Letters from the Synod—2023: #9

Published October 20, 2023

First Things

“Domus Australia,” a pilgrim guest house and hotel near the Porta Pia in the Castro Pretorio neighborhood of Rome, is a living memorial to its founder, Cardinal George Pell, who died unexpectedly this past January. Cardinal Pell’s absence at Synod-2023 is keenly felt, although in different ways. Those who took inspiration from his courageous truth-telling and boundless good cheer miss him terribly. Those who were frightened and chastened by that truth-telling are relieved that he’s not on the scene to make a big difference, as he did at the Synods of 2014 and 2015. Yet his disciples are here, and in men and women like Archbishop Anthony Fisher, O.P. (Pell’s successor as archbishop of Sydney) and Dr. Renée Köhler-Ryan (who informed a Synod press conference earlier this week that “as a woman, I’m not focused at all on not being a priest”) the Pell spirit lives on.

Domus Australia was Cardinal Pell’s idea: turn a former Marist seminary into a place where Australian pilgrims could stay in Rome in a setting demonstrating that the universality of the Church extends to the Antipodes. Thus the cardinal’s renovation of Domus Australia’s chapel was carefully designed to celebrate the evangelization of Oceania and evoke Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness”—a theme that has not been overly explored, alas, at Synod-2023, but that ought to be pondered during the Synod’s last week. 

The chapel includes thirty-one portraits of men and women who either helped plant the faith in Oceania (particularly Australia), or who inspired those who did, or who were instrumental in nurturing what had been planted. The portraits celebrate the English and Irish roots of Aussie Catholicism, with special honors being artistically rendered to Australia’s first saint, St. Mary of the Cross Mackillop (1842–1909), who was excommunicated for a period by a cranky bishop unaccustomed to strong women, and Sydney’s first archbishop, John Bede Polding, OSB, a native Liverpudlian whose flowing white locks would have fit right in at the court of King Charles I. Lay initiatives in evangelization and Christian witness are embodied in the portrait of Caroline Chisholm (1808–1877), a philanthropist and immigration reformer who helped place thousands of people in homes and jobs. Contemporary confessors are represented by a large painting of the Servant of God Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan in the Vietnamese re-education camp where he spent thirteen years, nine in a solitary confinement cell. And as a reminder that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church—another theme absent from Synod-2023—the entire chapel is named for the protomartyr of Oceania, the French missionary St. Peter Chanel (1803–1841).

Two large and striking oils frame the chapel sanctuary. One depicts Our Lady and the infant Jesus with the constellation known as the Southern Cross in the background sky; the Southern Cross may have been visible on the horizon in Bethlehem at the time of the Nativity. The other painting is a remarkable witness to early Australian Catholic faith. It depicts the “Davis House” in colonial Sydney, where fourteen people, ranging in age from an infant to an elderly man, are gathered in prayer around the Blessed Sacrament, which had been left in their keeping until another visiting priest could come to celebrate the Eucharist surreptitiously—a rare blessing during the decades when Mass was banned in the colony. 

Cardinal Pell carefully chose the men and women to be honored in the Chapel of St. Peter Chanel to illustrate the breadth of sanctity that the grace of God in Christ makes available to us. Thus it was fitting that this magnificently restored church should have been blessed and officially opened on October 19, 2011, by Pope Benedict XVI, who often said that the greatest proofs of the truth of Christianity were beauty and the saints. 

Cardinal George Pell took as his episcopal motto, “Be Not Afraid.” Domus Australia’s chapel testifies to the great things that can happen when that dominical admonition, which we identify today with Pope St. John Paul II, is taken seriously. May a Christ-centered courage, supported by the prayers of the late cardinal, inspire the last week of Synod-2023’s work, during which it seems certain that heroic truth-telling will be required. 

George Weigel


Notably missing from the participants in Synod-2023 are Catholic fathers of families who carry large responsibilities in business and higher education. Their insights into what a Church of communion, participation, and mission should be and do in the 21st century deserve a hearing, which LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2023 is pleased to provide here. XR II

Business as a Field of Mission 

by Rob Hays 

A few weeks ago, my company’s boardroom was filled with over thirty Catholic business executives from around the Dallas area. We have been getting together over breakfast and coffee four times a year for the past fifteen years to analyze difficult business situations and discuss how Catholic Social Doctrine can provide a practical framework for addressing them.

