e-mail us


The curious inanities of America's synod document

The ghost writer is an essential component of every bureaucracy. The genre is especially highly developed in the world's longest surviving bureaucracy, the Roman curia. Here an important skill is the ability to maintain a discussion at two levels, discourse and propaganda. The former attempts to engage; the latter attempts to kill the enemy with a thousand soft lashes. The latest lineamenta, titled "Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: The Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America," prepared by Cardinal Jan Schotte for the Synod of Bishops on the Americas, is a prime example (story, page 4).

The curia speaks -- but like a lot of things about this bureaucracy the style is redolent of a long-gone era. Today's Latin has a verbosity light years distant from the lapidary sentences of Cicero.

The going is easy when the ghost knows what exactly he (yes, he) is supposed to say. One can be very emphatic, as the document is, about the importance of "obedience and respect for bishops and priests." One can deplore the "spreading ... crisis of obedience and faith in the church's magisterium, ... the attitude of confrontation with authority." One can hit on a clever distraction, such as proposing "a preferential love of the poor" to replace the enemy's "preferential option for the poor"; or belaboring the virtue of solidarity in the hope that the unwary will not realize that justice has gone out the window.

However, when you are not quite sure that you have anything to say yet feel your boss definitely expects you to say something, you can get into deep trouble, tripping over non sequiturs into inanities. Thus the document tells us that "solidarity as a virtue implies the necessity to act in a habitual manner," as if this were not the quality of every virtue; that "employment is a particularly important social problem"; that "another subject deserving attention is the relationship of transnational corporations"; that dialogue is praiseworthy "with other religions who share the belief in one God" (but not with those of the polytheistic indigenous of the Americas?); that "the societies of North, Central and South America show signs of a materialistic and consumer style of life" (particularly visible, no doubt, in the favelas and villas miseria of Latin America).

And one should be aware there are shantytowns "in the peripheries of the big cities in the North, South, and Central regions of the continent." (Residents of gated communities in Beverly Hills and Scarsdale, please note).

Nowhere is the sycophancy of the curial scribes more evident than in the footnotes in which they record the justification of each statement they make. Forty-six of the 74 footnotes in the Lineamenta, refer to documents of the present pontificate. Paul VI, John XXIII and Pius XII merit only one each. And of their close to 300 predecessors, only Leo the Great makes the grade. Sic transit gloria pontificum!

Clearly the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops needs an editor. A professional could make the document more readable by eliminating some 10,000 words of repetitions and irrelevances. But all that would do would be to make the document less boring. More than an editor, the lineamenta needs writers who know and are prepared to put on record the realities of the American continents, the joys and hopes, and also the griefs and anxieties of its peoples who look to the church to share their lot and accompany them on the long, dark journey toward the Promised Land.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 1996