Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

As I have had some experience this last year with organizing lay participation on an international level in preparation for the coming Synod, I shall center my brief remarks on that aspect of the whole vast set of issues of fostering a better level of lay participation.

Last November I was invited to participate in a conference of some 350 people on the theme “Church and the Economy,” held in the Vatican and addressed by a phalanx of Princes of the Church, and by His Holiness himself. (The recent issue of Communio contains the addresses of Cardinals Hoefner, Casaroli, and Ratzinger.) Cardinals Obando y Bravo of Managua and Jaime Sin of Manila were in attendance. The German Minister for Development, Juergen Warnke, and leading industrialists, labor leaders, and heads of lay organizations from many parts of the world addressed the gathering. I have heard that over one million marks were spent on this affair, most of the money coming from German sources.

Out of this meeting grew a smaller one, likewise co-sponsored by the Papal Commission on the Laity and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, held last September in Washington, with the collaboration of the Catholic University of America. Fifty-five persons from about 35 countries discussed for two days the theme of finding a common public philosophy for First and Third world countries aspiring to an open society. Having been one of the four people who organized this meeting, I can assure the reader it was an enormous effort, and expensive. But the two days left everyone with an excellent feeling of time well spent, despite a certain frustration about where all this might lead. Why? What was the ostensible purpose and what was really achieved? The answer to those questions holds the key to at least one sort of lay involvement in the future Church.

Behind both meetings lay a desire to improve communications between the hierarchy and the movers and shakers of society, both Catholic and Protestant. (While dominated by Catholics, both meetings featured some prominent Protestant laymen, and the Rome meeting, some Lutheran bishops.) The need for better mutual understanding between socio-political-economic and Church leadership has been felt increasingly, rising almost to desperation on the part of certain German Catholic industrial leaders — with the sympathy of Cardinal Hoefner — as they watched the increasing steering of episcopal teaching by committed socialists in a one-sided, even ideological direction. Cardinal Hoefner, Archbishop of Cologne and President of the German Bishops’ Conference, may well be the Prince of the Church best informed about modern economic issues. He played an active role in bringing about the Rome meeting, and I know from meeting with him last spring that he understands that the U.S. bishops’ third draft of their pastoral letter on economics has been used to help the Social Democrats in the upcoming German federal elections. Archbishop Weakland made the rounds last year, “selling” the pastoral letter.

What did the sponsors of these international gatherings get for their (more exactly, the German taxpayers’) money? Dialogue with the Church Princes, certainly not. Their Eminences would sweep up in chauffeured limousines, shake a few hands, deliver speeches, respond to a few questions, shake more hands, and then sweep majestically off into the night. In Washington, only Archbishop Hickey participated, giving the opening greeting and saying the opening Mass, with a sermon on the gospel for the day (Lazarus and the rich man) and stern fatherly warnings to rich persons present about their perilous state. The Archbishop, like the Cardinals, has heavy responsibilities, and so his, and their, time is without question very precious.

Well, so is that of some of the other participants, who stayed the whole time: for instance the president of the Italian State Government holdings, with 650,000 employees; the president of the second largest supermarket chain in the U.S., with 150,000 employees; the Director General of the Channel Tunnel Group, who is raising $8 billion to build the tunnel; and the president of the con-federation of all Catholic labor unions in Latin America. These people came from the four corners of the world, and gave their time to the Church for the purpose of communication. Many of the people at the Rome meeting have equally heavy responsibilities. But the Cardinals did not have time to listen.

Fortunately, a few Third World bishops did stay the whole time, and made valuable contributions to the debates. And Bishop Paul Josef Cordes. Vice President of the Papal Commission on the Laity, and one of the principal organizers, was actively present throughout all sessions of both meetings, intently listening and intervening effectively. That is important, for Bishop Cordes commands respect at the highest levels in the Church; he is a splendid communicator, a warm person, and open to all.

Probably the chief benefit of these enormous efforts was the creation of personal contacts between participants, a tenuous, unsystematic, but nonetheless important process. Many Third World participants heard from publicly committed Christians points of view about modern democratic capitalist economic realities which they openly admitted were revealing to them. The liberal Catholic press in Germany attacked the Rome meeting, suggesting that the German organizers had a hidden agenda, that they actually wanted the democratic capitalist viewpoint of certain serious Christians to be heard. For my part, I would acknowledge that neither meeting represented a balanced ideological cross-section. Nevertheless, there were plenty of participants who most ably and at every point spoke for the poor and the oppressed, and who kept the problems of suffering masses of people squarely before the consciousness of the powerful. The human quality of the industrial, political, and labor leaders present was such that loving concern for the vast ranks of the poor was genuinely present.

I allude to the ideological issue as a way of bringing up the difficulty in achieving meaningful communication in our vast, universal Church. I went to three expensive meetings organized to aid the drafting process of the pastoral letter on the U.S. economy. Two of the meetings were grotesquely unbalanced politically; the third was very deliberately and thoughtfully put together to represent the best from all points on the political spectrum, and was, in my view, a most fruitful meeting.

The illiberalness that in this way so often manifests itself risks damaging seriously such efforts to bring laymen and hierarchy together for mutual illumination. Due to the unwillingness of many bishops to devote serious time to such exchanges, they remain fragile and tentative. The very fact that they are such costly initiatives, distances being great and travel expenses crushing, is a problem that has to be faced. On this point, the German government seems to be in the forefront in understanding the importance of fostering such exchanges. How they might be built into some kind of permanent network of communications, bringing First, Second and Third worlds, and political, economic, social, and Church leaders together for meaningful exchanges of insight is still not clear.


  • Thomas Langan

    Thomas Langan was a member of the Department of Philosophy at St. Michael's College in The University of Toronto. He passed away in 2012.

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