Questions on sexuality loom large ahead of youth synod
Pope Francis at the Vatican’s pre-synodal youth meeting in March 2018. DANIEL IBANEZ/CNA
By Elise Harris
June 20, 2018
VATICAN— According to the official working document for the upcoming synod of bishops on youth, the major questions for young people ahead of the October discussion surround issues of sexuality and gender, the role of women and the desire for a Church that knows how to listen.
The “instrumentum laboris” for the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and the Discernment of Vocation,” was published June 19, and includes contributions from both young people themselves, and bishops conferences.
Key issues highlighted in the document are not only increasing cultural instability and violent conflicts, but that many young people, both inside and outside of the Church, are divided when it comes to topics related to sexuality, the role of women, and the need to be more welcoming to members of the LGBT community.
The document pointed to a “metamorphosis of the human condition” some analysts say the world is undergoing due to the rapid pace at which cultural and anthropological changes are happening.
In this regard, challenges for the Church the document cited are topics related to the human body and human sexuality. The body, the text read, has always been at an “intersection between nature and culture,” yet new biomedical technologies have given rise to different concepts of the body.
On one hand, the document pointed to the trend of technological experimentation, saying there is an increasing push for the integration of “body and machine, between neuronal and electronic circuits, which find their icon in the cyborg, favoring a technocratic approach to the body.”
But on the other hand, the trend of manipulating one’s body goes beyond the technical realm, and also touches on issues related to biology, the text said, pointing to surrogacy and egg donation as examples.
Things such as precocious sexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, displaying one’s body online and sexual tourism, the text said, “risk disfiguring the beauty and depth of emotional and sexual life.”
Bishops, the document continued, recognize the importance of the body and of sexuality, particularly the differences and complimentary of men and women, but are often not able to communicate the Church’s teachings well.
Church teaching on issues such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, cohabitation and marriage for many youth are up for debate, both in the Church, and in society at large.
While there are young Catholics who find Church teaching to be “a source of joy” and who wish to follow this teaching despite how unpopular it is in the public eye, others want more clarification on these and other major issues, and have asked Church authorities not to be afraid to talk to them about “taboo,” topics such as gender and women.
“No bishops’ conference offers solutions or recipes” to these issues, the document said, but they are convinced that “the question of sexuality must be discussed more openly and without prejudice.”
On the issue of homosexuality, the document emphasized the need to be open and welcoming to everyone, including non-believers, those of other faiths, and also the LGBT community.
Some LGBT youth who participated in the online questionnaire or offered contributions through social media, the document read, said they want to experience “greater closeness and greater care on the part of the Church.”
In their responses, bishops conferences also questioned how to respond to young people who have chosen to live a homosexual lifestyle, but who also want “to be close to the Church.”
In comments to journalists at the June 19 presentation of the synod’s working document, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, said the reason the Church is engaging with members of the LGBT community is because “we are open. We don’t want to be closed in on ourselves.”
In the Church, “there are many areas, there is freedom for people to express themselves – on the right, left, center, north and south – this is all possible,” he said, adding that “this is why we are willing to listen to people with different opinions.”
Young people, the document said, are also concerned that at times the Church can seem distant, and have voiced a desire to have a Church that is close, transparent and up-to-date, and which is not afraid to talk about the tough issues.
Divided into three parts plus framed by an introduction and conclusion, the document offers an overview of the state of young people throughout the world today and possible pastoral responses.
The document is a compilation of contributions from four primary sources: a questionnaire sent out to bishops conferences in June 2017; a website for the questionnaire and social media accounts where youth were able to leave testimonies and answer questions; a September 2017 seminar on youth that took place in Rome; and the final document of the pre-synod meeting which took place in Rome in March.
The structure of the working document follows a methodology frequently insisted upon by Francis in the process of discernment: recognizing, interpreting and then choosing.
The text noted that there are some 1.8 billion people throughout the world between the ages of 16-29; however, the demographic, economic and social conditions of each country are different. Whereas youth are the majority in some countries, in others youth are a minority. In some places, lifespan does not exceed 60 years of age, whereas in others it extends well over 80.
Added to this is the disparity between rich and poor nations, and the access young people therefore have to education, healthcare and a stable home. In some areas they also face pressures such as drugs, corruption, violence and the challenges brought on by an increasingly globalized world.
For what regards the role of the family, the document said that responses to the online questionnaire showed that mothers are a key reference point for youth, while the subject of fatherhood requires a deeper reflection due to the “ambiguities and voids” left as a result of the lack of father figures, particularly in the west.
According to the document, family will be a key topic of discussion, especially in light of the conclusions on the 2014-2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family.
Bishops also noted that religion no longer holds the same weight that it did in the past, and that for many young people, simply being “spiritual” is enough.
In terms of the Catholic Church itself, the document noted that many youth are committed to the Church through different activities, and bishops conferences have affirmed that youth outreach is a key priority in most parishes.
However, on the flip side, the text also noted that in the pre-synod meeting, youth had voiced concern about feeling as if they were being put into a corner, and felt that generally they were not taken seriously, especially when it comes to leadership.
The document also touched on both the risks and benefits of technology and social media, including the dangers of the “dark web,” and the role of music, art and sport as forms of expression.
