Synodality and Social Justice: The Trinitarian Way

Mary Hanlon Castronuovo, M.P.S.
“We long for our Churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable.” Rachel Held Evans

I have never really had a crisis of faith. I have had many crises of religion over the years. The past several years though, have challenged my relationship to my Church in soul crushing ways, beginning with the revelations of the sexual abuse cover-ups by many U.S. Bishops and more recently, as I witnessed the polarizing politics in my country now infecting my Church. I am a cradle Catholic, and I love my Catholic Faith. This polarization has impacted where my husband and I practice our Faith. Covid lockdown moved Mass online and we found our spiritual home at the Catholic parish we attend while visiting family in Virginia. Now, Pope Francis has called for a worldwide Synod titled, For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission at a time I have not felt in communion with my local Church; my participation continues to be a hybrid of in person and online Mass; and I’m seriously questioning the mission of several U.S. Bishops and clergy who leapt off the pages of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship and told us exactly how a well-formed conscience must vote in our last two Presidential elections. The fact that many Catholics welcomed this message while others were insulted by it, reveals the deep divisions within our Church today. 

I see in this synodal process an effort by Pope Francis to reclaim synodality at every level of the Church. The practice of synodality bore much fruit at The Second Vatican Council, and for many of us was the promise of Vatican II. Those of us who have studied the Council understand that although there was no break from existing doctrine, the changes came in the theological approach to doctrine and the promise of synodality as a way of being Church at every level moving forward. 


Synodality Requires Loving How God Loves
"The Christian of the future will either be a mystic, or will be nothing at all."― Karl Rahner

The Preparatory Document and the Vademecum for this Synod includes beautiful descriptions of what synodality can be. What is synodality?

First and foremost, synodality denotes the particular style that qualifies the life and mission of the Church, expressing her nature as the People of God journeying together and gathering in assembly, summoned by the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel (Vademecum 1.2)

The Church’s “nature” as the “People of God journeying together” represented a shift at the Second Vatican Council away from preceding pronouncements on the Church as a Hierarchical structure. This places the primary locus of the Church at the level of the people. Lumen Gentium, 9: “Thus, the Church has been seen as a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Not only are we a people, but we also reflect the divine image of God in community.

 I have experienced the love of God in Christian community throughout my life within my family, my parish communities and in my youth and young adulthood through the Teens Encounter Christ retreat experience. It was through my involvement with TEC that I was immersed in the major themes of Vatican II. With talks titled, “Church: People of God,” “God is a Community of Love,” and “The Universal Call to Holiness,” my adult faith was grounded in the theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II. Yet all my experiences of Christian community growing up–attending Catholic grade school, high school, and Catholic college–were with people like me. We were mostly white, middle to upper middle class, and Catholic.

Prior to going back to school in my forties I had never felt a connection to the Doctrine of the Trinity–or so I thought. We all learned as children that God is three-in-one, and that the Trinity is “a mystery.” Twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner once pointed out that our understanding of the Trinity has made almost no difference in the lives of most Christians. So why at age forty did this Doctrine suddenly create a paradigm shift in my worldview? With twenty more years of living and encountering diverse people, faith traditions, and socio-economic diversity, I sat with tears running down my face each week in my Trinity course because I was finally introduced to a theology of God that matched the complexities of the issues I see in our world, and one that embraced the differences among the people I encounter. I didn’t fall in love with doctrine. Evangelization happens through relationship. I fell in love with a God big enough to embrace the complexity of my life and the people I love. I think we cling to doctrine when we are afraid of encountering people whose lives we don’t understand. The synodal path is the challenge to enter into an encounter with others so that we do understand. It’s easy experiencing God’s love in a homogenous Catholic Christian community, but are we called to move beyond that?

In this Trinity course we learned how God exists within God’s self, (the immanent Trinity), is how we are called to live among one another. We believe in one God who is three “persons.” Kalistos Ware, in his document, The Human Person as Icon of the Trinity, recovers the root meaning of the word person from the Greek and Latin roots. He writes, “Prosopon in Greek is formed from pros, ‘towards’, and opsis ‘face’ or ‘aspect’, and so it means literally ‘facing towards’. The Latin equivalent persona has the literal sense of ‘sounding through’ (per + sonare)”.  This, according to Ware, gives us this definition of person opening up our understanding of Trinity, “A prosopon or persona, then, means a discrete entity with which one enters into contact by looking at him or her, or by hearing him or her speak.” This is not an individualistic understanding of a person. So, when we say we reflect the Divine Image of God, we reflect God in God’s relationality. 


