For Vatican-watchers, the 2018 synod’s newly released working document promises an interesting October

ROME — Synods of bishops at the Vatican, meaning gatherings of Catholic prelates from all over the world for the better part of a month, have been around since the late 1960s, and it’s fair to say that most have been fairly in-house affairs — dedicated to a specific topic of Catholic interest, but not necessarily barn-burners for the outside world.

Whatever else a looming synod in October devoted to youths turns out to be, however, one certainly can’t accuse the bishops this time of privileging shop talk over issues of wider public concern.

According to a preparatory document for the summit released by the Vatican on June 19, it’s almost easier to tick off what the bishops won’t be talking about than what they will. Topics slated for discussion include sexuality, death, corruption, drug-trafficking, pornography, video games, migration, war, friendship and disabilities.

Moreover, the document also indicates that the bishops will have to grapple with controversial Church teachings in areas such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation and marriage.

That, by the way, is an extremely incomplete list of items on the synod’s to-do list.

The document released this week, technically called an “instrumentum laboris,” or “working instrument,” is intended to serve as the basis for the discussions the bishops will have in October. The document was released with a press conference in Rome, led by Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the synod.

The General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will take place in Rome October 3-28, and will bring together hundreds of bishops from around the world under the heading, “Young people, the faith, and vocational discernment.”

As a partial explanation for the wide range of subjects to be treated, it’s worth noting that the process followed to date to shape the discussions at this synod has been novel, drawing on the contributions of youths from all over the world.

The process began with an online questionnaire released in June 2017, intended to better understand the lives, attitudes and concerns of 16- to 29-year-olds around the world. 

The list of 53 mostly multiple-choice questions was divided into seven sections: general personal information; attitudes and opinions about oneself and the world; influences and relationships; life choices; religion, faith and the Church; internet use; and two final, open-ended questions.

While useful points emerged from the responses, overall the results from the questionnaire struck many observers as a bit disappointing. While a total of 148,247 people visited the survey site, less than half of this number — a little more than 65,000 — actually answered all the questions. 

Given the hundreds of millions of Catholic youths scattered across the planet, that hardly seemed a representative sample.

As a result, the office of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops decided to organize a basically unprecedented youth consultation, asking bishops’ conferences from around the world to name delegates for a gathering of some 300 young people in Rome in March.

Simultaneously, Facebook groups were created in various languages to allow young people who couldn’t be physically present in Rome to contribute to the discussion as well, responding to questions posed by organizers, with their input fed to the Rome gathering. In the end, more than 15,000 youths took advantage of the chance to be “virtual” participants.

That summit ended in a mini-controversy when young people who advocated wider use of the older Latin Mass claimed their suggestions had been sidelined, forcing organizers to issue a statement insisting there was no “conspiracy” to muzzle fans of the traditional liturgy.

Such speed bumps aside, the youths who took part in the pre-synodal summit expressed satisfaction with their final results, and clearly the “instrumentum laboris” suggests that synod organizers are trying to take them seriously.

Finally, the document also suggests that the synod won’t be afraid of potential controversy. Among other items of interest, it is apparently the first official Vatican text to use the term “LGBT,” calling for a frank discussion of how the Church ought to engage that community.

“Some LGBT young people, through their contributions to the secretary of the synod, wish to ‘benefit from a greater closeness’ and experience greater care from the Church, while some bishops’ conferences question what to propose to ‘young people who … decide to constitute homosexual couples who, above all, want to remain close to the Church,” the “instrumentum” reads.

The extent to which pastoral outreach to LGBT individuals is advisable, and the risks of compromising Church teaching on sexuality and marriage, were major fault lines during the two synods of bishops on the family Pope Francis convened in 2014 and 2015, and if the “instrumentum” is any indication, those debates may well resurface in October.

While it may be premature right now to speculate about the outcome of the bishops’ discussions when they gather in Rome this fall, the meeting’s working document would seem to make one thing abundantly clear: Whatever happens, it won’t be dull.