We’ve covered dozens of topics such as hiring practices, building corporate culture, compensation structures, employee well-being, and career development. We’ve read deeply in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church on private property, human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good, and participation. In addition, our group is intensely focused on providing a forum for growing substantive friendships and expanding professional networks. Many of my dearest friendships have originated in that boardroom over a cup of coffee. We call our group the “Business Ethics Forum” and nearly four hundred different Dallas business executives have attended since its inception. 

So as I consider “What I Would Say to the Synod,” I cannot help thinking about my fellow Catholic executives in that room and the many discussions we’ve had through the years—so perhaps a more apt title for these brief comments is “What We Would Say to the Synod,” since they will reflect the themes we frequently cover in our forums. 

The first point I would highlight is that our employees and colleagues are struggling. They are living with anxiety, depression, and isolation, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Many of them do not have flourishing relationships, resilient marriages, or supportive friendships. Distraction is rampant. They are confused on issues of identity and self-worth. They have no idea what it takes to be genuinely happy. While these struggles have always existed in various degrees, they seem particularly acute in today’s modern Western world. 

The lack of moral and spiritual formation in recent generations is catching up with us, and we see the consequences every day at the workplace. The Synod members need to know that we must make lay moral and spiritual formation a priority. Our employees and colleagues need to know that to truly flourish in life they need many things: an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, a hunger to grow in virtue, a committed spouse, a willingness to sacrifice for their children, and an understanding that their professional work is a noble vocation. Many of us Catholic business executives are striving (albeit imperfectly) to model these ourselves, but we desperately need the Church to teach these truths with both clarity and charity. The confusion out there is real. 

The second point is that, because of the struggles we see in our employees, we are realizing that the workplace is, more than ever, the leading front for formation and evangelization. For example, our most recent Business Ethics Forum case study was focused on the roles and responsibilities of companies to help their employees with mental health issues. Historically speaking, these types of issues were handled at home by their families, their friends, or perhaps their local churches. But given the lack of trust in (or even the existence of) these relationships, it is now corporate managers and executives that are forced to engage on these types of personal issues.   

Whether we believe it is an optimal structure or not, businesses and their corporate cultures are going to play a central and strategic role in the next wave of Christian formation, due to the unique cultural challenges in which we currently live. Which means that we need to be encouraging and training the next generation of business leaders to see their workplaces as a mission field. These business leaders need to be steeped in the Scriptures and in Catholic Social Doctrine. While they always need to respect the personal freedom of individuals, they need to lead boldly so that their companies live the Gospel faithfully. Most importantly, they need to hear the voice of Jesus, who says in John 4:35, “I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.”  

I would also like to remind Synod participants that business executives have unique skills and talents that can serve the Church in significant ways. Our ability to be creative problem solvers and our financial acumen can help address significant issues in the Church today. 

Creativity, for example, is not the exclusive domain of artists, musicians, or theologians, nor is problem-solving the exclusive realm of mathematicians. George Gilder’s “The Soul of Silicon” speech, given at a 1997 conference on St. John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, highlights the intersection of these skills in the corporate world. He recalls the “parable of the microchip” told by one of the founders of Intel. The parable narrates humanity’s transformative ability—it took three of the most basic and most abundant elements of the earth (sand, aluminum, silicon dioxide) to create the cornerstone of our digital civilization. As Gilder notes, “The most valuable substance in this fundamental product of the era is the idea for the design.” This capability to ingeniously convert base substances into revolutionary problem-solving products is indeed a manifestation of our God-given creativity and is one of the primary virtues that we businesspeople can embody. 

The Church stands to benefit from new strategies in evangelization, innovative approaches to Christian education, and inventive models of community outreach. The spiritual nourishment provided by the Church can be enhanced through partnerships that allow for a broader outreach, thanks to technological advancements and data-driven decision-making. Business executives can help lead this charge.  