What else can we say about God? God is one in three diverse persons: Father, Son, and Spirit, living in mutual love and generativity. God’s love spills forth into time and space throughout salvation history, culminating in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, (the economic Trinity). Jesus models this openness and love for the other by always reaching out toward those on the margins in both his preaching and his healings. So, we are relational beings also reflecting God’s image through our diversity, not despite it. This has real implications for how we interact with others who may be different from us in all manner of ways. Gaudium et Spes: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World calls us, the “Church, People of God” into relationship with the world around us.

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age,
especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and
hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing
genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. (Guadium et Spes 1)

The call is for the people of God to at least consider the joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties of the men (and women) of this age as part of our mission as Church. The call to love in a Trinitarian way challenges us to understand others, especially those who live outside of our own comfort zones, political echo chambers, or doctrinal formulas. Are there people we exclude from our loving embrace because being open to them and their experiences challenges our deeply held religious or political beliefs? This is precisely the kind of open-minded and open-hearted stance we are being called to engage in throughout this synodal process because we encounter diverse people and perspectives within our Church. The challenge is to love the way God loves and allow these encounters to move us and form us as Church. One local Priest told me, “Synodality is taking our Theology and applying it today”. This sounded to me like a top-down patriarchal approach, placing it in conflict with synodality. It begins with a belief that theological development can only come from the prior perspectives of an all-male celibate patriarchy. If the Church exists primarily at the locus of the people of God, then the theology that informs our doctrine, should at least consider the joys and hope, griefs and anxieties of the men and women of this age both within the Church, and outside of it.

As Church, we often consider the needs of others when engaging in acts of charity, but this synodal path is also the path needed when we journey with those on the margins of society through our commitment to social justice. Those words have become taboo in my local Church in recent years. I need to reconnect with my local Faith community to understand why, so I don’t add to the polarization in my Church.


Synodality is the Path of Social Justice

In recent years, I have seen the words “social justice” mistakenly equated with socialism. This is no excuse though for Catholics, especially members of the clergy, to shy away from promoting the call for social justice both in ministry and at the pulpit, as has been my experience currently in my local Church. The social justice way is the synodal way, and is the way of Trinitarian love.

The call to social justice has long been embedded in modern Catholic Social Doctrine beginning with Pope Leo’s XIV Rerum Novarum in 1891 and continuing through Fratelli Tutti by Pope Francis. Catholic Social Teaching has condemned both socialism and unchecked capitalism. Social Justice, as defined in the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church is,

…a requirement related to the social question which today is
worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political and economic aspects
and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective
Solutions." (Compendium 201) (Emphasis my own).

This lack of understanding of the basic terminology of our Catholic Social Doctrine among Catholics is something I experienced firsthand while teaching middle school religion in a primarily white suburban Catholic school back in the mid-2000s. I was, at times, confronted by parents who thought I was teaching liberal politics. I was not. I maintain that our Catholic Faith does not fit into either political party, and I am a political independent for that reason. I took seriously my role of being apolitical in my classroom. Embracing social justice as an integral aspect of our Catholic Faith begins with ensuring that all Catholics have at least an 8th grade level education on the main themes of Catholic Social Teaching: Life and Dignity of the Human Person; Call to Family, Community, and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; The Dignity of Work and Rights of workers; Solidarity; Subsidiarity; and Care for God’s creation. In 2011, building on earlier challenges put forth by the U.S. Bishops, the USCCB produced Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions making it clear, once again, that teaching Catholic Social Doctrine at age appropriate levels is an integral part of Catholic Education, 

 There are many innovative efforts by Catholic educators to
communicate the social doctrine of the Church. At the same time,
however, it is clear that in some educational programs Catholic social
teaching is not really shared or not sufficiently integral and explicit. As a
result, far too many Catholics are not familiar with the basic content of
Catholic social teaching. More fundamentally, many Catholics do not
adequately understand that the social teaching of the Church is an
essential part of Catholic faith. This poses a serious challenge for all
Catholics, since it weakens our capacity to be a Church that is true to
the demands of the Gospel. 

