The U.S. bishops’ conference said Monday that the synod on synodality consultation process has occasioned a national and Church-wide renewal, adding that consultation and discernment meetings should continue in Catholic parishes and dioceses.
The synod's “spiritual conversations and fraternal dialogues have renewed a sense of common love and responsibility for the good of our Church—in our parishes, in our dioceses, and in our country,” explained the USCCB’s “national synthesis” document, released Sept. 19.
“Through participation in the diocesan phase of the synod, the People of God have already begun to build the Church for which they hope,” the text explained.
The “national synthesis” text for the Church’s global consultation process was released by the USCCB Sept. 19, more than one month after the Vatican’s initial deadline for the report.
The text said Catholics have called for the Church to become more welcoming, to better form believers for mission, and to continue conducting listening sessions for both practicing and disaffected Catholics in American parishes and dioceses.
But as the two-year synod process shifts to its “continental phase,” questions remain about the rate of Catholic participation in a process aiming for prayerful discernment on the Church’s life and ministry.
The 16-page bishops’ report emphasized a number of issues raised by U.S. Catholics during parish and diocesan consultation and discernment sessions, which began after Pope Francis called for a global synod on synodality in 2021. The document said it was developed from regional synthesis texts produced to summarize diocese and parish reports in each of the 16 USCCB administrative regions.
While it praised the synod process, the national document noted “wounds” experienced by U.S. Catholics, explaining that the “still-unfolding effects of the sexual abuse crisis” were “chief” among them, alongside the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and an experience among Catholics of theological and political division within the Church.
While addressing “wounds,” the text highlighted “the wound of marginalization,” which “has become a source of scandal … especially for some youth who perceive the Church as hypocritical and failing to act consistently with justice toward these diverse communities.”
Apparently drawing from regional synod reports, the text identified “two broad groups” of “those who experience marginalization, and thus a lack of representation in the Church.”
“The first includes those marginalized who are made vulnerable by their lack of social and/ or economic power, such as immigrant communities; ethnic minorities; those who are undocumented; the unborn and their mothers; people who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, or incarceration; those people who have disabilities or mental health issues; and people suffering from various addictions.”
“Included also in this group are women, whose voices are frequently marginalized in the decision-making processes of the Church,” the text explained.
The second group of marginalized Catholics, according to the synthesis document, “includes those who are marginalized because circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the Church. Among these are members of the LGBTQ+ community, persons who have been divorced or those who have remarried without a declaration of nullity, as well as individuals who have civilly married but who never married in the Church.”
While the language of the report said those Catholics “are marginalized,” the text did not clarify whether the conference intended to affirm that members of the identified groups have been institutionally marginalized, or whether its language was intended to reflect the sentiment of synod participants. The USCCB did not respond to The Pillar’s request for clarification.
But the conference report said wounds in the Church expose real needs among Catholics.
“The synodal consultations around the enduring wounds caused by the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the pandemic, polarization, and marginalization have exposed a deep hunger for healing and the strong desire for communion, community, and a sense of belonging and being united,” the text explained.
The text next emphasized a call for better Eucharistic formation in parishes and dioceses, and a call for liturgical renewal. But participants were not in agreement about what that “renewal” might mean, the document explained.
Quoting from the New Jersey and Pennsylvania regional report, the document explained that “While perspectives differed on what constitutes ‘good liturgy’ and what areas need renewal or better understanding, there was universal agreement on the significance of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.”
The text also addressed pastoral care and doctrinal issues, noting that some synod participants had lamented a perceived “tension between how to walk with people while remaining faithful to the teachings of the Church.”
Quoting from regional reports, the text said that “many ‘who identify as LGBTQ+ believe they are condemned by Church teachings.’ … In order to become a more welcoming Church there is a deep need for ongoing discernment of the whole Church on how best to accompany our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters.”
The text also mentioned Catholics who had called for a greater decision-making role for women in institutional Church leadership, including those who said the prospect of ordaining women is “a matter of justice,” and those who called for a more robust role for lay collaboration in ecclesial decision-making.
It noted that some Catholics called for “removing barriers to accessibility and embracing those with special needs and their families,” and “that more work is necessary to welcome diverse cultural and ethnic communities.”
The document focused especially on a sense that young people are disaffected from the life of the Church, claiming that “Practically all synodal consultations shared a deep ache in the wake of the departure of young people and viewed this as integrally connected to becoming a more welcoming Church.”
The national synthesis text concluded with plaudits for the notion of synodality itself, to which it attributed a renewal in the Church and in the U.S.
The synod's “spiritual conversations and fraternal dialogues have renewed a sense of common love and responsibility for the good of our Church—in our parishes, in our dioceses, and in our country,” the text said.
