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Has Catholic Social Teaching faded into an era of Catholic Social bleaching? Unavoidable tension and intimacy are part of synodality, listening

We hear from Nate Tinner-Williams, Co-Founder and Editor of Black Catholic Messenger and Nigerian Jesuit priest Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University and one of several Black synod delegates, who spoke earlier this month.

First, a transcription of Nate Tinner-Williams’ opening of the Spirit Unbounded event parallel to the Synod on Synodality last October. We will be publishing these over 100 talks and musical events from all continents, over the next few months. To watch, see the first session: Excluded Because of Race, First of 2 Spirit Unbounded Programs.

…It seems that the era of Catholic Social Teaching has somehow now faded into an era of Catholic Social bleaching where the world and the church is to be made more Holy by being made more white by ripping apart the very fabric of human dignity so that it can be bought and sold on the black market of power, with political currency.  

Indeed, I must lament my own church. I must often reprove my own church in my writing and in my actions. I must often turn away from my church just to get a glimpse of my own God, the suffering, Brown, migrant Jesus Christ…we must arm ourselves with the pure and persistent weapon of witness.  We must use our minds and our mouths to speak and to never allow ourselves to be silenced in the fray…It will require ongoing transformation at a grander scale that which will upend the system of silence and sin and fling open the door to a new pathway of flourishing, a diverse but not diffuse witness of all the church’s cultures, languages, expressions, theologies, liturgies, and leadership. We cannot remain in the place that we are or we will perish. 

Nate Tinner-Williams: Thank you friends. I have one message for you and that is this: the spirit of mutual dialogue is in the air right now!  In Rome, hundreds of bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated religious, academics, youth, and many other people are gathering to discuss what they feel are the adjustments that need to be made in the Catholic Church. Even our siblings of Christians and other religious traditions have gathered to witness what is sure to be a historic Synod of Bishops they are of course discussing the Synod on Synodality.  

But here in our space we are even more focused on a topic of great concern to the majority of the church, a topic we can only hope will not be only addressed here.  We need to talk about human rights.  The very concept of human rights in my country the United States is often a forgotten one or at least one that is seen as a problem out there to the north to the south in the middle of the Far East, but no, not right here in our own backyard, not here in America, where mass incarceration of the poor and unprotected runs rampant especially against my people the descendants of the formerly enslaved. No, human rights is often not the word we use for the chained and the bound, who may be sentenced to life or even lose their life at the hands of the state.  No, we don’t call it an issue of human rights when the very principles of an equal democracy and equal education, an equal right to move and travel and be and flourish for black people, my people, is constantly under threat as it has been for centuries in this “land of the free and Home of the Brave.”

Ironic, isn’t it that the land is stolen and the climate of fear fuels everything that can truly be called racism. Yes, my country is a land of fading human rights and massively inhuman wrongs. Tragically, my fellow citizens also believe they live in a Christian country, a country that in many places now pledges allegiance to God immediately before bearing false witness and history lessons allegedly protecting the emotions of some of the children in the room by erasing the human rights abuses perpetrated against the ancestors of their classmates. Yes the people of this land are confused and have not yet come to terms with their wicked ways, their unchristian ways.

I, Nate Turner Williams, the grandson of Catholics and the great grandson of the enslaved and a journalist, a Catholic journalist, in my research and writing on the black Catholic community over the past three years I have seen and covered over and over and over the outworkings of these hideous abnormalities.  And on not so infrequent occasions I have been appalled to learn that for some reason, it seems to be my own co-religionists that are the culprits: Catholic Court Justices ruling in favor of death while claiming to be pro-life. Catholic politicians running on platforms of hate and revisionism. Catholic priests calling my people and our allies maggots and freaks. Catholic Bishops remaining silent all the while as the least of these are left to bear the brunt. 

