Several hundred people are expected to converge on a Bloomington hotel this month for an assembly of Catholics seeking church change. The third event of its kind, the gathering is called the Synod of the Baptized.
In the Roman Catholic Church, a synod is a meeting at which bishops consider matters of church governance or teaching. Those in attendance may vote on proposals for consideration by the pope, who may accept or reject the synod’s wishes.
Trying to find an analogous structure for giving the laity a voice in the discussion, the Catholics who will gather later this month are likely to be depicted as the radical fringe. Among the issues on which they would like to be heard: human sexuality, women’s equality, the selection of bishops and financial transparency.
“The use of the word” — synod — “is fairly intentional,” explained Korla Masters, who is helping to coordinate the event. “They are exploring the definition of who does in fact have baptismal authority to enter into decision-making.”
The gathering is intended in part to fill a void created when an archdiocesan pastoral council, an advisory body that included lay people, was disbanded in 2005. Since then, the archbishop and his staff have handled planning, sometimes with the help of ad hoc task forces that included the laity.
The Synod of the Baptized is one part of a five-year-old effort to generate more two-way communication, said Masters. To date, 1,500 people have signed up for its communications.
“There are a lot of folks who are raised Catholic and who at whatever age, but especially young people, are disaffected and alienated from their church,” she said. “Catholics want to come together to increase lay voices.”
In December 2008 — six months after John Nienstedt became the eighth archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis — representatives of a handful of organizations seeking change joined forces as the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform. At the same time, a group called the American Catholic Council was organizing at the national level.
While each of the groups had a different focus, the coalition had one overarching goal: to create a place where voices of those outside the church hierarchy could be heard.
Five hundred people attended each of the coalition’s first and second synods, convened in September of 2010 and 2011. The archdiocese took note.
“The Archdiocese wishes to lovingly caution those members of the faithful participating in the ‘work/study groups’ and intending to attend the synod of the potential that the issues on which CCCR will seek reform are magisterial teachings of the Church, and are therefore to be believed by divine and catholic faith,” warned an article in the official church publication, the Catholic Spirit.
“The Archdiocese also wishes to remind the faithful of its need to shun any contrary doctrines, and instead to embrace and retain, to safeguard reverently and expound faithfully, the doctrine of faith and morals proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church.”
The group — with many of its members campaigning against the two proposed constitutional amendments on Minnesota ballots, one banning same-sex marriage and one restricting voting rights — took a break in 2012.
To keep the work going in between gatherings, the 2011 synod elected a 16-member Council of the Baptized. So that it may gather as diverse a sense of Catholics’ concerns as possible, the council has an organizational structure that roughly mirrors the archdiocese’s.
The council’s meetings are public, and Catholics are welcome to attend. Last fall, almost 100 showed up to express their concerns about finances. A majority said they felt conflicted that a portion of their donations is forwarded to the archdiocese, which spent some $600,000 to influence voters on the marriage amendment, among other things.
“We are concerned that lack of trust, lack of transparency and accountability, and lack of communication with laity are factors in a disintegration of community and a decline of resources for the church’s mission,” the council’s subsequent position paper explained.
In the meantime, the council generated five position papers, which it forwarded to the archdiocese. In addition to formally opposing the marriage amendment, the group called for a program of weekly prayer at the Cathedral for the welfare of all families, a call for transparency and accountability, the restoration of the pastoral council and the creation of a mechanism to give lay people a voice in selecting bishops.
Even though a smaller crowd is expected this year because of post-election burnout, organizers say interest is up. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ activism in campaigning for the proposed marriage amendment galvanized many parishioners.
And it exposed an information vacuum. With church leaders under orders from Nienstedt to organize parish-level committees to push for the amendment and to lead their flocks in prayer for its passage, Catholics whose consciences told them differently had a hard time knowing where to turn.
“A lot of people in parishes may not know where their fellow parishioners stand on issues,” said Masters. “There’s a really profound sense of isolation.”
By way of example, Masters described a recent situation at a St. Paul parish whose priest was transferred after fathering a child with a parishioner. Worshippers were upset that there was no communication and no forum in which to consider the situations of those involved, including the child.
This year’s synod will feature Sister Gail Worcelo as keynote speaker. A Passionist nun, she is the co-founder of the Green Mountain Monastery, which is dedicated to healing and protecting Earth and its life systems.
Breakout sessions will address building alternative church models, moving beyond alienation and developing a healthy perspective on sexuality. New council members will be elected, and a paper about lay preaching will be presented.
“We’re not talking about democratization,” said Masters. “It’s about who has access to the sacraments and to the things that make worship important.”
And of the likelihood that the archdiocese is not likely to give the council a formal place at the table or to recognize the synod?
“The goal is to keep things open and respectful and collegial,” said Masters. “The history of the church is that things don’t change and don’t change and don’t change — until they do.”
The Synod of the Baptized takes place Sept. 28 from 8 to 3:30 at the Mall of America Ramada. More information and registration is available online here.