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ChurchSpeak is Holding Us Back

Updated: May 4, 2023

When Jesus came to town, he told stories to help his listeners understand his message and his mission, and he took time to explain his stories when they went over people’s heads. When it was called for, he could also be blunt. He told Peter “Get behind me Satan” (Mk 8:33, Mt 16:23). He told the woman caught in adultery that he did not condemn her, but at the same time “go and sin no more,” (Jn 8:11).

His harshest words were generally reserved for some of the keepers of the Jewish religious institution - those scribes and Pharisees who had confused their roles as pastoral leaders with being watchdogs over 613 Jewish commandments found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” (Mt 12:34), “blind guides” (Mt 23:16, 24), “whitewashed tombs” (Mt 23:27), and “hypocrites” (Mt 23:15).

Last week I read the Final Document of the Continental Stage of the 2021-2024 Synod. This document will represent the aspirations of the people of Canada and the U.S. at the first General Session of the Synod in Rome this October.

As I read the document, I wondered what Jesus would have thought of it. I don’t believe Jesus would have used the language he used against the Pharisees and scribes, but I do think he would call the document’s writers out for their indirectness - their use of euphemisms that muffle the voices of the People of God across two countries. In one section a question is posed: “Has the Church been so organized that it becomes difficult to speak to it?" (p. 43). My answer is a resounding yes.

The document also stated: “The openness that the synodal process should bring about for everyone is to listen and hear what is hurting people and what needs healing” (p.45). During the listening sessions in both the U.S. and Canada, the participants named internal Church problems that require candid conversations. The inclusion and vulnerability of LGBTQ+ persons. The need for women in decision-making roles, leadership, and ordination. The situation of those who are divorced and have remarried without an annulment. The devasting lack of trust in the Church caused by the sex abuse scandal. The disaffiliation of young people. The need for reparation for the historic wrongs found in the residential/boarding schools for Indigenous people.

Unfortunately, if the Synod participants gathering in Rome are going to have the candid conversations that these issues call for, they will have to wade through some very “churchified” language (ChurchSpeak) to get there.

What follows are the Five Priorities, written in fluent ChurchSpeak, by the 18 member North American Synod Team, which they developed for the October 2023 gathering of the Synod in Rome. I follow each priority with my personal translation.

1. “Integration of synodal consultation in the local Churches. This would include formation both in synodality and in the spirituality of discernment.” Translation: We got off to a bumpy start but let’s keep the synod style of conversation going.

The document acknowledges that participation throughout the two countries was spotty and that the idea of syodality aroused “resistance, suspicion, and anxiety” in some. But those who did participate were enthusiastic and grateful for the chance to be heard. This new direction for the Church is worthwhile, but it will take some time and effort before it becomes an accepted norm.

2. “The challenge of welcoming those who feel excluded from participation in the life of the Church in a manner that is authentic and faithful to the Gospel and the Catholic faith weighs heavily on the hearts of our people.” Translation: Synod listening session participants were very vocal about the need for full inclusion of people who find themselves on the periphery of the Church for reasons that the participants no longer find just. In order to actually address greater inclusivity, some Church doctrine will need reframing, which will really rock the Barque of St. Peter.

This is the terrifying reality of listening to the People of God. The document tiptoes around this fear by changing the word “inclusion” to “welcoming,” and changing those who “are” excluded to those who “feel” excluded.”

3. Co-responsibility: Translation: The document quotes Vatican II directly about our baptismal call: “Through baptism, Christians share in an exalted dignity and vocation to holiness, with no inequality based on race, social condition, or sex because we are one in Christ Jesus” (Lumen Gentium 32). Using our baptismal call as the basis for our equal dignity can be problematic. Baptism makes one a follower of Christ, but it also places a person within a religion, which has its own membership expectations that color how co-responsibility is interpreted.

I would take co-responsibility back one step and ask the question: What does it mean to be a human person loved into existence by God? The co-responsibility conversation should first address the human dignity of all – not just the baptized. Once those parameters are set, then we can look at co-responsibility through the lens of our baptism, as well as our Church traditions.

4. Addressing the unity and communion of the Church in the midst of various kinds of polarization and divisions. Translation: How do we hold the center when everything is shifting around us? The Church has long held a maxim similar to that of the English monarchy which is never explain, never complain - and you can add, never apologize.

It used to be that both institutions could remain aloof and wait out any storm. Underlying this is the fear that if the Church (and perhaps the monarchy) were to acknowledge a mistake or update a point of view, it would pull the carpet out from under everything else - that people would lose faith in the whole institution. As a result, we are accustomed to a long-standing downplay of errancy in the Church. Times have changed and the Church no longer has the luxury of staying out of the fray but must fully engage with the world – polarizations and divisions and all.

5. A Church that goes out to the peripheries. Translation: The issues that came up in the listening sessions require difficult, internal Church reform.

This last priority is a slight of hand, a strategic pivot away from the actual issues that emerged.Yes, we are called to go out to the world and preach the Good News. That is the end goal, but we also know that when the airplane is in trouble, you put your mask on first.

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