It seems that the era of Catholic Social Teaching has somehow now faded into an era of Catholic Social bleaching where the world and the church is to be made more Holy by being made more white by ripping apart the very fabric of human dignity so that it can be bought and sold on the black market of power, with political currency.  

Indeed, I must lament my own church. I must often reprove my own church in my writing and in my actions. I must often turn away from my church just to get a glimpse of my own God, the suffering, Brown, migrant Jesus Christ, but what is all of this to do with mutual dialogue you might ask? How can doom and gloom and the elephant in the room possibly lead to an authentic conversation on conversion? Well I believe that as the church proper gathers to discuss what it feels are the issues of the day, and as we sit here on the outside and wonder what can really come of it, we must arm ourselves with the pure and persistent weapon of witness.  We must use our minds and our mouths to speak and to never allow ourselves to be silenced in the fray. The very same church that claims it is now ready to listen must be faced with the full bore of what we have to say.  

The Synod on Synodality itself collected witness from around the globe from the oratory to the outskirts, supposedly seeking the lost sheep to hear too, what their voice can muster. But it’s not enough. It is not enough because the very apparatus by whom the voices were to be heard the U.S Church hierarchy was only minimally interested in the project, still very much chained down by their opinions on what is wise and what could lead to error. Simply put, they cannot handle the truth, and so they stopped their ears when black Catholics told them they were most concerned about racism. 

They relegated us to a comment and a summary that will above all ostensibly achieve their own objectives when we told them young black Catholics do not feel at home in a church stained by unaddressed slavery segregation and suppression. They shrugged and closed another round of black churches and schools when we told them that we must speak for ourselves from the level of the parish council to the halls of bishops to the courts of Rome. They gave us decades of lip service and continued on their way. 

Yes, my people are still awaiting the Good Samaritan who will pass by our way. The priest and the Levite have apparently chosen their own path. Alas the true dialogue continues. They cannot be mediated by the hands of a church priest or secretary or bishop, and it certainly cannot be contained within the discussions of a month in Rome. It will require ongoing transformation at a grander scale that which will upend the system of silence and sin and fling open the door to a new pathway of flourishing, a diverse but not diffuse witness of all the church’s cultures, languages, expressions, theologies, liturgies, and leadership.

We cannot remain in the place that we are or we will perish. For my part I will continue to write to shine a light on the black Catholic witness and the need for authentic change on the part of the church towards its African-American members. I hope you will read. I hope you will think. I hope you will speak out! 

The time for true dialogue is now and the true place for it to occur is here. (Jeremiah 4)

**

A native of West Africa, Orobator said that at the synod gathering in October, the confluence of cultures and perspectives produced no shortage of tension. He also said that such friction is unavoidable and, in many ways, the very essence of a listening Church.     

The head of theology at the Jesuits’ California seminary spoke on his experience at the October synod session in Rome, highlighting hope and tension.

By NATE TINNER-WILLIAMS, 4 March 2024 in the Black Catholic Messenger Talk available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Epmk7S0FTfk

SAN FRANCISCO — The Synod on Synodality is no longer at the center of the Catholic media landscape, but don’t be fooled: Pope Francis’ historic gathering of clergy and laypeople as joint voting members in one of the Church’s most important consultative bodies is ongoing and will reconvene this fall in Rome. This follows a landmark inaugural session held in October 2023 with various participants from the United States.

The Nigerian Jesuit priest Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University and one of several Black synod delegates, spoke on Feb. 28 at St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco on his experience. The livestreamed event featured the former African Jesuit conference president giving his take on what the Synod means for the Church and why many—including some senior clerics—have been remarkably outspoken against it. (Now available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Epmk7S0FTfk)

“The idea of synodality is a contested idea,” Orobator told a hybrid listening crowd, quizzing the in-person audience with a number of disparaging quotes from the likes of Cardinals Gerhard Müller (himself a synod delegate last fall), Raymond Burke, and the late George Pell.

“It is not universally acclaimed or accepted within our Church community. There is resistance, there is fear, there is contention, and there is opposition to the very idea of synodality and becoming a synodal Church.”