Work, young migrants, and discrimination were all touched on in the document, along with racism, discrimination against women, and religious persecution, especially for Christians in areas where they are a minority.
Discrimination against women, even in ecclesial environments, was also addressed in the text, and was a key concern raised by youth themselves during the pre-synod meeting in March, during which they questioned how and where women can really, fully participate in the Church and in society.
The Church, according to the document, “can face these problems with a frank dialogue and a mind open to different ideas and experiences.”
The document also cited a growing paralysis on the part of young people when it comes to making a decision for their lives, whether it is due to a lack of opportunity, economic instability, or, at times, a the lack of a sense of meaning and purpose.
It also spoke of the need to listen to youth, who frequently lack good role models, and who want a Church which is “authentic” and which is capable of talking to them about the issues that matter.
In the second section of the document, the text spoke of “the blessing of youth” from a biblical standpoint, emphasizing the importance of accompaniment in the discernment process.
To follow Christ, it said, “is a call to risk, to lose what has already been acquired, to trust. It is a provocation to break with the planning mentality which, if exasperated, leads to narcissism and the closing in on oneself.
The section placed a heavy emphasis on the need to accompany young people in determining what path is best for their lives, saying the task of accompaniment “is not an option with regard to the task of educating and evangelizing youth.”
Rather, “it is an ecclesial duty and the right of every young person,” the document said, adding that only the presence of a “prudent and wise” guide can help youth to correctly interpret God’s will for their lives.
The text then offered a brief reflection on the different vocational paths, including the vocation to the family, to ordained ministry and to consecrated life. However, it also touched on the increasing number of people who opt to stay single, without making a move toward consecrated life or marriage.
No concrete answer to the question of “singles” was given, but due to the growing number of singles in the Church and in the world in general, the document said “it is important that the synod reflect on this question.”
In terms of discernment, the document noted that it goes “well beyond” simply deciding whether to get married or live a consecrated life. Rather, discernment is a broader concept, and also includes helping youth to determine their profession and what sort of social or political commitments to make.
But to discern well, accompaniment is needed, the document said, noting that youth themselves have voiced their desire for an accompaniment which is both free and authentic, while bishops said they wanted to provide a “broad” and varied accompaniment for young people equivalent to a sort of “Christian coaching” in life.
The text emphasized the need to provide both spiritual and psychological accompaniment, and a formation which reaches the family, educational and social aspects of life.
Those who accompany youth ought to be able to respect each person and what God is already doing in their lives, and should be able to influence “with who they are, before what they can do or propose.”
For youth in particular, the document said it is important that those who accompany them are committed in the Church and on the path to sanctity, but it is also crucial that they are able to recognize their own limits and able to walk with young people, rather than being put “on a pedestal.”
The document also stressed that accompanying young people is not a task limited to priests and religious, but is also something laity can do.
In terms of helping youth to make concrete choices that are right for their lives, the document stressed the need for an integral formation and education, and emphasized the role that Catholic schools and universities can play in helping to mold young people.
It also emphasized the importance of finding new models of development in terms of generating employment, fostering a better economy, and caring for creation. It also called for innovation in the technical sphere and for greater collaboration so that everyone has access to the resources and opportunities they need.
Faced with the challenge of modern society, bishops said it is increasingly important to form youth in politics and in how to be active citizens. Particular attention, the document said, ought to be paid to professional competence, opportunities for service, care for the environment and a better understanding of the Church’s social doctrine.
Emphasis was also placed on the role of the internet and digital media outlets as a means of evangelization, and the need to accompany prisoners, and young people who live in war zones or areas of conflict, especially women and migrants. The document also called for a greater attention to and accompaniment of young people who are sick or dying.
In terms of pastoral care, the document stressed the role of family and the education and formation of children. In this regard, bishops also presented their “best practices,” underlining the need to set aside daily times of prayer and silence for personal devotion, as well as pray in one’s community.
Catechesis and opportunities to practice charity are also important, the document said, especially through mission trips, retreats with movements and associations, all of which the document said help provide space for vocational discernment.
The document also stressed that those living a consecrated life live under the same cultural and societal conditions as other people their age, so a pastoral approach adapted to different local situations is needed.
It warned against the tendencies toward narcissism and self-sufficiency, particularly in consecrated vocations, which have a common root in “a potentially pathological concentration on oneself.”
It cautioned against the dangers of individualism, which is “centered on the autonomous subject, which excludes recognition, gratitude and the collaborating action of God,” and “emotionalism,” which the document said “closes the person in the virtual world an in a false interiority, where the need to deal with others and the community is excluded.”
The document closed emphasizing the universal call to holiness and inviting young people to become saints.
“Jesus invites each of his disciples to the total gift of life, without calculation or human self-interest,” the text said, and spoke of the need to highlight not only young Saints in the Church, but also the “youth of the Saints,” who all passed through the phase of being young.
Doing this, the document said, would make it possible “to intercept many youth situations which are neither simple not easy, but where God is present and mysteriously active.”
“To show his grace is at work through torturous paths of the patient construction of a holiness which matures in time through many unexpected ways,” the document said, “can help all young people, no one excluded, to cultivate hope in a holiness which is always possible.”