For the past several years, I led a small lay group in Atlanta known as the Catholic Lay Interparish Partnership. The group, made up of parishioners from about 25 archdiocesan parishes, began as a local effort to respond to the horror of the sexual abuse crisis brought to renewed focus by the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. With time and discussion, we decided to center the group’s efforts on the empowerment of the laity as co-responsible members of the Body of Christ. We met with archdiocesan leadership for months advocating for a synod to hear the thoughts of the laity on the shape of the Church in our region. Thanks to the timing of Pope Francis and the Spirit, that wished-for synod became a reality.
As I facilitated listening sessions and synthesized reports, the limits of the process became apparent: the official archdiocesan synod reached only the most active of Catholics, with the majority of participants being over 55 and white, despite the fact that the non-Latino white population now makes up an estimated 43% of the Catholic population in the archdiocese. This flaw has been echoed across many synodal reports in the U.S.
Throughout the local synod process in Atlanta, we discovered that many people did not want to participate in the synod because they did not trust the Church to hear them. Others who did participate shared the complexities of their lives with visible or audible trepidation. A number of individuals stated that they were sharing facets of their life for the first time outside the most intimate friends.
Common themes and reactions to the process resound across synodal reports. U.S. Catholics described the joy they find in community, in prayer practices and in liturgy, especially the Eucharist. At the same time, the calls for change are clear in the tales of exclusion and even open hostility felt by people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community and divorced and remarried Catholics. The wounds of clericalism and the sexual abuse crisis continue to cut deep.
While many diocesan reports still remain unpublished, a number are available online, and the glimpses they contain of lay Catholic stories are well worth reading. As I facilitated listening sessions and synthesized notes, my own curiosity was piqued by a common reference that did not get as much attention in the final archdiocesan report: “rules.”
I heard and read Catholics express both a desire for their faith to be about more than rules, and a desire for the clarity that “rules” and “answers” provided. What struck me most was that for some Catholics, “rules”—in a legalistic and punitive sense of the word—appear to be a major way that they understand what the Church is about in the world.
I have been pondering the relationship between this discussion of rules and the lack of trust in the synod process. The lack of trust is well-founded and confirmed by the way the Church has fostered a culture of secrecy about abuse and its other failings. The rules add another dimension to this lack of trust. If someone imagines or has experienced the rules as the most significant aspect of the life of the Church and knows that her own life carries complexities that may not perfectly reflect these rules, it is not hard to understand why she might not entrust her complex human story to the Church. Rules are often insufficient to the reality of going through a divorce or supporting a trans child or listening to a friend with depression.
The Catholic tradition prides itself on a sacramental imagination, one which finds God in the messiness of human reality. Yet, listening to many participants in the synod, I heard that they feel that this messy human reality is not welcomed in the Church. The impression is that sacramentality, at least in official ecclesial spaces, extends only so far as the rules will allow. It is difficult to be a field hospital if no one feels comfortable letting you know where it hurts. But an even larger gap in trust exists when the rules proclaim that your human situation is “wounded” by something that you experience as a space of that sacramental presence.
Many participants who used the language of “rules” did so in the context of hoping for the Church to be about something more. Their own lives of faith told them that such a category was insufficient to the reality of being a Christian. One of the things the synod is revealing is that lay Catholics find the grace of God where ecclesial officials fear to tread. The laity’s is perhaps a more truly Catholic sacramentality, which rightly perceives an inconsistent legalism in the boundaries the Church has sought to draw around that divine presence in women, queer people, people of color and more. For many, if the synod is to give them real hope in the future of the Church, it must show that at least some of these “rules” are beginning to give way to the reality of the Spirit present within the complexities of human lives.
Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.