Orobator noted that such critics of the synod, which can be described as a microcosm of Pope Francis’ forward-thinking vision, are “not bad people” but may reflect a need for continued dialogue within the global community.

“If they hold the position they hold, it’s because they care deeply about the community the same way I care about this community. We all care about this community, and that’s why synodality becomes the path for us to journey together.”

Himself a native of West Africa, Orobator said that at the synod gathering in October, the confluence of cultures and perspectives produced no shortage of tension. He also said that such friction is unavoidable and, in many ways, the very essence of a listening Church.

He recalled that the pre-gathering retreat—which some delegates seem to have deliberately skipped—helped center most participants on a common plane of prayer and prudence. He also pointed out that the unique re-arrangement of Paul VI Audience Hall in Rome, built following the Second Vatican Council for the very purpose of synods, also combated elitism—a marked shift from Synods of (only) Bishops in previous eras.

“It’s an amphitheater. It’s got rows and rows of stalls that stack up to the height of the hall and where you sit shows your importance, your rank, and your status.” Orobator said.

“Pope Francis reconfigured [the hall]… He repurposed it and created 36 round tables for the synod delegates to have conversations. That’s what I call disruptive architecture, which meant everybody was on the same level.”

Orobator spoke of a “disturbing intimacy” created by the layout and the general mode of the gathering, where debate was less of a priority than a mutual ear. In that format, he said, entrenched viewpoints were challenged by participants’ personal experiences.

Participants in the Synod on Synodality gathered inside the Paul VI Audience Hall in October 2023. (Vatican Media)

Though one might assume from this that the synod was also meant to produce new dictates for the Church at large, perhaps along more progressive lines, Orobator says the dialogue itself—synodality qua synodality— was the goal, not a means to an end.

“That process itself becomes part of how we as a community journey together. It’s never about, ‘Let’s argue this out. Let’s resolve this. Let’s fight this out now,’” he said.

“No, it’s the process: Are we capable of hearing out one another? Are we capable of making room for one another? That becomes a way of synodality.”

Orobator asserted that Americans in particular seemed to view the October synod session as non-committal, deciding very little after a month of activity. But insofar as the synod was “not about making decisions” and “consultative, not deliberative,” Orobator says the meeting made headway in accomplishing its goal.

“Nothing was decided—as it should be.”

Asked what struck him as the most important issues included in the first synod synthesis report, Orobator highlighted the missionary identity of the Church (a church that goes out to the margins) as a whole across demographic categories, the formation of Church leaders, the matter of sexual identity, the role of women, and intra-communal evangelization of young people “as baptized Christians.”

Baptism formed a major theme overall in Orobator’s address, defining the very nature of synodality in a Church often defined along ideological and patriarchal lines. In a Vatican environment accustomed to qualifications represented by seating arrangements, skull cap colors, and lofty titles, the breakthrough of egalitarian lay empowerment and dialogue for the sake of understanding creates a constructive tension Orobator says is essential for the Church in the modern age.

“It was quite an ‘existential displacement’ for some people to be sitting at the same table with people they are used to giving instructions and teachings to,” he said, picking up on a theme introduced by UK analyst Dr. Austen Ivereigh earlier this year.

Synodality is a convening of the baptized people of God. That’s the access code.”

As for the prospect of whether the Church can withstand the challenge of synodality, Orobator seemed hopeful but also cautious, noting that the various “synodalities” at work in the Church are not always perfectly aligned with one another and can color one’s view of the practice. (The German Synodal Way and the Fifth Plenary Council in Australia were two examples mentioned.)

“Synodality is not one thing… There will be divergences. There will be differences. But how we manage those differences, divergences, and tensions matters,” he said.

“I am convinced that we will do that and do it well if we are faithful to those important components of synodality: a community at prayer, a community that listens, a community that dialogues, a community that discerns.”


Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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