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Our Archdiocesan Synod's missed opportunities
The message some received: “To be a saint is to be made white.”
Last week, The Catholic Spirit published my letter to the editor on “missed opportunities” during the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis’s Archdiocesan Synod. Because the letter was limited to 250 words, this essay will expand upon those thoughts and provide recommendations for the future.
In 2015, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis was reeling from a clergy abuse scandal and the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt. Following the resignation, the Holy Father sent Archbishop Bernard Hebda from Newark to serve as apostolic administrator in Saint Paul. Expecting the role to be temporary, Hebda prepared recommendations for the next bishop. In particular, he recommended convening an archdiocesan synod to identify pastoral priorities for the local Church. After his permanent installation as Archbishop, Hebda began preparing for such a synod, which officially began in 2019.
At the start of the Synod, the Archdiocese specifically called upon “fallen away” Catholics or those who have “left the Church” (the disaffiliated) to participate in the process. The idea was to engage as much of our diverse Catholic community as possible, and even the baptized who no longer identify as Catholic. The first part of the Synod consisted of large listening sessions, out of which the Archdiocese identified three focus areas: forming missionary disciples, forming parishes, and forming youth and young adults. We have recently completed the parish consultation process, the second part of the Synod, which consisted of small group gatherings within each parish. Over six consecutive weeks, participants gathered in small groups to watch videos produced by the Archdiocese containing scriptural reflections, “teachings” led by local Catholics, testimonies, and time for discussion and feedback.
These small group meetings, and the videos accompanying them, sought to develop parish communities and identify areas for growth. I really enjoyed the opportunity to meet and forge deeper connections with fellow parish members. But unfortunately, portions of the videos produced by the Archdiocese for the small group sessions were disappointing to many and, at times, alienating. I’m sure the producers of this content meant well and were doing their best to create inclusive, welcoming, and educative materials. But I suspect that the sort of bubble under which these videos were produced contributed to some of the problems that I will outline here.
First, though the videos included some racial diversity when it came to presenters and briefly discussed racial justice, insufficient attention was paid to issues of race holistically. For example, while Saint Monica was explicitly referred to as a North African saint in one video, the image accompanying that description depicted Monica as a white woman. (While Monica may not have had “black” skin, as we would think of it today, she was likely dark-skinned and certainly not white). A later video in the process featured a montage of images of Saint Monica which all (again) depicted her as white. The videos had other racial issues, but this seemed to me one of the most significant missed opportunities for racial inclusion – depicting the saints in their racial diversity. This failure was immediately obvious to me, as it would be to any person deeply involved in addressing racial injustice in the Church today. Whatever intended, the message some receive when this occurs is: “To be a saint is to be made white.”
One might object that all the available images of Saint Monica in the public domain depict her as a white woman, that racially accurate images were not available for free use. And following our diocese’s bankruptcy, certainly we should be financially cautious. That being said, donors could have been sought out to pay for these images. And if the Church wants to move forward from past marginalization of racial minorities in the United States, we should be ready invest in racially diverse art. We want to know that our Archdiocese believes Catholics of color are worth investing in. Possible images that could have been used include Gracie Morbitzer’s Saint Monica, John Nava’s St. Monica, the St. Augustine and his mother stained glass window at St. Augustine Church in Washington, and the Saint Monica of North Africa icon. Instead, the Archdiocese decided to focus Synod financial resources on commissioning a young adult musical number, as will be discussed below.
In addition, one black Catholic pointed out to me that the final video in this process featured the testimonies of several Catholic high school students but did not include any black students. The lack of black inclusion may be a consequence of the parish from which students were chosen for this video: All Saints in Lakeville. Lakeville is a predominantly white city. There may just not have been any black parishioners available to include.
The reason that Lakeville is so white, however, is because of racist policies throughout the twentieth century. Following the banning of certain racist practices like redlining, white Twin Cities residents who wanted to avoid their BIPOC neighbors moved out into the suburbs. Since that time, and due to the lack of any contravening forces, racial segregation has perpetuated itself in the Twin Cities and its suburbs. Suburban parishes like All Saints are predominantly white by design.
Of course, the Archdiocese could have chosen, in addition, to feature parishioners from one of our many racially-diverse parishes. And it did. I was very excited to learn that a parishioner from St. Peter Claver, our historically and predominantly black parish, would be featured in the first Synod video. I was quite surprised, however, when I discovered that the parishioner chosen was a white man. He did an excellent job presenting, but his selection was distracting and (to black and brown Catholics with whom I have spoken) disappointing. A lack of apparent attention to these dynamics on the part of Synod leadership is all the more troubling, given that George Floyd was killed within our Archdiocese.
Second, insufficient attention was paid to the need for evangelization within the Church. Instead, much focus was placed upon the need for a greater “embrace” of the Church by Catholics inclined towards what seemed to be treated as the bogeyman of secularism. The clergy abuse crisis received virtually no attention, and was not focused on as a significant reason for Church departures, even though it is probably the most important historical event in our Archdiocese in the last half-century. Instead, the majority of the blame for Catholic dis affiliation was placed on “the secular world” and “secular ideologies.”