Financial mismanagement has unfortunately plagued the Church in recent years, leading to scandal and skepticism. The Church cannot afford to alienate its flock any more due to lack of fiscal transparency or responsibility. Business leaders have the expertise to create or improve effective financial controls, set up accountability structures, and institute transparent financial reporting mechanisms.  

These thoughts are not so much formal proposals for organizational reform; rather, they are an earnest plea to recognize the untapped reservoir of skill, ethics, and pragmatism that Catholic business leaders stand ready to offer. Our participation is not contingent on recognition or reward. It is motivated by our love for the Church and our deep-rooted desire to see souls saved. 

As you ponder the future course of our Church, consider how business leaders can contribute. We offer not just financial support but an arsenal of skills, intellect, and real-world experiences. But we are also close to many who are struggling. We need to provide better formation to business leaders. We need to rethink the role of the business world in evangelism. We need to use the skills and talents of businesspeople to help our parishes and dioceses. Engage us, involve us, and let us serve God by serving the Church. 

[Rob Hays is the president and chief executive officer of Ashford Hospitality Trust, a large, Dallas-based hotel owner; the chairman of the board of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and the chairman of the board of the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Studies at Princeton University, of which he is a graduate. He and his wife Alicia, a Princeton alumna, are expecting their seventh child in January.


Engage the Peripheries, Drop the Alphabet Anthropology 

by Joseph S. Anderson 

As you meet in Rome, permit me to suggest several things that seem to me critical to your success, now and in the future. My thoughts reflect two aspects of my life: my lay ministry over many years to college students, young professionals, prison inmates, and homeless men; and my career in helping companies and institutions improve their ways of working together. Those experiences have taught me some lessons and I would like to share them with you.  

Spend a lot more time talking to those who do not believe. The periphery defines the goal and mission of the Church. These precious people are not other Catholics within the Church. Rather, they are outsiders, the ones who do not yet flourish as followers of Christ. For me, those outsiders today are Maryland’s college students, young professionals lost in corporate wokeness, inmates in Maryland’s prisons, and homeless men in downtown Baltimore. 

I know that the Synod preparations have involved many conversations within the Church. You should complement that by spending much more time talking with the periphery. As I know from my own career, the great risk of internal conversations is that we lose our mission and vision (often without even noticing the loss). We think we have fixed our mission by fixing ourselves. But talking only to ourselves invariably produces a skewed image of what is wrong and what needs to be changed. 

So I ask you to spend less time talking to each other and much more time talking to those outside the Faith. Use your time in Rome to plan out conversations in the coming year with the “Nones”; with the cradle Catholics who have left our Church; and with others in the peripheries that constitute our field of mission. This will change the Synod’s focus in a crucial way, from “This is what I think needs to be fixed in the Church” to “This is what we need to do to fulfill our mission.” 

Change the membership of the Synod. In looking at the list of Synod participants, nearly all of the lay representatives are professional Catholics. That is, you earn your living from ecclesial institutions and organizations. As for all those Catholics in the pews who engaged in your conversations, few if any of them are part of your Synod. I wonder why you think you do not need them? It seems like the Synod has created its own new Church: the hierarchy, plus the religious, plus professional Catholics equals a “Church walking together.” Is that really what you mean? Is that what you intend for us? 

Even more striking is the total absence of the permanent diaconate among the voting members. In many ways, these deacons are the ideal and best-qualified participants. (I am not a deacon.) They have lived in and worked in the world, and at the same time have devoted themselves, selflessly and without pay, to the mission of the Church. They know the periphery out of direct experience. You could greatly increase your chances of success by involving these deacons, in the coming year, in the conversations with the periphery mentioned above. You’ll be glad you did. 

Don’t waste time debating new structures or new roles within the Church. Reorganizations of large institutions are almost always without effect. Leaders tend to think that moving departments around and creating new positions will solve an organization’s weaknesses. They are wrong. Re-orgs make large institutions different. But they do not make them better. Ask anyone with long years of experience in organizational behavior, and this is what you will hear: improvement only comes in these cases through better people. 

In the business world, “better people” means those who are wiser, more knowledgeable, more energetic, more visionary, etc. For our Church, this means all of the above, plus more evangelistic, more focused on the periphery, and more deeply conformed to the image of Christ. You could perform a great service in Rome by exploring ways to make me, and all the other laborers in lay ministry, better in this way. If you want to change the large organization known as the Church, do it through better people.  

