Amid procedural changes and doctrinal tension, one issue hangs over this month’s meeting in Rome

Hilaire Belloc once remarked that the Catholic Church must have a divine origin, because “no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight”. Belloc’s gallows humour applies rather well in the current circumstances. The crisis of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up has demonstrated just how much incompetence and wickedness have disfigured the Church. As bishops from around the world meet in Rome this month for the Synod on Youth, that crisis is inescapable – and, at the outset, some bishops see the problem more clearly than others.

On Thursday October 4, the first day of real working sessions, several bishops spoke with commendable forthrightness. One was Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who told the synod hall: “We must continue to face courageously and honestly the betrayal of young people by clerics to whom they were entrusted. This sin must never again be found in our midst. Only in this way can the youth of the world believe our synodal call to offer them reassurance, comfort, hope, and belonging.”

One might quibble with Bishop Caggiano’s apparent belief that the Church has begun to face her leaders’ culture of betrayal courageously and honestly.

The bishop also spoke generally of “clerics”, but it is bishops who have often neglected to police the general moral culture of the clergy, high and low, or to foster a candid spirit among the men who are the Church’s leaders and among the seminarians who will succeed them. Nevertheless, Bishop Caggiano put the issue front and centre.

The Vatican’s media men tried to give a different emphasis at the start of the synod: what this month is really about, they said, is a process of collective discernment. At one of the daily briefings last week, Fr Antonio Spadaro, SJ, a close advisor to Pope Francis and a senior communications figure at the synod, spoke about a new rule, introduced by Pope Francis: after every five speeches, there will be three minutes’ silence.

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