By any honest estimation, the recent gathering of bishops at the Vatican to, in the inimitable words of our pontiff, “talk about young people,” was never going to address substantial issues of the faith.
Sadly, the Catholic Church is increasingly a dual church, and the duality is omnipresent. If you want “high church” Catholicism, select few parishes offer that. If you want “pastoral” Catholicism, that can be found in the remaining parishes. Even within parishes we separate children from their parents with the fatuitous children’s Liturgy of the Word every Sunday. But the Youth Synod has revealed that what we really have are dueling churches: The aging generations still reveling in their garrulous spiritual platitudes, pastoral charades, and long bygone youth are one such church; the youth who have their own youthful traditions and style of worship are yet another church; angry conservative and liberal Catholics have found their niches; and Catholics of all ages who desire faithful tradition reside in yet another. The Youth Synod could have been successful had it sought to address today’s many dueling churches, because the issues afflicting the youth, namely a lack of faith, are but a symptom of what ails the larger Church.

According to Matthew Schmitz, the working document for the Synod was “a botched plastic surgery, a grotesquerie of old ideas stretched and reshaped to mimic youth.” Old ideas, because episcopal leaders refuse to acknowledge that something may have gone wrong in the post-Vatican II era of confusion and disillusion, or that the course-corrective so desperately needed and desired by Catholic youth lies in the sound principles of Vatican II interpreted in hermeneutical continuity with two thousand years of Catholic tradition. If the Synod fathers were serious, they would address issues of profound importance: liturgical abuses and innovations of the past half-century, lack of respect for the Eucharist, and de-emphasis on the devotional life of the Church. The younger generations—me and my peers—lack faith because we have not been given anything worth believing. Liturgies are now hackneyed exercises in “welcoming” and reassuring aging Baby Boomers that all is well. Homilies have become fifteen-minute counseling sessions with Christ the Comforter rather than exhortations to follow Christ the Crucified. The sacraments have been reduced to obligatory rites of passage imposed upon the young to gratify the old. Devotions—such as fasting and rote prayer—are scorned. Father James Martin actually wrote on Twitter, in response to calls for fasting in the wake of the on-going sexual abuse crisis, “to imply that the laity, in any way, should perform any kinds of penances, including fasting, is simply wrong.”

The purported leaders of our Church expect essentially nothing sacrificial from the faithful. Contributions in the basket on Sunday, yes, and maybe showing up at the fish fry and parish picnic. Yet, faith—true Faith—is rarely discussed or demanded. Real, authentic Faith is, of course, a gift of God’s grace, but it can be nurtured through sacrifice and devotion. When Christ willingly accepted His cross, He was acting out of real Faith. He did not make excuses, compromises, or shallow commitments. But in the post-Vatican II era we’re told that Friday abstinence in memory of His sacrifice is an unimportant inconvenience and an empty procedure. We have forgotten that the seeds of Faith, sowed in our souls by God, are watered by sacrifice and penance.

The future direction of the Catholic Church following the 2018 Youth Synod will be revealed only as our present youth begin to take on leadership in the Church. In one scenario we will see continuing confusion and an emptying out of truth in favor of a sad, worn out “grotesquerie.” Some will cheer the Church for being “progressive,” but the real progressives will not be satisfied and will push their agenda more vociferously. Those with lukewarm faith seeking a church in which they can feel good about themselves will temporarily remain, until they realize they can be entertained elsewhere where even less is demanded of them and clerical scandal isn’t so seemingly rampant.

In another scenario, the dueling churches within the Universal Church will be unified once again through the restoration of some basic, traditional practices, such as Mass celebrated ad orientem, increased use of Latin, standardized reception of communion on the tongue while kneeling, and universal reinstitution of traditional devotional practices like year-round Friday abstinence and Ember Days. To the Catholic youth who care, these are the issues they care about. To the youth who either don’t know enough to care or don’t care enough to know, these are the issues they should care about. But to our rigid fundamentalist leaders of the revolutionary sort, these issues are settled; talk of reinstitution is verboten.

The bleak and uncertain future of the Church likely involves a bit of both scenarios. The Church will get smaller, as Ratzinger predicted, and in that small Church we will see something of a primordial battle between the liberal and traditional elements. It’s already begun. Consider how nearly 200 parishes in the Diocese of Pittsburgh will be reduced to fewer than 60. Or, how in France the majority of priests will soon be of the traditionalist bent, if current trends hold. 

The path forward should be obvious, yet to the insipid older generations we simply have not fully embraced the revolution and the new Church they so desperately wanted to foist upon us. Absent their leadership, faithful priests, religious, and lay persons must lead in other ways. Primarily, we must voluntarily and unpretentiously practice those seemingly small, procedural penances and devotions without canonical obligation or episcopal mandate.

As our dueling churches mark off their paces, the recent clerical sexual abuse crisis may have hastened their steps. “Synodality” and LGBT issues will continue to be the trending topics. We will be tempted to mark off our own paces. But in the forthcoming fog, we must remember that the Church will be renewed by the blood of martyrs, not duelists.