By Russell Shaw
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Reacting to the scandal of clergy sex abuse and cover-up 17 years ago, eight bishops offered a bold proposal.
The conference of bishops, meeting in Dallas, had lately adopted a charter and norms for the protection of children. Now the eight called for something more.
Convene a plenary council or regional synod, they urged their fellow bishops, and use it to get at the roots of what had happened so as to prevent anything like that from ever happening again. The signers of their joint letter included Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, then bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, and now president of the national bishops’ conference, and Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, an auxiliary bishop there back then.
More than a hundred bishops expressed interest in the suggestion, which eventually came to focus on the synod option. The bishops’ conference took some note of it. But in time, enthusiasm faded and the proposal died as the hierarchy went about implementing their new child protection measures.
Now it seems that those eight bishops were ahead of their time. In the face of a crisis even worse than 17 years ago, the idea of a regional synod for the Catholic Church in the United States looks increasingly appealing.
“In the long experience of the church,” the eight bishops told their brother bishops in 2002, “the taking of action by bishops through a council or synod has been a tried and true strategy to advance reform.” And most people would agree that there’s a need for church reform now.
The crisis has grown and now no longer involves only the sexual abuse of children by some clerics. Instead it has become a crisis of ecclesial communion whose elements include mistrust of church leaders heightened by the McCarrick and Bransfield affairs, tension and conflict among ideologically motivated groups all claiming they represent authentic Catholicism, and a dismaying gulf between what the church teaches and what many Catholics believe on both faith and morals.
Numbers underline the seriousness of the situation. Last year, there were 143,000 Catholic marriages in the United States compared with more than 426,000 in 1970. Infant baptisms numbered 615,000 as against 1.089 million back then. The percentage of Catholics attending Mass weekly fell from 54.9% in 1970 to 21.1% in 2018. Half the Catholics age 30 and younger have left the church, while, as Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles points out, for every person who joins the church today, six leave.
Against this background, an appropriate theme for a regional synod might be “The Challenge of Transmitting the Faith.”
The Code of Canon Law speaks of regional synods as “special sessions” whose members are the bishops of the region involved or bishops chosen to represent them. Since the Second Vatican Council there have been regional synods for the Netherlands, Lebanon, Africa, the Middle East, and other places. A regional synod for the Amazon region of Latin America will be held in October.
In his address to the bishops at their general meeting in Baltimore last June — read for him by one of his staff because he was in Rome attending a meeting convened by Pope Francis — Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio to the U.S., seemed to make the case for a regional synod.
Speaking of the need for bishops to collaborate on solving problems, he said, “Personally, I believe that the body of bishops is stronger and more effective working together and walking together. Since the beginning of his pontificate Pope Francis has called for a synodal church — a church that walks together.”
And he added, “In the process of walking together, we also have the opportunity to hear the different members of the group. Certainly, the church needs to listen to the voices and insights of the lay faithful. … A bishop cannot think that matters concerning the church can be resolved by acting alone or exclusively among peers.”
But, someone might ask, how could a regional synod of bishops possibly be anything except bishops acting “exclusively among peers”? The answer seems obvious. The synod should be preceded by a serious, honest consultation of Catholics to find out how they see the present crisis — input of the utmost importance in shaping a realistic agenda for the synod. And beyond consultation, laypeople should be present at the synod itself as observers with the right to speak.
Certainly there are risks, particularly the risk of disappointed expectations if the pre-synod consultation appeared to be mainly for show or if the synod itself wasn’t fully transparent or produced only negligible results.
But a well-planned and well-executed regional synod also offers important advantages arguably Available now in no other way. Most of all, it would give the bishops an opportunity to refurbish their credibility as effective leaders while giving other Catholics reason to think their voices are being heard and reason to hope for real reform.
“In the revelation of Jesus Christ we have all the resources we need to transform this time of trial into a ‘day the Lord has made,'” the eight bishops said back in 2002. “We must witness with all the authority of our apostolic ministry to bedrock Gospel principles, and we must chart a course of action on the basis of these principles.”
That’s at least as true now as it was then. A regional synod for the church in the United States is one way — maybe the best way and possibly the only way — to get it done.
Russell Shaw is former secretary for public affairs of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference. His 22 books include “American Church” and “Nothing To Hide.”