I have taught the themes of Catholic Social Teaching to many Catholic youth over the years in both parish and school settings. The challenge for faithful citizenship is in prioritizing our Catholic Faith over our political leanings and engaging with the serious issues impacted by our vote. This makes it impossible for anyone to claim that either party represents a fully authentic Catholic point of view. I stand with my Church in defense of human life in utero yet disagree with the USCCB’s legislative priorities that do very little to defend the dignity of human life, in women. Part of my disconnect with my Church in recent years has been due to the silence in many Catholic spaces on other issues where clear engagement with Church teaching is necessary. Nazis marching down the streets of Charlottesville, the killing of George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol organized by white supremacist groups, called for prophetic witness from the pulpit and from the Episcopacy on how our Catholic Faith can and does apply. If my former 8th grade students could place the themes of Catholic Social Teaching in dialogue with The Holocaust to ensure they would have the moral courage to speak up under similar circumstances in their lifetime, where was the moral courage from those with the privilege of the pulpit? One local Priest did conduct a beautiful outdoor prayer service following the death of George Floyd calling for healing of the “divisions in society,” yet he was unable to name antisemitism, racism, or white supremacy from the pulpit, as sins that our Church has named as sins in Nostra Aetate and in our own USCCB’s Pastoral Letter on Racism: Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, a pastoral letter against Racism.


Synodality Outside My Comfort Zone
“These folks breached the U.S. Capitol Building without consequences. Our blackness alone has consequences that are potentially deadly. We get killed doing shit like jogging or sleeping in our own homes. The double standard that we just witnessed makes it clear which lives matter in this country. This shit is disgusting.” (My friend B.K. following the breach of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6th, 2021)

Encountering the experiences of others is the first step toward social justice and it requires deep listening and a willingness to learn from history so as not to repeat it. This is the synodal path. This is the path of Trinitarian love. I don’t have to be a victim of systemic injustice to learn that it exists. I can still see monuments to past structural racism while visiting Long Island where Robert Moses designed bridges at a height that made the area inaccessible to city buses. I can see implicit bias exists when I read of black owned homes having their appraisals increase by as much as $100,000 when all evidence of black ownership is removed.  I don’t have to be a victim to assist in addressing inequities in society. I do have to be willing to dialogue with my previously unexamined comfort zones of economic and racial privilege. 

My first real encounter with the reality of systemic racism came while immersing myself in studying the socio-economic and social context of my ministry praxis while in graduate school. I was teaching a middle school social justice curriculum in a primarily African American Catholic school. In an effort to understand the social contexts of my students, I read books like, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multi-racial Schools by Gary Howard and Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD. I encountered black racial identity development in young people. I encountered white social dominance throughout history. I encountered statistics on the vast inequities in our criminal justice system in the United States. As part of this journey of encounter, I experienced a real cognitive dissonance which left me feeling awkward and unsettled realizing my own life of middle-class white privilege had previously gone unexamined. 

I share this because without my prior willingness to engage with the reality of systemic racism, it would have been easy for me to sit and watch the Black Lives Matter marches and come to the same conclusions as many of my white friends did. Many reacted to the overwhelming presence of people in the streets following the killing of George Floyd in a manner like this statement, “It’s a shame that some black people have been killed by police, but why do they have to riot?” I think the better question to ask is a response I also saw online, “It’s a shame some people use peaceful protests as an excuse to riot, but when are police officers going to stop killing unarmed black people? 

Finally, I’ve seen the recent term “wokeism'' mocked by some in my Church and I am left dumbfounded. For me, wokeism means stepping into the lives and stories of those whose experiences are different from my own, to learn what I could never understand as a white, Christian, suburban, woman who grew up in a white, Christian, suburban neighborhood. Today we’re seeing efforts in school districts across the Country at maintaining a historical narrative that “cancels” much of the ancestral history of our brothers and sisters of color. As Catholics, we should be standing in solidarity with the people and stories currently under attack. Subsidiarity requires recognizing those on the receiving end of systemic injustices must be the ones articulating their experiences and at the table where solutions are created. Both political parties have failed our brothers and sisters of color in this regard, but our Church should never be among those who do.


