North American synod focuses on abuse scandals, inclusivity, and a ‘missionary’ Church

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The need to rebuild trust in the wake of abuse scandals, the need to be inclusive and welcoming while faithful to Church teaching, and the need to approach the synodal process as “a missionary movement” were on the minds of American and Canadian Catholics who participated in the North American phase of the Catholic Church’s synodal process.

Participants reflected on a working document provided by the Vatican and offered their contributions based on the discussions of synods at the parish and diocesan levels. Their reflections are compiled in the “North American Final Document for the Continental Stage of the 2021-2024 Synod.” The 39-page document was released on Wednesday.

A synod is a meeting of bishops gathered to discuss a topic of theological or pastoral significance in order to prepare a document of advice or counsel to the pope. Synodality, generally speaking, means a process of discernment, discussion, and listening, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, involving bishops, priests, religious, and lay Catholics, each according to their various spiritual and vocational gifts.

The current Synod on Synodality is a global process that has proceeded from the parish, diocesan, national, and continental levels. It will conclude next year with a “universal phase” to reflect on the global Catholic Church.

In North America, the continental phase consisted of 12 virtual assemblies: seven in English, three in Spanish, and two in French between December 2022 and January 2023. The participants were 931 delegates, most appointed by their local bishop, and 146 bishops from both Canada and the U.S.

Abuse scandal damage ‘cannot be overstated’

American and Canadian participants in the continental synod discussed many topics, but the matter of sexual abuse by clergy was prominent.

“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 synod’s final document said. “One of the major areas of tension in North America is the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its effects, which have created a loss of trust that cannot be overstated. Many people continue to carry the wounds of abuse and many others have lost their trust in the clergy and the Church’s institutions.”

It specifically mentioned abuse and other problems in the historic system of residential and boarding schools for indigenous Americans, often run by Catholic and Protestant groups with government support.

While acknowledging efforts by Church leaders to respond and to prevent future abuse, synod participants called for “cultural change in the Church with a view to greater transparency, accountability, and co-responsibility.” Some saw the process of synodality as “a beautiful way to build trust through dialogue.”

How do inclusivity and doctrinal fidelity coexist?

The inclusion of those who feel excluded and fidelity to Catholicism were matters for consideration.

“Alongside the desire to be a more inclusive and welcoming Church was the need to understand how to be more hospitable, while maintaining and being true to Church teaching,” the final document said.

The continental gatherings showed “a deep desire for greater inclusivity and welcome within the Church,” and many expressed their perception that there is a breakdown in community when some groups or individuals feel unwelcome. These include “women, young people, immigrants, racial or linguistic minorities, LGBTQ+ persons, people who are divorced and remarried without an annulment, and those with varying degrees of physical or mental abilities.”

Liturgy, too, is “not always experienced as unifying.” Some synod delegates spoke of “those wounded by the limitations placed on the pre-conciliar Latin rite.”

Priorities for a missionary Church

The Church must be “truly missionary to go out to the peripheries and to evangelize” and Catholics must have “holistic formation” for this end, the final document continued. Synodality, one group of participants suggested, should be engaged “as a missionary movement.”

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The final document listed several priorities: “the challenge of welcoming those who feel excluded from participation in the life of the Church in a manner that is authentic and faithful to the Gospel and the Catholic faith”; “co-responsibility” for the Church’s mission, including shared decision-making and governance; addressing Church unity and community amid polarization and division; and being “a Church that goes out to the peripheries.”

Another priority was the integration of synodal consultations and “the synodal style” into local churches and to increase participation in these efforts.

“Many who chose not to participate conceive of it as a competitive model, opposing laity to clergy. Others see it as insufficiently clear in its methodology, ecclesiology, and aims,” the final document said.

The synod’s bishops evaluate the synod

The final document included reflections from participating bishops. They thought that the documents of the synods must “reflect back” what was heard and said, especially to acknowledge that “we heard those who feel wounded or cast aside by the Church.”

“This does not solve the issues or heal the wounds, but it is an important beginning,” they said, according to the final document.

Bishops reportedly experienced synods at the diocesan level as “a great grace” but “often challenging” and “a learning experience.” Many voiced uncertainties about the direction of the synodal process but saw “ecclesial discernment” as a way to avoid “polarizing habits.” They also recognized that a “great majority” of Catholics had little or no direct contact with the synodal process.

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They were concerned about the “relative absence of priests” in the synodal process as well as “the danger of false or unrealistic expectations.”

Among their questions was whether more collaboration with the bishops of Mexico would have been a further improvement in the process, given the influence of Mexico on the rest of North America. Mexico’s synod collaborated with other countries in Central and South America.

The final document was introduced with a letter from Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, and Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme-Mont-Laurier, Quebec, president of Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Our common aim is to build a more listening and discerning Church, strengthened in our ecclesial communion and committed to our common mission to announce the mystery of Christ Jesus to the world,” the two bishops said.

Flores and Poisson said this final document “marks a moment of unity and collaboration between the people of God in Canada and the United States of America, a particularly grace-filled experience we hope will be continued into the future.” It “explores those areas where we must turn our attention as we continue cultivating a more synodal Church in Canada and the United States.”

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