The US Catholic bishops’ highly anticipated national synthesis, part of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking worldwide listening initiative for the 2023 Synod of Bishops, has been released.
The report, sent out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Monday afternoon, distills the focuses of respondents from across the country in various listening sessions and surveys since October 2021, when the synod’s diocesan phase commenced.
Local reports were sent to the USCCB earlier this summer, and the national synthesis was overseen by Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, a noted justice advocate and ally of Pope Francis.
“This pivotal document is the culmination of ten months of intentional listening carried out throughout the Church in the U.S.,” he said in a statement from the USCCB.
“The synodal consultations, from parishes, dioceses, and national regions express the voices of hundreds of thousands in our local churches.”
The USCCB says the 16-page document, sent to the Vatican late last month, includes data from more than 22,000 reports from “parishes and other groups.” It is broken down into 15 geographical regions, each of which includes several states, and one region encompassing a “large number of Catholic associations, organizations, and national ministries.”
“An estimated 700,000 people participated in the diocesan phase of the Synod in the United States,” reads the synthesis intro, with Flores adding that the synthesis communicates their “common joys, hopes, and wounds.”
Included among those reflections are the concerns of Black Catholics, with the issue of racism having been mentioned in most of the diocesan reports.
“Catholic people of color spoke of routine encounters with racism, both inside and outside the Church,” reads a quote from Region XII in the Pacific Northwest, whose report also included respondents’ calls to address White Supremacy and the lack of sufficient Catholic involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Another, in the Northeast’s Region I, spoke of the “sinfulness of racism” and the need for acknowledgment from the Church.
“Providing forums for conversations on race, immigration, and loving openness to others is critical in allowing individuals to be heard and understood.”
The synthesis notes that one diocese even called racial reconciliation its “primary objective”, in the report from Region V—encompassing five states, and three of the five Blackest in the country by percentage (Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama). Unsurprisingly, the same report is one of the few to mention African-American Catholics specifically.
Perhaps the strongest words came from Region XVI (non-diocesan groups), whose report mentioned race issues throughout and called out a perceived “abandonment of the Church’s rich and expansive teaching on justice” in the Church at large.
Perhaps illustratively, the new report from the USCCB mentions Catholic Social Teaching by name only once, part of a small, three-sentence paragraph in a section covering ongoing formation.
Acknowledging the “confusion and skepticism” felt by some concerning the diocesan phase of the synod, the synthesis authors report that “many were surprised by a level of engagement and richness that surpassed their expectations.”
Even so, the USCCB’s relatively high estimate of synod participants represents only about 1% of the nation’s 67 million Catholics, and self-reported demographic data from the diocesan listening sessions shows that the majority of those who took part were older White women.
As such, familiar themes like women’s ordination were featured in the new synthesis, with the sole included quote, from Region XII, calling it “a matter of justice.” An “Enduring Wounds” section of the report includes calls for continued attention to the effects of the Catholic sex abuse crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, sociopolitical division, and LGBTQ+ marginalization.
Concerning the national synthesis as a whole, Bishop Flores says that the publication “is not a concluding moment.”
“It is instead an invitation to continue to dialogue and discern, together, those matters that weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of Catholics in the U.S.”
The next phase in preparation for the 2023 Synod, which is itself focused on the theme of synodality, will consist of continental episcopal gatherings creating their own texts with the feedback they have received. The USCCB will participate in that phase with the Catholic bishops from Canada, with gatherings slated to begin this winter.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).