Archbishop Charles Chaput has urged the Pope to delay next month’s youth synod in Rome. Speaking at a conference last week, the Archbishop of Philadelphia said he had written to Francis arguing that “right now, the bishops would have absolutely no credibility in addressing this topic”.
The archbishop did not need to explain to his audience why the bishops currently lack credibility. This summer the Church has been engulfed by a worldwide abuse crisis that has devastated communities from Adelaide to Pennsylvania, and exposed profound divisions in Rome. In Chile and the United States, cardinals are under pressure to resign. Angry lay people are withholding money from the collection plate and urging others to do the same.
But the archbishop’s letter is likely to go straight into the papal recycling bin. For Archbishop Chaput is one of the least favoured prelates under this pontificate. The former US nuncio Archbishop Viganò has claimed that soon after his election Pope Francis dismissed Archbishop Chaput as “right-wing”. But even if the Pope were inclined to listen to the Archbishop of Philadelphia, he couldn’t easily postpone the synod. An ordinary general assembly of the synod of bishops, as it is officially known, is a massive international event that usually requires at least a year of planning. Hundreds of participants will have already bought plane tickets and booked accommodation in Rome. Postponing the synod would be very disruptive.
In his letter calling for a delay, Archbishop Chaput asked the Pope to consider holding “a synod on the life of bishops” first. He was echoing Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, who has written to the Pope calling for a synod “devoted to the identity of being a priest/bishop”. What both Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Egan seem to have in mind is what is known in Church parlance as an extraordinary general assembly of the synod of bishops. These are smaller than the ordinary general assemblies and therefore theoretically easier to organise. There have only been three such assemblies: in 1969 (on bishops’ conferences), 1985 (on Vatican II) and 2014 (on the family). In practice, they have been just as cumbersome as the larger synods.
Then there is the question of whether a synod – essentially a talking shop – is the best way of responding to the scandal. While there certainly is an underlying crisis of priestly and episcopal identity, there are still more pressing matters that the Church needs to address. They include offering proper care to abuse survivors, removing bishops involved in cover-ups and enforcing child protection norms worldwide. These are fundamental issues that the Church must tackle in order to emerge from this crisis.
The youth synod will go ahead next month amid an atmosphere of mistrust and recrimination. That is not ideal, but given that the abuse crisis is likely to last for decades, there is unlikely to be a optimal moment for a youth synod any time soon. But God works in mysterious ways, so perhaps some unexpected good will come from it.
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