A lack of institutional accountability and a need for evangelization of our leaders—especially clericalist clerics—did not seem relevant problems facing the Church. Instead, a simplistic dichotomy was created between good Catholics who affirm Church teaching and the bad secular world which seeks to lure Catholics away from the Church. Secular institutions received consistent critique. There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the positive role that the secular media, secular legal system, and other secular institutions played in getting the Church to confront the abuse we refused to address for so many years. The secular media and other parts of the “secular world” were focused on in a negative way. But we must not forget the great service to the Church played by such secular institutions as the Boston Globe.
In contrast to the secular media, one can look at the biased approaches of the “orthodox” Catholic media and leaders when it came to clerical abuse. First Things founder and EWTN commentator Father Richard Neuhaus once condemned the allegations against Father Marcial Maciel and called Maciel's innocence "a moral certainty." Even last year, Weigel used First Things Magazine to seek absolution for John Paul II's dismissal of allegations against Cardinal McCarrick, blaming for the crisis instead the tactics of secular communist regimes. We also must not forget how Owen Kearns used his leadership position at the National Catholic Register to viciously attack Maciel's victims who chose to come forward.
To bring things closer to home, I remember once having dinner with Archbishop John Neinstedt and a handful of Catholic Studies students in 2013. The year before, Neinstedt had led efforts to oppose same-sex marriage. The month before the dinner, Jennifer Haselberger went public with her knowledge of the Archdiocese's mishandling of abuse cases. During dinner, the topic of lawsuits and allegations against the Archdiocese came up. In response, Neinstedt coolly remarked how some people are just out to get the Church. We all nodded without objection. The Archbishop was conditioning us to look at the secular media, other secular institutions, and the whistleblowers who go to them for help with skepticism, to view their critiques of the Church as almost satanic attacks. The Synod videos brought that dinner conversation to mind.
Fourth, in the Synod videos, “the secular world” was caricatured and treated in a way that seemed to evidence a lack of real familiarity with it. For example, one video warned about the prevalence of “secular moral relativism” among today’s youth and young adults. But anyone who works or lives in the secular world will have a hard time finding actual moral relativism, even among those who claim allegiance to it. As I once heard Alasdair MacIntyre say, only American undergraduates believe in moral relativism. But even this is too strong. Today’s youth and young adults – and “the secular world” generally – are highly moralistic, with fixed objective standards on issues from race to sexual consent.
I recall one law school classmate who, when asked about the meaning of justice by a professor, said, “It depends on what each person thinks.” But when pressed by the professor to apply this conception of justice to social issues, the classmate quickly realized that he didn’t really believe in what he had just said and, instead, held certain objective moral standards as part of a more complex understanding of what is just. Even youth and young adults who claim allegiance to moral relativism don’t really believe in it. The “secular world” painted by the Synod videos is an outdated fantasy villain, more dog whistle than real observation.
Fifth, and related to the above, there appeared to be a significant amount of naivete as to why Catholics leave the Church, particularly in their early teen years. Much attention was rightly paid to the essential role of parents in passing down the faith. But while one video seemed to reference the 2017 “Going, Going, Gone” study’s finding that the median age at which youth and young adults stopped identifying as Catholic was thirteen, no mention was made of the finding in the same study that a large number of the disaffiliated left because of the church’s approach to same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
This shouldn’t be viewed simply as a doctrinal disagreement. A number of youth and young adults in our Archdiocese have left the Church after witnessing what appeared to be callous firings of LGBTQ+ teachers in our schools. The disaffiliation often does not begin with a doctrinal disagreement, but with the observation of how Catholic leaders and institutions treat LGBTQ+ persons, and, after the fact, coming to the conclusion that callous treatment arises due to the current doctrine. Disaffiliation is not so much driven by doctrinal confusions, as it is by failures on the part of (sometimes “orthodox”) Church leaders which distort our doctrine and become inseparably associated with it.
My own life provides numerous examples of how this can occur. I am sometimes surprised at my continued affiliation with the Church, given experiences I have had with local Catholic leadership. I often look back to an internship offered to me by St. Thomas’s Catholic Studies Department which was rescinded after I disclosed that I was gay (and supported Church teaching). I also think to a former pastor in this Archdiocese who, when I first met him in spiritual direction and disclosed my sexual orientation, responded by asking why I “feel the need to tell someone that the first time I meet them” and gave me a lesson on the vice of pride. Quite often, we are not so much lured away by secular ideology, as we are shoved out of the Church by those who should be loving and caring for us. I’ve recently asked myself, “What if the way I’ve been treated is not a misuse of the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, but is actually a consequence of those teachings?”
At times the Synod videos did not so much explain why people leave the Church, as they manifested the attitudes and dispositions which drive us away. The materials did what a lot of Church materials unfortunately do: further affirm those who are already affirmed by the Church, and further alienate the alienated.
While disaffiliated “former” Catholics, and those who struggle in relating to Catholicism, were invited to participate in the Synod process, very little attention seems to have been paid to these Catholics in the development of the Synod videos. The small group process seemed to be less about engaging and hearing from Catholics, and more about getting participants on board with pre-selected views, practices, and outcomes. This can be seen partly in the inclusion of a commissioned young adult musical number, “Look Up,” in the final video.
