One does not have to be a Roman Catholic to appreciate the underlying concerns of the synod on youth that is currently ongoing in Rome, nor that of the document that was prepared as a basis for the discussion. That the church—any church—is only ever one generation from extinction may be a cliché, but it is nonetheless true. And so I have spent some time looking at the document on which the synod is based—Instrumentum Laboris (IL)to see if there is anything that a Protestant might find useful in its analysis and its proposals.

Sadly, IL is a missed opportunity. It suffers from two basic flaws: it takes young people far too seriously, and it does not take young people seriously enough. That might seem like a somewhat paradoxical complaint, but it captures neatly the problem faced in a document that listens too much and says too little.

The Importance of Listening

The document has three major sections. The first, “Recognizing: The Church Listens to Reality,” sets forth the various contexts and issues faced by young people. It is largely based on consulting with youth in various forums. The second, “Interpreting: Faith and Vocational Discernment,” is an attempt to provide a framework for critical reflection on the findings of part one. Finally, the third, “Choosing: Paths of Pastoral and Missionary Conversion,” offers potential ideas for the members of the synod to formulate specific strategies.

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There are some elements of IL that are commendable. The Roman Catholic Church is currently facing a significant challenge: in an era when traditional institutions in general are losing authority, the sex abuse scandal has shattered her ability to speak with moral authority to the secular world, and even to the doubters within her own fold. To start re-engaging young people by first listening would seem to be appropriate. No apologetic strategy is ever going to succeed if it does not address the actual questions people are asking. Knowing that matters such as unemployment, poverty, racism, loneliness, sexuality, and others are of deep concern to many young people is helpful. Further, to speak with any authority, the church first has to regain that authority. Therefore, the desire to engage young people seriously and humbly is surely wise.

Yet there is always the potential that listening will move from an apologetic strategy to something more significant. Ours is an age dominated by consumerism and entertainment and this has reshaped many of our institutions, from government to higher education. To quote from the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, “Find out what they like, and how they like it, and let him have it just that way”—that has become the governing strategy of electoral politics as of much else in this world. “What sells?” if not the only question asked by many institutions, is frequently the most important.

The fear of losing customers, votes, students, or members can become an overriding concern for organizations that depend in practice on a loyalty that can be as easily withdrawn as given. But the problem for the Catholic Church is that it has certain standards that are part of who she is. They are not negotiable, however unattractive they might be to young people. So the fact that some young people find the church’s teaching on contraception, abortion, and sexuality unattractive is interesting but, with the exception of explaining her position more clearly, there seems little the church can really do in response. Catholicism is defined by dogma, not by focus groups. Those who dislike her dogma but still want to belong to her face a hard but unavoidable choice. And failure to make this point—that Catholicism is dogmatic and therefore by definition exclusive—is emblematic of the timidity of the document as a whole.

Simply Listening is Not Enough

Few Christians would deny that listening is important, but it cannot be an end in itself, nor can it be the implicit justification for dogmatic timidity. For example, if a neighbor has lost, say, a child to cancer and is wondering how a God of love might allow such a thing to happen, it is absolutely appropriate first to listen to the agony of the one who has been bereaved. But the task of the church does not terminate in such compassionate listening. She is not simply a corporate therapist, nor is her task fulfilled when she has shown empathy for the one suffering. A doctor who says “I know exactly how you feel” to a cancer patient may be appropriately empathetic, but if he offers no treatment, he is criminally negligent. And so the church is not simply to listen but to provide answers to people’s deepest need—not merely the sociological or psychological symptoms of the same—and those answers are to be based on God’s revelation in the Bible. However, IL never makes this point. So many questions and needs are thrown up by the listening process; and nowhere is the gospel—the dogmatic gospel—explicated as providing an answer. Perhaps the authors hope that this will regain the church some authority, but church authority is useless if the church has nothing to say.

For all of the listening that the document highlights, and all of the empathy that it enjoins, the lack of explicit theology is therefore a lethal lacuna. The results are diagnoses of the problems that fail to rise above the material and the immanent, and an outline of a strategy that has all the pious trappings of a Christian response without any distinctly Christian content. Far be it from me, a Protestant, to lecture Catholics on the nature of their faith, but Cardinal Newman was the one who pressed home the fact that Christianity was nothing if it was not dogmatic. And on that score, this document, if not quite nothing, certainly offers little in the way of substance.

