On October 11, Kerry Alys Robinson, newly appointed President and CEO for Catholic Charities USA, executive partner of the Leadership Roundtable, philanthropist and powerful lay leader in the Church, gave an impassioned and inspiring talk on “Co-Responsibility and a New Culture of Leadership in the Church” to Sacred Heart University students. They were overwhelmingly responsive to Robinson as an extraordinary role model of leadership in the Church and as a messenger of unwavering love for the Church, even when it disappoints. She spoke strongly, telling us that the Church cannot afford to lose its youth or to alienate its women.
On October 25, Dr. Willie James Jennings, a systematic theologian at the Yale Divinity School and a nationally recognized lecturer and prize-winning author, spoke at Sacred Heart on an “Education in Belonging.” He called on students to reimagine and dream of their education as becoming someone who gathers and draws diverse people together in relationship with one another—and by implication, become someone who would create new ways of becoming a community, a country, a world—through connection and belonging.
Both of these talks made me think of the Pope’s Synod on Synodality. Without question, the Synod marked an historic moment in the life of the Church. A synod of bishops filtered with lay men and women—from across different countries and cultures—sitting together discussing, agreeing, disagreeing, listening to each other and voting on topics that are central to the people who are the Church. We have here a vision not seen since the early Church—a gathering of people brought together by a common baptism rather than by a clerical role or status. It has already been said that the Synod was the embodiment of Vatican II: a true sensus fidei, the delegates, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were wrestling over the “joys and hopes” and “signs of the times” of our Church. And even though naysayers still think that the Synod will take down doctrine and tradition, we have come to realize from the final document that, all along, the Synod was meant as a renewed way of being Church, not a meeting to decide on issues, but rather a series of synodal conversations to discern and discuss issues. A synod is a way of creating connection and relationship—drawing diverse people together in a community of belonging.
In so many ways, the Synod was a triumph of rebuilding our house. But, as one who loves this Church, there is disappointment. For the women who are part of this community, the issue of women in the diaconate as described in the final report, A Synodal Church in Mission, is disappointing. While the report acknowledges that Jesus “entrusted the announcement of His Resurrection to a woman,” and recognizes that women and men share the same baptism and that mostly women fill the Church pews, because there were different perspectives expressed about women in the diaconate, the report comes to this conclusion:
“Theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken.”
Another disappointment: despite the fact that issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ people were strongly mentioned in the report prior to the Synod, and despite vociferous discussions taking place on the topic of LGBTQ+ persons during the Synod, no mention is made of LGBTQ+ in the final report. The report did not even name the existence of LGBTQ+ people. (If there is no language for something, does it exist?) We read only this statement: “Certain issues, such as those relating to matters of identity and sexuality … are controversial … because they raise new questions. Sometimes the anthropological categories we have developed are not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences and require greater precision and further study.”
Here at Sacred Heart, in our Human Journey Seminars: Great Books in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, faculty work, as my colleague Charlie Gillespie identifies it, in a synodal seminar. Faculty create communities of belonging where students engage in intentional reflection and courageous conversations about big questions, ideas and issues—sometimes contentious and sometimes baffling. Students tell us that they benefit from listening to their classmates’ perspectives, that while they do not always agree, they do learn to stretch themselves to hear and see another person’s experience. And sometimes students just want an answer of some kind—or at least they do not want us, the faculty, to “punt” on important, vexing issues or questions. They lose trust when we do that.
I am saddened by the increasing number of women and young adults who are leaving the Church because they are disappointed by what the Church says or does. I struggle when I see my students so disinterested in a Church with which they no longer feel a sense of belonging because it eludes them rather than engages with their “joys and hopes” and their experiences, which are the “signs of the times.”
I recognize that the Synod has to move cautiously and carefully. I see that it has outlined in its final report a substantial amount of work that it hopes to address before it convenes again next year. I hope that it recognizes that we cannot afford to lose our youth and alienate our women.
Michelle Loris is the director of Center for Catholic Studies and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.