which is undeniably true. Perhaps the actual discussions did attempt to deal with this difficult subject, but the authors of the synthesis never move beyond vague platitudes about how sexual abuse and its cover-up prevent “people from entering into relationship with one another.” 

How detached from reality one has to be to believe these Potemkin town hall meetings will do anything to curb abuse or heal its victims is an astonishing thing to contemplate. It is almost as unbelievable as the idea that Pope Francis, whose record on dealing with sexual abuse is a disgrace, will actually do anything about it. 

The document goes on to enumerate a laundry list of groups who “experience marginalization in the Church, and thus a lack of representation.” Never mind the fact that the Church doesn’t exist to “represent” anyone but the Holy Trinity and Christ, the Son of God. Among these “marginalized groups” are the usual suspectsimmigrants, racial minorities, and others, lumped in with the unbornas well as the “LGBTQ+ community.” 

Yes, that famously marginalized community, among whose members are the CEOs of multibillion dollar, multinational corporations; whose cause is championed by one of the major political parties in the United States; who are celebrated 24/7 in the film industry, news media, and academia; whose incomes dwarf those of other “marginalized” peoples; and who are protected by the power of the Federal government and the Supreme Courtthat marginalized community. 

Perhaps I missed it, but I have never in all my life as a Catholic listened to a homily that attacked gays and lesbians, or even mentioned that homosexual behavior is wrong according to the Christian understanding of sexuality. Nor am I aware that Catholic bishops in America do anything but bend over backwards to “welcome” them or outright tolerate if not encourage them.

Naturally, “welcoming” the “marginalized” is a major theme of the document. According to its authors, “the most common desire named in the synodal consultations was to be a more welcoming Church where all members of the People of God can find accompaniment on the journey.” Ah, yes, accompaniment. I remember it well. What does “accompaniment” mean in this document? Funny you should ask: “for many, the perception is that the blanket application of rules and policies is used as a means of wielding power or acting as a gatekeeper…the Church seems to prioritize doctrine over people, rules and regulations over lived reality.” 

In other words, insisting that unidentified “people” actually believe what the Church teaches is “unwelcoming.” One sympathizes. I’ve been trying to gain membership in the Human Rights Campaign for years, but they consistently refuse to welcome me and my objection to homosexual behavior as immoral and leading to eternal damnation. Maybe I should send them a copy of the synthesis. I’m sure they’d appreciate it. Or not.

There are obviously some good and decent people still working in the institutional Church, both in America and in the Vatican. This is why you get a line in the synthesis document that “limited access to the 1962 Missal was lamented” in synodal discussions. But this is followed up by a passage, echoed in the synthesis of the English bishops, which declares “all synodal consultations shared a deep ache in the wake of the departure of young people and viewed this as integrally connected to becoming a more welcoming Church.” 

I don’t think I need to point out the disconnect here, as some American bishops have scuttled communities that attract younger Catholics rather than allow access to the 1962 Missal, largely at the insistence of the Vatican, whose pet project the whole synodal process is. In this context, airing complaints about the Latin Mass is akin to allowing the condemned a last request while thanking them for their service. 

I am not possessed of any but modest abilities, but my imagination fails when attempting to describe the jarring experience of reading this text. Combing through a document rife with clichés drawn from the language of secular politics and psychologybromides warning of “polarization,” the need for “dialogue,” and the importance of “lived experience”followed by completely unironic assertions about “clear, concise, and consistent communication as key to the strong desire for appropriate transparency,” is enough to erode one’s confidence in the ability of the language to convey meaning.

But this bureaucratic desolation of language and thought is indicative of more than simply poor communication skills. There is something larger at work here in the synthesis and the whole Synod itself. Perhaps you have seen the pictures of the “synodal experts” in Rome floating around the internet. They witness to the generational divide in the Church between an aging, “progressive” Church officialdom and its younger, more conservative seminarians, priests, and laity. 

The “synodal process” is a celebration for the former, one last chance to remake the Church in their own, graying image. The U.S. synthesis admits as much toward the end of the document: “through participation in the diocesan phase of the Synod, the People of God have already begun to build the Church for which they hope.” 

This last may be the most delusional assertion in the entire document, for if there is anything we have learned over the last half century and more is that there is no future in which a flourishing “progressive” Church exists. Everywhere such a progressive program is implemented, the Church withers away and dies. As one priest recently put it, “the progressives in the Church have power, but only the power to destroy.” 

I have heard the same sentiment elsewhere, and it rings true. Despite all the talk of “building a new Church,” the energy of progressive Catholicism is all in the service of denial and destruction. They can deny Church teachings, shut down Latin Masses, erase the legacy of conservative popes, gut traditional monasteries and religious orders, but nothing they do will ever flourish and bear fruit because they have strayed too far from too many elemental truths of the faith. Theirs is a barren and sterile vision, whatever they assert to the contrary. 

And this is why the specter of death hangs over the whole synodal process, or more precisely, of its denial. The “Synod on Synodality” is ultimately their Masque of the Red Death, in which they seek refuge from the hard reality that all their efforts have failed and that their own mortality approaches. 

In spite of all this, and offensive as some of its antics may be, one should be grateful for the Synod on Synodality. Whatever its eventual outcome, it represents the end of an era in the life of the Church, one that clarifies how the Church can survive and flourish in the future. And for those not gripped by the illusions it represents, it provides an opportunity to grow closer to God. For if we retain our charity toward all and remain faithful to all that Christ commanded us, then we need have no fear of our own failures, nor deny the harsh realities that beset the Church in every age.  

[Image Credit: Synod of Bishops’ Facebook page]

  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor teaches history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

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