This non-dogmatic ethos is perhaps most evident in the language of IL. The word “journey,” a hallmark of postmodern piety, occurs thirty-two times, while “sin” and its cognates—not so cool in our therapeutic climate—occur a mere six times. And “sin” is never elaborated, defined, or given structural importance. Of course, one might respond that IL assumes the teaching of the Catechism and therefore has no need to spend time on such basic matters. But that rather begs the question of how a document attempting to address the needs and concerns of young people can devote virtually no space at all to the primary problem: young people’s alienation from God by their sin, and the solution: God’s grace. Either the authors are incompetent or mischievous, because the omission of either an explicit and robust anthropology or Christology leaves the document open to all manner of interpretations that may or may not fall within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

This startling omission from a document that purports to be Christian leaves paragraphs like the following ominously detached from any theological context:

For example, during the IS [the International Seminar on the Condition of Youth, 2017] some experts pointed out how mass migration can become an opportunity for intercultural dialogue and for the renewal of Christian communities that are at risk of becoming too inward-looking. Some LGBT youths, through various contributions that were received by the General Secretariat of the Synod, wish to benefit from greater closeness and experience greater care by the Church, while some BC ask themselves what to suggest to young people who decide to create homosexual instead of heterosexual couples and, above all, would like to be close to the Church.

The juxtaposition of the issues created by migration and those surrounding LGBT youths is problematic. In an orthodox theological framework, this would be the equivalent of lumping oranges in with apples. As it stands, it simply makes it look as if both were equally legitimate identities and that the questions they raise are both opportunities to become more “outward looking”—itself an interesting phrase that is aesthetically appealing in our present age but possesses no specific content and is left worryingly open-ended precisely because IL does not set it within a dogmatic context. It also implicitly concedes the distinctive modern fiction that sexuality is to be equated with the authentic identity of the individual. Yet any understanding of personhood and identity assumes an anthropology and therefore a theology. The Catholic Church has both. That the document fails to employ either should be a matter of grave concern to Catholics.

The Missing Pieces of Instrumentum Laboris

And that brings me to the real problem with the document: it never even identifies the central problem young people face. Christianity, at least in those forms that take the Bible seriously, places rebellion against a holy God at the foundation of all other human problems. Yes, unemployment, poverty, disabilities, despair, loneliness, sexual confusion and a multitude of other difficulties afflict young people across the globe. But the real problem is that human beings need God’s grace and forgiveness. It is noteworthy that numerous Catholic critics have commented on the lack of sacramental theology in IL, but this oddity actually makes perfect sense given that such theology is meant to address the problem of sin, and sin is barely mentioned. Indeed, the paucity of references to sin and the fact that these are never elaborated or given any significance in the analysis is the rather obvious poker tell: this is not a document that draws on the content of classic Christian theology for its understanding of the phenomena it observes, even as it occasionally uses its rhetoric.

Some might respond by saying that such a criticism is unfair because the document is narrowly focused by intention and simply assumes the content of the Catechism. Yet if that is the case, why does the Catechism’s content make so little impact on how IL interprets the findings and diagnoses the problems? One cannot blithely talk about the effects of sin without elaborating on sin and underscoring the complicity of all human beings in the problem. Young people do not get to privilege their problems as purely the fault of forces beyond their control. Nor are the concerns and complaints of young people unvarnished statements of reality. Anyone who has read Paul’s letter to the Romans or Augustine’s Confessions—or any critical theorist, if leaders in the church prefer modern, secular authorities!—knows that the human heart is deceitful above all things and no disinterested guide to reality. And when the LGBT identity is casually introduced with no comment, the kindest conclusion would be that this document is careless; a less generous reading might see it as something far more mischievous. As I stated at the start, IL takes young people’s voices so seriously that it ends up not taking their spiritual condition seriously at all. But that’s always going to be the way with theology by focus group rather than by revelation: the results will inevitably reflect the limited concerns of the chosen group, not the larger realities of human existence.

Whatever side one chooses in the Reformation of the sixteenth century—be it Bellarmine or Calvin—one thing is for sure: the Tridentine Catholics and the Magisterial Protestants were debating matters of real, ultimate significance. I am a Protestant by conviction and have very serious disagreements with Rome, but I regard traditional Catholicism as asking the right questions and providing substantial answers about the nature of sin, redemption, grace, faith, the sacraments, and eternal destiny. Christianity is a religion with a holy God and a tragic vision of a magnificent but fallen humanity at its core, so tragic that only a bloody sacrifice—the sacrifice of God Incarnate—can atone. I may reject the Mass but I can at least see that it marks the centerpiece of a serious theology and ecclesiology and is attempting to address the complexity of the human condition. By contrast Instrumentum Laboris points to a church that seems to be losing sight of those central issues. The Catholic Church could well be exchanging her theological birthright for a Mass of sociological potage.