While fun and energetic (part of what I enjoyed about Catholic Young Adults The Musical, whose cast produced the song), the video seemed more appropriate for a high school youth group event than as an invitation to discuss challenges facing young adults in the Church today. When I saw the “Look Up” video, I wasn’t sure quite what to make of it. It made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure why. Discussing it with others, both in our parish small group and among friends afterwards, helped me make sense of my discomfort.
For some, the song’s call to “look up” felt theologically shallow. It might come off as insulting to disaffiliated Catholics or Catholics abused within our Church who may have been told in the face of their challenges to “just look up to God.” The sentiment may be well-intentioned, but it can ultimately compound harm. Similar sentiments were expressed in other parts of the song, such as the line: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. I once was lost, now I’m around.” Certainly, the disaffiliated who had been asked to participate in the Synod would feel insulted at the line.
My impression was that the musical number was produced entirely under the direction of Catholics quite happy to be in the Church, and who found belonging within it. For others, it felt strange and alienating. Some expressed anger to me, with comments such as, “We’re facing a crisis with engaging youth and young adults, and this is what we have to offer them?” Others shared that, as a whole, the parish consultation process left them feeling less optimistic about both the current and future state of our Church. Others who chose not to participate in the Synod process have expressed to me that what they have heard about it affirmed their decision.
By saying all of this, I don’t mean to dismiss or condemn the Synod videos or process altogether. I personally have gotten a lot out of them, and I am committed to hope for what this process might bring. I was very happy to see friends included in the videos, and I felt inspired by much of the content. And while I understand the harsher critiques of the musical number, my personal critique is largely that the parish consultation process was not the appropriate context for it. Nonetheless, there were many missed opportunities, perhaps because those producing the materials did not sufficiently consider the diversity of persons who would be engaging them.
Ideas for better engagement
Much of the above could have been avoided, I suspect, through better engagement in the production of the Synod videos. The following are a few ideas that could help avoid these problems in the future.
First, identify the groups you want to participate, and keep them in mind through every step of the process. Identify key groups. Here, those inclined to not to participate might include clergy abuse survivors, the disaffiliated, LGBTQ+ (current and former) Catholics, and (current and former) Catholics who struggle to feel belonging in the Church.
With each text, video, or handout produced, ask: How might each of these groups feel about each of these materials? What might be pain points or possible triggers for negative reactions? And are we comfortable including those pain points or triggers, if it means that members of these groups choose to not participate in this process?
Second, include these groups in the development process. A diverse focus group could have been selected to preview materials and provide feedback. This would all have been in service to the Archdiocese’s stated goal to have as much diverse participation as possible. This is certainly not the only goal, but it was presented early in the process as one of the most important goals, and then seemed to have been forgotten or deprioritized.
Third, those involved in the production of materials should have undergone training and education in order to engage these groups. The Synod materials and presentations have focused on the Church’s struggle to engage many groups in society, particularly the youth and young adults. But part of what the problems listed above help reveal is how the Synod leadership were ill-equipped to talk about diverse communities, and thus probably also lacked the tools to talk with them.
Part of this may have involved asking those organizing the Synod: how often do you engage with black Catholics, disaffiliated Catholics, LGBTQ+ Catholics, left-leaning Catholics, right-leaning Catholics, and youth and young adult Catholics on matters of faith? Would those persons tell you they feel comfortable with you representing their view? (Those quickest to answer “yes” should not be believed.) The organizers with the heaviest engagement in each of those groups should be more heavily leveraged, and gaps should be identified in order to bring in better-equipped leaders for this particular process. In addition, gaps could have been identified for leaders to focus on their own personal development and engagement with the diverse members of our community.
Fourth, be more open to dissent. At various points throughout the Synod, participants have been told, “We are open to ideas, but keep in mind that ideas need to be consistent with the teachings of the Church.” Participants were essentially told: “If your issue is with certain portions of Church teaching, that’s not what we want to hear.”
The problem with this is twofold. First, it discourages the disaffiliated and those on the margins from sharing what they really think about the state of the Church. Second, it doesn’t actually stop anyone from sharing dissent. I suspect that, of the disaffiliated and the dissenting who chose to participate, this advice didn’t stop them from sharing what they were going to share anyways. In addition, if there is widespread dissent on particular doctrinal matters, this would be good for the Archdiocese to know. Even if the Archdiocese as an institution would not be seeking doctrinal change as a result of the Synod, that information could be helpful in considering pastoral priorities.
I know that many in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and elsewhere, have had similar thoughts and feelings when it comes to the videos and other materials produced by Church leaders. I’ve written this piece, in part, to communicate that you are not alone. Rather than resting in feelings of alienation, I would invite you to further engagement with the Church. I’m still here. I’d love for you to be here, too.
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A recorded conversation with a former NET missionary, ex-seminarian, and conversion therapy survivor
A look at the “blasphemous” George Floyd icon
Thoughts on religion and a Minnesota novelist
An examination of how Church doctrine “changes”