OSV News photo/Gregorio Borgia, Reuters pool

Synodal Church can repair trust, bishops’ document says

  • April 21, 2023

If North American Catholics have become polarized, fragmented and distressed they have an answer at hand in the most basic sacramental truth of the Church — belonging comes with baptism.

The final continental stage document for North America’s contribution to the 2021-to-2024 Synod stresses baptism throughout its 22 pages.

“We cannot fully live out our baptismal dignity and responsibility without addressing the areas where our communion with one another, and thereby our communion with Christ, is stressed almost to the breaking point,” said the final release from the Canadian and American bishops’ conferences.

The North American document, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission,” will form part of a working document (Instrumentum Laboris), which the Roman curia will release in June, ahead of the Oct. 4-29 Synod meetings of bishops in Rome. Six other continental assemblies are also releasing final synod reports. A second session on synodality will be held in Rome in the fall of 2024.

That polarization in the Church was such a strong theme coming out of continental stage synod sessions came as a surprise to Barbara Dowding, who was part of the writing team tasked with synthesizing 12 synodal assembly meetings in English, Spanish and French held online between December and January.

“For me, that whole polarization issue was kind of new when I was at the (writing) retreat in Orlando (in February),” said Dowding. “I hadn’t really heard about it that much. There appears to be more polarization within the Church in the United States than, I think, there is in Canada. But to be fair, I don’t know.”

Among the 931 hand-picked delegates and 146 participating bishops from the two countries, issues of polarization and trust were central.

“A significant threat to communion within the Church is a lack of trust, especially between the bishops and the laity, but also between the clergy in general and the lay faithful,” the final document said.

The history of residential schools and how bishops have responded, sexual abuse cases and a long history of cover-ups, plus a culture of secrecy more generally were cited as key reasons for the decay of trust in Catholic North America.

“There’s a great desire to fix that,” Dowding, former Vancouver chancellor and special assistant to Archbishop Michael Miller, said. “There’s an intention and a desire to rebuild the trust.”

On Indigenous reconciliation, one of the participating bishops was emphatic.

“The Indigenous want to know that the Church knows. This needs to be in the document. We must let them know that we understand the issues they are dealing with in their daily lives and we are listening to them,” the un-named bishop is quoted in the report.

A more synodal Church represents an opportunity to repair damaged trust, said Dowding.

“If we could get back to those basics where the baptized are the be-all and end-all of our Church, then we probably wouldn’t be having the discussion that we’re having these days,” she said. “It was very strong. It came from the rank and file, basically…. If people in general love the Church and understand what it’s supposed to be, then there’s hope going forward for all of the baptized.”

The document also stressed “a generational divide.” Not only young people but women estranged from the active life of the Church were realities the continental stage participants brought up with sorrow and regret.

A bishop participating in the sessions thought something more fundamental than Catholic disputes over liturgy, sexual morality or the role of women lay at the base of the Church’s troubles.

“Has the Church been so organized that it becomes difficult to speak to it?” the anonymized bishop asked. “The Church has organizationally isolated itself from the people of God.”

Along with LGBTQ+ Catholics, racial and linguistic minorities, migrants and the poor, delegates to the continental stage assemblies named women as a marginalized group, though Dowding disagrees.

“It was problematic for me in lots of ways,” she said. “I personally don’t see that women in the Church today, in our Church today, are particularly marginalized. In fact, we’re doing really well.”

Violence against women, pornography and the sex trade, economic discrimination in the workplace and other issues do marginalize women generally, but the Church is not the source of that marginalization, she said.

The final report does not discuss women’s ordination.

“I don’t think, to be honest, that the marginalized word or description of women was particularly geared to ordination or lack of ordination. That didn’t come up,” said Dowding.

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