The synod and its synodal process is Pope Francis’ aim to listen to and learn from all his flock—from the ground up. It is nothing short of revolutionary. The Catholic Church has seen nothing like this movement since Pope John XXIII called for Vatican II. Francis truly wants to hear from his people. In fact, in a remarkable moment through the efforts of Loyola University Chicago, at “Building Bridges: A Synodal Encounter Between Pope Francis and University Students” (Zoom Forum), the Pope listened intently to college students express their concerns about the Church. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium summing up the Vatican II Council: “in all the baptized from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work…” I believe Francis wants to listen to and learn from what the laity have to say. He has asked the bishops to organize the synodal process to hear what the flock is saying.
I wonder if there may be additional ways, outside of a formal synodal process, of listening to and learning from the flock. For example, the most recent May 2022, AP NORC Poll has something to say that is worth listening to and perhaps even learning from. The title of this very comprehensive poll is “Most Catholic Americans disagree with hardline positions of church leadership” and the first three items are worth attending to: Most American lay Catholics, who attend Mass regularly as well as those who do not, support some abortion rights, oppose denying Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, or denying Communion to LGBTQ people or to divorced and remarried Catholics. The laity reported here seem to disagree with the hard line position some bishops take on these big issues.
Interesting enough, these views are consistent with the 2018 St. Mary’s Press study “Going, Going, Gone” whose aim was to listen to the stories of youth and young adults who are disaffiliated from the Catholic Church. This report examined Millennials and Generation Z members (18-25) and asked why these young people are leaving the Catholic Church. “Of those who have left, 35% no longer belong to any religion, while 46% have joined another religion. An additional 14% report being atheists or agnostics.” The study reports that these youth say they reject the Catholic Church’s positions about LGBTQ people, abortion and birth control. They report that the Church emphasizes rules that do not connect to their real world.
“Going, Going, Gone” is consistent with my students’ views. My students tell me that they feel disaffiliated and disconnected from the institutional Church; they reject the Church’s positions on the LGBTQ+ community, on abortion and birth control, and on denying Communion to remarried Catholics or Catholics who may support abortion. My students hunger for connection, purpose and meaning in their lives, and many say they believe in God or a Higher Power, but they do not feel that their local parishes offer them the community and faith that they desire. One of my students confessed she identified as LGBTQ and she “had to leave the Church because her parish made it clear she was not accepted.” She said she occasionally attends Mass at the University. Some of my students do tell me that they attend Mass at the University because here they experience some of the faith and community they seek.
A 2021 Gallup Poll reports the decline of Church membership across major religious institutions with membership in the Catholic Church falling the fastest. This statement was made real to me in a very personal way. I had been visiting my brother-in-law and his wife who I had not seen in about a year. These are two people whose 38 years of married life have been spent in their parish as Eucharistic Ministers, Readers, Choristers and as Lay Leaders within the parish. I always thought of them as the kind of Catholics who would save the Church. I was impressed by their parish involvement, so I asked, as I always do, about their parish work. My brother-in-law’s response stunned me. He said “Oh we no longer belong to the parish or go to Church. It just became too much finally—the Church’s views on abortion and Communion and gay people. We just quit. Couldn’t take it any longer. Maybe we will join the local Episcopal or Congregational Church, but for now we don’t belong.” I was slack-jawed, and could barely respond, except to say that I understood.
His words saddened me. I feel sad, too, when I talk to my students and they say pretty much the same things as my brother-in-law told me. I believe that Francis would want to hear these stories from his flock. I just hope that the bishops are listening.
Michelle Loris is the chair of the Catholic studies department and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.