Create an updated version of the Theology of the Body. The crisis in today’s culture is anthropological. The world finds itself unable to understand what a human being even is. What I, and other laborers among the periphery, need from you is a mature, articulate Catholic exposition of humanness and personhood. Perhaps this update could be called a “Theology of the Human Being.”

Your pre-Synod conversations in this regard have focused on reacting to current views of humanness categorized by letters of the alphabet. Pre-Synod reports seem focused on questions like “How far can we go?” and “What can we include from these views?” This approach is unfruitful and fatally flawed. It fails to recognize the internal, destructive contradictions that underlie alphabet anthropology. That approach seeks equality for women, while claiming not to know what a woman is. It promotes permanent mutilations of the body in the name of transgenderism, while claiming that gender is a social construct under continuous development. It describes alphabet orientations as innate and inborn, and thus unchallengeable, while insisting that transitions are common and even multiple for some individuals. The recent, sharp increase in young people claiming these orientations tells us a lot about the innate vs. lifestyle-choice debate surrounding the alphabet.  

No one knows when this approach will collapse under its own contradictions, but it is surely foolish for the Church to be absorbing that view piecemeal into its own teachings. A more proper, valid, and successful way forward is to build on the faithful creativity of Pope St. John Paul II in his Theology of the Body. In doing so, you will give laborers like me the tools we need to help those suffering from the woeful consequences of this alphabetical approach to defining who we are. 

Dedicate enormous resources to those suffering from persecution. Of all the topics available for Synod consideration, is there any topic more important than the situation of the Church’s current-day martyrs? I could list for you what you already know: seminarians burned alive, bombs in churches, and whole villages wiped out by Boko Haram. We all have read of these horrific things, particularly from Nigeria, many times. In response, our bishops rightly tell us to pray, and to give money. But is there not something much greater that an empowered Synod in Rome could do? You have the Church’s most prominent leaders present with you. You have some of the Church’s sharpest minds in the room. You have direct access to the Holy Father. Can you not dedicate significant time in Rome to new ideas, new solutions, and new resources that could address the extermination of entire peoples within our Church? Lord, have mercy. If you were asked to set a priority for this question during the Synod, versus other questions that receive so much attention (viri probati, female diaconate, etc.), what do you think the order should be? 

Your participation in the Synod is a grave responsibility as well as a wonderful opportunity. I long for your success in Rome, because, to me, you are family. And who does not wish family members to succeed in their hard work? At the same time, I have to say in all honesty that many of your efforts to date lack factors that are critical for success. I hope these thoughts might help you address those missing realities.

[Joseph Anderson, who is retired after 35 years of consulting with national and international clients on business operations and process optimization, lives in Finksburg, Maryland. He works in various forms of lay ministry with students at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, with inmates in Maryland’s correctional institution, and with the courageous men at the Christopher Place Employment Academy in downtown Baltimore. His five grandchildren are, he reports, “a constant source of joy and optimism about the future of our Church.”]  


The University and the Synod

by Jonathan J. Sanford

This Synod is dedicated to fostering a Church of communion, participation, and mission. Outside of the Church herself, there is no more significant institution for carrying forth these goals than the university. I say “the university” rather than the “Catholic university,” because the very idea of a university is a choice fruit of the Church, born ex corde ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church) and dedicated to promoting the flourishing of the whole of humanity through the pursuit of wisdom. 

In order for the Church to advance her noble mission in the world, she remains in continuous need of deeply learned, faithful, and innovative leaders, within the Church and throughout the wider culture. These leaders are best nurtured within a Catholic liberal arts university, one that wholly embraces its Catholic identity and which is unflinchingly committed to providing an education that is excellent in every respect. Students grounded in the intellectual tradition in which the liberal arts are nurtured are given distinct advantages to foster communion with each other, and to participate fully in the culture-forming work that is part and parcel of the Church’s mission. 