Synodality Outside Our Political Echo Chambers
“Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will, from their own.” Barbara Brown Taylor

I welcome engagement with my fellow Catholics through this synodal process so I can hopefully understand how so many of them, including members of the Episcopacy and clergy, embraced a presidential candidate that clearly does not understand Constitutional Democracy, the Rule of Law, nor the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Why did so many Catholics close their eyes and ears to his dangerous rhetoric? It has been nothing less than heartbreaking for me, a student of the Holocaust, hearing asylum seekers at the border referred to as “an infestation”; Nazi’s marching in the streets as, “good people” and people of color peacefully protesting as, “thugs.” 

Here are the existential questions I have been asking myself over the past several years: Would I be willing to open my home to my DACA-protected former student and her family, sheltering them from deportation? Would I be willing to lay down my life for a stranger being targeted for the color of their skin, their Islamic Faith, or their immigration status? I have heard no voices from my local Church challenging the movement toward fascism; only voices against the rhetoric of socialism (which really wasn’t socialism in the true definition of the word). This seemingly one-sided critique of culture has left me baffled. “Owning the libs” has become the battle cry of many Catholics and other Christians I know. I have never shied away from sharing my pro-life views with my pro-choice friends. I collaborate with many of them on other issues like gun violence and the environment. I do share my Church’s frustration with very liberal abortion laws, but were some Church leaders willing to give up our Constitutional Democracy in an effort to overturn Roe V. Wade? What was the goal here? Does the end really justify the means? Is that the level of moral decision-making operating within some of our own Bishops and my fellow Catholics? Or was there something else at play here?

The National Catholic Reporter has done investigative journalism into conservative Catholic organizations aligning our Church with political power. Catholics certainly play a role in bringing our Catholic values into the public square. I have lobbied on Capitol Hill alongside my fellow Catholics as part of the delegations at the Catholic Social Ministry Gatherings. Yet when that alignment comes into conflict with basic democratic values like the right to vote, has the goal changed? Hasn’t our Church learned its lessons over the centuries as to what happens when we align ourselves with political power? Are these efforts a direct assault on synodality by aligning the direction of the Catholic Church in America with the agenda of those at the center of power and privilege rather than of those on the margins? This movement within the U.S. Church to align religion with political power, for me, is the elephant in the room as we engage in the synodal process.


Trinitarian Love is Inclusive Enough to embrace the Lives of Our LGBTQ+ Brothers and Sisters in Christ
"My favorite definition of heresy is a refusal to deal with complexity."
Cardinal Joseph Tobin
The synodal journey of my life bringing me into profound encounters of God’s Grace is the one I walk with my friends and family who are members of the LGBTQ+ community. I know some of the deep pain my Church’s doctrine has caused many of them, so, when some Bishops state that doctrine is off the table in this synodal process, as some have, I must wonder who is truly coming into this process with deep listening? Synodality requires a willingness to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through all members of the Body of Christ in all our complexities, and a willingness to love in the way God loves; inclusively.

LGBTQ+ Catholics are responding to the Universal Call to Holiness through accepting who God called them to be. As my friend, a former Priest expressed it,
So, someone has a profound encounter with God. They have an interior 
experience of total acceptance. Eventually, this comes in conflict with the
crushing inflexibility of the moral doctrine that continues to use the language of disorder. 

When my Church tells our LGBTQ+ family and friends they only have one path to holiness available to them–the single celibate state–are we not denying a person’s human dignity in their response to God’s call, in and through who they are? When our doctrinal terminology calls their unions disordered, are we not denying the very presence of God in their relationality? Are we willing to reflect on how this may be received as spiritual abuse by those in loving, committed relationships who are living out their call to holiness? The homosexual union may be disordered toward procreation, but it is not disordered toward human love. Why do we reduce our sexual moral theology to the biological functions of the human person when we are so much more than that? Our current doctrine on sexual morality must be open to the discernment of the Holy Spirit through this synodal process because our current theology is tantamount to pouring new wine into old wineskins. The wineskins are breaking. 

