In reading the early reports of the Synod on Synodality, it is interesting (and somewhat disturbing) to see such a preoccupation with listening and welcoming in the world, with so little attention to the proclamation of the Gospel. What we see so far is an emphasis on togetherness and inclusion, and a de-emphasis on the Gospel itself as the only firm basis for human solidarity. At a certain point in every Catholic reflection, it is necessary to stop worrying about both human feelings (such as “alienation”) and abstract ideas (such as “inclusion”). There can be no unity without acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Too often, the speakers at the Synod seem to place the emphasis on the Church’s acceptance of everyone, instead of everyone’s acceptance of the Church.
We knew this would happen, of course. It was already explicit in the results of much of the consultation and preliminary discussions leading up to the meeting in Rome. And while it goes without saying that there may well be a vast distance between preliminary observations and final conclusions, it is nonetheless already clear that the Synod will not bear fruit unless most of its participants recognize that outreach and inclusion are utterly bankrupt without an unmistakable Christian identity. Christ is not served by the warm fuzzies, but by a mature love which seeks to draw all to the acceptance of the Gospel and obedience to God’s will—a love which actually demands a response of conversion.
This ought to be true also for all who consider themselves to be already within the Church. The essence of Catholicism is being joined to Jesus Christ. In the epistles of St. Paul, for example, being joined to the Church and being joined to Christ are essentially the same thing. Without sinners, there would be no need for Christ or the Church, but repentance is the price of effective admission. The fundamental Christian proclamation is found in the words Our Lord used when He began His public ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
It is one thing for the Church to seek mere inclusion as a demonstration of human good will, with no reference to the distinctive (and sometimes hard) sayings of Christ. It is quite another to proclaim the fullness of Christ with a clear and unified voice: Repent and believe the gospel!
A disturbing lack of identity
Many speak of the need for the Church to be more effective in her welcome and inclusion of those who who either do not know her or are alienated from her (or, very often, both at once). But this preoccupation is meaningless unless the speaker has a clear understanding of who Christ is and what He demands, and therefore of “who” the Church is, and what the Church demands. In this context, the constant hand-wringing about the hot-button issues in the world—from sexual sin to natural ecology to war and other forms of human suffering—becomes utterly profitless unless the mission of the Church is understood to offer the incomparable gift of a repentant conversion into union with Jesus Christ.
The Church, for all that she is the custodian of the natural law, does not exist to proclaim the brotherhood of man without the repentance of man as the key movement of man’s growing union with God through Jesus Christ. It is Christ alone who is the way, the truth and the life—a Person who is made known to us, and whose life we receive by repentance, most fully within the visible Church. Without this startling claim, the Church is simply another NGO. And, sadly, in our time it too often seems that this is all she really wants to be.
It is precisely this that I have seen too often in the run-up to the Synod and in the initial addresses. Too much is about having an “acceptable” attitude on random contemporary hot-button issues, such as ecology, homosexuality, racial prejudice, and respect for other religions regardless of their content (as if the Catholic Faith really is, as Western governments now believe, merely a sentiment, and not something so powerfully true that it inescapably fosters the divisions which Christ Himself predicted). Our Lord Himself saw things more clearly when he set the priorities for us: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33).
If the Church does not proclaim this Gospel explicitly, then she has no new path to offer the world. And that is astonishing if she is supposed to be the Presence of the One who proclaims: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5).
The Profession of Faith
The Church in her members is supposed to be formed by her profession of faith, yet we all know this is often not the case among the totality of all those who claim the Catholic name. Even if it is more often the case among the Church’s ordained and/or consecrated servants, the gaps are still unfortunately large. And it is extremely painful to poll the “Catholic” professoriate in this regard. Without claiming that the Church should be conceived and run like a corporation (it should not), it is hardly irrelevant to observe that if the Church does not make a consistent effort to renew all of her members in their commitment to Christian teaching and the mission of Christ, she is doomed to failure in presenting Christ to the world and so drawing others into His Mystical Body.
Where, we might well ask, is the fire of the Gospel in our modern synodal program of endless discussion? I sometimes wonder if constant human blather, which so often either bores or weakens those who take the Faith seriously, is not more a manifestation of diabolical cleverness than of Christian resolve. In any case, the Holy Spirit is desperately needed to “fire up” the Synodal participants—perhaps in at least a linguistic manifestation of tongues of flame. The best thing the rest of us can do is to pray for exactly that, while there is still time.
And pray we must. The Church finds herself in serious trouble today primarily because her own crisis of faith has confused her about her own mission. It is instructive, I think, that the apostles commissioned deacons to take charge of the material needs of the Catholic community because they understood that “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables…. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4). Imagine that: Prayer, the proclamation of the Gospel, and the administration of the sacraments through which we are joined to the very Word of God Himself!
Will we find such clarity of purpose through endless talk which is so often oriented toward a merely human response rooted in precisely that vanity against which Christ Himself warned? “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Lk 6:26). Only the Holy Spirit can counter such widespread confusion. Therefore, our own call is to serious prayer.
The Church’s being is Christ and her ecology is the Gospel. I hope that it will not be through our fault that yet another synod fails to call for a sacrificially effective Catholic renewal—and instead merely opts for change.
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