That tradition, with roots in Athens and Jerusalem and cultivated in places the world over, is one of continuous dialogue and civil discourse. So students need to be led by professors who train them in the vanishing art of listening attentively to all positions and arguing without quarreling. This grounding is not a matter of merely becoming familiar with the best of what the past offers our understanding, but of cultivating in students such habits of mind and character that they develop the conviction that they are full participants in a long tradition—and that they bear responsibility for promoting its ongoing vitality as a living tradition of faith and culture. 

Students also need to be formed through advanced studies in particular disciplines as they begin to make contributions to the growing body of knowledge, in order to promote the common good of their local, national, and global communities. The Church needs clear thinkers and articulate communicators who apply their learning and their virtues to serve as corporate leaders, scientists and physicians, dedicated teachers, and culture-builders of every variety: men and women who draw deeply on their Catholic faith and weave its deeply humanizing principles into all facets of our world. Such individuals do not spring forth from the earth spontaneously; they are formed by a truly excellent and liberating university education. 

Increasingly, the very meaning of what it is to be human is under attack. A consumerist ideology commodifies not only human actions and products, but human beings themselves. The infinite value of each human life is under continuous assault, as is the fundamental natural and biblical recognition of sexual complementarity. We have lost sight of those two truths of which the Church is the particular steward: namely, that we are not gods but God’s creatures, animals in fact, who are both rational and dependent on others for our own flourishing; and that we are, each of us, made in God’s image and likeness, beings with an eternal destiny and an obligation to assist each other toward the fulfillment of that destiny. The faithful and excellent Catholic liberal arts university can give particular attention to the reality of our full humanity and provide the training necessary to see those obligations exercised at every level within society. The Catholic liberal arts university does this through inviting students into a comprehensive exploration of human learning and artistry within a university culture animated by a Church of communion, participation, and mission.

The providential pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II was especially fruitful in its clarity about the essence and purpose of the Catholic university, and we continue to be blessed by the 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. In the American context, this apostolic constitution has too often been treated with either a dismissive or a legalistic attitude, with attention given, if at all, to the norms it provides: Does this Catholic university have a theology department and require its faculty to receive a mandatum from the local bishop? Has it appointed a Catholic majority among the faculty? Does it properly promote academic freedom by circumscribing it with a commitment to the truth and the common good? 

These are important questions in response to some of the norms, and Catholic universities ought to be judged in part by their ability to answer them and others affirmatively. But Ex Corde Ecclesiae does far more than present norms by which Catholic universities should be judged. It contains an inspiring vision for what it is to be a university as such.

In the first paragraph of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II identifies the fundamental vocation of universities, which is to be dedicated “to research, to teaching, and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge.” All universities share the goal of exercising this vocation by cultivating “that joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge.” Catholic universities go a step farther by demonstrating that this devoted and free search for the truth is fully compatible with our security in the truth as received through revelation. Reason and faith are not only compatible. They are, as John Paul goes on to show, complementary: they provide succor to each other in our endeavor to learn the deepest truths about God and our own humanity. 

What does this have to do with promoting a Church of communion, participation, and mission? One answer involves the free association between professors and students, noted in the first paragraph of the apostolic constitution. Another has to do with what we take the search for truth to entail, and what we take the truth to be. A third has to do with the culture of the university, and the university as a culture-forming institution. A fourth has to do with those deep truths about the human person about which the Church is the supreme expert (ECE, 3). 

I conclude with a plea: a call upon all Catholic universities to fulfill both the norms and the spirit of this vitally important apostolic constitution, which in theory binds us all but which in practice is widely ignored. Reclaim the idea of the university and inspire Catholic universities to embody it. Encourage dioceses and the lay faithful to see that they have an obligation to provide whatever support they can to authentically Catholic universities that fulfill John Paul II’s vision and embody the goods of communion, participation, and mission. For those goods fulfill the very idea of a university. The flourishing of humanity and the future of the Church require vibrant, faithful, and excellent Catholic liberal arts universities, and such universities require your attention and support.

[Jonathan Sanford is president of the University of Dallas, where he also serves as professor of philosophy. He and his wife Rebecca, a registered nurse and founding board member of the Catholic women’s ministry Mighty Is Her Call, have nine children and four grandchildren.]

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