How do we call people to Family, Community, and Participation while defining some families as irregular? Love defines marriage and generativity defines a family. As beautiful as the Theology of the Body is, I see within it applications that reach far beyond the sexual union. So, when this theology is used as a means of excluding people from ministry or a young person from being welcomed in their youth group, we marginalize them in spaces where Jesus would have welcomed them. Can we instead ask, how are we as a Church walking alongside our youth during the “coming out” process?  As one family member of mine noted, “it doesn’t always happen in a moment, but sometimes over the span of several years.” Do our pastoral practices allow for journeying with people through this process and are we willing to celebrate with them when they have their profound moment of God’s love and acceptance for who they are? I do not want to discount the pastoral care shown to LGBTQ+ persons by many clergy, religious, and lay people, but anecdotal incidences of mercy do nothing to change the fact that our Church’s doctrine effectively treats them like second class Catholics and the USCCB’s legislative efforts and “moral clauses” in hiring promote discrimination in both our Country and in Catholic employment. 

At the very least, I’m hopeful this synodal process reveals that those in Church leadership currently weighing in on homosexuality and gender identity might consider taking a step back and reflecting on the pain they are inflicting on real human persons when speaking about things they do not understand. Those among the clergy offering “assessments” that match neither the experience nor the current science of those with same sex attraction or gender dysphoria are not helpful and they belittle both the experience of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters as well as of their loved ones walking this journey alongside them. Finally, the call to social justice demands that we, at the very least, do no harm in our legislative advocacy as a Church. Civil marriage does nothing to demean my husband’s and my marriage. Their commitment to covenant love honors my marriage.


The Church I Dream Of
The purpose of the Synod is not to produce more documents. Rather, it is
intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission. (PD, 32)

When I think of the Church I dream of, I include the Saints both named and unnamed, who inspire me and always make my “hope flourish.” After reading Michael O’Loughlin’s book, Hidden Mercy I reflected on how we seem to have no problem identifying in hindsight, those who got it right in the midst of controversy, divisiveness and fear. Those ministering on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS crisis are Saints in my eyes. So, this begs the question who are the Saints and the prophetic voices among us now in this era of political polarization infecting our Church? I believe they are the ones not willing to allow partisan politics to alter their prophetic witness to the Gospel. Some are among our U.S. Bishops and clergy. One way to identify them is how viciously they are attacked online and whether they travel with bodyguards.

This synodal process comes during a global pandemic that revealed vast inequities in society. With the absence of Eucharist and communal gatherings, many of us sought out Catholic spaces where at least the homily brought the Gospel to bear on all that was playing out in our country and our world. Reflecting on the themes of communion, participation, and mission, I discovered under Covid that my monthly women's spirituality group has helped me engage with my Catholic Faith at a depth currently lacking in my local Church by those who have the privilege of the pulpit. I am often humbled by their calm wisdom amid my frustrations with my Church. Whereas I used to turn to a priest for spiritual direction, my Catholic women friends have become the true elders I now turn to on my Catholic journey. 

My husband and I continue to attend Mass locally and I am attending a local Synod listening session to challenge myself to move outside my Covid Church comfort zone; engage in deep listening with others from diverse political echo chambers; and bear witness to those our Church continues to marginalize from the Trinitarian embrace of God.

Resources for further learning
· Racism:
Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
“The bishops’ letter fails to recognize that racism is a white problem,” Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., National Catholic Reporter

· LGBTQ+ Issues:
Human Dignity Trust
“375 Transgender People Murdered in 2021-’Deadliest Year’ Since Records Began,” Jamie Wareham, Forbes

· Anti-Semitism:
Bearing Witness- Anti-Defamation League
75 years after Auschwitz, anti-Semitism is on the rise,” Walter Reich, The Brookings Institution

Mary Castronuovo is a retired Catholic educator and a current social justice advocate and activist. She holds a B.A. in Social Psychology from Florida Atlantic University and a Master of Pastoral Studies from Loyola University, New Orleans. She enjoys reading and writing on the intersection of faith and politics. She and her husband John are the proud parents of five adult children and Grandparents to one.