“Throughout all the synodal consultations, the People of God have continually shared their expressions of joy and gratitude for the invitation to journey together on the synodal path,” the report added.
“Local, attentive listening to one another within and outside of the Church; participation, honesty, and realism; and a continued willingness to learn accompany discernment. The rediscovery of listening as a basic posture of a Church called to ongoing conversion is one of the most valuable gifts of the synodal experience in the United States.”
The report said the synod has pointed a way forward for the life of the Church.
The synodal consultations had “opened a way forward for the Church in the United States to better experience and express its communion as a people united in a common faith,” the document’s drafters claimed.
“The next step for the U.S. Church is to give special attention to its parishes and dioceses, even as we continue participation in the continental and universal phases of the Synod, for that is where the People of God most concretely encounter the Spirit at work and where the first fruits of this discernment will be realized. The call is an ongoing challenge.”
But if the synodal process has ushered in a renewed sense of “common love and responsibility” among American Catholics, it has done so with a relatively low number of participants.
The national synthesis text explained that “an estimated 700,000 people participated in the diocesan phase of the synod in the United States,” either through in-person meetings or by online surveys.
More than 73 million Americans identified as Catholic in 2021, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
The conference has not yet responded to questions from The Pillar about how many of the total participants completed online surveys, or about the overall demographic profile of participants.
But some diocesan reports have noted a low total number of participants, and that local listening sessions were characterized by relatively homogenous crowds.
In its report, the Diocese of Pittsburgh explained that “demographically, the majority of parish sessions saw greatest participation from Caucasian adults, with more women than men in attendance, and an average age of 60 and over.”
At a May meeting of “50 diverse individuals from across the [Pittsburgh] diocese,” participants “pointed out … that most of the people the Church needs to reach did not participate in the process and it should be kept in mind that the majority of perspectives which were heard came from a similar group of people, that is, individuals who were over 60 years old and who frequently attend Church.”
Another diocese, the Archdiocese of Omaha, reported that more than 52% of its participants were older than 50, and nearly 30% were more than 65 years old. While 22% of participants in that diocese were between 13 and 18 years old, the archdiocese noted that Catholic school students were encouraged to participate by questionnaire, which likely contributed to their representation.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco reported that fully 82% of participants who attended listening sessions were at least 51 years old, and 63% of those who filled in questionnaires were older than 55. Sixty-seven percent of all participants were women, and while Hispanic Catholics constitute nearly 40% of the archdiocesan population, they made up less than 20% of synod participants.
The Archdiocese of Washington also noted that “despite the Hispanic Catholic population being 30-40% of the Archdiocese, there was significantly less Hispanic input in the listening sessions than expected.”
Asked about low participation rates, USCCB synod co-coordinators Richard Coll and Julia McStravog told The Pillar by email last month that the synod process “is a spiritual endeavor, not a scientific endeavor; it requires prayerful discernment rather than quantitative analysis.”
But Pope Francis did set specific goals for synod participation.
When he launched the global synod process last year, the pontiff expressed hope that synod organizers would reach a broad swath of Catholics, to “pass beyond the 3 or 4 percent that are closest to us, to broaden our range and to listen to others.”
Still, at a press conference in August, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who will serve as an organizer at next year’s Vatican phase of the process, was positive about the number of Catholics who have taken part in consultation sessions.
The cardinal said initial figures suggesting low participation were only estimates.
“From all these data, I am convinced that we are facing an ecclesial dialogue without precedent in the history of the Church, not only for the quantity of responses received or the number of people involved (which to some who want to rely solely on numbers - which can only be approximate - may seem limited) but also for the quality of participation,” Hollerich said.
The U.S. bishops’ text was sent to the Vatican this week, after it was approved by the USCCB administrative committee at a meeting last week, sources at the conference told The Pillar.
While the Vatican’s deadline for the text’s submission was set months ago at Aug. 15, the USCCB was granted an extension until the beginning of September, The Pillar reported last month.
The text was drafted by a team including several USCCB staffers, along with USCCB general secretary Fr. Michael Fuller, and Bishop Daniel Flores, chairman of the conference committee on doctrine. The USCCB has not yet responded to questions from The Pillar on the involvement of other bishops in the drafting process, or on the authorship of the regional summaries upon which the text was based.
The synod’s observations will now be incorporated into an instrumentum laboris, or working document, for discussion among bishops at a meeting of the synod’s “continental phase” later this year. The entire synod on synodality process is scheduled to conclude with a global meeting of bishops in October 2023.
But while focus shifts to a global perspective, the national synthesis document says that synodality should not come to an end in the U.S.
“The local fruits of synodality are of enduring value,” the text explained.
“A common thread throughout the various consultations was that parishes hoped to continue to build on the foundation that has been established in the synodal consultations.”